Friday, September 23, 2011

Clash(es) of Culture

Ok, so two weeks in and ... things are not so bad after all. Yes, I know you all said it would be so.

I should be moved into my new apartment next week. Furnishing an apartment from scratch again is not only expensive, annoying and frustrating (I have exactly what I need sititng in Canada!), but also a constant reminder that I have made myself home-less. Still, I go on trying to make one wherever I go. And this one should be nice. Arched windows. Big patio. Huge kitchen. And literally two minutes to the beach.

I cannot understate how wonderful it has been to have a little community here. Karim, my cousin, has introduced me to some of his Egyptian friends, and they've become family overnight. They take such good care of me. They're always checking on what I need, negotiating prices for me, picking me up, dropping me off. We all see each other nearly everyday. It's been about four years since I've had such a tight-knit group that is so involved in one another's lives. And I love it.

The staff at the office are wonderful, and I'm truly enjoying the work I'm doing. I've been very slow to get started, but have a number of articles lined up that should get out soon.

Best news is I'm planning on trying out for a soccer team tomorrow!

The roads are still terrible. Seriously, terrible. The thing I miss most about Canada right now is the good highway layout and the signage. In Dubai, you miss one exit, and you've automatically just lost 30 minutes of your day and added 20 km to your ride.

And the language barrier is still a problem. Today, we spent twenty minutes trying to understand whether the bedsheet an Asian man was selling was meant to go on top of the mattress or below it. It's like traveling to a foreign country and not knowing the language, only in reverse.

But the thing I've been struggling most with actually, is culture shock. On various levels.

Do you know how much the casual workers here make? The ones who leave their families back home and come here in droves for the sole purpose of making money? One Pakistani security guard at my office asked me the other day whether I could spare some money for his friend who broke his arm, but couldn't afford to go to a hospital here and needed to fly back to Pakistan where healthcare is cheaper. The guard makes 900 dirham a month, or about 235 Canadian dollars. When I offered to speak to the head of the office about it and see if we could help, he pleaded with me not to because he didn't want to get in trouble for having asked for money.

In my new neighbourhood, Jumeira Beach Residence, where Russians, Brits and Americans saunter around in beach clothes and sit at shi shi cafes, Pakistanis and Indians in blue uniforms crowd around the bus stops waiting for the public transit that no one else in the country uses. When a bus approaches, they make a huge scene, by jumping over each other in herds to get a seat on the bus, which will probably take them 45 minutes away to lower-class neighbourhoods like Deira or Sharja, where they live 10 to a room.

But the real culture shock is personal. I'm realizing just how Canadian I am.
My Western attitude has also gotten me into some trouble at work (not in my office, but with people I call for interviews, etc). There's a system in Middle East... largely based in relationship-building. It's slow, and sometimes a bit fake, but it's their system. And when you barge in trying to get everything done at once, without having built those relationships, people consider you too forward and too pushy and are less willing to help. So I'm learning to play the game.

Hanging out with Egyptians day in and day out has also been a bit exhausting. Here's how I break it down. Canadians function based on practicality and logic. Egyptians function based on duty. When I am with my cousin, it is his duty to take care of me. Thus, he has a self-imposed obligation to carry any heavy bags I may have, pay for my lunches, and drive me across the city. I have had a hard time with this, but sincerely feel I have made an effort to let go and accept people's generosity. But there comes a point where you just want to take control of your own life!

The other day, we were out at one end of town, near the home of some friends of ours, Mohamed and Maha. Karim had picked me up and Mohamed and Maha had come together in one car. Karim and Mohamed wanted to go out to a place nearby, but I was tired and wanted to go home, to the other side of town. The logical thing to do would have been for me to take a cab home and for them to go out. But that, of course, was unacceptable. So instead, Karim and Mohamed drove to Mohamed's house, picked up Maha's car, came back to meet Maha and I, where we transfered cars, and Maha drove me across town, only to drive all the way back again to get home. Not only did it not make any sense, but it also took 45 minutes for them to go get the car and come back, by which time I could have been in my bed happily sleeping.

I keep hearing "This is how it is here", and need to remind myself that just as I adjusted to cultures in Africa, I should adjust to this culture too. But when it's people you know, you feel, somehow, that they should be more willing to compromise. They're not. They're stubborn as hell and I'm tired of fighting.

What I do like is that, despite all the foreigners, this place does have a distinctly Muslim/Middle Eastern flavour. And there is something so beautiful about the uniform white galabeya (they call it dishdash here, I think) the men wear and the black abaya the women wear. The azhan rings throughout malls when it's time to pray. The majority of people here - including the Pakistanis! - greet you with Salamu Alaikum. And while you don't meet that many Emiratis, there is certainly a lot of Arabic around. Dubai is a very accepting place. But beyond all the skyscrapers, it has not forgotten, it seems to me, who/what it is. And it's not ashamed of it either. Being in the Middle East always makes me feel as though the rest of the world is a bit irrelevant. People live their lives their way here, even if, as one Emerati told me, "the West doesn't understand us."

*** The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or positions of the United Nations or IRIN ***

1 comment:

Macaca said...

glad to hear you're building a community... that's the most important thing, anywhere you might go!