We have lived in Al Ain for over 2 years now (2 years, 2 months, 6 days according to my camel ticker), and the other day I realized something. I have adjusted.
My daughter, Kassandra, was writing a paper for her English class on Culture Shock. Not surprising that in a high school full of expat children the teacher would assign this topic. Oh how many essays did I have to write on this very topic during grad school? And how many times did I have to teach this very subject to my international students during their American Culture class? I didn’t say much as she did her research as I was curious to get her take on this.
For those of you that don’t know, Culture Shock is the name given for the phases that a person goes through when experiencing something like a move to a foreign country. Typically a person goes through 4-5 stages (stages and names vary depending on the researcher but all indicate the same basic up and down path): Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery. And as the graph below shows, a person also experience Reverse Culture Shock when moving back to their home country.
So anyway, back to my story. As my daughter was writing her essay, it made me ponder my personal journey through the stages. Kassandra swears that we skipped the Honeymoon phase. Maybe she is right. Perhaps because I was already surrounded in Arab culture in my work and home life back in the States, the “new and exciting” part of the culture was already worn off by the time we got to the UAE. I also think that, in part because I am a single mom, I couldn’t allow myself the luxury of just sitting back and taking in the newness of the country. I had to come out swinging right from the start. It felt like I had to do a million things all at once – driver’s license, furnish my apartment, enroll Kassandra in school, buy a car, figure out where places were, get documents certified and re-certified, figure out how to buy food – basically everything. And in the beginning, everything was a challenge and stressful. Quickly frustration set in. I remember every day thinking things like, why can’t they just be more organized here? This just doesn’t make sense. Why are people so rude? Why is there a big hole outside my house?
Even with all of these issues, it wasn’t until about a year of being here that the real homesick and depression stage set in. I started missing everything about the States. I missed my family. I missed having friends that I could trust. I longed for real communication with people who speak the same English as me. I wanted seasons and nature. I missed the food. Most of all, I missed just feeling like I belonged. I started questioning why I had moved here. Was it really worth it?
Then slowly something happened. I began to adjust. I still missed all of the things as before, but I learned to stop getting so worked up about the things I couldn’t control. I asked Kassandra after she was finished with her paper about what things make her feel like we have adjusted to living here. She told me that it was the small things like being able to ignore that we are being stared at when in the Sanaiya Lulu’s (or just about anywhere else), that she stopped calculating everything from dirhams into dollars, that we stopped going to Dubai every month, and that she looks at someone wearing skimpy clothes and shakes her head and mumbles haram under her breath.
I guess for me it is the small things too. Some of these things I told myself that I would never do or be capable of doing, and other things I just had to figure out to survive. I got my car windows tinted. I’m willing to honk instead of going into the shawarma shop. I don’t need my GPS in Al Ain anymore, I can take the roundabouts like a champ, and it no longer feels like I might die trying to get Kassandra to school. I have figured out how to work the medical system the most efficiently as possible in an inefficient system reducing visit time down from 3-4 hours to about 1 hour. I have gotten pretty good with Celsius, kilometers, and kilograms. There has been a huge hole outside my building for three months, and I haven’t even wasted the time contemplating why (well…not too much time). I stopped trying to predict the timing of religious holidays regardless of the notion that the moon is predictable. I modified my language and now say full stop, mobile, university, football, and take away instead of their American English counterparts of period, cell phone, school, soccer, and to-go/take out. I played the “single mom” card and got us a better apartment in a sought after compound. I have been known to tell off people leering at my daughter. I take in stride the whimsical decision making of those in power and just adapt. I found friends that are like family and a fiancé that reminds me every day that being here really is worth it.
I don’t think that any expat living in the UAE will ever reach a stage of “Mastery” regardless of their length of time living here. Emirati society, intentional or not, doesn’t allow for full integration. There are invisible barriers which a typical expat just doesn’t ever cross. And that is okay. I just like knowing that I have adjusted.