Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Weekly Post

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Nothing remarkable has occurred over the past week, so I will examine several of the misbegotten conceptions that I’ve held during my first three months here. Many people studied abroad during college; I did not have or want that experience. I recall the attitudes, which ranged from the supercilious to the relieved, adopted by these peers returning from overseas. One person in particular remarked how mature he had become. At the time, I resented such nonsense. Remarkably, I have observed the development of similar notions in my own life here, much to my horror. Consistent with my penchant for theory and refutation, I list below several items of interest. Prior to returning home next month, I hope to have suitably adjusted my outlook.

1) “I’m having a unique experience” or “I am a different person because of this experience.”
Right. It’s easy to have a myopic view of an overseas experience. The magnitude of adjustments necessary to live even the most ordinary life seems to imply some measure of uniqueness. During the first few weeks here, I naively thought that no one else had trouble using the phone or sleeping through the call to prayer or buying fish at the store. As I met more people here, though, I realized that we all at one point dealt with these issues. As a corollary, I might add that the average Arab engages in the same sort of mundane activities as his American counterpart. Disregarding cultural and religious differences, Arabs go to work (usually), stand in line at the grocery store, and talk about the weather in uncomfortable situations. I have not met a person yet who has demonstrated anything but disdain for terrorism or Islamic extremism. One could claim a selection bias that would discredit such a statement and I suppose that I have no counterargument. I heard of more anti-Western, anti-capitalist demonstrations in D.C. last year than I have here, though.

The other perception seems inadequate as well. A person’s experiences significantly impact his life, but I am unconvinced that character changes in response to time or particular events. As an analogy, I think of the horrendous modifications certain people make to Honda Civics. They add ground effects, airbrushed paint schemes, and those irritating mufflers that sound like a tracheotomy patient. The end product, while ostensibly modified, remains an economy-class Japanese compact. Instead, I think that the prudent person assesses each experience and adjusts his approach according to the observed successes and failures. This practice is much like installing a better transmission in the same Civic. The car remains unashamedly itself, but with positive improvements.

2) Attention to perceived deficiencies in mother culture.
I wrote to a friend in September about “my disenchantment with contemporary American culture,” or some such affected nonsense. Later, I made a cursory list of pros and cons that I perceived in Emirati culture. After quickly listing a few positive observations, I exhausted my supply of compliments. When I turned to criticisms, I worked diligently for a long period. Consider a few of the points:


    Low crime rate.

  • Limited alcohol-related problems (DUI, public disturbance, even excessive consumption).
  • Stable family structures (although I have read that divorce rates are rising in the region)
  • Space for religious observance in the public realm (see the listing under “France” for why such a policy is prudent)


  • Draconian laws and sentencing that treats ethnic groups differently.
  • A tremendous wage gap.
  • A dictatorship (albeit a benevolent one) and the attendant absence of civic “rights” such as voting.
  • Limited freedom of the press. For example, Emirates Today recently ran a series on AIDS among Emirati nationals. The government subsequently suggested that they “tone it down.”
  • Polygamy and incest.
  • Gender inequity.

In comparison, Americans have many reasons to count their blessings.

3) Later, attention to perceived deficiencies with local culture.
Inevitably, dinner conversation among expatriates here turns to, “Hey, guess what this Arab did today!” Then we laugh about how they can’t drive, count to ten, or limit their spending. It’s helpful to remember how we would act, at one extreme, in a similar position of wealth or, at the other, lacked even a rudimentary education. No, the Pakistanis can’t drive. Yes, the Emiratis love conspicuous consumption. If I had a nickle for every Rolls Royce, Maserati, and Porsche that I’ve seen over the last few months, I’d buy a country.

4) A false sense of enlightenment.
This feeling follows closely behind (1). Paradoxically, it often seems as if those who know least act as if they know the most. For example, after my first Arabic lesson, I was astonished at my new skills. I didn’t even know how to say, “Where’s the john?” and I thought that I was Bernard Lewis or something. Subsequent lessons, which introduced verb conjugation, tenses, and, most dauntingly, Arabic script, tempered my self-aggrandizement. The forces at work in this region would require decades of sedulous inquiry to understand. If I display any sense of authority when I return home, somebody please comment on my vanity.

5) At last, I have something to talk about in conversations with strangers.
This is a particularly personal issue. Sports once gave me a sort-of fallback topic that I could introduce into a conversation with great effect. Somehow, the line “I’m an Electrical and Computer Engineer” doesn’t elicit the same response. In fact, it’s much like bragging about a physiological defect such as hemophilia. Now I often imagine my conversations over egg nog this Christmas and how astounded everyone will be to hear that I live in the ominous Middle East. Notice here the continuity of my character: I’m still don’t function well in large social settings, despite this “life-changing” experience (see 1 above). I’m simply exchanging one crutch for another when I should learn to walk without such support. Several people here have advised not to make unsolicited references to overseas experiences, a policy that has served them well. Only when a person demonstrates interest should I comment extensively. This seems like an appropriate compromise between tasteless gushing and elitist reticence.

Written by Spence

November 11th, 2005 at 12:22 pm

Posted in UAE

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