While a woman in my position–a trailing spouse, somewhat sudden full-time homemaker, mother of school children and perhaps most particularly a North American expat–has little opportunity to meet and get to know the local, host-culture counterparts in Dubai, there are many occasions where a woman like me can meet, greet, shake hands and exchange small-talk with women of similar circumstances. We’ve got school events, extracurricular events, a curious thing called the coffee morning. We’ve got the odd opportunity to chat up another grocery-purchaser in the checkout aisle (“Wow, now that’s a lot of hot dogs!” or “Yes, I do know where you can get a wide variety of canned soups at decent prices.”).
These times and places have their shortcomings; you can only get so deep before the cashier butts in. Or, at the school event, a speaker walks up to a podium and everyone goes silent. Or riding lessons are over and the proprietor of the stables starts looking at you like, “Move along, now, or pick up a shovel.” Mobile numbers are exchanged, play dates arranged, and the next thing you know, you just aligned your daughter with the class Queen Bee. Sigh.
But then, these are also the days of Internet, and like a lot of Western expats, I like to slum on the boards and see what everyone’s talking about, maybe live a little vicariously through the ranks of working expats. I have met a couple of nice people this way, people I can meet for a coffee or a meal, commiseration, a little laughter, and generally a short-term booster shot of feeling somewhat understood. It can be a little complicated for me and my husband to find a whole family that’s a good fit, because while I’m a Western expat, he only sort-of is. Most of his country-of-origin peers here are operating in a totally different socioeconomic layer and live here without wives and families. So we’ve begun building what looks like separate social lives–one for him and one for the rest of us. And while I’m wholly Midwestern, I’m not out meeting my fellow Americans at bars or clubs–the usual place where the expats are meeting up. I have no use for the $150 all-you-can-drink Friday brunch; indeed, I have to be at the mosque for prayers just when brunch is kicking off.
I’m a little ashamed and perhaps apologetic to be so lukewarm about our life here. I know how lucky we are. UAE ranks high on lists for expat “quality of life.” Our kids’ school seems quite adequate. We’re generally safe, as long as we’re not in a car. We have access to good quality health care, and, for a price, decent groceries. The city claims the municipal water is safe to drink.
But that leads me to an examination of “quality of life” as a concept. I am not sure I measure the value of my days on the same scale as my expat counterparts. And that seems to be where I hit the wall.
I can walk across one major street and get from my front gate to a beach–a free, public beach on the Arabian Gulf–in about as many minutes as it takes to break a sweat in 85-degree weather. (I might be mown down by a Bentley while crossing that street, but the beach really is right there.)
On days I don’t want to face traffic, jellyfish or perhaps even sea snakes or hammerhead sharks, there’s a perfectly good 25m pool even closer to the house, in the opposite direction. Temperature-controlled. At least, that’s what the landlord calls it.
An apartment building on the corner has a closed courtyard with a couple of nice coffee shops where I can get freshly juiced lemon and mint, as well as wi-fi.
A large park close by has a rubberized, marked 3400m track around it. Yes, I have to prime with albuterol before braving the morning traffic exhaust, and again there is that whole risk of being killed while crossing the street, but it’s there. It costs 3AED to enter.
When my husband travels, I can use the car and get myself to either of the Big, Crazy, Destination Malls in less than 20 minutes. I’ve learned how to navigate them all right, but I can still get lost in the car parks, which I believe are bigger than the malls themselves.
The Creek is a super-cool place to take an evening walk, ride across the water on an abra, watch the sun set, the city lights come up, and listen to a hundred muezzins call the faithful to prayer. Bur Dubai is definitely the fancier side, but Deira has its own character.
Satwa’s a great place to have a dress copied or a suit made at very good prices. The tailors can do almost anything, quite adequately. There are also sweets shops where you can blow a week’s worth of calories in minutes, seconds maybe.
On my way to Dragon Mart, I pass a flock of flamingoes.
I believe I’ve mentioned in previous posts the World’s Tallest Building and the dancing fountains outside it.
I can walk to a waterpark that boasts a 100-foot drop on which you reach speeds up to 80km/hr.
Another park on the other end of town offers jetski rentals.
Still with me? So much to love, what’s my problem, right? Gosh, add a liberal amount of liquor on a Friday morning and it sounds like the perfect vacation destination. I’ve only begun to mention the things people can do and buy.
And I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who enjoy that feeling of living in a vacation destination. Thing about these destinations is that they’re vacation-priced. As much as the kids like a waterpark thrill, I’m not going to pony up the admission more than once (maybe twice) a year. And while that park down the street only costs 3AED to get into, well…do that a couple times a week and it gets old fast. And most of these things are attractions–not hobbies. You see the fountains dance to a Michael Jackson song once, you really don’t need to see them twice. You see the way these fools motor about on jetskis, you’ll quickly think twice about paying for the chance to play chicken on the water with them.
And while the flamingoes never get old, I can’t stare at them and drive in Dubai traffic at the same time. That would be irresponsible.
What I’m getting at is, more and more it becomes clear, we are a family of people-people. Not stuff-people, not places-people. I watch my son play football once a week and I see he’s the only kid out there smiling, joking and chatting. Not because he’s the only kid who enjoys playing (he doesn’t really love it at all)–but because it’s a social opportunity for him, and like me, he is desperate to feel connected again. I almost cried watching him this past Saturday.
And I know there are people who do feel connected here. There must be, as there are millions who come and stay. I have heard so many stories of people who came for a year, fifteen years ago. They make their way. Unfortunately, their way seems to become a habit of working 12-hour days, commuting an hour each way, developing insomnia or some other health issue, and living for that month off everyone takes in summer. I can see that path so clearly from here, but I don’t want to take it.
So it looks like we are going to have to blaze a trail of our own. That’s always a little tougher, takes a little longer, but I really do think in the long run, it will be worth it. It’s not about the authenticity of our Dubai experience, but about the authenticity of our selves. And that’s something I feel desperate these days to preserve.