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Normal no more …

Living as an expat has taught me many things … it has taught me that things that I used to consider ‘normal’ are just one place’s things … it has taught me patience and acceptance and humor. Life in the desert has given me flexibility beyond words. And it has shown me that life comes one minute at a time and this is the best way to take it.

‘Things’ that I took for granted when I lived in the US, I now find myself longing for at the most surprising moments. Some of the unexpected things I miss about the life in the states: left hand turns, being able to get to a place you are actually looking at, personal liberties, Target (yes, the store), skin, the radio, cold water, drinking wine with dinner & good produce …

But there are many things I love about being an expat.

I love living a language barrier. Having a near constant language barrier is not only amusing and a great teacher of patience, I find it adds to the human connections I make. When people have to put down their guard and mime & mimic the smallest details to be understood, a deeper connection is made. Learning to laugh at myself, being willing to act like a clown, and having indispensible patience, are all lessons I have gained from my life here in the desert. While I am picking up some conversational Arabic, I am far from fluent and most of my conversations with locals still require miming and the handy translator app on my phone. Even more fun, is talking with expats from other areas of the world – take Bangladesh or India for instance – where there are multiple languages involved – and all spoken in the most broken form possible!

This international experience provides other cultural bonuses – in a matter of minutes, I hear Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi, Tagalog, Tamil, Sinhalese, and some I can’t identify. In addition, I get to see an amazing range of national dress and learn international body language: the Indian “bobble-head” meaning “no problem, Boss” (or does it mean “no way, Boss”?!); the Emirati “nose bump”, an affectionate greeting among men; Pakistani men holding hands as a sign of friendship; Muslim women constantly re-arranging their sheila’s; the Arabic “sway-sway” brushing of hands to signal you are finished; and the Arabic folding of the hand to signal “wait”.

Lately I’ve noticed that I have become extremely observant. Recently on a plane to somewhere, I was seated next to a German man who asked the flight attendant – in German – for a set of headphones. I immediately offered him mine. He was taken aback & asked it I spoke German. It occurred to me that I didn’t pick up a single word he had said to the attendant, but I took the clues of his motions.

I imagine this is something people who live in a country where they speak very little of the local language are able to do with ease.

The outrageously social being in me enjoys the swiftness in which I am able to make new friends. As expats, we are bound together by the instinct to survive. We form friendships very quickly as we help each other navigate and explore the Arabian labyrinth of daily living. The bonus is that everyone has such interesting backgrounds and I am ending up with an amazing global network at my disposal.

And the stories …. I love to hear people’s stories. Life as an expat allows me to meet new people almost daily. And they all have stories. Most people I meet; locals and western and non-western expiates, are happy to share their story. Living in such an international community – a country where 80% of the population is from somewhere other than here – everyone has an interesting “why I am here” or “how I got here” or “I know this one person” story that they are excited to share.

When I first moved to the desert, so many norms were foreign to me … now they are quite normal. So much so, that I have spent a great deal of time trying to even remember these things; and I know I am forgetting so many.

Just to name a few of the things in the UAE that have become ‘normal’ to me:

• There are no left turns. Seriously. All left turns are made at the roundabout or stoplight.

• Tissues used as napkins. At a restaurant or at the home of a local, you will not receive an actual napkin – paper or cloth – with your meal. Rather, you will be handed a box of tissues.

• One rarely sees skin beyond the hands and face. I have gotten used to seeing women in full veils and burkhahs. Both of these traditional clothing items were eerie to me when I first arrived; I found it disconcerting not being able to look the person I was talking to in the eye or read their facial expressions. However, living in the traditional Empty Quarter desert, these items are so commonplace that I now find myself surprised when a Muslim woman is not fully covered.

• Having an attendant pump gas & leaving car running while gas is being pumped. This is a true luxury. Last summer, when I went home to the US, I found myself sitting in my car (which was running) waiting for the gas to magically find it’s way to the tank!

• Segregated schools. Schools in the desert beyond kindergarten are segregated by gender. As an educator, this is something I would have never considered as acceptable prior to my experience living in the desert.

• Not receiving bills in the mail. It’s true. I have never received a bill in the mail the entire time I have been here. Occasionally, I have received a text from the Internet or power company with information regarding my account. But not one bill. I simply pay when I remember, which is not often. When I go in to pay a bill that would be considered very past due (6 to 8 months) in the US, I am never made to feel like a deadbeat. In fact, I am usually asked “do you want to pay all of your bill or just some?”

• Speaking of mail … there are no addresses, street names, or house numbers. It has become normal practice for me to give/receive directions that sound something like this: “go to the third roundabout, take a right, at the second mosque on the left you will see a camel pen, turn behind the pen, the house the ninth on the left, just before the small mosque.”

• Extreme heat. The summer heat of the Empty Quarter desert is no joke. Last July, my plane landed in Miami, FL at 2 PM. When my Dad picked me up outside, I found myself saying, “It feels great here!” I have completely acclimated to the desert heat.

• Being called ‘Madame’ or ‘Miss’ by the grocery store clerk, the gas attendant, the person at power company … really everyone!

• Lack of animal life in everyday scenery. I rarely see any animals other than the camels by the road or my cat. There are camels everywhere, but that is really all I see in the way of wildlife. Of course, there are plenty of domesticated falcons perched outside of the Bedouin style tents that are erected each winter.

• Houses built as compounds inside walls. Most homes in the desert are built for entire extended families and include three to four very large houses, plus the ‘majlis’ in the front. They are built in compound style, behind walls to allow the women more freedom. It is not unusual for upwards of 50 people to live on one compound.

• The call to prayer. When I first arrived I heard the call to prayer five times a day. I often stopped what I was doing to listen; many times I recorded the lulling chant. Now, this has become normal. While I still find it beautiful, it no longer awes me. There are even times when I don’t hear it.

• Coffee, tea, dates … coffee, tea, dates … coffee, tea, dates … Everywhere. All the time.

Living as an expat I am almost always an outsider. I get to see a culture and people with fresh eyes. Almost daily I get to learn something new or see something new … it gives new meaning to the word ‘perspective’. I am forever changed because of this experience. It is something ‘they’ should tell you before you move aboard: “you can never go back”. Truly, life will never be the same. I am stretched in ways I didn’t know possible – and so grateful for it.

Profile photo of Keitsa Brisson

originally from the southern united states, i am currently living in the united arab emirates ~ or what i like to call 'midtown'. here i have returned to my lifelong career as an educator, with a twist. i teach english to bedouins in the empty quarter desert between abu dhabi and saudi arabia. i have a deep love for people; i love to hear their stories and learn about ways of life different from my own. living in this area of the world is full of incredible opportunities for a travel & culture junkie such as myself. it is rich in culture and full of amazing stories - a land where past & present are constantly juxtaposed. it is also an excellent jumping off point to see the world ... to travel and learn about new places & peoples.

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