It’s the simple things

Living abroad means sometimes the everyday normal can appear incredibly strange, and vice versa

Living abroad has its ups and downs.

Life anywhere has its ups and downs, certainly. However, the particular ups and downs of living in a foreign country can sometimes feel magnified, with the highs taking your breath away, and the lows making you search for rooftops. Surely, I jest. But there absolutely is something missing from each end of the spectrum when it comes to looking at the world through “foreign” lenses. Gone is the cynicism we feel when faced with the familiar, and that is what allows us to let in the naïve and the wonder of seeing something for the first time. Most of us leave that behind in the kindergarten sandbox. Similarly, gone is the support system you come to rely on back home and so when everything feels like it might be too much – well, sometimes you don’t know where to turn.

Hitting the open road

Last week my friends and I went on a road trip. We visited Al Ain, which is about an hour and a half outside of Dubai. I’ve been living in Dubai for a little over half a year now and I jumped at the opportunity to get away from the busy city life for a few hours. To hit the open road in search of all that was new and exciting? Yes, please!
The drive out into the desert was spectacular, and I use this word in every sense of its meaning. It was impressive, large in scale, dramatic, and thrilling. A real spectacle, as it were. The enormous shiny buildings faded behind us as we drove deeper into a landscape that was filled with different colours of sand. Gone was the light beige colour we’re used to seeing on a daily basis. In its place came deeper reds, oranges, and perhaps even a Burnt Sienna. I didn’t have any crayons on me at the time, but I’m fairly certain that’s the colour that whizzed by the car windows.

Al Ain Oasis, Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Al Ain Oasis, Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Somewhere close to our destination things started to show the markings of human design again. Palm trees were planted along the sides of the road equidistant spaces apart. In behind that, there was a line of trees that could fool you into thinking there was a forest growing if you didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of the desert stretching out as far as the eye could see beyond. My friends and I wound around the roundabouts to get into the centre of the town, in search of an oasis we had read about. We eventually found it, parked the car, and walked in through the gates. Now, if I were just describing facts, it was essentially a human-assisted forest of palm trees for harvesting dates. But it was so different from anything that I’ve seen before, and it was such a change compared to the places I usually spend my time, that I truly felt that childlike wonder. We wandered through the trails, and took pictures as though we had never seen a tree before. It was such a simple thing, but it had such an effect on us. Similarly, when we drove up to the top of the mountain on the outskirts of the city, we posed for pictures and took lengthy videos on the way up. That mountain is so shocking since it stands alone in the middle of a desert. In any other context, I probably wouldn’t even bother to get the camera out. But there, in a landscape that was so foreign to me with no jaded familiarity to cushion my sense of wonder, the whole thing looked magnificent. It’s quite an addictive feeling and (if I’m going to be honest and self-reflective) I think I may run after it with some frequency. Maybe this is why I insist on moving every couple of years – so that nothing ever gets old.

Going the wrong way

Of course, on the other side of the coin are the things that knock us back six feet, even though they would have significantly less impact in a familiar setting. When you live in a place that is familiar, there are several things you take for granted. You might have your family close by, a circle of friends, and familiar habits of how to manage daily routines. The cushion of the familiar is not always something I recognized. At least, not until I stopped having it there to soften the blows. It’s interesting to see within myself that I tend to slip neatly into the textbook stages of Culture Shock whenever living in a new country. Whether I’m in the “honeymoon” stage or the “integration” stage, I don’t think I ever get used to the force of what I feel when something goes wrong. Obviously, the longer you spend in a place the more artillery you build up for your defences. A circle of friends can become a kind of second family to go to when you’re down in the dumps. Time and experience give you the tools to handle yourself when trouble raises its weary head at work or at home. Despite these defences, it can still feel like a massive blow when things go wrong.

Lost on a desert highway

Falcon guarding the local museum. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Falcon guarding the local museum. Photo by Nancy Cater.

A few weeks ago at work things weren’t going so well for me. I was under what felt like a mountain of paperwork, trying to plan and execute quality classes, barely meeting deadlines for this or that report, and on it went. One evening after work, I was too tired to face the journey home on the subway so I asked my partner to come meet me at work. We could have supper in a restaurant and then just go home together to relax away the rest of the evening. Somewhere between the jigs and the reels, he got lost in a taxi along the way and our plans started to unravel rather quickly. It turned into a game of phone tag, then my credit ran out on my pre-charged phone card, until finally we found each other. I felt like crying. I had left another long day at work behind feeling bogged down by impending deadlines and the knowledge of stressors to come. This supper, which I thought we’d planned wisely in an effort to give us more time in the evening, had morphed into a time-destroying monster that was eating away at my overall mental stability at that point. However, if I step back and look at the whole thing with my Canadian lenses on, it doesn’t seem like anything. And it isn’t really that much of a big deal – it’s just that it felt insurmountable in the given context. I couldn’t figure out where my partner was based on his descriptions. The taxi driver couldn’t really communicate in any language we knew well enough to help out in that capacity. There wasn’t anyone I could call for a lift to help me get to him faster. All the things I take for granted when cushioned by the familiar were gone, and it felt overwhelming.

So are the ups worth the downs in these situations? Maybe you can help me decide, based on one last story. It rained today in Dubai. That only happens but once a year. During the morning break from classes, most of my students rushed out to stand in the courtyard. “What are you doing?” I asked them. “We just want to enjoy the rain,” one of the students answered. Ten minutes later when I walked back through the courtyard, she was still standing in the same place. The plants around the yard smelled amazing.

I’d never noticed that before, either.

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