Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Nuanced Numbers

“Time is made visible, and it moves as the landscape moves.”

Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express

 I like the above quotation by Paul Theroux. It is a lovely, simple take on time and space.  Huge concepts, to be sure, in both a literal, figurative  and metaphysical sense. This is an elaboration of Point #8 in my June 4 Post: The ExPat-RePat-MultiPat Life. Know Your Math Facts. I did not fully embrace the power and poetry of mathematics until I started this “transpat” life. Now I understand that we are thinking mathematically constantly, all day long, without even realizing it.  We know that we are dealing with math when we go on shopping excursions, discuss budgets and decipher recipes. That is obvious. But beyond that: planning schedules and trips; arranging room and office decor; determining wardrobes, agendas, conference seating,  and party menus; navigating traffic, crowds and ski slopes. Music. Architecture. All of that is mathematical thinking. The list is endless. Time and Space.

When you travel abroad, this  awareness is intensified. Even if you have a smartphone physically attached to you at all times, you still just need to know your math facts. Period. Daily decoding of distance, time, and currency is required. Most countries (all countries?) outside the United States use the metric number system.  Therefore, walking on a treadmill, getting on a scale, determining volume, and estimating distance require some serious calculating…. or you are going to be deluding yourself that you now weigh much less and can run much further much faster, among other things. Understanding that 30 degrees centigrade does not require a coat is helpful as well.

Time is especially mind-boggling. There have been many instances when the five of us in our family have been in five different time zones. As I imagine my children living their lives, and as we plan telephone calls and video chats, numbers are constantly dancing around in my head. Conversations tend to go like this: What time will it be Doha time when you arrive back in the United States? What time will our plane take off from Dubai in EST?  When shall we make the dinner reservation UK time? What time will you change planes in China time?  –It is inevitable to goof up occasionally. Sometimes it can be frustrating, like missing a conference call. Other times it is amusing. Once when returning to Doha from Beijing, the time zone on my phone, which usually converts automatically, did not do so, and I did not double check it. I went to bed at 10:00 p.m. in Doha, my internal clock way out of whack, and set the phone alarm for 7:00 a.m. The alarm went off, I got up, dressed and went about various tasks, noting that it was an unusually dark morning for Qatar. Then I checked my  (old fashioned) watch. It was 2:30 a.m.!

Dealing with money can be downright intimidating. Get ready to memorize different exchange rates and to multiply and divide. Yes, there are calculators on our smartphones, but, really, can we always be pulling those out to get the correct amount? It can be rather awkward, especially in  Middle Eastern souqs and  Chinese wet markets. My husband points out, righty, that I tend to be rather loose with decimals. I prefer working with whole numbers. Once I know three general amounts-  $25, $50 and $100- in another currency, I am good to go (to spend…) In my view, learning how to estimate (“round off”)  in 5th grade, thereby gaining “basic number sense” , in edu-speak, is the most valuable functional arithmetic skill. So here is how my mind works. With UAE Dirhams and Qatari Riyals, divide by 4.  Thus, 100 dirhams  or Q Riyals is approximately $25. With  Hong Kong Dollars by 7.  With Chinese Yuan  or Renminbi (RMB) by 6. And- my favorite- the Mongolian Togrot or Tigrik (MNT) by 1300 . Yes. That is correct. 1300!  So 133, 815 MNT equals  around $100US.

One night soon after arriving in Ulaanbaatar, I was eating lunch and, when presented with a bill of  MNT$22, 500, I momentarily panicked and wondered how I was going to justify such a lavish meal. A cup of tea and something resembling chicken nuggets. My first reaction was that- wow, food is expensive here! I might have to stick to water and yogurt. Then, when my husband enlightened me, I decided to ignore rounding off altogether. I was accustomed to dividing by 4 or 6 or 7. But by 1300? No. Way too much trouble. So in Mongolia, I just look at the amount on any bill and convert it to a tiny number. That works, too…

But, of course, math is much more than about calculation, and this appreciation is deepened by travel as well.  Math is about the mysterious repeating patterns in nature, the miraculous reality of trans-continental flight, and the disorienting sense of  losing and gaining “real” time within a 24-hour period. It is about witnessing the sunrise and the sunset within a few hours. It is about being one of dozens of strangers in a 8 by  10 foot space on a subway and being one of  over 22 million in a city. It is about seeing vast stretches of forever and backward into centuries on a desert. It is about feeling that the world has grown paradoxically both bigger and smaller, but so have we. We are mere dust specks within the cosmos: we are nano-seconds within infinity.  Yet we can move miles in minutes. And our sense of self has  been expanded simply  by  knowing we are a part of something enormous.  As Zen Buddhists explain, we are inextricably linked to everyone and everything. I am reminded of the lovely passage in Tuesdays with Morrie  by Mitch Albom about the little wave being part of the ocean.  And the exuberant  words of Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”:   “I am large. I contain multitudes.”  ….. What a magic carpet ride!

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One thought on “Nuanced Numbers

  1. Susan on said:

    Wonderful post. I enjoy them all so much.

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