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.

Archive for the category “Expat Life”

Round and Round She Goes

“…And Where She Stops,
 Nobody Knows!”

Isn’t that the little rhyme that goes with Pin The Tail On The Donkey, played at children’s birthday parties? When players take turns being blindfolded and spun around, then released, in a dizzy whirl, to find the donkey? This is a perfect metaphor for getting places in Dubai and Doha. It does feel like a game.

When I arrived in Dubai, my husband told me not to be concerned when I get in a taxi and the driver heads off in the exact opposite direction of where I am headed. That is just the way it works here. The roads loop around in all directions and on top of themselves, often into detours at building sites, eventually ending at the proper destination. There may be some deeply engrained Arab rationale for this, but I have not figured out what it is. You go north to go south, east to go west. It is all one big circle anyway. (I will resist the temptation to play with this as a literary allusion or a religious theme.) No- when it comes to snarled traffic, vague directions, roads to nowhere, and drivers who speak no English, it is hard to wax poetic. A sense of humor is, however, imperative. As is trust in your fellow human beings. “The kindness of strangers…”

In Qatar, I actually got my own driver’s license and joined the throng of cars. Here is the traffic picture in Doha. Main thoroughfares called C Ring and D Ring – except they are straight, not circles. Roads named after members of the royal family, becoming extensions of each other, that disappear into nowhere (i.e. the desert). Slip roads, marginal lanes, underpasses, overpasses. And- most important- the ROUNDABOUTS, that have colloquial names not marked anywhere on them or on most maps, so references to them as landmarks are not helpful at all for at least the first few weeks of driving yourself places.  Then there are drivers who zing from the inner to the outer of the three to four lanes inside roundabouts to exit, with no warning, seeming unconcerned about cutting you off. 360-degree vision is essential. And nerves of steel. I possess neither.

Here are some directions to friends’ homes, with addresses like  Palm Beach Residences, Falcon Street and Al Jazi Gardens, Al Dafna, Gate 6, Villa 32, as they were told me verbatim, written in my journal.

“From West Bay go as if you were to go to the Ritz. At the Intercon Roundabout go straight ahead. (When you are approaching a circle, which way is straight?) At the next roundabout go left. Go straight again through the next roundabout and then right at the next, the West Entrance of the West Bay Lagoon. Go into the Lagoon and go straight ahead at the roundabout over the bridge….”(It took me a while to find that one.)

“When driving from Rainbow Roundabout to Qatar Sports Roundabout, take the 2nd right turn. At the end of this road, turn left and the compound is along the road a bit on your right.” (Better.)

“Start at Rainbow Roundabout (which way?) Go straight across Intercon Roundabout and turn left. Do not carry on over the bridge. At the next roundabout, go all the way around and come back going the opposite direction. There will be a mosque and and two embassies on your right. Look for a walled villa with umbrellas in the courtyard.” (Found it on the third try.)

“We are in Villa 19, Al Fardan Gardens, near the airport slip road, opposite the Lulu on D Ring.”

Here is one final journal entry, from March 2010: “Yesterday I got lost. I needed to get lost. It increased my confidence. I followed a friend’s directions to the new Lulu Hypermarket beyond Landmark Mall, where I was told they have the best selection of fresh fruits and vegetables in the city. Once I got going, I realized, too late, that he had been approaching it from another part of town. Thus, I got all turned around. I missed the necessary slip road and went many miles out of the way. At one point I was pretty far out in the desert, but I could not do a U-Turn due to a construction barrier. Since I am rarely in a hurry here- no appointments to make, no particular schedule- it was all right. I figured as long as I could see the tall towers of the West Bay peninsula, where we live, in the remote distance, I would be able to work my way back there.”

Mission accomplished. The fresh produce was delicious!
Next Post: An Exalted Space

Who Do I Say I Am?


“We are at home in the world because we are at home with ourselves.”
 Pema Chodron

Dinner Party

You ask me where I am from
And why I am here.
You ask about my life.
I do not know what to say.
This is no time for glib banter.
So I am silent.
You offer me some tea,
a gift of grace,
the solace of this ritual.
I am thankful for
your gesture and
a moment
to gather myself and
many miles and
many years.
A chance
to consider an answer to
your question,
to find
my compass
and my voice.

I heard a commentator on NPR remark recently that very few people are where they are from anymore.  In the expat world, “Where are you from?” is a question asked numerous times every single day. It always gives me pause.  How do I answer? Where I was born and grew up? Where we raised our children? Where we own a home? Where we are currently residing and working ? I have different responses, from the shorthand one to the longer narrative, depending on the situation.

Laced in the question “Where are you from” is a deeper one: “Who are you?” The poem above was prompted by a social occasion in a lovely restaurant overlooking Dubai. My husband and I were meeting many new people that night. We knew only one guest, a dynamic, brilliant Lebanese woman who has become a dear friend. She had recently introduced us to an elegant lady who was giving herself a 79th birthday party. Born in Poland, the hostess has lived all over the world, from Ecuador to Cypress to Germany to Ethiopia to Greece to various places in the Middle East.  I was seated next to the owner of my favorite art gallery in Dubai . (See the April 5 Post, The Majlis Gallery.) I was delighted to meet her, having heard a bit about her colorful life, which she now divides between Dubai and Cornwall, England, where she teaches sailing.  Being impressed by her commitment to preserving the culture of Dubai and to promoting the artists in this area, I was eager to engage her in conversation. Then it was my turn to talk, and I  withdrew. Thus, the tea to my rescue.

Reflecting on this later, I realized that this is what is so enlarging – and unnerving- about living in another culture, after your children have grown up, and you are no longer moving in the circle of other mothers, and you have left your neighborhood and your professional community. You have no obvious identity, other than your gender and your nationality, and even your nationality is not necessarily apparent to a stranger. Sometimes your marital status and your profession are quickly evident. But that is it. No one knows one single thing about you and your other life. Your family. Your background. Your  lifestyle. Your previous jobs. Your education.  Your interests. You are just you. Period. An individual on this earth. A citizen of the world. A  pilgrim. One of  millions.

This is an invitation to ponder how you define yourself. What are the first words that come out of your mouth? Most of us who are parents- me included- mention our children in the first breath. Then what? For, shocking as it may sound, these people do not want to hear about your children. Okay.  My career as an educator? My spiritual and political beliefs? My southern background?  My interest in the arts, poetry and literature? My love of nature? Are those my descriptors? You find yourself at a moment of reckoning when you meet someone in a foreign country who asks about your life. What do you tell them? What do you leave out? —And isn’t this the real human journey? To find our way and speak our truths? The search for identity…

Travel and living in different cultures does indeed transform us, but we are still carrying along our essential selves. We are moving in both an outer and an inner landscape.  What we experience and observe colors and is colored by who we are.  Ultimately, it seems to me,  we reside  more within ourselves than in any external place. What is in our minds and hearts creates the reality of our lives.  Buddha said we are what we think.  We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. And it is in the sudden epiphanies of how we  explain ourselves to others, to “foreigners,” that we really get to know ourselves….as we tell our stories.

Next Post: Round and Round She Goes

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