Today is the 15th of April. Taxes are due. It’s spring in New York: friends are posting pictures of cherry blossoms and other blooming things; Husband has been getting up at ungodly hours of the morning to watch the Mets play baseball or to watch the NY Rangers, who have not yet tanked the Stanley Cup playoffs. (The joy of sport is alive and well and sleepless here on the 37th floor). At breakfast, Husband is all “the Mets are on a real winning streak…” and his optimism is another sign that spring is in the air. (And, like spring flowers, this optimism lasts until early June, when it wilts and dies.)
Why does it matter that it’s spring in New York? As I say to my students as they struggle with their essays, “what’s the so what of your argument?” I can hear you saying the same thing: what’s the so what of it being spring in New York?
Well for one thing, spring means that the semester is almost over. Exams start May 10th and then the students leave for the summer, which means that my teaching year is over. But how can that be? I mean, didn’t we just get here?
And at the same time, haven’t we been here forever?
No. We haven’t been here forever; we’ve been here for exactly eight months, as of two days ago. On our four month anniversary, I wrote a post comparing that four month marker to the fourth month of pregnancy, which is (usually) when you can let out your breath after the worries of the first trimester. But by the eighth month of pregnancy, the novelty of being pregnant is over. Your back aches; your feet (which you haven’t seen in several months) throb; you haven’t taken a deep breath in weeks because all your internal organs are resting on your lungs, displaced by the blob that ate Manhattan now cartwheeling in your belly; you have the sneaking suspicion that you might, in fact, be pregnant forever.
And so. Here we are. Eight months into expat life, which now seems less like an adventure and more like…life. I drive to the grocery store in my little hatchback; I drive the boys to
soccer football practice; I teach my classes, read student papers, work at my writing projects. I’ve gotten used to the shower’s desalinated water, which is slowly turning my hair into straw that even Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t fix; I’m resigned to the fact that bookstores here sell lots of book-related products but not so many actual, you know, books.
Everything here feels like a life lived anywhere else; my daily existence seems regular, ordinary – just as waddling through life as a pregnant lady seems ordinary – and then you see yourself reflected in a shop-window or errant mirror and think “oh holy cats I’m pregnant!” You sort of forget: the hugeness of your body has become the norm and pregnancy seems like a perpetual state.
So too here. It’s just my regular life and then it re-hits me: I’m looking out the window at the Arabian Gulf. The grapes on the table come from South Africa, not California; and “storms” mean “sandstorms,” instead of rain or snow. Last week, in a beautiful moment of desert irony, the kids couldn’t go outside for lunch-time recess because it was “too sandy.”
Daily life means standing at the crosswalk next to three women wearing black abayas and shaylas, two older women in saris and shawls, four men in long cotton tunics and trousers speaking what sounds like Urdu, three guys in skinny trousers and pointy shoes talking in Tagalog, two French tourists, and a tall man whose impeccable white dishdash features huge gold cufflinks that sparkle in the morning sun (and yes, you could set that list to the tune of “Twelve Days of Christmas”). Daily life means seeing crowds of workers resting in the scarce shade of a date palm and knowing that they will be more respectful of me than would a similar group of workers in the US. Daily life means marking the hours of the day by the call to prayer (which always makes me wonder how Muslims in non-Muslim countries keep track of prayer time if they don’t have this app). Daily life means sunscreen, sunglasses, sandals; it means fresh lemon juice served with mint and sugar; it means dates stuffed with candied orange peel.
Daily life means conversations with other foreign-born workers that frequently sound as if we’re prison inmates: “how long have you been here? how long are you staying? when are you leaving?” People’s lives here seem more fluid; Liam has a friend who has moved nine times and he’s only 11. Daily life means that we spend more time together as a family than we did in New York, which is both good (family adventures, family dinner, family conversation) and bad (sibling bickering ratcheted to “Hunger Games” kill-or-be-killed mode).
When we talk about staying here for another year, I think about what I like about living here: the weather, the water, the slow pace, the new perspectives that come from being an outsider. And then I realize that the same items are on my list of miseries: it’s too hot; the water is polluted; there is nothing to do; I don’t fit in and I never will. I miss talking to my sister on the phone while I do the grocery shopping; I miss my mom always; I miss museums and public art; I miss the energy of life on New York streets; and even though I’ve made some lovely new friends, I miss my lovely old friends (old in the sense of long-time, not in the sense of, you know, old, because miraculously, we’re all still twenty-nine).
Eight months is a long time. And then again, it’s no time at all. As it turned out, I didn’t stay pregnant. But I’m not sure about this expat thing. It might be the new normal.
the sidelines at a recent football tournament
**we’ve been in Abu Dhabi for eight months, but yeahwrite has now been in existence for ONE YEAR. Plus a week. So click over, link up, read through, then vote for your faves on Wednesday.
Loved this. I lived in England for a little over a year, and even though that is small potatoes compared to Abu Dhabi, comparing that culture shock/immersion to pregnancy is perfect. Brilliant piece. Good luck with your decision!!
Thanks for the note – I think expat is expat, actually – everywhere has its peculiarities and oddities. When I think about people having to find new lives for themselves in new york, I shudder – it would be ridiculously difficult. Same with England, in a weird way (for one thing, there’s that whole driving-on-the-other-side thing!) … but I suppose all of it falls under the heading of “good for us,” right?
Good post! I related, having lived in Spain for 1.5 terrific years. I especially smiled at “talking on the phone while grocery shopping” — I frequently talk to one of my daughters when she is waiting at the deli counter on her weekly shopping trip (one of her few moments of leisure to talk!), and our conversations are always punctuated by “A half pound of the salami, please.”
Hi Deborah. Maybe you’ll put this up tomorrow on yeahwrite which only means I have a head start on comments. I love this post. I lived in Costa Rica for 3 years in an ex-pat community. I made friends with people I wouldn’t have made friends with here in Northern CA. In the end I believe I left because of that. It wasn’t politics so much as lifestyle and why people had moved there in the first place. Too much to go into on a blog comment. I especially enjoy your posts about life as an ex-pat. Which isn’t to imply your others aren’t good too!
Dates stuffed with candied orange peel. Mmmm.
I’m 8.5 months pregnant so I absolutely understand your analogy.
I would be interested in the reverse culture shock when you do move back to New York. Whether it be this year or next. Because it will happen 🙂 (I lived in England for 3.5 years then moved back to Malaysia, my home country for 18+ years, and I was still culture shocked)
I wonder about that return, too, especially for my kids, who have to some degree romanticized their nyc lives and forgotten about the city bus, the small apartment, the COLD. I think that the speed of life in the “big city” will get to me – although I should realize that what you expect to happen isn’t really what gets you, in the end – it’s the little weird stuff you can’t predict. 8.5 months? you’re almost there! congrats!!
I loved the point about how elastic a thing time really is. So fast and slow at the same time. (I also loved you saying your husband’s optimism dies in June–mine too!)
Great post, and one I can really relate to. Around this time every year (for the past 8) I have asked myself if this is the year, the year we will move back to NY.
What an incredible analogy. I’ve only traveled to another country, never lived. I can see what your saying though through your description. Good luck!
“You sort of forget.”
That’s how I feel about motherhood. Sometimes I’m walking along and HOLY CRAP. I’m someone’s mom.
I’ve never lived outside the country, but I’m from Texas and live in the Midwest now, and I still feel like a total foreigner after 3.5 years. I guess Texans belong in Texas, and probably New Yorkers belong in New York?
I vividly remember the first time I visited this space. You shared about your families journey to Dhabi. I remember being in awe of the new adventure your family was on and how amazingly you embraced it all. I am left feeling that way again. I love the beauty of this post. I enjoyed your approach in sharing the reflection of your time. I loved the vision you created when you shared it. -LV
thanks! one of the great things about doing all this writing is being able to have this record – although I am berating myself for not keeping better notes when we first got here. I was in sort of a fugue state, though, and could barely get through the day – so I guess keeping a journal at that point was beyond my capacity.
Love this analogy and I really agree with what Alison said. if and when you do go back to the City… I’m so curious what that will feel like for your family.
I only lived outside of the US for half a summer, but even then, life in the other country does become ordinary and routine. The new and different experiences that you get in another culture are treasures, but it is hard to let go of the things we miss about home. Good luck with your decision.
I can definitely see that there’s a shift from “oooh, this is so exciting, I’m living in another country” to “huh. This is life. In another country.” I think that we get used to everything. And life is life, no matter where we sleep at night. Good luck with whatever decision you end up making as a family!
life IS life, no matter where we sleep, you’re so right. except if we’re sleeping outside. we are not a camping people and so “life” should not include camping. sitting outside around a campfire – sure. but god invented the B&B for a reason, also screened-in porches.
I can’t imagine living in another country. It feels so strange just to move to a new home – and then, like you said, it doesn’t anymore. The new normal. Interesting perspective.
I’m a huge Flyers fan, so I must say that you had me feeling a little leery at the beginning of the post. But you won me over by the end 🙂
Your life doesn’t sound “ordinary” at all!
such a great perspective to be gained through your writing. keep taking us here, to the realness of life in other countries.
I’m living the expat life vicariously through you and I’m thinking oh come on, stay for another year! Let yourself have the experience of really getting into the groove (so long as you get away to somewhere cooler in the summers – do you? I hear it’s like 120 degrees there in the summers?)
Oh how I love the word dish-dash!
PS: Thanks for turning me onto that editor my friend. That was very sweet of you.
it gets so hot in the summer – and humid – that when i go outside not only do my glasses fog up from the shift in temperature, but so does my iphone … and last summer I actually ruined a camera lens b/c it steamed up so fast that the condensation got in the lens and ruined it. Hot like a sauna, a bikram yoga studio at the end of class, hot like…I run out of analogies, actually. It’s kind of fantastic – it’s like a physical entity, the heat. Glad the t&l thing worked out; she says she’s thinking about an ongoing spot for us “mommy blogges” (god I hate that phrase) – so we’ll see.
i had so much of the same feeling at the end of our first year in denmark (although, admittedly, denmark was much, much more familiar than abu dhabi). we did stay a second year and it was remarkable how the things i didn’t like, i now miss, and the things i missed, i’m now complaining about again. figures.
Time and life will march on, won’t it, no matter how we are managing it. Love tuning in for my weekly ex-pat culture read. Ellen
What a great take on expat life! As always, there’s good and there’s bad. The weather usually falls strongly on one side or the other depending on your preference!
Great post. My mom is from England and has lived in the US for almost 40 years now. Everytime she goes home to England to visit family she says it’s a culture shock. The way of life is so different from what she’s used to now. We used to spend summers in England when I was a child and it always took me a few weeks to acclimate back to life at home when the summer was over.
What a wonderful and trying experience. Thank you for sharing a part of it here.
Congratulations! I lived in Spain for just over six months, and I meant to make it last a lifetime. It was a lonely, exhilarating, eye-poppingly good time. I’d like to say I can relate to your emotions, but I was without children – and I that must make things both extremely hard as well as better in some ways.
Thanks for sharing this.
yes, kids make it easier…and harder. Everything is amplified, in a way – they’re like little cultural loudspeakers that register every bump and jolt…and yet they’re also wildly resilient, and that helps me adjust. Never been to Spain, alas…but it’s on the list.
Growing up in Ohio, I felt like an ex-pat for the first couple of years I lived in Southern California. In a few months it’ll be 13 years and I can’t imagine going back.
I love SoCal. And in fact, I think that moving from Abu D. back to NYC might be too brutal (WINTER??? ARE YOU CRAZY?) and so the natural return point would be LA…
You summed up expat life so well! Especially the part about all the things you love being the same things you hate. I find the same thing here in Kenya, that a normalcy sets in after a few months and you forget that any of this was ever strange. Sometimes I miss that wonderment at the new, other times I just miss (like you) calling my sister from the grocery store. Great post as usual.
I worry too that I’m becoming inured to the wonder of living elsewhere…and then something happens to jolt me out of my complacency, like seeing the man with his wives shopping in M&S, with all of them telling him what kind of shirts to buy. It was hysterical…and really, really “not normal.” I’ve loved finding out about your Kenya life, too – we’re planning a safari there this summer and I’m wildly excited, even though I know that what we’ll be seeing isn’t the “real” Kenya…
Beautifully written! I’ve always wanted to travel. As it is, I just get to sit in my computer chair and travel through awesome blogs like yours. 🙂
thanks…blogs are great portals to other worlds, aren’t they? they’ve become quite my lifeline since we’ve moved here.
What would life be like in another country!? You give such a telling description, bravo! I wonder if there is a grass is greener… Would I enjoy living in, say, Hawaii? (Hell yeah!) And if I moved there, what would I miss about California?! Food for thought! (Maybe I’ll write a post about it! I can feel the wheels a spinning!)
LOVE THE PHOTO BY THE WAY! (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)
Yeehaw would I love to live in Hawaii. A total dream…the grass is always greener, actually – and while I love NYC, after being here for a while, I’m thinking that maybe I need to move back to the States and live in LA, b/c returning to gray cold winter-land would be a brutal shock. Thanks for the compliment on the photo – it’s one of those things – I mean, *here* that’s not an unusual sight at all, but by US standards it’s “exotic.” I wonder always how people here view *me* actually…
I do love the pregnancy analogy here. The idea of living outside of the States does intrigue me. I write this only days after my hubby told me he applied for a job in South East Asia. (He’s under qualified, so the chances are slim). It intrigues me but yet, I’m a totally scared if it were to come to fruition. It’s a big big world, right? Lucky you get to experience a bit of it!
I was petrified before we got here – nightmares and the whole deal. And a lot of it has been hard. But a lot of it has been wonderful, too. Who knows – maybe he’ll get the job and we’ be (sort of) neighbors! Places like Jakarta and Singapore are supposed to be wonderful places to live!
The idea of LIVING in another country boggles me mind. God, I’m so sheltered. I’ve never even lived in another part of the US!
Living in another country becomes…like living anywhere (mostly). And there is a LOT to be said for having strong roots and staying put, too. It takes a village and all that… : )
We are in a tribal society without our’ tribe’ (not including our nuclear family). It can be unnerving but can also be freeing. Who am I without my tribe?
Your blog describes it well, 99% of life is the same on either continent; sleeping on a bed, eating toast for breakfast, caring for children, working, cooking, and having some fun.
Then suddenly you astonish yourself with how accustomed you are to the foreign immersion, how going to the souk, giving ‘taxi directions’, sunscreening like never before, speaking ‘British’, looking out on the Arabian Gulf…
These things are mundane ordinary things, but it must be lived day to day. After going back to the city you will know it just cannot be explained fully, it must be lived. The sneaky sand gets in and it can never leave you.
Love your blog, shukran habibti!
Ah the tribe! The nice thing about expat-ing, I guess, is the development of little micro-tribes all around the world, as the people you become friends with shift to a new port-of-call. It’s nice, and also, I guess, a little sad. It *is* funny what we’ve gotten used to, what we miss, what we don’t – in both places. This summer as we’re in NYC, we’ve all been doing a lot of “here” and “there” comparing.
Shukran right back, Ms W, for all your nice comments!