What do I need to know to do my job (overseas)?

As I’ve said before, I am reading Martha Nussbaum’s book on how classical philosophers like the Stoics can help you increase your critical thinking muscles by scrutinizing tradition and respecting reason. 

I am still interested in her story of Anna, who took a job in China in her mid 30s. Nussbaum uses Anna’s story to investigate how higher education could teach people like her about traversing different cultures. 

This is, of course, important for those of us who deal with different cultures every day. It’s doubly important to be like Anna, someone working in a different culture. For someone to take a job in a new country comes with a lot of built-in learning. Not only do you need to navigate the learning required for your work, but you also have to get up to speed on the country you will be moving to. Think about the laundry list of information Anna needed to know, according to Nussbaum. 

Near mid-2017, I moved to the United Arab Emirates to take a job as a librarian. I had experience with some aspects of my library job: I had dealt with some acquisitions and helping library leaders make decisions through rational means like statistical and data analysis. 

But what would have helped me better understand my work through a cultural lens? Outside the technical aspect of my job, what could I have learned beforehand to navigate the rocky waters of the cross-cultural experience between the US and the Middle East? 

Here’s a few issues I could have brushed up on:  

  • Labor relations in UAE and the Gulf. We rightfully hear about the plight of migrant workers, and these issues color everyone’s experience. Every non-Emirati in the UAE are here on work visas, and anything we say or the government deems potentially threatening could terminate that visa. These issues play differently as you work in different sectors, but they remain important nonetheless.  

  • Gender. This is the Middle East, and gender is a big issue that colors how you deal with your colleagues. The librarians are all from “Western” countries, but my immediate colleagues hail from Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan and Tanzania, even though some of them have lived here for decades.

  • History of the UAE/Middle East/Gulf States: You can’t truly understand the political history of the UAE without understanding the history of the Gulf. Some would say the Arabian peninsula’s history is also important, mostly because Saudi Arabia is such a powerful factor in both the region and the larger world politically, culturally, religiously and economically. 

  • The role of higher education in the UAE: I work in the Emirate of Sharjah, but all (or most) Emirates have invited or started their own universities. What do they expect the universities to accomplish in their Emirate and the UAE? What issues do they want to higher education to tackle — and why? Of course, academic freedom will play a role in this. But is it as large as you would guess?

  • Resource-based countries: How oil and natural gas wealth have impacted economic development and the political economy of these countries? How do different countries — or regions — handle this resource wealth? 

On travel guides

Travel guides are such a weird, fake window to a country. It’s like if you created a social media profile  for one of your friends — without them being able to comment on it. 

We spend a lot of time trying to get travel right that I think sometimes we spend half our time out and about looking in these guides. It’s like walking through the woods with your nose in the phone. 

Travel books have their purpose, of course. Where to go and what to do. What to eat and what to avoid. I like purchasing the very opinionated books (like the way Rough Guides used to be) or the independent books by the long-term foreign resident of a country. 

I don’t find travel guides too helpful when I am actually traveling. This is the time for me to discover — to get off the beaten path. A good travel book will let you know the lay of the land while you are not present. It will give you the rudimentary outlines of a place. If the book tries to give you too much information, the writers are just being pushy and self centered. You’re not going to remember that information anyway. Not unless you’re always looking in the book. 

The other problem with these books, as everyone points out, is that for all the exploring we’re supposed to be doing, we all end up at the same restaurant for lunch.