On expat bubbles

As you move from country to country, it does get hard to keep up your interests over long stretches. 

There’s good general advice about this out there: Learn as much of the language as possible, get out and explore, join groups and set social goals.  This advice needs to be reviewed every few months to make certain you’re heeding it. It all sounds simple, but I am always surprised how easy it is to fall into a rut. 

And that rut generally lands you right in the expat bubble, the place where everyone knows your name, speaks your language, talks about locals as if they are the foreigners and keeps their strong ties back to the homeland. 

The expat bubble is the biggest complaint about living overseas, many times from people who don’t leave the country. It is a classic quandary, expats are generally adventurous and seek out new things, but some remain separate from local culture. 

Studies show that expats are happier when immersed, at least a bit, in local culture. You integrate more deeply, they like to say.  

But why do people fall back on the expat bubble? In the short term, it’s easy. Living overseas can be difficult and somedays diving deep can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. It’s quick to hang out with whom you know, what you know, where diving into another culture can take time and patience. And it’s a long-term investment: chances are after you ship out you will meet up with your bubble friends long before you’ll meet up with your local friends. 

This doesn’t make striving to live in an expat bubble a good thing. The reason we’re supposed to be living overseas is to meet people and understand cultures. Of course, that’s not true for everyone — especially here in the UAE — where the high salaries act like cultural magnets. But it still should be a goal. Staying in the expat bubble, to some, sometimes just seems like the path of least resistance.  

What do we know about the world?

…[A] representative member of a small group of upper- and middle-class British men from which the imperial masters of Asia and Africa were recruited. Abysmally equipped for their immense responsibilities, they were nevertheless allowed by Britain’s brute imperial power to blunder through the world — a “world of whose richness and subtlety,” as E.M. Forster wrote in “Notes on the English Character,” they could “have no conception.”

-Pankaj Mishra

I have lived overseas for at least 12 years. But am I any better than the oft-mocked member of the British imperial forces? No. I don’t think I understand the richness and subtlety of the countries I have inhabited. Far from it. 

Some countries I have been more interested than others. So I have naturally tried to make those cultural inroads. I don’t think we can put too much faith in understanding a good deal of a second culture. For those not born here, or with some family links, a majority of many cultures will remain opaque and undecipherable to you. So you have to learn like you would learn anything else: be honest about your limitations. 

There are cultures where I’ve lived where I haven’t been able to understand very much at all. Reasons for this are still in dispute. I would say I tried to bridge the gaps and was rebuffed. Others may say I didn’t try very hard. Whatever the real reason, a lack of understanding or interest in a culture does make life difficult. 

Not to give myself a free pass, but I think the difference between me and members of the British Raj have to do with perceived power. I literally had no power in these countries; I didn’t even hold much of a job, let alone have anyone report to me. Members of the British Raj, on the other hand, ruled, or at least administered, a huge country. They had, for the most part, enormous amounts of power. My ignorance was mostly a personal problem. Their ignorance had greater implications. 

This doesn’t let me off the hook. I’ve learned from those overseas experiences at least enough to recognize them and see where they become problems. My main issue is at the completion of the ex-pat learning stage, generally a year and half after I’ve moved to a country. This is the time where you know a lot about how to live in a country and you’ve experienced a great deal. 

At this point the question that overcomes me is: what now? Or, what next? I’ve seen what I’ve seen and done a lot. This is when I start looking over my shoulder for new experiences, different cities and countries. This is wrong, of course. There is a lot more to learn, my rational side says to me, you've only just arrived, and life isn’t about checking boxes. 

Tell that to the side of my brain that likes to make plans. 

Language learning drops in US higher education

As I was reading a book on the importance of using universities to help educate people in an age of increasing cultural diversity and internationalization, this came across my desk: Since 2013, two- and four-year colleges around the US lose more than 650 foreign-language programs.

It’s a story by the Chronicle of HIgher Education, which got hold of a report from the Modern Language Association.

The totals of lost language programs include:

  • Spanish: 118 program losses

  • French: 129

  • German: 86

  • Italian: 56

After a jump in Arabic enrollments in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the piece stated, the only programs seeing increases this decade are: Korean, American Sign Language and Biblical Hebrew. (Interestingly, American Sign Language is now the third most studied language in US higher education, replacing German.)

Of course other methods exist in universities for students to learn about other cultures. History, sociology and other general education requirements like semester abroad spring to mind. But I can’t think of a better way to understand a culture than learning a bit of its language.This comes from a person who was quite poor in university-level language courses. For most people, though, language courses were a window into a different culture. 

What’s just as important with this news is the reported is 9.2 percent drop in enrollments in foreign language programs across the country between 2013 and 2016. This is the biggest drop since the 1970s.

This brings up more questions than answers, only some of them on the efficacy of undergraduate language teaching. Is this drop because students are uninterested in learning languages; rather, perhaps they face more credit requirements from their majors. Also, what does it mean that most of declines take place in two-year colleges?

I am also interested in what these findings say about the state of language instruction. Has language learning at school been supplanted by the online world and private companies? Do language departments need to rethink how to organize courses—concentrating on fewer, yet longer courses (perhaps over weekends, etc.) to better cement the work into the students’ heads.

Whatever the many reasons for this drop, it’s probably not a good sign. The stereotype is mostly true: Americans are pretty bad at languages, even with the increase of instruction in lower education levels. It’s not a good trait. To problem solve in today’s multicultural and multipolar environment, we need ideas from everywhere. Without understanding in language, we will only hear a fraction of those ideas.

Why photography can matter in the UAE

When we leave the UAE, I’ll take with me a large framed photograph. My wife already bought me one, of a camel track out in the desert that shows a sliver of the Dubai skyline on the horizon.

But I’d like to purchase more. 

Photography, to me, is the best method to capture the spirit of the UAE. The macro-level wide-angle shots are for posters: the buildings forcing their way upwards, the lights and dust and sand in the air. These are the photographs for people who’ve never been here, and they wouldn’t believe it. It’s the eternal optimism and confidence of Dubai daring you to come to find a life. 

What these posters oftentimes don’t show is the micro-level UAE: Its streets and people. Much of life here is quotidian, but most days, the streets in some neighborhoods bustle with lives and personality. The diverse mixing pot of these neighborhoods are full of fascinating studies in mashing foreign cultures into a mix that is unique to the UAE. 

We have purchased a few of the interesting UAE/Dubai-based photo books by photographers living in the country. These are generally inexpensive but still designed in printed in high style. 

What’s important, though, is that anyone can take a good photo. The popularity of photo apps and photo sharing sites means people understand that, too. It would be nice that we start to see photos from those living directly in these melting pot neighborhoods. Because of their proximity to these scenes, they could grab some very dynamic and personal shots. Even more important, they could offer new fresh interpretations of their neighborhoods and the UAE. In fact, they would be able to offer a window into a world people don’t know exists. 

How to sell the story

A big problem that a lot of radio beginners have is the problem I had with my pitch to This American Life: confusing a story setting or premise with an actual story. Community Garden is not a story. It’s a setting, or maybe a topic to investigate, but to do a story on the radio about it, you need some specifics. And by that I mean, a character to talk to, and a situation to talk to them about.

- Alex Blumberg

This used to be my problem with writing stories, and probably why I am no longer involved in journalism. I was too interested in the setting at the expense of the story. Or, I thought my setting was just as important as a story. And stories need conflict and some sort of change. 

I spent much of my journalism time in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And that’s a pretty nifty setting. There’s just so much going on, whether it’s the blocks of furniture makers, all  sawing, soldering and pounding their work into form. Or the streets full of bikes, donkey carts, mopeds, cars, trucks, all trying to get places. Or, the people trying to earn money in one of the poorest cities on the planet. Ouagadougou may be poor statistically, but it earned so much in style, in spunk and just plain pizazz. 

Just thinking about the places where I hung out looking for stories gets me nostalgic. I would trot out to the big corner at the head of our neighborhood and talk to my friends, these four boys —about 16 or so at the time — selling newspapers and tissue, phone card minutes, even cell phones. We would talk the news of the day, and I would slowly get to know them. 

I tried to fashion their lives into narratives that I could do something with. Most of these guys were village kids who went to school until reaching age 14  and were told by their parents that the family could no longer afford to send them to class. It was time to move out to Ouagadougou and try to earn a living. 

And so the great West African urbanization began in human form. I had living examples of this phenomenon. Who wouldn’t want to hear a story like that?  

But the problem was I never got close enough. For all the time I spent with them, I didn’t know that much about them. I mean, I knew them but not enough, it seemed, to write about them. I didn’t know how to get deeper and get more involved with their thinking, their psyche and their hopes and dreams. Perhaps it was language, perhaps it was cultural. Perhaps I was asking the wrong questions. 

What I ended up with was the the 30,000 feet story—urbanization and its effects with these four kids. But there wasn’t enough development or personal drama to drive the story. I was too enthralled with the setting: the street corner, the little kiosks they worked out of, the traffic, the customers. I grabbed the wrong theme. 

Have the chickens come home to roost in Burkina Faso?

News from Burkina Faso has been steady during the last few months. 

Violent attacks of villages. Kidnappings of western foreigners. demonstrations against the police. An entire government resigning in face of mounting problems. 

At one time this was one of the most quiet and peaceful countries in Africa, And today it seems to become another chapter in the spread of violent extremism in Africa. 

Granted I lived in Burkina Faso more than ten years ago, but today’s reports seems to come out of a different country. This type of violence and instability was unheard of.   I would generally shrug off these items as looking bad through a single lens. But I’ve recently heard stories of people quietly leaving or deciding not to return. It may be coincidence. Or, it may be the tell-tale signs of people voting with their feet. 

This got me thinking about the dire straits Burkina Faso is always supposed to be facing. Could the years of dire predictions be coming true?

Burkina Faso has always been a poor country. Landlocked in the Sahel, the scrubby area between the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic coast. The country has only a few natural water sources, and the land can be pretty infertile. Burkina Faso is home to one of the highest population rates in the world, spread among at least 60 ethnic groups. 

This recipe of threats, on top of increasing desertification thrown in, was supposed to spread instability  through countries like Burkina Faso. And for years the warnings didn’t ring true. Even as political tensions were ripped open during the slow demise and then rapid downfall of a president in office for three decades. 

Places like Burkina always look worse from the outside than they do from the ground. Looking at macro issues — climate change, unchecked urbanization, food security, health and education indicators — the country would appear on the bottom of many indexes. But through this, people continued. The country’s greatest resource was its people, who often had to leave to find work. For those who stayed, though, they survived and sometimes they even thrived.

If Burkina Faso were a person it may have been the likable, plucky kid who grew up in a bad neighborhood. Oftentimes the external forces drag these kids down. Sometimes these kids succeed.  

What would success in this case look like? In a time when countries are viewed as having balance sheets where its macro advantages and disadvantages are visible to all, where does a country like Burkina place? In a time where we pit one country against the next, how does Burkina Faso stack up? 

For those who rank these countries, the dark clouds from this country were always apparent. Those who lived there, and those who knew the place, knew that its intangibles, its ineffable goodness, would allow it to continue. 

That may be true. But these could be tough times to test that faith.

Notes on The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

  • Ostensibly it is a story about a mid-20s man who suffers a terrible car accident, slowly recovers only to believe that his sister, his dog and his mobile home are imposters. Capgras syndrome is what he was initially diagnosed with. 

  • The story follows a year of the lives of his family, friends and other interested parties who deal with the main character and this bizarre condition. 

  • At some points it felt too long. Richard Powers certainly had a lot to say. But other times I pushed aside other books to keep working on it. 

  • Powers is known as a very intellectual author. But for all the thinking and ideas he introduced, I felt the story had a lot of pathos. I felt for most of these people. 

  • The dialogue was good, realistic and non-cringe worthy. 

  • Powers deftly changed points of view.  Yet the narrators kept the main focus of the story shrouded in mystery. Especially the mysterious Barbara. 

  • It won the National Book award in 2006. 

  • A quote:

In a field two miles out of town, he passed a boxy green brontosaur combine that was ravaging the rows of standing corn. The fields gained a stark, minimal beauty in dying. Nothing could ever sneak up on you, here in these blank horizons. The winters would be the hardest, of course. He should like to try a February here. Weeks of snow-crusted, subzero air, the winds pouring down from the Dakotas with nothing to slow them for hundreds of mils. He looked out over a grain-fringed rise at an old farm just one upgrade beyond sod house. He pictured himself in one of these gray-white clapboards, connected to humanity by no medium more advanced than radio. It seemed to him, as he drove, one of the last places left in the country where you would have to face down the contents of your own soul, stripped of all packaging. 

Fighting against the forces of our time

There comes a time in history when forces bring about so much deep change that people must strike back and decide how they will reorganize society and adapt to these violent eruptions. These reorganizations or countermeasures are never calm or subtle. They are chaotic and uncivilized affairs. Revolutions. Wars. Civil conflicts pitting families against each other. 

One of our biggest failures is that we constantly think of the present as some spear point of time —the furthest point of the story that started so long ago and culminates today. Until tomorrow comes, of course. 

But if we were to take the last decade — or perhaps the years since the beginning of this century — we shall not ignore that we are living in a changing time. The seeds were planted years before the arbitrary date of January 1, 2000 but the problems facing our society seem to have escalated since then. 

In the Western world, we face major economic calamities, pitting the poor against the rich. We have governments unable or unwilling to check the economic, social and political forces foisting themselves upon people. 

Perhaps worse yet, most of us are at a loss at what to do. Some of us want to lurch forward with few questions asked while others blindly jump backward into a false and fake past.  

It is no wonder people look to other sources for inspiration and protection against these rushing forces: narrow religions, clannishness, drugs and alcohol, radical politics. you name it.  

How else shall we as a society carry each other through these times? What type of protection can we grant each other from these destabilizing forces? Would it be too much to ask us to look back at revolutionary times to understand how those people adjusted to instability. 

Hannah Arendt lists the “ambiguous formulations” of once-revolutionary creeds like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What type of specific protections can we offer people in this age? Physical safety? Free health care? A decent minimum wage, or a minimum living allowance? The chance at a decent education? A clean, healthy environment? 

If these sound like standard political fare, it’s because they are. The answers to the question of how to readjust during these times should be far reaching and complete. It’s all we can do if we are going to push back against these great factors that hold so much influence on so many lives.  

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? 

Memories we choose to remember

My office was probably 10x10 and contained a very powerful air conditioner perched above my seat to fend off the West Africa heat. Here I sat, facing the door at a makeshift desk containing my blocky monitor and whirring desktop.
And sat I did. My day generally started with breakfast and coffee, when we could hear the traffic whiz by outside the 12-foot wall. My wife would hustle off to work, leaving me to my own devices.
From how I remember it, there were days I simply didn’t know what to do. Outside of some odd jobs, I was free. It was that unstructured time that got me into trouble. Sit in front of a computer, research, write and explain. Or, hit the streets and talk to the kids on that crowded and sun-bleached corner?
They each had their advantages. By researching and writing, I could move quicker, get my thoughts published faster and bounce around different topics. Talking and listening was slower, of course. Conversations and ideas must percolate. The writing would be deeper, but I had a find a theme, an essential writing device I always had troubled with.
Such was the unaccompanied writer in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
But there was always the nagging feeling: What was I going to do with this? Could I turn this into something I could sell?
You could say many things were against me. How the US media covered West Africa, which was the lowest rung on the food chain of newsworthiness. My questionable French, a lingua franca in town, perhaps didn’t allow me to get close enough to people. And, perhaps worse, the self control of the person who needed no job. I would be a warren of activity, but what did I ever get done.?

The memory that we choose to remember is what is interesting, Werner Herzog said.

But why is this important to me? Memory is never perfect. If you think of memory as a map, the geography is always changing. And there are places left blank, sort of like the ‘Here be Dragons’ sketched into old maps. Some of the time, I leave these parts alone. They must be unknown for a reason. And I’ve got to work with what information I have. That means better understanding what I already remember. 

Other times, I pore over the blank areas. Why do I have no recollection of that event? It must be repressed for a reason, right? Something juicy from my family history? It’s this type of thinking that often leads me to hope my backstory is more interesting that it actually is. 

I recently came across the above piece of writing from my days as a freelance journalist. It is a written form of a story that I often tell orally. More than 10 years ago, my wife and lived in West Africa. I was a trailing spouse who didn’t have much of a financial reason to work but wanted to be set in a career I cared about. I learned quickly that one of the great afflictions of trailing spouses is you don’t know what to do with this freedom. 

You aren’t obligated to work, so for perhaps the first time in your adult life you are free to do as you wish. Many people thrive in this reality and carve out very productive existences. I was one of those who stared every morning at the same abyss: If I could do anything, what would I do? 

This lead to a flame out of this life. It wasn’t a lack of desire that was to blame—it was focus. I would swing from one project to the next, throwing myself in the new ideas a full 100 percent. The next day I would decide my work from yesterday was no longer worth my time. So I would scrap it and rush to start  a massive project afresh. 

After a few years of this, and very little to show for free work, I decided I needed more structure in my life. 

But this may be one of the few works from that time period that addresses the problem. I edited it a little bit, but it is funny how this version and the one I tell still lines up. It’s the memory we choose to remember, I guess.

Reading as 1) building or 2) mapping

I’d like to get back to thinking about how I take notes in a  book. 

It’s easy to say you’re going to take notes on a book, but you need to do it in an effective manner. Shane Parrish calls note taking a conversation between you and the author. Personally I need to become a more active participant. While I take notes, I usually only note verbatim. 

Here is an interesting recommendation

At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also, note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.

I think of book learning as building blocks, where the comprehension gained from each chapter helps build a little brick where we eventually construct a building or a fence or a messy blob, depending on the subject. I take what I learn from a book and compare and contrast to what I already know. Similar ideas and thoughts combine to become stronger blocks. New ideas and counterintuitive arguments help push the project in a different direction. Poorly argued ideas can bring down an edifice. That’s why we don’t quite know what we are putting together. 

Shane Parrish thinks of this more like cartography. He has an interesting method on how to remember and process what you’ve read. 

shane parrish.png

Both methods have the same unknowing quality. I don’t know quite what I am building and he doesn’t have a full sense of  where he is going.

The important part is reading actively, getting yourself to think about what you’ve read summarize it in a way you understand. This leads to better memory retention. The big trick, I think, is moving from one media (book) to another (paper) which forces your brain to think about the content in a different way. This may also jumpstart the process of moving the material to long-term storage of your mind.

Being a regular

My wife wants to do it. She wants to visit the same place where she enjoys the same meal receives the same friendly service every time. She wants to go where everybody knows your name — or at least she wants to go where everybody knows her name.

It’s called being part of a community, she says. Maybe it is. Why can I get into it? Is it the fact that I don’t want to join a group that would accept me. It could be less philosophical, like I don’t like eating in the same restaurant every time I go out.

This is connected to the internal and external debate, deciding if you should live in a place with lots of activities or live in a place that allows you to grow personally. My wife takes the middle route: She can find lots of activities interesting to her anywhere.

There are days I don’t seem to be able. I found that one way to fight being a regular is to change locations a lot. The urge to move. The urge to look from the outside in. The urge to purposely not belong. The problem is it short circuits potential.

All work and no play

[T]he exercise of freedom is a de facto defense of that same freedom. Freely making art, and freely talking about the art you made, is valuable in and of itself when free expression is being eroded. If anyone’s still taking that freedom for granted, it’s time to wake up and smell the history.

- Rebecca Makkai

This is a US writer writing about the political problems in that country. But I am looking for a more global view of this call to arms: Here is where I ask for the art of people living in United Arab Emirates. It would include Emiratis, of course, but also all those people who were born or moved here that do not have local citizenship. 

We want to hear what those people have to say. What types of creativity would pour out of them?  We want people to express themselves anyway they see fit: Talk about your life, your home, your family. We want to know what you think about how you fit in today’s world. 

Work defines this country. For the millions of people employed here, work is the only way they can live in the UAE. Lose your job and do not pass go and do not collect $200. Even in these type of countries that attracts migrants, work shouldn’t define people. Art and creative work can help fix this. Let’s get to know better some of these folks through their creative output.

Art survival and extinction

Extinction, again.

Alan Lomax and Harry Smith were fighting an interesting battle: keeping the stories and music alive of the peripheral communities and outcasts in the US middle class that like to roll its culture as flat as a pizza. These two were saving the artists who were square pegs from being forced into the round holes.  

Among many things, Alan Lomax made field recordings of musicians and later curated albums (eventually for the Smithsonian). Some of his finds were Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie. 

Harry Smith, another polymath, was a collector first, scouring everywhere for rare 78 records in blues, Cajun, country and gospel. His most famous work came to life when he catalogued and designed nearly 90 songs on a three-record set called the Anthology of American Folk Music that thrust these old tunes from obscurity to the cutting edge and the forefront of the folk revival. 

Some of the musicians these two cultural geologists found (one way or another) would most likely have been found. Sometimes life works like that. We can’t say for certain. What we can say is that these musicians have been saved from possible extinction. 

Not like dinosaur extinction, whether by comet or the lonely struggle against a changing world. These musicians would have grown extinct by a more insidious force: apathy. In the US, failing to grab attention is a death knell, today as it was in 1957. The cultural machinery then, like now, has the power to grey out those intractable cultures. 

One way to fight that extinction, then, is trust your curators. They are leading us to the important fossils.