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.