It’s Easier Than You Think
by Maura Madigan
My husband, Andrew, and I had lived in the Far East for two years before returning to the United States. Several things prompted our return—wanting stability for our daughter, Annie, who was born on Okinawa; job dissatisfaction; and the feeling that it was “time” to go home. People had always asked when we were coming back to the US, implying that travel, a frequently changing address, and distance from the extended family clashed with good child-rearing. We didn’t necessarily buy into this, but I missed my stuff (kept in storage at my brother-in-law’s house) and thought that with an infant life in the US might be easier.
After only two months in small-town Ohio, I knew we had to get out. In many ways it actually felt more foreign than Asia—we felt more comfortable with the values and cultural atmosphere of Tokyo, for instance. We missed the excitement, the entertainments, the artistic life, and the dining of a dynamic city. So after only a year back in the US and with only 6 weeks notice, we sold most of our belongings, shipped 22 boxes to Dubai, and left for the Middle East. We’ve never been happier.
Although I love Dubai and know I could
live here comfortably and happily for many years, I don’t think we’ll stay
beyond my husband’s three-year contract. There are so many other
places I want to visit. Staying in one place for too long seems wasteful.
My friend recently asked if I thought we’d ever settle down in the US,
or anywhere for that matter, and I have to admit that I don’t know.
When Annie was first born, I imagined settling
down somewhere on the East Coast, buying a house, maybe going back to school
for a PhD. But now I realize what I want to do, and my husband agrees,
is travel. A settled life no longer seems so attractive.
Moreover, exploring a new city from the comfort of your own home eliminates the challenges and inconveniences of hotels—a limited play area, shared sleeping space, lack of kitchen and laundry facilities, and a non-childproof room.
Living abroad also eliminates the need to “cram it all in.” You can explore at your leisure, leaving that museum or tour for another day if your child is cranky or too tired. You learn the most about a place by living there. It takes much more than a week to discover the best restaurants, bars, beaches, museums and coffee shops. It’s ideal to stay somewhere long enough to feel at home without losing the sense of wonder that makes us travel in the first place. This is the most thorough and most relaxing way to travel, especially with children.
The benefits of living abroad more than make up for the inconveniences. By living in an international community, my daughter will have a rich cultural experience and will develop a more cosmopolitan outlook. Dubai is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, extremely tolerant city. We have friends here from around the world. The guests at my daughter’s 2nd birthday party were from Canada, India, Iran, New Zealand, South Africa, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Turkey. Increased cultural awareness helps to eliminate prejudice. Living in a culturally and racially diverse city gives us the perfect opportunity to teach our daughter about equality, respect, and tolerance.
Living abroad will also teach my daughter
how to adapt to new situations and, as a result, she will become more responsible
and mature. Since Annie will be sharing her experiences with her
father and I, her relationship with us will be strengthened. Unlike
some of her peers, her travels won’t be limited to Disney World and other
child-friendly resorts. We just returned from Muscat, Oman and will
spend a month in Italy this summer. Next year we’re planning a trip
to Cairo and possibly a return trip to Okinawa so that Annie can visit
My mother and I speak by telephone once a week because she prefers this to email. I have a photo album filled with pictures of family members and close friends that my daughter loves to flip through. I hope this will keep the faces familiar to her. We visit the US once a year, usually in summer, and encourage people to visit us. It can be difficult, but I reasoned with my mother that when I lived in the US, I only saw her twice a year, anyway. This put our move in better perspective.
Ignorance, I found, is one of the biggest causes of fear. Many Americans think of the Middle East as a desert filled with American-hating Muslims where women are treated as second-class citizens. I have to admit that before my husband applied for the position in Dubai (He teaches English Literature at an Emirati university.) I shared some of these misconceptions. Once I did some research, however, I realized that the public perception was wrong. The internet is an excellent tool for such research. I found several websites with information and pictures of the UAE, Dubai in particular. I encouraged my family and friends to visit these websites and sent my mother a packet of information on Dubai. Everything I read promised that Dubai was a beautiful, cosmopolitan, welcoming city. All of this is true.
Dubai is the perfect mix of old and new, with modern buildings rising over ancient forts, a number of traditional souks, and many beautiful mosques. The city is green year-round with carefully landscaped parks and public areas. Within fifteen minutes I can be lying on the beach—the Arabian Gulf—or driving through the desert where camels graze by the road. Anything you need or want can be found in the numerous shopping malls, supermarkets, furniture stores and souks—Kellogg’s corn flakes, the latest Beck CD, Levis 501s, Pashmina shawls, Sony laptops, Pampers. The diverse population is friendly, especially to children. The parks, beaches, play centers and festivals make children a serious priority, affirming the importance of family in Arabic culture.
Dubai is said to be the most tolerant city in the Middle East. In the UAE, unlike some other Arabic countries such as Saudi Arabia, women can drive, ride bicycles, and wear whatever clothing they choose. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re living in a foreign country. English is spoken everywhere and signs, menus, and instructions appear in both Arabic and English. At the same time, walking through the souks, or down the streets of Al Satwa, one hears the diverse lilts of Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Farsi, Tagalog and Malayalam. I had originally intended to learn Arabic, but have now abandoned the idea.
English is spoken virtually everywhere. In places where no one speaks English, a few key words and gestures almost always work. I have ordered my dinner in Tokyo by taking the waitress out front and pointing at a plastic model in the restaurant window. My husband successfully directed the taxi driver to the American air base near our apartment in Korea by making an airplane with his hand (with accompanying noises). Living in Dubai is much easier than the Far East. Compared to Korea, Dubai is incredibly Western and accommodating. The city encourages tourism and is set up for maximum enjoyment.
Although Dubai is fairly liberal, it still adheres to Islamic tradition. During the month-long Ramadan, adults are not allowed to eat or drink in public during sunlight hours. Children are excused, but friends have received disapproving stares for feeding their children in parks or shopping malls during the day. Another custom regards alcohol. A liquor license is required to purchase alcohol for home consumption. Only non-Muslims can receive such a card. Restaurants and bars in hotels and certain clubs are allowed to serve alcohol, so these are popular spots for both tourists and locals. Alcohol, like pork, is haram—forbidden—for Muslims.
The government also controls video, DVD, CD, and book distribution. Some movies and CDs will never make it through to Dubai consumers, while others will be censored. We handle this somewhat limited selection by ordering from Amazon. We place a large order and pay extra for International Express Mail. Within a week the UPS man delivers right to our door. This seems to be the quickest and easiest way to get through Customs. Since DVDs and CDs are more expensive here, it’s also cheaper.
Successfully sending and receiving standard
mail in the UAE has been a dubious process. I mailed Christmas cards
at the end of November that no one has received. This laid-back attitude
toward time drapes itself over the UAE. This is true of many places
outside of North America. Getting things done by a certain time is
just not as important as it is back home. It can take some getting
used to. When we first moved in, I always seemed to be waiting around
the apartment. The carpet-installers, who were scheduled for 11:00
AM, arrived at 12:30, my daughter’s naptime. The internet-jack-installers
arrived at 9:00 AM instead of 9:45, and I was still in my pajamas.
Our custom-made curtains were ready a week late, and they were the wrong
size. I handled these problems by convincing myself that they’re
mild annoyances which simply won’t matter next week, next month, next year.
The necessities of life can be found almost
anywhere. You might have to replace your morning Starbucks coffee
with one from the local cafe (and find you like it better) but this is
part of the joy in living in a foreign country. To experience and
embrace the new. To change and grow with your child makes life feel
fresh again, exciting. Living overseas with a child is much easier
than people might imagine and more rewarding than I could have hoped for.
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