It occurred to me that a bunch of my recent posts about Dubai have been a little negative. That's probably because the bad stuff always makes for more interesting blogging, I think, than the good stuff.
But I would hate to give the impression that Dubai has been a negative experience for us personally. In truth, it's been a remarkable experience.
We have lived here for more than a year and a half now, having arrived in November 2008. Here are some of the things that I have truly been impressed by.
1) The international community. Never before have I been surrounded by a group of people for whom "What country are you from?" is the natural progression from an initial introduction. My 5-year-old now proudly explains that she has friends from Lebanon, Germany, India, Pakistan, Canada, South Africa, Wales, Italy, Croatia, and Spain. I highly doubt she'd be able to rattle off all of those countries so effortlessly if we'd stayed in the U.S., let alone have names and stories to go along with each of them. It's very cool to become intimately acquainted with the vast expanse of world beyond America's borders.
2) The schools. Sure, they cost a fortune, but we have been thrilled with the education that all 3 of the kids have been receiving here. Sushi's Pre-K class this year tackled subjects that I honestly did not expect to see until first grade: real addition and subtraction worksheets; short books for homework; the travels of Christopher Columbus. And this is PRE-K! I can only imagine what she will learn in kindergarten next year.
3) The welcoming environment. Before we landed in this part of the world, I imagined that we Americans would stick out like a sore thumb and generally feel like outsiders wherever we went. Now, it's true that a subtle anti-American sentiment does exist here (for example, when our 15-year-old British babysitter told her friends she was working for an American family, she felt compelled to follow it up with, "They're not all bad!"), but I think that's a function of simply living outside of America as opposed to being in the UAE specifically. Furthermore, I've detected that slight snobbery among fellow expats from Europe as opposed to the locals themselves (then again, I've never met a local, but I digress). The truth is I actually feel largely accepted and safe here. Even the semi-hidden fact that I am Jewish has never caused an issue outside of my own paranoid imagination.
4) The lifestyle. There is literally nothing more you could ask for when it comes to the malls, the restaurants, the brands, the labels. It's as if the cream of all the crops has converged here to offer a diversity unlike anything I've seen before. Dubai Mall's directory of 1,200+ stores really says it all (can you even *think* of 1,200 stores, let alone shop in 1,200 stores?).
5) The weather. Honestly, it's not that bad for most of the year. I mean, yes, it's now June, and the kids can't play outside anymore. And sure, by the time August rolls around, you can't even open the door without the heat smacking you in the face like a wet towel. But for most of the year, it's fine, if not downright heavenly between November and March. And it's only rained a handful of days the whole time we've lived here. There are virtually no bugs. There is hardly ever a thunderstorm. There are no earthquakes or hurricanes. At worst, it's HOT HOT HOT, and the occasional sandstorm is highly annoying to the sensitive eyes. But it's not nearly as insufferable as I expected.
6) The high roller fantasy. I admit that my conscience is somewhat bothered by the fact that just about every store and restaurant in the mall is staffed exclusively by Filipino workers, and that every single house appears to have a Filipino maid, and that nearly every single construction worker, gas station attendant, and delivery person is of Indian descent. I wish that the racial components of Dubai's society were more balanced. That said, it has been an INCREDIBLE, INCREDIBLE luxury to have Alice living with us, and Z-Man driving Daddy on his hourlong commute to work each day. I mean, these are indulgences that we never could have afforded in the USA. I cannot tell a lie: it's a scream to be addressed as "ma'am." As if I could ever be anyone's ma'am! Have you met me? ;)
7) The variety of children-oriented activities. This is not a bad place to be raising little kids. On a weekly basis, my girls have participated in all of these extra-curricular activities: Playball, Little Gym, swimming lessons, drama class, ballet, and soccer. Pre-K finished only two days ago and already my 5-year-old has started at an indoor day camp. Add to this the abundance of indoor play areas and McDonalds and water parks and Wanado City-type operations, and you'd be hard-pressed to think of anything more a kid could ask for.
8) The friendships. It goes without saying that I miss my friends and family back home very, VERY much. And if it weren't for Facebook-- which keeps me up to date and involved in my friends' lives in a way that email never could-- this would be an infinitely harder, lonelier experience. But I'm happy to say that I have also met a couple of women here who actually GET ME. And I get them. Which is something that I had never dared to imagine before we made this move. Now granted, these are not Arab women (much to the disappointment of my burning curiosity). But they are moms, who arrived in this country feeling like fish out of water, determined to make a happy life for their families here... just like me. And their love and support and companionship has been a wonderful surprise.
9) The Western influence. Alright, maybe some of the tv programs are a season or two behind, but I *never* expected that something like American Idol would be broadcast here only a day or two after the live broadcast (and then repeated incessantly)... or that the Kardashians would be on every ten minutes... or that a movie like Iron Man 2 would actually debut here in Dubai *before* it opened in America! Every mall has current American pop music being piped into its changing rooms (would you believe I've even had to speak to store managers-- twice!-- because I found the R-rated lyrics of the rap music to be offensive??), and the UAE tabloids even keep tabs on a bunch of American stars (though they also tend heavily toward Bollywood actors, interestingly). And forget about my frenzied purchases of long-sleeves and long dresses right before we boarded that first Dubai flight: I see plenty of cleavage and short shorts running around here on a daily basis, and I have found it to be nearly *impossible* to find a one-piece bathing suit amidst a sea of zzzexy bikini options. Who knew.
10) The change of perspective. Just about the ONLY thing that I don't love about living in Dubai is that I feel we can't be openly Jewish here, and that there is no Jewish community that exists beyond the occasional closed doors. I am genuinely saddened by the fact that my little girls are missing out on the identity-molding education that they would otherwise be getting right now at our Jewish nursery school back in the USA.
Being a Jewish family-- one that's been saddled with all of the preconceptions and prejudices that I think often come part and parcel with being Jewish and being American in the 21st century-- it has been an invaluable experience to view life from the other side of the looking glass for a little while. When we first arrived here, I was astounded that "Palestine" had been given a booth at the school's International Day... now, I not only expect it, but I understand why it belongs there. (It goes without saying that I wish Israel also had been given a booth, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.) Before this adventure, I reflexively took Israel's side in every fight... now, I probe the political motives of the media before I make up my mind. (For whatever it's worth, I've concluded that "impartial reporting" on any Arab-Israeli affair is unrealistic... but even *that* is a valuable revelation for me.) Had we stayed in America, I never would have given a second thought to those women whose faces are completely cloaked in traditional Muslim dress: I would have assumed that those women are oppressed and degraded and that was that. Now, I have ambivalent feelings about the covered women of the Middle East: if they say that covering their faces is their choice, who am *I* to tell them that this choice is not being made freely, or in response to some larger, more spiritual call? How can you liberate a woman who doesn't feel imprisoned? And why would you even want to?
All in all, I am absolutely a better person for having had this experience. And if it turns out that next year is our last year here, then I want to embrace these opportunities even further in the coming months. I want to travel the region more; I want to meet people more (hopefully, some Emiratis, so I don't have to go on just wondering about what's going on behind the literal veil); I want to find out what's really at stake for a well-intentioned Jew in the UAE.
Because one day, when we're back in the States, and it wouldn't even *occur* to me to ask a new acquaintance what country she's from, I bet I'm going to miss this place.