Thursday, October 30, 2014

Observations: UAE

Background reading: Here, Here and Here.

Upon exiting the metro station closest to my hotel at around 11 pm, I found it immediately disorienting being surrounded by people mostly from the Philippines and Thailand. Where was I again?

Had known about the significant expat population but experiencing it was entirely different.  All of a sudden those population numbers (1.2 million Pakistanis, 700K Filipinos, 600K Thai etc.) really meant something.

Even by the end of my stay, I found it difficult to get a real feel for Arabic culture.  You have to really make an effort to search it out.

This locale was added to my schedule not as part of my original year's plan but as a fairly last minute add on.  In the end, it's timing couldn't have been more appropriate.  

Having just been to Bangkok for the first time and now to observe the significant numbers of young Thai women working in the Dubai was an eye opener.  Had I not visited Thailand prior, my views would have been much different.

The only woman I met that seemed happy sat beside me on the bus, having just arrived herself.  Everyone else I encountered who were working, had an edge.  This contrasted widely from how things felt in Bangkok, even amongst the poorest people we saw.  It saddened me to feel that. 

The Filipino workers seemed much more buoyant.  And their cultural styles came through in the way they interacted with customers.  In an effort to provide "service" by placing numerous numbers of workers in restaurants, cafes, high end stores, you cannot help but encounter the startling result.

An example:  I had had enough of the giant mall experience after not even an hour and was on my way back to the metro when my eyes fell upon a slice of cake at a cafe.  Thinking a treat was in order, I greeted the young man and asked for what was the last slice of black forest cake "to go".

He had no idea what I was talking about, even though there was signage and pointing.  He, who spoke great English, only knew the coffee end of things.  No matter, he found someone else to help me, a friendly Filipino girl.

This was at a cafe that charges the equivalent of 12 USD for a slice of cake (it was delicious, best I've had outside of France).  When she punched in my order on the computer and told me the amount, I couldn't help but notice the look on that fellow's face.  It was a lot of money to him whereas the young lady who helped me didn't bat an eye.  You can tell she has worked there longer and are used to foreigners and locals going there to shop, eat and drink up a storm.

It was a surreal experience to be served at restaurants, shops by foreign workers who weren't really able to be truly helpful outside of general service.  I noticed a lot of:  Almost embarrassment when having to say the "script" to try and "up sell" a food order, almost apologetic when mentioning the prices.  And with a few I encountered, almost contempt when being asked what may have been the same question over and over again.

Even the oldest parts of Dubai were mostly populated by people from India, Pakistan etc. working really hard.  It was a good education, something I hadn't expected.  A very different view on "expat" life as my views have been of the highly skilled and educated, rather than a basic definition of someone living in a country they are not from.   

I found Dubai tough to assimilate to as I do not find pleasure in having a whole host of people at my beck and call. Who are unable to really tell me about a product or give me personal experience with it or in some cases, read.  The disconnect was glaring.

You can buy all the luxury brands you could want there.  But I couldn't help feeling like you'd be missing out on the real experience by not buying it from their respective countries, being helped and educated by local people.  It isn't an ego boost for me to be helped by someone whose monthly income is less than the item I'm considering.  I got the feeling it was for many.

And I surprised myself in wanting to return.  Even though I didn't attain much learning of Arabic culture on this visit, it gave me good insight into a unique set of circumstances, in a city that has a reputation of being "artificial", "over the top".  It has its own cultural mosaic and provides opportunity for expat life both freeing for some and oppressive for others under the guise of "progress".  

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