A few weeks ago I managed to escape the Kingdom for a quick weekend getaway to Dubai. Because the lifestyle that exists here in Saudi Arabia is, as a fellow teacher best described it, “monastic,” escape is exactly what many expats who have the means do. The exodus begins on Thursday night (the start of our weekend here) for destinations that are more culturally liberal, Dubai and the tiny Kingdom of Bahrain being two popular choices. The former is an hour flight away while the latter is even closer to Saudi’s Eastern Province: only a 20 minute drive across the King Fahd Causeway; that is, if there isn’t any traffic which, invariably, there always is. Saudis, too, enjoy taking advantage of Bahrain’s openness.
Before I came to Saudi, I tried to mentally prepare myself for daily life over here. I studied the culture, questioned former residents, and came to terms with the idea of living in a country that is starkly different from my own. When I arrived in February, I felt my preparations had lessened the inevitable “culture shock”–the personal disorientation that one feels when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life–to a degree. Sure I missed my loved ones (and beer) but overall the transition met my expectations. But three and a half months later when I stepped off the plane in Dubai, boy, was I walloped with a dose reverse culture shock; a phenomenon that exists when trying reintegrate yourself into a culture with which you are familiar (more on that experience later.)
My trip to Dubai got me thinking. At what times in my life did culture shock or reverse culture shock shake me to my core? What, if anything, did I gain from it? After a quick synaptic trip where I tried to recall every major life experience I have had, I came up with seven unique cases that have made profound impression on my psyche.
1986: Arriving in Lagos, Nigeria
My earliest memory from an overseas experience. After our Pan Am flight from Paris landed at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos on a rainy afternoon in July 1986, I remember being whisked from the stifling humidity inside the terminal past heavily-armed and stern looking soldiers (my first time seeing machine guns up-close) into an air-conditioned white Chevy Suburban with bulletproof windows. My next memory is passing through the gate of one of the embassy’s residential compounds, where a group of kids roughly my age were playing soccer in the rain and mud underneath a crop of coconut palms. What that first experience led to was the beginning of a love affair with international travel. In fact, you might recognize this familiar feeling: every time you visit an airport, you wish you could just drop everything and hop on an flight to anywhere.
1994: Returning from Outward Bound
At the height of World Cup mania in 1994, I begrudgingly left my friends in suburban Northern Virginia (i.e, my entire world) for the remoteness of the Smoky Mountains on a month-long course through Outward Bound. After many firsts–rock-climbing, white-water canoeing, reconnoitering, wilderness first responder training, and solo camping–my ragged camp-mates and I returned to civilization and descended upon a diner near the Asheville Regional Airport. While we devoured everything on menu, we celebrated our victories as well as what we had faced head-on: severe bee-sting allergies, rain-soaked marches, forced vegetarianism, camp toilets, no showers, and occasional infighting. Upon arriving home, my mother took on the unenviable task of washing my mildewed clothes (thanks, Mom) while I sat around trying to readjust away from life outdoors. Playing street hockey and hanging out at Fair Oaks Mall didn’t seem nearly as enticing as going back into the mountains. So, I headed to Estes Park the following month and spent two weeks rediscovering my childhood stomping grounds in Rocky Mountain National Park with my godfather. You’ve heard that runners get runner’s high. I now get my fix as I emerge from any extended period outdoors, whether it’s making it to the top ofHalf Dome or returning from a three day backpacking expedition around theMaroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
1996: Leaving the Netherlands to study at an American university
I wasn’t too thrilled about going to college. My senior year was spent enjoying the freedom of the Netherlands with an intimate group of new friends from all over the world. Now I had to face the prospect of attending a large American university without much motivation to study and insecurities about who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I was matriculating with two other close friends from the American School of the Hague and I knew two other excellent theater geeks from my days at Fairfax High School, but overall I couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling of dread. Coupled with trying to fit into an environment where I felt different both in name and culture, I languished (academically speaking) for five long years until I finally graduated with a dismal 2.1 GPA. Socially, I managed to adjust and even thrive, discovering acceptance among another fantastic group of lifelong friends. But it took me until my junior year to hit that stride. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the culture shock of entering college triggered a dormant and crippling inner turmoil that runs within my family’s genes: anxiety.
2004: Serving in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan
No amount of physical and mental preparation can ready any prospective Peace Corps Volunteer for what might lie ahead during their service. My desire to experience life in post-Soviet Central Asia didn’t exactly exceed my expectations. The richness that I found on the former Silk Road in places like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva was also drowned in a bath of vodka, cottonseed oil, and a societal structure that had been warped by 67 years of communist rule, and then stagnated by 13 years of dictatorial rule. Uzbekistan could be tough on the psyche as well as the body for most people, including me. But despite the hardships, the nostalgia I have for Uzbek life remains as strong as it ever was. And I know many former volunteers who are compelled to return. One of the biggest reasons being…
2005: Being evacuated from Uzbekistan
One fine day in June I was assisting an Uzbek teacher at an art camp run by my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Several days later, our entire group was being debriefed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, wondering “what happened?” While most of us saw an evacuation coming, none of us were prepared for the process of gathering our personal belongings within 24 hours and flying out of the country under a number of claims, the most suppositious, or even spurious one being that we were threatened by terrorism. I said goodbye to friends in Khiva that I knew I would I never see again and spent the rest of the summer shellshocked with the question “what now?” running over and over again in my head.
2009: Exploring Tokyo
For me, travel is a stress-free experience. I don’t worry about the unknown when I’m on the road; in fact, it’s not knowing what you’ll find that gratifies me. But one time I ended up meeting my match: Tokyo. On a trip back to the United States from Thailand, I made a stopover in Japan to see an old friend from my Peace Corps days. I booked a hotel near Tokyo’s Shibuya district and made the smooth transit from Narita International Airport; that was until I got downtown. Confusion set in when I attempted and thrice failed to find the correct mass transit line. Frustration set in when I realized I didn’t have any Japanese yen and my debit card, which worked perfectly in Thailand, was useless at many ATMs in Tokyo. And panic set in when I couldn’t get anyone to understand what I needed, as helpful as Tokyoites are wont to be. I managed to scrape together enough information to realized that the Yamanote Line would get me to where I needed to go. Upon arriving to Shibuya, I felt as if I was experiencing Times Square on acid. Young, ultra-hip city denizens breezed effortlessly past me as I gawked at the bright lights and billboards and tried to remind myself that I once lived in New York City, I can handle this. After checking into my hotel, I spiraled around Shibuya looking for a place to eat and grab a drink, but unfamiliar signage and a lack of cash forced me to retreat to my hotel where I ordered two Sapporos and some self-heating ramen out of a vending machine (a first.) I took a Shinkansen the next day to Niigata Prefecture–where I got lost again and almost boarded a train going in the opposite direction–feeling defeated but inspired by Tokyo and craving a return trip. I also realized that as much travel experience as I have under my belt, there will always be another destination on the horizon that upends my worldview.
2015: Trading KSA for the UAE
And back to where I began this story: Dubai. My flight landed in Dubai International Airport and I was immediately drawn to the duty free shop where I picked up a couple of bottles of wine and a 12-pack of Heineken. Ahead of me in line were a group of British expats who were also loading up their carts full of booze and a gentleman I can only assume was Emirati who asked me what type of wine I liked better: pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon–a bizarre question to hear after being dry for months. My hotel in Deira put me in the heart of Dubai’s old financial hub, now a multicultural mecca. Within the course of an hour after midnight, I probably saw people of 20 different nationalities. The next morning as I stood in line at a local McDonalds a Russian man was ordering breakfast next to a woman from somewhere in East Asia. Our cashiers were from the Philippines. Behind me were two Sikhs and an elderly British couple. Behind them were two people who happened to be staying at my hotel and I later discovered were visiting from Ghana. The next day, I visited historic Bur Dubai and spied even more nationalities: Americans, Nigerians, French, Brazilians, Australians. I even eavesdropped on two women who I suspect were from somewhere in Central Asia. Later that evening, my best friend arrived from San Francisco and we ate an Italian dinner served by Bengalis and hit up an Irish pub for beer served by twenty-something Irish men and women. Dubai’s diversity is astounding.
The shock that registered during my three day trip to the United Arab Emirates was the rapid reintegration into, what for me, is welcome and familiar instead of the cloistered existence that I’d gotten used to. I was reminded that, despite the initial shock, travel experiences that challenge my ideas and rearrange my preconceived notions are what create those profound impressions on my psyche. As my good friend and fellow writer rojospinks put it “these are the settings I feel most comfortable in.” Wherever I’ve managed to get my footing, whether it was my first experience as an expat kid in Nigeria or my erratic journey as an undergraduate, life-altering experiences that come with change are and will be among most valuable things I’ve ever collected.
photo: looking out of my hotel window toward Tokyo’s electric Shibuya district, December 2009.