Hu's on First in the ME?????

So ... when we first decided to move to the ME, we definitely weighed the pros and cons.  The cons mostly revolved around fear of the unknown and the misinformed.  

Fear of living in Bedouin tents, traversing the desert on camel back, and dining on nothing but goat's milk, sheep's meat and tumbleweed were the tamest images that our minds conjured.  

The daily hype promoted on CNN was what truly froze our hearts though.  We imagined uprisings, hijackings, kidnappings, bombings, etc.  The reality of what awaited us was in fact very different.  

Our misconceptions were quickly put to rest through conversations with expats and through our own experience upon arrival.  In fact, the country we live in, though situated in a volatile region, is likely one of the world's safest, most crime-free, family-friendly and modern countries in which to bring up a child.

So ... cons were for the most part laid to rest.

What about the pros?

Well, being ever-optimistic, I came up with many preconceptions of what awaited us in this glorious desert land.  A huge expatriate community, multicultural exposure, an abundance of languages, the ability to travel to parts of the world highly inaccessible from the West.  Private schooling, nanny services, hair stylists who come to your home for a nominal fee and do your hair and nail as you sip on wine and eat hors d'oeuvres with friends ...  

For the most part, we have not been deceived.  There are many great things to be said about life in the ME.  Despite my rants and vents, our life is good, and we've had many opportunities that would have not been possible had we not moved here.  But one of our greatest misconceptions was that we would find ourselves absorbed into a great melting pot of language, culture and religion.  No, on that front, we were sadly mistaken, and we have remained an island.  Every day we are confronted with a multitude of challenges brought about by the lack of integration amongst various communities/races/cultures.  

Where this is most obvious is in the use of the English language.  Indian, British, Iraqi, Pakistani, Canadian, American, Qatari, Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Philippino, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Ukrainian, French, Australian, New Zealander, Scottish, Dutch, .... we all find commonality in English.  And yet we all remain so very distinct.  Our liberal interpretation of the language is undoubtedly thesis material.


My very first example of the challenges of communication in English upon arrival in this country was the use of the word "suffering" by Arabs.  In a Western context, suffering usually involves enduring death, pain, or distress, sustaining some great loss or damage, or disability or handicap.  In my mind, suffering involves excruciating pain, unfathomable loss, unimaginable suffering.  I have never in my life perceived myself as suffering.  Not when I was involved in a car accident and bleeding profusely from a head wound, not when I was going through a horrible separation and divorce, not even in childbirth (where I gladly accepted an epidural, telling the nurse that the pain was really bad ... but even then I wouldn't have thought to use the term "suffering").

So, one of my first days at work, I'm telling a colleague that I really have a hard time watching the laborers work.  (It goes up to 50C here at its hottest, and I really find it heart wrenching to see people toiling outdoors in that kind of weather.)  And she concurs, and proceeds to tell me that she really "suffers" with her maid, as she cannot get her to make a proper cup of tea.  My coworker has interpreted my inability to watch these people work as a criticism of the way they work.  But I don't get that at the time, and am somewhat baffled by her response.  She proceeds to tell me how she suffers daily, enduring the poor quality food prepared by her maid, enduring the shoddy cleaning by her maid, enduring her maid's surliness.  She says to me it is a good thing she only pays her maid 180$ a month, because all she gets in return is "suffering, suffering, suffering".  

And so begins my journey into misinterpretation.  I quickly learn that "suffering" is very "common" here, endured by many on a daily basis, and brought about by poor quality food, poor quality service, inadequate furnishings, a bad haircut, not enough sleep, etc...  I still have to stifle a laugh every time I hear someone "suffering" because the tea boy has forgotten that they like two sugars in their tea not one.


And speaking of "common" ... when I first started working here I opened a business planning workshop with a slide that stated:

"Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results." — UNKNOWN

I thought it was a lovely quote, basically meant "you, me, her, him, everyday people, no matter who we are, what we do, we can achieve something amazing if we work together".

"Common" in North America assumes like-minded, community-based, "normal".  "Common" to my British colleagues assumes "of a non-ruling class", lacking nobility.  As they later told me, to them the slide basically meant "Teamwork is an excuse for losers to get together and come up with crazy ideas."  As a result, this "commoner" has become very judicious in the use of the term "common" in the ME.

Though I have grown increasingly sensitive and aware of the communication issues that can arise in this society, I still find myself occasionally struck dumb.


An example of this is hearing our Philippina nanny recently tell our daughter to go "brush her tit" in the morning.  Our daughter was in the kitchen finishing off her breakfast and getting ready for school.  I was on my way out the door to work.  I stopped in my tracks.  My husband was in the kitchen.  He spit out a mouthful of coffee.  'Brush her WHAT?' 

Our nanny looked at us wide-eyed.  "Her tit", she answered.  


"Her tit, Madam, her 'tit'", she answered, "You told me she must brush her tit every morning, yes?"

And it dawned on me, on us ... "Her tit" = "Her teeth"!  Phewwwwfffff!


Another such example is a few years back when I had a horrible stomach flu, so bad that I missed a day's work.  The next day, still queasy, I was delegated to attend a very high-level directorate meeting.  I went to the meeting, and used the facilities on my way out, before heading back to my office building offsite.

A few hours after getting back to the office I get a call from the Director's Indian administrative assistant.  She asks me if I had attended that morning's meeting.  I reply "yes".  She asks if it was possible that I'd left my diahrrea in the toilet before leaving.  I say "Pardon Me??????".  And she answers, "Your diarrhea, did you leave it here?"  Now, bear in mind, I've just come off a weekend of projectile vomiting and ragoo poo.  I am still extreeeeeeemely queasy.  I am off to the bathroom every 30-40 minutes, and it's still not pretty.

So I have visions of an overflowing director's toilet, filled with my "diarrhea", which somehow flushed but was regurgitated after my departure.  And of dozens of directorate employees "tsk, tsk'ing" at the Western lady who left behind such a stench and a mess.  And I am MOOOORRRRRRTIFFFFFIEEEEEEEEDDDDDDD!  So I sheepishly say, "Pardon me, did you say 'diarrhea'?" And she answers, "No, not your diarrhea, ...  Your 'diarrheae'."  

I play obtuse.  "I'm not sure I'm understanding correctly ... what exactly are you asking me if I left behind?"  (There is no way in HELL I am going to give this one away without a lot of prodding.)

Exasperated, she says, "Your diarrhea, your daytimer, your agenda ...?????  DID YOU LEAVE IT IN THE TOILET???"

And a light clicks ... Diarrhea = Diary = Agenda.  Toilet = Bathroom.  Someone has left their agenda in the female bathroom.  I have not left my poo in the toilet.  Not my agenda, not my poo.  All is well with the world!!!!!!


Another day at work, I get another call.  A Philippina admin assistant tells me the roof is leaking.  A lot of boxes are wet.  I ask "what is in the boxes?".  She answers "yes, the boxes are wet".  I say, "yes, but what is in the boxes?"  She answers "yes, there is water in the boxes."  I am wondering if she is having a stroke.  "Melanie, just tell me what is wet."  She answers "The boxes are wet."  

Me:  "WHAT is in the boxes?"

She:  "Water."

Me:  "But what is wet in the boxes?"

She:  "Water."

Me:  "Forget it, I'll meet you there in five minutes and work it out for myself."


Most recently, my husband had a "communication" experience.  He asked a Nepali employee to pick up a newly hired employee at the main office building.  He asks, "Can you go get 'Bob' Hellman at the main office building?"  The employee answers 'yes' and scurries off.  Twenty minutes later, he arrives back at my husband's office on a scooter, with a hard hat in his hands.  He hands it to my husband.  My husband is confused ... "What is this?"  The employee answers "Sorry boss, they didn't have 'helmets' so they gave me a hard hat."  !!!!!!!!!

So, who's on first?  Hu's on first.  That's what I asked ... "who's on first?"  "Hu's on first."

Stop kidding around, "who's on first?" .... in the ME!