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17 June 2007 @ 10:53 pm
Mixed feelings  
So, a week from now I will be sitting in my cramped BA seat and drinking as many free bad cocktails as possible -- on my way to Dubai! It was such a wonderful and awful year living there last year, both at the same time. And I feel like I was such a different person there than I am at home (and have become such a different person for having had the opportunity to live there). I have no idea what to expect on this trip, my first post-fieldwork trip to Dubai.

I have so many mixed feelings, so many things I miss, and so many things the distance from Dubai has made me dislike even more. So I am excited but also a bit nervous. I miss being so in touch with Indian culture, Bollywood, Indian food, using Hindi on a daily basis, not being the only brown one, and also, despite all the leering, I felt incredibly safe living by myself in Dubai, safer than I have ever felt in any city. But the distance from Dubai has made the insane segregation and discrimination between nationalities and races there seem so intolerable, even though I tolerate similar things here, and even though I got so easily accustomed to it when I was there. I am not ready to deal with Western expats who feel perfectly entitled to make three times more money than similarly qualified Asians, white people who won't talk to me at parties (yes, I have experienced this as an American in Dubai, and NEVER in the US, although there is definitely a ton of racism here), 100 degree weather at night but still needing a sweater in the mall, no real public spaces that don't require money, the crazy level of consumerism (which, again, I so easily enjoy after a short time living in it), cab drivers that try to convert me to Islam, and in general people who think I am stupid or a prostitute because I happen to have a uterus and not cover my head.

But the thing is, for all of you reading this and thinking that "oh, but she thinks the US is so much better," I don't. Actually my entire dissertation is an argument AGAINST how much Western academics treat the Middle East and Islam as exceptional, outside of their perceived norms of late capitalism and modern state formations. In fact, living in Dubai taught me a lot about how similar Dubai and the US are. But they are also very different. And here is the thing - there are power differentials and ridiculously frustrating things everywhere, but the place you are becomes normal and other places so easy to criticize.

So my trip to Dubai is a bit scary -- will I feel like an insider or an outsider? Will the things I have been writing about for 6 months hold true when I am there, or do they only seem true from a distance? And the scariest thing, will I hate it and never want to come back? Because I have to admit hating it much more now that I am not there and thinking about it from a distance than when I was immersed in it. But I also feel so nostalgic, like I never have about any other place. These contradictory feelings are what makes writing a dissertation with integrity difficult. Nothing is black and white, and if people represent places that way, they are taking the easy route. How to turn the complicated, contradictory, and confusing emotions and data I have into an argument that holds together and also holds true to my experiences?

It is a very exciting and scary place to be, thinking about going back to a place that I have basically been creating through my writing for six months. What will the relationship be between my production of Dubai over the past six months (and ALL knowledge is produced) and my experience of Dubai after six months away? I guess we will find out soon enough...
susan smitten: zayednightchu_hi on June 18th, 2007 07:08 am (UTC)
SO familiar with what you're saying. As much as people address culture shock and "reverse culture shock," little is said about the ricochet thing. Returning repeatedly to a discarded ways of life is traumatic; even just bracing yourself for it is traumatic.

You'll see it differently than most people who leave Dubai and return, because of your microscope. But I bet you'll fall in love with it again. We'll have a terrific time. =D
:-)tessa2787 on June 18th, 2007 08:20 am (UTC)
yes..waxing nostalgic about dubai when i went back home to the philippines to give birth to my baby..waxing poetic about dubai when kuwait offers me a whole lot more financially..dubai and i--its a love affair. and i am one of the concubines.
i dont even get homesick for Manila..heh
istara on June 18th, 2007 08:54 am (UTC)
Western expats who feel perfectly entitled to make three times more money than similarly qualified Asians

I don't think most of us feel entitled. I certainly don't. We take the money, but there is always a sense of unease and guilt about it.
nativeinformantnativeinformant on June 18th, 2007 03:59 pm (UTC)
Notice I didn't say ALL Western expats. But I don't think you are in the majority in your sensitivity and understanding of the situation, at least from what I have experienced. I think a lot of people like living large and feeling important in ways they can't back home -- like having huge accomodations, housemaids, drivers, delivery services, etc. All things that are done by underpaid non-Western labor. This is not a criticism from the outside in. I myself easily become complacent and enjoy these very things. So it is more an exploration of my shifting subjectivities between here and there, and how easily I fit into such different spaces. Case in point: Here in CA I would *never* go to a bar or club that practiced racist entry policies, but I do so in Dubai regularly (sure I feel guilt about it, but that still does not make it ok).
istara on June 18th, 2007 04:08 pm (UTC)
Yes - I would agree that a very large number certainly don't notice or care, and certainly some feel entitled to it. I've heard the argument that "our qualifications are better than theirs" and "our housing is more expensive - you can buy a farm in India for a hundred dollars" and "there's so many of them, we're more valuable, we know western ways". Believe me that even if I haven't heard it all, I've heard enough.

But what really gets me, particularly among the ultra-low-paid, is the attitude that they "have it better here than they would back home". That still doesn't make it right. Just because a Bengali labourer would earn Dh10 a day in Dhaka whereas in the UAE - a land dripping with oil and trade wealth - he earns Dh20, so what? He's still being exploited. Especially when he works, like most labourers here, in appalling conditions of health and safety.

I suppose in some ways I am more ashamed that I didn't notice/care about these things for the first 2-3 years I was here. Perhaps it has only been since the construction really boomed and the unpaid workers started marching and the papers were finally allowed to cover these issues (because there's no way they would have published them without official sanction - clearly someone up high wanted a bit of a clean up somewhere) that we've really noticed these guys.

But they've always been there. And they probably always will be here. And I don't really know what I can do about it except leave, and live in a country where I wash my own car and pack my own groceries and can look a waitperson in the eye knowing he or she probably earns enough to have a car and save for a mortgage one day and isn't thousands of miles from a family he or she sees only every 2-3 years. And the fact that under the law, that person is my equal not my inferior or my superior.
nativeinformantnativeinformant on June 18th, 2007 04:17 pm (UTC)
I'd say you of all people are doing a lot to make people aware of these issues and to change them. I get so annoyed at those who post on your blog and make it seem like speaking out is just another form of Western chauvanism, etc. And it is not just Western expats, it is all middle and upper class expats that are part of this system. I can't tell you how many Indian biz people I spoke to while I was in Dubai who repeated all those same lines you quoted above, about the fact that they were exploiting their own people (sometimes from their own villages or even extended families!). My big point that I am trying to explore academically is that a state (esp a small one like the UAE with actually a very limited military and police force) cannot keep this kind of segregated system going on its own. It actually requires the complicity of expatriates in order to maintain the social and legal divisions that are there. BTW, speaking of change, which I do think is occurring, and as you know I think blogging is a part of, can wee finally do that interview if you're in town when I get there? I'll be there June 25 to July 3.
Kwabená Píèsíemcgillianaire on June 18th, 2007 07:16 pm (UTC)
>It actually requires the complicity of expatriates in order to maintain the social and legal divisions that are there.
Good point!

Really interesting discussion and post. I can totally understand where you're coming from: I'm an Indian who grew up in Oman but studied in an international school (read: Western) and has spent the last five years in the West. I grew up just accepting all the divisions (West v non-Western labour, white-collar Indians v blue-collar Indians etc) as "the ways things are". As I got older I found myself in a weird situation where the non-Western students in my school, generally refused to identify themselves with their non-Western heritage because the majority of the Western kids, looked upon their non-Western peers as inferior. In hindsight, I think this belief was reinforced by the social and legal disparities that existed in Oman (and the rest of the Gulf). I doubt however, the majority of these Western kids would've looked upon their non-Western peers the exact same way back 'home'. That said, and like you pointed out, xenophobia and racism does still exist, though in a much more muted and discrete form, in the West. Even in my high school, there were a couple kids who were simply racist. Exceptions exist everywhere.

I found myself in a weird position because internally, I was proud of my Indian identity but externally, I gave into the peer pressure and presented myself as either a Westernized Indian, or simply, Western. Despite that reassurance, I always knew the majority of the Western kids (many of whom were children of parents working for rich oil companies) looked down upon me, consciously and subconsciously. I know such attitudes still persist in my school and it's a pity because these same kids will become parents one day and fairly likely, move to live in the Middle East. They will probably share the same views of non-Westerners as they did in school and pass on the complicity to their children.

I think there is an irony in all of this. People may assume that those who have lived abroad are more open minded than those who haven't. Nuh-uh. My experiences as an international school student, particularly one who grew up in the Middle East, have illustrated to me the narrow-mindedness that is widespread. The Western societies that many of these Western expats have come from are becoming much more multicultural than it was when the expats used to live in them, and in many instances, have removed the layers of ignorance. They don't just treat people equally, but they see them as being equal as well. But the Western expat? Nah. They go on living in this time warp that reflects more accurately the realities of the pre-Cold War when Britain ruled the seas and banned Indians from entering their posh clubs and so forth. And unfortunately, as you pointed out above, they reinforce these outdated mentalities and become complicit in maintaining the social and legal disparities in Gulf society.

(I had more to say, but I think I'll leave it at that. Sorry for the rant).
nativeinformantnativeinformant on June 18th, 2007 09:48 pm (UTC)
Not a rant at all. In fact, I found it very interesting. I interviewed a bunch of born-and-raised-in-Dubai Indians during my fieldwork, and found a lot of similarities to what you say. The inbred sense of being a "second-class citizen" compared to Westerners was expressed by a lot of people (of course they are not citizens at all and can never be either).

I got the sense that it was only after they went to university (whether it was in the West or in the Gulf) that they started seeing the place they grew up in differently. Of course this is a broad generalization of my data. My interviewees were very different and varied a lot in what they said as well.

The one thing that I find so interesting, especially in relation to my own experiences being a second-generation Indian in the US, is that, unlike immigrant kids here, everyone in Dubai identified as Indian and did not relate any kind of identity crisis in the same way as me and my friends experienced it. I spent my whole childhood being embarrassed of my Indian identity, my brown skin, my parents' accents, the way our house smelled of Indian food, etc. The people I interviewed in Dubai did not relate these feelings but rather were comfortable with their Indianness in ways that I was not growing up.

I'm still trying to sort all this stuff out, but definitely very interested in the role that citizenship and discrimination play in people's experiences of growing up and their sense of belonging. Also, I think the fact that South Asians are so prevalent in the Gulf makes a big difference, and is a positive as well as a negative.
(Anonymous) on July 13th, 2007 12:47 am (UTC)
"The one thing that I find so interesting, especially in relation to my own experiences being a second-generation Indian in the US, is that, unlike immigrant kids here, everyone in Dubai identified as Indian and did not relate any kind of identity crisis in the same way as me and my friends experienced it."

I beg to differ on that one - simply because I do not relate to an everyday Indian (from India) i.e. his ways or working, thought process etc all - even though I am a second generation UAE offspring.

I think there certainly is a difference from an Indian raised in India and an Indian raised in the UAE - perhaps far less compared to someone raised in the US.

Neat journal btw :)

nativeinformantnativeinformant on July 14th, 2007 07:14 am (UTC)
Hi Rosh,

I agree with you - Indians in Dubai did relate a difference from Indians in India, definitely. What I was getting at was that they did not in any way consider themselves Emirati, or anything but Indian in terms of their national or ethnic identity, unlike desis here in the states who feel like we are in between "Indian" and "American" identities. I hope that clarifies.