Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why Living Abroad is Good for Your Ego

Making the decision to move to a new country entails a tug of war of sorts between our sense of adventure and our ego. We imagine that our willingness to venture off the beaten path will be rewarded with some form of enlightenment. On the other hand, we're aware that leaving behind what we know almost guarantees that we will eternally be humbled by our own ignorance.

One of the most underestimated obstacles in living abroad is the language barrier that many people face once they've reached their destination. Potential expatriates give serious consideration to their job opportunities and living arrangements but often overlook this pesky little step. Interestingly, and maybe naively, English speakers assume that everyone is likely to speak at least passable English. This is, of course, a myth. However, even if it were true, anyone who has lived abroad for an extended period of time will tell you that you cannot fully understand and connect with a culture and its people without learning (or making an attempt at learning) the native language.

Being Egyptian myself, and more of a repat than an expat, one would think that my transition to Egypt would present only minimal challenges, language being the least of my worries. This is true to an extent. Arabic is not quite foreign to me. Perhaps not foreign at all. But the truth is my Arabic gives me away almost as soon as I begin to speak. In some ways, this can be more frustrating for an Egyptian than for a foreigner. I look like I belong here; so why don't I sound like it?

Of course, my Arabic has improved a great deal since I first arrived. But perfection (or anything in the vicinity) is elusive and perhaps not worth attaining in the first place.

...Which brings me to the title of this post. I suppose it's somewhat misleading, as I don't believe that living in a new place is a means of inflating one's ego. Rather, I think that the cultural missteps and awkward moments that come with living abroad actually force us to swallow our pride, get off our "first-world" high horse and connect with the people around us.

Here's an article about an interesting study done at UC Berkeley that explains how embarrassment actually allows people to warm up to you more easily. We all need to be humbled from time to time; living in a new place just creates more opportunities for it. So go ahead and embrace the awkwardness!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are You Happy?

It's been about one year and two months since I packed up my things -- for the third (and final?) time, I might add -- and moved to Egypt. It's strange, but sometimes I feel like I never left, like that year I spent in California in between my two moves to Egypt was actually further mental preparation for the final plunge. During that time, I never felt quite right. Though I was technically "home", I felt like a sellout, like I had given up on Egypt when it had needed me most, and maybe more importantly, when I needed it most.

When I arrived last June, and as my first post reflects, I was apprehensive of what remained of the Egypt I remembered. Had I romanticized it to make the transition easy, or was that the real Egypt? Truth be told, the first two weeks back were tough. A heaviness set upon me that made even the slightest task seem difficult in this not so new place. I did not feel that rush that I had expected upon reaching my supposed homeland. Though I tried to conceal my anxiety, it didn't take long for my family to see that I was feeling a little overwhelmed. Fortunately, my father was not having it. He could see that I was homesick for California. "This is not a revolving door," he warned me. I remember laughing it off at the time, but those words forced me to jump back in. Regardless of how I was feeling that moment, I was going to make it work.

While it's only been a year, I can now say that my reasons for coming back to Egypt may have had less to do with the country itself than I had originally thought. There is no doubt that this country and its people have been through (and are still undergoing) radical transformation and change. It's certainly an inspiration and an honor to be part of it. But that's only part of the story.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with my good friend Amira, who was visiting from California. Like others before her, she was curious to hear my answer to that all-important question: Was I happy here? Truly? case you forgot what these states are supposed to look like
My answer to this question changes depending on various factors. If an acquaintance is asking in passing, I answer concisely, "Yes, it takes some adjustment, but it's good." If a close friend on the verge of her own leap of faith asks with wide eyes and has an hour or so to kill, I offer a more in-depth analysis of my ongoing journey and the challenges and triumphs associated. My response is also influenced by whether the questioner is fond of or detests Egypt. For my idealistic friends, I make sure not to sugar-coat my experience any more than they have in their own minds. To those cynics who think I'm simply playing the part (until I crack) while suffering in silence, I am more than happy to boast about the privileges of my supposed prison, which include but are certainly not limited to 24-hour delivery services, the best fuul and ta3maya sandwiches in the world, and enough scarves to satisfy even the most devoted collector.

So, what did I say this time? Well, Amira was none of the people described above. She was simply a sensible, level-headed person curious to hear my answer. I felt no need to justify or glorify my decision, nor did I need to offer her a sobering account of the fragile state of this country. My reply was that the question itself seemed irrelevant to me. People, particularly those who are unsettled by the thought of living in a so-called third world country, seem so preoccupied with place. I don't quite see the relationship between location and happiness. I told my friend that of course I realize that California is beautiful, and that life is "easy" there. But when the demands of daily life kick in, you hardly remember where you are. You seek happiness from the people around you, not from the traffic-free roads or those "How-in-the-world-did-I-spend-so-much? I-only-came-in-for-batteries" trips to Target.

Whoever said to choose your company before your destination was right. It doesn't matter how many malls are within a five-mile radius of your house, how many different kinds of cereal you have to choose from, or how big your backyard is. If you're not with the people you love, it won't be worth it. On the other end, there are people in the world living in unfathomable conditions who are content simply because they are surrounded by the people that matter. Life may be difficult, at times impossible, but being with the right people helps us forget, even if just for a moment.

Of course, if you're lucky, you won't have to give up much from either side. Life is good, and, though each day comes with a bigger dose of unpredictability than it once did, I am now with the people that mean most to me. Yes, Laila, I'm talking to you. Actually, mostly your kids, but I guess that includes you by association.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

You Know You've Lived Through an Egyptian Revolution When...

1. You've slept with any piece of furniture pushed up against the door and/or a can of Pyrosol next to you.

2. Baltageya (thug) horror stories begin to sound more like jokes. So a baltagi walks into a bar...

3. Your cleaning lady is ready to quit her day job since she's sure she'll be rich once Mubarak's money is distributed.

4. You're convinced those fireworks in the distance are actually gunshots...But you don't really care.

5. You own any/all of the following revolution paraphernalia: key chain, January 25 license plate bumper sticker, bracelet, hat, t-shirt, mug, Egyptian flag (special edition, of course).

6. You've prayed for things to calm down but secretly hoped it wouldn't end before you got a picture standing on/next to a tank.

7. Your seven-year-old child has a hard time naming kinds of fruits but can easily recall, in both Arabic and English, the terms for revolution, protest, thug, rifle, dagger, and tank.

8. The aforementioned seven-year-old has engaged in protests at school with his friends, chanting "El shaab yureed BREAK!"

9. The day after voting on constitutional changes, you've shunned anyone at work who didn't have a pink finger.

10. You or anyone in your family actually went to Tahrir and now truly know what it means to walk and talk like an Egyptian.

11. What pyramids? You forgot that Egypt used to be famous for anything other than protests and politics.

12. You use the revolution as an excuse for just about anything, which made sense in the first couple of weeks but is starting to wear thin six months later. I would've picked up your dry cleaning. Really, I wanted to. It's just, with the revolution and know.

13. The saying "Masr om el donya" suddenly makes sense.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Pineapple Rule

About a year ago, I was out to lunch with my cousin at one of our favorite restaurants. I was starving and eagerly awaiting my food when I saw the waitress coming our way. To my horror, shamelessly placed next to the main course were sliced pineapples. How dare they ruin a perfectly good meal with this uninvited guest? See, for as long as I can remember, I've been anti-pineapple. It's got sharp edges, an odd scent, and an even weirder taste.

After staring at the fruit on my plate for a while and attempting (unsuccessfully) to pass it over to my cousin, I had a wild thought: What if I just ate them? People eat pineapples all the time. No one's died yet...I think. Before actually taking on this feat I prepared myself mentally. I decided I would like pineapples...But I hate pineapples. No, I would eat them and I would love them.

So, it turns out we are capable of manipulating our minds. Since that day, I've loved pineapples. I no longer eat them only when forced. I actually seek them out. I love how they look, smell, and taste. And to think, if it hadn't been for that sneaky restaurant, I'd be missing out on all that juicy deliciousness.

Since then, I've encountered many situations in my day-to-day life where the pineapple lesson applies. People have become very picky when it comes to their tastes, and not just about food. Being blessed with abundance has made us feel the need to have an opinion on just about everything. We feel we're expressing our individuality when we choose to like one thing and hate something else. I say "choose" because I believe that many of our preferences are arbitrary, not based on reason or logic, but on some superficial basis. Not only are we needlessly picky, but we're stubborn. We don't like the idea that we might be wrong or that our so-called preferences may simply be baseless personality quirks of our own creation, essentially figments of our imagination.

I admit I'm guilty of this quite often. For example, I am known to absolutely despise the singer Pink. If one of her songs comes on the radio, I must turn it off. If a friend says she likes her, I start to have serious doubts about our friendship. I will confess that this has nothing to do with Pink's talent or anything she's done. I just decided, long ago, that I didn't like her and that was that. Technically, I could apply the pineapple rule here...But I don't want to.

In truth, there are much more important lessons to be learned from my pineapple epiphany. How many times do we make our lives harder by refusing to get on board mentally? In my opinion, that's half the battle. A great example of this is work. People love to complain about work. It could be their boss, their coworkers, or a lack of passion for their field. Whatever it is, these people have chosen to hate their jobs. They drag their feet around day in and day out dreaming of the weekend, during which they will only complain that the start of the work week is fast approaching. That means that 5/7 of their lives will be spent feeling miserable and the other 2/7 will be spent anticipating the misery to come. Sounds just lovely, doesn't it?

What if you decided to love your job? What if you decided to take it seriously and commit yourself to nothing short of excellence? Needless to say, you would be happier and more content with your life. But the added bonus is that you would also be more successful. The same could be applied to just about anything. Living in Egypt, for instance, is not without its challenges. But moaning and groaning the whole way through, longing for the easy life won't make things better. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, you have to make the conscious decision to like Egypt, to appreciate its charms and forgive its shortcomings. Again, not only does this give us peace of mind, but navigating life in a new place actually begins to feel easy and natural.

I believe that you can choose to love fruit. You can decide to love your job. You can decide to love a new, unfamiliar place. I even believe that you can choose to love your life. I know it sounds easier said than done. And in a way it is...But in a way it really isn't. It's simple: Love pineapples and they'll love you back.

Friday, April 29, 2011

"Take that thing off your head because no man will want to marry you as long as you're dressed like that!"

Any excuse to include a picture of chocolate
If I had a Lindor truffle (my preferred currency) for every time an older, "wiser" woman said this to me, I'd be a little more than pleasantly plump. I can't say that this kind of thinking comes as a shock to me. Nonetheless, I always find it disappointing. I think the fundamental difference lies in who you're trying to please. These types of women are aiming to please men, essentially people. I, and many others like me, are aiming to please God.

This post is not about religion; nor is it about wearing hijab versus not wearing hijab. Rather, it is about knowing yourself and avoiding the self-betrayal that often results when we look to others to define and validate our success.

Regardless of one's degree of spirituality, it cannot be denied that striving to please people is the quickest route to unhappiness, frustration, and very often failure. You will never make everyone happy. And what's more, even if that elusive feat were somehow possible, it would not bring along with it satisfaction. True satisfaction is the product of strong convictions reinforced by corresponding actions. In other words, you need to know what you want, what you believe and live in a way that manifests your principles.

Back to the point: If my goal in life were to "catch a man," I would have long ago traded my flowing fabrics for something a little less subtle. That is not to say that I intend to remain single for the rest of my life; but I refuse to believe that in order to attract a man I must make myself so irresistible that he has no choice but to marry me. (Anyway, that's a bait-and-switch if you ask me, but that's another story.) Furthermore, there are plenty of things men find attractive that have nothing to do with appearance. Yes, intellect and insight actually count for something.

So, what about those men that supposedly won't give us a second glance because the first was nothing to write home about? Well, needless to say, those guys aren't even on my radar. I do believe that it's possible for a man to respect me for my choice rather than write me off for it.

And what if he doesn't exist? What if the old women are right? What if I become a crazy cat lady? That's life. More than anything, I will be content knowing that I stayed true to myself and my beliefs. The outcome is irrelevant.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Signs of Summer

I was recently reminiscing about those old Ball Park hot dog commercials that used to air in the nineties. Every year, around May or June, I'd get so excited the first time I saw one because that meant that summer was right around the corner. Whether its summer or devouring a fuul sandwich, I enjoy the anticipation of something almost as much as the actual experience. So, as I anxiously await the arrival of summer, here are a few signs that it's fast approaching in Egypt.

The (in)famous Egypt smell
That familiar scent that greets/assaults you when you first arrive in Cairo seems to be much more potent during the summer. It's that blend of dust, pollution, and the occasional burning incense. I won't lie; for some strange reason, I love it. 

The empty streets of Cairo
Did I say "empty"? That's correct. As the weather begins to heat up, all the vacations spots along the North Coast or Red Sea that have become ghost towns during the winter come back to life. Cairenes who either can't or don't care to leave just yet get to enjoy the city as it was meant to be. Traffic is lighter, lines are shorter, and parking is a lot less frustrating. My sister says Cairo should take advantage of this mass exodus and "lock the doors" and whoever is out is out...forever. We can dream I guess...

The first lizard of the season
Even though I'm used to seeing lizards back in California, something about the ones here in Egypt makes me jump every time. The unsettling sight of a tiny lizard scurrying up my building, making its way up to my house, has made me the door/window Nazi. No one wants to see the chaos that ensues if I hear that someone has left a window or door open in the house.

The great uniform switch
This is one of my favorites. After a winter of gray weather and black police gear, you wake up one spring morning to find that the entire police force has swapped out its winter wardrobe for crisp, white, scorching-Cairo-heat-friendly uniforms. I wonder how they synchronize that. I wonder if one guy ever got confused, or didn't get the memo and came out wearing his black winter uniform and got laughed off the street. Anyway, aside from the obvious practical reasons, the white uniform reminds me to get my summer wardrobe out too! (This year the change is particularly welcome, as all the incriminating images of the police during the revolution feature them in their black uniforms.)

That mysterious trail of ants
One day soon you will likely fall victim to the following scenario: Oh, there's an ant on the remote control...That's random. [Insert your method of bug-killing here.] Oh, there's another one on the vase. Hmm, weird. Wait, there are, like, five on the coffee table. You finally catch sight of the ashtray and realize you've left an empty candy wrapper in it and are now under invasion by about 36,84793 ants and their closest relatives. I can't count how many cans of Raid I've wasted because I can't seem to remember that when the weather starts to warm up, just talking about sweets will bring an army of ants right to my doorstep.

There you have it. There are probably many more, but I'm gonna go take advantage of the empty streets, right after I secure my doors and windows...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Patriot

I love Egypt and I love being Egyptian.

I'm not sure why it feels like a confession, but for some reason, I feel the need to say it once and for all. For many of us who have grown up abroad, we may like Egypt for North Coast vacations and crazy taxi driver stories, but when it comes to committing we fall short. We say we can't handle the heat, the pollution, or the crowds. We make fun of Egypt, ridicule it and its people.

Then there are those who say they love Egypt, though they say it with a sense of vagueness, as if they're not quite sure why, but all their friends thought they were cool when they realized they came from the land of the pyramids and the Nile, so they figured that must be worth something.

Growing up, I had always noticed that Egyptians were intensely patriotic and deeply attached to their country. On several occasions, I have mistaken a patriotic song for a love song. I have seen Egyptians brought to tears at the mere thought of what Egypt used to be, and what it could be.

Strangely enough, even in my decision to move to Egypt, I never realized that I loved my country. To be honest, I didn't even really see it as my country. More like a country. But mine? It didn't feel that way. Needless to say, all of that changed on January 25th. Since then, I have seen why Egyptians love their country and why they love each other. What we have witnessed in the last three weeks can only be described as true humanity, selflessness, and faith in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles.

We are indebted to the men and women who have given us our country back, who loved Egypt too much to let it be neglected one more day. Thank you for reminding us why we love Egypt: You.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shopping Etiquette

This is somewhat of a follow-up to a previous post about obnoxious, overly eager employees. This post is for my fellow shoppers looking for some non-neon-colored (read "colors that actually occur in nature") clothing in the sea of highlighter chic known as Cairo.

In this country, it is enough of a triumph just getting out of your house, into your car, and arriving at the mall without being killed by a microbus or sitting in hours of traffic because the president's second cousin decided to cross the street. If you make it to the mall, you are among a select few. And, if you are even more fortunate, you may actually escape the aforementioned harassing employees. There is, however, another silent killer.

Maybe this is a Western thing. In America, there is an unwritten shopping code that, if you have your eye on something that someone else is looking at, you pretend to be looking at something else nearby until the other person moves on, you swoop in and make it all look natural as if you didn't notice the item until just that moment when they walked away. We're all very good at this. Don't lie. It's absurd, but it's subtle and it works.

Sadly, subtlety isn't a very popular concept in Egypt. Here, the above scenario plays out like this: You're carefully considering an item of clothing, looking for your size, when you suddenly feel the eyes of another shopper burning through the back of your head. She steps closer and closer, hoping to make you feel so uncomfortable that you give up the item. You try to stand your ground, try to look unfazed, but eventually you surrender the item in favor of regaining your precious personal space.

And this is where you can always tell who is the real Egyptian, the one who wins the stand-off. The one who has no concept of personal space. She could stand there all day elbow to elbow with a complete stranger. I guess that counts as some odd sort of talent.

Between the employees and the other shoppers, shopping in Egypt is just no fun. What now? Minimalism?