Sunday, January 12, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Expat Bubble Norms

Normal in Egypt: being unfazed when the lights go out during dinner

Happy New Year!

It’s that time of year again when some of you are arriving to Egypt for your first overseas experience and others are saying their final goodbyes. Foreigners are becoming few and far in between these parts lately, but I guess that’s to be expected.

No matter if you’re coming or going, there are a few things that you are going to face especially for you abroad newbies. A college friend living in Korea shared an article, “The Expat Bubble: Things I Now View as Normal that Probably Aren’t” that although was mostly related to life in Asia, still had some valid points.

Brian M. Williams began the article discussing the expat bubble listing various sub-sections. I’m not black and living in Asia, but I am blonde and pale living in an Arab country. I can identify when he said, “I wonder how I’ll react when no one pays me any attention at all as I go about my day. Will I feel like a washed-up child actor, or will I appreciate the anonymity?” I wonder the same, but I’m so far in a bubble now that I don’t even pay it any attention when someone is staring at me or even if they’re taking photos. It’s just become the norm (hence his blog title). I went to Chili’s this Friday when A.M. looked at me and said, “It’s really amazing how where ever we go, people stare you up and down.” I said, “Really, I didn’t notice.”

Most of our expat conversations revolve around traveling (and neighborhood gossip, to be fair). One night I was sitting at a BBQ and everyone began regaling the worst thing they’ve ever eaten (mine was jellyfish in Shanghai – Dear China, you are nasty). Yet when I go back to the US, I actively try not to discuss many of these things. Why? Williams hits the nail on the head: “In America, talking about travel excessively or even too casually is about the quickest way to become labeled a pretentious prick.” It’s a balancing act. At first everyone wants to hear your stories, but they quickly grow tired of them. They think that you’re bragging, but in actuality, that’s your life. You don’t have anything else to discuss. And as a female, many times other women will ask you where you got your shoes, bag or jewelry. It isn’t bragging in your head to say that it came from a little village in Turkey or your shoes came from Dubai – that’s just where those items came from. As soon as it leaves your mouth, you see their faces and you know that when you take that bathroom break, they will say: “OMG can she just have a normal conversation without bringing up her travels?”

In the article, he mentioned cultural diversity; I would add that being around so many different cultures on a daily basis gives you a different viewpoint on current affairs – one that isn’t so common when you return to the US. My piece of advice to any of you returning or just visiting – never and I mean NEVER get involved in a political discussion. No one is going to agree with you, and that’s okay. But you’re going to get frustrated so it’s just best to steer clear.

And that’s where the similarities stop. Williams makes a note about overseas life isn’t so materialistic, but that isn’t the case for Egypt or the UAE – in my experience. In fact, I’d venture to say that it becomes an even greater issue. There is the pressure here to have the latest Android or iPhone, clothes, etc. Brand names are so popular. You should have seen the travesty that was the Ikea opening. Okay – it wasn’t as bad as I expected, but it was pretty funny. I think that this Ikea opening had to be the first that didn’t make a profit since Egyptians were breaking things left and right. What I found most interesting is that locals were buying things that were already available here at Carrefour and other stores; however, they wanted to get it from Ikea simply because…it’s Ikea.

While you’re not going to gain a “fear of old women” and no – the party scene here is in no way comparable to the amazing shindigs that happen throughout Asia (and Europe), you will find your own expat bubble norms possibly without even realizing.

“State of the Union” Update:
For a quick update on the political arena in Egypt: Morsi’s trial is set to begin on January 28, only three days after the Police Day/January 25 Revolution holiday. And in a move that was to be expected, military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has announced that he would run for president at the request of the people. I really don’t know why anyone would remotely be shocked at that announcement.

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