Friday, June 28: In the British movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Judi Dench plays Evelyn Greenslade, a newly widowed housewife whose house must be sold to pay off her husband’s debts. She goes to India with a group of elderly British characters, whose motives for coming to India are as varied as their eccentric personalities. They choose to spend their retirement years at Sonny’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a home for the “elderly and beautiful,” based on pictures on the hotel’s website. Upon arrival, they find the hotel to be quite dilapidated and mismanaged. Some of the characters embrace the experience, while others seem determined to be miserable.
While staying at the hotel, Evelyn keeps a blog of her activities. She narrates throughout, to her Day 51 moral at the end:
The only real failure is the failure to try.
The measure of success is how we cope with disappointment, as we always must.
We came here and we tried, all of us in our different ways.
Can we be blamed for feeling that we’re too old to change?
Too scared of disappointment to start it all again?
We get up in the morning. We do our best. Nothing else matters.
But it’s also true that the person who risks nothing does nothing. Has nothing.
All we know about the future is that it will be different. Perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same, so we must celebrate the changes.
Because as someone once said, “Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, then trust me, it’s not yet the end.”
I know what Evelyn means about fearing that things will always be the same. I remember, as vividly as if it was yesterday, the last five years of my humdrum existence as a suburban housewife in northern Virginia. I remember driving around in the traffic of Virginia, running the same errands I always ran, going through the same old routines and feeling increasingly depressed and restless. I sat at stop lights in my car, listening to foreign music, thinking about my longtime dream of being a writer, and thinking that i would never have anything to write about. My life was so boring, so mundane. What would I ever have to say? And I would think, over and over during those last five years: Is this all there is? This is IT, for the rest of my life?
Something HAD to change, but at the time I didn’t know what. And it did change. I CAN’T say about myself that my only real failure is a failure to try. For I HAVE tried. I have tried, and for better or worse, my life has changed.
I am now coming to the end of my third year living and teaching abroad. Starting in March 2010, I spent one year in Korea, which I believed to be quite a hardship. I had a horrible 1 1/2 hour to 2 hour commute to work each way, in freezing cold or steamy hot weather, on dilapidated buses that seemed to have no discernible schedule. I shivered in my classroom during winter, huddled over a space heater in my winter coat, when the school refused to turn on the heat. Or alternately, I sweated profusely when they refused to turn on the air conditioning. I endured Korean food, which I never liked because of the grisly chunks of meat Koreans favor and the strong vinegar taste of kimchi that accompanied every meal. I was older than almost every other teacher there, and the oldest of all my friends and acquaintances. I had no attraction for Korean men, and they none for me. And I lived in what amounted to a college dormitory, a small room in which I could barely fit, much less entertain anyone.
Yet, while in Korea, I set out to explore a country that is quite isolated and not known for tourism. I looked through my trusty Moon Handbook and plotted travels through the country several times a month. I set out to discover new places and new experiences, if not outside of Daegu, then within the city. I enjoyed my friends Anna, Seth and Myrna, our small group of expats in a foreign land, as we spent evenings together either playing Ticket to Ride, watching movies, or eating dinner and singing in a Korean singing room called noraebang.
I learned not only to be alone, but to relish it. And I learned to be self-sufficient, independent, and adventurous. I also learned that I don’t generally enjoy events with random large groups of people, and that certain things about a culture, which one may find endearing on a short holiday trip, can become annoying with constant exposure. I found myself irritated by the Korean group mentality, and the inability of Koreans to accept individual differences in what is a truly conformist society. I found everyone’s black hair annoying, because it was often dyed even into old age. I remember being thrilled when I visited China and found old people with white hair. I found it frustrating that Koreans refused to try to speak English, even though they had been studying it for years, for fear of losing face. I was put off by their criticisms of my appearance, such as the fact that I didn’t dye my hair or that I had fat arms or a big nose, and their constant offering of unsolicited advice. I also found them extremely generous and giving of their time and their friendship. I found them to be hard-working and diligent and well-organized. And many of them knew how to enjoy life, with their love of partying, drinking and singing.
In Korea, I tried, in my way. It wasn’t everyone else’s way, as most other teachers were young and into partying and drinking into all hours of the night. I had to cope with disappointment, and I was able to do it. Things didn’t work out for me in relationships the way I would have liked. I got up in the morning and slogged my way through my horrible commute. I taught my students to sing “California Dreamin'” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” I made goofy faces to keep them laughing. I organized team competitions of Jeopardy. I did my best. I didn’t know what the future would hold, but whatever it held I knew would be different than the life I had before. It was most certainly different.
While in Korea, the only thing I could really think about was my desire to come to work in the Middle East. It’s a long story, but after September 11, 2001 I became intrigued, almost obsessed, by Islam and the Arab world. I wanted to understand this culture and I read every book I could get my hands on. Since Korea was my first time teaching ESL, I looked at it as putting in my time, adding to my resume, just so I could come to the Middle East.
I completed my Master’s degree in International Commerce and Policy in May of 2008. Most of my research was centered in analysis of economic and political issues in the broader Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. One paper was titled Social Ramifications of U.S. Foreign Policy in Egypt. This was a collaborative effort with colleagues which also dealt with the political, economic, and the political-military consequences of U.S. policy in that country. My other research projects included Macroeconomic Prospects for Jordan and Free Trade in the Middle East: A Tool to Achieve Peace and Stability. I wrote about Women’s Empowerment as a Key to Economic Development in Afghanistan. I also wrote papers focused in other areas of the world, including Mexican Judicial Reform and its Effect on the Political and Business Climate. I studied Arabic from 2005-2007 (and not again since, despite living in an Arab country for nearly two years now!). And after going to Egypt, which I adored, for the month of July in 2007, I was determined to work in the Middle East.
I came to Oman in September, 2011, ten years after the horrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers & the Pentagon. It seemed my dream to come to the Middle East had come true. But I found that the energy and chaos and liveliness I discovered, and loved, in Egypt is lacking in Oman. The Sultan has done a great job of bringing Oman into the modern world, but somehow the country is missing vitality. It seems to lack a sense of humor and, as the French say, a joie de vivre (joy of living), a cheerful enjoyment of life; an exultation of spirit. It wasn’t long before I became bored with the culture and irritated by its lack of respect for women, its acceptance of cheating and its lack of work ethic. I found Omani citizens’ sense of entitlement annoying, along with its dependence on wasta to get ahead, and its attitude that things will get done, insha’allah, whenever they get done. And then of course, there’s the weather. I love four distinct seasons in Virginia, particularly the fall, winter and spring. I’ve never been a fan of summer. Of course, Oman has year-round summer, and heat like I’ve never experienced. I hope I never experience it again.
I figured if I was going to be happy here, I would have to create happiness myself, and so I resorted to the thing I loved best in Korea, traveling with a camera in hand, and sharing my adventures on my blog. When I met Mario, it seemed I had found a like-minded friend who would do these things with me; his companionship increased my enjoyment exponentially. Again, as in Korea, my travels and explorations kept me sane, and less lonely. Besides my travels within the country, I spent my free time reading novels, watching movies, and plotting other travels through the region. While here in Oman, I have ventured to Jordan, Greece, Ethiopia, and Nepal. Before I return home, I will spend a month in Spain and Portugal.
I have tried to get the most out of my experiences while living abroad these three years. I discovered things about myself: I love to travel, to go out into far-flung corners of a place and explore it, on my own, with a camera in hand, and a willingness to share my experience with words. Like Evelyn from the Marigold Hotel, I thrive on the experience as much as possible, even though at times it can be a lonely existence and a physical and emotional struggle. I have found, disappointingly, that I can be quite intolerant of certain aspects of a culture, but then I guess I have always known that to some degree. I think I hoped by coming to live in a different culture, I would become more tolerant, more accepting, but I’m afraid the opposite has happened. I can’t understand why people set up restrictions in their society that hold them hostage, and under which they are bound to fail. I really dislike hypocrisy, which I find runs rampant in this country. That being said, as in Korea, I have met some wonderful Omanis, especially my students, who haven’t hesitated to show their love for me.
As far as work, I’ve realized certain requirements are of utmost importance. Needless to say, I haven’t found these things here: I want to be respected as a professional; I want autonomy to do my job using the experience I have accumulated. I don’t want to be treated as a robot doing someone else’s bidding, especially when I don’t agree with it theoretically. I want to be commended when I do a good job and appreciated for being dependable. I want to be free to speak on any subject in the classroom or any other job environment. I want to be able to use technology, which should be a given in this modern world. And most of all, I want to work with managers who will listen and respect their workers’ complaints and pay attention when a mass exodus of employees occurs.
Once I decide I am through with a job, or a person, or a place, that’s it for me. There is no turning back. Just like I said I would never again return to Korea, I can now say with utmost certainty that I will never return to Oman.
I’m NOT one of those people who is unrealistically optimistic, seeing the world always as a rosy, fragrant and heady place. I am realistic. I see things as they are, and sometimes I don’t like what I see. But often, I see a world full of beauty and kindness and adventure. I strive to see things that way; it’s just that I don’t always succeed. I can weigh both sides and put them on the scales so that they’re evenly balanced, the bad and the good. And I can take away an experience that changes me, even if it’s in an unexpected way.
Finally, after living abroad, I think I’ve come full circle. Now that fear I had that nothing would ever change has vanished in the haze. I know that I don’t have to feel stuck; I can change my life whenever I want. That old familiar life has some appeal to me now and I find myself yearning for those familiar routines, those familiar faces.
Now, I feel like one of my favorite characters, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Standing in Oman with my eyes closed, clicking my heels together, saying: “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”
Once I return home to the USA, I will post some random thoughts periodically about my experience in Oman, but for the most part, this blog will be a closed book. I will post about my trip to Spain and Portugal in in search of a thousand cafés. When I return to America on July 25, you can find me at nomad, interrupted. I hope you’ll join me there, because I plan to be there for a long, long time. :-)