That’s been a question I’m asked a lot lately. It’s a question I was almost never asked when we lived in Manhattan, even though it’s home to god knows how many hedge-fund gazillionaires.
When we moved to Abu Dhabi in August, I prepared myself for all kinds of changes–food, customs, weather, schools, jobs–all the big stuff. But it never occurred to me that, of course, here in the land of Gulf petrodollars and expat tax-free paychecks, my kids would be exposed to the trappings of wealth in a way they’d never seen before.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they were walking barefoot in the snow to some rat-infested public school in outer Bushwick where there weren’t enough math books to go around. Both boys went to public elementary schools, true, but one was in a lovely little neighborhood in Gramercy Park (a very affluent ‘hood) and the other went to a gifted-and-talented school that wasn’t very fancy on the outside but was delivering a kick-ass education inside (albeit in over-crowded classrooms with underpaid teachers).
We have friends with weekend houses and beach houses; friends who take great vacations and explore the world, but my kids don’t really see those things as signs of money—in part, I guess, because they’re still young and don’t quite understand what it takes to support two households, or truck a family of six to Egypt for the winter holidays.
I wasn’t prepared, myself, for the way that wealth is on display here: that the Porsche Cayenne is basically the Chrysler mini-van of the Gulf; that the line of cars at school pickup looks like a luxury car dealership: Bentley, Porsche, Ferrari, Benz, BMW, Maybach. Women cloaked in black from head to toe swing Chanel bags the size of pigeon coops and their Laboutin soles gleam under the hem of their abayas. Even the “down-market” malls house at least one or two serious designer boutiques. It’s hard to find a plain white blouse here, but if I wanted a Chanel ballgown I’d have at least five stores to choose from.
We could easily fit two of our Manhattan apartments into our current living space, which is on the 37th floor and has views of the Gulf that make it seem as if we’re floating just above the water. There’s a swimming pool and a gym on the roof, and for the first time in my life, I have a cleaning person—and she comes in twice a week.
Of course, all things are relative. I was talking to a friend a while back who said, “it’s hard with the two kids because we don’t have help. Do you?” I said yes, in fact, I had just hired a cleaning person. “Oh,” said the friend. “We have that, but she doesn’t live in.”
Live-in, live-out, whatever. It’s still Help, isn’t it?
But I digress. To me, I’m living what seems a remarkably luxurious life, which is enabled by the expat salaries my husband and I are making, and by the fact that our employer pays the big bills (rent, school tuition). It’s a pretty sweet deal, in many respects.
What the boys see, however, is that we don’t live “in a villa” (aka a house with an upstairs and a yard); we don’t have a driver or a cook; I don’t have hands weighted with diamonds; they don’t have nanny/sherpas carrying their book bags into school. My seven-year old came home from his first-ever play-date at someone else’s house talking about the two nannies (the family has two children), the driver, the trampoline on the back patio, the swimming pool, and shelves filled with electronic toys. He had a great time, and “loves” his new friend, but his eyes were like saucers as he described this boy’s life.
I point out that to most of the world, our family is rich beyond imagination, and remind them that they’ve never in their lives experienced hunger or thirst or been denied something they really, really wanted. (And then, of course, I think “spoiled, over-indulged, first-world children, omigod what I have done, parenting FAIL FAIL FAIL.” But that’s a post for another day.)
It’s not hard to see, in this city (Abu-Dhabi), the gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots: the darker-skinned men in blue coveralls sweeping the streets while the chauffeured Mercedes zip past. My kids see these differences and have some rudimentary understanding of the deep inequities that run through this society—and their New York worlds, too. What they see here, in a way they didn’t in New York, though, is a view of life on the other end of the spectrum, and it dazzles them.
So usually, in response to their question, I offer some lame attempt at perspective: “We have more than enough, and lots more than most, so yes we are rich…and then again, no, we are not.” I’d like to go all Occupy Wall Street on the subject, but I don’t want them telling their classmates that their mommy thinks there be a revolution that redistributes global wealth. Somehow I think that statement might put the kibosh on future playdates.
I know my answer doesn’t satisfy them, but I don’t know what else to say.
How would you answer that question, if (and when) your kids ask?
This is an original post for the World Mom’s Blog by Deborah Quinn.
Photo credit to the author.