“Abu Dhabi is a great place to raise kids,” said the repair guy in our New York apartment building, about a month before we shlepped ourselves and our two kids halfway around the world. “My brother and his family love it there,” he added.
His words surprised me. Everyone else we talked to worried about our safety; my father-in-law kept asking if we’d made our wills.
That was ten years ago. The repair guy was right. It is safe. I never lock my car; I leave my purse on the table in the coffee shop when I go to the bathroom.
We moved for what I thought would be a year of Big Adventure—but we’re still here and it has been, on balance, a great place to raise kids.
Or at least, that’s my perspective. My kids, who were 7 & 11 when we moved here, have a different view: it’s the most boring place; there’s nothing to do; it’s so hot. Maybe their dissatisfaction is age-appropriate: other than those kids who live in glittery cities like London, New York, Hong Kong, does any kid in the years just before university like where they live?
What I see and my kids can’t, because their ten years here is all they know, is that their center of gravity has been forever shifted. They’re mixed-race American kids who grew up in “Arabia” and went to a British-style school, which meant GCSEs and A-levels and needing boots to play football on a pitch (translation: cleats to play soccer on the field). A mishmash, in short. Not quite third-culture kids but not not third-culture kids.
It’s true that if you live in a big city in the US or Europe, you’re likely going to bump up against other cultures, ethnicities, and languages. As Westerners living in the non-West, though, the learning, or maybe the un-learning, comes from living as a guest, living in a place where yours is not the dominant experience.
Because they’ve grown up in this (boring) Muslim country, my kids are comfortable with practices that are still regarded with suspicion by far too many people in the US (and elsewhere). I remember a few years back when I was about to take a gaggle of boys to the waterpark. “Just a few minutes, Mom,” my son said. “T. is doing his prayers in the other room and then we can go.”
Living in a Muslim country also means adapting to religious holidays that appear according to the lunar calendar: the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) had been marked on the school calendar as 19 October. . . and will now be celebrated on the 21st. Same with Ramadan: we know approximately when it will start, but the exact date depends on when the moon-sighting committee sees the new moon, which signals the start of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.
Granted, living here also means that when the school year started, my younger son had to dye his hair back to its normal dark brown after a summer of being a glorious silvery lavender, but I think that’s more to do with British prep-school fussiness than anything else. At the American school here, kids have hair in every shade of the rainbow. I reminded him that he’s graduating at the end of this year, and then he’s got an entire lifetime to experiment with wild hair color.
The UAE is a very young country in an ancient part of the world. For the entire decade that we’ve lived here, my kids have delighted in reminding me that I am older than the country, which really isn’t as funny as they think it is. What I hope is that by growing up in a country that is itself growing up, they’ve seen how change is possible: Abu Dhabi, for example, is in the midst of an ambitious plan to transform its economy away from reliance on fossil fuel (there are a lot of Teslas on the roads here). More importantly, they have grown up with the lived experience that the US is not the center of the world. Their adolescent boredom with Abu Dhabi seems to me a small price to pay for that awareness.
Photo credit to the author
I live in a country where it’s bathing-suit season all year. As a woman “of a certain age,” as they say in France, that fact does not exactly fill me with joy. My bathing suits tend to be utilitarian affairs, more designed for walking along the shore than glamorous sunbathing. Because I live in the United Arab Emirates, however, my friends in the States assume that there is some sort of dress code that mandates what I can wear. Ironically, I wish they were right, but they’re not. It would be great to blame a dress code for my demure swimsuit, rather than admit that it’s my love of bread (and occasional glass of wine) that led me to the one-piece life.
Sometimes I think it’s a betrayal of my feminist principles to be self-conscious about my middle-aged tummy (apparently when I turned fifty my metabolism pretty much decided to leave the building), but I can’t help it: my belly and a bikini aren’t going to be keeping company any time soon. Thinking about my own body makes me wonder how mothers of daughters negotiate the potential land-mines around issues of body image. I have two adolescent boys, and while I know they wrestle with questions about their physical appearance, it all seems less fraught for boys than for girls (ah, patriarchy: the gift that keeps on giving).
Photo credit to the author
I see teenage girls on the Abu Dhabi beaches in the tiniest of bikinis and wonder what I would say to my daughter, if I had one: I’d want to encourage her to wear whatever the hell she wants, on the one hand; and on the other, I’d worry about having her be so exposed, both literally and figuratively. I once joked to a friend of mine whose daughter is sixteen that perhaps all girls should wear “burkinis” and not just those who want to maintain hijab while at the beach.
At the beaches in Abu Dhabi, there are burkinis and bikinis and women wading in the water with their black abayas billowing out in the waves. Men in salwar khameez splash each other, while Russian men in tiny speedos do laps across the beach front.
Pink-skinned Brits crisp themselves in the sun (mad dogs and Englishmen, after all), and children of all sorts laugh and play in the waves. My teen-age sons see the beach as a place to play soccer, paddle-board, and hang out with their friends (preferably as far away from me as possible). I see the beach as a cosmopolitan space that allows for, and respects, individual differences—this person covered up, this person barely dressed—even as we’re all there enjoying ourselves.
When I told my kids about my beach-as-cosmopolitan metaphor, they scoffed. “It’s just a beach,” they said. But I wonder. In a world that is slipping faster and faster towards intolerance, nativism, and fundamentalism, I’m happy to grab at any indication that people from different worlds can exist happily in the same place.
What the beach also provides, much to the shared chagrin of my sons, is an opportunity to talk about (ssshh!) girls. Or rather, desire. And bodies, and respect. We talk (well, okay, I do most of the talking) about what it means to find someone attractive, and about how they feel about themselves in this public and uncovered space; I try not to laugh when the thirteen-year old mocks the sixteen-year old’s subtle bicep flexing when a cute girl walks by. I remind them that it’s okay to feel insecure about how they look (there was much scoffing at this point, and then some quiet questions). We also talk about the importance of looking past what someone is (or is not) wearing—and after one of those conversations, my younger son said, exasperated, “we’ve lived here for six years. Robes or no robes, covered or uncovered, I don’t really care. Can we get ice-cream?”
Ice creams were indeed purchased, although I didn’t have one. Maybe with enough “no” on ice cream, a bikini won’t be out of the question by August.
How do you talk with your tweens and teens about their bodies, and all the related issues? And how can we make sure that our own issues with our bodies don’t inflect how our children think about theirs?
This is an original post written by Mannahattamamma for World Moms Network.
We are living in strange times. Here’s how strange they are: the other day I found myself nodding in agreement with something that Dick Cheney said. He is one of the few Republicans who spoke out immediately against Trump’s executive order banning Muslims entering the United States. (Of course in the same interview, he talked about how there was “nobody in America” when his Puritan ancestors arrived. I guess some things never change.) I’ve also started following Pope Francis on Instagram. The Pope gives good Insta, I have to say, but the thing is, I’m not Catholic. I’m not even a lapsed Catholic. I’m not even religious. The closest I came to a religious moment is when I was about seven and was a horse in the St. Augustine “Noah’s Ark” pageant. I pranced down the aisle with the other “animals” and then we all huddled around the altar while Father Pemble—the hippy minister with a fabulous baritone and a red beard—sang songs about the flood. A religious high-point, for sure.
I don’t agree with the Pope on some key issues—he’s not going to be espousing any pro-choice rhetoric anytime soon—but his messages speak to the importance of caring for all of humanity, not just those who look like you.
Here’s an even stranger thing: for the first time in my adult life, I wished this weekend that I had become a lawyer. Because if I’d been a lawyer, and if I were in the United States, I could have gone to an airport and offered my services to detainee families as they (as we all) struggle with the implications of Trump’s destructive (and illegal) actions. I even suggested to my sixteen-year old son that he might think about becoming a lawyer — an idea that wouldn’t ever have occurred to me a month ago. Watching from afar as US airports flooded with people offering support of all kinds to detainees and their families—legal advice, places to stay, food, whatever they could find—I felt a tiny glimmer of hope. The Women’s Marches were amazing, a tour-de-force of activism, energy, and global feminism, but somehow the airport protests seem like an even bigger deal, because they were spontaneous, contagious, and effective (can we get a shoutout for the ACLU)? As the wonderful Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate, “Donald Trump has no idea how terrifying a blue book and a Lexis password can be. He’s about to find out.”
The protests have also helped me to show my kids that all is not lost (for a little while longer at least): the country still has the rule of law, which the President has to obey. I’ve been pointing to the photos of lawyers sitting on airport floors, laptops open, as signs that individuals can make a difference and that Trump’s message of fear has not taken hold everywhere.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? How do we explain Trump’s actions to our children when what he’s doing violates such fundamental principles of civility? And how do we keep our children, particularly older children, optimistic about the future when around the world things seem so bleak? My sixteen-year old son is full of the existential despair that only a teen-ager can feel. He says things like, “yeah, I’m doing my homework, not that it matters because…Trump” – which might become the 2017 version of “the dog ate my homework.” Like most teenagers, my son is a pretty rigid thinker: things are one way or another, the best or the worst; he has lots of opinions and they are, of course, always correct. The night after Trump’s victory (a landslide, as Trump keeps telling us), The Teen said, “but mom, I thought the good guys were supposed to win.” He looked so sad and confused, and I could almost hear the screeching gears in his mind trying to recalibrate his world view.
The Teen has only known Presidential elections where Obama won, and although he knows theoretically that “good guys” don’t always win, this election is his first real-life whammy of watching the good guys lose. It happens to all of us eventually, and sadly, we may even come to expect it. But right now, the Teen is sure that we’re all doomed. I’ve had my fair share of similar thoughts since the inauguration (did you see those “huge” crowds on the Mall for the swearing-in? Yeah, me neither), but I don’t want my kids to feel as pessimistic as I do. They’re young, right? If they lose hope, then that’s the end of the game.
Surprisingly—or perhaps not surprisingly, given how odd things are these days—I found some advice on the Pope’s Instagram. The day the Muslim ban went into effect, the PopeFeed featured a picture with the caption: “Dear young people, make a ruckus! A ruckus that brings a free heart, solidarity, hope…” You know what? I’m thinking ruckus sounds just about right. Perhaps that’s the final thing: I’m actually telling my kids to make a ruckus. Ask questions, read the news, read history, pay attention. And vote. The sixteen-year old will vote for a President in 2020. I wonder who she’ll be?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE.
Lead photo credit: Kenneth Lu / Flickr. Pope Francis video via the Pope’s Instagram.
My husband is a New Yorker whose theatergoing parents always planned their theater outings well in advance. He’s adopted this same long-range planning attitude, and that’s how we ended up with tickets to “the Harry Potter play” this past September. In a fit of jet-lag , he’d bought tickets the previous November during an airport layover en route to Abu Dhabi.
Using our airline miles, we flew to London in September, during the Eid holidays, to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. We took our children, of course, which meant that it wasn’t a vacation but a family trip. Although you might want to think that these are synonyms, they’re really not. If you’re on vacation, you’re never forced to whisper-yell at someone to put down his phone and pay attention when he’s going through security, or explain (for the umpteenth time) that we didn’t fly all the way to London just to hang out in the Jack Wills store.
Those of you with small children or infants might think that traveling with older children looks easy. Their gear tends to be smaller and there’s that whole “go to the bathroom on their own” thing, which is pretty great. But with a small child, there is always the chance that she will fall asleep in her stroller, a cracker crushed in her pudgy fist, and then you can proceed to stroll in the park, or walk through a gallery without much whinging. Older children whinge; they have opinions and needs.
Other people’s children whinge, that is. My family travels in an entirely whinge-free zone. No whinging here, nope, nothing to see here, move along.
Wrapped in our whinge-free bubble, we went off to the play, about which I can say nothing. I’m pretty much sworn to secrecy about the play’s magic, other than to say that all the effects were accomplished through stagecraft. There weren’t any digital effects or computer-aided sorcery, which in this day and age is rather a marvel, all by itself. The plot was… well, you may have already read the book (which is the script of the play), so you know the plot. It’s the standard Rowling combination of magic and family, with the emphasis on family.
There is one key plot point that sets the play apart: Harry Potter is forty. He works for the Ministry of Magic and has discovered, as so many of us do, that life as an adult isn’t as much fun as we thought it would be. Harry longs to continue dashing around in an invisibility cloak, but there are reports to write and files to go through—all the joys of adult work. He’s chafing a bit, is our Harry. Ron even jokes that Harry’s scar aches not because of any Voldemort-related reason but because of middle age. Everything aches a bit these days, he points out.
When the play starts, Harry and his family are standing on platform 9 ¾, and Harry’s elder sons, James and Albus, are bickering so violently that Harry whisper-yells at them to “behave!” Can I tell you how heartening it is to see that even Harry Potter’s children misbehave in public?
At its heart, the Harry Potter series is about a child wondering about his parents. The play flips the tables: now it’s a parent wondering about his children. Harry’s son Albus feels the weight of being the son of “the boy who lived” and, as is the case with most teenagers, Albus doesn’t always handle his feelings gracefully. Of course, as is the case with most parents, Harry doesn’t always handle his feelings gracefully, either.
In an effort to keep Albus safe, Harry imposes more and more rules, which have precisely the opposite effect. As I watched Harry struggle with Albus, I winced in recognition. Lately it seems that in my efforts to connect with my almost sixteen-year old son, I inevitably say the wrong thing at the wrong time and before you know it, one of us is yelling. (And of course, the fault is always mine. My son makes that abundantly clear.)
Harry’s questions remind me of my own: how do I keep my teenager safe and, at the same time, let him grow and develop in his own way, even if that means letting him take risks and (occasionally) be really quite an idiot? When my children were toddlers, I wished someone would invent a kind of bubble wrap suit that I could wrap around them to prevent bruising, and now that my children are older, I wish there were emotional bubble wrap that would prevent the inevitable heartache that comes with growing up. If only Jack Wills made such a thing.
As Harry and Albus slowly find their way back to one another after the emotional battles that wound them both, they learn to accept one another’s imperfections. The lesson of the Harry Potter play highlights the fact that we don’t need to be perfect to be loved—and therein lies the real magic.
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE. Photo credit to the author.
When we moved to Abu Dhabi from Manhattan five years ago, we intended to stay in “the Dhabs” for a year. Our kids had scored the Manhattan Grail: spots in a “gifted and talented” public school, which meant we wouldn’t have to sell everything we owned to pay for private school, and if we stayed away from the city for more than a year, we would lose the seats.
“But you have two spots at the school,” people said to me when I told them we were leaving. To ease their doubts, I kept talking about the benefits of an international education and experiencing different cultures–but to tell the truth, I think I was trying to convince myself. After all, if you’re a student in a Manhattan public school, you’re going to be connect with kids from around the world; it’s unavoidable. Did we really need to move halfway around the world to get a “global experience?” I wondered.
Three-quarters through our first year, we decided to take the leap and sign on for another year (or four) of expat life. A year just didn’t feel like enough time: we would have been packing up to move back just as we were starting to settle in. I felt as if all the energy (and exhaustion and not a few tears) that went into adjusting would have been wasted if we returned to New York after just a year.
The boys are studying Arabic in school, and in our travels through the region, they’ve picked a few phrases here and there — mostly “hello” and “thank you” and “chocolate” — in Sinhalese, Punjabi, Italian, Swahili, Korean. The trips we’ve been able to take from Abu Dhabi would have been impossible from Manhattan, especially on the salaries of two literature professors, and so in that regard, our expat life has delivered the sort of global awareness we were hoping for.
Or at least that’s what I think on my optimistic days. On other days, I wonder: does the simple fact of being able to say “hello” in eight different languages really make you globally aware? I suppose my wavering back and forth is just the expat version of questions most parents ask themselves–“is this school the right school,” “are we doing the best we can for our kids”–and we all have good days and bad days in terms of those answers. How do we raise global citizens? That question, in the light of “Brexit” and the demagoguery of Trump, seems increasingly important, even as the answers get more complicated.
I had to confront those questions just the other day in an emotional conversation with my younger son (now almost twelve). We were sitting on his bed in a hotel room in Bangkok, where we’d come for the Global Round of the World Scholar’s Cup, an academic competition that draws kids from, yes, around the world (but mostly Asia). I’d asked C. if he were nervous about the upcoming three days of competition in writing, debate, and current events quizzing, and his eyes welled up. He admitted that he wanted to do as well as his brother had, two years ago, in the same competition, but also, he said, “I don’t want you to feel like it was a waste for you to bring me here.”
Argh! A blow straight to the heart! How had he gotten the idea that my husband and I would resent the money we spent on airline tickets if he didn’t do well? Suddenly I was the one almost in tears.
I assured him that we didn’t think it was a waste at all and that we were ridiculously proud of him already, just for doing the work to get this far. “Being able to do things like this are why we moved to Abu Dhabi,” I said. “We couldn’t afford flying to Bangkok if we still lived in New York.” My son nodded, vaguely reassured (although still nervous and still in the grips of sibling rivalry).
Truth be told, he probably doesn’t believe me when I say that we’re proud of him already. In the mind of an almost twelve-year old boy, “winning” is pretty much the only thing that matters. Given that there are about 2,000 kids competing in his division, I’d say winning anything is a long shot. (Though if there were a category called “Minecraft knowledge,” he’d probably outscore the entire world.)
What I realized after our conversation, is that yes, this experience is part of why we moved to Abu Dhabi, even though at the time we’d never heard of the World Scholar’s Cup. Even with the international flavor of New York, this sort of intense week-long bonding experience with kids from around the world would not have been possible. This experience, of negotiating differences and finding connections across cultures, will go a long way (I hope) in establishing the foundations of a global citizenry.
C. will remember this week in Bangkok long after he’s forgotten how to say “hello” in Sinhalese. For this week, at least, I’m pretty sure that becoming an expat family was the right thing for us to do.
What about you? How do you raise your global citizens?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE. Photo credit to the author.