The Girl From St. Louisiana: Secrets of Expat Life in UAE

So, where’s St. Louisiana?

I don’t know. Do you?

Of the twenty new teachers in my summer 2018 cohort, I was the only North American. Everyone else came from the U.K., India, or Australia. As all groups do, we got to know each other well. Asked questions. Poked fun at stereotypes. Criticized Trump. The usual. We got to know one another well. To my surprise, no one knew where St. Louis was, much less Missouri; even though I don’t consider myself an urbanite from STL (being raised in rural Park Hills), I soon realized that the Midwest is largely unknown to the young global community. I tried defining my home of Missouri geographically, as it relates to neighboring states of Illinois, Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and so on. Upon sharing this, I received many blank stares.

“–or maybe you’ll know it as the space midway between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains,” I told them.

But they still couldn’t grasp it. Do they not know anything about the U.S.?

My next tactic was to reiterate ugly stereotypes: people of the Midwest are super nice farmers, sometimes conservative and overly religious, surrounded by cornfields with an occasional tornado. Heard of it? Nope? Cool. How about Mark Twain, Jesse James, Langston Hughes? It took a while for some of the references to click.

I eventually told them, “Fine. I live near Chicago.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” (because it’s a six hour drive… at best!)

A few days later, my dear British friend, Charlotte, asked me, “Where are you from again? St. Louisiana?”

Another teacher sitting behind me replied, “Yeah, that’s what Addie said, but none of us know where it is.”

And so it stuck. I’m Addie from St. Louisiana. They wouldn’t understand the connections like, “oh, the arch!” or “Mark Twain’s Mississippi river.” You can’t simply tell someone you’re from St. Louis… or Missouri… or the Midwest… Just go with Chicago. That’s a guarantee. Whoever it is will sing Frank Sinatra’s “Chicago” in return (like my Pakistani taxi driver did) or ask about the uptick in Chicago crime rates, and you’re good to go.

I was chasing my dream of teaching English language… [and] possibly living the rest of my life there.

Why choose United Arab Emirates?

Photo taken from the hotel:
Roda al Murooj

To be fair, I have been drawn to the Dubai-dream for several years, almost like an obsession. Thanks to my boyfriend, Tareq, who always talks about this incredible city (even though he’s never visited Dubai himself), I pinned UAE–both on Pintrest and real life–as my first choice. I felt as though my quality of life would be pretty good if I lived in the Emirates, or at least comparable to life in the states. Besides, UAE lifestyle is about as “western” as it gets in the Middle East, so I knew that I would still encounter enough Arabic cultural to stimulate the explorer in me.

Secondly, I was chasing my dream of teaching English as a second language, and where better to teach than the Emirates (with the added incentive of a generous expat salary, full health care, and no income taxation)? In my first few months abroad, I felt as though I might just teach English as a Second language indefinitely and either use my time in UAE as professional foreign experience or possibly live the rest of my there.

Go ahead. Ask me… How’s the weather over there?

“What was it like,” you ask? Well, there was never a blue, clear sky but always sand in your eyes. For the most part, summer into early winter meant melt-your-face-off temperatures. Just how I like it.

I know. I know. I’m cray-cray, but part of the appeal was finding a strange experience, far from anything that looked like home! I was tempted by the adventure of an unexplored land.

Desert between Dubai and Fujairah

My first month in UAE was during early July. If you know how hot and humid Missouri weather can be, you’d be tempted to think Sahara-like temperatures aren’t too different, but you’d be wrong. What’s bizarre is that I love unusually hot weather, enough to consider myself a healthy, acclimated person, especially to hot climates, yet I needed a major adjustment to the stifling temperatures in that desert heat. Also, there’s something peculiar about how the sun looks through a Middle Eastern sky. It’s a unique, alluring ball of fire that you swear isn’t shared between the Middle East and the states. It’s as if a different is sun designated to those who reside in this side of the world. Or perhaps it was because the sky was never blue (like it was at home). You’d never see a striking contrast in vivid blue sky and white puffy clouds because there aren’t any. I mean it. There’s rarely a cloud–ever–and the sand acts as its own filter to the sun, so the sky seems dusty all day.

Upon my first couple weeks in Sharjah (25 minutes east of Dubai), I remember so desperately wanting to spend time outside, because I felt cooped up indoors, away from the unforgiving sun; but the lover-of-outdoors in me, therefore, invited all my new teacher friends to a dinner (of hot pasta and I still regret that) outside on the hotel patio at night, around 8:30-9 p.m. Except the temperature at that time was still over 100°F, and get this–July in isn’t even considered peak temperatures–August is!

I figured out instantly why many expats plan long family holidays during summer; it’s to escape the ungodly hot conditions.

Fujariah-what?

A running track wraps around the perimeter of this huge Fujairah mosque

The most popular cities for expat workers in UAE are Dubai and Abu Dhabi. So, was I devastated that my employer, the Ministry of Education, placed me in a lesser-known city of Fujairah?

No, not even a little bit.

I didn’t necessarily wish for the day-to-day pressures of crowded, overpriced city-living if I could save money living elsewhere and just travel to Dubai or Abu Dhabi when I wanted. I appreciated Fujairah’s size (pop. of +100,000), even though it’s considerably bigger than my hometown (pop. of +8,000) in southeast MO. Oddly enough, many expat teachers considered Fujairah a small town with not much going on. Crazy! I couldn’t disagree more, and I’ll explain why later on.

To my surprise, I found that Fujairah was closer to the Oman border than to bustling Dubai. Fujairah shares a coastline on the Gulf of Oman, making it a slow-paced fisherman village.

Trying to survive a merciless commute

Down the hallway where I taught everyday

Unfortunately for me, my school placement was in Hatta, an hour drive from Fujairah. Hatta’s a very desolate, Bedouin area (pop. of 12,000) with a non-existent western expat population. That alone determined my decision to live in Fujairah. I’d prefer neighboring-up to my teacher friends and exercising a healthy social life.

My teaching routine looked something like this: wake up early, pick up four other teachers in Fujairah, trek an hour to school, teach anywhere from 4-6 classes, drive back home with a carload of tired coworkers, and dive face-first in the couch when I arrived home. Everyday I was exhausted. Averaging 10 hours of driving per week alongside my coworkers didn’t make the commute any less complicated, but that’s a fun story for another blog.

What to do… What to do…

I was never hurting for entertainment. Even though I lived in the Hajar mountains of Fujairah, I still found activities to do without the dazzling lights of the city. I spent my hard-earned salary on trips to the Fujairah shopping malls, fish souks (markets), beaches, cafes, movie theaters, historical sites, and even the local mosque to exercise (oddly enough).

Apart from an hour and a half drive, Dubai was totally worth a trip. I’d venture out of my comfort zone and visit jazz clubs, admire the towering Burj Khalifa, wander around the Dubai Mall, lay on Jumeirah beach next to the Burj al Arab, film the Dubai fountain, and even ride an abra (traditional wooden boat) down Dubai Creek.

Culture & Religion

Outwardly, it’s quite the opposite of what you see in North America. Even though UAE is more progressive than many other Middle Eastern countries, expats should still mind the conservative Muslim values.

I found that I sometimes forgot that Arabic was the official language, since there were far more expats outnumbering natives by 89 percent. I was more likely to hear Hindi or Russian than Arabic.

However, I never once failed to remember that I was living in a Muslim country. Islam is definitely the official religion. While you can find Hindu temples and churches scattered throughout the country, you’ll be reminded in little ways that it’s still predominantly Islamic, like seeing a woman at the pool wearing a niqab (everything covered but her eyes) and the sound of the call for prayer at 6 a.m.

I didn’t mind.

Being known as the girl from St. Louisiana (because no one really knew of the Midwest) was OKAY. No one knew any different, and I wasn’t troubled by my new friends’ mistakes. However, I did offer them a place to stay if they ever wanted to visit–oh, crap– St. Louisiana. I should probably tell them now…

11 Replies to “The Girl From St. Louisiana: Secrets of Expat Life in UAE”

  1. Loved your story Addie. I’m looking forward to the next one !

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  2. I LOVE your writing, Addie!! Happy you are following your passions and sharing them with us!! Keep on writing …YOU will make St. Louis famous!! ❤

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    1. Hah! Your comment on my blog is SO appreciated, Sandra. I wish I could include smells, sounds, and tastes for you in my blog—but I’m glad words suffice

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  3. Very interesting to get a glimpse of your experiences in UAE! I admire your courage to follow your dreams and applaud your decision to take care of you! You truly embraced the opportunity! Stay fearless!

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    1. Gwynn… You are AWESOME, and your support means so much to me. I’m not only happy that you took the time to read my post but I’m tickled that you commented on it so positively. I wrote it totally freaking out about what my readers would think about my experience and recapturing of the details. You definitely reassured me 🙂

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