How Much Tuition is Ten Toes?

This post first ran in the World Mom’s Blog, where you will find a writers from all over the world chronicling their experiences.


There’s a conversation that happens in expat-land that sounds a bit like what prisoners in a jail yard might say to one another: “what brought you here?how long have you been here? when are you leaving?”

Sometimes people answer these questions with slumped shoulders and a shake of the head, which usually means that a) they’ve been here in Abu Dhabi for far too long and aren’t leaving any time soon; or b) they just got here and still haven’t figured out the basics, like getting the vegetables weighed in the produce section before they get in the checkout line.

The most cheerful answer I’ve gotten thus far to these questions has been from a woman named Janice, who is here from the Philippines.  Her good cheer surprised me because at the time of our conversation, she was energetically applying a pumice to my heels.

Now, as feet go, mine aren’t hideous but they are feet and I’ve been using them for more than forty years, so they’re not exactly pink and baby-soft, either.

Janice was mid-way through my lovely pedicure when we started our “how long have you been here” conversation, so her answers were punctuated with “rinse please madam,” and “file or clip, madam?” (One of things I’m not yet used to, after almost nine months here, is being called “madam” by anyone in any kind of service job.)

Janice has been in Abu Dhabi for six years, working in this same salon, sending money home the entire time.  I say something inane, like “that’s a lot of feet.”  She smiles and says “is okay, madam, I am sending my brothers to college, madam, and the tuition….”  She rolls her eyes as if to suggest that it’s a lot, switches her attention to my other foot, pushes at the nails.

“But I am lucky, madam, because my brother, he is a scholar and get a discount, so that instead of 30,000 pesos, tuition it is only 15,000, and my other brother, he take a test and get a discount now of 25%, so is only 15,000 also. I send home 300 dirhams a month, ma’am, is not bad.”

My pedicure will cost me about 65 dirhams (a little less than $20).

The Manhattan cynic in my soul wonders if Janice is telling me this story to beef up her tip. I immediately swat the cynic with my mental handbag. No one could lie this cheerfully while rubbing someone else’s feet.

“No, ma’am I finish only the tenth grade,” she says, scraping at a nasty tough bit near my toe. “My parents, they say they are lucky because I do not think of myself only, I do not get married like my cousins do, at 16.”  She laughs a little. Do I imagine she sounds happy to have escaped marriage at 16, children at 17?

“But boys, is important. To work construction, like my older brother, is too hard work, dangerous. He does not complain, but we know.”  She inspects my toes for flaws, clips an errant hangnail. “My brothers, they will be men with families to take care of, and is better if they not work construction. One brother, he is training for the customs inspector, for the airlines. Is a good job. The other brother, he just starts, so, we do not know what he will be. Every month, is something else!” She giggles, rubs delicately scented lotion into my feet.

Kneading my calf muscles, she sighs. “But madam, I visit last month, first time in one year, and I saw all my nieces and nephews, I have 15 of them, madam. Some are just babies…and there are no babies here, madam.”

With deft fingers, she starts to apply the polish to my toes. I’ve chosen a pale pink, almost invisible. She looks up at me for a minute, then bends her head to my toes. “When I came back here, I was alone in the house, and I was all day crying because I miss them.  I am homesick, madam, I think to myself.”

She sits back and admires her work. My feet look and feel wonderful.  I thank her, and say “I hope your brothers work as hard in college as you’re working for them.”  She looks slightly shocked.

“I am lucky, madam. My brothers, they are good boys. They study hard. I want them to have a better life.” She slides my flip-flops onto my feet and guides me to the drying lamps.

Her brothers had better do more than study hard. They’d better graduate at the top of their class, get great jobs, buy their sister a huge house overlooking the sea, and consider spending all their free time rubbing her feet.

As for me and my pampered toes? We slunk out of the salon, uncomfortably aware of our own privilege and unsure whether, if we were to swap positions with Janice, we would be able to be so cheerful about spending our days bent over other people’s feet.

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32 Responses to How Much Tuition is Ten Toes?

  1. kristin May 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    And now I am, too, uncomfortably aware of my own privilege. Thank you for the reminder.
    kristin recently posted..Slow and Fast. Good and Better.My Profile

  2. Ado May 8, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    Wow what a post.
    I, like you, find myself getting into deep conversations with people such as your pedicurist – where most people wouldn’t tread, I go. I feel compelled to draw out their life stories. Sometimes I regret it though because I hear too much, you know? In the Gulf one night I befriended the nanny of an Omani family – turns out she slept on a single mattress on the floor of the kids’ room and hadn’t seen her own children in over a year. It – well it was just very, very sad.
    Great post.
    Ado recently posted..The Psychopath Test For MomsMy Profile

  3. stephanie May 9, 2012 at 12:42 am #

    Deborah, this is terrific. The prisoners in a jail yard, swatting the cynic with your mental handbag – and then the content itself. I’ve traveled and have witnessed abject poverty, and I’m always getting into conversations with the immigrant workers here in CA. And then I extrapolate that to people around me who complain about something in their life. And in that way, I don’t maintain many friends. Ok, its not that bad. But I do like to remind people, in the nicest way possible that we are privileged. Great post!
    stephanie recently posted..There’s Something Happening Here…My Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 11, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

      I’d love to hear some of your stories – and I will say that I am much, much more cautious these days about complaining. No matter how bad my life is, it just ain’t THAT bad!

  4. Carrie May 9, 2012 at 1:30 am #

    Its amazing how far we’ll go for love and family. I loved this. It is so inspiring.
    Carrie recently posted..Insecurity in MarriageMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 11, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

      It IS inspiring…and humbling, too!

  5. Varda (SquashedMom) May 9, 2012 at 1:58 am #

    Wonderful post. beautifully written and so much to think about. And yes all the awkwardness that privilege entails. Even if we’re the 99% here, we’re the 1% there..
    Varda (SquashedMom) recently posted..I’m in The New York Times!My Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 11, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

      yes, exactly! Living outside of New York has reminded me that I am in the 1% compared to most of the world, actually…it’s rather humbling, to say the least.

  6. Mayor Gia May 9, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    Aw, what an interesting post – good for her for making the best of it. Though I don’t blame you for wondering how you’d react in her place- I would too.
    Mayor Gia recently posted..Food Hangover: UGGGGHHHHHHHMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 11, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

      One would like to think that one would be all grace-under-pressure…but alas, i think I might just be really, really crabby.

  7. anna May 9, 2012 at 4:39 am #

    the non-cynic in me wants to think her brothers are good boys, will work hard, will take care of her. who knows if that is how it will go, but i do hope so.

    thanks for the glimpse into ex-pat life, i do love hearing about it!
    anna recently posted..Instructions for My Husband: The Differences Between Lavender and Rosemary PlantsMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 11, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

      yes, exactly! Those boys had better behave! I’d love to be able to look into the future and see if they honor her sacrifice and dedication…but I’m skeptical, frankly…

  8. Adrienne May 9, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    Wow. This post is something else. I loved the dialogue. It was like I was right there! I’m intrigued by other cultures. She sounds like such a sweet and loving lady. I hope her brothers know that.
    Adrienne recently posted..If I bought a dog…My Profile

  9. jamie May 9, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    Wow. This post sure does make me THINK. And appreciate what I’m doing. And reminds me to always find love in everything I do. Thank you for this wonderful post.
    jamie recently posted..Why People Settle For Less?My Profile

  10. Delilah May 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    What an inspiring and thought provoking post. Nicely done!
    Delilah recently posted..He Said, She Said: True StoriesMy Profile

  11. Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms May 9, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    This was just good writing. The dialogue was alive and the story was riveting. And I am now squirming.

    I was horrified when I visited my friend on Long Island and saw where her nanny from Trinidad slept in the “finished” basement. It was a room of drywall stuck in the middle of the unfinished basement, no window. That woman had not seen her kids in two years. My friend told me the nanny had tried to go home a year ago, but her family told her they would disown her if she did not stay in the U.S. and continue to send them money. How can your spirit bear that?

    Like I said, squirming now.

    Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms recently posted..Fox and Hen Together on Fried Kentucky ShoreMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 11, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

      the so-called “maid’s room” in our apartment (we do not have a maid) is so small that my husband can touch both walls with his outstretched hands. It’s awful. And yet friends we know, who do have a maid, say that the maid is delighted to have her own room (and a bathroom) … but the horror stories about mistreated maids are legion…and yes, it does make me squirm too.

  12. Stephanie May 10, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    Every post of yours, I think the exact same thing: this woman is a writer. I love how you make me think and laugh and question with every single post. I’m a fan.
    Stephanie recently posted..Fanning the FlamesMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 11, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

      blushing now. thank you. we would be doing the mutual fan club thing, then, that’s for sure.

  13. WilyGuy May 10, 2012 at 3:55 am #

    I believe that the girls who do nails probably have many stories to tell.

    WilyGuy recently posted..The Lesson of the Reef TankMy Profile

  14. Tracy @ Scribblesaurus Me May 10, 2012 at 6:52 am #

    What a great story.

    I’m always slightly uncomfortable getting a pedicure. I love it, but I feel guilty that some poor soul (get it? get it?) has to remove 2 pounds of dead skin from the things I walk on.
    Tracy @ Scribblesaurus Me recently posted..Listen up Spouses! Don’t be Late!My Profile

  15. Robbie May 10, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    Experiences like that certainly help us gain perspective don’t they?

    This was beautifully told. I hope her brothers take care of her. very good care of her.
    Robbie recently posted..How Monday Kicked My…..My Profile

  16. Just Jennifer May 10, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    I really love the way our write. I love this perspective, Janice’s story.
    Just Jennifer recently posted..The Calm After the StormMy Profile

  17. Jay- The Dude of the House May 10, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    Very interesting tale. I know several people here in CA that are in a similar position to Janice. I can’t fathom what they go through and it’s all as selfless as could be. Definitely not something you see much around here otherwise.
    Jay- The Dude of the House recently posted..We Are All Wild ThingsMy Profile

  18. Kristin May 10, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. Being open to experiences like these are what make us human.

  19. Jackie May 11, 2012 at 12:55 am #

    Reading your post today, brought those uncomfortable feelings to the pit of my stomach. My husband says it all the time, how lucky it is that our girls ended up here, the year, in the country, in the state, in the town, in the house, and in teh family they did, where the world is their oyster. How different it could have been for them if any of those had changed.
    Jackie recently posted..Tiger Mom in TrainingMy Profile

  20. Michelle Longo May 11, 2012 at 1:59 am #

    Love this. Love the perspective. You write it so well. Really great post.
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  21. This was a wonderful story. Often I think about how lucky I am, how lucky my children are, to have won “the lottery” of being born when they are, where they are, with the lifestyle they have… This story is a good reminder for those days when I forget to be thankful for all of that.
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  22. Mama, Hear Me Roar May 11, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Great post! Meeting someone like that puts a lot of things in perspective.
    Mama, Hear Me Roar recently posted..The hour when Mother napsMy Profile

  23. Dick Horwich May 21, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    Strange. I’ve been using my feet for much longer than you’ve been using yours, and yet mine are pink and soft. It must be your new running shoes.

  24. Bahareh June 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    I can relate to this post on so many levels…
    Having lived in UAE for 4 years, I am so used to that conversation, like the cell mate as you mention…
    Also, payed 65 dhs for pedicures and wondered so many times about the polite and pleasant converstions, I guess all I gather is that the important thing in life is to be present at the moment where ever you are… if you are giving or getting the pedicure. Preent, Aware and grateful. Thank you for the reminder

    • Deborah Quinn June 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

      oh-so-polite! the women who do pedicures in nyc are usually from korea, and they’re nice but they don’t exude “sunshine” the way these women seem to do. I can’t really believe it, that sunshine, and yet no matter how deep the questions go, it’s hard to get past the smile. So yes, I work very hard to be present and to be grateful.

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