Tag Archives | privilege

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.

Continue Reading · on May 8, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, Feminism, Politics, UAE

the ATM, the workers, and me–the white girl

A little while back, on a Friday morning, Caleb and I walked out of the front of our building on our way to his first-ever Abu Dhabi playdate. We were running late, but I needed to stop and get cash from the ATM machine built into the front of our building.

Standing in front of the machine was a group of about ten laborers, all wearing the bright blue jumpsuits of the street-cleaning crews.  They didn’t notice me as they laughed and chatted and took turns inserting their bank cards into the machine.

I figured it would take at least fifteen minutes for them all to finish their transactions, so I turned back around to ask the desk attendant in our lobby if he knew where I would find the next closest ATM.  He came out to the street–his uniform, of white shirt, black trousers, a jazzy tie, and some sort of epaulet type thing on his shoulders, looked much spiffier than the other men’s grimy blue coveralls.  Instead of pointing me towards the next ATM, he said something in a language I didn’t understand (Urdu? Tagalog? Arabic? Hindi?), jerked his chin at the men, and then waved his hand at me.

The laborers melted away from the ATM like ghosts and stood quietly to one side.

What to do?  I didn’t want to cause the desk attendant to lose face, so I didn’t want to not use the ATM. That would make him look bad in front of men he clearly considered to be his inferiors.  And yet the workers were there first, obviously, which means they should’ve been able to finish their business before I got my turn.

They all stared at me, waiting.  I felt Caleb’s head swiveling, looking at the desk attendant, looking at the laborers, looking at me.

I smiled, muttered my best “shukran” (Arabic for “thank you” — although I have no idea if anyone involved in this situation was a native Arabic speaker), got my money, muttered another thank-you, and darted to the curb with Caleb to hail a cab to his friend’s house.

In the back of the cab, Caleb said “mommy, why’d that man make the other guys let us go first?”

How to answer?  “Well,” I said, “those men were workers, and so the man in our building thought–”

Caleb interrupted: “I know. It’s because that machine is on our building. So it’s like it’s ours. So we get to use it first.”

I stopped. “Yep,” I said. “That’s right. It’s our machine.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget here, in this city of expats (only about 19% of the population is native Emirati), that we’re living in a culture very different from our own.  You can trot around reveling in the weather and the deep blue sky and imagine you live outside LA, maybe, or Houston.  And then sometimes, whammo, my whiteness and my outsiderness sinks right down into my bones until I spin around in my head like a dervish. I have privilege because I’m a white expat; I have no privilege because I’m a woman; I am deferred to because I am a woman; I am suspect because I am white.

So yes, you’re right. I did bail on the teachable moment. I have a feeling that, unfortunately, there will be plenty more where that one came from.

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Continue Reading · on December 10, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, Children, expat, UAE, Uncategorized, What’s It Like?

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