Everyone who moves abroad expects a certain amount of what is known as ‘culture shock’: the feeling of being disorientated by the fundamental differences that surround you. All the things you have been conditioned to accept as ‘normal’ are, in fact, far from normal in your new home; your brain has to totally rewrite the concept of ‘normal’ according to the rules, rituals, customs and expectations of this unfamiliar, alien place. Most people anticipate the big stuff – the climate, the pace of life, how religion has shaped the culture, perhaps… But it’s the small stuff that is actually the most difficult to adjust to: the fact that a taxi ‘booking’ here is more of a foolishly optimistic plea than anything else; or that the indicators on a car are purely decorative. And I don’t think I’ll EVER get used to someone snorting, hawking and spitting their viscous phlegm – totally unapologetically – just a few inches from my feet. Par exemple.
Human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures, though, and most of the significant differences are rapidly assimilated. So much so that, on returning home, I suffer from a kind of reverse culture shock – a phenomenon I have named WEIRD! Syndrome – Wobbly Englishwoman In Repatriating Disorientation! (This reads a bit like an awful local newspaper headline, doesn’t it – perhaps for a dramatic and heart-rending story about a returning expatriate who accidentally got on the wrong bus). My first instance of feeling WEIRD! on my last trip to England was in the M&S Food shop at Heathrow, Terminal 3. For about three or four minutes I just stood there staring at the alcohol – amazed that there were bottles and bottles of it, just sitting there on the shelves! For people to buy! Dubai is, of course, an Islamic city, so if you want to drink or purchase alcohol you have to obtain an alcohol licence – which is absolutely fair enough… Obtaining the licence is a valuable and enriching cultural experience in itself (and in no way a desperately frustrating quagmire of bureaucratic bilge) involving many forms, letters of no objection from employers, tenancy contracts, passport photographs and visa photocopies. And cash. Our licence is due to expire soon, and one wonders if the occasional G&T and glass of Sauvignon Blanc is really worth the headache (of the paperwork, I mean – not the hangover. Although…). The booze shops are tucked discreetly away, attached to the back of supermarkets or malls and have blinds over the windows, heavy metal doors and bold, red warning signs. One feels that owning a year’s alcohol licence is very much the same thing as leasing your soul to the devil for a twelve month tenancy. But here, back home, and in M&S of all places – the booze was freely and fabulously for sale. I was genuinely surprised. I wanted to buy some JUST BECAUSE I COULD.
My second WEIRD! experience was on the Underground – just minutes from Heathrow – when I found myself staring at a couple who were having a bit of a snog. I felt a brief jolt of panic – What are they DOING? In PUBLIC! Are they MAD?! She was wearing a very short skirt too, which made it all the more appalling for my newly cultivated prudish persona. Revealing clothing and public displays of affection are considered immodest and insulting here in the Middle East. Holding hands is supposedly ‘tolerated’ in Dubai, but anything more intimate is offensive to local culture and can, in extreme circumstances, get you into rather hot water. It took a few seconds for my brain to register the fact that while their behaviour may have been a little indecorous and impolite (especially for the poor so-and-so squashed up right next to them), it certainly wasn’t illegal.
The Tube itself came as something of a shock – the rattling darkness, the dust, the dust-coloured mice darting about between the tracks – it all felt so gothic and archaic. Just for a moment. While I adjusted. While I remembered. Coming from a place in which just about everything is new and shiny, it takes a while to get used to the presence of old things again. (Don’t get me wrong – I like old things very much. I’m rapidly becoming one.)
I’m reminded of the feeling of returning to one’s home after a long holiday. For those first few moments when you open the front door, you see everything with the eyes of a traveller – as if you’ve never seen them before: the colour of the carpet, the arrangement of furniture and, most noticeably, the smell of the place all strike you as unfamiliar. But it only lasts for a few seconds; soon it is Home again and all these things become as wallpaper – familiar and unnoticed.
While WEIRD! Syndrome is indeed rather weird, what’s even weirder is how quickly the novelty disappears. Within a matter of hours it’s as if I’ve never been away from England, and three whole years of my life evaporate as if they had never happened. Dubai melts away in my mind like a strange dream from which I have awoken. ‘Normality’ is restored.