I have long been a source of consternation for the women working at my local nail spa. "No children, ma'am?" they declare with unveiled shock. "But you are not young." No, I agree wistfully, I am not.
Taxi drivers are similarly perturbed. When they ask about my offspring, I try to break it to them gently, in case the shock of my childlessness causes them to swerve off the road. “Madam, no children? No good,” they declare, before pulling out their phones and showing me albums-worth of pictures of their own kids.
In the beauty sections of department stores, salespeople point to the lines under my eyes, and kindly suggest that I need a better eye cream. Their colleagues helpfully highlight the blemishes on my face and recommend a new foundation. The nurse at the doctor’s office checks my vitals and marvels out loud at how much weight I have gained since my last visit.
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On the odd occasion that I get a facial, I brace myself for the catalogue of ills that my therapist unearths with the help of her backlit magnifying glass – and then I fob off the countless overpriced solutions that are offered as remedy. At the hairdresser’s, I nod guiltily as the stylist tuts about my split ends and recommends a hydrating mask that will fix me right up.
I have become accustomed to such bluntness. Some of it is misguided salesmanship; a lot of it stems from genuine concern; but none of it, as far as I can tell, contains any real malice. For the most part, it is entirely cultural. In some countries, it would be the height of rudeness to judge someone’s childlessness so brazenly, or to comment on someone’s imperfections with such specificity. In others, it is a simple matter of stating facts. In some parts of the world, it is customary to apply carefully constructed filters to everything you say; in others, straightforwardness is par for the course. And navigating these differences is all part of the UAE experience.
These differences pop-up on a daily basis. On the roads, it can sometimes feel like we are all adhering to completely different codes of conduct; on the telephone, miscommunication runs rife and cross-wires are commonplace. Yes can mean yes; or it can mean maybe; or it can mean: “I have no idea what you are going on about, but am hoping that if I nod energetically enough you’ll go away.”
Today might mean today, or it might mean tomorrow, or next week, inshallah. There is this constant interplay as we try to understand the people around us (who hail from all corners of the globe and have completely different points of reference) – and they do the same. This is all part and parcel of living in a country that is a bonafide melting pot. You quickly learn that good manners and social norms are almost entirely specific to your own context. Cultural sensitivities, or in certain instances insensitivities, are entirely relative.
Luckily, I came prepared. My mother is originally from India, and it is not uncommon for my aunties from that side of the family to greet me by telling me how much weight I have either lost or gained since they last saw me. “Oh, dear,” they’ll say with a shake of their heads. “That’s a shame.” The English side of my family would never presume to pass comment. At worst, I might get a kindly worded: “You look well.”
As a result, I know that the only way to navigate the UAE’s multicultural landscape is to try to take everything in your stride. It is all too easy to feel slighted, or become frustrated, or to talk more loudly in the hope that this will help you to be understood, but it seldom does. It all goes back to that idea of intent – unless someone is purposefully trying to be unhelpful, rude or spiteful, there is very little point in getting worked up about it. Because, for all the ways that we are all different, there are countless ways in which we are all exactly the same. And, in truth, that sales lady was just doing me a favour – I could definitely do with some industrial- strength eye cream.
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