A Matter of Culture

I’ve been debating how to write this post.  There are some definite cultural differences between here and Canada.  Though what constitutes a cultural difference and what is perhaps a local or individual oddity is difficult to say.  I’ve had a significant number of what I consider strange experiences interacting with people in just the last few weeks.  Clearly I do not have the data required to paint generalizations but the experiences do shape my perspective.

I’ve heard from many people here, specifically expatriates, that middle eastern people do not like to ask for help and will not admit when they don’t know something.  Frankly, I think that applies to most people.  However, a couple weeks ago the whole family piled into a taxi cab to go to church.  The last time we went to church we had the help of a friend who speaks fluent Arabic.  This week we were off on our own.  That same friend forwarded us a map that clearly outlined the route from the university to the church.  So with map in hand we hired a taxi.  I showed the map to our driver and off we went.  For the most part the route to church is very simple: you get out on the highway and go straight for some kilometres and then pull into a subdivision where things get a bit more complicated.  You need to take several turns in a short distance before you get to the villa the church meets in.  All the villas in this neighbourhood look quite similar.  Soon our driver was driving aimlessly up and down streets.  I kept asking the driver if we were on a particular street while pointing to the map.  “Yes sir, yes thats where we are.”

After some time driving, in clearly the wrong direction, I had to stop believing that the driver had any idea where he was.  What a dilemma.  I didn’t have the address of the church; not that an address would help here.  I’ve filled out many forms that ask for your “address.” They generally just ask you to describe the location and surrounding landmarks.  I was by this time thoroughly turned around so if I got out of the cab there was no way of knowing which way to go on foot – surely we were within walking distance.  I likely would have piled everyone out of the cab and worked it out but it was 45 degrees celsius outside.  My brain melts at 30 degrees.  I had one phone number of a member of the church on my cell phone, the Andersons.  We rang them and they answered.  They were also in the midst of driving to church.  I described our location as best I could and within a few short moments they found us and we were able to follow them the rest of the way.  We were close but thoroughly turned around.

A few more experiences like that and we started looking for a car to rent.  I can get lost all by myself now but without a meter running, thank you very much.

There are many options for renting, leasing or buying a vehicle in the UAE I’ve discovered.  Eventually we may buy but for now we will rent from month to month.  While shopping around I came across Dollar Rentals.  Earlier in the week I got a list of companies that give discounts to university employees.  Dollar was listed there with a claim that they offered 45% off on any rental in the UAE to AUS faculty and staff.  45% off seemed a little too good to be true.  I went to their website to checkout the regular prices.  I found that I could get a car for a little over 2000 dirhams a month with full insurance coverage.  One thousand dirhams is only 270 dollars.  With 45% off I was looking at just over 300$.  Skeptical, I called the company.  I began the conversation by asking if what I read was true, does Dollar give a 45% discount to any rental for AUS staff?  They assured me that, yes, that was the deal.

The agent took my details and the type of car I wanted.  I gave her the model I had looked up on the website.  She quoted me the price, 2600$.  I asked if that was with the 45% discount. Yes, of course it was.  Oh but it gets better.  This was without insurance.  Insurance would be an extra 400 dirham.  I thanked her for her time but declined the offer.  Later I had Lisa call to see if she would get the same “deal” but this time I had her share with the agent the price listed on the website.  The 45% doesn’t apply to online pricing.  So I’ve learned that AUS staff pay a 45% markup from those who can use a computer.

We did rent a vehicle but not from Dollar.  We are driving a 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer.  It is a terrible, gutless car but I drove to church today.  I didn’t even get lost.  Oh and I pay 1850 dirham a month.

Negotiation seems a standard part of the culture here.  Everyone wants a good deal including the seller.  Salesmen seem to always start with “This is 1000 dirham… but for you 950 dirham.” For the uninitiated thats where it ends but for the savvy thats just the preliminary.  Lisa told me last night how the her friend talked a salesmen down several thousand dirham on a bracelet she wanted.  What started at several thousand dirham she walked off with for 175.  Her husband jokes had she stayed five more minutes she’d have gotten it for free.

University students at home can be pretty self-centred (who isn’t self-centered at 19) but this next experience shocked me.  Lilli and I went to a piano recital earlier this week by Veronika Ilinskaya.  She is a talented classical pianist.  During the show, however, there was a group of university students just down from us.  At one point one of them began talking on his phone.  Then a few moments later he began listening to his iPod.  His music was just loud enough for me to hear.  I could hardly believe what I was seeing, hearing.  I can only imagine that he was attending this recital for a course or some other compulsory reason.  During an interlude I got up and asked him quietly to turn off the music.  Thankfully he did seem genuinely abashed and after his apology I didn’t hear any more from him.  So on the one hand quite inconsiderate but on the other deferential when called out.  I know quite a few young men that would just have likely punched me in the nose or at least given a disrespectful retort.

I have thought quite a bit about that young man and the absurdity of listening to one’s iPod in the middle of a master musical performance.  I wonder if I could observe myself from a distance if I would not be occasionally appalled at my own thoughtlessness?  How many truly exceptional experiences might I miss because I am focused on mediocrity?

We’ve only been here a few weeks but I’ve had dozens of interactions like these.  It has been an interesting education in inter-personal navigation.  Whether some of these experiences are rooted in the culture here or are just aberrations is difficult to say but it has been fun.  Something that does clearly appear to be cultural is the high standard of personal grooming.  Sorry my North American friends but we are a bunch of slobs.  By and large middle eastern people (at least in this small part of it) are very well groomed.  Maybe some of that will rub off on my children… I may be a lost cause.

2 responses to “A Matter of Culture”

  1. some excellent and insiteful observations…it is facinating to read about various cultural differences real or preceived


    1. It certainly is interesting to try and understand how others perceive the world around them – I suppose that is called empathy.?


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