Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Local versus international

"You had an arranged marriage? How could you go to bed with someone you had barely met?"
That was in England, back in India it would be- "People use toilet paper? You mean they don't wash  after they...chhhiii chhhiii..."

Different cultures react to different things in different ways.

In England in late 90s, when I told my co workers  I had just met my husband a few times before we got married, they were aghast and after the first set of exclamations did not show signs of calming down, one of the midwives calmly said- "Well at least she knew she was married to him, not something one can say about the women who go in for one night stands after a few drinks at the pub"

 Now with more and more knowledge of other cultures, more connectivity and most importantly dating apps which do precisely the same thing as the parents of  yester years did i.e. matching people's education, profession, hobbies etc. to come up with hopefuls to check out on, people don't exclaim as incredulously as they would have done nearly two decades ago.

Of all people my nineteen year old daughter's take on arranged marriage was quite jaded- "Most people arrange their marriages at some point" Well, do they? Yes there comes a time when the desire to settle down takes over other desires, I guess and you settle....for more or less. But it is still an intriguing aspect of my life for most "Westerners".

Apparently that is an official term used in some forms here in the UAE- Are you a Westerner, followed up by- Are you really a Westerner? I guess that would be for people like me who have difficulty deciding which side of the hemisphere they can call themselves from.

Coming to toilet paper, I must admit that finding a water bidet spray in every toilet here in UAE is heaven. I think that gives my Indianness away! No matter how long I survived in UK, how much I loved the countryside, the weather, the people and the local radio....there was always a mug in the toilet as is the case with most NRIs.

It has its downside. I had a bucket of water in the toilet for my in laws when they arrived in wet and windy Durham. My mother in law decided as a matter of habit to wash her feet on the floor of the toilet which was carpet less but had no outlet for water. The crumbling hospital accommodation leaked through the boards really fast and we had a job mopping it all up and explaining to my in laws that every time they wanted to wash their feet they would have to climb into the bath!

A lot is speculated similarly about the lives women lead in Islamic countries. When I was about to move to UAE I heard a spectrum of reactions. People who thought being in a sunny rich country would be great and others who had multiple reservations about what life would be like.

There were people who felt they would not be able to live here because they would not be able to hold hands in public and others who were concerned about how much they would need to cover up. I now meet Americans who raise their eyebrows at the length of shorts and skirts sported by foreigners in Dubai.

But I see young giggling school girls as well as grown women, young and old in ordinary, lacy, embroidered and now increasingly designed abayas and hijabs. Foot wear however depends on age and occupation. Sports shoes if they are younger or working in a hospital(!), stylish heels, which have decorations on the visible bits if they are older and comfortable matronly sandals if they are no longer looking for a husband.

Talking of husbands, we recently had a series of staff meetings leading up to the Joint Commission International inspection where we were split into teams and we play acted scenarios to familiarise us to the emergency procedures, in case we were questioned about them.

One of the scenarios was a "missing child". One of our female staff from the administration side, who usually gives us the lecture on Emirati cultures and traditions during the orientation week became the mother who could not find her child. AB is unmarried and is  always dressed in an abaya and hijab and she had told us during the orientation that if we saw her in a shopping mall, her face would be covered, even though she would greet us and talk to us.

AB got the prize for best actress! She screamed and shouted and lamented about how the child was right here a minute ago and where could he have gone and what is going to happen now etc etc. We were all enjoying her shrieking and running helter skelter but what got her the prize and the most laughs was when she whipped out her phone and said- "Where is the stupid husband?"

That had us all in splits and reconfirmed to all of us how wearing an abaya doesn't change a thing, the equation with the other half, for instance. I wonder when humans started wearing clothes. Just like we wouldn't be seen without our clothes on, similarly different cultures have different limits on how much exposure they find comfortable. I remember walking into the ward in UK for the first time and wondering why the women needed to be so exposed until I realised they were very comfortable in their skin and it was just not something they were thinking about, even though I was....but not for longer than the first few minutes.

More recently, I had an eighty eight year old patient from Oman, whose main concern when going in for surgery was the fact that she would be exposed. All the family rallied around her, son and daughter in law staying to look after her, grand daughter coming in everyday at prescribed times for dressing changes and nephew shuttling up and down talking to insurance etc. He even joked with his grand aunt that they would find a new man for her after the operation. The cohesiveness of families, the children running around, the food and the fragrance...these are the essentials of the local culture one is witness to all the time.

Teenage pregnancies happen everywhere but here they are in the context of marriage. This 88 year old mamma was probably a teenage mum too. I am not sure which teenage mums end up feeling more empowered.