Monday, 25 February 2013

Teaching your child about cultural differences and respect.

I was over the moon this morning when my older girl used a Russian word. It is a biblioteka day, she said picking up her library book. 'Wow!' I said. 'How do you know that word?'

I was prepared to believe, naively, that she actually took a lot more in than she ever admitted to. Maybe, just maybe, she knew a lot of Russian words somewhere deep inside her head and they would suddenly start pouring out now?

'No, mummy', she quickly disillusioned me. 'It is in Spanish!'

'Guess what!? It is the same word in Russian!' I cried out enthusiastically, still hoping to make her want to speak my mother tongue.

'And in Polish, too!' She shouted out, running out of the door.

I sat in the car later on, thinking about her school, which I never fail to complain about. I was, however, having positive thoughts for a change. It is, however you look at it, pretty cool that, at the age of seven, my child has such an experience of the international community around her. Her school, with hundreds of different expats, creates this amazing environment where she just happens to know random foods, cultural habits and words of various world nationalities.

They also teach them about cultural differences, tolerance and respect for each other. And yes, sometimes she gets confused. She is only 7 after all, you know?

And that is when she needs her parents. To explain things that the teachers are either afraid to explain or present in the wrong light because it makes their lives easier.

'You know',- my daughter was telling me the other morning, munching on her favourite (very healthy of course!) breakfast option- a Nutella sandwich-'how we are all told it is a nut-free school, and nobody is allowed to bring Nutella sandwiches to school?...'

Here she paused, waiting for me to proove I was listening.

'Yes, I do know that.' I confirmed, tearing myself from Facebook.

'Well, a few Muslim kids keep bringing Nutella to school, and the teachers never tell them off! Ever! That is so unfair!

'Hold on a minute!' I said, laughing. 'What does Nutella have to do with them being Muslim?'

'Well, she said, looking slightly puzzled- 'Ms N. says we should not ask questions like this because it is their culture and we must be respectful to each other's culture and religion.'

'Hey, hey, hey!- I even got up from the chair. 'You go to school, and next time you see a child- whatever religion or country he belongs to!- eating Nutella at lunchtime, you go straight to Ms N. and you tell her that Nutella has nothing to do with religion or culture. Nutella is not like pork. ( My child at the age of 7 is also well aware of the sensitivities surrounding eating pork around the world. How cool is that??) Nutella is about allergies and the school rules about those. And the rules, you tell Ms N should be the same for everyone, no matter what culture, religion or country they come from'.

That is what I call being respectful. Respecting the rules. By everybody. Unless they are, of course, from a khm...khm...some  important family. In which case I can sort of see why the teachers might keep quiet. Because, as we say, all people are equal. But some people are more equal than the others.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

About being a white (ish) woman in Doha.

I am slowly, after a year, getting used to the way things work in Qatar. I.e. in a complete opposite to the way they would work in the UK.  It is kind of similar to Azerbaijan, only without bribery and corruption. So I am realizing that rules in Qatar are not as fundamentally unshakable as they seem to be in the UK.  And you can often get what you want, even if you have been told the rules state otherwise, if you ask nicely.

You see, I wanted to bring my mother over for a visit again. Husband politely pointed out that she only just left. Which, of course is kind of true. But, considering how short the period of nice weather is in Doha, and my in-laws visiting for a month in April, I had little choice but to try and bring my mother before then, while the heat was not going to kill her.

However, what I had no idea about was that there was a 3-months rule. A Russian friend pointed it out to me at a coffee one morning. It states that it has to be three months from one’s last exit from the country until the following visit. My mother left almost three months ago. Almost, but not quite.

'Oh,' I said. 'I guess they will all have to visit together'. (My mind drew a picture of the house filled with old people speaking in two languages at the same time.)

'No, no!' The Russian friend added, 'Not a problem. You just need to go there yourself and ask to make an exception.'

 They like *chelobitie here. She added.  

* Chelobitie is a good old-fashioned Russian word. In fact, it is so old-fashioned that I struggled to remember the meaning behind it. What it actually means is bowing down (till the forehead reaches the earth)
Basically, begging and asking with a lot of personal respect showed to the official in charge.

Well, I thought. If that’s what it takes to get mama to visit, I can do that.
‘Oh…and take the baby!’ the friend said.

And so I went. Accompanied by a rep from Husband’s work, I walked in a huge hall with hundreds of mainly men, mainly Indian, mainly manual labour. My heart sunk. I was going to wait there forever. I would never make it for school pick up. The HR rep pointed to the other side of the organized queue in the corner where a very serious looking official sat dealing with requests.

‘Go stand there’, he told me, ‘and say you request to speak to an officer about your mother’s visa’. I felt uneasy for a second- a British citizen in me could not jump the queue with such open arrogance. But I remembered that I was a woman. More importantly, I was a white (ish) western woman with a blond baby in a pushchair. Nobody questioned my walking up to the front. The official looked up immediately. I contemplated bowing to the floor but for now just made a sad and polite face. ‘I am sorry’, I said, ‘I really need my mother to come soon. ‘
‘Go to officer Youssef at desk 11! ‘He said to me. ‘Tell him I sent you!’

Encouraged, I marched right through the endless crowd of more waiting men and approached the security at the counters. ‘I am told to see officer Youssef’, I announced bravely.

There were other people leaning over the counter, Qatari’s and not, and again all male. I stood there, holding my place. An intimidated security guard tried to bring some discipline into the chaos at the counters. ‘Please’, he told me gently, ‘please go sit down ma’am. Go wait?’

Ha, I thought. Like that’s gonna happen, sunshine. Short of pushing me, which, due to the above-mentioned reasons, he would not dare to do, the guard had to pretend he did not notice that I stayed put. He focused on the Indian men around me. Go sit down! He ordered in a much scarier voice.

It helps to be a woman in Qatar.

Officer Youssef enjoyed the chat. But in the middle of it, he suddenly requested my birth certificate. I pointed out that this older Azeri woman has visited us twice already. It is obvious she is my mother, isn’t it?

He gestured to another counter. ‘Go see officer Youssef’ he said. ‘Go ask him yourself.’

-Youssef? Is he also called Youssef?
-Yes, the officer smiled. -Also. Go.

And so I went. And I waited again, surrounded by more men. Officer Youssef No 2 did not even bother looking up at my sad and serious face. He quickly wrote something down and sent me back to my Youssef No1.

‘Did he ask for certificate?’ –Youssef asked. ‘No? You are lucky! Very lucky!’

Am I? I still did not know what to expect next. And so I left, not knowing whether my chelobitie worked; or I was just sent away with nothing. That is another interesting fact of living in Doha- it is never really obvious what is happening or what is going to happen. Was it a yes? Was it a no? Was it a maybe, inshallah?

I was told to check online in four days.  And today, we received the happy news. I was lucky. My personal appearance and chelobitie worked. My mother can come and see us now. This week! Inshallah! 

Friday, 15 February 2013

They are happy. And scared.

No comment. Simply no need for any.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? No, your expat friends.

There was this puzzle that was going around quite a few years ago. You get asked a question: If you were drowning in the sea, and could only save one person, would it be your:

a) elderly mother
b) husband
c) child?

I don't remember what my answer was those days, but most probably I just waved a silly question off with 'oh, dunno. none of them!' However, life does often present you with situations when you have to make a difficult choice.

A woman on our compound is known to be somewhat of a hypochondriac. Not only is she always ill, she is also pretty convinced everyone else around her are either very seriously ill or about to get diagnosed with a serious life threatening illness. So, please forgive me for my initial lack of interest when I heard a few days ago that her husband was rushed in an ambulance to a hospital with bad stomach pains. I assumed he would be back at the end of the day diagnosed with constipation. However, the man clearly was not well. He was kept in the hospital and transferred to the ICU (for a few hours). And (this time understandably) terrified, his wife rushed to the hospital with him.

Now, most of the ladies in the compound are very nice, helpful kind of people. One of them (with a few children of her own) suggested (very kindly) that the children of the poorly dad did not need to be dragged around the hospital; but could be minded by her. What she clearly did not realize was that the wife would remain in the hospital for days and nights.

Walking back from a Pilates session late at night, I expressed my concern, which was that, as a mother of a very young toddler and an 8 year old girl, this woman has some responsibilities. I understand that her husband is in pain, I understand she is terribly worried and afraid. But she has small children who need her at home, at least for some time of the day. At which point another neighbour got quite excited and shouted that there would be no way, simply no way!!! she would leave her poorly husband alone in a hospital. 'Especially in this country', added another neighbour. They asked me if I've ever had anyone sick in a hospital before. Well, as a matter of fact yes, I have had. More than once, I wanted to point out, but there was no easy answer, because, frankly... I could see their point of view. I really could. However, my decision was still the same- children come first, and my husband, unless on the death bed, could be okay for a few hours in a hospital with medically trained staff (yes, in this country too) while I could return home to look after them. Four of us stood late at night outside our homes, discussing what choice we would make, and the opinions were split in half. Two of us were determined children needed us at home, for reassurance, for looking after, for just sticking together. Two of us were adamant they would never leave the husbands alone in hospitals while clearly, in so much pain.

Being expats complicates the answer. It is not just leaving your children. It is leaving them with someone in the compound. Leaving them with neighbours. Not relatives. Not parents. Not even very close, trusted friends. Can this level of support be expected from strangers who simply happened to get thrown together in this strange accidental multi-cultural expat pot?

And then there are other questions, of course. If not your expat friends and neighbours, then who? Who will you ask for help should something go badly wrong? Would your parents fly over if you were this sick? Would they just jump on that plane? Some of us believed that the answer was yes, definitely. Some suggested that they did not really expect their parents to come.

Being seriously sick is never a good idea, to be honest. But getting seriously sick as an expat takes it to a whole different level. And in the end who do you run to? Yep. A bunch of other expats, accidentally thrown together in a crazy multi-cultural pot.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Every day.

This morning I woke up and the day started. I got my older child up, I made her lunch, I saw her off to school. I got the small one up. I made her porridge. I looked at Facebook, to see what was happening. And everything was okay. Yet, I saw his name on the right hand side. Not online. No longer there.

I then had breakfast. I got showered and took my baby to a music class. We had a brilliant time. I drove the car there, and chatted to a friend. It never crossed my mind again until later when I heard someone sing. The singer's voice reminded me of him. He had a lovely voice. No longer there.

And then almost a whole day passed without thinking about him. Because, you see, it has almost been a year since he passed away. Almost a whole year. And then my baby said "Daddy?" when someone knocked on the door. 'No', I said, 'Not yet. Too early. He is still at work'.

But the actual word was a reminder. Made me think of my daddy. Gone. Not at work, but forever now.  How is that possible?

EVERY TIME I say Daddy, which happens so often when you have children yourself, I think of my father. I try to say it in English, as it sounds different. I don't use the word papa in Russian. Not to remind myself again. Yet, somehow, my brain is quick at translating: They have a daddy. You don't have one anymore.

It has almost been a year.