Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The circle of expat life

The "revolving door" is a common metaphor used to describe the UAE, with its constant influx and outflow of expatriate workers. One might argue it is a large reason why the country has a difficult time building and maintaining a solid infrastructure. No matter the organization or industry, exiting expats so often take with them their institutional memory along with their expertise, especially if there hasn't been an overlap between the old and new hire, which is more of the norm (at least in my experience here).

Thus, energetic new arrivals end up re-doing or un-doing the work that their predecessor managed to accomplish, not out of malice or incompetence, but due to a lack of history and context. I think most residents of the UAE would agree the phenomenon results in a lot of "wheel re-creating" or "wheel spinning" or whichever wheel-based cliche you prefer.

Sam and I are now entering the final stages of the expat life-cycle. Because of our career plans, we never saw ourselves staying more than a few years, but we did come to Abu Dhabi with the intention of learning as much as possible about the region and doing whatever we could to leave a positive imprint. Still, now that I have witnessed the damaging effects that an unstable resident-base can have on progress, I do have to wonder whether we are becoming part of the problem.

Happily, I get the rare opportunity to have three weeks of overlap with my replacement, so I can do my part to avoid the institutional amnesia. The new "me" arrived on Friday with her husband, and so the past several days have been somewhat of an out-of-body experience for me as I watch her go through the same levels of shock and awe that I did nearly two years ago. It's fascinating to relive it, but this time with such a different perspective and minus all the anxiety. I couldn't even blog during my first two weeks (Sam wrote all the early posts) because my brain simply couldn't process my experiences into words on a page, but there was so much to document!

For the new expat, everything that used to seem simple is suddenly an ordeal - opening a checking account, getting connected to the internet, giving directions to a taxi driver (who in most cases also just arrived in the country), or just sifting through the advice that everyone you meet bestows upon you (solicited or not). You are prodded to make important life-altering decisions while feeling disoriented and jet lagged. And all of this is peripheral to learning the actual responsibilities of the job you've been hired to do. It's an enormous load to handle all at once, and it seems you'll never get it all straightened out.

It's rewarding to look back and see how far we've come from that first week or two. We're more cynical now, perhaps, but certainly wiser. And knowing that we were able to figure things out and even come to feel comfortable in our new surroundings makes entering the next phase of our life, with all of its uncertainties, seem much less daunting.


  1. nice to see you in abu dhabi week magazine

  2. I think it's pretty clear that you guys could accomplish most anything! :) We will be in Fl after you have moved there...we'll be on the other side, but we will be in the state. :)