I am fortunate enough that I have traveled outside the United States twice before coming to study at the American University of Sharjah. Both were summer long trips, the first a humanitarian project in Malawi and the second a cultural exchange program in South Korea. Two things that held true for all of my trips is: I never could be fully prepared or know completely what to expect, but adjusting gets easier every time. I will admit, I looked at every google search result possible for “Woman traveling abroad in the UAE”. But life in the country and day to day interactions can never be fully encapsulated by whatever Google spits out. Once you accept that you can relax and move forward with a more open mind, not focusing on how events are lining up with your expectations and getting frustrated when they aren’t matching up.My biggest concern before I left was the financial aspect of studying abroad. I did several budget plans, tweaking every figure until I knew I could make it work. In the end, it all did work out, and here I am in the United Arab Emirates writing this post.
It didn’t fully sink in that I was studying abroad until I could see the twinkling lights of Dubai emerge from the airplane window. Disembarking after a long day of flights and airports, I followed the mass of passengers as we weaved through the long hallways leading to the luggage. Top tip: always check to see if the luggage carts are free. Most large airports in the states charge a few dollars for them, so I assumed the same applied in this airport. I was dreadfully mistaken. My taxi driver waiting on me had a right to chuckle when he saw me struggling to carry all of my bags. He remedied the situation and grabbed the nearest cart and pushed my bags for me the rest of the way.
As soon as I stepped outside the heat and humidity hit me, I felt like I was walking through hot jello. At 10pm at night the temperature was still well over 85 degrees and incredibly humid. This weather hasn’t improved, and six weeks in I am only marginally more adjusted to the constant 100+ degree temperature. I sat in the back seat of the taxi, looking out the window at the city racing next to me trying to read the Arabic written on all the signs.
I wont deny that the next few days were rough. I got to the University a day earlier than most of the other exchange students, and our orientation didn’t start for several more days. Settling in to my dorm room was the easy part, but when I sat in my room it fully dawned upon me that I was alone. In both my other international travels I was part of a group from the very start. This time it was up to me to find my place. I won’t forget my first morning here. I wandered around campus at 6 am, watching the sun rise and exploring the campus grounds while listening to the birds. I went through the full spectrum of emotions, feeling alone, angry, and regretting everything. When it comes to culture shock, like I mentioned it earlier, the more I travel the easier adjusting is. Once I found the international exchange office and talked to one of the staff there, all my uneasiness and regret faded away. As the whole group of exchange students went through orientation and taken on excursions around Dubai and Sharjah, I found my rhythm and renewed my excitement.
I am six weeks in to my program, and by now I am over the large hill of culture shock. I have adapted to the new culture as best I can and look forward to spending more time here. The best technique I found for this is building relationships with local students. I auditioned for the play and me and another exchange student both got it. She is a friend to fall back on, but we both are now a part of a larger circle of friends rehearsing twice a week. Being involved gives a sense of belonging, as well as meeting people who can give you more insight into the culture.
Not surprisingly, the UAE is different from the USA. I am in Sharjah, the most conservative of the Emirates. I am expected to follow a dress code when in public (cover shoulders and knees) and have to watch how I interact with friends of the opposite gender. I have to make sure I don’t take pictures that have other locals in them, especially if they are women. I should be aware of what I say and post online regarding political issues or religious topics. Freedom of speech does not exist here in the way Americans are accustomed to. The first thing I really noticed is that I am not free to act and say whatever I want, and bound by a lot of spoken and unspoken rules. That being said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I am here as a visitor, and will conduct myself in a manner that respects the culture. To be honest this is a very tolerant country, with a level of diversity that reminds me of the States.
While I am here my goal is to visit all seven of the emirates. Considering that the UAE is slightly smaller than my home state of Indiana, I could drive through the entire country in one day. The public bus system out of Dubai is fantastic, making the realization of my goal possible. I hope to see all seven emirates and what differences exist between them. I hope to experience all that the UAE has to offer, from the extravagant malls of Dubai to the mountains in Ras Al-Khaimah.