The expat’s return: Top and bottom 10

After returning to New York from almost a year in Abu Dhabi, it’s hard not to assess differences. Some things are an equal trade: spectacular blue skies and clouds in New York for equally spectacular pink skies and the enormous desert sun in the UAE. But cultural differences are trickier to parse. The other day, in a comment on another post, T-Mo ventured: “It must be a little strange to see things on the streets of NYC that could get people jail time in AD.” And it’s true, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the tail end (heh heh) of which we caught the other day, could only happen in one of these places. But “freedom” has its costs: I’m not sure if it’s that flipping the bird is a prosecutable offense in AD, or maybe the more temperate climes there, but I find myself a lot less angry in the Gulf, and public culture much more civil overall. Along those lines, here’s my idiosyncratic take on the best and worst of the differences between the two.

Top 10 things about being back in New York

1. Walking as the principal mode of transport
2. An abundance of art
3. Live music venues
4. Theaters playing films you actually want to watch
5. Independent bookstores
6. Greens
7. A broader range of restaurants with liquor licenses
8. Cool morning runs on bridges
9. Shopping without malls
10. Skin

Bottom 10 things about returning to New York

1. Homelessness
2. Late night drunken revelers/sidewalk vomit
3. Inferior beaches, & more travel required to get to them
4. Blaring horns/incivility/anger/competing for public space
5. Political self-righteousness
6. White, American majority
7. Missing the call to prayer
8. The high cost of everything, no matter the size or quality
9. No mint lemonade
10. PDA/too much skin

It’s hard to tell how much these have to do with being/not being in the US, or how much they have to do with the relative size of the cities. It’s exhilarating to be back, but exhausting, too. I’ll fill my fuel tanks, I think, and be ready to head back by summer’s end.

7 responses to “The expat’s return: Top and bottom 10”

  1. Smrcs says:

    My truest wish for the west coast is greater civility/me not feeling angry all the time. It’s exhausting and unhealthy.

  2. Bryan says:

    There is a way in which AD has made me finally realize I could thrive in CA. If you saw last night’s Mad Men season finale, of course, this whole discussion is kind of funny.

  3. T-Mo says:

    Oh, let us not think that the west coast is such a civil place. Why just today I have already been witness to several instances of public assholery. It might be dialed down a bit from NYC, perhaps because public space is at a slightly lower premium here, but there are still a bunch of pushy bastards.

    I love that skin is on both lists.

  4. Bryan says:

    The skin thing is kind of funny. Spend a year in a fairly conservative public culture — modest clothing, no PDA — and it’s rather jarring when you come back to people half naked and bumping and grinding in public parks. AD, clothing-wise, has a sense of wear-it-where-it’s-appropriate: swimwear on beaches, shorts and tanks for exercise, etc., but daily life is fairly modest: long shorts, no tanks. (Dubai is much more permissive, but neither city allows much PDA. The sign on the beaches for “no unruly behavior” shows a straight couple holding hands.) So although I generally appreciate me some public skin in NYC, it’s still kind of jarring when it’s excessive, or accompanied by people who really should get a room somewhere.

  5. Farrell Fawcett says:

    So interesting Bryan. Thanks. I totally get the call to prayer thing. It only takes a few days for it to become a deep part of your day/body’s essential rhythm. I missed it too when I left. But you don’t miss any other foods besides mint lemonade?

  6. ssw says:

    It’s pretty magical in the UAE to keep seeing and trying different types of foods than I’d been aware of back in the US. For example, of course we ate humus, tabouli, falafel, etc., but new things are fun too, like mutabel (also made from eggplant), fatoush (fresh delicious salad), and this is just lebanese food I’m talking about. The indian food we’ve been trying is still a really big experiment (soo many different vegetarian dishes-it’s ridiculous!) and namely seems to be based on the regional variations (I think in NYC you get more northern indian food?). I would say I barely feel like a novice this year about exploring the UAE through food. I definitely don’t remember having biryani chicken, or if I did, it didn’t stick as something so commonplace, as it is in the UAE. Everyone knows this or butter chicken, very very popular. What I find more difficult is to figure out what’s really different, versus where I’ve just changed. It can almost seem surreal and/or self-centered and silly. it’s my worldview that is evolving, not necessarily all the people/places around you. I’m curious to poke around see what’s really here in NYC and how much of what I think of as being exotic/different in the UAE is actually just about my perspective changing. The same people from Jordan, or Pakistan, or India have been right along side me this past decade here, maybe cabbing, working in delis, living in Brooklyn, etc. and it’s really my curiosity level that’s changed and opens me up to asking where people are from, what language(s) they speak, where their kids live, etc. and changing yet again, to understand America better. My kids tease me-it’s really hard for me not to talk in Arabic (the ridiculously little I know) to people and somehow try to decrease that space between our experiences.
    Wow. that was a long aside. I miss the fresh cheap bread that is so popular and abundant–it makes the little pita bread I picked up for Charlie’s overprocessed humus just seem really sad. I miss the call to prayer too-that became a regular meditative essence of my days. I miss Charlie being able to swim every day. I don’t really miss driving, but that’s probably because soon enough, I’ll be back in a car every day. I love walking around NYC.

  7. Bryan says:

    I was going to say that I haven’t gone into Lebanese withdrawal yet, but then ssw mentioned mutabel… mmm.

    I miss pomegranate seeds in everything. And dates.

    I don’t miss Kleenex used as napkins. I do miss cheap cabs, and the way, if you’re a dude and you’re riding alone, you just sit up front with the cab driver.