By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
I’ve lived in the Middle East for seven years. Along with appreciation for flexible starting times, humus with meat, and the women’s garment, the abaya, I have developed a list of axioms for success as an expat.
Many of these apply directly to the setting of the Arabian Gulf and specifically to daily events in Qatar.
One: In a high concept culture, the absence of a yes can be read as a no.
Two: The longer you sit, the wider your hips.
Three: Expat life is like a pressure cooker, the pressure of the unfamiliar forcing out whatever is inside.
Number three, however, could apply to any country in the world. What happens when your creature comforts- in my case catchall stores like Target, and a wide circle of friends- are taken away? When you find yourself in an entirely new environment and have to invent your own fun?
There are two stages. In the first you may find yourself working and sleeping in copious amounts. I alternated between an eighty hour work week and a docile weekend the entire first year I lived in Qatar. Coincidentally I also gained 15 pounds from my suddenly sedentary lifestyle.
Eventually (read two years later) I was literally sick of sleeping. I forced myself out of bed and took stock of the situation. This is when I entered stage two: the stage of invention. I wondered to myself what was interesting enough to keep me awake. None of the ladies coffee mornings or social groups had what I wanted, some expat grousing and home sickness mixed in with cultural stimulation.
I did the only thing I could: I created groups of my own. I put a small, free ad in the local events leaflet, advertising a writing group.
Writing, it turned out, was the first of many activities I would embark on to keep myself entertained. And in the process I not only found friends, but made several career changes. I went from being a university administrator to the editor of a series of books. A few years from that transition I found myself talking to the CEO who published J.K. Rowling and agreeing to work for his new company starting up in Doha. A few years from that (yes, I mentioned I’ve been in Qatar quite a while) I resigned from that job in order to pursue my writing full time and publish seven Ebooks on Amazon.
None of this could have happened if I didn’t live overseas. Or perhaps to state more accurately, none of this would have happened as quickly if I were shopping in Target every weekend or flying to my college reunion. Not that retail therapy or friendships aren’t important: I enjoy them on our holiday trips home.
But I found the treasure of expat life is the very fact of being taken outside your comfort zone. Once the irritation, anger, and realization hat in fact, no, your life is not “just like it was at home” because there is a McDonald’s down the street, wears off, you may find you have the greatest gift a person can be given. You have the time to mindfully choose how you want to spend your days, weeks, months – all those hours that stack up to years.
The first few months of a new year are the perfect time to ask yourself how you want to showcase the new you. What skills, passions, or projects have you been talking about for years that now lurk in a back closet, shaming you into silence with their persistent procrastination?
I’ve been writing since I was in my twenties. It took me a twelve years and another continent to recycle that passion from a hobby into a full time occupation. I now teach writing to undergraduates and stay up late at night scribbling away at my own work.
What is it you love to do and yet never have time for? That’s why they call it the gift of the present.
Mohana is still in Doha. You can read all about it on her blog: www.mohanalakshmi.com or follow her on Twitter @moha_doha.
Mohana is also a co-trainer for the “Living and Working in Qatar” cross-cultural course available online 24/7.