A few months ago, when I was sitting at the beach house recovering from my operation. I received a call from G. The eldest little traveller had been invited to the birthday party of a Qatari girl and he needed to call the host to RSVP.
"Is it inappropriate for me to call her mother directly? Or should you do it?"
It was a genuine question that came from a place of cultural sensitivity. G enjoys working with many Qatari women, and has learnt over the past few years that there are cultural rules and a certain respect that has to be paid. As travellers we all discover through trial and error that we need to tread a little more carefully when it comes to learning what's culturally appropriate.
As I began to answer him, I noticed a woman walking past our front window on her way to the beach. She was wearing a bikini, a pair of sandals and a big floppy hat. She had a towel draped over her shoulder and a book in her hand. I'd only been back in Australia for a week at that stage and felt an enormous urge to run outside and yell "Put some clothes on before you get arrested!" I hadn't quite acclimatized.
G and I were living in two completely different worlds.
Read any travel blog or magazine, and Culture Shock is often discussed with a detrimental tone. The fear of the unknown, the struggle of living in a foreign world. What is often forgotten though, is the natural endorphins produced from a new landscape hitting the senses. The sunset here is breathtaking, the haze of the heat and the colour of the Gulf are all unique to this part of the world. Visually it's a whole new story. If you've never seen a man in a Thobe you may find yourself fascinated by the intricacies of how a scarf is tied (Saudi versus Omani versus Qatari, they're all different). Your eyes will trace the curves of the written language, while your ears listen to the sound of the call to prayer. If you haven't seen any of this before, your senses will be alight.
For an expat, Culture Shock is often short lived. When you're not just a traveller passing through, you can find yourself getting adjusted to the day to day very quickly, often through necessity. And with the departure of Culture Shock comes the arrival of a new phenomena - Cultural Awakening. The day when you realize that you've stopped noticing the differences, that you're no longer fascinated with the exterior, that bit was easy, it's the interior stuff, the stuff behind closed doors that's taking longer to understand. The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know.
The trick is to keep asking questions, to not give up, keep learning.
It's easy to live in an expat bubble, to listen to theories rather than search for answers. I've listened to rumours, the he said/she said ideology, added 2 + 2 and arrived at 5. And then realized that there's actually no-one sitting at the table that really knows the answers.
Qatar, there's so much more I have to learn about you.