Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween everyone.

It’s been years since I’ve really gotten into Halloween since leaving the US, but its still out there and the world participates. My husband loved Halloween in the US and the first year we were in Turkey insisted to throw a party. Much to my surprise people got into it and dressed up. Maybe because my parents were never that into it as I was growing up, I never became a huge fan. As I got older, year after year I would just recycle the same costume out of conveniencey. (It was this kind of fighter pilot thing I found in high school – kept using it when necessary until about 7 or 8 years ago.) But now that I have a child, I want to make sure he enjoys his childhood to the fullest, so I am trying to get into it more.

Several places here have parties as a result of the Western influence, so for many, Halloween is definitely big in Dubai. When Erin was one year old I took him to a Baby Loves Disco Halloween party. He was a cute little dinosaur-dragon type thing – so cute he won first place for his costume. I almost felt bad. I mean yes, my boy is cute, but for sure I am biased. And come on, every mom thinks their kid is cute! And honestly, they all were cute. Any child in there could have easily won.

There were so many moms there who you could tell put so much effort into their kids costumes and were so into it all. Pathetically, I just opened a bag and put on the heavy fleece of a green pajama looking thing with scales! And honestly, I can’t even recall if that was a hand-me-down from a friend or not. Being the strung out working mom, I found it kind of ironic for lack of a better word. While we were appreciative of our prize, the event wasn’t that organized for what they charged, so I vowed never again on the Baby Disco party.

Year two, a few months before Halloween, my son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. We were in the US for most of the month of October for medical care, so we were not very festive. And while everything in moderation is okay now that I know what I am doing with this condition, a holiday that used to celebrate the dead that now worships sugar, was probably not a good idea at the time. The irony of that year was hiding in the kitchen for my occasional candy corn fix – something I am still guilty of again this year, and probably will be for years to come. I wonder when I will get busted. Or will they just let me go on, and it become the family joke. “There goes mom again….”

This year my son was sick and missed his party at school, so in lieu of that we made Halloween cookies, carved a pumpkin, decorated his door with spider webs and plastic spiders (and not the mention the label from the packaging that he insisted was a key piece of the ensemble). However, he is only three, so it wasn’t a huge disappointment for him. I love that about young children – they are always happy because they are always in the moment. They don’t worry much, if at all, about the past and don’t have a grasp on the concept of the future yet, so life is great.

We did get a few trick-or-treaters this year. Every year, no matter how prepared I am, I always forget what day they are coming. Tonight, like every year, kids knocked on my door and surprised me. And since this was my son’s first experience with the concept, he was equally dumbfounded with the vampire and superman at our door. They must think their costumes are really good at scaring me, because seriously, I am always unprepared and surprised.

My first year in Istanbul, I really didn’t expect it. I even forgot what day it was. I had no candy in the house at all. Some kids came to my door thinking for sure I would have candy. After all, I am American and should be dressed up and ready to go with a huge bowl of candy, right? Wrong. I was completely thrown off and did not know what to do. I closed the door and scavenged around the house for something, but what… I had nothing. I didn’t want to turn them away empty handed, so in a panic I gave them money! Yes, my American friends remember when you were a kid and there was always someone who would give small rolls of pennies? Well, I became that lady?!!! How could that be?! Even though I didn’t grow up in an over the top Halloween household I knew enough to know that the lady who gave out money for Halloween was crazy! I remember kids comparing notes on the street about who was giving what and many wouldn’t even bother to go to her house.

Yes, I hung my head low that year. The next year I made up for it and brought sexy back to the candy bowl. I felt so guilty about the previous year I gave out three times the treats. Don’t know if it increased my cool factor – not that I have one – but I slept well that night.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Reflections on Taxi Drivers

I always notice taxi drivers when I travel.  They often say a lot about a place and its culture, and are some of the most vivid characters of my journeys.
I first noticed this during a trip to San Francisco many years ago. They have some of the funniest taxi drivers I have ever met.
My favorite was a hippie-like man who liked to tell jokes. “How does a blonde stop at a flashing red light?” Being blonde myself, I had no idea. He delivered the punch line by alternating between the brake and accelerator of the car several times. Stop. Go. Stop. Go.
Once in Atlanta I got in a taxi somewhere near the Olympic stadium. The driver was a huge man that said nothing. His size was intimidating, and he had an air about him that only enhanced this. I remember asking a question about the location of a site.  He seemed annoyed that I had asked, and never answered.
Taxi drivers in New York are always interesting because they are often immigrants with an interesting story to tell. The number of modest doctors and scientists from other countries maneuvering through those urban streets is often forgotten.
In Dubai, where I live now, the taxi drivers are usually from India or Pakistan.  Many of them have been in Dubai for several years. Unlike the chatty drivers from San Francisco, these guys are pretty quiet and usually do not speak unless spoken to. In my eight years of living here, I have only had two conversationalists.
The most memorable one was a young Bangladeshi driver who was new to Dubai. In the short time I was in his car, I learned that he is a huge Lady Gaga fan.  One of her songs came on the radio and he cranked it up. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Dubai’s summers are scorching hot otherwise I am sure he would have rolled down the windows for the world to hear him sing.
To this day, my favorite taxi rides have been in Istanbul.  The drivers are always full of conversation and questions.  
I also learned a lot of my basic Turkish from them when I lived there. Even when I could not speak fluent Turkish, they would still try to converse with me as if I did. They would hear my Turkish greeting and immediately try to start a proper conversation.
The first question to a foreigner in a Turkish taxi is “Where are you from?”  Usually, once they learned I was American they were ready to have a friendly political discussion, which would almost always result in them telling me how much they adore Bill Clinton.  Even if I couldn’t understand much outside of the word Clinton, they kept speaking anyway.
I also enjoyed the drivers that were proud of their northern, Black Sea (Karadeniz) heritage.  There was one based at the taxi stand close to where I lived.  He always listened to Radyo Karadenız, the local Black Sea music station.
Black Sea music could be described as the equivalent to Blue Grass music in the States - a little fast, a little fun, and a little country. No matter how dark and grey a morning was, or how tired I was, I would always smile the entire way to work as I listened to this music. 
There were also the professional taxi drivers that took their profession seriously.  I once met a man who was a second-generation taxi driver.  The entire trip’s discussion was about the demise of the profession due to the new hayvanlar, or animals, that drove crazily.
Although I had my share of hayvan drivers from time to time, they were also entertaining.  The drivers that shout loudly to the traffic and other drivers were always entertaining.  And after all, it is Istanbul, and a little craziness on the streets is the norm.
Perhaps my most significant taxi experience was the day that President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq. At that point, everyone knew it was coming, but when it did, I think there was an energy shift in the world. The air felt quite heavy that day.
As usual, the driver asked me where I was from. What do you say when your leader decides to invade Iraq where so many people the world over did not support it?
I was reluctant to respond.  Not out of fear, but I was just not ready for a political exchange that day. My response was “everyone’s least favorite country today”.
He didn’t understand my sarcasm at first, so I said Amerikaliyim, “I am American”.  He then understood.  
His response, “Abla, Turks understand the difference between people and politics.”
Coming from a country where the gap between political parties seems so wide and people are so quickly judged by affiliation to anything, I was really surprised by his response.  I was not sure what I expected, but not that.
We were both silent the rest of the ride home.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Madam You Used to be So Sexy

One thing that always amazes me once you get outside of Western culture is how incredibly blunt or off some comments can feel sometimes. Yes, in the West we are so politically correct that it is counter productive and quite frankly ridiculous in my opinion. But yet, where does one draw the line? Well, the answer is you can’t because what one person finds insulting another doesn’t.

I have come across this on numerous occasions, and often it is about physical appearance and weight. I was reminded of this again recently when a Filipino woman who works for one of my friends came by my house to pick up something for her. We hadn’t seen each other for several months and while she was quite happy to see me, and vice versa, the first thing she said to me was “Madam what happened to you? You gained weight! You used to be so sexy! “.

Now, I can only laugh about this and the extra comment about being sexy or having been is always interesting to me. Maybe thin equates with sexy in Eastern culture, I am not sure.

For some cultures, I wonder if this could be a way of females bonding in a sisterly way. I figure in some cases if people are bold enough to go there and they have known you for some time, they want to be closer to you? Maybe it’s just my wishful thinking. Or, they already feel close enough that they can tell you? Or, they are just honest with what they feel? As my two-year old son would say, “What is that?”

In Istanbul, I was never so sure of the intent. And it was often confusing because if one person told me I looked good or lost weight, within a few hours another would tell me I gained weight. They all cancelled out any theories I had about cultural norms on this subject.

I’m not sure how it is in Arab culture, or Indian culture. However, I have been bluntly told my some male Indian colleagues if I’ve gained or lost weight. There is nothing harassing or anything behind it. It is all very matter of fact as if you were talking about a scratch on your car.

The Filipinos I know or encounter often do not have any issues telling me this. I can’t help but wonder if it is more of an Eastern thing because once on a trip to Viet Nam, a local male was pointing out “fat” girls to me while we were waiting in the car for my husband. I was completely floored because I could not tell the difference between his definitions of fat and thin at all. They looked the same to me - tiny! I know people often find Americans big – and they are – but I remember thinking I must be huge by comparison if this is their example of fat!

At least the good thing is while a Filipino may feel you are gaining weight, they will tell you when you look good, too. So you know the intent is not malicious. In similar fashion once when I was at a salon in our complex one of the girls who used to work there was very excited to learn that I knew the “Sexy pregnant lady” in our complex. Yes, that’s my neighbor and she is tall and gorgeous, built like Heidi Klum. After she delivers those babies she’s got the same elasticity as Heidi too. It was very sweet though because she is beautiful and while a lot of people get caught up in how much weight someone gains while they are pregnant, while easy to see her beauty, they were not afraid to compliment her on it.

I hear comments from time to time regardless of any weight gain or not. For the first few years living abroad, it bugged me. Now I am quite used to it, and probably at this age don’t care too much about it. However, I am still fascinated by it.

My personal philosophy: It’s still what is on the inside that counts. Regardless of where I live if someone has gained or lost weight I don’t care as long as they are healthy and happy.

So, “What happened to me and why am I not sexy”? I guess baggy jeans, t-shirts, no make up and a bad cold do not constitute sexy in the Philippines.