UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Beach Bodies

Photo credit to the author

I live in a country where it’s bathing-suit season all year. As a woman “of a certain age,” as they say in France, that fact does not exactly fill me with joy.  My bathing suits tend to be utilitarian affairs, more designed for walking along the shore than glamorous sunbathing. Because I live in the United Arab Emirates, however, my friends in the States assume that there is some sort of dress code that mandates what I can wear. Ironically, I wish they were right, but they’re not. It would be great to blame a dress code for my demure swimsuit, rather than admit that it’s my love of bread (and occasional glass of wine) that led me to the one-piece life.

Sometimes I think it’s a betrayal of my feminist principles to be self-conscious about my middle-aged tummy (apparently when I turned fifty my metabolism pretty much decided to leave the building), but I can’t help it: my belly and a bikini aren’t going to be keeping company any time soon. Thinking about my own body makes me wonder how mothers of daughters negotiate the potential land-mines around issues of body image. I have two adolescent boys, and while I know they wrestle with questions about their physical appearance, it all seems less fraught for boys than for girls (ah, patriarchy: the gift that keeps on giving).

Photo credit to the author

I see teenage girls on the Abu Dhabi beaches in the tiniest of bikinis and wonder what I would say to my daughter, if I had one: I’d want to encourage her to wear whatever the hell she wants, on the one hand; and on the other, I’d worry about having her be so exposed, both literally and figuratively. I once joked to a friend of mine whose daughter is sixteen that perhaps all girls should wear “burkinis” and not just those who want to maintain hijab while at the beach.

At the beaches in Abu Dhabi, there are burkinis and bikinis and women wading in the water with their black abayas billowing out in the waves. Men in salwar khameez splash each other, while Russian men in tiny speedos do laps across the beach front.

Pink-skinned Brits crisp themselves in the sun (mad dogs and Englishmen, after all), and children of all sorts laugh and play in the waves. My teen-age sons see the beach as a place to play soccer, paddle-board, and hang out with their friends (preferably as far away from me as possible). I see the beach as a cosmopolitan space that allows for, and respects, individual differences—this person covered up, this person barely dressed—even as we’re all there enjoying ourselves.

When I told my kids about my beach-as-cosmopolitan metaphor, they scoffed. “It’s just a beach,” they said. But I wonder. In a world that is slipping faster and faster towards intolerance, nativism, and fundamentalism, I’m happy to grab at any indication that people from different worlds can exist happily in the same place.

What the beach also provides, much to the shared chagrin of my sons, is an opportunity to talk about (ssshh!) girls. Or rather, desire. And bodies, and respect. We talk (well, okay, I do most of the talking) about what it means to find someone attractive, and about how they feel about themselves in this public and uncovered space; I try not to laugh when the thirteen-year old mocks the sixteen-year old’s subtle bicep flexing when a cute girl walks by. I remind them that it’s okay to feel insecure about how they look (there was much scoffing at this point, and then some quiet questions). We also talk about the importance of looking past what someone is (or is not) wearing—and after one of those conversations, my younger son said, exasperated, “we’ve lived here for six years. Robes or no robes, covered or uncovered, I don’t really care. Can we get ice-cream?”

Ice creams were indeed purchased, although I didn’t have one. Maybe with enough “no” on ice cream, a bikini won’t be out of the question by August.

How do you talk with your tweens and teens about their bodies, and all the related issues? And how can we make sure that our own issues with our bodies don’t inflect how our children think about theirs?

This is an original post written by Mannahattamamma for World Moms Network.

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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UAE: Parenting Tips from Harry Potter

Harry Potter

My husband is a New Yorker whose theatergoing parents always planned their theater outings well in advance. He’s adopted this same long-range planning attitude, and that’s how we ended up with tickets to “the Harry Potter play” this past September. In a fit of jet-lag , he’d bought tickets the previous November during an airport layover en route to Abu Dhabi.

Using our airline miles, we flew to London in September, during the Eid holidays, to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. We took our children, of course, which meant that it wasn’t a vacation but a family trip. Although you might want to think that these are synonyms, they’re really not. If you’re on vacation, you’re never forced to whisper-yell at someone to put down his phone and pay attention when he’s going through security, or explain (for the umpteenth time) that we didn’t fly all the way to London just to hang out in the Jack Wills store.

Those of you with small children or infants might think that traveling with older children looks easy. Their gear tends to be smaller and there’s that whole “go to the bathroom on their own” thing, which is pretty great. But with a small child, there is always the chance that she will fall asleep in her stroller, a cracker crushed in her pudgy fist, and then you can proceed to stroll in the park, or walk through a gallery without much whinging. Older children whinge; they have opinions and needs.

Other people’s children whinge, that is. My family travels in an entirely whinge-free zone. No whinging here, nope, nothing to see here, move along.

Wrapped in our whinge-free bubble, we went off to the play, about which I can say nothing. I’m pretty much sworn to secrecy about the play’s magic, other than to say that all the effects were accomplished through stagecraft. There weren’t any digital effects or computer-aided sorcery, which in this day and age is rather a marvel, all by itself. The plot was… well, you may have already read the book (which is the script of the play), so you know the plot. It’s the standard Rowling combination of magic and family, with the emphasis on family.

There is one key plot point that sets the play apart: Harry Potter is forty. He works for the Ministry of Magic and has discovered, as so many of us do, that life as an adult isn’t as much fun as we thought it would be. Harry longs to continue dashing around in an invisibility cloak, but there are reports to write and files to go through—all the joys of adult work. He’s chafing a bit, is our Harry. Ron even jokes that Harry’s scar aches not because of any Voldemort-related reason but because of middle age. Everything aches a bit these days, he points out.

When the play starts, Harry and his family are standing on platform 9 ¾, and Harry’s elder sons, James and Albus, are bickering so violently that Harry whisper-yells at them to “behave!” Can I tell you how heartening it is to see that even Harry Potter’s children misbehave in public?

At its heart, the Harry Potter series is about a child wondering about his parents. The play flips the tables: now it’s a parent wondering about his children. Harry’s son Albus feels the weight of being the son of “the boy who lived” and, as is the case with most teenagers, Albus doesn’t always handle his feelings gracefully. Of course, as is the case with most parents, Harry doesn’t always handle his feelings gracefully, either.

In an effort to keep Albus safe, Harry imposes more and more rules, which have precisely the opposite effect. As I watched Harry struggle with Albus, I winced in recognition. Lately it seems that in my efforts to connect with my almost sixteen-year old son, I inevitably say the wrong thing at the wrong time and before you know it, one of us is yelling. (And of course, the fault is always mine. My son makes that abundantly clear.)

Harry’s questions remind me of my own: how do I keep my teenager safe and, at the same time, let him grow and develop in his own way, even if that means letting him take risks and (occasionally) be really quite an idiot?  When my children were toddlers, I wished someone would invent a kind of bubble wrap suit that I could wrap around them to prevent bruising, and now that my children are older, I wish there were emotional bubble wrap that would prevent the inevitable heartache that comes with growing up. If only Jack Wills made such a thing.

As Harry and Albus slowly find their way back to one another after the emotional battles that wound them both, they learn to accept one another’s imperfections. The lesson of the Harry Potter play highlights the fact that we don’t need to be perfect to be loved—and therein lies the real magic.

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE. Photo credit to the author.

 

 

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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UAE: Does multilingual mean global?

Global citizens (2)

When we moved to Abu Dhabi from Manhattan five years ago, we intended to stay in “the Dhabs” for a year. Our kids had scored the Manhattan Grail: spots in a “gifted and talented” public school, which meant we wouldn’t have to sell everything we owned to pay for private school, and if we stayed away from the city for more than a year, we would lose the seats.

“But you have two spots at the school,” people said to me when I told them we were leaving. To ease their doubts, I kept talking about the benefits of an international education and experiencing different cultures–but to tell the truth, I think I was trying to convince myself. After all, if you’re a student in a Manhattan public school, you’re going to be connect with kids from around the world; it’s unavoidable.  Did we really need to move halfway around the world to get a “global experience?” I wondered.

Three-quarters through our first year, we decided to take the leap and sign on for another year (or four) of expat life.  A year just didn’t feel like enough time: we would have been packing up to move back just as we were starting to settle in. I felt as if all the energy (and exhaustion and not a few tears) that went into adjusting would have been wasted if we returned to New York after just a year.

The boys are studying Arabic in school, and in our travels through the region, they’ve picked a few phrases here and there — mostly “hello” and “thank you” and “chocolate” — in Sinhalese, Punjabi, Italian, Swahili, Korean.  The trips we’ve been able to take from Abu Dhabi would have been impossible from Manhattan, especially on the salaries of two literature professors, and so in that regard, our expat life has delivered the sort of global awareness we were hoping for.

Or at least that’s what I think on my optimistic days. On other days, I wonder: does the simple fact of being able to say “hello” in eight different languages really make you globally aware?  I suppose my wavering back and forth is just the expat version of questions most parents ask themselves–“is this school the right school,” “are we doing the best we can for our kids”–and we all have good days and bad days in terms of those answers. How do we raise global citizens? That question, in the light of “Brexit” and the demagoguery of Trump, seems increasingly important, even as the answers get more complicated.

I had to confront those questions just the other day in an emotional conversation with my younger son (now almost twelve).  We were sitting on his bed in a hotel room in Bangkok, where we’d come for the Global Round of the World Scholar’s Cup, an academic competition that draws kids from, yes, around the world (but mostly Asia). I’d asked C. if he were nervous about the upcoming three days of competition in writing, debate, and current events quizzing, and his eyes welled up. He admitted that he wanted to do as well as his brother had, two years ago, in the same competition, but also, he said, “I don’t want you to feel like it was a waste for you to bring me here.”

Argh! A blow straight to the heart! How had he gotten the idea that my husband and I would resent the money we spent on airline tickets if he didn’t do well?  Suddenly I was the one almost in tears.

I assured him that we didn’t think it was a waste at all and that we were ridiculously proud of him already, just for doing the work to get this far. “Being able to do things like this are why we moved to Abu Dhabi,” I said. “We couldn’t afford flying to Bangkok if we still lived in New York.” My son nodded, vaguely reassured (although still nervous and still in the grips of sibling rivalry).

Truth be told, he probably doesn’t believe me when I say that we’re proud of him already. In the mind of an almost twelve-year old boy, “winning” is pretty much the only thing that matters.  Given that there are about 2,000 kids competing in his division, I’d say winning anything is a long shot. (Though if there were a category called “Minecraft knowledge,” he’d probably outscore the entire world.)

What I realized after our conversation, is that yes, this experience is part of why we moved to Abu Dhabi, even though at the time we’d never heard of the World Scholar’s Cup. Even with the international flavor of New York, this sort of intense week-long bonding experience with kids from around the world would not have been possible. This experience, of negotiating differences and finding connections across cultures, will go a long way (I hope) in establishing the foundations of a global citizenry.

C. will remember this week in Bangkok long after he’s forgotten how to say “hello” in Sinhalese. For this week, at least, I’m pretty sure that becoming an expat family was the right thing for us to do.

What about you? How do you raise your global citizens?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE. Photo credit to the author.

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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UAE: Football, Feminism, and Raising Boys

UAE: Football, Feminism, and Raising Boys

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The other day I went to my teenage son’s soccer tournament, and because his game was delayed, I watched a girls’ match finish on the other field. Actually, thanks to the British history in Abu Dhabi, I should say that I went to the “football fixture,” watched the girls play “on the other pitch,” and then at the end of the day took my son to the sports store so he could buy a new pair of “boots” (not cleats). Who knew when we moved here five years ago that one of the ways we would adapt is learning to speak a different version of our native tongue?

As I watched the girls’ match, two girls maneuvered the ball across the pitch, their teammates shrieking encouragement. One girl—a headscarf covering her hair, and leggings under her athletic shorts—passed the ball to her teammate, whose long ponytail was streaked light blue. They brought the ball down the pitch—passed left, passed right—and then Ponytail shot for the goal. The ball bounced off a goal post, looked like it was going to go wide, and then sank into the back of the net past the goalie’s outstretched hands.

“Nice shot,” murmured my son. “Really good pass, too.” Neither of us knew the girls who were playing, but his comment made me happy nevertheless. As the mother of sons, I collect “girl power” moments like this one to remind my sons that they do not have the market cornered on sports excellence. Now that he’d seen for himself, I wouldn’t have to risk being Tiresome Mom by pointing out that those were girls playing pretty kick-ass football.

It’s easy to see in this little episode a lesson about hijab not being the symbol of oppression that so many non-Muslims are quick to assume it is. This girl left her opponents in the dust as she raced down the field, and she pounded her thighs in elation when the ball went into the net. Her war whoop as she ran to the sidelines to celebrate with her teammates would be recognized anywhere as the screech of a happy athlete.

But that’s not really the point. The point has to do with the fact that my fifteen-year-old son didn’t notice the headscarf or the leggings—or the blue ponytail, for that matter—he noticed the football. He noticed what the girls were doing, not what they looked like. As my son moves closer to manhood, a process that seems to be unfolding faster and faster despite my attempts to keep him “my boy” as long as I can, I wonder if my feminist politics have rubbed off: will he become a man who sees what women can do rather than how they look or what they’re wearing?

Isn’t that the question we ask ourselves as our children—those firm little packages of flesh that seemed at one point soldered to our hips—move out into the world: we want to know if our lessons have sunk in, if they’ve been listening even as they seem glued to the Snapchat world in their phones. Does my darling son talk about girls as “hotties” when he’s with his buddies; does he chime in when the conversation turns to which girl has the best body and why?

I don’t know. All I can know is that the other day, what he saw was two people playing great football.

Who knows. Maybe if enough children grow up appreciating what people can do, rather than what they look like or what they do (or don’t) wear on their heads, the world might become a more level playing field pitch.

How do you create awareness about gender equality for your children?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE. Photo credit to the author.

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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UAE: Forget Esperanto, Does Anyone Speak Teenager?

UAE: Forget Esperanto, Does Anyone Speak Teenager?

wmbphotoFrequently I am embarrassed by the fact that I only speak one language. Many of my friends in Abu Dhabi speak at least two, and most of my students speak three or even four. A few years ago I tried to learn Arabic and was stymied by a simple fact: my brain is old. It’s that whole “old dog new tricks” thing, which is to say, my brain wanted nothing to do with new lexical and grammatical systems.

Lately, however, I’ve been confronted with another new language and it’s proving equally difficult to master. In fact, maybe I will never master it.

It’s the language spoken by fifteen-year old boys in the twenty-first century in a first-world city. It’s both a spoken and a written language, comprised of monosyllables, grunts, emojis, and weird snapchat abbreviations. It’s a language that his friends speak fluently and one that he never deigns to translate to us, his parents.

Let me be clear: my son is the proverbial “good kid,” who still (occasionally) sits on my lap (usually when he wants a favor), does his homework without being asked, and is (sometimes) nice to his younger brother. But beyond that?

We get commentary about his basic human needs—food, sleep, wi-fi—and then he retreats into his digitally created iCocoon.

When I look at my son these days, the air seems full of ghosts; it’s like I’m seeing time, compressed and wispy, floating between the two of us. I see his baby self, staggering around the house with mushy graham crackers clenched in each fist, and I see other snippets of his childhood, too, hovering just beyond his (increasingly broad) shoulders. And at the same time, there’s the ghost of my own teenage self, snarling at my mother (sorry mom!) as I stand by the phone, willing The Cute Boy to call me.

The phone is a key difference in this linguistic and generational incomprehension. Those of you of a certain age will remember the days when houses had those things we now call “land lines,” which were anchored in a specific place and were frequently shared by the entire household. That meant that your TOTALLY ANNOYING younger siblings could pick up another extension and a) eavesdrop on your conversation; b) tell your mom what you were talking about; c) tease you mercilessly while you tried to be cool with The Cute Boy on the other end of the line.

Now, however, my son and his teenage friends carry a scrim of adolescence with them at all times, an endless stream of chitterchatter, gossip, sports scores, vaguely obscene quizzes, and god knows what else. Did you know it’s possible to have a scintillating conversation conducted entirely in poop and unicorn emojis, with the occasional emoti-face thrown in for good measure? It’s as if teenagers have all been transported into an ancient Egyptian civilzation and are fluent in hieroglyphs—yet another language I do not speak.

As I think about it, I am not sure, really, whether it’s that my son and I are speaking different languages or that his other language is omnipresent in a way that my teenspeak was not, because technology didn’t let it happen.

At some point I had to hang up the phone and turn off the TV, and engage with my family. Mind you, I wasn’t necessarily pleased about those engagements, but the world of “non-family” was regularly shut off.

Now, with smart phones, the external world is always ready to hand; there is always a way to tune out the family world.

I can hear you all, shaking your heads and muttering that we should set some boundaries and be firm about your expectations and teach your kid some manners and I bet that some of you, with small children, are thinking “my children won’t ever…”

Here’s the thing: I’ve thought all those things too. But then one night my son became fifteen and the battle lines got redrawn. How many times can we argue about how much phone use is too much; how many times can we discuss “reasonable use?” My son insists that I am the only parent who nags about such things, but my totally unscientific research suggests otherwise. I’ve talked with friends from Europe, Africa, the States, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and the screen-time battle seems to be an almost universal parenting problem.

If I think about it, the translation problems run in two directions. If my son could speak “parent,” then he would understand that in my repeated (and to him unreasonable) requests that he turn off his phone and talk to me, I am really saying “don’t grow up so fast, please don’t be in such a hurry to leave us behind.” He would understand that watching him grow up is lovely — and ineffably sad.

Maybe he’d understand if I put it in snapchat-ese for him. Can anyone translate into emoji for me?

How are things different now from when you were a teen? Do you find that the teens of today speak a different language?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE. Photo credit to the author.

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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UAE: Is there a Santa Claus? Thoughts on Trump and Guns

UAE: Is there a Santa Claus? Thoughts on Trump and Guns

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi 600

“Will we be safe there?” My 11 year old son asked me that question as we were discussing our winter holiday travel plans, and I suppose, given that we live in the UAE, his question might make sense. In the last few years, we’ve traveled to Jordan, India, Kenya – all places that have been in the news lately as sites of violence.

Where are we going for the winter holidays, you might wonder, that would elicit such a question?

The United States.

I’ll let you think about that for a minute.

Okay, true, his question was a bit of a joke – the question of travel safety has become a running gag in our household, in part because that question is always the first thing my mother (in Illinois) always asks us.

But this time, when he asked the question, none of us laughed. He’d asked us just after the last mass shooting, the one in San Bernandino. And think about that for a minute: I have to specify for you which shooting I’m talking about. Was it the one in Colorado Springs outside Planned Parenthood, or the one in Oregon, or the one…

In other countries, when you say “mass shooting,” there simply aren’t that many to choose from because in the aftermath of the tragedy, governments have changed the laws to make such events less possible. But not in the good ol’ US of A.

When I tell people in the States where I live, there are two questions I am always asked: do I have to “cover” and “do I feel safe?” The answers are “no,” and “yes.” People who didn’t worry about me strolling home after midnight in New York’s East Village in the late 1980s now seem dreadfully concerned about my safety here, in this part of the world, as I drive off to the mall.

Part of why we chose to live abroad with our children had to do with wanting to give them a cosmopolitan perspective on the world: we wanted them to experience other cultures and learn to be open to, rather than threatened by, difference. I know that in the US it is possible to live in cosmopolitan cities—we used to live in Manhattan, where children from many nations crowded into my kids’ classrooms—but it is a different experience to live in a place where “your” culture is not the dominant.

A little while back, for instance, my older son had some friends over so that we could all go to a water park in the afternoon. When I told them it was time to get ready to go, my son said “well, we have to wait a little bit because T. is in the other room doing his prayers.” T. comes from a devout Muslim family and his mother would have been pleased to know that T. didn’t miss a prayer time just because the water park called. And for my son and his other friends, T. doing his prayers was as matter-of-fact as if he’d been changing into his swimsuit, or drinking a glass of water. Ordinary.

Like many of us, at home and abroad, I wrestle with how to explain to my children why the United States can’t simply change its gun laws and why so many people in the country seem afraid of anyone who worships at a mosque rather than a church or a temple. The explanation in both instances seems to boil down to fear: fear of change, fear of difference, fear of that-which-is-not-me.

It’s not much of an explanation, but it’s the only framework I have to explain why Donald Trump, for instance, can still be considered a candidate for the Presidency.

I know that the demagogues like Trump do not speak for all the people in the United States, and that many, many people are outraged by gun violence, but alas, the picture of the country that travels outward to the rest of the world is one of violent, gun-toting Islamophobia – and it’s scary. For me the fear rests not in the thought that Trump will ever be President because I refuse to believe that his bilious self is actually electable. I hang on to that fact as ardently as I once hung on to my belief in Santa Claus. No, my fear rests in the fact that, according to a recent poll, Trump leads the group of Republican Party presidential hopefuls, with 35.8% of the vote.

THIRTY-FIVE POINT EIGHT?

Maybe there really isn’t a Santa Claus.

How do you explain what’s happening in the United States to your children?

This is an original post by World Mom, Deborah Quinn in the United Arab Emirates. 

Photo Credit to the author. 

 

 

 

 

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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