Thursday, February 28, 2013

When your guests behave badly

In January, Brian's parents and godparents came for two weeks to visit the sandbox. It was absolutely fabulous to see all of them and show them around this place we currently call home. And, of course, I have a few stories to share from the trip! :)

The time zone shift is always a bit of challenge as Abu Dhabi is 10 hours ahead of Wisconsin so for the first few days when Brian & I were ready to call it a night, our guest were still going strong. One of the first evenings together, we went out for Lebanese food downtown at the Lebanese Flower and returned to the hotel about 10pm. Brian and I said goodnight and made plans for the next morning, assuming everyone would head to bed for a good night's sleep.


The girls decided that the Ladies Night at the bar next door sounded like a better idea. We had discussed ladies nights earlier so they knew that many of the bars in town invite ladies to drink free on specific nights of the week.

So they walked in ordered a couple of Margaritas and once finished, left the bar. As you'll see below, they had a fun time.
The story gets interesting the next day as we were discussing their adventure. The conversation went something like this:
Renee: So, how was ladies night?
Guests: Great. We had two drinks and had a nice time.
Renee: What drinks did they serve for ladies night?
Guests: What?
Renee: What were the free drinks they offered you?
Guests: What?
Renee: Well, usually the bar offers something specific to the ladies and that's their free drink.
Guests: (silence)

It seems we never discussed the finer points of ladies night so they thought they could have any drink on the menu for free. They ordered their drinks, finished them and then walked out of the bar back to the hotel.

Their thievery was later confirmed when we were at that bar for dinner about a week later and asked the waiter how their ladies night worked. Come to find out, they offer 3 different vodka drinks for free.
Guests: Do you ever offer Margaritas?
Waiter: No ma'am, just the cocktails - strawberry, lemon or pomegranate
Guests: (silence)

So, now we know two things:
1) why alcohol is so expensive in Abu Dhabi
2) why the bartender kept giving them dirty looks

Monday, February 25, 2013

Stories from the salt mines - 2

These posts are true stories from work where I develop young Emiratis to become the future leaders of the organization. Some are funny, some sad, but all have taught me about the cultural differences we face and the joy of understanding another approach to life.

What in a name?
It's taken me a looonnngg time to get used to Arabic names, and while I'm still not even close on most of the pronunciation, I can now usually at least pick up the name without asking the individual to repeat it 5 times. Still, they cause me endless frustration and stress. Here are some examples of the names in our program - I think you'll see what I mean.
  • Fathima Abdulla Al Mulla - not to be confused with Fatima Adil Al Mulla, which shouldn't be confused with Fatma Mohamed Al Mulla. And keep in mind please that all of them will use Fatima Al Mulla when they send an email or introduce themselves.
  • Mohamad, Mohamed, Mohammad, Mohammed and Mohd for short and this should not be confused with Muhannad, Muhaned, Muhanned or Muhannad
  • Shaima is not the same as Shamma or Shaikha
  • Abdulla vs Abdalla and Hamed vs Hamad
With the help of one of my groups, I have finally cracked the code on Arabic names. Here's a short lesson.

Abdalla Rashid Omar Al Marzooqi means Abdalla, son of Rashid, who is the son of Omar, from the family tribe Al Marzooqi.

Mariam Khalaf Mohamed Al Ketbi means Mariam, daughter of Khalaf, who is the son of Mohamed, from the family tribe Al Ketbi.

When women marry they do not take their husband's family/tribe name but some will add it so you could have:

Hessa Marwan Al Hashemi, wife of Anas Mohamed Al Ali (imagine that on a passport!)

Fun huh?

An important aspect of UAE culture is generosity, warmth and respect. It starts at the very top with the ruling families who have made sure that the wealth of the country is shared by all. All UAE nationals receive free health care, schooling, even housing if needed. It is an incredibly generous society. And that is also true of the participants in our development programs. Here's a short list of some of the gifts either I or my counterpart colleague have received over the past year.
  • Perfume - eau de parfum in fact and quite an expensive brand. This was a birthday present.
  • Flowers and boxes of chocolates. My counterpart received a HUGE gorgeous bouquet of pink roses to thank her and her team for getting the logistics of his travel overseas coordinated.
  • Carmel Popcorn from Garretts in Dubai mall. Simply because we were talking about our favorite places to eat in Dubai and we both agreed that Garretts has the best popcorn in the world. A few days later, a bucket of popcorn was left on my desk, just because.
  • A little incense holder from Thailand from an employee who had recently returned from a trip.
  • A jar of gourmet brownies from Kuwait because, "I saw these while on vacation and thought you might like them. They're not as good as yours, but they're still really good." I had made this group brownies for one of our meetings a few months prior.
It's actually a bit awkward because it's not at all culturally appropriate for me to reciprocate, especially if the gift is from a male. Instead, I try to do little things like bake cookies or brownies for the whole group when I have the opportunity.

More stories to come ...

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stories from the salt mines - 1

We've been living in Abu Dhabi now for just over two years. In some ways it seems like we arrived yesterday, but then when I start to realize what I've learned and come to understand about Emirati culture, I feel like I have been here a while. Of course, there is still a lot to learn as I am reminded almost daily.

My day job is developing young Emirati talent. In fact, my current job title is Manager - UAE Talent Development. I have 150 Emiratis between the ages of about 21-28 reporting in to me. They are all part of a development program designed to build their leadership skills and provide them with some experience in the company. They are a continuous source of frustration, cultural understanding, opportunities to learn about myself, and absolute joy. In the span of 8 hours, I can literally go from wanting to strangle one of them (culturally inappropriate) to wanting to hug one of them (also culturally inappropriate). It's a wild ride!

Here are a few fun stories and I promise to tell them truthfully. Yes, I'll add a little flavor to provide some entertainment, but I promise these are all true.

First, you need to understand that 21-28 years of age here is about the equivalent of maybe 17-22 back home. Most of these young adults still live with their parents and take a lot of direction from them (this is cultural). Their schools (even most universities) are segregated by gender so for many of them, the job interview is the first time they've interacted with a mixed gender group. While they watch lots of American TV, they are fairly protected from violence and crime since UAE is so safe, which makes them quite idealistic and sometimes a bit naive. Finally, many of them are the first generation to go out and work outside the family business and in an international business environment. Okay, that should be enough background to help you understand a few of my stories.

Coming on time ... no coming to work at all is my biggest headache by far. There is a HUGE cultural difference between me (American) and them (Arab).  A few weeks ago I was talking with a young lady who didn't report to work the previous Thursday. When I asked why she said something like, "I took my son to register for kindergarten and when it finished I just didn't feel like coming back to work. I'm not going to lie to you, I think the work is boring so I was going to come back, but just didn't." Well, ya gotta love the girl's honesty.

Some of my other favorite "why weren't you at work excuses" include:
  • "I thought it was a holiday" - no lie, someone tried to convince me that the messages about which days were paid holiday and which weren't were unclear. Now yes, there is that whole holidays based on the moon sighting thing over here, but trust me, we're VERY clear about which days are the paid holidays.
  • "My mother needed me to help her" - because family is so core to the culture and society, if mom tells you you have to stay home and help your little brothers do this or that, you have to stay home. While this excuse bugs the xxxx out of me, I also try to imagine how difficult it must be for some of these kids who are the first in their families to venture out on their own to get a job. The conflict between work and home commitments has got to be stressful.
  • "I had to appear at traffic court" - okay yes, probably a very legitimate excuse given how some drive here, but really? you had no advance notice of traffic court? you couldn't tell us about this in advance?
  • "My car was broken" - first off, most of them drive brand new cars of some luxury make, so the chances of car trouble are already slim. Second, THERE ARE TAXIS EVERYWHERE and they are cheap, so the excuse that my car was broken isn't very convincing.
When the light bulb goes on
Working with young people new to the business world is a hoot, especially when you can almost literally see the light bulbs go on. Recently, I was working with one of the guys and helping him with his final program project, which they eventually present to the CEO. He had a good idea for his project, but just wasn't getting the financial impact of his ideas. We sat together for an hour or so over the course of a few days and I coached him, suggested ideas, asked questions and finally, slowly, he started to understand what I was getting at. I think sometimes if they come from a fairly wealthy family, they just don't understand why you can't just buy what you want and not worry about whether there is any return on the investment. One Thursday, I had left him with some questions and thoughts and asked him to re-work his financials slide for the following week. He came back with a much better approach and seemed to finally understand the idea of cost vs. benefit. But my proudest moment was when he thanked me for being patient with him and said that no one had ever taken the time to really explain the idea before and more importantly, he liked that I made him do it, rather than do it for him. The experience reminded me why I do what I do.

So that's it for now, but don't worry, I've got lots of stories - just tell me when you get bored and we'll take another vacation so I can break things up a bit! :)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Phuket Adventures: Diving off Phi Phi Islands

Yes, I'm finally back to the blog and while I could make up some interesting stories of what's kept me away, the sad truth is that work has been really busy and has sucked my will to write. So, let's just get on with it and see if I can get my mojo back!

I was appalled to realize I STILL haven't finished my posts on Phuket, a trip we took in early December. We did some diving in Phuket - not as much as we would have liked (see the tailor story) but had a really nice day diving the Phi Phi islands.

Like most dive trips, we were up before dawn to catch the shuttle bus to the boat dock. Unfortunately, the dive sites were at the opposite end of the island so it was an hour drive to get to the dive shop. We dove with Sea Bees and they were fantastic! Super safe, organized and clean and one of, no the nicest dive boat we have ever been on. We found out later that the boat was custom made for diving so it had lots of room for your gear, a fresh water shower and toilet, a true dry area to store cameras and sunglasses, etc. and then a nice little bar area where they served lunch and snacks between dives. The best part was out the front, which had padded cushions to sit on and was covered so you could have some shade.  Here are a few pics:

 Two of the dive dudes from Sea Bees. Really good dive masters with some good knowledge of the area and Thai culture.
 A view of our first dive site from the boat. Unfortunately, neither Brian nor I are very interested in underwater photography so you'll just get photos from the boat.
One of the beautiful islands that make up the Phi Phi island chain. The day was perfect as you can see here. Sunny, warm and calm seas - just how we like it!
 Another shot of another of the islands. This was taken earlier in the morning so it looks a bit overcast.
Simply gorgeous. In fact, we liked Phuket so much and felt like we didn't really experience all it had to offer so we're heading back for a week in April.