Author Archives: Teagan in the UAE

Then and Now: What I’ve Learned

The first thought I had leaving Dubai airport, as I struggled to drag my old worn out suitcase and keep up with my driver as he escorted me into the parking garage was, “Wow, it’s really humid.”

My second thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

As a rambunctious and adventurous woman its hard for me to admit, but that first night was rough. Exhausted and alone I walked into a bare dorm room and just laid on the bed, the protective plastic crinkling underneath me. The silence was suffocating. I unzipped my bag and slowly filled in the empty spaces: carefully placing my picture frames, hanging my clothes, and laying out my bedding preparing for a relatively sleepless night.

Nearly four months later— and in the midst of my final weeks in the semester – I often reflect on that first night and why I chose the UAE.  When people think of study abroad they think of grand adventures and luxurious excursions, but as I sift through the memories of the last few months my favorite ones are the small and mundane moments. Going for karak down the road, coffee dates, bonfires in the desert, late night rehearsals, and conversations in simple and broken Arabic.  The biggest lessons and the happiest moments were where I least expected them, and when I stopped trying to seek them out and trying to plan for them. I had to learn to go with the flow, something that does not come naturally to me in the slightest. Time is more relative for Arabs culturally and letting go of my American view on time and punctuality was a great hurdle.

Academically this semester was similar to my previous one back home, except a few credit hours lighter. Another thing no one tells you about study abroad is that you still have homework to do, essays to write, and tests to study for. However, it is much more about what you are learning that what grade you get. I audited a course for the first time, Arabic linguistics. I begged the professor to let me take it, confident I was up to the challenge. If I recall correctly her email back started with “let’s be realistic” and ended with instructions for who I needed permission from if I wanted to audit it. As a student who tends to obsess over percentages and my GPA, it was both uncomfortable and relieving to sit in a classroom knowing that I could make infinitesimal mistakes and it wouldn’t matter. A feeling I hope I can carry with me when I return home.

I came to the UAE to get better at my Arabic. If I have to say I have one regret it is that I did not take enough risks and talk to enough people in Arabic because I was too embarrassed. That being said I learned so much more about the culture and world perspective of Arabs, each one different then the other. To look past superficial differences, at first I didn’t think we were that different and in truth we weren’t thanks to the internet and globalization. Honestly it was almost more fun to listen to what questions they had for me, a common one being what I thought about american gun control policy. But a lot of these people faced things I never had to deal with, including arranged marriages and parental pressure to get married. In the end I learned to listen to everything and never assume.

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Meet Dimah

Meet Dimah (aka Juliet), a 20 twenty-year-old senior business student at the American University of Sharjah. Half Emirati and half Palestinian, she is the second youngest of five girls and grew up attending her father’s schools in Abu Dhabi. She went through the British school system until she was in high school, at which point she shifted to the American school system (“honestly, it was the easier of the two”).  Eager to follow in her sisters’ footsteps, she applied and was accepted to AUS as a business major, in preparation for taking over her father’s schools someday.  Like many of us, she struggled when first entering university and crawled her way back up to a 3.8 GPA after nearly flunking her first semester.

Q: So you’re a theatre minor as well, what inspired you to do that?

A: I’ve been into theatre since I was a kid and being involved in the arts is a way for me to escape away from the corporate business world. I usually am a stage manager or tech person, until this semester, whereas you know I am playing Juliet.

Q: As someone who has traveled to other parts of the world, what sets the UAE apart from the places you’ve visited?

A: The more I travel the more respect I have for the UAE, there are just things I’m not comfortable with abroad. Like for example, when I went to Russia it was so hard to change in the fitting rooms because it’s not gender segregated. Especially since I’m a hijabi now I just am not comfortable with risking a man seeing so much skin. I also appreciate how educated the country is and how so many people can speak English and it is easier for others to travel here. I also find the UAE much friendlier to tourists, people are excited to see tourists and we want to share our culture. But when we were in Paris no cabs would stop for my Mom — who wears a hijab — but everyone would stop for my sisters who didn’t wear it. All that being said, I do miss all the natural plants and beauty of Europe because all we have back here is desert and fake plants.

Q: What differences do you see between the Emirati half of your family and the Palestinian half?

A: Arab culture is generally very family oriented, and that is true to both sides of my family. The Palestinian side is more patriotic and merit focused, while my Emirati part is focused on poise and presentation, making sure I am proud of who I am. But other than that there isn’t that strong of a difference between the two.



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Playing Lady Capulet

If I could only give one piece of advice to those studying abroad it would be: do what scares you.  Cliché as that sounds, when you are studying abroad it is tempting to curl up into your shell and stick to a basic routine. Whether you are dealing with culture shock or not, doing new things all the time can be exhausting. You have to remind yourself to continue pushing your boundaries and completely eliminate any comfort zone you’ve been sticking too. What that means for each person is different. For me, it meant waltzing through the doors to the theater department to audition for the fall play.

I have awful stage fright, I have since I was a young girl. Three years of speech and debate taught me how to become a public speaker, but I have never been able to transfer that same confidence to acting. Auditioning was a spur of the moment decision that left me stranded in a sea of nervousness standing in front of a slender British woman who was the image of dignity and poise. Before I knew what was happening I was reading a selection of “Romeo and Juliet” with one of the other people auditioning. I struggled to radiate confidence while simultaneously steadying my trembling hands,  somehow conveying the deep angst felt by Juliet in the balcony scene.

I left feeling proud of myself but that was only the beginning of my semester long experience. When I came back two days later to look at the final list of those that had made it, I reread the list at least three times. I had made it as Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet.


I didn’t know what to expect walking into the first practice. Thankfully, from the first read through, I felt immediately accepted into the fantastic group of actors and actresses. Some have more experience than others, but we all have bonded over being in the play together. Having to practice together for several hours every week we got to know one another and I finally could making friends outside of the exchange students. Dimah, an Emirati student who plays Juliet (Lady Capulet’s daughter) in the play, is now one of my closest friends here. She is my bridge to the local culture, a guide to the region and an Arabic conversation partner.

Because I took a risk and did something I would never do at university back home, I made friends in a way I never would have been able to through classes. Breaking the ice with local students is incredibly difficult, both sides are normally to nervous. Join a club, a sports team, or a drama group! Take a chance. The rewards are worth it.






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Departure and Initial Adjustments

I am fortunate enough that I have traveled outside the United States twice before coming to study at the American University of Sharjah. Both were summer long trips, the first a humanitarian project in Malawi and the second a cultural exchange program in South Korea. Two things that held true for all of my trips is: I never could be fully prepared or know completely what to expect, but adjusting gets easier every time. I will admit, I looked at every google search result possible for “Woman traveling abroad in the UAE”. But life in the country and day to day interactions can never be fully encapsulated by whatever Google spits out. Once you accept that you can relax and move forward with a more open mind, not focusing on how events are lining up with your expectations and getting frustrated when they aren’t matching up.My biggest concern before I left was the financial aspect of studying abroad. I did several budget plans, tweaking every figure until I knew I could make it work. In the end, it all did work out, and here I am in the United Arab Emirates writing this post.

It didn’t fully sink in that I was studying abroad until I could see the twinkling lights of Dubai emerge from the airplane window. Disembarking after a long day of flights and airports, I followed the mass of passengers as we weaved through the long hallways leading to the luggage. Top tip: always check to see if the luggage carts are free. Most large airports in the states charge a few dollars for them, so I assumed the same applied in this airport. I was dreadfully mistaken. My taxi driver waiting on me had a right to chuckle when he saw me struggling to carry all of my bags. He remedied the situation and grabbed the nearest cart and pushed my bags for me the rest of the way.

As soon as I stepped outside the heat and humidity hit me, I felt like I was walking through hot jello. At 10pm at night the temperature was still well over 85 degrees and incredibly humid. This weather hasn’t improved, and six weeks in I am only marginally more adjusted to the constant 100+ degree temperature. I sat in the back seat of the taxi, looking out the window at the city racing next to me trying to read the Arabic written on all the signs.TeaganUAEfirst2

I wont deny that the next few days were rough. I got to the University a day earlier than most of the other exchange students, and our orientation didn’t start for several more days. Settling in to my dorm room was the easy part, but when I sat in my room it fully dawned upon me that I was alone. In both my other international travels I was part of a group from the very start. This time it was up to me to find my place. I won’t forget my first morning here. I wandered around campus at 6 am, watching the sun rise and exploring the campus grounds while listening to the birds. I went through the full spectrum of emotions, feeling alone, angry, and regretting everything.  When it comes to culture shock, like I mentioned it earlier, the more I travel the easier adjusting is. Once I found the international exchange office and talked to one of the staff there, all my uneasiness and regret faded away. As the whole group of exchange students went through orientation and taken on excursions around Dubai and Sharjah, I found my rhythm and renewed my excitement.

I am six weeks in to my program, and by now I am over the large hill of culture shock. I have adapted to the new culture as best I can and look forward to spending more time here. The best technique I found for this is building relationships with local students. I auditioned for the play and me and another exchange student both got it. She is a friend to fall back on, but we both are now a part of a larger circle of friends rehearsing twice a week. Being involved gives a sense of belonging, as well as meeting people who can give you more insight into the culture.

Not surprisingly, the UAE is different from the USA. I am in Sharjah, the most conservative of the Emirates. I am expected to follow a dress code when in public (cover shoulders and knees) and have to watch how I interact with friends of the opposite gender. I have to make sure I don’t take pictures that have other locals in them, especially if they are women. I should be aware of what I say and post online regarding political issues or religious topics. Freedom of speech does not exist here in the way Americans are accustomed to. The first thing I really noticed is that I am not free to act and say whatever I want, and bound by a lot of spoken and unspoken rules. That being said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I am here as a visitor, and will conduct myself in a manner that respects the culture. To be honest this is a very tolerant country, with a level of diversity that reminds me of the States.

While I am here my goal is to visit all seven of the emirates. Considering that the UAE is slightly smaller than my home state of Indiana, I could drive through the entire country in one day. The public bus system out of Dubai is fantastic, making the realization of my goal possible. I hope to see all seven emirates and what differences exist between them. I hope to experience all that the UAE has to offer, from the extravagant malls of Dubai to the mountains in Ras Al-Khaimah.

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