Rat Race

A change of scenery can really change a man.

I remember growing up in Dubai, amongst the hustle and bustle of the city, in step with the crowds that rushed to and fro. It all felt so normal, so expected. That’s what life in a burgeoning metropolis was like. For my young mind, that’s what life was like, in general.

When I moved to the U.S. after high school, my whole worldview was turned around. There was a lot I was already used to. Years of TV and movies had given me a solid enough cultural background that the country didn’t feel foreign to me. I knew a few other international students who were experiencing some degree of culture shock, but I felt quite at home. The one thing that left me reeling was the pace of life. I was at the main campus of Penn State, in a small college town surrounded by trees and greenery, the tallest buildings probably about 10 stories high. This was no concrete jungle; the trees were real.

It’s become such a cliche to describe some place as a ‘sleepy little town’, yet that’s exactly what State College felt like, compared to Dubai. There were college kids rushing to class of course, and yet it never felt quite so fast-paced. It was all so relaxing. I could walk out of class, take a longer route back to my dorm and really explore the campus. It helped that there were actually places to explore, sights to see. Not just row after row of concrete and glass slabs.

The weather was a refreshing change too. A walk through the campus on July was a completely different experience to the same thing in mid-December. Unlike Dubai, where the landscape remained unchanged throughout the year and the weather varied from sear-your-eyeballs hot to not-sweating-all-the-time hot.

But the most fascinating part to me was that people were actually living. I mean, just existing and basking in the world around them. There wasn’t a rush for the next meeting, a hurry to go places (other than class, but even then, not always) or a constant push to be ahead of the line. I could sit for hours with friends and acquaintances, talking about everything and nothing, just content to pass the time with good company.

The return to Dubai was when culture shock really hit me. The city’s pace had only picked up over the years, and now nobody had time to stop and breathe. Everyone was running everywhere, and I fell into step with them. Commuters fought for space on crowded buses and trains, seeking the Holy Grail of an empty seat. I joined the hunt all too eagerly; the serenity of State College was long forgotten. Now I had to fight for survival just like everyone else in this town, pushing and shoving until I got where I needed to go.

People here don’t make much small talk. They’re concerned with their jobs, where the company is going, whether sales targets will be met, how the economy will impact them. All important and valid concerns, I’m sure, but how about just taking a train ride? Enjoying the sights passing by (even if those sights are primarily skyscrapers)? Talking about yourself or your companion? Is it just all business?

As a result, my conversations here grow few, often just limited to work and work-related matters. I can’t just sit down and talk about life, as I once did. Nobody around me seems to have any hobbies; they work, eat and sleep. It’s a way of life that’s alien to me. Work pays the bills, and I definitely want to do well at my job, but I’m not looking to be the next big CEO or have a literal pool of money like Scrooge McDuck. My hobbies and interests are who I am. Without them, I’d just be a human shell, programmed to display certain emotions on certain occasions.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken some time to re-evaluate my life and my priorities. I’m not the type of person who has animated discussions about the real estate market or the rise and fall of currencies. I don’t want to spend my free time talking about work. And I really don’t want to be the guy who cuts other people off to grab that rare empty seat on the train, as if parking my ass on a chair trumps everything else in life.

I’ve learned to slow down again, or at least as much as I can in a place like this. It’s not an easy thing to do. Sometimes, when the world is racing past, it’s tempting to race along with it, to be the fastest rat in the pack. So every once in a while, I have to step aside and remind myself that the only thing I’ll gain from all that running is a shortness of breath. May as well relax and take the scenic route. I’m in no rush.

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