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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The Slab

Just a short while ago, I finished typing the post about my favorite childhood meal. And now here I am, writing about my childhood home. Guess I’ll be strolling down Memory Lane a while. To be fair, it’s also my current home, so it’ll be a short stroll.

At the age of 12, I was living in the same little apartment that my family had moved into four years before, when we first moved to Dubai. My family’s been living there for 23 years now.

The apartment’s part of a housing colony, comprising a cluster of identical rectangular slabs painted in a forgettable shade of white. Each building contains a row of four or five apartment blocks. Each apartment block has three floors. Each floor, four apartments. It’s a very dull-looking neighborhood.

Inside, it’s not much better. Bare off-white walls surround a tiled floor that can only be described as hideous. There’s a staircase with a steel railing, topped by a dark wooden handrail. It almost seems like a group of builders had a bunch of scrap left over from some other projects and decided to dump it all together, bestowing it the very generous title of ‘apartment’.

Climb up two flights of incongruous stairs and you’ll come to a landing. Each corner is marked by a door. At present, the landing is bare. When I was 12, a partition hid two of the doors from sight, one of them being ours. Our apartment actually belonged to our neighbor, who was renting the place out to us; he liked to keep his property gated off. So getting in and out of the apartment was a two-stage process. It was kind of like a secret bunker.

In one corner of the landing, you’ll find a cream-colored door decorated with a few religious artifacts. That’s us, though the artifacts are gone now (new management, new rules). Our place was, and still is, pretty snug. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms (with one working shower between them), a kitchen and a living room, connected by a hallway.

The floor was once covered by a mud-brown shag carpet. How long we had it, I don’t remember. The cloudy white tiles we have now feel like they’ve been there since the beginning. The apartment was fully furnished when we got it, which was a blessing and a curse. We didn’t have to buy new furniture. But the furniture we had…sucked.

Our couch was an orange wooden frame covered in cushions the color of dirt. The end tables and coffee table were the pale orange , topped with clear glass. Our dining table was a sheet of glass with four metal legs. It was surrounded by six metal frames encasing chocolate-colored faux leather. Something a furniture showroom ate didn’t agree with it, and it vomited all over our house. Over the years, the furniture was replaced bit by bit, but the majority of it hung out there longer than it should have.

I could go into even more detail about the spidery cracks along the walls of each room, the windows covered with an almost opaque screen and practically screwed shut, or the kitschy knick knacks that adorned ever empty shelf courtesy of my mother, but I think I’ve made my point.

However, as much as I hated that house, it became a part of me. It was where I spent my childhood. The small, poorly lit kitchen was where my mom would make school lunches that I often forgot to eat while playing with friends. It was where a veritable feast was cooked up every night for dinner and where,in later years, my parents cooked as a team, sometimes getting me and my brother involved in the process.

The unremarkable bedroom that I shared with my brother (for a long time, due to lack of space) was my study hall and my playroom. It was my entertainment center and my library. It was where both my dreams and my nightmares came to life at night and disappeared like a puff of smoke at daybreak. It was where I woke up on my birthday and on Christmas morning, unable to contain my excitement over the presents that lay waiting for me.

The horribly mismatched living room was where my best friends and I watched movies and played video games. It hosted many a birthday and anniversary celebration. It was a classroom where my mother held tutoring and singing lessons. It was a playground where my brother and I wrestled, played catch and broke a whole bunch of fragile objects.

That house that I grew up in is not fancy. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s downright hideous.

One day, in the uncertain future, I’ll be moving out of here. Part of me will be relieved to move into a house or apartment of my own, one that’s hopefully put together better. But I know that another part will feel nostalgic about that ugly white slab of an apartment building. It’s a place I call home, inhabited by countless memories that paint every room in shades of joy and sorrow.

Maybe it’s not so bad after all.