For many international teachers and their families, the culture shock of returning home can take as much of an adjustment as it did upon leaving in the first place. For Betina Fuentes and her family, their ‘reverse’ culture shock was felt both immediately upon arrival in Charlottesville, Virginia, and over time as they adjusted to a new – old – way of living in the USA.
My name is Betina Fuentes, and I am an American teacher. I have a three-year old daughter named Aurelia, and three adult children who live here in the US. I moved back to America because I was accepted into the PhD program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
We are currently looking for a place to live, whereas in the UAE my company took care of that for us. Hopefully, we will be able to find a place near campus, so I can walk my daughter to preschool and then go on to my own classes. My husband, who previously stayed home with our daughter, is searching for a job now because of finances. We have to pay for our own housing, health insurance and other expenses, which we had some help with in the UAE. He’s also ready to go back to work now after three years of being a stay-at-home dad. We’re both so grateful that he had the opportunity to stay home with Aurelia in the UAE though, because we feel that it’s important for a parent to be the primary caregiver if possible during the early years.
One culture shock on moving back is that I didn’t really expect the level of interest in the Middle East from people who learn that I’ve been living there. There have been quite a few misperceptions: many people here seem to confuse the UAE with more conservative countries. They’re surprised that I could drive, wear Western clothing, and generally have all the comforts of home. The level of interest is probably because the American media don’t talk about or interview Arabs or Muslims often, and therefore many people don’t really know much about the culture. I think some people can also be afraid to ask Arabs questions for fear of offending anyone!
Unlike the UAE, the USA does not have any maternity/paternity leave. My daughter was 10 months old when we moved to the UAE, so I had to deal with the United States’ policy. I had to save my vacation and sick days and take a few unpaid days as well. I returned to the classroom to teach when Aurelia was only 12 days old.
In moving back to the US, I was worried that my daughter’s friendliness, cultivated by so many Arabs and non-Arabs alike in the UAE, would be unsafe here, but the American South tends to treat small children the same way we do in the UAE – with indulgence and sweetness.
Despite the white nationalist rally that took place earlier this year, Charlottesville itself is a great little town, with an international flavour due to the university. It’s very family-friendly, with pedestrian walkways, children’s museums, and many opportunities out of town, such as county fairs, fruit orchards where you can pick your own apples and peaches, and many sports such as soccer, horseback riding, and swimming.
As you may imagine, the events in Charlottesville have affected every aspect of life here. We had word that the rally could turn violent, and so we left town to shop for the day. However, it needs to be said that the majority of the white supremacist demonstrators came in from other states and towns and are not representative of the population here in Charlottesville. At my school orientation recently, there was a wide variety of students spanning all races, religions and beliefs, and the faculty at the university as well as the local government fully support each student equally.
Right now, I miss the people I met and worked with on a daily basis. My principal and assistant principal, my fellow teachers, both Emirati and Western, the lovely workers at the Carrefour and the restaurants. I also miss hearing different languages and accents. It’s such a warm and friendly country, and will always be in my heart. My husband also misses his favourite shwarma shop!
My move back to the US has further taught me the value of living abroad in expanding one’s viewpoint as well as opening the mind. Many of the people who are spewing hatred here have never lived or even travelled abroad. If travel were more accessible to everyone, I think people would be more inclined to show acceptance of other cultures. It’s made me appreciate the wonderful diverse community I was a part of in the UAE. I worked and socialized with folks from all over the globe, and each one had a valuable and unforgettable part to play in my current worldview.
One of the most common things we do in the UAE is to ask, “Where are you from?” immediately upon meeting a person, or specifying a certain nationality when hiring. In order for the world to move away from bigotry and prejudice, we should view each other through the lens of who we are, not where we are from or who our family is. Expats and locals working together is what made the USA and the UAE the great countries they are today. That is what should be remembered – the power of togetherness.
Betina Fuentes, International Educator and Writer
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