A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #12: Mohana Rajakumar of A Day in Doha

Welcome to the twelfth edition of my expat interview series. I’m delighted to see how well it has been chugging along, picking up speed and steam and passengers along the way.

This instalment brings us to the tiny finger-tip nation of Qatar. I passed through there a few times when I commuted between Dubai and Istanbul a four or five years ago. I only knew the airport, alas.  Today’s interviewee is a woman who has been living there with her family for a few years, settling in for at least a little while longer, and taking the time to explore what’s around her, thoughtfully.

One of the very cool things about this interview series is that it has introduced me to a lot of really interesting, intelligent, adventurous people I might never have otherwise met- and, really, people I wish I had met when I was living in or visiting wherever they are now.  This is especially true of today’s interviewee- I think if she had been around when I was living in the Gulf, I might not have felt so isolated there.

I had a hard time relating to most of the expats around me in the UAE because I was primarily a traveller at heart and most of the people I met there were there for the work (often with gritted teeth, begrudgingly) and the money and the cushy lifestyle it provided.  There was a lot of quiet racism and classism among the Western expats I encountered at that time, lots of derogatory throwaway comments about Arab culture, Islam, Indian taxi drivers/construction workers, Filipina maids.  It made my head ache.

It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a need to close my ears and brain to all the nattering, lest some of it seep in and cloud my own judgement.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell if my negative feelings are my own or if they’ve been absorbed from others.  It’s a process of separation that I have to be very careful to practise here in Shanghai because, well, there is so much complaining going on around me.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Mohana, this week’s expat. She can be found through her blog, A Day in Doha.

*cue applause*

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mohana

Leaving

This is Qatar

I went abroad because I was bored by living in the United States; while it was very comfortable and entertaining, I never felt that I was learning anything new or that as a South Asian American I fit in with the mostly white communities in where I lived.

I was always so different because of my immigrant parents, tastes in food, music, etc. It was lonely at times.

I wanted adventure and to see the world. I have a PhD in postcolonial literature with an emphasis on Muslim women but had never lived in an Islamic society.

I have been traveling since I was 5,  leaving from India with my family. I moved from India at 5, living in Canada and the US; summers in Costa Rica, and China.

Photo by Mohana Rajakumar

It was easy in Qatar because so much of the country is developed and they have so many of the same brands as they have in the US. The hardest part was dealing with the other expats who often were very negative about what we were experiencing.

Race is understood very differently in Qatar than in the US and so having people treat me as though I were lower class, i.e. a maid or nanny, was very different. The stares from all the migrant workers who’ve left their women at home and at a Indian women dressed in western clothes and who speaks without an accent is still hard.

In retrospect, maybe it should have been a surprise, but I really enjoyed it. Rather the surprise was how many people resented those of us who adjusted really easily and well; they projected their difficulties onto us.

Staying

We have been here  5 years; we will stay here until it’s no longer fun for us as a family. We decided jointly to stay after the first year when we got married.  Everyday is an adventure, good and bad. You never know what you’ll get.

Photo by Saleh al Khulaifi

I’ve been studying Arabic for three years and hope to start again this summer. I can do a basic conversation, answer the phone, order food but most people speak English here.

Loneliness and homesickness do strike every now and then but the biggest health risk is weight gain! Did living abroad exacerbate or even cause these problems? Maybe,  but you can be lonely at home as well since people are often too busy to get together.  It took a really long time (3 years) but now it’s very well established and I’m glad I put the effort in that it needed.

The best way to deal with loneliness and culture shock is to reach out; chances are high that others are feeling the same thing. Doing activities with others was the best way to get out of bed and meet people; book clubs, writing groups, etc.

My husband is Asian American and a child of immigrants as well but spends a lot of time in the office; so it was really good to develop my own interests which I could do while he was putting in the long hours.

As an expat in Qatar, the longer you stay, the more at home you feel because it is such a revolving door.

Maintaining stability

Can settling down/packing-up-and-heading-off  occur many times in a person’s life or is it a linear process that comes with age? Many, many times, even in the same city: we’ve moved houses four times since 2005.  Moving is a double sword; you get a fresh start and new chances, but you also have to use up all the energy. I’ve come to see benefits of both.

Photo by Mohana Rajakumar

I’ve gained lifelong friends, experiences most people will never even dream of (like meeting the Queen of England) and lost inhibitions that there are things I can’t do, or a certain way that life must be lived. There are missed special occasions and sometimes lack of shared experiences but that makes the ones you do have only more rich.

Photo by Aju Chris George

I feel blessed beyond belief.  Home is where your heart is and where you feel welcome. So there are days when I feel that here in Qatar and days when I’m reminded I’m from somewhere else. It’s the delicate act of balancing these feelings that makes a life.

I’ve often been described as restless, either at work or in life, but I do want to see beyond the horizon and push myself to the next thing. There are certain people who will live their whole lives in one house and work at one company; I don’t think I’m that type of person. Or maybe I just haven’t found the right place for either yet.

The Future

What’s next? Hopefully landing a literary agent and publishing a book about my experiences in Qatar.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.