where are you from?

Where are you from?

I’m nominating this as the most frequently asked question in Dubai. There are some strong contenders, like: How many children do you have? and How old are you?—which are often asked in succession, after a brief Hello, of me only—not my husband—and which I’ll explore more in a post I’ve been drafting called What’s It Like to Be a Woman in the Middle East?

Originally, this post was called, They Hate Americans There, Don’t They? But that’s not really a question. However, since I heard that a lot before we moved, the short answer: No.

So, given it’s gender neutrality, the fact that’s it’s a legit inquiry, and I’ve heard other people get asked this question, let’s give first-place to: Where Are You From?

When we first moved here, I didn’t know what to say. How broad or specific? What phrase would be the least offensive? Should I lie (—because they hate Americans here, right)?

We checked into our hotel the first night: where are you from? The next morning, the Metro ticket seller: where are you from? The taxi driver—most taxi drivers—where are you from? The staff at DKC, servers at most restaurants, people I stop to ask directions…

The serious Russian property agent I met our 5th day here during our apartment search. I started with, the United States. She asked, where? Southern California. Oh? Los Angeles. OH! Everyone, she believed, from Los Angeles was rich, skinny, blonde, lived in mansions with pools and ocean views, and partied all the time. I tried to explain the quiet suburbia of Burbank—our tree-lined street, the view of the mountains, the 45-minute drive to the ocean. Nope, the movies and tv shows, she said: everyone lives in palaces by the ocean.

Alfredo’s coworker answers with, Hollywood—cuts to the chase, to this idea, ideal.

The property agent we met the next day was in her early 20s from Sri Lanka. I answered confidently with California. Is the country of California tropical? It’s warm. Like this warm? she gestured to the Dubai air. Well, it’s a bit cooler, but Southern California is a desert, too. Are there camels in the country of California? No camels. What animals do you have? Coyotes. She gasped. And hawks, like falcons. NO—I hate birds—I’m afraid of them!

America. Maybe—as much as California would like to think of itself as a country (complete with rivalries North & South, and hawks not falcons)—maybe I should say America.

Where are you…Are you from France? He had a very impressive camera around his neck and a motorcycle helmet in his hand. We were leaning against the rail of the bridge, the best view for photos, looking down at the start line for the camel races. No, but thank you. (I look French! That’s a compliment, oui?) Not French? Not French. Are you…where are you…from? America. HA–America! I saw you and I thought…what’s the word?…not beautiful…  my English is not so good  …I thought you were from France, but America—you are even more…   strong!

[Strong: aggressive, courageous, fierce, firm, forceful, intelligent, intense, severe, tenacious, tough, vehement, brave, eager, gutsy, independent, iron-willed, pushy, resourceful, self-assertive, wicked, zealous]


camel races_start line
hey country of California, you should get some camels, yeah?

What I’m realizing when people ask me this is: What kind of white person are you? Are you French, British, German, Russian, Australian … I’ve been told I could pass for Northern Jordanian, Egyptian—it all depends on where they’re from / what they know / what they want me to be. And, sort of—in short—America / American isn’t an option people think of first. Hate, in relation to America, hasn’t factored into any conversation I’ve had.

[Side note: We met a gallery owner the other day. He’s Serbian. Spent time in NYC, California…asked us where we were from. I said Los Angeles. Alfredo proudly said San Francisco. The guy said, oh, I can tell, you’re nicer! (gah) The SF rivalry of LA extends to here.]

One of our guide books says that Dubai is around 98% expats—from all over the world. Because of this, Where are you from? is a popular question. Because of this, there are prejudices. I’ve heard people talk negatively about cultures other than their own. (Go ahead, cue People are people.)

We live in Dubai. Dubai, if you’ve looked at a map of the world, is in the Middle East. The Middle East, as you probably know, has a certain reputation relating to tolerance and acceptance. Dubai is in the pupil of the eye of the storm of the Middle East, meaning, it’s different. “On 2 December 1971, Dubai, together with Abu Dhabi and five other emirates, formed the United Arab Emirates … During the 1970s, Dubai continued to grow from revenues generated from oil and trade … Dubai [continues] to focus on free trade and tourism …” After the economic collapse in 2009, and thanks to the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, today, Dubai is booming again. Dubai has overtaken Heathrow as the busiest airport for international passengers, Dubai: with its malls and malls and malls and shopping and fashion and festivals (combined into the Dubai Shopping Festival, the internationally acclaimed festival and one of the best shopping experiences in the world); Dubai: with its record of breaking world records—and plans to break more; Dubai: with its galleries and support of the arts; Dubai: the superlative, the premier, the top… you don’t become all that by being xenophobic.

I grew up in a whitewhitewhite small town where words like African-American, Mexican, Asian, vegetarian, gay, Buddhist… weren’t in most people’s vocabulary. I grew up in the kind of white that inspires videos like, If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say and its sequel If Black People Said the Stuff White People Say — which reminded me of moving from whitesmalltown to Brooklyn (pre, very much pre, hipster—read: white—gentrification) and having my dorm neighbor say, You have blonde hair growing straight out of your head! In full disclosure, and possibly in some sense to keep balance, weeks later I asked a classmate how she washed her dreads.

But you have to ask about culture. The trick is how. Here are 12 Things Never to Say to an Asian Woman—#1: Where are you from? #11 is funny. For more, here’s a guideline on How to Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity Without Being an Asshole. No one’s been an asshole about it here—even if conversations jump directly to this most frequently asked question (which I prefer over How many children do you have?). Curiosity, as the comments in this article point out, is what drives this question.

where are you from_the 8 year old girl said


What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from?



what’s the opposite of jack kerouac?

Off the Road. Off-roading is a popular pastime in the UAE—with routes detailed in photo-rich, coffee-table sized books that are available in grocery stores and anywhere ex-pats shop.

Armed with one of these books, spotty wifi to Google maps, and lots of snacks (read: cookies), we headed out Saturday morning, June 7,  in my friend’s SUV—an SUV with all-wheel drive, not 4-wheel drive…whatever, it worked. Isaac is a good friend from grad school (Iowa Writers’ Workshop…Go Hawks!): a poet, visual/conceptual/performance/interactive artist, photographer, philosopher, & explorer (in all definitions). He lives 3 hours from us in Abu Dhabi. Geographically, he’s the closest friend I have.

There were lots of photo stops on this 6+hour trip. The off-roading part through a wadi (river wash bed) reminded us of riding the Indiana Jones Adventure attraction at Disneyland. (I’m breaking a 7-year habit of writing Disneyland Resort right there….copywriting rules & legal regs no longer apply to me—and for that, I am so happy.)

Speaking of Harrison Ford, there’s talk of going on another road trip this weekend to check out the Abu Dhabi location where Star Wars is being filmed.

First Photo Stop: A Billboard

We pulled over at this billboard for an Aigner watch—on a trucking road in the middle of nowhere & nothing. The surrealism and irony of it—contrast of luxury in an austere landscape—struck us funny.

We saw the same billboard for the next couple of kilometers, since ad space seems to be purchased by the kilometer. Some companies take the Burma Shave approach with their space, others simply repeat the same ad. (future post: more about UAE advertising)

offroadtrip_truck   offroadtrip_billboard full   offroadtrip_billboard CU

aigner watch face as face, advertisement in the mountains of fujayrah, UAE
watch-face / watch your head / time on my mind

Second Stop: Friday Market in Al Fujayrah

From the Virtual Tourist: “Fujairah is the only Emirate of the UAE that is almost totally mountainous. The Hajjar Mountains separate Fujairah from the rest of the country. The mountain range got its name from the Arabic word meaning “stone mountains”. They aren’t very high but on the way from the plain (200m) to Masafi (450m) and Diba Al Hisn (on the ocean coast) the road runs on the level 200-550 m between mountains which rise between 500m up to 990m (Jabal Dad Mountain – the highest mountain in the area). The road is very picturesque and you will see deep wadies (canyons) and huge rocks.”

In Al Fujayrah, there’s an ~2-kilometers stretch of the road lined by colorful stalls packed with just about anything: fruit, plants, rugs, clothes, car tires, electronics, pottery, statues, furniture, musical instruments, every sort of molded or inflated plastic item, every sort of aluminum object—each stall the territory of a guy in a green shirt eager (understatement) to make a sale. This stretch of road is known as Friday Market.

Again, the VT: “A market, called the Masafi Friday Market or Souq al Juma, as it is known locally, even though it is open seven days a week, is found on the Dubai-Fujairah Road as you approach Masafi. The main items to bargain for are rugs, earthenware, antiques and souvenirs. This is a great place to buy carpets, mats, shrubs (from Afghanis and Pakistanis).”

We parked. Before we’d even touched the handles to exit our ACed cocoon and step into the 113F/45C heat, a green-shirt had a fresh mango sliced and was pushing wedges into our hands through the barely cracked-open car door.

We chose that stall because the hard sell of fresh fruit seemed better than the hard sell of inflated plastic balls, even if one did have cartoonish vehicles, including a cop car & pickup, and the words honk honk fast cars speed trucks—pop-art like.

We each got a coconut—hacked, stabbed, and poked with a straw—so incredible to watch what someone can do with a mini-machete…and so cool & refreshing to drink. Plus, seedless clementines, cut sugar cane.

IMG_9090     offroadtrip_balls      IMG_9093     offroadtrip_fruit at the friday market in fujayrah, UAE        offroadtrip_fruits

coconut with straw at masafi friday market in fujayrah, UAE
coconut in chiaroscuro
fresh coconut from masafi friday market, fujayrah, UAE off-road trip
coconut in Isaac’s hand
not a lychee at the masafi friday market, fujayrah, UAE off-roading
a fruit similar to lychee, but sweet, not tart. i don’t remember the name
Red Bull car driven by 2 girls who were upset (understatement) about having their picture taken. C’mon, girls, you’re Westerners marketing a product that’s rumored to be made with bull semen by driving around in a vehicle with a giant phallus, um, can rising from the taint, er trunk, of a 4-balled, gah, -wheeled vehicle …get over yourselves.

Gas Station Stop

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a mailbox in the middle of nowhere

Lazy Photography aka Drive-By Shooting aka Not Leaving the Car or Slowing Down to Get the Shot

there was so much construction, so many buildings being built—and so many new structures unoccupied. #optimism ? #forward thinking ? #planningforthefuture ? #buildingsoutnumberedthepeople25to1 #middleofnowhereconstruction #itsajob #whatelseistheretodoexceptmaybedrink #ha

offroadtrip_newbuilding2     IMG_9124   offroadtrip_stuffIMG_9125 IMG_9132  IMG_9138 IMG_9134   IMG_9140 IMG_9143 IMG_9150  IMG_9165   offroadtrip_new restaurant

Another Photo Stop: More Rocks

finger shark spotted among the rocks
Finger Shark Gonna Getcha

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The First Real Off-Roading Route

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this rock looked like a lamb lying down (far from broadway)
this looked like jaba the hut’s hut, or so i’m told
al fujayrah UAE off-road trip
rocks. rocks. and more rocks. do not great photographs make. reminds me of the time i took an old, wood train—from bangkok to chiang mai, thailand—through the mountains and rainforests. romantic and breathtaking trip. i took rolls of film (that long ago), got them back : tree. tree. tree. tree. tree.

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 Camels, because Camels—2 of Them Under a Tree…and then They Moved On

camel in al fujayrah UAE off-road trip
note the front legs are roped together. also note to never ever ever threaten, harm, disturb, or the worst, kill a camel.

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More Lazy Photography from the Front Seat of an SUV through the Wadi with Lots of Date Palms

   IMG_9441     offroadtrip_orange building     IMG_9457    IMG_9461   offroadtrip_flag     offroadtrip_dudeonabike     IMG_9477       offroadtrip_dude

 It’s Just a Donkey…or Two

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Driving through Sharjah, UAE

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 And Back to Dubai

Very nice to spend the day away from malls, skyscrapers, concrete, and such.