Combating Conformity from Alaska to New Orleans to Bahrain

***Today’s guest post is excitingly international– Penny is a mama living in Bahrain, and writes at homeschoolingmiddleeast. Thanks for sharing a sliver of your life with us here Penny!***

I’ve been racking my brains as to what to write in my guest blog. I’m a homeschooler in the Middle East, living on the tiny and troubled island of Bahrain abutting the relatively huge, powerful country of Saudi Arabia. I really wondered about what I’ve got in common with Calamity Jane or Apron Stringz readers, what I could say that would be of interest to them. I can’t stand cooking (although I really, really wish I felt differently) and I’m not a gardener (again, I wish I were different). I would proudly dress my kids in hand-me-downs but we don’t have relatives living in the same country. There’s not much in the way of thrift shops either, just the occasional secondhand sale. So I can’t give tips on living a more frugal life, other than the obvious ideas.

I was intrigued by Calamity’s biography. She came from one kind of background in Alaska, with a certain set of expectations, and had to live a very different one for the 3 years when she moved to New Orleans and experience very different weather too! I came from a very different life to the one I live now (and weather too – from wet and windy in England to incredibly hot and humid in Bahrain).But I feel very blessed, in part because my life here is not often short of surprises, which suits me!

Both Calamity and I seem to share something else; we both aren’t looking to conform. She is trying to redefine the label ‘housewife’. She has done it through homesteading, I through homeschooling. She is trying to defy Society in her own ways, I in mine. Even though we are so far away, we share some fundamental similarities and I’m sure you, her readers, share these too. We also probably share an interest in reading about other people’s lives, especially people with similar values but practicing them, living them, in very different ways.

By glimpsing the life I lead on this unusual island of Bahrain you also get a look into lives that are very different not only from yours but from mine too – because we are surrounded by villages where people still live as if it were decades ago – where women are dressed top to toe in black which even covers their faces, carrying baskets of fruit and veggies from the market on their head and where boys drive donkeys, seemingly for fun but possibly to transport something from one place to another. Shouldn’t they be in school I always think? Homeschooling is illegal for Bahrainis so I think they probably should be there! It’s dusty and dirty. Everything looks run down and unkempt. The houses are entirely dilapidated, built without any kind of building code.

I used to drive through these villages on purpose, partly because the route afforded a short cut, but more importantly as an education for my children on how lucky they are and how other people live. I used to say, “Look at how these poor people live. This is why you have to work hard at school, so you can have choices in life and not have to live a life you don’t want to live.” Now that we’re homeschooling (for all of 2 months now!) I would say, if I still drove through the villages, “This is why it’s important to learn as much as you can, and find your passion, so that you can have choices in life and not have to live a life you don’t want to live.” Although I have always said that many of these people are probably much happier than others with a lot more money because they often have very close family relationships which are very nurturing; money can’t buy you something as important as a loving family. So, a multiple of lessons in our neighbourhood villages!

Why don’t we drive through the villages anymore? Because we’re too scared to, sad as it is to say this. Bahrain has become a very divided ‘them and us’ island. The poorer population, coming from the Shia’a Islamic sect, has taken their long-held grievances to a new level by peacefully protesting regularly but then regularly also burning tyres and throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. Expats have not been targeted yet, but we all wonder it’s a matter of time before the village people look at our houses and look at theirs and think, ‘Hold on! This is our country! They are foreigners! That should be ours!’ And an ugly situation gets even uglier. The problem is that the rights and wrongs of the situation are hard for expats (temporary workers) to navigate. Many of the grievances are wholly legitimate and if half of the stories are true, we really shouldn’t be here supporting this regime. But, we really don’t know what’s true. A lot of it may be exaggeration or even fabrication. Since the protests are regularly in the areas where expats live, the kids often have to run inside from the shared, communal garden encircled by the 9 villas on our compound, to avoid being overwhelmed by tear gas which stings horribly, making your eyes pour and your throat unbearably scratchy.  And boy are those burning tyres toxic, forcing windows and doors to be hurriedly closed! But many people love living here and we’ve got used to the problems and nobody could make the living they do here back at home, we’re all economic migrants desperately hoping everything will be sorted out peacefully one day.

But as crazy as this sounds, at least living in this part of Bahrain is a ‘real’ experience, where you see ‘real’ people, living ‘real’ lives. Living in the Arabian Gulf (comprising Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the U.A.E – United Arab Emirates which includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi) can be very artificial, very unrealistic. For some people, the Gulf is all about shiny high rises, expensive cars, houses bigger than anything they could afford at home, maids, drivers and cooks, drinking at the expat clubs.

I was thinking about how everybody does things differently. Calamity tries not to conform by homesteading, by trying to give dignity and modernity to that horribly degraded term ‘housewife’. We are trying not to conform by teaching our children about how other people live and how lucky we are. We are trying to live with our eyes wide open. We are not being lured into a life of fast cars, cheap nannies, late night drinking sessions in expat clubs, expensive restaurants and having no clue about how the other people living right beside us exist – people from cultures very different from our own – cheap labour from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.  We try and spend most of our time at home and we take the kids with us wherever we go. We like visiting friends and having friends visit us. We are very family-oriented and we never complain that our kids are driving us crazy and we can’t wait to pack them off to school/summer camp/with the nanny. We live in a rundown old villa that my husband feels embarrassed to invite people-from-work to, also because it’s permanently a mess, being a child-friendly, kid-heaven of toys, books, Lego and wooden train sets which just can’t seem to stay in one place for long! We like the kids to play outside in the fresh air instead of video games in front of the TV. We like them to play imaginary games and build forts instead of doing ‘enrichment’ activities like Taekwondo or Capoeira.

We like to SEE our kids, spend time with our kids, even though we homeschool them! People think we’re weird. No doubt about it. We don’t conform. But we think we’re the luckiest parents in the world, living in a fascinating part of the world and if more of us could count our lucky stars, even when the tear gas rains down, or the electricity bill comes in or the baby is awake for the fourth time tonight, maybe more of us could be happier. If we could all shrug our shoulders and think ‘How lucky we are’ and ‘If only they knew’ when people look at us as if we’re crazy. If we could smile serenely when people say, “That sounds lovely but I could never do that!” (code for “You’re crazy!”) whether we’re home educating or making nettle soup from the garden or making our own shelves or avoiding doing all the things people expect us to do, we’d all be a bit happier I think!  The world exerts a lot of pressure to conform. Society is like George W. Bush where ‘You’re either for it or against it’ and there’s no in-between. As Calamity says, “Join me in The Struggle! Let’s resurrect, renew and revolutionize housewifery together!” I concur. And let’s go further, wherever we live, wherever we can, let’s resurrect, renew and revolutionize Society with our positive life affirming family-loving, child-oriented attitudes.

Thank you to Calamity for having the faith in me to guest blog and please do drop into my blog sometime. You would be very welcome! You can find me at homeschoolingmiddleeast.

9 thoughts on “Combating Conformity from Alaska to New Orleans to Bahrain

  1. Wonderful post! I call my blog “Constant Geography” as everywhere a person goes, whether the local bodego or the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, a geography lesson is always available. The immersive experience of living abroad is as valuable experience anyone will ever have. Thank you for sharing the details of visiting markets. Relating the issues of income disparity and religious differences was very interesting. I’m going to reblog this :)

  2. Reblogged this on Constant Geography and commented:
    Homeschooling is a tough job. Homeschooling when your home is thousands of miles away is even tougher. HomeschoolingMiddleEast (HSME) provides daily anecdotes regaling homeschooling in a foreign land, where each day is a literal learning experience for kids and adults alike.

  3. Fantastic post as ever Penny! Great positive thoughts and a real insight into the joys and challenges of life for you all in Bahrain

  4. Thank you Constant Geographer and ogglepoggle! Although we won’t be living there, we’re really looking forward to a month in Europe in July. I really hope we get a proper feel of what it feels like being a Parisian or Amsterdammer, whilst enjoying the usual attractions! Travelling and living abroad is fantastically enlightening. I love to read the occasional blog by travelling homeschoolers. I really envy them their life. So much learning!

  5. Thanks so much for this guest post. We all have to do what we can, given changing energy levels (personal, not geopolitical) location, support networks and inclination. Everyone’s challenge and contribution looks a little different and not everyone saves the world in the same way. :) Now I’m going to give a little nod of thanks that tear gas isn’t a big issue in my neighborhood.

  6. Thanks for the unique post from abroad, and the nudge to observe and express gratitude every day.

  7. I just wrote something recently in which I also placed value on living a ‘real life’ in the ‘real world’. I wonder what it is about that concept that fascinates some of us so much. We were also ex-pats and lived in a place where we had to protect ourselves from civil unrest, although not as severe as you describe, and our co-workers thought where we chose to live was crazy. Why do some of us crave what we perceive to be ‘reality’? Some people suggested that we didn’t feel we deserved to enjoy the luxuries that other ex-pats enjoyed, and that we felt guilty for being the ones to have, in a land of have-nots. Some people might think it’s only about being contrary and non-conformist. But I think there is something else. Do you know what I mean? Do you know what it is? I think it is related to wanting to know where your food comes from, and other topics that CJ writes about, too.

  8. Thank you Arrowleaf and meily. Meily, can I have the URL to what you wrote, if it’s available? I would love to read it or could you email me a copy at pjmontford@Hotmail.com? I do feel guilty about what we have and others don’t. I don’t dwell on it because that’s not productive but the least I can do, if I’m not going to actively do anything about it (although I would/do if it’s obvious and easy at least), is to ‘count my blessings’ and try and teach the kids to do this too. I don’t crave living in ‘reality’ exactly, I see it as a responsibility. If war reporting or something like that is the opposite end of the ‘living in reality’ spectrum and people like the Kardashians at the other end of the spectrum i.e. living in a world totally divorced from most people’s realities and they don’t even realize this most of the time. They think everyone owns multiple designer handbags kind of thing. I just feel we have a responsibility to live nearer the war reporters end lf the spectrum – to understand, have empathy for, if not experience, what other people experience.

    Years ago, I once went on a date with a guy and I wanted to see a UN exhibition of children taking photographs of their lives in war zones. He saw one picture and said he couldn’t see any more and went to get himself a cocktail. I was horrified. I said that I felt he had a responsibility to these children to look at their work and try and understand their lives, if only for 30 minutes of our lives. He thought I was crazy. Needless to say, I didn’t even bother having dinner with him. And as the years went by and I continued to hear of him, I thought ‘A lucky escape’ because he was such a selfish man who sponged off his mother and never considered other people’s feelings!

    By the way, did you see this, I didn’t read it here but couldn’t find where I had read it – http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/jimmy-kimmel-president-obama-mock-kim-kardashian-2012294 “If you’re looking for the greatest threat to America right now, she’s right there,” Kimmel joked, pointing at Kardashian. I allude to the Kardashians in this post: http://homeschoolingmiddleeast.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/month-3-of-learning-at-home-are-we-the-irresponsible-generation-or-are-some-of-us-the-next-generations-saviours/ (which was a post based on another post! http://constantgeography.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/how-my-generation-ruined-education/)

    How funny that you found people thought our desire to ‘be real’ was simply a sort of manufactured stance, trying to be ‘cool’ in a different way by being contrary or non-conformist! I must admit, I sometimes catch myself feeling as smug for being ‘real’ as the other feel ‘smug’ for being rich and I catch myself and try and stop it but actually w/o this sort of judgement the world would be a worse play – more materialistic, less caring, esp. of the ‘have nots’ and other weaker groups including children and perhaps a bit of smugness is OK because, after all, living this way is not easy. It’s not pleasant worrying about how the gardeners manage to live in their little hut or how they manage not seeing their kids for years or how easy it would be to give the a bit of money to have a nice meal at the w/e but then you can’t because you’ve got their dignity to consider etc…. Much easier to think about a nice dress you’re going to buy or something (not that I ever do that!)

    You have an interesting perspective on whether this feeling concerns being more attached, literally to the earth. I think that’s how a homesteading Mum friend of mine would see it. Of course, people like us are described as ‘down to earth’ and there’s a reason for this. But for me, it’s more intellectual. That’s not better than the way you might see it. Not at all. Probably worse in some ways! But it’s just the way I am. I hope this helps/is of interest! Do please continue the debate! It’s great!

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