January 30, 2012

Laws and People's Behavior

When you live in one place all your life, you don't realize how much the laws affect people's behavior and people's mores and cultural views affect the laws.  Having lived in four US states and six countries ( 4 countries being majority Christian and 2 being majority Muslim) in my lifetime (just 30 years young now), I have seen a wide range of laws and rules.

Most of the ones that attract my attention are on safety, alcohol, and other social aspects like relationships, marriage, public display of affection, etc.

In Belgium, as long as the kid could see over the bar, he was served a drink. I drank alcohol in Belgium when I was 17 and it was legal. In Spain, the teenagers were filling the public squares drinking all night long. In certain states I lived, I could only buy wine in a wine store and liquor in a liquor shop, I think it was North Carolina and Maryland that were some of the stricter states I lived in. North Carolina didn't allow 'happy hours' because it encouraged drinking and driving but Washington, D.C. sure made up for them (of course I used the metro most of my time in DC). In Missouri, they were selling liquor and wine at the Walmart.  In the UAE, you have to have an alcohol license to buy and it is related to your job, visa, salary, and you have to get it renewed every year and you can only buy from certain stores that seem to be hidden. Most laborers can't even buy alcohol so they start making moonshine (insert an American Southern accent here) or bootlegged alcohol, or so I read.

In the US pork is next to every other meat. In the UAE, if it is offered, it is in a secluded section of the grocery story just for the non-Muslims and separate from the rest of the food not to taint it. At a hotel buffet in  Sri Lanka catering to Muslims during the Eid holiday, the pork was served at the far end of the buffet line requiring quite a walk to get to it and being far away from the rest of the food.

In Spain, no one got married before 30 and everyone was living with each other out of wedlock. In Belgium, my host brother got married to his wife after several years being together and having a few kids together before marriage. In the UAE, you would put in jail and deported for that. Extramarital sex is against the law. In fact, I have known a few European couples that got married before moving to the UAE just because of the laws and the visa situation.

In Sri Lanka, I saw a family of 4, a baby and small child included, all on a motorcycle with no helmets. In the US, you probably get fined riding a bike on your driveway without a helmet or frowned upon by neighbors. In the UAE, there aren't strict laws about buckling children up in the backseat but the expats are trying to bring those laws about through their Letter writing (see my post about 7DAYS) and various other campaigns. I basically follow my US child seat laws in the UAE just to be safe even though I don't have to. One time my nanny hadn't buckled Rex up in the backseat as I was about to back out of a grocery store, an expat British lady came up to me in my car and scolded me saying something like 'you should know better, you are an expat!'
NOTE: An excerpt from Dubai: Fastest City explains that reckless driving is a part of the life in the Gulf for two reasons: 1. Self-important " me first" attitude and 2. the belief that safety is in God's hands.

In some parts of the US, you can't drive and use a mobile/cell phone at the same time. A big one in Texas recently has been no texting or using phones around school zones. In the UAE, it is common practice even though there might be a law against it. I am not sure. Just to be safe with my son and because it might be a law, I don't use my mobile while driving. I am hearing a lot of radio commercials against it in Dubai now so maybe they are stepping up that campaign.

Now I am not sure if it is a law but under the topic of government subsidy, I would like to add a few notes on gasoline, water, and electricity. All three are subsidized in the UAE and for water and electricity, Emirati citizens pay next to nothing for it.

Gasoline in the UAE is subsidized. In Dubai, I have a huge Toyota Sequoia my husband bought for me to drive our son around for safety reasons. He drives the Honda Civic to work daily and I drive the Sequoia around our neighborhood, to the malls, and sometimes into town when we have a need for it. He tells me there is a huge difference as to how people treat you on the road, better with the Sequoia, so he LOVES to drive my car on the weekends,I digress, we will leave that to another topic. To fill up my car, it costs me about $30 USD. In the Houston, it would be about $60 or more.

Electricity. One month in the summer, our bill was $900 USD. YES, $900! We had the company come and investigate why it was so high and we aren't really sure what happened but oh well. I learned that Emiratis pay half or a 1/3 of what expats pay for electricity so I asked the electricity company guys how they didn't know I wasn't Emirati? They laughed and told me they had copies of my husband's passport and so they knew I wasn't a local as I stood out in my shorts and American accented English. Basically the expats subsidize the locals' electricity bill so they really need expats to help over the costs. Another trick from someone I heard was if you have an Emirati landlord to get them to register for the electricity bill so you can pay the Emirati rate. Too bad our landlord is Pakistani. Anyway, there are complaints around the GCC region that if locals knew the value of electricity, they wouldn't waste it. Especially being the fact that we are living in a desert. Anyway.

Along the same lines of electricity is water. Water is subsidized to Emiratis as well. Concern for being green and not wasteful, recent articles in 7DAYS show concern that this teaches people to be wasteful and not conserve the precious resource which takes a lot of energy to be desalinated over here and so water here is not like water in most other places because it takes a lot more energy to make potable.

Christian countries have certain concerns and Muslim countries other concerns. Some countries are a lot more conservative than others. The people's opinions, believes, and behaviors affect the laws and the laws affect the people's behavior and opinions. I read a really good quote recently and since I can't find it now it is summed up briefly as, individuals accept behavior that appears to be tolerated by many. There is societal pressure and power in numbers and that is what leads to laws and rules.

It is exciting living in a place with a huge melting pot of cultures trying to live together in a uniquely constricted universe.

Reading 7days, the local English-newspaper in the UAE

As I ponder my guilty pleasures in my life as a expat woman/"house wife" I think my passport visa calls it, while living in Dubai, I would say they include the occasional massage, pedicure, reflexology treatment, watching Downton Abbey online or an American tv show online and playdates with mommies while my son plays with his friends but there is one more....

If you know me in Dubai, I will quote a story from the newspaper,7days, jokingly almost every other conversation. Reading 7 days, the "most talked-about English language daily newspaper in the UAE" that  "occupies a unique position within the country's media landscape" is probably what anyone in the UAE does daily who has about 5 minutes or more to waste on sheer entertainment. It is like a soap opera handed to your door everyone morning, it is hard to put it down.

The newspaper is free and delivered to your door every morning around 5 or 6am. Usually the nanny and I take turns reading it and then we use it for cleaning windows or for a fire or recycle it.

The stories you read sum up a lot of the cultural aspects of living in a country full of expats and a small percentage of actual locals. Also, it teaches about the laws, a lawyer myself, and how they are enforced and applied. For example, today's headline 'Teen in Trouble for Kissing Girls." The story goes a 15-year old Emirati boy broke into an Emirati home and forced two teenage sisters to kiss him. The boy says the girls invited him. The father asked the court to give him a harsh punishment becuse he claimed the boy wanted to "destroy" his daughters at a young age. So it looks like the boy is going to be in detention for a month. I think in the US we would ground the boy for a few weeks and have talk with the parents. Interesting how the laws are drastically different.

Then just a few days ago I realized what I had wondered for a while. Another law that is drastically different over here, when a person has extramarital sexual relations or sex out of wedlock, they go to jail. So if a woman has sex out of marriage and gets pregnant, she can go to jail and her baby can stay with her. I always wondered what happened to the babies. After they serve the sentence, they get deported.

Then on what I think is a related topic, yesterday's story was about the abandoned babies they have in the UAE. About 1 abandoned baby a month last year in the UAE or just Sharjah, I can't remember. They have limited fostering laws so only Emirati citizens can foster children but they are considering opening that up to other residents.  Also, what I thought was interesting is that when an abandoned child is fostered and eventually taken by an Emirati family, the family can't give them their last name because it is forbidden by Islam but they can give them a similar last name.

The other story that I remembered was the local man who had 4 wives and an extra room in his house. He came home and all the wives were arguing over who would get the room. He didn't like their arguing so he decided to divorce 3 of them.

Today I learned something and I need to verify if this is true. It says that the GCC, Gulf Cooperation Council, wants to put more women in the workforce. Basically, there is a push to use less expats and get more locals in  the GCC into the workforce and at the same time increase the percentage of women working. That didn't surprise me but this quote did, Yet, in terms of education, a separate study in Abu Dhabi discovered 43 per cent of Emirati women had been to university compared to about seven per cent of men.    So some how women go to college but then don't go to work and yet the men don't go to college and do go to work.  Maybe they the men are working in family run businesses that don't require college degrees?

To finish my joy/hate of reading 7days, I will end with what I realize is a fun part of the paper. In the Letters section everyday are rants and raves about the articles and goings on in the country but at the same time it is a way for people to vent about the culture clashes, poor customer service, and room for improvement. In a country without democracy, I think this is the closet you get to the people speaking out and asking for change or improvement. A lot of the recent topics I have noticed since I started reading this section is the need for laws regarding child safety and seat belts in cars, laws against using mobile phones while driving, concern for treatment of laborers and maids, and just other things that people are thinking but are more willing to post it anonymously to the Emirate than say it out loud in public.

After reading Dubai, the story of the World's Fastest City by Jim Krane, I understand a lot more about the history, vision, and workings of the city and country. I have a lot of respect of its leaders and think they have done a lot with what they have in the short period of time. I think with having all these expats here from other countries, they should take advantage of us and help bring up to speed areas that our countries have already experienced and make laws to keep people safe, for example seatbelt laws, banning mobile phone use while driving, construction safety, building safety codes, etc. 

January 23, 2012

2011 Travels

I have yet to write my Christmas 2011 or New Years 2012 letter but while I am thinking about it, I will put a few thoughts down:

In 2011, we traveled more than ever:

Our first baby was born in Houston, TX

March - got my passport renewed
San Antonio


Dominican Republic


Sri Lanka

United States

After we reviewed our bank accounts, we decided that 2012 will be less adventous, it will include Burak going to the US for a work trip, Doha for work, and then Turkey in the summer to be with family. I will go to the US in the summer for an immigration conference and for my sister's wedding and then Turkey later in the summer. Otherwise, we plan to stay in Dubai and do some local trips to Oman, Qatar, and other Emirates.

Working remotely with my semi-virtual immigration law firm

I have a semi-virtual immigration law firm. What is that? you might ask. Well, in my definition semi-virtual is not completely virtual because we have an brick and mortar office space clients can come and see and my assistant works out of. I work from my home office in Dubai remotely through my Houston office.

I went back to Houston for a week and a half in December to visit clients, have in-person consultations, and check with attorney friends and my assistant.

Here are some thoughts about my work-life balance having been in the office for a bit after having worked remotely for 6 months from my home-office in Dubai:

Downsides to working in a physical office:
1. You have to commute there, traffic, time, gas, tolls, wear and tear on car, time spent where you could use it elsewhere, like working or being with your family.
2. You have to park or pay for parking or pay for clients' parking
3. Almost everyone is late because they get lost or like one client, he showed up 4 hours early and that was difficult because he was waiting in his car. Poor guy had the wrong time of the appointment.
4. You have to get all dressed up and put on makeup. :) Well I realize that with my post-natal body shrinking over time, I haven't invested in proper dress clothes as I wait for the right size of my body to come along.
5. You waste time, driving, getting ready, waiting, giving directions, etc. Maybe this is #1 again but it is true.
6. Had to take the extra time to have my son watched by a friend or if I was living in Houston, he'd be in daycare.

1. I think the main positive is that for some people, they want to see the attorney in person and this helps them build trust. I think a lot of this can be developed in a video Skype consultation and reviewing my website and reviews but this helped some people sign up for a consultation.

In Dubai, with phone or Skype consultations, we are efficient. The client signs up online or via phone, they pay online, and they can be talking to me during their lunch break or in their pajamas on Sunday morning. I only talk with them if they schedule the consultation and pay in advance. There is no getting lost or stuck in traffic or having to find parking. I have childcare at my home so I can walk away from my son and work for a block of time. I really only have to look nice from the waist up if I do video consultations.

If I need to review a documents, the person can scan/email or fax the documents in advance so I can review in the consultation. One person in Houston, brought a thumb drive to the consultation and I had to print the document.

To figure out how I would like an attorney like me (virtual), I hired a Texas estate planning attorney who lives in North Carolina to do my wills. I have never met her in person, like several of my clients, but we communicated via Skype, phone, and her virtual law office portal online. We got the job done.

I think what my firm is doing, being paper-less as possible and leveraging technology to the maximum, is the wave of the future. We cut out a lot of waste of time and get to the pure and raw exchange of information with the least amount of distraction and waste. I have a physical office that files are kept at and clients can stop by and drop off documents but most work is done remotely with Dropbox, Skype, email, phone, scanning, electronic fax, and Voip.

Honestly, when I go back to Houston, I plan to keep this model for most of the week so that I can be more efficient with my time and help cuts costs for my clients.

January 22, 2012

Yes, English is my first language and other aspects of my international life

It just occurred to me this morning, that I lead a very international life on a daily basis....

Today, when my gardener from Pakistan was asking for an advance in his salary and thanking me, I told him I didn't understand something he was saying and if he could repeat it.  He then asked if English was my first language which I replied, yes, it is my first language. (sigh) Although my mother said my first word was 'agua' or water in Spanish, English was my first language according to my records.

Then I went down my list of daily interaction. My live-in nanny is from the Philippines and speaks Tagalog and English. When she speaks Tagalog on the phone or to other nannies, I pick up on the Spanish words and it is fun to guess what she is saying.

My legal assistant for almost two years is from the Dominican Republic originally but has some Irish family and has been in the US a long time. She often tells me sayings in Spanish I have never heard before and some other stuff about voodoo beliefs and other things from DR.  Having worked with her so much inspired me to go to DR last June and check it out. It was a nice bonding experience to have learned a bit more about her country.

I just hired a bookkeeper in Pakistan since she had high reviews and she is closer to my time zone in trying to get stuff done in the next few weeks. So far, so good.

My husband was born in Turkey and has Bulgarian grandparents. We are trying to get Turkish citizenship for myself and my son and I am personally trying to get Turkey into the EU but I know that will take a lot of time to accomplish.

My mom was born in Mexico to American missionaries so I therefore became Mexican through her.

My mother's sister's husband was born in Colombia (I think) but is Spanish and Venezuelan so my cousin is Venezuela, Spanish, American, and might be able to be Mexican. Lucky!

My brother and his wife just moved to Argentina as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar this month.

Between November to January, I was in the UAE, Sri Lanka, Maldives (Stop over), United States, Turkey, and Greece. Yes, my freshly issued passport is starting to fill up quicker than ever before in my life.

Oh, and I almost forgot, I am living in Dubai right now. When I go to the grocery store, I have fun because my food represents the UN. They tell you 3 things: the name of the food, the price per unit, and which country it is from. So I can have Dutch or Moroccan tomatoes, Philippine bananas, Iranian watermelon (haven't bought it yet because afraid of the embargo), Greek olives, UAE yogurt, American apples, Islamic salmon, oops I mean Icelandic salmon, and well the list goes on. Plus, my daily interaction involves Emiraties and expats from India, Pakistan, Philipines, England, South Africa, Ireland, US, etc.

And then, before I forget to include my profession, as an immigration attorney, I speak to people from all over the world on a daily basis in English and Spanish.

So, in the end, I do this so much, I forget how weird it might seem to others. But I probably won't forget being asked if English was my first language.

Greece and Turkey - Observations in December 2011 and January 2012

Observations of my 10 day trip to Turkey where my husband and I went to Greece for 2 days (Lesbos - was just about 1.5-2 hours across the water from my mother in law's house)

- Turkish/Greek coffee, same stuff
- Backgammon in the coffee shops
- Fish, Olive oil, olives, and cheeses

- Dominant religion  - Greece: Christian and Turkey: Muslim
- Using helmets when driving motorcycles: Greece: Didn't see them and Turkey: required
- Cigarettes: Greece: example: ladies cigarettes marketed as cute little flowery boxes, sort of reminds me of how companies market sanitary pads and Turkey: scary photos of sick people or people in bed looking like something didn't happen..showing the dangers of smoking
- Smoking: Greece: No smoking signs everywhere but at the same time everyone is smoking, even next to a sign. Our hotel room had a no smoking sign outside but had an ashtray inside and Turkey: No smoking means no smoking
- Honking: Greece: not big into honking and Turkey: Love to honk at slightest infraction

Law Firm Goals and Thoughts for 2012

I just had a business meeting with myself, reviewing old notes, goals, to do lists, ideas, etc. As for my law firm, I realized a few things recently:

1.  Don't put off bookkeeping until the year is over - Yes, you can do some data entry, hire help, etc but if I had watched my numbers as I was in the process, I probably would have cut costs along the way. Ditto that to my personal finances.

2. It is good to sit and reflect without a computer in front of you of what you want for your business. Also, I keep seeing that quote - A goal without a plan is just a wish. I saw that I had accomplished parts of my to do lists but some where still remaining after 1 to 2 years.  So, at this point where I can look at my numbers for 2011, I am about to have a personnel change in my firm, and we are starting a new year, I am going to be honest with myself and make some new goals for the firm that reflect what I want to see.

3. After reading E-myth Revisited and 4-hour workweek in the last few months, I realize that a small-business owner, it is a constant struggle to balance entrepreneur, technician, and manager AND both books suggest automating processes and getting help. You can only grow and do greater things if you empower/train/allow others to help you so I think that is one of the critical areas where small business owners go wrong.

4. On a personal level, I want this year to be more boring than the last 2 years. If that is the case, I can put more effort into growing my firm and also all my other personal goals like losing weight, saving more money, and enjoying life as an expat mom in the Middle East.

Having traveled to 4 countries in the span of 1 month in December 2011 and having seen many friends and family, I have had many thoughts about life, the firm, etc. and want to get back to blogging so I can remember what I have learned.