travelers-tales

By Heather Corrigan Phillips

Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Gold Winner in the Travel & Transformation Category

Beneath the low staccato of whispered Arabic, it was unmistakable, that look of derision: a sidelong glance, subtle tilt of head, and subsequent eye roll to the girl in the row next to her. That flush of intimacy between two girls sharing a cruel secret. A young girl’s mockery is apparent in any language, it seems.

Her name was Mariam and she was gorgeous and astonishingly bright. She was fluent in French and Arabic and English (with an oddly charming American twang to her accent) and her abaya was custom made in Paris. Mariam was the kind of student teachers adored. And feared. She was that student. The one whose observations were sharp—perhaps too sharp. The one who could always tell when her teacher was evading a question because her teacher didn’t know the answer. That’s an excellent question, Mariam, but we’ll cover it in the next class. The kind of student whose intelligence was something I extolled even when it flirted with arrogance.

Looks of disdain were par for the course as an instructor of young women, some not yet eighteen. Those looks could stem from a million things: a fart-emitting scrape of chair, a mid-lecture spit of saliva landing on my blouse, a fragment of date bar lodged in my teeth. All universal, yet mild embarrassments of lecturing teenage girls. If I knew the root of every classroom sneer and titter, I’d never leave my flat. Yet Mariam’s scorn stayed with me for days—in the supermarket at the cashiers or during those quiet moments after dinner with my husband. It came to me, swift, yet brief like a root-canaled tooth—a spasm, an electric current from a nerve thought vanquished long ago.

I was fond of Mariam. We both knew she would pass with an A, as she did in all her classes. The other students liked her as well, even though her mother was French and her father was Emirati, a distinction sometimes frowned upon in Emirati society. This mattered little among these students because Mariam appeared to wield an inscrutable power in the classroom. She was quick to translate the readings for the weaker learners, and students deferred to her in all matters. Anytime I asked a question, a sea of eyes darted first to Mariam’s side of the room, seeking her approval.

I was a forty-something year-old woman averse to nostalgia for friendship bracelets, cola lip balm, and secrets that smelled like the inside of a lunchbox. Those things didn’t beguile me; they never did. Yet there I was, hair greyer than an Edinburgh winter, running my hands lightly over a splinter I thought had worked its way out decades ago. Clearly it hadn’t. If it had, I would not have cared what Mariam thought of me. I would not have felt that sudden shift and tighten of something sharp beneath my rib cage, or hear the frantic beat of my pulse race and ping in my head, all at the thought that this young woman—this girl, really—might be laughing at me behind my back.

No one wanted to look foolish in front of Mariam.

~ ~ ~

Eat it! You’re a dog. Eat it like a dog!

Mitchell Elementary School. 1979. Saskia was my best friend. I was not hers, but it hardly mattered, so long as she allowed me to straggle at the fringes of her herd, especially during recess. Recess was the worst time of day for girls like me. Outside the confines of the classroom, the true hierarchy could assert itself and thrive. Saskia was the prettiest girl in third grade. Sometimes she made fun of my hairy arms, and once, she tried to make me eat David Honniker’s chocolate milk vomit—I still feel her strong, cool hands on the back of my neck—but I did not care as long as she chose me.

Saskia granted me a shifting slot among her friends. It was conditional and came down to one simple question: which of us—Joanne or me—was the most deserving of her largesse that day? After all, she could not, she explained, accept two losers in her “Sas” club,” as she called it, which made perfect sense to me. Joanne was coarse and ugly and poor; I wore shirts with unicorns on them and collected baby garter snakes in jars.

Joanne Cochran wore corduroy pants, cheap looking sneakers, and a red and yellow sweatshirt commemorating the Vietnam War. Her father was a veteran, she told us proudly. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but figured it must have had something to do with her being poor, because while I wore hand-me-downs, she wore poor people clothes, a distinction even a third-grader could make. She smelled like beets and I prayed for her death.

~ ~ ~

Bullying was a popular essay topic among my female college students in Abu Dhabi. The cultural familiarity of student topics like anorexia, plastic surgery, and both schoolyard and cyber-bullying baffled me, so I attributed it to a love for Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil. They seemed so American-centric. Were these issues really something these women cared about?

 

A love for American talk show icons was one of many revelations that shattered my Western stereotypes of sad, faceless ladies cowering beneath black robes. The female students were bright, vocal, and strikingly beautiful in their traditional abayas—dramatically austere, yet highly stylized robes that skimmed the floor. Their makeup was dark yet flawless, and for those who didn’t cover their heads with a scarf, their blue-black hair hung to their waists, shiny and coiffed, as they tottered dangerously on six-inch heels. That element of “keeping up with the Joneses” among some of the female students was unmistakable.

By noon, the women’s promenade, a swarm of black, teemed with students. The promenade was an extension of everyday Abu Dhabi life, which is to say mall life; there were numerous coffee shops, a spa, a nail salon, a florist, and as an afterthought, a tiny bookstore. Lunchtime was a raucous, crowded affair and required the tenacity of a navy seal. To get my Americano, I had to clamber over an obstacle of pink MacBooks, Celine and Gucci bags, and boisterous cliques of ladies brandishing macchiatos. In the six years I lived there, I’d probably tripped over hundreds of luxury bags more expensive than my second-hand Volkswagen Golf Oblivious, the loudest girls rolled their eyes, flicked their hair, and laughed as their girlfriends draped over them like courtiers.

Despite initial appearances of over-privileged princesses, most of the students were funny and affable. Yes, they could be annoyingly loud and unmotivated during class, but the pressure and cultural constraints of being a respectable young woman of Emirati’s small society appeared to manifest itself in a self-consciousness bordering on hilarious at times. Most of them wore the latest designer clothes under their abayas, but the way they carried themselves was practically Victorian: movements so slow, exaggerated, and affected that the simple act of handing a pen to another student looked as though it had been choreographed.

~ ~ ~

UNESCO’s 2012 Global Status Report cited physical bullying as the most common form of bullying in most countries with the exception of European countries, Canada, and the United States, where psychological bullying is more commonplace. A number of my student essays reference an 11-year-old Abu Dhabi girl who suffered a brain hemorrhage after being a struck in the head by a classmate during recess.

~ ~ ~

Even after I stopped wearing unicorn shirts at school, Saskia usually chose Joanne over me, which meant I spent more time watching other children play on playgrounds, than actually playing with other children on playgrounds. Standing with arms folded, I’d shift uncomfortably on my feet, pretending to watch Canadian geese. The fear of being alone was constant and sat on my chest like a bag of wet leaves, but it didn’t deter me from studying the other kids with intense fascination. Occasionally I’d get caught staring and pay dearly for it—take a picture, it’ll last longer, freak—but I couldn’t stop myself. I studied them, trying to unlock the secret. What was it that made them lope across the grass with an almost strident sense of ownership of their place in the world? What did they have that I did not? Were they smarter? Prettier?

~ ~ ~

My initial surprise that the bullying topic resonated with my students later struck me as absurd. They were young women, after all, and Emirati women, in particular, lived in fear of being perceived as ugly, poor, or worst of all, someone who behaved in a way that was haram—sinful. I’d heard about these kinds of girls—the ones who gave their number to boys or met them at malls without a chaperone. My students were quick to castigate them with an under-the-breath hiss. How foolish for me to think bullying didn’t exist in the Emirates.

Before coming to the UAE, I armed myself with the few books on Emirati culture I could find and prepared to be gob smacked daily by cultural differences so dissimilar from my own my head would spin. And spin it did, though the cultural differences had nothing to do with it, because beneath the kohl-lined eyes, designer bags, and woodsy, oud-soaked abayas, was a creeping familiarity so strong, it took my breath away. I had not been around so many young women since I was a young woman. Now they were everywhere: jittery and manic, sulky and aloof, vociferous and fragile. Even the haughty ones exhibited a self-awareness so heightened they could scarcely walk a few feet without checking their reflections in an office window.

I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be that young. How clumsy—and at times fraudulent—it felt trying to appear likeable, intelligent, but most important, desirable. Sometimes I’d catch a student peering intensely at me through my office door’s glass panel, until I realized it was her own reflection she was scrutinizing. It was funny to watch, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the singular intensity of her gaze: did she like what she saw? Or did she silently curse the face staring back at her as deficient in a thousand little ways?

~ ~ ~

My Abu Dhabi mobile number was scribbled onto a Post-it Note and taped to the back of my phone, something my students found hilarious. Phone numbers haven’t been the only things to slip away; I’ve lost what feels like hundreds of passwords named after long dead pets, airport codes, movie titles, Southeast Asian fruit names like rambutan (I had to look that up), and slightly more grievous, dates. Thus far, I’ve remembered only two (of twenty-six wedding anniversaries), and though I know it preceded the moon landing, my husband’s exact date of birth continues to escape me.

What remains? Ridiculous things. Fragments of memory that rattle in my head like dirty green pennies: my black rotary phone number from 1977, finger nails bitten to the bloody quick, and a crudely-painted Mad Hatter splashed on the cafeteria wall, his eyes hungry and manic, the size of dinner plates. The memories aren’t precise—memories never are—but I know their colors. I know that the cafeteria wall was institution green and the floor tiles were blue, the muddy indigo of an empty room at dusk. I know that green is the color of sickness and shame and that blue is the color of fear because details fade, but colors always remain. I remember how I’d buckle under the weight of Sunday nights at the cusp of another full school week, the fear heavy and tangible as a Connecticut winter.

At the heart of that fear were girls—all girls. Saskia terrified me, but so did Joanne Cochran and Jenny Ferguson and later, in high school, Laurel Bailey and Stacy Albizu. Boys picked on me too, but they were too messy and haphazard in their meanness to be truly threatening. A boy would howl like a wolf at my hairy arms until, distracted by a classmate’s fart, he’d collapse in shrieks of laughter. Girls weren’t easily distracted, though; they were deliberate in their cruelty and pursued their targets with unshakeable resolve.

Here is another memory fragment: I am six years old and my mother has just filled the bathtub before a severe thunderstorm. Power outages meant no running water—sometimes for days—at our small New England farmhouse. I reached over the tub to touch the water only to have my mother grasp my wrist and pull me away. “You could fall and drown in there—just like that!” I was both horrified and intensely curious. I’d bathed in that tub weekly and here it was with less than a foot of water in it, shallow enough for me to touch the bottom with ease—or so I thought. Now, however, there was something hideous beneath the surface. Even though I could not see past the tacky non-skid flower stickers on the bottom of the tub, my mother clearly could, which meant only one thing: the deviance may not be readily apparent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

~ ~ ~

Teaching writing to Emirati girls was fun, but grading over one hundred essays from second language students—especially on a tight deadline—could be miserable. Sometimes I stayed up past midnight marking papers and responding to emails. One time, when a student tossed off a flippant-sounding, late night email demanding a makeup for a presentation she’d missed, I asked her to review our previous lesson on how to write polite emails. Hers, I explained tersely, would be interpreted as rude.

I thought nothing of it until three days later when a student appeared in my office doorway looking distraught. I still could not remember her name, but recognized her instantly as one of my quietest students—a girl who sat strategically near the door and spoke little, but always greeted me with a timid smile. I knew she was shy. As a student, I’d chosen that same strategic location—behind two students, against the safety of a wall—in infinite classrooms throughout my life for maximum invisibility and a quick exit. Coming to my office alone must not have been easy for her. She closed the door behind her, and remained standing. “I’m not a rude person,” she said in a shaky voice without looking at me. “But I was too scared to do my presentation. And too embarrassed to tell you.” With that she erupted in tears.

Shyness is a strange and dreadful affliction. There is a fluttery softness to the word, which does not do justice to its discomfort. Though the thought of playing with other children, speaking in class, giving a Christmas card to the bus driver, or paying for a carton of milk made my chest ache and my stomach hurt, my distress was dismissed as girlishly charming. As soon as I climbed on the school bus, I remained silent. I was so quiet, in fact, I ended up in a “special” class for those with speech disabilities until my mother found out and promptly pulled me from it with annoyance. “She’s just excruciatingly shy,” she said to the school secretary. I remember her British accent, icy and melodic, as she said the word excruciatingly, drawing the word out slow and stressing on the “cruciate” bit so I could feel its hard, singular pain, a word made of knives and glass.

Being perceived as shy was more detrimental to my health than being shy, however. This, to me, is the worst thing about shyness: its suggestions of weakness. A shy girl might be seen as appealingly coy and bashful, but also wan and insipid, slight and malleable. I’ll never know what branded me as “lesser than” at such a young age, but I suspect my social unease—my fear of everyone but immediate family and our pet Dalmatian, Spot, did not help. Growing up on a small farm, one of the first things I learned about horses was their ability to sense fear. This, apparently, applies to children, as well, though I didn’t know it back then. Appearing frightened at school marked me as weak and made me an easy target because a scared child is not yet savvy in the art of deception—of masking her social unease in polite conversation and smiles so toothy and forced, her face hurt. I wore my vulnerability the way a dog wears a sweater—with unguarded, clumsy shame.

“She’ll come out of her shell.” Coming out of my shell was a promise I’d heard regularly as a child. It was meant well, but the prospect of shedding an essential part of myself before sluicing away like a homeless mollusk was unsettling. Besides, they were all wrong; I didn’t come out of my shell, at least by the time high school hit, where I’d been forced to retreat even further back into my shell for self-preservation’s sake. Small, rural schools may have their charms, but they can be dangerously familial. My peers had known me since middle school, since third grade, since kindergarten, so who I was had been determined long ago: I was weird and awkward and unpretty. I was lesser than.

~ ~ ~

UNESCO’s report on bullying also stressed that adolescents whose sexual orientation deviated from cisgendered children “are disproportionately affected by school violence and bullying.” This is a moot point in the United Arab Emirates where judicial law adheres to some aspects of Islam’s Sharia law. Homosexuality, as well as adultery and blasphemy are, therefore, criminal offenses, ones that could be punishable by death, though capital punishment is rare in the U.A.E.

A “tomboy,” or boya in Arabic, doesn’t denote the same meaning as it does in American English, a student once explained to me, giggling nervously when the word popped up in a reading about a female athlete. She spoke gently, embarrassed by her teacher’s ignorance. I was confused until the student explained that while the word “tomboy” does mean a boyish girl, it lacks the innocent Western inferences of a playful, outdoorsy girl who chooses toy trucks over dolls, as it does in the West. Tomboys in the Emirates were teenage girls who chose to shorten their hair and wear clothes like a boy (even when it was beneath the safety of her abaya.) Though the word “lesbian” rarely comes up, it is clearly implied. This crossing of gender lines is seen as a sexual deviancy because it goes against one’s fitrah, or nature, and is thereby strictly forbidden in Sharia law. A boya is a freak of nature.

There were few shorthaired girls on campus, so the ones with shorn, boyish cuts stood out. Most of the young women had long hair and were immaculately made-up as they swished past in their national dress, which, surprisingly, accentuated rather than obscured their bodies. Enveloped in musky black chiffon, they looked flowy and feminine—regally so. I couldn’t help but wonder about the two short-haired “tomboys” I saw in the promenade most days. Although both did wear abayas, I was quietly delighted to see they also wore combat boots or custom-made, punked-out Converse high tops edging out from beneath their robes. One of the girl’s abayas hung open lazily, revealing torn jeans with a man’s wallet attached by heavy chain to her jean’s belt loops. Were these girls happy? They appeared happy enough from my brief glimpses. Were they safe? From male students, at least on campus. Cultural mores dictated that men and women must be on separate campuses at all times and a high wall, locked doors, and security guards separated the female from male students.

I’ve always felt a kinship with shorthaired girls in clompy boots. I was that girl one time, long ago: a dour-faced sixteen-year-old in Salvation Army jackets and Doc Martins, carting around an unabridged copy of Les Miserables. I didn’t hack my hair off until later, but I loved wearing men’s dark tailored jackets and coats for their severe silhouettes. “You look like Nosferatu,” my older, more popular, sister once remarked. Yet, I loved the hard lines of men’s clothing; they made me feel substantial, anchored to the earth, unlike the soft, lilac-tinged, pretty colors I used to wear. I was done with pretty. I had tried pretty all throughout grade school and middle school—flammable astringents that made my face sting, sticky hairsprays and gels, frosted lipsticks and orange-tinted bangs—and hadn’t convinced anyone.

Eschewing pretty for Nosferatu’s wardrobe, however, did not go over well with high school boys who did not like girls—even unpretty ones—to dress like boys. It made me a dyke or a cunt or a lesbo or an ugly bitch. It made it okay to be tripped or slammed into lockers or pushed down stairs, even when teachers were watching. It made it okay because these things wouldn’t happen, I was told, if I just made more of an effort to fit in, to be friendlier, to be prettier. To smile more and dress less weird.

Although Saskia had moved away to a different high school, I still saw her everywhere. She had morphed into Laurel Bailey and Sharon Bresnahan, pretty girls who were clearly not fans of silent film era vampires. Unlike the boys with their bellowed sexual innuendo, Laurel’s and Sharon’s skills at alienation were more finely honed. An under-the-breath whisper—Weirdo. Dyke. Cunt. Psychopath—was all it took to cut you away from the others like a whip smart Aussie sheepdog; to incise me like a growth from the others with meticulous care.

~ ~ ~

Near the town I grew up, there is an abandoned garnet mine popular with hikers. Sometimes, the damp, mossy trail will yield jagged pieces of black garnet. Unburnished, garnet is not pretty. It is the color of dried blood, but I’ve kept the pieces I found over the years.

I left my hometown over twenty-five years ago. It is one of those tony, hauntingly beautiful New England towns that boasts a record number of antique stores; it is a place that cherishes dead things. Occasionally, I consider returning, perhaps making a new home there until I remember it is not my home. I know it is silly and illogical to think this. Living there now are young families, wealthy professionals from the city, strangers. No one would know who I once was. But there is no logic to what I can only articulate as a visceral sense of something terrible lodged deep within me—and how it glows when I am back there. There is no logic as to why those ragged shards keep finding their way to the surface. So I keep the pieces and move on.

~ ~ ~

The United Arab Emirates was the strangest place I’d ever lived for the sheer number and diversity of foreign resident workers, which made up eighty percent of the country’s population. The displays for Eid al-Adha gift baskets might rub shoulders with decorative incense bowls for Diwali and Wolverine masks for Halloween. And then it would be Christmas.

I love being an expat more than being a tourist. I don’t make the best tourist, to be honest. I’m ornery in airline queues, prone to nausea, and desperately miss smoking Marlboro cigarettes as soon as my plane touches down. I haven’t had a cigarette in years, but I still believe smoking enhances travel—or at least anesthetizes the crappy parts of it.

The thing I love most about living overseas is less the desire for reinvention than the sense of anonymity. For me, I feel an odd sense of peace—and safety—in a large pool of foreigners. Also, there is no pressure to make wherever I am—Indonesia, Thailand, United Arab Emirates—home because it never will be home; we will never be accepted as anything but outsiders, temporary interlopers and I am okay with that. I love standing in a supermarket aisle and hearing Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, Tagalog, a pastiche of languages I generally cannot comprehend, bar the odd Arabic or Hindi word for “thank you” or “hello” or “if god wills it.” I love the cadence of another language, but mostly how I understand nothing of what is being said. Words catch lightly on my skin and then roll off like rain.

~ ~ ~

This was a quote from one of my student’s papers, citing the article “The Long-term Effects of Being Bullied or a Bully in Adolescence on Externalizing and Internalizing Mental Health Problems in Adulthood”:

Those being bullied were affected especially regarding increased…depressive symptoms and high levels of total, internalizing and critical symptoms, increased risk of having received help for mental health problems, and reduced functioning because of a psychiatric problem in adulthood.

This article answers the what, as in what are the long-term impacts of bullying. Yet, the thing I reflect on most when I think about Saskia and Joanne and Laurel and all those little girl ghosts is the why—as in why did they seek me out? Why were they so comfortable in their skin while I gnawed away at the fingernail beds of mine? Why was I ridiculed and mocked and pushed down stairwells when they were able to mince effortlessly through their childhoods unscathed, perhaps even happy? Had I been marked by something only others could see? In math we learned the symbols equal to (=), greater than (>), and lesser than (<). That I was (<) was irrefutable, but why had I been deemed me so?

Why me? This is what the article leaves out—the interminable question I still hunger for. If I could just crack that code, see what it is they saw, then I could finally answer the question of why I was lesser than. Perhaps I could even fix the brokenness.

What are the long-term effects of bullying? A paralyzing fear of failure and a wary distrust; clinical depression and insomnia. And most all, a subtle, yet fundamental corruption fueling an inability to ask the right question.

The deviant may not be readily apparent, but that doesn’t mean she’s not there.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Heather Corrigan Phillips holds a B.A. in English from Southern Connecticut State University and an M.S. in Professional Writing from Towson University. Prior to joining USD, Heather taught English in the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Czech Republic. After completing her coursework at USD, she joined Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan where she teaches leadership. She has published essays as Heather Corrigan in North American Review, Ascent, Connecticut Review, Louisville Review, Oyez Review, Litro Magazine and Lowestoft Chronicle, among others. Her essay “Widmarked” was a 2015 finalist in Southeast Review’s narrative nonfiction contest and her essay “A Scattershot Approach” was published in Southern Humanities Review in 2020.