Learning French

My baby cousin was born in 1998. At this time I was in the 4th grade, and very excited. Being so much younger than her siblings and closest cousins, she was the only one to not reap the advantage of only speaking Arabic until she went to school. We foiled our parent’s plans and taught her English well before her time. One such lesson came when we went to Wal-Mart together when she was about two years old. Greeting customers stood an elderly man in a blue vest handing out yellow stickers decorated with the Wal-Mart smiley face.

I love walmart stickers

A mature 11, I did not want a sticker. My baby cousin, however, REALLY wanted a sticker. She tugged on our sleeves and expressed her aspirations to bestow the sticker upon her little hand. There was but one thing standing in her way: She couldn’t speak English.

Along with her older sister, I coached my little cousin in a huddle next to the corral of shopping carts. “You can do it!”, we assured her, “Repeat after me: I WANT A STICKER.”

Locking eyes with me, she recited deliberately, “I….want….sticker…”

“Very good! Again!” We had her repeat the phrase many times until she looked ready. “Alright, now walk over there and say exactly that.” Pattering over to the greeter, she confidently proclaimed, just as she’d practiced half a dozen times…. “I    WANT      STICKER”. I was so proud of my brave little cousin.

The man leaned down to her level, smiled and replied, “Whuudyoo saayy?”  I saw her confidence deflate when she turned to us, unprepared to say another statement to this  man, who apparently didn’t speak English either. “It’s okay, say it again” we instructed her from a safe distance. ……  “I      WANT     STICKER!”  She raised her voice…… Again, “Whuuudyoo saayy?” We nodded to signal her request again.  Even louder,  “I    WANT      STICKER!!!”………. No dice, “Whuuudyoo saayy?”

Someone had to intervene. “She wants a sticker!” My older cousin and I seemed to shout in unison.

“Oh! Here you go!”

This is how I feel trying to speak French in public. Learning a language informally as an adult can be tricky. I learn phrases as needed and practice saying them at strangers, who sometimes don’t quite understand me. Since most people do speak some English, I don’t usually require a translator’s supervision…usually.

Daily, I think about my little cousin learning how to ask the Wal-Mart greeter for a sticker. I not to get frustrated or scared when someone speaks French to me or worse, responds to me in French when I clearly don’t speak French; I just remember how adorable my little cousin was, grinning like a little fool with her yellow sticker.

I Don’t Actually Work Here

In the fall of 2007, my dad moved me to college. We spent a lot of time shopping for things to get me started my first semester. One day, I wore khaki shorts and a navy T shirt to Wal-Mart. For those of you unfamiliar, a gaggle of Wal-Mart workers looks something like this:

I don't work at Wal Mart

I don’t work at Wal Mart

As my father, sister and myself perused the aisles picking out essential items to get me through the next four years (like my Spider-Man plate set), a woman approached me asking for help finding a particular item. After a moment of disorder, I noticed I had come to Wal-Mart dressed like a common employee. “Oh! I don’t work here.” I explained while my dad and sister pointed and laughed at my clothing. The woman looked confused, gestured down the aisle to my suspected co-worker and said “She just told me to come ask you!”

If I knew then what I know now……

Frequently, my posse and I will indulge in swanky Friday brunches in the 5-star hotels in Doha. In a past life, these fancy all-you-can-eat affairs would not waste my time on a weekend. However, when in Doha on a Friday, put on a sundress, go to the buffet, and do as the expats do. The wait staff at these brunches dress in swanky color coordinated vests and bowties. They pour bottomless 7-up, champagne, orange juice or whatever else you fancy. In theory.

I don't work at this brunch

I don’t work at this brunch

In reality, when you ask one of these servers for a cup with ice cubes or an extra fork or a cup of tea, they straight up panic. Eyes widen, darting nervously from side to side. It’s as if they accidentally wore a vest and tie to brunch. Occasionally, the waiter will muster an apprehensive “okay” before scattering and sending another co-worker to do the duty. Most often, they shrug or stutter, and emphatically state with their body language, “I don’t actually work here.”

This has become the catchphrase of the year. Say it with me:
I don’t actually work here.

These five words are the essence to understanding service culture here in Qatar. When most people are asked something directly pertaining to their job, they either are feigning ignorance, do not have the communication skills to carry out the duties of their job, or really are just ignorant to what they’re doing. A few examples:

The lobby of my building recently installed a display fridge with pastries and ready-made sandwhiches. One day, a red substance in a container caught my eye. I stopped to ask the man at the counter, “Excuse me, what is that?” His hands shook as he inspected the package. After a few moments of silence, I asked “Do you know what it is?”…..”No.” Great. How are you selling something which you probably packaged yourself if you don’t know what it is? <<I don’t actually work here

All too often, the computer system is down in my building and my key card does not work to open my bedroom. This results in a frustrated Laila descending 23 floors back to the lobby to have someone escort me with a master key to let me in. On one such occasion, I asked they key keeper, “When the computer system is working again, do I need to come to the desk to reprogram my key?”…..”I will ask, ma’am.”…..”How will you let me know?”…..”umm…. I don’t know, ma’am.” <<>> I don’t actually work here.

When I go to rigs, the company man is my point of contact for most questions. I ask him things about details in the job scope or program, the current well activity, the well schematic, or even just the well name. The common company man’s response is something of a series of irrelevant remarks which segway into a monologue about my heritage, his glory days, American-Chinese relations, Egyptian politics, or how he doesn’t like the driller’s accent. On one such occasion, the company man responded with “I don’t do logistics” when asking for a request to send more equipment to the rig. (Nothing is sent to or from the rig without his approval.) Translation >>> I don’t actually work here.

While this cultural quirk can be quite frustrating, the aforementioned posse and I have turned it into a sense of humor. We often answer questions to each other by acting surprised, gesturing to our clothes as if we mistakenly dressed as oilfield workers and say…
I don’t actually work here.

I don't actually work here