Category Archives: United Arab Emirates


So there’s this really delicious drink called karak. Pretty much everyone here is addicted to it. Including myself. Because it’s awesome. And usually half liquid, half sugar. Sugar is the main reason behind the addiction, of course.

Anyways, I’ve spent an entire day trying different recipes, all of which have failed to varying degrees. I am now convinced that stores that sell this drink actually mix a tablespoon of magic into their drink instead of condensed milk.

The drink itself is basically some mixture of black tea, sugar, and milk. It is a pretty popular type of tea, with the best karak coming in small styrofoam cups at drive-up stores. By drive-up, I mean stores where customers drive up to the front door, honk until a waiter comes out, and can order food without ever leaving their cars. It’s the Arab version of drive-thrus.


Growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, I have fond memories of the electricity occasionally getting cut. This was always followed by a drive to the local gas station to pick up bags of ice to put in the refrigerator so that our food didn’t get spoiled, along with worries that the electric well wouldn’t supply enough water for the horses. At college, not having electricity for a day is something most of my classmates had never experienced.

At AUS, sometimes the electricity decides it no longer wants to operate. This usually only happens for about an hour at a time. Sometimes it has gone out at night, and although I didn’t notice it, the next day classmates would say they were scared. Since, you know, mankind has not evolved to cope with lack of electricity.

Anyways, this was one of the few instances that make me remember I’m technically in a developing country. Of course it’s never gotten in the way of anything and is always quickly restored… but it has gone out at least five times during my eight-month stay.

My Family Chose My Major

Upon interrogation, most students here seem to choose their major because their family suggested it. On the one hand, this is great because there is an active family support system in this society. Youth are able to go to their family for advice on major life decisions, and aren’t expected to make such huge choices alone. Compare this to the US, where fresh high school graduates often look at the majors offered by universities and are more lost than before.

On the other hand, it’s not really youth asking parents’ advice … rather, doing something pre-approved by parents is virtually the only option. Plus, parents are the ones paying for the education, so they want to make sure it’s a wise investment.

Not surprisingly, most parents are not career-decision experts, but they do send their children to study the usual reliable subjects: engineering, accounting, and finance to name a few. In the Arab World, engineers and doctors are highly respected, to the point that, as one of my friends said, “if you’re not a doctor or an engineer, then you’re nothing”.

Here, more students are interested in getting a graduate degree than my classmates in the states, and a college education is extremely desirable. In fact, for many students it’s the only possibility. A university education is required to get a good job, plus it reinforces social class. As one friend put it, everyone here goes to college, “unless they already know they’re not going to do anything with their lives”.

Camel Races

I visited a camel race with other exchange students. We were very excited and eager to enjoy our first ever camel race! And when we got there… we couldn’t see any camels. It wasn’t the most exciting event ever, and the track was so massive that we only saw the camels a couple of times. When they finally completed their first lap, they were followed by an entourage of vehicles. Apparently the owners of the camels were keeping pace with their animals, and remotely controlled the mechanical jockey on their camel’s back. Yes, each camel had a small machine strapped onto it, with the sole purpose of tapping it with a riding crop. These mechanical jockeys replaced real jockeys, to make sure no human jockeys were abused, such as by using children or starving the jockey. I heard this was sometimes done to make sure the camel faster by lightening the load it had to run with.

The Animal Souq

I recently got lost in Sharjah and wound up at an animal souq. At the bottom of this post are pictures from the souq, and you can hover over a picture for its description. Or, you can even click on the images for larger pictures, and move through them that way.

It was an exciting experience, and I even got to hold a falcon! The part of the souq I was in was a long building with a high roof. There was a walkway down the middle, and on both sides were stores full of animals. Almost every sort of animal was there, including fish, ferrets, chickens, falcons, cats, and dogs.

Fall 2013 in Review (Thank God for Curves)

New Year's fireworks display over Palm Jumeirah in the Arabian Gulf.
New Year’s fireworks display over Palm Jumeirah in the Arabian Gulf.
Last semester. Fall 2013.




Basically, lots of wow’s.

I don’t remember ever being so stressed out… but also feeling like it was all worth it. It was the most academically and personally challenging semester I have had. Being in a tough situation is a great experience, because you get to see what you’re made of and how you handle pressure. And if you’ll crack. Or if you’ll worry too much and freak out. I didn’t crack, but I did worry and freak out.

I was taking 15 credit hours at my host university and 6 credit hours of online classes back home. I ended up dropping a class at my home university, and getting the first two B’s of my college career. I had juggled 24 credit hours and a job in the past and gotten straight A’s, so to be so challenged by a much smaller workload was a humbling experience. I had to make some decisions about priorities, and choose what was more important: straight A’s or social opportunities? Even if ‘straight A’s’ is replaced with ‘good grades’ in that last question, it was hard to find a balance since both are pretty important. I mean, I aspire to live in something nicer than a box someday, but having friends is also a rather desirable outcome.

During one exam, I put down my pencil, covered my face with my hands, and wondered how I would tell my mom I failed a class. I even began planning what paperwork I would fill out to retake the class back home so I could graduate. But the hardest part was when I was convinced for about a week that I would lose all of my scholarships. If my semester GPA dropped below a 3.0, I was going to lose over $13,500 in scholarships…

Thank God for curves. Academic ones, of course. Although many people also enjoy the physical ones.

When final grades came in, I got four A’s and two B’s. So I kept all of my scholarships. Once again, thank God for curves.

The semester ended in mid-January, so it felt like this was all drawn out for too way long. But as I said, it was so worth it. It was great to have the pressure of taking hard classes at the best university in the region with brilliant professors, all while adjusting to a different culture… and to actually succeed! (even if I had to make a new definition for success!) A while ago I heard an interview with the Tiger Mom, the woman who wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (click here for the Wikipedia article). My favorite point was that children should feel self-confident after having accomplished something. Sort of that parents should help children accomplish something that the child can be proud of, and use this as a source of self-esteem. This is instead of making children feel confident before accomplishing something, because this sort of self-esteem is more fragile. My point is, I feel much more confident in my own abilities after working my butt off and having it all work out in the end. I proved to myself that I can do it!

Of course, the most rewarding part of the experience is the hardest one to put into words, it’s the people I’ve met. Before arrival, I was worried to death that I wouldn’t make any local friends, but I was quickly proven wrong. I’m grateful that this is how my exchange turned out, since I saw other exchange students leaving the country having made few local friends… however, I don’t think that was their goal in the first place.

There’s something very special about my relationship to this country. I say my relationship, because not everyone will feel the same way. I feel at home here. I could be caught up in the magic of a study abroad, but I love the local culture and mindset because they’re very relaxing and less stressful. For example, I was speaking to a Korean exchange student who said she prefers it here because it’s less competitive.

So all in all, it’s been a great experience. I hope this post doesn’t scare anyone off from study abroad at this university, because they can choose a program that is suited to their needs. It’s possible to study abroad and have your credits transfer as Pass/Fail, for example.

In the end, an exchange is what you make of it, and being abroad will teach you a lot about who you are and what you want.


The henna paste before it dried.
The henna paste before it dried.

Henna is like a temporary tattoo that some women – and men – in this region wear for various reasons. Uses range from weddings to everyday decoration, and the designs stay for several days. I usually see it on Emirati girls and the dorm supervisors, but it’s even used as a hair dye. It’s basically a paste that is applied to the skin, left to dry, and leaves the skin temporarily dyed a reddish brown color.

I recently tried henna for the first time. Two women representing a salon came to university for a cultural celebration, and had a stand where they offered to decorate one hand in henna for just $2.70 (10 AED). I had never seen henna artists before, and was surprised at how they were able to create art in just a few strokes. They didn’t even use a reference picture, and their only tool was a little bag with a hole in it.

A day after the application.
A day after the application.

Although some people are allergic to henna, I didn’t experience negative side effects. The henna artist told me to wash it off after 10 minutes, but my more experienced friends instructed me to wait until it started looking like mold… which happened after about an hour. It turned green and started flaking off, but left the reddish brown color behind.

Honey and Fabric Detergent

The delicious-looking honey.
The delicious-looking honey.
There’s a mini-mart next to the my dorm where students can go to purchase all of their basic needs without leaving campus. One of the first things I bought upon arrival was fabric detergent, and I continued using the same fabric detergent up until a couple weeks ago. There was also a container of honey that caught my eye, and every time I walked out of the mini-mart I always remembered I had wanted to try that honey.

Well, my new roommate saw the fabric detergent I was using. Apparently it was fabric softener. I hadn’t washed my clothes with actual soap for five months. And that delicious honey? It’s herbal hair wax. Thank God I didn’t eat it.

Information for Curious Students

Before coming to the UAE, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know what people here dressed like. However, my host university has some resources online. For anyone interested in the American University of Sharjah, or just curious about what university life is like in the UAE, here are some useful links.

  • AUS Facebook Page A page with news on events at the university and a lot of videos.
  • AUS Blog The university’s blog, mainly on university news. One interesting story is about a blind exchange student He was also mentioned in this earlier blog entry.
  • AUS Youtube Channel Some videos about life at AUS.
  • Discover AUS A collection of videos and interviews about life at AUS.
  • AUS News This site has tons of pictures of students to get a glimpse of what people here look and dress like.

Mid-Semester Crisis

AUS campus at night.
AUS campus at night.
I went through a weird slump a couple weeks ago. Even though finals were more than a month away, I was starting to feel the crunch already. I was spending every moment of free-time in the library, and usually spending the weekend sleeping because by that time my brain felt like lasagna put through a blender. It didn’t help that 60% of my grades rely on the recent midterms – courses here have two midterms a semester – and finals. Yes, even though the semester was more than halfway over, 50-60% of grades for the entire semester rely on two exams spaced only a month apart.

I started out this semester taking 21 credit hours; 15 at my host university and 6 online at my home university. However I withdrew from a course here that I was only taking for funsies, because I wasn’t prepared for the rigor of economics courses at this university. To explain, a classmate was looking online for practice problems for ECO 301 (Intermediate Microeconomic Theory), and found them… on an exam for the same class at MIT. MIT is ranked as the 7th best American university ( 1 ), and has the best American graduate program for economics ( 2 ). And we have similar exams.

Of course, the price of this great education is not having as much time for other things, and can be difficult to reconcile with a social life and being a tourist. Back home, I have an overall GPA of 4.0 and my record course load was 24 credit hours a semester; however, my goal for AUS is just a GPA of 3.0. Although I originally intended to finish yet another year with a 4.0, not only were the classes much more difficult than expected, but there was also too much fun to be had. It was hard for me to come to terms with this, since the perfectionist in me was disappointed… but I finally figured out that the number associated with my education doesn’t matter, the fact that I’m getting a great education does. And what’s more important, maintaining a superficial measure of progress, or enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience of a foreign country? Still, I am trying my hardest, but leaving time for fun.

My grades abroad are used to calculate my GPA back home, so that’s why withdrawing from a class was a wise decision. But, if you need to take extra classes to graduate on time, there are ways to get those credits. Because I’m on an ISEP-Exchange where I’m technically enrolled at my home university, I was able to take online classes at my home university for no extra fees. Plus, the semester at my home university started a week before orientation at my host university, and I ended up completing 75% of the coursework before getting on the plane to the UAE. Summer classes are also an option, or even saving free electives for study abroad, which usually means easier classes.

However, some study abroad courses will only be listed at your home university as transfer credit, and the grades won’t be calculated into your GPA. This can relieve some of the stress of maintaining a high GPA while abroad, and wether or not grades are calculated into your GPA depends on your home university and study abroad program. So, talk to your advisor.

Study abroad is a pretty stressful experience, but it’s also deeply rewarding. I had always gotten good grades, and my high school teachers always told me I was smart. But, I had always wondered if I would have made it at a top-knotch American university… and now I know that the answer is yes. That’s a very rewarding answer to have found.

( 1 ) US News Link Profile for MIT’s overall performance for undergrad.

( 2 ) US News Link Profile of MIT’s graduate program in economics.