Middle Aged in the Middle East

by Nancy Bercaw
Originally Published: 

I have been making the same mistake over and over again for the last six months in Abu Dhabi. No, I haven’t been putting my foot in my mouth or wearing the wrong thing—at least I don’t think I have. Instead, my crime has resulted in my own punishment.

Here’s the story:

Earlier today, after picking out the fixings for chicken soup at the grocery store, I headed over to the cleaning solutions aisle for a bottle of laundry detergent because our big supply had run dry. We outsource a lot of laundry, but we also do some at home. We don’t have a dryer, though, so it can be tough to get everything on the line and out on the tiny patio, especially since Allan and I work long hours. Anyway, I was ready to do our sheets and let them hang out in the sun. We’ve all had colds, so chicken soup and clean sheets were just what the doctor ordered.

I stared at the laundry-cleaning options for a long time. I picked up each version and read it over and over again. Every single one said “softener” plus some other words in Arabic. I tried to figure out the right “solution” because there was no “detergent” per se. What was it that I got last time? Back in October? I probably didn’t even stop to ponder the situation. I must have grabbed a bottle without thinking.

But now I was thinking, long and hard.

Is all laundry detergent here just called softener? You say potato, I say Golden Russet. But why do all these bottles feature pictures of babies? Well, I suppose, in a perfect world, grown-up clothes should be as soft and clean as baby outfits. This is better marketing! So smart! Detergent is basically softener for adults, right? But all of these scent options? Jeez. Can’t we get plain-smelling cleaner? OK, this must be cultural. People here love to smell good and wear fancy perfumes. I’ll just get this one that says, “Eco-friendly for sensitive skin,” because we’ve all been a bit rashy since we got here. This should help. It actually looks pretty similar to what I got months ago. I bet the big bottle is the detergent. Got it!

I put my selection in my cart, still perplexed, but glad I had found something like what we had. Same bottle shape. Same happy family on the label. So off I went to the next aisle to look at the lunch boxes, imagining that I would try harder to pack healthy options for David every day instead of letting him buy food from the canteen. I think I was actually humming as I thought of our soup, sheets and healthy snacks.

Humdeedumdee. I am a perfect housewife today. Heck, I’m SUPERMOM. I can live in the UAE and find my way—even without a dryer. I’m rocking it. I got this. I cracked the laundry code without anyone’s help! Some people would have freaked out, but I accepted the softener v. detergent ambiguity for what it is. I should teach classes in cultural sensitivity and complexity. Things are not always what they seem! Accept what you can’t understand! Humdeedumdee. Look at me. Wait a minute, wow, whoa, hang on…look at that!

Across from the lunch boxes were dozens and dozens of laundry DETERGENT options. You know, TIDE and ALL and FAB. Located on a shelf on the OTHER side of the softeners! Who knew?

And then it hit me—for six months we’ve been washing our clothes exclusively with fabric softener. No wonder we all sneeze like crazy when we open the washing machine and lay the clothes on the rack. No wonder our skin is itchy all the time. I’ve been filing up the whole detergent compartment with that ding-dang liquid instead of using it sparingly.

You know what else? Excessive use of softener will harden your laundry. My socks have been like shoes for months and I’ve wondered why. Sigh.

So now I’m home—soup on the stove; laundry in the washer with actual detergent. But I’m left wondering what else I’ve gotten wrong. Or, even worse, what might be wrong with me. Somehow I’d convinced myself that all detergent in the Arab world is called “softener” because that was all I could see in front of me. Heck, I could have eventually passed this nugget of “information” on to other expats.

Be warned, newcomer, you may be confused by the softener aisle. Fear not! It’s detergent by another name! The scent may be a bit strong, but no worries! Fill up your machine and keep your family clean!

I have to wonder what little discovery is next.

Chicken soup, anyone?

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