Finding an Expat Family

My parents moved to Dubai a few months before I was born, and so they raised me without the full time support of their own families – a tough situation for first time parents.

As kids we had no idea what our parents were going through but I can only imagine the late nights – and considering I didn’t sleep for the first four years of my life my wonderful life givers didn’t get much rest – the “oh my god” moments and the times where I’m pretty sure they were ready to give up and sell us to the nearest camel farmer and be done with it.

Growing up as an expat kid I wasn’t surrounded by family, it was just me, mum, dad and then my brother joined when I was 6; my dad’s parents lived in South Africa along with my aunt and cousin, while my mum’s family live in the UK. We saw them during the summers and over holidays but I never had family just down the road and my mum could never just drop me at the in-laws if she needed a last minute baby sitter or call her mum to come over and help her force feed me because it was going on day three of my baby hunger strike and she was out of options.

But all of that being said, my parents were not alone just because they were expats; after arriving here they quickly adopted an expat family – a collection of people in a similar situation to them who found a safe haven in back garden wine sessions once the sprogs had been subdued for the night. These people became family, they became a support system and they stuck around for years.

Growing up I had four mums, four dads and a whole tribe of siblings, we were always together – weekends at the beach, long weekends camping, holidays at each other’s houses.

We all knew who to ask for certain things, if we wanted food we asked one mum, another if we wanted to do something we knew we shouldn’t and if we wanted to get someone in trouble we knew who would get the most angry. Each of the dads would do different things for us from helping us pull off ridiculous pranks to building forts – the kids had a flawless system in place and it meant we got away with murder.

We knew the ins and outs of each other’s lives; the kids learnt to climb trees, snorkel and build sand castles while the parents learnt to hide vegetables in our dinners, avoid stepping on Lego and to look like they really enjoyed our terrible performances pulled from the bottom of the dressing up box and the top of our head.

I have so many fond memories from my childhood and each one of them is full of people I loved like my own family, these people changed my life and taught me things I still lean on today. That’s what a family is right?

We used to spend every Friday, or Saturday (I can’t remember which weekends we were on in the 90s) at the beach together, the kids scaling the breakwater rocks in search of snails – later to be used to decorate the dad who had made the mistake of failing asleep in his chair – while the grown ups sipped Castle beers and cooked up a hearty BBQ. Then as the sun set we would pile into our 4x4s and head home, sandy sun kissed and happy; one of our friends lived in Sharjah so to let the kids sleep in preparation for school the next day they would come to our house, the little ones would have a bath first – namely my brother and theirs and then then the biggies would squeeze into the bath, envelop ourselves in bubbles and wash away the salt before saying good bye for another week.

Which brings me to today and my family, the one that I’ve chosen, not my parents or my brother or even the people my parents chose as friends but the little tribe of misfits I found for myself. As a second generation expat – or third in some cases – your need for an expat family will never go away, you might have your parents nearby now but that’s not to say you don’t still need your own support. Mine, for example, is a group of people who I know would be there when ever I need them, no matter what, the people who I rely on every day to make me smile and love me just like I love them. Some of them I have known for more than 10 years, others just a few months but each one of them has become part of my strange little family.

We do all the family things, from long weekends away to Christmas dinners and birthday parties, we celebrate the good, cuddle each other through the bad, they are the support network every person needs.

Sure sometimes I want to kill them, we argue and we bitch but at the end of the day we always kiss and make up. We have our traditions, our quirks and our regular hang outs.

From our back garden sing alongs and rowdy nights out making a name for ourselves to our annual Christmas in June party and board game nights that descend into madness very quickly there isn’t a lot we don’t do together. We have had weddings, break ups, doggie adoptions – but no babies yet – people have moved away, some have come back, others just pop in for holidays but they are no less a part of what we have.

We have gone from nights out and black out brunches to slightly more civilized dinners and house parties over the years – with the odd karaoke bar openings that certain people will never be allowed to forget. We have found each other jobs, played wingman- sometimes to our own detriment – and driven each other across the country when we’ve needed a ride and it is all of these things that make me realize these are the people who will be there forever. Maybe not all of them, maybe not all the time but for the most part these are my people.

I suppose the real question is why do we need an expat family, especially as a second generation expat when our families are here? Is it a normal thing, are non-expats this close to their friends? I don’t know, I’ve never not been an expat but from what I can see the relationship we have is different to the relationship non-expats have with their friends. Some of us don’t have our families here, some of us need taking in and caring for, and what happens when we leave and become expats somewhere else?

What I do know is that with out a doubt I love my little family of crazy.


  1. This brings back so many memories of my time in the Middle East during the 80s and 90s. Your friends were your family in the true sense of the word. Anyone remember international day at Sharjah English school?


    • I’m so glad it made you feel a little nostalgic! I never went to international day at SES but I do remember the ones at Jumeirah Primary School were amazing!


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