Growing Up: Expat Style

If you didn’t already know I grew up in Dubai, I was born here and this is my home. My parents moved here in April of 1991, I came along in September and I’ve pretty much been here ever since.

Growing up as an expat I feel like I had a very different experience to a lot of people and while some are enthralled with my stories there are a handful of people who judge me quite harshly so I just wanted to set the record straight for myself and my fellow expat kids that we are not all spoilt brats.

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First, Second, Third Culture Kid

I am what is commonly referred to as a third culture kid: someone who was raised in a culture different to that of their parents or of their native country and as a result there are a lot of things about my upbringing that many people consider strange.

I was brought up in a crazy house with parents who were both raised in South Africa though originally British – making the answer to the question “where are you from?” quite a complicated one.

My go to is that I am English but raised in Dubai, but that often leads to “oh, where in England?” to which I have no answer; my parents hail from opposite ends of the country and having never really lived there I have no where to call home, so I laugh it off and tell people I don’t know which tends to earn me questioning looks.

Ana La ataKalam El Aarabya

One thing I constantly get asked when people find out I grew up in Dubai is if I speak Arabic.

No, I don’t, I can count to 10, I know some of the colours and a few pointless words but I can barely string together a useful sentence and I don’t even know how to swear properly.

I know, it seems like an awful thing to have lived for going on 26 years in a place and not being able to speak the language but if you had been in my Arabic lessons at school you’d understand.

Most people like me who grew up here can’t speak Arabic properly, not unless they went and learned it themselves or picked it up from Arabic speaking friends

even then it’s normally just a handful of profanity and how to order a cheese bread at Al Reef – so barely anything useful.

I actually can’t speak any other languages properly, I can understand enough French to get the gist of people’s conversations (which has come in useful more times than I can count) and I also have a very basic knowledge of Thai (yes really, I lived there for 9 months, I had to pick it up).

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Jet Setting

As a child I got to travel a lot and I am lucky enough to have been to almost every continent at least once.

We spent a lot of time in Thailand, exploring the North, the islands and the big cities, we have also been on a few road trips in America, safaris in South Africa and touring around England, climbing castles and nosing around manor houses.

I’ve been on school trips to Switzerland and Russia and been volunteering in Bangladesh and I wouldn’t change a single moment of any of it. Even when a villager in the North of Thailand offered my parents cabbages in exchange for me marrying their 13 year old son…I was 4 and already taller than him!

 

But while many may consider me spoilt, I would have to disagree; I understand that I am privileged and I don’t take any of it for granted. Most third culture kids I’ve met are far more accepting, understanding and welcoming of other cultures than people I’ve met who grew up in one place (not that I’m saying there is anything wrong with that).

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UAE Pride

I feel like Dubai is my home and this is a place I am incredibly protective of. This is where I grew up, these are the people who taught me everything. I went to school with people from over 200 nationalities who educated me on traditions and life in other countries and fuelled my desire to know and understand more about the world.

One thing I have noticed about many expats who are new to Dubai is that they have this deluded expectation that everything should be like it is in their home country and when it’s not, they kick up a stink. This is not where ever you come from.

This is Dubai, things are different, learn to love them

Yes this place is not perfect and no you may not be able to buy your favourite chocolate bar in every grocery store but that’s what holidays and trips back home are for, cherish them – or order from any number of the online stores that cater to expats who can’t survive without.

Even I miss things from the UK, and I barely lived there a year in my whole life. I miss Sainsbury’s sausage rolls that come in a bucket, I miss proper Cadbury’s chocolate cause the stuff you get here just isn’t right. I miss beer gardens and fish and chips by a sea that is too cold to actually go near and I miss being able to take the bus without needing a degree in City Planning to figure out the route and I miss hoping on the train to London for the weekend, just because.

But I don’t make a big deal out of it, I wait until I go back and then I make the most of those things. If you don’t like it here, the answer is simple, go home; because complaining isn’t going to change the city into exactly what you want.

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Home Life

When I was younger we always had a maid who lived with us – so did a lot of people who grew up here. I bet a lot of your faces are plastered with that look, the one I get all the time if I talk about it…that disappointed, disgusted, or “oh you’re one of those people” looks.

Stop it.

It’s not like you see in movies with spoilt rich kids – at least it wasn’t for me. We hired a maid to help my mum keep the house in order while she and my dad worked full time jobs; I still had to clean my room, pick up my clothes and do the dishes.

I wasn’t raised by any of the lovely women who worked for us, they would look after my brother and I until my mum or dad came home work – make sure we did our homework and didn’t burn down the house but when it hit 5pm she was done with work.

By the time we were old enough to look after ourselves we no longer had a live in maid but still to this day I appreciate every single one of those women and have fond memories of the things they taught me.

There should be no shame in hiring home help, at the end of the day it’s about job creation and making your life that little bit easier – as the employers treat them with respect. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen, but for the most part I would hope that people are respectful.

Many people arrive in Dubai and hire help, a luxury they didn’t enjoy back home, but they then treat these people as a commodity completely negating the fact that these women – and sometimes men – are actually human beings. I’ve see numerous posts on Facebook groups from people who “need to find a home for my maid as we are leaving the country” like she is some puppy they are abandoning rather than a fully grown woman who requires a new job.

More than a few of my friends who grew up here had parents who had hired home help, be it a gardener, a pool guy, a driver or a maid – sometimes all of the above. Many of them had the same person working for them for over 10 years – that’s not just an employee, that is, in a lot of ways, also family.

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When I was younger we always lived in a villa, for many years it was a bungalow and all I wanted was stairs like my friends had…then we got stairs. I didn’t want stairs anymore.

Our first house was amazing, I remember my mum and my best friends mum putting myself and my friend outside to play when one of us had chicken pox so the other one would get it, I remember building a huge yellow Lego castle with my dad and being in charge of finding every yellow brick we owned in order to do so.

One year my parents even made snowy foot prints from the garden into the living room and up to the Christmas tree so I knew Santa had been. I remember playing Aladdin in my bedroom and Lion King in my bathroom (we were supposed to be cleaning it but my friend and I found that sliding around on the soapy tiles was ten times more fun) and I remember loving that house so much, even though now I can barely remember what it looked like.

Our second house we moved into when my brother was born, another bungalow, this one with a huge climbable tree in the front. This was the house where I fell off he swing and split my chin open, where I sat in Nora’s room and helped her make potato and mince balls, and where mum and I made our first ever hand rolled pasta from scratch – which we served with a lemon and saffron sauce.

After that we moved into our first two story villa, it was huge by comparison with a living room up stairs and down, a spare bedroom, a maids room and a storage room. This was the house we lived in when my parents bought a military dingy from a friend, the dog lept from the balcony on the second floor (thankfully landing on said dingy and escaping unscathed), this is where I had my first real party – and subsequent freak out that one of my friends was going to die of alcohol poisoning (it wasn’t until a few years later that I came to learn that’s just want overly drunk boys look like), it was the first house where my friends lived nearby and I’d spend everyday at the park over the road with them, or biking around the neighbourhood drinking shani until our tongues were purple.

From that villa I moved to Al Barsha, then to the Springs before I left for university in England. Since coming back to Dubai I’ve lived various places and each one is full of its own memories. But at the end of the day we did move around a lot, I am now a pro with packing tape, and that is why when we do leave Dubai one day all I want is an old house, I’m talking around 100 years old ideally, I’m tired of new, quick builds with little character and charm.

Education

We all went to private school here, government schools weren’t an option given our lack of Arabic. My primary school was the oldest English school in the city and my secondary school had a uniform that often got us confused for Spinney’s employees if we happened to be in the shop while still wearing it.

But private school wasn’t like the movies – in fact a lot of stuff isn’t like the movies.

We wore uniforms and our parents paid a ridiculous amount for us to go there but it was just school, we had budget issues, kids smoking in the bathroom, kids getting drunk and high on campus, teachers that everyone hated, teachers everyone loved and the one really hot science teacher that every girl had a crush on.

Social Life & Friendships

Weekends in high school were spent hanging out at each other’s houses, going to the cinema or blagging our way into shisha cafes…some people went to bars and went clubbing but with the “strict” 21 age limit it was easier said than done. I wasn’t prepared to waste my Friday night trying to convince a bouncer that I was 23 and my passport copy was legit when half the time they were clearly just bad MS Paint edits.

We would throw parties at peoples houses, smoke on the rooftop carparks of shopping malls or go to backyard, underground music gigs and fawn over the older boys who could play guitar.

 

One of the toughest parts of being an expat kid is probably friends. You have to grow up getting used to a cycle of people coming in and out of your life, often in three or seven year go rounds. So many people had dads who worked in oil and would move city to city every few years and as a kid that can be tough; making a friend only for them to move away soon after.

After a while you get used to it though and you learn to make the friendships count because not all of them will survive the distance. Yes with Facebook and emails it’s a lot easier to keep in touch but that doesn’t mean the friendship will hold up.

Then you have your family, the ones that stick by you no matter what – and I don’t mean the ones related by blood. These are the people who, no matter where they are in the world, will love you forever.

Going “Home” 

One of the toughest parts of growing up as an expat was going home. Holidays were lonely, I didn’t know anyone in England other than my grandparents, when I did meet people my own age I felt like an alien – no one knew where Dubai was and no one could understand how I was English but I had no idea about England.

 

These days people know where I come from, they think it’s amazing like I live in a music video and it’s all glitz and glamour (it isn’t by the way, my life is pretty low key) but that doesn’t mean they understand.

I am terrified of ever moving “home” because I feel like an outsider in a country that I am supposed to come from. Because I look English and sound English people expect me to understand things, and when I don’t they look at me like I’ve just grown a second head, when it comes down to it I am not actually English – I am an outsider.

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I moved to the UK at 19, I came home at 20 because I was lonely. I was depressed and I was lonely. I had the most amazing friends I could ask for and I loved them to pieces – I still do – but I still felt alone, and that was hard to deal with.

Can you imagine what it feels like to not fit in with people from your own country? To blend in and stand out at the same time…that is what growing up as an expat kid is.

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47 comments

  1. Loved this read! My kids are growing up just like you. They know nothing but Dubai as home. My husband grew up in the Middle East and came back to it as soon as he got the chance to. I always say to people “when you move here, embrace the people and the culture (which is so cosmopolitan)”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Same story, different country – I moved to Bahrain in 1991, and now, 26 years later, I’m still in the region, only in Dubai now. Going ‘home’, and I still don’t really know where ‘home’ is, is always hard!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes! My life story. I am now married to an American and living in Texas and people are so disappointed when they realize how little I know of England!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Kim, it’s such an amazing post! I always feel that third culture kids are so much more resilient, responsive, absorbent and very very lucky… a bit has changed in the schools though in terms of learning Arabic and the today’s Dubai kids can speak much more Arabic than you guys probably did. But the difference ends there. They have to combat similar perceptions coming their way and although there is such a sense of pride, so does the confusions. I am so proud of you all… you all are a bunch of such amazing kids! Neither do you have to blend in, nor stand out… you just stay put where you are. When I compare my girls (13 and 8) – born and brought up here – to other kids around the world… UK, US, India and more… you all are so so culturally sensitive, well travelled and so open. You rock!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Had to laugh and cry at a few things you wrote…
    – spoilt brat. Not.
    – friends who leave us. Sniff.
    – outsider. Yup.
    – languages. Polyglot in the making .

    I grew up in Abu Dhabi in the late 1970s which is why the blog post reminds me of those days when the family lived her.

    Looking forward to reading other 3TCK posts you’ll come up with

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love this! I grew up in the Middle East too [still here] with the addition of also having lived in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. I love finding these posts because it’s one step closer for the world to know of TCKs, and not just us knowing it. I actually got a bunch of TCKs around the world, more than 20 talking about where they’re from and their upbringing and put them all in one video. This is the link to it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw5nfoxSVDU

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I am almost 60 years old now, and have spent my entire adult life living and working in various countries around the world, spanning five continents and calling seventeen cities home since the mid 80’s, and OI still feel the same irrepressible urge to live and work in a new country and experience new cultures while making new friends. I never stop feeling a tremendous sense of gratitude that l was bitten by the travel bug very early in life and I have always been careful to keep any criticisms of the places I lived, to myself.Every country has their own unique cultural and societal challenges, and my positive experiences always outweighed the negative ones, which resulted in my personal and professional progress always moving in a forward and positive direction.
    Since leaving my home in Cape Town South Africa in 1984, I have lived and worked in the following countries;
    Harare, Zimbabwe
    Amsterdam, Holland.
    Antwerp, Belgium.
    London, England
    Aberdeen. Scotland.
    County Cork, Rep of Ireland
    Shelbyville, KY
    Mobile, Alabama.
    New Orleans, LA
    Newport Beach, CA (2x)
    Coral Springs, FL
    Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands BWI (3x)
    Dubai. UAE
    Hong Kong (SAR)
    Shenzhen, China
    Bangkok, Thailand (where I currently reside)

    Again, these are just the countries I have lived and worked in (legally, I might add) The additional list of countries that I have only traveled through are too numerous to mention.but amount to dozens, and although I had to give up the conventional life path that almost everyone I grew up with settled for, having children and being stuck in just one place on the planet while settling for just one member of the opposite sex to spend the rest of my life with seemed life a life sentence that I wanted to avoid at all costs.

    It has not always been easy, but nothing in life is easy all of the time, and although much of my life was spent alone, I have seldom felt lonely, because my incredible interesting and exiting journey to this point has not given me the opportunity to feel that way.

    Enjoy life and travel to as many new and interesting places as possible as I don’t believe that human being were meant to stay in one place for too long.

    Take care and all the best.

    Tony Roberts

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Having grown up in Qatar and now being married and living in my hometown, Greece, I’ve lived every single experience you’ve described above. It gets some getting used to but I’m still trying to adapt even though it’s nearly 20yrs! Thank you for the lovely read.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is such an interesting read, it seems so fancy to be growing up in another country, heck another culture, but there are def downsides. Sounds like you are a citizen of the world!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m a TCK too!! And I loved the experience, but it’s not without challenging emotions, especially with all the goodbyes. I was also born in 1991, but I was born in my home country–the USA. My family moved to Malaysia when I was a kid and most of my siblings were young enough or were born in Malaysia and can’t remember much of life before Malaysia–I’m the oldest so I can remember living in the USA, and yet I also grew up in Malaysia long enough for it to really affect who I am. We had a bit of a different experience–I knew a lot of people who had maids and went to the private American school here–but we were/are lower-income expats and there are 7 kids in my family, haha, so no live-in maids for us and no private school! We were homeschooled, actually. After high school, I moved back to the USA by myself, got my Bachelor’s degree in Mandarin Chinese, moved to China, and later on settled down in Malaysia again two years ago!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I great up in Kuwait. Can relate to many of your challenges and life 🙂 IF you have the time and interest, we are looking for guest writers for Raising World Children magazine. I believe you would have a great story to share. Do check us out. We are 120 strong and continuly growing!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Very interesting and honest. I don’t think you are spoilt at all, you’ve lead a great life, sorry to hear you are lonely. I’m an expat in Spain, my kids are third culture kids and often wonder how they feel when they grow up. Their home will always be Sevilla, I think, but can’t wait till they get to an older age so we can travel more with them. Good luck with everything!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. You are very fortunate to see the world at a very young age 🙂 treasure it 🙂 our world really needs more people like you who understand and appreciate people from different ethnicities 🙂

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  14. Wow. What a very fun way to grow up. I love that you were able to travel so much as a child. You seem to be a great adult, so fantastic! 😉

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  15. Pretty much reminds me of my life. I was born and raised in Delhi, India. But my parents are from Kerala, one of the states in South of India. My struggle with my sense of belonging to Delhi at times drives my folk crazy.

    I absolutely loved your post.

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  16. A very interesting and inspiring post. A lot of teens and even adults would definitely relate on those experiences that you mention. I enjoy reading this.

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  17. What an interesting insight, there’s so many people I know who live in the UK now, grew up in one country, were born in another and their parents come from an entirely different one again and it’s amazing knowing about their lvies x

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  18. Although growing up in a different country has always sounds really fun and exciting, I never really thought about the ‘where is home?’ aspect that comes with it. That must be tough! Thanks for sharing your experience, very eye-opening!

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  19. Being a third culture kid must have been tough as I know some people can be ignorant and offensive with their commentary. I can definitely identify with your difficulty to fit in, my biological parents are Portuguese, I was raised from the age of 10 by a British family and my biological mum married a Pakistani mum so I have siblings that are half English, a Quarter Portuguese and a quarter Pakistani. It can be difficult to know which culture to fit in sometimes.

    Like

  20. What a lovely post, it definitly brought back memories for me. It’s funny I used to put myself in boxes and get shipped to my home country when I was younger, this picture resonated with me lol.

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  21. I never thought about these things..third culture is a complete new term for me!!!
    Growing up in different countries is so exciting, I am sure it has its downside too.
    Nice read!

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  22. Ohh thank you for sharing a piece of yourself! I understand that part not knowing where you belong to. I am origin from Thailand but I grew up in Sweden. And then I lived in Finland for 3 years and now in Switzerland for 14 years. When I am in Thailand I feel like swedish but when in Sweden I feel like a thai. But I have learn that the earth is my home no matter where I am. That is why I love to travel so much…

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  23. I know exactly how you feel when people ask you where you are from. I am Indian origin, born in East Africa and live in Uk with a british nationality !! People just can’t understand I am when I say I am Indian. I think your experience of living amongst other cultures is great as it broadens your mind and you are more acceptable of other nationalities and traditions.

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  24. I always thought that being a third culture kid is so much fun and interesting! Being able to travel a lot, and meet new people, open your mind to explore new cultures, lands and live different traditions.. well, it might feel tough sometimes, but anyway, loved this post 🙂

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  25. I’m just a red nigger who loves the sea. I had a sound colonial education, I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
    That’s what Derek Walcott said in one of the most amazing words that were ever written about being a multi – culture person.
    either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

    Like

  26. Your post brought back so many memories. Im an expat child and now an expat adult myself and it’s always so neat to hear the stories of other expat children. Though I moved to the US we still had to go through some of the same things.

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  27. Kim– My niece and nephew are differently third culture kids as missionaries. I know that I was going to write a post to this nature for kids in foster care too. I think that you definitely hit many points straight on the head. I am sorry people have given you a really hard time about it. I think it’s awesome!

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  28. This was a very interesting read although I felt bad that people get judges so easily these days. I lived in many different cities while I was a child and after I got married I loved to Japan and now in Australia. I could connect to so many of your points. I loved your perspective on expat living, and how you shared your experiences.

    Like

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