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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.