Making myself right at home

By: Arva Ahmed - Also see author's expat blog listing

We were sprawled out in a carpeted Arabic tent, our backs propped up against red and black embroidered cushions, our feet as bare as our fingers, our shoes lined up respectfully outside. The trio of diners included a journalist with a commendable track record of Middle Eastern coverage, a well-travelled and incredibly talented photographer, and me. As our naked fingers sank into the buttery folds of Yemeni chicken mandi dripping with fiery tomato sauce, the conversation started meandering off track. It started seeping into aspects of my life that were deeply personal. It started dredging up questions I may have subconsciously submerged, until this dinner when the questions were revived. The journalist had thus far been mostly focused on my life in the city and my work as a food writer and food tour guide, but the easily answered questions were now being replaced by ones that were making me murmur, stutter, hesitate uncomfortably. How does it feel to not have a passport from this country, even though you grew up here? Don’t you get upset that you can’t vote? Does it frustrate you that you’ve been excluded from the inner circle of locals, their rights, their land? That you can be asked to leave at any time?

I had no answers. It never occurred to me to ask these questions, because I have been an expat all my life. I've come to accept that home can be found even in a country that refuses to embrace me as its citizen.

The United Arab Emirates has always been home for me. I grew up here, went to school here, saw my father’s business expand here over the last twenty seven years, and now, I am setting up my own venture in ‘food tourism’ here.

But my parents are Indian immigrants who settled here in the 70s - so India is my ‘real’ home. It doesn’t matter whether I have lived in the U.A.E. all my life, the rules of the country are such that I never had a chance of becoming a citizen unless one of my parents were Emirati. I have never seen the face of a U.A.E. passport, nor have I ever dreamt of claiming any of the rights enjoyed by the minority community of ‘true’ local Emiratis. Being an expat is the only form of being I’ve ever known, though to be clear, this expat-oriented stream of consciousness is not a thought process that preoccupies my mind every day.

The only times when being an expat registered more consciously in my mind was when I migrated to the U.S. for college, or when after five years of study, I moved from Philadelphia to New York City for a full-time job. I felt every inch a foreigner in those cities, silently acknowledging that I would pack my bags and leave some day to go back to Dubai. I never had a ‘real’ apartment - a foldable bed, a scraggy Ikea lamp and a scratched second-hand desk table were as much as I was willing to invest in. I never longed for a real cupboard, opting instead for a flimsy synthetic makeshift version that could be set up and taken down in twenty minutes flat. I fought against the need to cling to anything, any place, any one. It was all going to go away someday, the day I quit my job and returned to Dubai, my ‘expat home.’

In my opinion, this is the worst way to live the life of an expat. Detached, preoccupied with a place that I was going to be in someday, and unwilling to make the most of a life today that may be wiped off the face of the planet tomorrow.

After ten years, when I moved back ‘home’ to Dubai, the feeling of being an expat hit me with full force. The city had changed so much so that when I stepped in the door to embrace what was once home, this transformed city peered back at me with that eerie, scary question: Yes? How can I help you please?

It has taken close to two years before I finally reconciled myself with the city. And after all that emotional investment, the last thing I needed was the journalist’s provocative questions to hurl me back to square one. His questions could undo the tenuous fabric of attachment I had finally strung to the city, even if it meant temporarily blinding my eyes to the horror stories of expats who were deported or jailed or who had fled during the recession when funds dried up. His questions risked unearthing all the roots I had so carefully planted down over the months. His questions were not the ones I had asked while figuring out how to make Dubai a home once again, nor while nodding in agreement to having a custom-made cupboard fitted out for my room.

As a life-long expat, the question of where is home has been less relevant; the only question I’ve asked myself is, can I make THIS my home? I personally found the answer to that question embedded in many sub-questions:

Can I add value to society? While the question may sound unnecessarily profound, all it translates to is whether I can have a real sense of purpose in the country. More simplistically, do I feel like I am contributing - to the city, and to myself personally - in some way?

Ancient civilizations began not because a government official handed out passports, but because people finally figured out how to settle down in one place, harness the resources of that location (i.e. agriculture and domestication), and scale those resources to the point where self-sufficiency and work specialization could set in. Societies are based on the collective value of their individuals, and for me to feel like I belong to that society, I need to have a clear picture of what my value equation with that society is. Once I started working in Dubai, I was no longer an outsider. And when I resigned to start my own business, the process of running around to set things up has often driven me over the edge, but it has also brought me closer to that evasive feeling of finally belonging to a place. I’ve had to deal with cumbersome licensing issues, scour the city for suppliers, vent all over social media when my license papers got rejected for the nth time, and call on people for advice and help. It may sound counter-intuitive, but all that heartburn has actually brought me far closer to the reality that is Dubai, than have my eighteen years of growing up here.

Can I connect with the people here? This is not a question about how large my social circle is and or how many parties have VIP lists with my name scrawled over it. Admittedly, in glitzy Dubai, I’ve often got the impression that is exactly what it’s all about.

As an expat trying to grapple with the concept of making a foreign city my home, I’ve had to move away from superficial networking, fake smiles and the small meaningless chit-chat with people who would run miles from me when I need their help. I would rather scour the city for a small group of like-minded people that can really make me feel like I’m in my element. I’ve found and built that community with fellow food bloggers, people who share my passion for food, who inspire me, who attend food events with me, and who have taken the next step at becoming all-round friends beyond just food, because we have had meaningful opportunities to interact with each other.

Much of connecting with people as an expat who has just moved into the city is about making yourself mentally, physically and emotionally available. Not vulnerable, but available. I tend to take that to a scary extreme, meeting complete strangers as long as there is some tenuous link to my topic of passion: food. It helps to have an underlying purpose before you reach out to people you don’t know - it gives you a common ground to connect on, and can weed out more psychopaths than when you cast your net out too wide. It’s worked out very well for me, with my having met strangers who are now some of the closest friends I will ever have.

Can I find my peace somewhere, anywhere in the city? Almost every city I’ve visited or lived in - be it New York, Houston, Philadelphia, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Dubai - all of them have inherent contrasts. Lack of homogeneity in ‘melting pot cities’ is what gives an expat the opportunity to explore different pockets of town, and figure out which of them will help her gain her bearings in the city. Dubai has an incredible spectrum of life - the swanky rich restaurants whose one meal can be traded in for twenty meals in a different part of town, the palatial malls throbbing with a life very different to that of the vibrant olden day souks, the yachts cutting the water with an ease that defies the clumsiness of wooden abras, the suited crowds glued to their blackberry screens in the financial centre who would rarely ever bump into the shirtless sailor, glistening with beads of sweat as he loads cargo onto his ship at the Creek. It’s like a multi-pack assortment of biscuits - there’s got to be something in there that you like.

The places that give me the most peace are the ones that help me discover ‘Old Dubai’ - areas close to the Creek, down-to-earth cafés and unassuming restaurants, back alleys of the city with shop fronts that are either exceptionally mundane or exceedingly eccentric. The more I started spending time in those pockets - the Yemeni restaurant with its traditional tented seating and incredibly juicy chicken is one of many such pockets - and eventually, even focusing my writing on them, the more I felt like I had found my channels to make peace with the city.

Can I accept this place for what it is? The grass is always greener on the other side. When my father was growing up in India, he viewed the United States as the land of opportunity and eventually moved there for his bachelor’s degree. When he landed an offer for a fully-funded MBA in the U.S., he gave it up to move to an Arab city that glinted with the first signs of ambition reminiscent of the American Dream. And now, in the desert city that often feels like the Vegas of the Middle East, he talks of achieving real peace and relaxation only when he visits his home back in India. No home is going to be the perfect home.

My strategy is to dwell on the things that work and give me happiness, rather than on those things that don’t work. Back to ‘the glass half full’ basics. I have my moments when I need to vent about the entire city conspiring against me - me the poor rejected and mistreated expat - but I would rather vent and move on, than get mired in a swamp of frustration and inaction. For instance, I could experience angst over the fear of being asked to leave Dubai at any time if rules change or some adverse situation in my life makes me no longer eligible to be a U.A.E. resident. Or, I could look back at a city whose trade and free-tax climate gave my father and our entire family the blessed lives we have today. It was this ‘borrowed’ soil that nourished my father’s business for over twenty five years.

Many people have achieved what Dad has, and more, back in India as well. But it’s harder to do ‘clean business’ in India than it is in Dubai. Bribery pokes its ugly finger into any well-oiled corporate machine in India, but in Dubai, there are ways to keep your hands clean of corruption. Not everyone takes the clean and often more expensive route, but it does exist here for people like Dad who would opt for a smaller but sufficient bank account over loss of sleep. That is the route I’d aspire to take for my own venture, and I like to dwell on the fact that Dubai gives me that relatively corruption-free option.

Can I reconcile myself to a place that doesn’t treat me like a citizen? The journalist had nailed the precise question that niggles at the heart and soul of every expat. How do you feel at home in country that does not call you a citizen and give you the rights of being one?
If being a citizen and having all the associated rights are critical for you to feel at home, then the answer is obvious: find a way to go back to wherever ‘home’ is. And if that’s not an option for whatever reason - the political situation, your family circumstance, a natural disaster - then here’s a harsh reality. Sometimes even the doors of our real ‘Home’ are not open to us. A local passport, voting rights, social security, land, and the freedom to voice a frustrated opinion may seem like the ticket to a plane departing for Home, but even Home is not as perfect and permanent as we would like it to be. Home can be the place where you cannot start a business without bribing every government officer before and after you get the license. Home can be the place where your frustrated opinions fall on deaf ears or get twisted in the crooked wheels of politics. Home might be the place where a portion of your land is seized by the government so that they can widen a road. Home might be the place where you and your local passport risk getting blown up by a car bomb or terrorist attack. And I am not just talking about third-world countries. We’ve seen versions of Home mistreating us even in first-world democracies.

Can I make this a long-term home? I don’t know what the answer to this question is, and I’m not sure I want to spend time figuring it out. Life has a way of turning the tables on you just when you think you have everything planned out for the next ten years. So I would rather live and learn from the journey - how to make a place my home today, tomorrow, this year? - than live every day for a destination that’s years and years away.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned being an expat all my life is that the key to Home is not necessarily the key to happiness. But relentlessly hunting down what makes you happy in the present, in the adopted place you are in now, is necessary to feeling at home.

About the author:

Arva Ahmed is a Dubai food blogger (at www.iliveinafryingpan.com), freelance writer and food photographer who spends her days scouring out ethnic restaurant secrets in Dubai. Her latest foodie project is an attempt to spark an "Old Dubai food revival" by organizing ethnic food tours – Frying Pan Adventures – around older, down-to-earth parts of the city that are far removed from Dubai's new-age glitz and glam.
Blog address: http://www.iliveinafryingpan.com Twitter: @inafryingpan
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Contest Comments » There are 33 comments

Sheban wrote 5 years ago:

Well worded article! A lot of what you've written about resonates deeply, albeit discreetly with people under similar circumstances in Expatopia.

Francine Spiering wrote 5 years ago:

Profound, open and honest. A beautiful, balanced and thought-provoking story. Written from the heart, this is one eloquent piece of writing that resonates on many fronts. Home is where the heart is, Arva.

Arva Ahmed wrote 5 years ago:
(AUTHOR)

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this article and leave me a comment! Sheban - Thank you, glad to hear that my thoughts resonated with you and others! Feroz - Thank you! And yes, Old Dubai is right where it always was, almost the same down-to-earth place it used to be, which is why it helps me feel rooted to the city. Susanna - So glad to hear that, thank you! Minna - Very eloquently said, you don't have to pick one home over the other, if you can learn to balance internal national identity with the ability to adapt and appreciate to the place you are in now. I still consider myself Indian, and proudly so, and the feeling of being able to make my life in Dubai doesn't detract from that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Maeesha - Thank you for reading the article. It's assuring to hear that others who are in gypsy mode can identify with my train of thought. It was actually quite difficult to write this, partly because much of it is still a debate in my mind, and because I'm still learning about what makes me happy in Dubai. Would love to read your thoughts on this subject, especially from the Kuwait standpoint, and compare notes. Eva - Thank you! I hope what you read here helped to further your thought process. At the end of the day, every person who finds themselves in 'expat-mode' needs to find a personalized answer for themselves. And that for me is the biggest finding - that as an expat, you have to go out there and FIND it, the solution won't be the same for everyone, in every city, and it won't drop into our laps as easily as we'd like. Saleem - Dad, it means so much to me that you left me a comment and could identify with this article. Many of the lessons I've learned over time have actually been passed down through your own life and actions, and I will always look to how you've struck the balance between Dubai and India with great love and respect. Thanks for being that person whose life I can look to as the best example of where I want to be. GA - Thank you! Francine - Thank you, really appreciate the glowing words, and couldn't agree more with what you said, Home is truly where the heart is. So work on fulfilling the heart (and mind) first, and home will naturally follow after. For me, fulfilling the heart comes through adding value in society and the friends/family circle that's there to support me, and whom I can support in turn. Tanja - Thank you, and indeed, judging from what I'm reading from other comments above, you are not alone. :) Dina - Thank you, very kind of you to say so! David - It is a shame to not have the option of being a citizen. But admittedly, my affiliation to India is so strong that I doubt I'd be able to trade that in (unless dual citizenship would be an option). On the positive side, I like that this more global world gives me the option of feeling affiliated to more that one place, through different channels beyond citizenship. It's broadened my thinking and exposure, and suddenly, everything has multiple sides, not just the side I'm a citizen of. Anita aunty - Thank you! This means so much coming from you, a person who's lived the life of an expat for so many, many years - and gracefully so. Really happy that this article struck a chord with an expat-veteran like yourself. Nasreen - You've raised such a valid point. That is the risk we face here, and it's really crippling to know that you can be uprooted from your 'adopted home' and sent back at any time. It's the risk we accept - or are forced to accept - when we choose to make the UAE our home. Kalua - Thank you! Mukesh - Thank you for the flattering words! Dima - Means so much to me that you enjoyed the article. You're a shining example of someone who's chosen to enjoy the journey, no matter how crazy it gets, so means a lot to have you reaffirm my thought process. Audrey - Thank you for sharing your personal story, this is a very strong example of what I was trying to highlight in the article. Life will always have its compromises, whichever land you find yourself in - so the bigger and more important question is about looking at what you're gaining as you say, and truthfully valuing it so that you don't leave one place for another (whether home > expat, or expat > home, or expat > another expat place) and get sorely disappointed to find that Utopia wasn't across the border. Salman - That's so reassuring to hear, I'm glad it helped you answer your own personal questions. Thanks for sharing! Dilish - Thank you for the positive wishes! I hope to always keep my passion and spirit intact.

CJ At Food Stories wrote 5 years ago:

Arva ... Great article that I thoroughly enjoyed reading :-)

Sana Jamlaney wrote 5 years ago:

Wonderfully written Arva! I enjoyed every word of it. Thank you so much :)

Feroz wrote 5 years ago:

Nicely written. Anyone who's grown up in Dubai can certainly relate to this. Time to get out and explore Old Dubai again

Susanna wrote 5 years ago:

Arva It's a fabulous article. Your thoughts resonate with so many of us. It's so well written!

Minna Herranen wrote 5 years ago:

Arva you wrote it very well. Being expat in UAE is really bit different, this is kind of place where you remain expat, if the criteria of being expat is having citizenship and passport. Your thoughts are really good and helping to understand and accept these terms we have here. I think most of the expats here think UAE really as short term stop, so did I and I am still here after 8 years. I started to like Dubai after I decided to let is go and enjoy instead of protecting myself of not to get too keen of country and people. UAE is so different from down to earth outdoorsy Finland. I have my national identity (Finnish) and it's in me what ever happens and where ever I am, it also comforts me that I have my roots in Finland and I've kept doors open and bridge clear to return anytime world does not need me. For that reason I am happy I was able to offer Finnish national identity to my son, even we lived out of Finland and travelled a lot when he was young. Eventually I did like you, a couple of years back, I started scour the city for a small group of like-minded people and felt more like belonging. -Minna-

Maeesha wrote 5 years ago:

Arva, A very though provoking article indeed and something I think about all the time...considering I continue to live a gypsy life! Love your closing line.."But relentlessly hunting down what makes you happy in the present, in the adopted place you are in now, is necessary to feeling at home." Also, very happy to hear that you finally agreed to a "custom made cupboard" and glad that you are "settling down." On several fronts, your feelings resonate with mine.. but it would be interesting to do a Kuwait, Dubai comparison. Loved the read. Will ask Gaurav and everyone to read it too. Thanks! Maeesha

Eva wrote 5 years ago:

Arva, this is such a well worded piece! I have been thinking so much about how people think a place is not their 'home' because of formal citizenship status and yet spend long stretches of time, sometimes their entire lives, in that place!

Saleem Ahmed wrote 5 years ago:

Provoking article for those who only expect false securities when they live in other countries and want citizenship, voting rights and other benefits that go along with that. What matters most is your satisfaction that you have been able to contribute to a society in which you have lived. I am proud of my country and would never want to give up my citizenship for any reason. Never once thought why live in UAE when you will never be a citizen. Being a citizen of a country is not enough. Have enjoyed being in UAE and will remain here as long as possible, my home will always be India. It is a wonderful article you have written and keep up the good work

Tanja wrote 5 years ago:

Excellent article, I feel the same way you do - its nice to read I am not alone like that.

GA wrote 5 years ago:

Fabulous article Princess, I loved it :)

Dina wrote 5 years ago:

Well written Arva- you have spoken for all of us expats! Very honest- touched my heart!!well done!

David Prosser wrote 5 years ago:

A well crafted and thought out article Arva. It's a shame that no matter what you put into your adopted home it will not adopt you in return. With the advent of the internet you'd have thought by now we we're all citizens of the world with all the rights inherent to what we put into it. After this length of residency I'd at least want the choice of applying for full residency with voting rights. It certainly shouldn't impact on your culture.

Anita Merchant wrote 5 years ago:

My dear,dear Arva, What a great piece of writing.You have been able to express the psyche and subconcious feeling of the expats ,when we live away from our own countries. At the same time ,you have been able to analyze,how vital it is to realize "the power of Now'where ever you are at this time and live that moment happily....and make it your own ! For,Its every moment,where ever it may be, that is lived Happily,adds up to a great LIFE! Arva....amazing thoughts....god bless YOU!

Nasreen wrote 5 years ago:

Arva, well written. I have known people who have never visited their home country ever in their lives being sent back to that country when their father/ husband loses a job in Dubai. And they wave their hands wildly and ask "but what about all that I have given to this country? What about the home that I have set up here?" and there is no answer. It's indeed a strange predicament for us- to have a home where a home never really exists.

Kalua wrote 5 years ago:

Well worded, I loved to read it!

Audrey Mccaig wrote 5 years ago:

I can give you the persepective from one who left DXB, for husband's employment reasons after the downturn, 18 months ago. I am British by birth, my husband British South African. I have only scanned the article ( will read later) but I can guess the content and sentiment. We were expats for 16 years and our 2 daughters were born in Sharjah. My advice to anyone before stepping off the expat planet is 1) don't and 2) if you have to, have at least 6 months counselling to prepare for it before you do. We have returned to my husband's country,South Africa. We do not fit in, my husband is disappointed at his own country and countrymen,and we have no common antecedents with the people here. We have moved on/changed after 16 years abroad. They did not. And really why would they? This is normal everyday life,as my husband reminds me, we would feel as critical of the UK. Expat-dom is not "real life", but does that matter? All life is a compromise. Whatever one feels one is giving up with regard to citizenship, freedom of speech, or whatever your beef is,you are gaining so much more from being away. In addition, I do not subscribe to the view that expat children are lacking in any way-rather they are to be celebrated for their confidence, global aspect and much more-as I see when my expat brats are among their (non-expat) peers. I do not believe that affiliation to one system, or land is now the key. Be true to yourself, keep one's own counsel and pick your fights!

Mukesh wrote 5 years ago:

Wow ...very thought provoking.....never really knew this feeling of expat and think no one could have worded better....

Dima Sharif wrote 5 years ago:

Brilliant! Love it. Very well written, personal, with a lot of insight into the writers thoughts. Very relative and universal, really enjoyed reading it!

Salman wrote 5 years ago:

Great writing, helped me answer a couple of the same questions.

Dilish wrote 5 years ago:

Arva,Most expat will be able to relate well with your thought .Keep up your spirit and move with your passion.

Manu wrote 5 years ago:

Undoubtedly, it is a wonderful piece of writing. We always thought of that it would be nice if we could live in a world where there’s no cause for negative emotions or thoughts—but that’s not the world we live in. The key is figuring out how we can see them as potentially positive and useful. It least matter where we are? where we work? where we live? At the end of the day it matters that how we live and how we take out positives from the negatives. You article is really heart touching article.

IshitaUnblogged wrote 5 years ago:

You've written exactly that constantly nags at a dubai expat's heart... so so true! Absolutely enjoyed reading this article... touching, thought proving and so so true!

Kalyani Mehendale wrote 5 years ago:

Well done Arva! You've expressed what most expats (including me) feel in the most beautiful way! As always, your writing resonates, stirs and inspires :) Good luck!

AN Other wrote 5 years ago:

Touching, thoughtful, insightful and brilliantly written. It's a stand-out piece, Arva, that goes to the heart of these difficult ideas of belonging. Social integration - or the lack of it - is already a key factor highlighting the hypocrisy and elitism at the core of Emirati national identity; your insights throw it into sharp relief. You deserve to be read (and praised) widely. Thank you for writing.

Sukaina wrote 5 years ago:

This well written piece shows that not only are you a fabulous food writer, but a brilliant writer in general.

Naila wrote 5 years ago:

Perfectly written Arva. Very detailed and has answersz for all the expats. All the best for your new venture.

Anjana wrote 5 years ago:

wow!very well written with the true feeling of a expat..I am a big fan of your writing...so wonderful article!!

Susan Walter wrote 5 years ago:

This is by far the most thought provoking and well written of the Expat Contest essays, so it's a shame it didn't win. It goes much deeper than the usual frustrations with bureaucracy that dominate most of the other essays. A fascinating insight into an approach to expat life that we can all learn from.

Sarah wrote 5 years ago:

Arva you've managed to capture something that affects the lives of anyone who doesn't view his or herself as being "of" one single country. Managing mixed identities is a significant challenge for someone as self-aware as you clearly are. And in the face of this challenge I think your optimism is not only admirable, but much needed.

Lara wrote 5 years ago:

You write so well and so genuinely. I really enjoyed your thoughts as we are all in the same boat to an extent. I am in the process of starting my own business here and your thoughts and experiences are always somewhere at the back of my mind. You brought to the for front! Lara

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