I am a Croatian/American author, blogger Interpreter, Third Culture Adult, (ATCK) mom of four TCKs and wife to a Sudanese Egyptian architect.
I grew up in Libya and Sudan, moved to the US in my twenties and later to Qatar. We moved to Dubai for my husband’s job in the construction industry and we have called it home for almost six years.
Even though we lived in Qatar for nine years and were familiar with the values and lifestyle of other Arab/North African countries, Dubai has been a revelation in terms of my previous understanding of Arab culture. I speak fluent Arabic and my family is Muslim yet Dubai surprised and challenged us all.What challenges did you face during the move?
My husband found the work environment and interactions different from the ones in the US and Qatar. A unique set of rules and ethics ruled in his workplace and he had to modify his views and interactions.
My children faced challenges fitting into the much more vibrant and hectic lifestyle of the city. Dubai is a multicultural melting pot composed of about 190 nationalities. Navigating the various codes of behavior, opinions and attitudes towards life, became a daily experiment in broad-mindedness and understanding.
For me, the challenges presented themselves in the most surprising ways. I became aware of the ‘high maintenance’ philosophy of many of the women in Dubai. Weekly beauty treatments, attention to image and designer shopping seemed to touch all ranks of society. I met women from assorted nationalities whose main activities were the next lunch at one of the luxury hotels, lounging by the pool at an expensive club or the next purchase of a designer brand bag hanging off their manicured hands.
Previously, while living in the down the earth city of Portland in the US, I wore Birkenstocks, t-shirts and baggy jeans on my school runs. In Doha, a much quieter, friendlier city, the pressure was less apparent than in Dubai. High heels and fancy dresses were reserved for special occasions. Not so in Dubai.
Many women I met seemed to arrive in Dubai with a similar sense of bewilderment and admiration for these stylish creatures. What a paradox then, that after a year or two we found ourselves unwittingly becoming a part of this previously much frowned upon way of life.
Another aspect that greeted me and my family when we moved here was the sense of urgency and the perpetual action. There was so much to do and see and so much to accomplish. Festivals, children’s activities, groups, concerts, art galleries, beaches, plays, road trips, desert safaris etc. all beckoned us into a feverish state and always feeling like we were not doing enough, seeing enough.
Of course the pressure was self-induced. I realize that it comes from uncertainty. Not knowing how long we will remain here and therefore the need to discover and experience as much as possible during the time we have. It is almost as if we are on a vacation where we want to squeeze in as many memories as possible. The city offers much to its residents in terms of culture and entertainment. On a daily basis there is news of a new event…a must see fountain, building, shopping mall, store or restaurant. It can become exhausting keeping up with it all.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
My relationship with the local community has been mostly through my children and their friends’ parents. Also, I was lucky to meet some lovely Emirati women and men through social events and initiatives. Due to the fact that I speak Arabic I would often strike up conversations at a store to exchange opinions even ask for help when I am met with something unfamiliar. Like when a group of local ladies at a fair explained their pastries and convinced me to add some traditional fish sauce and try it!
During my time in Dubai I have never met an unpleasantly disposed or rude local. I find them highly respectful, approachable and kind. Hospitality is a sacred aspect of Arabic culture and I was familiar with this. Glad to say the Emiratis confirmed it double fold. They welcome so many into their country for various reasons. They have their laws and rules just like any other country does, and we as visitors are blessed to live in a city that allows everyone to practice their way of life within the guidelines of morals and safe conduct.
How does shopping (for food/clothes/household items etc.) differ compared to back home?
Shopping is one of Dubai’s main attractions. The city has one of the world’s biggest shopping malls and a plethora of merchandise for all tastes and budgets.
From the enormous Dragon Mart, a megaplex teeming with a comprehensive list of goods from China to the luxuriously and creatively designed Dubai Mall in the shadow of the tallest building in the world. The Burj Khalifa, full of upscale boutiques and brands – there is something for everyone. I find that shopping here is different than in Croatia or the USA for example in terms of selection.
The goods are as varied as the occupants of the city. That adds to the appeal…and the temptation. Traditional spice and gold souks, Versace, Louboutins, Marks and Spencer, Boots, Spinneys…Ikea…Daiso etc…We have a little dash…a taste from every side of the world and intended for all budgets.
What do you like about life where you are?
Dubai has allure and charisma – a certain mystery brought on by my romantic envisions of Lawrence of Arabia, Lion of the Desert and most recently Black Gold movies. It is a city of shifting sands and an ever changing map and skyline.
My number one of reasons I love living here is multiculture. Because of my eclectic upbringing (my mother is Croatian, father Serbian and stepfather Sudanese/Muslim) and because I value diversity so much this is a city I feel I can both blend into stand out at the same time. I love how all of these ethnic groups mingle with each other in a beautiful choreography of appreciation, each taking delight in the others’ culture and traditions.
During the festival of Diwali or Eid or Christmas everyone gets into the spirit. I know Muslim families who put up a Christmas tree, go out for Easter Sunday brunch…Christian families enjoying the sunset breaking of fast with their Muslim friends during Ramadan, and children celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali at their schools.
The very same issues I mentioned above that exhaust us and test us are curiously also the very things I like about Dubai. The dynamism and atmosphere, the myriad of events and entertainment at our disposal. I have witnessed countless stories of successes and personal transformations and believe it is due to the opportunities Dubai offers. To start fresh, to achieve…much of it is possible here.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
The weather – it is hot, humid and dusty for most of the year. Hordes of families escape with the sound of the last school bell in June. We have some great weather too, Nov-March, and some rain if we are lucky. It’s just that I quickly tend to forget those pleasant cool months with the approach of each summer.
Another reason not to like Dubai would be the traffic. More annoying than the constant development and construction of new roads and bridges, (which I realize is for our benefit) I am annoyed with the drivers. Like the ones who snobbishly cut in front of you after you have waited forty minutes in the lane and the nasty ones who never thank you when you let them ahead.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Everyone has their own way of settling in and their own anticipations. What works for me might sound ridiculous to someone else. Most expats have probably perused books or articles in order to learn about their destination, thinking they will be ready.
But alas, no matter how organized they think they are, culture shock will occur. It will run its course as will the desire to flee to the safety of the familiar.
My suggestion would be that anyone moving here realizes that whatever they heard or read cannot prepare them completely. Most people from the West have certain views about life in Dubai, and about the Arab world and its people. After the initial period of adjustment they will find it is nothing like what they expected.
That is when they should dive in, exploring and marveling in this newfound world full of shiny new and remarkable things.