UAE Alumni: Former expat attributes love of flying to her upbringing in the country

Air ambulance pilot Tiana Spear, who moved back to New Zealand a few years ago, tells us of her life growing up as an expat

By Anu Prabhakar

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Published: Thu 4 Jan 2024, 3:51 PM

Last updated: Thu 4 Jan 2024, 5:33 PM

Unlike most people, Tiana Spear spent last Christmas working. As an air ambulance pilot, the New Zealand resident criss-crosses the country with patients like premature babies, children with leukemia and adults with brain bleeds for emergency care. When we speak finally, it quickly becomes obvious that the job comes with two non-negotiables – a love for flying, and empathy. And thanks to the 24-year-old's upbringing in the UAE, she has an abundance of both.

“My stepdad was a pilot for Emirates, so I got to see what flying was like a lot. I also grew up in a residential compound full of pilots in Silicon Oasis in Dubai,” says Tiana. “And I think empathy is actually one of my strong suits, which comes from having to understand other people’s cultures and just really having to put yourself in their shoes. I can connect with people because I know what it's like to be away from home and how difficult that can be."

Tiana's parents moved from New Zealand to Dubai sometime in the mid-1990s. "They grew up in smaller towns in New Zealand so when my dad got the opportunity to move to Dubai, my parents took it up because at that time no one, especially those from small towns, really left the country." Once here, her father worked as the vice president of Hardee’s, while her mother worked as a restaurant manager before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

Tiana was born in 1999 and studied at Dubai American Academy where she was exposed to different cultures. “I remember in Grade 5, every student had to choose one country, research its culture, clothes, food and present it to the class." She was surrounded by friends from Korea, Italy, India and Pakistan and lunch at school was an exquisite affair, with students opening their lunch bags to reveal homemade delicacies. "It tasted so different from the food you get at restaurants,” she says, smiling. “The whole experience made me very open-minded and accepting of other cultures. I don’t think I would’ve had the same level of understanding had I not grown up there."

Growing up, her favourite pastimes were catching the latest horror movie with a touch of paranormal at frigid cinema halls armed with blankets, snacks and her mom, and going for family dinners at Eat & Drink restaurant in Al Barsha, where her go-to order was chicken fry and mango smoothie. She also remembers, with great fondness, watching the Dubai Rugby 7s with friends and family. “We would all get dressed up. We had a theme every year – once we went as cheerleaders and another year we went in tie and dye shirts. We would go to The Sevens Stadium and while our parents stood at the stands and cheered, we kids would wander off and go on different rides and games.” She also learnt swimming from ages 9 to 17, initially as a hobby to cope with Dubai’s hot, arid climate and later as a competitive sport, due to her undeniable talent. “I used to go for classes six or eight times a week, and each session lasted for about two hours," says the butterfly swimmer. “I competed in the nationals and also went to England, Oman and Qatar to compete. That was something that I really loved.”

Tiana moved to New Zealand about four years ago but she continues to miss the city’s food, especially the lavish brunches. She remembers the creamy hummus and the satisfaction of flattening hot, puffed-up Lebanese pita breads as they collapsed, like a sigh. “That’s how you knew it was fresh,” she grins. “You just cannot get the same smell and taste here."

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