Finding a home away from home
At which point does an expat cast away doubts to embrace a new city wholeheartedly?
This week, it’s my Dubai-versary. I complete 14 years of living in the city. Every year on this day, I take some time to sit in silence, and think about what it has meant for me to move to this desert I call home.
Like many of you, I came to this city expecting the stint to last a year. Two, at most. I would get some “international experience”, make a bit of money and head back to where I knew the city like the back of my palm. ‘Like the back of my palm’ has a whole new meaning to me now.
I remember landing into the city in the middle of the night, my head spinning as the driver seemed to be looping around complex interchanges and highways. I stared at the sea of lights. Why were all the buildings lit? Wasn’t anyone asleep? How’d I ever learn my way around this place? Did I need to learn Arabic to communicate with the locals? My driver spoke Malayalam — and fluent Hindi. And he taught me my first Arabic word — marhaba.
I remember using my first UAE dirham note — Dh20 to pay for overpriced water from the French Alps, at a hotel lobby. “Multiply that by 12, that’s INR 240?!” I thought. No more water for me.
The next morning, I drew the curtains of my tiny hotel room, and saw nothing. Just vast, empty, dusty nothing. And I think that’s when I had my first ‘Dubai’ thought. Nothing was a great place to start building something.
Soon, I learnt the roads. I learnt that water wasn’t always French (or overpriced). I learnt that I could navigate this city without knowing Arabic at all. That buildings only got bigger every year, as did the city itself.
I saw Internet City go from a handful of buildings to a swanky tech centre, the same with Barsha Heights and JLT. I saw parts of old Dubai stay the same. Nothing changed and no one moved.
I saw people come and go. I saw economic upturns and downturns come and go.
And somewhere along the way, I started to call Dubai home. Fourteen years into this journey, I celebrate what this country has done for me. I went from a 21 year old living outside my home for the first time to what I am today — a business owner in her mid- 30s, who runs her own home, who supports a family, who creates work, and whose work is creative, and a person who knows that her voice, in this city, counts for something — and can affect change.
I don’t know when it happened. But it did. At some point, I stopped multiplying everything by 12 (or 13, 14, 19 as the exchange rate changed). At some point, I stopped thinking, “ What will I do with this when I go back home?” when I bought books or furniture. At some point, the Als and Umms, the names of the streets and the neighbourhoods started to roll off my tongue with ease.
At some point, I started using much more tissue, and kitchen roll — and stopped using what my mother would in the kitchen — an old rag that was once a T-shirt.
At some point, I started measuring distance as hours from Dubai Airport and the cost of things in dirhams.
At some point, I started to internalise the fire, the expat dream that drives this city — we left behind people, a place called home, relationships and familiarity — so, we must make this count. For all the times we have been away when our families needed us, we must make this count. We stand on the shoulders of generations before us who could only dream of such resources, infrastructure, a shot at creating a new reality for ourselves — we must make this count.
I recognise this mantra as a beat, as a rhythm to which this entire city dances. Listen and you’ll hear it in metro stations, through the glass windows of traffic jams, through the lines at hypermarkets, under the bustle of food courts and food halls.
A real estate company called me this week, asking if I would like to invest in a property in Bangalore, my home city. And I said it aloud for the first time in 14 years, “I’m not sure I will ever be going back… for good.”