I bet if I asked you what it’s like living in the UAE’s ‘melting pot’ of 200 nationalities, you’d tell me it’s turned you into a more tolerant, cosmopolitan person. And, indeed, this is often true: when it comes to understanding the backgrounds and motivations of the myriad people you find in the UAE, you can’t beat the knowledge of those of us who’ve spent any time at all with so many different nationalities.
Over a cup of tea in a friend’s kitchen we’re able to empathise about everything from earthquakes, wars, cyclones and shanty towns to the complications of having third-culture kids. We might even know a few words of our friends’ different lingos.
But when it comes to our own kind, you have to look hard in a Brit to find this tolerance, this understanding, because, in my experience, no-one judges a British expat more harshly than a fellow British expat – especially in Dubai.
An example: I saw a post (not on here) some time back by a British woman who said that Dubai expats don’t count as ‘real expats’ unless they’ve lived in another expat posting first. It’s ‘too easy’ in Dubai, she said, because you can speak English, buy English food, and nip into Marks & Sparks at the weekend. It just doesn’t count. You’re not a real expat, according to her, unless you’ve had a gun pulled on you, and had to have a driver because it’s too unsafe to go places on your own (she’s maybe not familiar with MBZ Road in the rush hour).
And I do see where she was going with that: there are times when Dubai’s so familiar it can seem like a satellite London borough. But this lady’s judgement that you can’t be a real expat unless you’ve done this and that is another one of the ways we British expats like to place our compatriots in an imaginary pecking order: you shop in Spinneys? Down two notches. You don’t take your car off-road? Pathetic. You’ve never camped in the desert? You may as well be in Wimbledon!
Whether it’s how long you’ve been here, what your husband does, where you live, or which school your children go to, meeting another expat in Dubai – especially a Brit – always ends in a slew of questions that enables us better to judge, and pigeonhole, the person with whom we’re speaking. Where do you live? Is it bought or rented? Do you have a maid? A driver?
Please don’t think these are friendly questions. What they are is loaded questions – and, while they’re being asked, the brand of your handbag, and the absence / presence / size of your diamond earrings is simultaneously being clocked. We’re not nasty people, so why do we do this?
Back home, we’d have the weight of history to tell us a little about the person we’ve just met. Here, everyone steps off the plane with a clean slate, so to speak. Failed marriage; sacked from your job; charged for petty theft in Tesco? No-one in Dubai needs to know.
What others tell us about themselves in Dubai is entirely up to them. Perhaps, with our list of questions and our shameless clocking of visible status symbols, we’re simply trying to source as much background information as we can in order to better understand who these people really are.
In an ideal world, we’d love for this pigeonholing to stop but I suspect it’s just human nature, and that the questions and judging will continue ad infinitum. What we can do, however, is decide in advance how we’ll answer these questions with grace.
Bon courage, my fellow British mums, bon courage. And bear in mind that not all the diamonds you see here are real: You’re welcome.
British mum Annabel Kantaria has lived in Dubai for a very long time and is the author of best-selling domestic thrillers Coming Home and The Disappearance. The One That Got Away is out in May 2017.
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