Gender & Identity, Life

I don’t know what to say when you ask me where I’m from

I grew up finding it difficult to ask a local official for directions, because he couldn’t understand my English and I couldn’t understand his Arabic.

If you’ve lived in UAE long enough, you know that within a maximum of a 10-minute conversation with a stranger waiting in line, you both will have gauged, if not confirmed, the nationality of the other person. The country is sparsely populated with locals, and the majority of residents are expatriates from numerous countries.

When someone outside of UAE asks me, “Where are you from?”

I have an issue, though.

I sometimes don’t know what to say.

What would you like me to say?

Which answer would you prefer to hear: my “official” passport identity, or my place of residence since birth?

And my ancestry? That’d only confuse you further.

I feel a constant push and pull between the culture of my home, and the culture that I am exposed to outside.

I grew up amongst a concrete jungle and heinous road traffic. I grew up watching my father try to build a life in a foreign land, away from his family. I grew up finding it difficult to ask a local official for directions, because he couldn’t understand my English and I couldn’t understand his Arabic. I grew up watching my father struggle to provide the best possible education for his children. I grew up in a place where sports cars were a common sight. I grew up with an affinity for Arabic food. I grew up in a city where it would have been seriously cool to have met, or even see, the Crown Prince (or any members of the royal family). I grew up commuting to school, and then to work, daily. I grew up witnessing the brilliant upholding of the laws here. I grew up in a diversely populated economy. I grew up always feeling relatively safer than the news I got to hear from the country I officially belonged to.

But I found solace in the culture of my true homeland. I see it in my preferred jasmine scented candle, in my intricately henna stained hands, and in the spices my mother adds to our food. I find it in the familiarity of my mother tongue and the Urdu melodies that speak to my soul. I recognize it every day in the resilience of our women, amongst the myriad of discrimination they face, simply because “live and let live” is not everyone’s cup of tea. I will probably never reside within its four boundaries, but I carry a piece of it with me wherever I go.

I cannot answer everyone’s why’s: Why I can’t speak the language of the country I live in, why I can’t read the language of my motherland, why my preferred medium of communication is English, why I “look” like someone from a third country. Society is instrumental in making diaspora kids feel like they need to fit into certain boxes to feel more accepted, to feel more included. But the truth is, it’s not all black or white. A merging of cultural identities is crucial to bring about a greater acceptance and an open mindedness amongst people from different backgrounds, and for development of a diverse economy on a macro level.

So the next time someone asks me where I am from: know that you are, in fact, asking a very difficult question. Dubai will always be home, and I would not trade my upbringing in this country for any other.

On the other hand, I know what it has taken my family and many others like us to build a life from scratch.

Maybe that’s why I feel a strange pull towards my roots. It gives me a sense of belonging, no strings attached.