Illustration by Rosy Tahan
In 1993, my father came to the UAE as an architect with one goal in mind: earn enough to send money back to support his parents and sisters, and then return home to Kerala, India permanently after a few years. My mother was finishing university at the time, and the thought of leaving Kerala had never crossed her mind.
This December, my father will complete 25 years as an expat living in the UAE, 22 of which were spent in Abu Dhabi. My mother has also been an expat in the UAE for 21 years. She moved to a completely new country as a newlywed, and a year later, I was born.
This coming October, I will complete 20 years in the UAE. Despite the fact that I was born here, I don’t have UAE citizenship, just a residency visa in my Indian passport. Once there is no reason for the residency visa to be renewed, that’s it. I will have to leave. A residency visa, however long you have had it, is never a promise of permanence. It is only a hope that you can keep calling this place home, even if it may never completely be home.
The UAE is unique in the sense that 90% of the population exists within the realm of uncertainty about whether they will be here in the next decade, the next month, the next year. No one knows how long they can stay in the UAE. Some have planned for the day they go back. Retiring and returning home after all those years in a foreign land can be rewarding. Sometimes, however, the decision is out of your hands.
I’ve watched friends and family leave Abu Dhabi after their entire life turned upside down. You find your name on the cut list of your company during a downturn in the economy. You make one mistake, step one toe out of line, and then going back or moving elsewhere becomes the only option. On the other hand, you can be forced to stay in the UAE longer by either the burden of debt or being trapped by other unforeseen circumstances. In the UAE, the future is not knowing the future.
Many first generation expats come here with the hope that they will return to their old lives in their countries with enough money to support themselves and their families. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. The one thing expats do know is where to go back to and how to restart. That’s how they have lived their whole lives. I know my mother would give anything to go back to her old house, her parents and friends there. My father’s nostalgia of memories from Kerala comes with both a smile and a silent ache.
My experience is different to my parents’ experiences. For me, a second generation expat, it is not nostalgia that I feel; rather, it is uncertainty. I was born in the UAE, and even if my parent’s country is a place where I know the language and the culture, going back to India means reassimilation, and that is not easy. Going back means shedding a huge part of myself that grew up elsewhere and becoming a proper citizen of the country whose passport I hold. When I was applying to colleges, the question of studying in India came up many times. I couldn’t bring myself to consider the option because I was so scared. I didn’t know Hindi. I knew Malayalam, but the way I speak it is enough to instantly out me as a Non Resident Indian (NRI) or “Gulf kid” — labels I am proud of, even though they mean that I am not always welcome in India. Often, these labels are applied with disdain. Even if I learned to blend in, I would always be an outsider in a land I was always told I was part of. But then again, I am already an outsider in the land I was born in.
How do you leave the UAE? How do you leave Abu Dhabi when that’s the only home you have ever known?
I have grown up with Abu Dhabi. The city’s transformation is parallel to mine. The Abu Dhabi you see now is not the city of my childhood, and I don’t know what the Abu Dhabi of my future will look like. My childhood was El Dorado Cinema. It was the small grocery stores with creative names which we used as landmarks to identify the different buildings we lived in. It was the cassette shops where my father and I would go to rent Disney cartoons and movies that we had missed in El Dorado. That Abu Dhabi has disappeared. The El Dorado Cinema is closed now, after 47 years. The individual grocery stores are now all owned by Baqala, a small chain grocery store. Cassette shops have closed down. The city changes so rapidly that if a blink took 5 years, you’d see two different versions of Abu Dhabi. If I blink again, will I exist in the next version of the city?
The friends I grew up with in the city have already left. They have accepted that the existence of a second generation UAE expat is an inconsistent existence. Others, on the other hand, have stayed while their parents returned to their home countries, leaving them in a limbo.
Someday I might leave the UAE and leave no trace, like every other expat. We learn from a very young age that we will leave someday. I don’t know if I can exactly pinpoint the first time I realized that my life in the UAE is an uncertain existence, but once the realization firmly set in, it was scary. I’ve worried day and night about leaving this place. I’ve worried about whether I will disappear like the old grocery stores and cassette shops. There are second generation expats who completely identify with India and Kerala because they feel like they will never part of the UAE, and there are others who ignore the entire debate because it’s easier. I am smack in the middle, proud of where I came from but unable to ignore a life lived in another land.
Aathma Dious is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected]