*Illustration by Timothy Chiu *
The concept of belonging to a certain space is almost a natural one. Inherently, you belong somewhere –– with your parents, amid your friends, perhaps in a house, or a town or a city. We are used to belonging: it is a comfortable thought to be surrounded by familiar faces, places or roads but as we walk off the old gravel-lined paths into new sounds and fresher air where comfort is gone, we feel unmoored and untethered.
Where do you belong? I blink slowly, thinking. “I belong here.” Here is wherever I am, wherever I choose or whatever has chosen me by certain happenstance or design. Here is Abu Dhabi. I think of where I belong every time someone asks me where I belong. But I have begun to complicate this notion and wondered to myself: I was born in Pakistan, but I do not belong there. What does it mean to belong to a country I have only seen for a month every two years? It may be odd but I always feel more adrift when I visit Pakistan than when I’m in Abu Dhabi. I could say I belong to the UAE, but do I really? I saw Abu Dhabi grow as I grew with it, I have seen the white and mustard taxis change into sleek silver ones, I have finished highschool and started my first semester of university here; I know this city. But what good is knowing this city to its heart when I will be leaving in a few months? There will be no proof of me left behind, my apartment filled with new tenants, fresh footsteps covering mine, and every face I know here will become a distant memory.
Perhaps, being a freshman at NYU Shanghai will invite me to belong to the loudness, boldness and brilliance of Shanghai. Its busy streets, fluorescent lights and cacophonic peace may remind me of Abu Dhabi: it may not be so strange after all. But I also know there is nothing that could replace what I have here.
A lot of students who leave Abu Dhabi for different opportunities abroad experience this double identity of being from your home country but feeling wholly part of another. It is strange but recognizable for so many of us. Maybe students who have started calling Abu Dhabi itself as their new home feel this way too. How can you feel like you belong to two spaces so wildly different? To feel part of the things that everyone around you has to offer and desire to know your new city enough to make it a home. That is what I want.
My documents say I am from Pakistan, but I also belong here, among the palm trees, pulsing sun and shiny grey roads. I think everyone who steps into Abu Dhabi leaves a part of themselves here, between the sun-bathed skyscrapers, sleek streets and histories.
Perhaps you also may not truly feel an attachment to a newer place and that is valid. Not finding a place is like being suspended between comforts and being alone in even the most crowded rooms. Everything around you is fast, everyone knows someone and you’re stuck. You may feel like you belong to a place you are not present in as of the moment, and that can be hard. Or you may feel like you do not belong anywhere, which is alright too.
Our places will find us, perhaps through the mazes of our journey, past us walking into the possibilities in our life. Maybe, it really is as simple as that.
Maybe I will find a new belonging, call a new place home while I continue to miss my first true home. I will always try to belong. I may not have to give up belonging to establish a new one, but I will not truly know until I am wading the waters of a new territory.
As I browse through flight tickets, there is still a desolate knowingness that some part of me will remain untethered.