(Nearly) A Year in Dubai


In 2016, I visited Hiroshima. It is amazing that there is a modern city of Hiroshima at all, given what happened there during World War Two. I knew relatively little about the atomic bomb attack before my visit. When the bomb exploded over the city on August 6, 1944, people within a one mile radius of the drop site were killed instantly. In my mind, I had always assumed that every single person within the city had died, although I was aware that many people suffered from the resulting fallout. I think the part that struck me was the fact that many people in the actual city survived the attack. I had assumed the fallout only impacted those quite far away from the centre.

After visiting, I read the book Hiroshima by John Hersey. This book focuses on the struggles and stories of survivors, as opposed to discussing solely those who were lost. It plainly, and brutally, describes the injuries experienced by these survivors, but what I recognised in the book was the wholehearted determination of the people of Hiroshima to continue living. Despite going through one of the most devastating experiences humanity has ever seen, people did their very best to carry on.

As you exit the Peace Memorial and Museum that now stands in the city, there is a poem that reads:

That autumn
In Hiroshima where it was said
“For seventy-five years, nothing will grow here”
New buds sprouted
In the green that came back to life
Among the charred ruins
People recovered
Their living hopes and courage

Japan has recovered remarkably. Hiroshima is now home to 1.2 million people. Life, despite all odds, has flourished.

So why have I began my story about our first year in Dubai with an anecdote about Hiroshima?

This is not a horribly misguided reference to my suffering, not at all. I cannot begin to imagine the physical and emotional trauma that the survivors of Hiroshima – or any horrific event of war – suffered. I am not suffering. But, when things are difficult in my life, I tend to seek inspiration from those who have gone before me. I am not a positive thinker. I am a realist. Millions of people have faced far greater challenges than I can comprehend. People I encounter in everyday live have survived struggles, and kept on surviving. That is what helps me to keep on pushing through when things get rough.

If life could continue in Hiroshima, even on my worst days – when I’ve wonder what on earth I am doing here – life will go on.

I have been thinking about our first year in Dubai recently. Matt published a three part series on how he has experienced the shift as an ex-pat pilot. It’s an interesting read – you can find them on LinkedIn (part one, part two and part three) if you want to take a look. I think the most astounding part is that my experience of Dubai has operated on a very different timeline than his.

I’ll take you back to last February. Matt and I moved into a studio apartment in a crummy hotel out the back of the Mall of the Emirates. The mosque next door started at about 5.45AM, and then the building work began – through to 7PM. The bed was rock hard, and we both barely slept from the stress of it all. I was still trying to work for the New Zealand Government at this time. After two days together, Matt started his new job. I was left at the hotel, trying to study and work. Our furnishing allowance didn’t come through very quickly, so we both burnt through a bit of our savings trying to get basic furnishings. I can assure you that trying to furnish a three bedroom apartment in a foreign country is not fun. We discovered quickly just how expensive living here is, and that our money wouldn’t stretch as far as we had expected. By the time we moved into our apartment 10 days later, we were both pretty exhausted.

In Matt’s account of moving to Dubai, he called phase one Disbelief and Shock, and phase two Euphoria. I missed stage two completely. From day one in Dubai, things were pretty rough. People tell you that moving to a foreign country is hard. You don’t really believe them – it can’t be that bad, can it? But it is hard. I’m not afraid to say that I struggled completely. I have handled some pretty heavy stuff in my life, and the move was still incredibly difficult for me. I knew about four people here. I spent most of my time alone in that first month, as the next wife arrived about three weeks after I did. I went from having a great career to living in another country to support my husband – who I had only married one month earlier. Matt worked 9-5 during the week and had to study in the evenings, and the weekends were spent trying to sort out our lives and furnishings. I clung to my old life, via my job, very strongly. I couldn’t apply for roles in Dubai without my visa, so I waited until I returned from my visa run (to London) before I started applying. I started to notice my speech declining because I was interacting so infrequently with other people. I tried talking to anyone – shopkeepers, taxi drivers, random people – just to feel like I wasn’t alone. I was so lonely one day that I wrote to ServiceIQ, who had released a Press Release about aviation training in Dubai, and commended them on their work. That led to a coffee with a fellow New Zealander working in the region. I didn’t realise just how incredibly lonely I was until I spoke to someone who knew my old life – dealing with all the aviation providers back in New Zealand. While I didn’t particularly miss New Zealand, I missed the normalcy of my old life – a career, stability – terribly. To make matters worse, I didn’t really want to talk to anyone back home, because I didn’t want them to know how bad of a time I was having.

When I left New Zealand, everyone joked that I shouldn’t bother getting a job. How fun would it be to sit beside the pool, drinking cocktails all day, while my husband went off and worked? But reality isn’t like that. I don’t want children, and I like having a career. A lot of my self-esteem and self-worth is tied up in doing something that I consider to be important and worthwhile. While it was nice having a bit of spare time, I spent most of it feeling like I wasn’t contributing at all, and getting in an exhaustive cycle of stress and disappointment.

I got pretty emotional over the next few months, though things improved when a few more wives arrived. However, my health declined. I got really, really sick, and took around five months to get over it. I’m still not 100% right. The stress of trying to find a job only compounded my health issues, until my doctor told me to take a break from searching for a few months. I made the decision that I was going to stop looking for a permanent job, and would take three months to travel. Flitting in and out of Dubai, while robbing me of a routine, made life here more bearable. I started writing this blog, and still add to it, despite the fact that very few people read it. I missed the worst of the summer heat, and was busy enough that I didn’t feel low about not having a job. It was always in the back of my mind, though. I knew the travel couldn’t go on forever.

When I moved to Dubai, I genuinely didn’t think I would struggle for too long to find work. But boy, did I struggle. I applied for over 200 jobs. From this, I had three interviews. In Dubai, you are legally allowed to pay people holding different passports, different amounts of money. Unfortunately, the experience that I had in Government wasn’t in demand from foreigners in Dubai. If you ever want to be brought soundly down to Earth, move to another country – not Australia – and apply for a job. It is hard. Because it is cheaper to hire other ex-pats, I was probably moved to the bottom of the pile for most jobs. People are transient here. If someone can hire a worker who speaks broken English to do your job for half the price, it will happen.

Finally, towards August, I picked up some part-time work which led to a full time role. It is a role that I enjoy, and it is in an area I have not worked in before. I appreciate the opportunity I have been given, and – despite my salary being about a third of what it was at home – I am an enthusiastic worker. If nothing else, the job I have gives me great connections to interesting, enthusiastic people – and a welcome break from the airline scene.

I feel like it is always difficult moving to a new country. It doesn’t matter whether you have – as we did – left high paying, successful jobs, or whether you are trying to start a new life for yourself from scratch. Both are difficult. I can only offer our experience. Matt went from a very stable, envied career which was high paying, to a relatively envied career that was even better paying. My experience was very different. I went from a challenging and well paid job to nothing. No interest in my career whatsoever. I think I got offered a florist role for 4000AED a month. I had worked very, very hard for years to further my career, just to have it amount to nothing. The job I finally got was through a stroke of luck, and that very Dubai way of knowing the right person. As I said earlier, while it is not a continuation of my previous career, I am grateful – very, very grateful – to have a career in Dubai. I know many people are not so lucky. Others are quite happy to not work, and good on them. It is just not the life for me.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Dubai is that, as an ex-pat country, it’s a Western ex-pat destination. It is not. Dubai is apparently the most cosmopolitan city in the world. 83% of Dubai’s population are ex-pats. About 85% of the expatriate population – or 71% of the total population – is Asian, primarily from India (accounting for 51%). Other Asians in Dubai are originally from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Around 5% of the ex-pat population identify as ‘Western’. Yes, there are some rich Westerners here, living in their massive houses with a pool, dog and Ferrari. But not that many. And most of them are up to their eyeballs in debt. The majority of Westerners are just living their lives as regular people – saving what they can to go back home – and making the best of it. You make certain sacrifices in moving overseas, to provide for your future. The Western ex-pat dream of fast cars, spa days, classy furniture, butlers, maids, expensive clothes and fancy holidays is a bit of a fallacy. There are people doing – and experiencing – all of those things, of course, but they probably aren’t saving a thing. We aren’t really hung up enough on ‘stuff’ to get drawn into that vortex.

We live in a comfortable apartment in Downtown Dubai. It looks like an IKEA showroom. We were very lucky to get our apartment, which was allocated in a ‘pull a number out of the hat’ selection process by the company accommodation team. We are still grateful for it, despite the face that the water pressure is horrific, one of our hot water cylinders blew up a month ago and still hasn’t been replaced, we have constant problems with bugs and our intercom doesn’t work. It is quiet and (apart from our bug issues) clean, and we appreciate that. We have a nice cleaning lady that comes once a week for a few hours. I mainly work from home, so spend very little on going out, clothes or makeup. I save my money so I can enjoy nice lunches with friends, the occasional massage and a horse ride through the desert once every few months. Of course, I save a lot of money for my travel too, but we tend to stay in cost-effective hotels, take advantage of airport lounges and free offers, and spend most of our time wandering foreign cities rather than spending lots on attractions. We live, I would say, fairly modestly. We are lucky that Matt earns enough to be able to support us comfortably, but with the exception of the added travel – our lives aren’t really that different than they would have been in New Zealand. When people visit, it does seem like great fun. But we don’t hang out at the Burj Khalifa on a regular basis. The last time I visited the Dubai Mall without visitors, I was running through it at 10.30PM at night, desperately trying to replace a broken tripod for work. When it’s your local, it’s far less exciting.

Matt’s third stage of settling into ex-pat life was Realisation and Reality. I went through this stage a lot earlier than Matt. I had no choice. He still had the shine of travelling around the world in a fancy plane to new destinations for quite a while – while I was, largely, stuck in Dubai once I started working. And the thing is, really every city is the same when you are working. It’s just another place to work and live, and it’s what you make of it.

There are funny little things about Dubai that you don’t really think about before moving here. The way that you are greeted as a SirMaam wherever you go. The horrific way some people treat “the help”. The crappy driving, the difficulty in arranging utilities and infrastructure. The fact that you can’t wash your clothes during the day for half the year, because it’s too hot. The dodgy pork section at the supermarket. Everyone is speaking English, but it’s about 50 different varieties. The constant road works, building sites and redirections. The Inshallah’s that you aren’t sure about – does it that mean you will get the stock in next week, or never? It’s confusing enough to get your head around one new culture. Dubai is a mishmash of every culture in the world. If you are not good with change and uncertainty, it is not the place for you.

But you know what? Crappy things happen everywhere. Roads take forever to get built in New Zealand, as well. I remember having the worst time dealing with Vodafone in New Zealand before I moved to Dubai. Even though English is pretty much everyones first language, people still got things wrong. No matter where you move, there will always be issues. While it is difficult to imagine another six years in Dubai, a year ago, it was difficult to imagine surviving one year. To be honest, things aren’t that bad. Today, I had to catch a cab, and the driver turned off his Indian channel and switched to Katy Perry. I can’t remember the last time I listened to Katy Perry by choice, but I appreciated the gesture. White girls clearly love Katy Perry. I find that people generally respect me more (in a work sense) in Dubai. People don’t know that I started as a PA, and they don’t care. At the end of the day, it’s the people we have met, and the friends we have made, who make it a lot easier to live here.

Last week, someone smashed into the side of our nice new car. Cars, incidentally, are about one of the only things (along with petrol) which are cheaper in Dubai. This wasn’t even the first time it had been damaged in Dubai – someone backed into it previously in a sandpit and left without a note. If I had been a second later, the other driver would have smashed into my drivers side door, probably injuring me badly. But you know what? New Zealand has some pretty horrific drivers too. I was more annoyed than anything else, and then finally grateful that I wasn’t injured. We have insurance, and the car could be fixed. While these things are sent to try us – and try me, they certainly do – I do my best to overcome them. Sometimes, it takes a little while. And sometimes, it takes longer again. Sometimes, I absolutely lose my rag and still wonder what on earth I’m doing here. But I’m trying my best, and I think that counts for something.

So, here’s to the first year in the desert. There are many more experiences to come. I haven’t even seen a cheetah hanging out of a car yet. On the actual anniversary of our arrival, we will, ironically, be back home – in Wellington. We had annual leave tickets that needed using, and I can only hope we manage to scrounge a business class upgrade for the 17 hour flight home.

See you soon, New Zealand!


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The 58th Floor is the travel and lifestyle blog of Belinda Birchall, based in Dubai. It provides advice and information on travel throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as useful information for living in Dubai - and anything else of interest!
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