Expat or Immigrant?

Hello blog, it’s been a while. I’m not going to start making excuses or apologies because I sort of haven’t had much to write about for a while. But I felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard this week to address an article published in the Guardian which both irritated me and made me pause for thought in equal measures. So here I am, stirring up a hornets’ nest, and getting on my gin-soaked white middle class expat high horse to write about it.

The article in question is dramatically headlined ‘Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?’ It’s a good place to start; to open up the debate, and it’s had me thinking a lot about whether this statement is actually true. My gut instinct was that it wasn’t, but then I began to fear that it was. So I read the article; then I read the links; then I re-read my own research on the subject. The conclusion I came to, is that in a world of flux, where people are coming and going from place to place, stopping for a few months or years, or never going back, or going back one day, or next year, or as soon as they can, or running from somewhere, or running to somewhere, or running after someone, or something, or seeking money, fame, happiness, peace, a job, a safe haven, inspiration…the conclusion I finally came to, is that there is a lot of confusion about the labels we use, because they don’t all mean the same thing, and yet maybe the judgemental society we live in wants them to mean the same so we can apply them in the same way to different groups of people.

Let’s address the facts first. Immigrant, if you care to search beyond the Wikipedia entry my esteemed Guardian journalist quotes in the first paragraph and actually look it up in a dictionary, is defined as ‘a person who comes to a country in order to settle there.’ An expatriate, on the other hand is ‘a resident in a foreign country’, or ‘a person who lives in a foreign country’. See the subtle difference there? Let’s put a third definition in, because it’s another word that’s bandied about a lot: ‘migrant’, meaning ‘a person that moves from one region, place, or country to another.’

The use and abuse of these three words is, I am supposing, what the journalist had in mind as the point of their article. And this is where I have the problem. Because while I appreciate the words ‘immigrant’, ‘expat’, and ‘migrant’ are all misused by governments, media and the general public, for better or for worse I believe it to be a class issue, not a race issue.

In the UK, ‘immigrant’ is seen as a derogatory word, feeding the idea to paranoid Daily Mail readers that thousands of illegals are stealing our jobs or living off benefits they don’t deserve. This is not the truthful or correct definition for the thousands of immigrants who move countries determined to make a better life for themselves (no mean feat, by the way), but the article has played nicely on the negative connotations and emotions of their reader to get their point across. So let’s be a little clearer. An immigrant is someone who is settling. Someone who intends to stay. Someone who left their own country to live somewhere else. Forever. They don’t get called ‘expats’ because their intention is to put down roots and not go anywhere. They have to be called something, and as they are immigrating, it would seem only fair to call them immigrants. In the US, everyone is historically referred to as an immigrant. Irish, Italian, Polish, German – and yes: Arab, African and Chinese – the yanks don’t discriminate. If you want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you’re going be an immigrant first. I suppose you could say they are emigres, if you wanted to use a word with less negativity attached to it. But I’m not sure there’s enough evidence to suggest anyone refers to someone as an expat instead, purely because of the colour of their skin.

So why does the word ‘expat’ exist at all then? As one Facebooker put it ‘there’s the suggestion of something a bit temporary about the word expat.’ I agree; I think of it as a word to describe someone who’s gone to live and work in another country on a temporary basis. But I admit, we don’t use it to describe everyone. I don’t see many Bangladeshi construction workers being referred to as expats, for example.  Housemaids aren’t usually called ‘expats’. So maybe it’s a term that’s reserved for white-collar workers? A term for the middle classes?

Or maybe I’m just more comfortable with that idea than the alternative? And god, how awful is that? I’m more comfortable with being differentiated by my wealth than by my skin colour? It’s at this point I’m horrified by myself.

I push further. Was the article right? Is ‘expat’ a problem word? Is it a ‘white’ word? I question what I would label some of my friends and acquaintances, if I had to choose: the Indian doctor, the Pakistani teacher, the Lebanese administrator, the Egyptian business owner, the Kenyan nursery teacher; the mums I’ve met from Syria, China, Brazil, Greece, Russia and Iran…and find myself describing all of them as expats. The colour of their skin doesn’t even occur to me, nor does their nationality, except that halfway through making the list I find myself marvelling at what an amazing array of languages, cultures and religions exists alongside each other here, and wonder if ‘expat’ is just a made up term used by the media to make us feel bad about our cosy middle class lives.

But no; there’s truth in the fact that ‘expat’ is a term that’s used for a specific group of people and it’s not just the media that feed it. There’s no doubt that everyone I know, everyone I think of as an expat, is of a certain social status. I wonder if the word even exists in some less fortunate parts of the world, or whether it’s just a word that’s been made up by more affluent people to try and describe how we all wander about the globe, lucky enough to be able to live a comfortable existence and trip off home whenever we’ve had enough of living away. The construction workers, factory workers, domestic workers – I still wouldn’t use the word ‘immigrant’ here in Dubai, because it implies a permanence none of us will ever have. I guess that ‘migrant worker’ is probably the description I’d use, or something similar. I’ve never really thought about it. It makes me feel very uncomfortable to admit this. I’ve never dissected it in this way before, never really examined the word ‘expat’ for all it’s meaning.

I may be naive, but I still believe there’s more to it than the colour of someone’s skin. Maybe I’ve just been away from the UK too long, or live in some sort of idealist utopian dream most of my life, and I’m completely wrong about it all. I’m fascinated and appalled by the idea that I might be, yet stubbornly convinced I am not.

I’ve never had to worry about much, in terms of the bigger picture; never had to live or work anywhere I didn’t want to, never doubted I would have an education, or a roof over my head, or my own freedom. In those terms, I have everything. My living abroad status is about wanting to, not having to. It’s a choice – a luxury even – fuelled by desire not necessity. Maybe that is what makes me an expat versus anything else: the ability to choose to be one. It’s certainly one way to think about it.

But there’s so many lines of argument, so many reasons why these labels work in some places and not in others – and why they mean so much to different people, positively and negatively. While I don’t agree with the sweeping statement made by the Guardian, it’s certainly made me more aware that the imbalance – that divide between how we label and treat the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’ in our odd little bubbles, is something we all should address.

What are your thoughts?

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You know you are creating an expat brat when…Part 2

I’m starting to think we may have permanently ruined our child. I’ve mentioned this before, but feel it’s prudent mention it again. He does not live a normal life, despite our best intentions. Honestly, we try to keep it real, but it’s kind of difficult when your life involves jetting across two continents at a time (and back) for the summer holidays. My son isn’t five yet and already has two separate air miles accounts with more points racked up than most people get in a lifetime. He’s living in a gold plated sandpit for three quarters of the year in near-permanent sunshine, where ‘nature’ is limited to sand, camels, scorpions, palm trees and bougainvillea flowers blowing across the fake grass.  Then we blast him through time and space to various destinations for the remainder of his year, travelling with as many upgrades as our own air miles can muster in order to make our travel experience just that little bit easier. The kid barely knows what economy class looks like and certainly has no idea that flights can sometimes last as little as two hours to get you from A to B. But it’s not all bad. He’s had some pretty cool experiences that mean expat life can and should be celebrated. Ask him about time zones and he can tell you which of his relatives is eating breakfast while he’s tucking into dinner. He hasn’t been on a pony, but he’s ridden a camel across the Liwa desert. He hasn’t been to a football match but he’s nipped to the Dubai 7s for the afternoon. And the ferris wheel in London was cool, but not as high as the Burj Khalifa.

But living a normal life? Keeping it real? WTF is normal about any of this?  NOTHING.

So I admit defeat. My son is an expat brat. Here are seven more signs for the summer vacationing expat parents out there, that you’ve probably been smoking something if you think your little darlings are growing up ‘normal’:

1. Arriving in at any airport, the first words they utter are: ‘Mummy, where’s the driver?’

2. When other kids ask where they come from, they mutter ‘America, England AND Dubai’ in a sort of reluctant mid-atlantic accent which leaves the other child in question a bit flummoxed and their accompanying parent rolling their eyes, as though you’ve deliberately trained them to show off about it, as oppose to encouraging them to embrace their international heritage.

3.You go to lunch with old friends at their house, and turn up in jeans and jumpers. You walk in to find their kids dressed in swimmers and galavanting in 4 inches of freezing cold paddling pool. Instead of begging to join in, your child takes one look at the grass and dirt infested ice water and scarpers inside to play in the warm.

4. When you mention, six weeks into the summer trip, that they need a haircut (again), they say: ‘But Mummy, I had a haircut two places ago.’

5. Long sleeves are such a novelty your child insists on wearing jumpers all the time, even when the temperature hits a reasonably warm 24 degrees. You acknowledge, however, that they may actually still be cold in the shade, and don’t bother to argue about taking it off.

6. They collect stones off of people’s driveways, presenting them to you as ‘special gifts’. Twigs, seaweed and flower petals hold similar fascination as unique aspects of nature they don’t see at home which are expected to be kept and transported back without being detained at customs. In fact, everything is exciting. This is because the average 5 year old expat has spent approximately 80% of his or her life living away from the things the rest of us take/took for granted. This includes letter boxes, policemen on the beat, rain, cbeebies, flowers that smell, and trains.

7. They know the airport drill better than most grown adults: ‘Are we at Heathrow Mummy? After we’ve checked in, and gone through security, can we go to Giraffe for pancakes?’

And I say ‘Of course we can, my lovely little world traveller.’ And then I realise all over again, that although his normal is not my normal, and my normal is not very normal either, however not-normal it may be, we are just plum lucky to be doing what we do.

 

Celebrating the expat brat

Annabel Kantarina, writer and fellow expat, wrote a post this week about the demise of the Expat Brat. Whilst I’m not inclined to believe it’s the last we’ve seen of the spoilt rich kid abroad, I do think it’s probably not as relevant a ‘label’ as it once might have been. Not meaning to start a war here, but let’s face it, there’s plenty of kids who live in their home countries who are spoilt rotten, plenty who have no manners and can’t seem to behave themselves if their life depended on it, and plenty who are lazy and let everyone around them do everything for them. I know, because they come here on holiday. So I agree that it’s grossly unfair to tar all our third culture kids with the same brush, and hats off to Bellakay for championing their cause.

As coincidence would have it, I’d actually been thinking this week, about how totally cool it must be to grow up in Dubai. We’ve just got back from a few days in the desert, and my son hasn’t stopped talking about how much he loved it. And he really did have a blast, discovering new things about his environment and himself and filling every bodily crevice with sand in the process. Despite my continual misgivings that he is ‘missing out’ it occurred to me this week just how much he would have missed by growing up in Surrey instead. Our expat brats might miss the leaves falling, have no idea how to put gloves on, and have an unnerving tendency to ask ‘is it real?’ about every animal they come across, but they have another host of experiences notched up that most ‘stay at home’ children can only ever read about in books. So here are my reasons to celebrate being an ‘expat brat’ in Dubai:

– You get to run up around the dunes or dance in the waves every weekend and picnic on the sand in either place while you watch the sun go down.

– You can eat your lunch and watch the fountains go off next to the tallest building in the world.

– You can have your lunch inside the tallest building in the world.

– You’ve been up the top of the tallest building in the world. Twice. Aged four.

– The sun always shines. Yes, it might get hot (gross understatement) but everyday, for months, you know you can make plans for the park/pool/play date and pretty much rely on the weather being perfect.

– When it does rain, it’s magical: a day off school in case a lethal puddle engulfs the 4×4, and as exciting as snow. And snow – well snow is just THE BEST THING EVER because it is only ever accompanied by grandparents and presents, or it means you’re about to hit the toboggan run in Ski Dubai.

– By aged five you can pack your own suitcase for a six week holiday taking into account travelling to three countries with three different weather patterns, and you are able to negotiate airport security and long haul flights with expertise and finesse usually reserved for fifty year old travelling salesmen.

– Being different is your norm.You have friends from 15 different countries speaking 15 different languages and you will grow up never knowing what it’s like to only know people who come from the same place as you, or who all dress the same as you, or who all look and sound the same as you.

– You have no idea what a sheep looks like in real life but you’ve ridden a camel.

– You’ve been to Sri Lanka, Jordan, Thailand and Oman and seen temples, beaches and ways of life you would normally have to wait until a gap year to experience. Plus you stayed in a nice hotel instead of a dingy hostel (you’re welcome) and the only thing in your backpack was a set of felt tip pens and a Leap pad.

– You accept change as easily as ice cream, and adapt to it faster than a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust.

And finally

– You think all this is normal, which means on trips home when you’re collecting conkers or climbing trees or staying at Nanna’s house it’s special and exciting but at the same time, feels like slipping on an old familiar pair of shoes.

The best of both worlds, our kids live a special life that we can barely imagine having as a child, one that is certainly privileged, but doesn’t have to mean spoilt. And for the most part, I think we all do our best to make sure it’s as kept as down to earth as it can possibly be, when, let’s face it, it’s pretty surreal to us parents a lot of the time. But, in 2014, if this is what it means to be one: all hail the expat brat.

 

 

 

 

Eight years an expat. (And counting…)

We’ve just celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. My friend’s baby just turned eight years old. It can only mean one thing: we have been here eight years.

Eight years. Who would have thought it? Not me. Not some of you, either, if you’ve been reading from the start. But it appears that you really never do know what life is going to throw you. So, from the happy place I find myself in lately, what pearls of wisdom do I have to share about my eight years of life in Dubai? There’s many to choose from but here are a few of the more important ones:

1. A trip to the supermarket will only ever yield a maximum of 82% of what you have on your list.

2. The rate at which you anticipate bad driving rises exponentially over time. This is represented by the following equation:

Road Rage + Bad Driving = Anticipation to the power of 100
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3. Do not underestimate how painful bare legs on a hot car seat can be.

4. Wearing sunglasses in 80% humidity will result in bodily harm.

5. Lipgloss and sandstorms do not go well together.

6. Shopping is an art form.

7. Boredom is the nemesis of the Trailing spouse. Do not get sucked in. Find something you love, and you will find yourself.

8. People leave and you will feel abandoned. But you will get over it. Get over it.

9. Don’t kid yourself. It is a little bit like being on holiday all the time.

10. To quote the great Bill Bryson, once you’ve left, you’re gone:

‘There are things you just can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.’

On being a Virgo

It’s not easy being a Virgo. For starters,  you are either the very youngest or the very oldest in the school year, and it scars you for life either way. Secondly, everyone in the world except other Virgos fall so far below your exacting standards, it’s hard to like them. Thirdly, you never get a decent birthday party because everyone is either still on holiday or just got back and has forgotten about your big day.

But the worst thing about being a Virgo is the self imposed rule that you must be Perfect. All. The. Time.

Failure is not an option.

This applies to work, relationships, home maintenance, alphabetising of DVDs/CDs, wardrobe organisation, spice racks, cushions sofas, picture straightening, to-do lists, pet care, parenting, exercising, holding parties, dressing oneself, and anything else you can think of. Unless you can do it fastest, best, first, most, longest – don’t do it at all. 

Of late, I have been a terrible traitor to the cause. I have attended at least two social occasions with a hole in my tights and no manicure. The cous cous in the cupboard is in tupperware without a label.  There are three different piles of filing that need to be done and I haven’t posted my March birthday cards off yet. A lightbulb is out in the living room and the new sofa is sitting off-centre to the rug. In general, the house has been left to its own devices due to a couple of disastrous, time poor months on my part, and the disorganisation is beginning to show. But my Virgoan hackles are up, spying offending pockets of chaos which I am slowly eradicating over a series of late nights when my husband is away so he is not subjected to my anally retentive tidying activities. I have boxed my son’s old clothes in size order (with price lists) ready for a baby sale. The playroom has had a reshuffle and there is now a strict door policy in place regarding the useless bits of junk my son and husband think a)might be fun to play with, b) will come in handy one day c) should be placed on the shelf because the bin was too far to walk to. I have organised the suitcases so they fit in order of size into the under-stairs cupboard. I have reinstated my shoe wardrobe, which fell by the wayside a few years back when for some reason I felt my t-shirts needed the space. A couple of midnight shifts and the result is shoetopia, complete with photos of each pair to assist with search and selection. You would have got a photo but I haven’t finished colour coordinating the boxes yet.

But everyone, even a Virgo, needs a place of respite. Somewhere where the pressure for straight lines, right angles and colour coordination isn’t so intense, where we can release our inner slob and let it all hang out. You might be fooled into thinking it’s my study, but this is just a room I haven’t got to yet. No, the study is a controlled environment that will take a limited amount of time to put to rights. The real nugget, the secret dust magnet, the water bottle harbouring, crisp packet festering, Virgoan underworld is… my car.

Keeping my car clean has never been a strong point. My first car, an x-reg Mini, was probably the cleanest car I ever had, because there wasn’t enough real estate inside to sustain much in the way of a trash ecosystem. The Astra that took me through my college years, on the other hand, was a pit, the very model of a student car. If you were lucky enough to get a lift, you first had to tackle the EU mountain of empty fag packets that littered the rear footwells (thanks, friends) before possibly being attacked by any number of cassette tapes, essay papers and old McDonalds takeout. The person who stole it and wrote it off in Lewisham car park c. 1996 probably died of toxic shock. Serves them right. Pick a tidy car next time, suckers.

In the late 90s, my car reflected the vaguely chaotic state of my early twenties. I had a couple of flirtations with Ford Fiestas, where the back seat was reserved for sleeping bags, spare knickers, a toolkit and a picnic blanket, various phone chargers and any number of items that ended up in there when I moved house for the 142nd time and never took them inside. Two KAs and another Mini later, and the evidence of wedding event organisation began to pile up in the rubble whilst the boot was handed over to recycled shopping bags and a yoga mat in case of emergencies.

Finally, twenty three years on, I have reached the pinnacle of my car ownership in the form of a RAV4. It is the place where mess goes to die. I offer you a peek into my undercover life as a slob…if you look hard enough you’ll see the yoga mat is still there, just in case.

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The back seat and boot of the car, otherwise known as the Kingdom of Lost Things

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The passenger footwell. Yes that is an old band aid.

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Evidence of my many post-supermarket trip ‘treats’, tucked neatly into the side pocket of the driver’s side.
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And a broken umbrella and activity book, just in case my passenger needs some light entertainment, or very poor shelter from ‘all’ the rain.

A note on karma

I feel the karmic powers are conspiring against me, and I’m not quite sure what I did wrong. If someone can explain to me how, merely in the last ten days, I have managed to rack up a child with an ear infection, flu (me), a violent, hideous stomach virus (also me), the cat peeing on my BRAND NEW SOFA, and a root canal (me again), I would be most grateful.

I’ve been racking my brains, and the thing is, I really was a good person this year. There have been years, I admit, where I have been less than delightful. But this year I have helped friends in need, I’ve done people favours, travelled the world for my family, and generally been a solid, dependable person. A positive influence, even. For crying out loud, I’m even still on the PTA despite three unsuccessful attempts to resign from a job that doesn’t even pay me. Yes, I’ve had the occasional wish to slap someone who was being foul, but I didn’t. I didn’t (unlike former times) even pick a fight (mostly). I’ve worked hard, played hard, studied hard, and I’m actually happy.

So why is my parade being rained on? With cat urine? My husband assures me bad things happen to good people all the time, but if that’s really the case and there is no upside to wearing pastels and smiling all the time, I might go back to being an evil old witch. But the black cat can take a hike. There’ll be no peeing in my cauldron, my ungrateful four-legged friend.

 

Out with the old, in with the new

So, apparently while I’ve been whirling in a hideous vortex of transcontinental travel, heavy drinking,large quantities of single parenting, and actual work, it would appear that Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year have occurred. And yet still I have failed to put fingers to keyboard and start typing. So here we are. Happy new year and all that. I have flu, which, although this is really not much to complain about, is making me feel gross and bad tempered. So while my big boy and the little one galavant around the garden, having not seen each other since Boxing day, I am roaming the house, sniffing and sighing like a crazy but slightly house proud animal, and indulging in the thankless pursuit of sorting, boxing, binning and fixing everything in sight.

Living in Dubai seems very attractive at this time of year. It’s good to be back, despite missing log fires, pub grub and knee high boots, and countless other things that make living in the UK in the middle of winter vaguely bearable. But when you’ve just returned from the dim wet murk of England, everything looks so wonderfully bright. The sunshine is just so good to come home to. Only one big problem: Sunshine doesn’t just light up the room, it magnifies it. And by default, therefore, it shows up all the flaws – in your face, your clothes, your floors and your furniture. Once you start looking closer than, say, a couple of metres or so, at any of the above, it’s fairly easy to see what you used to class as ‘reasonable wear and tear’ beginning to look a little less reasonable. Let’s avoid any discussions about my face and head straight to the heart of this particular discussion: furniture.

We were never meant to still be here. Our lack of investment in our home is starting to reflect this. Our sofas are so tired they fell asleep standing up. Our walls don’t just need a lick of paint, they need an enthusiastic dog slaver of the stuff. Various side tables are still adorned with toddler-safe corners that are welded on and would require a crowbar to remove. And far too many Billy bookshelves still lurk, sagging and groaning in their pre-adolescent state. There is nothing IKEA make that was supposed to last anywhere near this long, and I’m pretty sure there are several items in our house that are fully aware of this fact and plan to fall apart next time I look at them.

There are also the things you can’t see from a surface glance, or that have been long forgotten about, that are rearing their ugly heads once more. A favourite hobby of our cat has been, over the years, to burrow into the underside of our sofa suite and sit in a nest of stuffing. We have tried all sorts of things to stop this delightful practice, including stapling industrial strength canvas to them. No worries for our feral friend though. She just works on the staples until one finally comes loose and then hey presto! We start all over again. On arriving home this week I sat down and looked in horror at the sofas, which have once again been systematically broken into in our absence, the canvas lining loose and the stuffing leaking out from the bottom once more.  I glanced into the TV room and remembered that we had no rug, due to a series of red wine and cat pee incidents that nearly gave me a nervous breakdown last month. And I realised, I can put it off no longer. It’s time for (gasp) new furniture.

And so began the negotiations. It was unanimously agreed that we needed new sofas, and a rug. A budget was loosely discussed, in line with what we were willing to spend for what might be only a few years’ worth of use (well you never know, one day we might leave Dubai. Alternatively I’ll be the one sweeping up after the Exp0 2020 with another set of worn out furniture to get rid of). When it came to the shopping part, I realised very quickly my plans for Pottery barn or Crate and Barrel were the stuff dreams are made of, and instead turned to Dubizzle for inspiration. I held my breath as the search ran. Could I get my dream sofa within budget? Dubizzle is the ebay of Dubai, and you can get some very reasonable stuff on it if the wind is blowing in the right direction. And indeed, it was. I found a beautiful, pristine sofa and chair for nearly the right price, and called immediately to arrange a viewing. Eight hours later, I was kindly informed they had been purchased by a friend of the owner. My dreams blew up in smoke. I searched again, but nothing.

My heart sank as I realised what had to be done. I loaded the car with a tape measure, my son, and a face set with grim determination, and headed to IKEA.

IKEA Dubai

IKEA Dubai. Palace of dreams. (Photo credit: austinevan)

I swore I would never have another IKEA item in my house, but it’s like saying you’ll never shop in Debenhams again – you can’t help yourself. And blow me down if there wasn’t exactly the right sofa and footstool for the living room AND a little comfy number for the TV room in there, all brand new and delivered and assembled for free, for under my budget. And a rug. So I loaded up the trolley with eight packs of shoeboxes, some box files, and some lightbulbs and kitchenware, then remembered what I went in for and ordered the sofas.

So, it was done, and so it shall be, that on Sunday we once again have the blue and yellow truck outside our door. I am happy because I get new things. My husband is happy because it didn’t cost him a fortune. My son is happy because he got to help choose them. And best of all they all sit tight to the ground so my evil cat can’t get in. I’ve sold the other stuff, by the way, so with that and the money I’ve ‘saved’ from the budget, I’m off to Crate and Barrel for an armchair and some cushions. The key, I’m told, to having a house full of IKEA, is to accessorise expensively. I shall remember this tip next time the sunlight spills onto the mirror in my bedroom as I gaze in horror at my increasingly crinkled face, and see if they sell diamond earrings on Dubizzle.