Expat to Repat: Moving forward, not back.

We moved out of our house in Dubai on 11 June. Since then we’ve stayed in seven different beds, living out of our suitcases and trying to hang on to some semblance of sanity despite the incredible strain of leaving, then arriving, and all the in between. Anyone who hasn’t done it – there is just no point in trying to explain to you how completely emotionally and physically draining this period of displacement has been and expect you to appreciate what the hell I’m talking about. It’s beyond stressful – beyond feeling, even, in many ways. And yet, because we’re somewhere we’ve been before, it’s a constant battle not to beat myself up about not being ecstatic, or even comfortable with being here for large portions of time. Although I know this is where we are now, I’ve accepted we have left Dubai and I’m okay about being in London, I’m not really sure what happens now to turn it into my actual life, or how long that might take. There’s no explaining that feeling.

I’ve had so many people say things like ‘look on the bright side, you’re home now’ or ask me things like ‘how does it feel to be back?’ and the answer is, to these questions and the many like it: I’m not home. I’m not back anywhere. It’s SO foreign. It shouldn’t be – but it is. I’m somewhere that I know, that is familiar, sure; but we’ve been gone so long, changed so much, and become different people in the time away that I can’t possibly say that we are ‘back’. And it isn’t home either. Home can’t just be switched on like a tap. It takes an enormous amount of time, to make the place you are living into the place you call home.

The bright side I can look on, is that the journey is over, and we are living in the most gorgeous part of London that I already love. The weather helps, of course, because it’s been mostly splendid since the container arrived and our stuff was tipped, jimmied and jammed into the new house. We’ve been here for 2 weeks now, and I’m sitting in rather idyllic conditions, up on my roof deck, with a view of the London skyline silhouetted against perfect blue skies. My shoulders are a bit burnt from a morning at the park, and from our picnic on the common yesterday, and I’m wondering when is a good time to have my first glass of rose. I’ve got a baby sitter sorted for the next few weeks so that DH and I can go for dinner, I have a few play dates lined up to get us out of the house and I still can’t quite get over the fact that in a minute I’ll order my shopping online and it will arrive sometime tomorrow. I’ve booked tickets for shows, seen my sister for drinks and in a shock move my mother called me on the phone this week because it wasn’t going to cost her 27p a minute. I spent half the call trying to figure out the time difference before I realised there wasn’t one.

I’m incredibly tired, but I don’t feel as stressed as I was, even though I know I am still very, very stressed – I know that it’s going to take more than a few days to undo the past three months. Little bits of it keep popping out now and then, when I just want to be left alone for five minutes so I don’t ‘go postal’ and I pretend to go to the toilet just to put my head in my hands and scream silently at the mirror (it’s been a VERY long school holiday), or when I can’t get the TV to work properly, or when I look at the rest of the boxes I haven’t unpacked yet and I can’t actually bear the thought of touching them. I’ve only really lost the plot once and broken down in floods of tears wailing that I want to go back to Dubai. And I had a bit of a meltdown about getting the car out of a tight spot earlier. But mainly, I’ve been okay, not too sad, not to glad, just sort of waking up each day waiting to see if I veer one way or the other.

Repatriation is hard – harder in many ways than leaving in the first place. I’m scared to recommit to friendships in case I get rejected, yet I’m desperate to reconnect so I don’t feel lonely. But its hard to fit in where once we didn’t have to. Relationships that have been nurtured on the foundation of twice-yearly visits for nearly a decade can’t turn back into weekly coffees, dinner parties and drinks in town overnight. In fact, that will never happen, because everyone else’s life is already ticking along quite nicely, and we are just a small change to their matrix. We’ve been gone too long to be anything else. Not that people aren’t happy to see us, but after the initial welcome home I know that we have to find our own way, and not imagine that we can go back to the life we had before.

So it’s inevitable, that this relatively peaceful part of re-entry won’t last. I know that the enormity of moving hasn’t hit fully, and that there will still be moments when I feel ten times more lonely than I do now, and I’m going to wish more than once in the next few months that we hadn’t left Dubai. The weather will get shitty, probably way before school starts again, and I’ll be driving around in the rain cursing and trying not to cry because I’m lost and can’t work the sat nav, and then DH will come home and I’ll yell at him for something that isn’t his fault and tell him I hate it here, hate him for moving us back, hate his job, hate my lonely, rotten, wasted life…you get the picture. It will, of course, be code for ‘I’m missing my old life, where I knew everything and everywhere and everyone, and all this is strange and new and I don’t know how to do anything, or where anything is, or who to be anymore.’ When you move abroad, it’s called ‘Culture Shock’. When you return, it’s called ‘sort it out, FFS’. And I will sort it out. Time will make these things fade and disappear, eventually, and I just have to accept that. Experience tells me this, and wraps me in a sort of comforting blanket of expattiness, that I will get through; that we will survive. (Gosh I sound so dramatic. It’s the stress, I’m telling you).

And as long as I remind myself of this once in a while, that life will just take time to form into the thing we want it to be, I think things will be okay. Embrace the old, but explore the new. It’s scary, but we’ll get there. It’s just another step forward, another adventure. It’s fine. I’ve done it before.

I think it’s time for that glass of rose.

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#mydxb

It’s the eve of the eve of the eve of the eve of our departure from Dubai and I’m feeling nostalgic. I’ve lived in Dubai for nine years, and there are so many memories here, so many little parts of Dubai that are gone forever, so many people that have moved on, so much that has changed. So what will I miss about this city? What has made it, in the words of the social media hungry, #mydxb? What is so extraordinary about this place, that despite my best intentions, I ended up falling in love with it? Here’s my top five:

1. The people. Yes – there’s good and bad here, like anywhere. Yes – there’s a lot of irritating arrogant idiots around who should be ashamed of themselves. Ambition and self-belief are the cornerstones of Dubai society; admirable in small quantities, obnoxious in larger ones. But there’s a bigger picture here too: the general tolerance and acceptance that people show, the easy harmony with which everyone rubs alongside each other that makes the city special. Rarely will you see such a mixed bunch of nationalities and religions all hanging out together with such comfort and good humour. So many people have not a good word to say about this place, but IMO the rest of the world could learn a lot from this city.

2.  The roads. Okay…so the driving is – how shall we say – erratic. But with nearly ten years of driving in the Middle East under my belt, I feel pretty invincible returning to the UK roads. There’s something perversely enjoyable about driving here too. Absolutely NOTHING that would surprise me anymore. Someone talking on their phone while driving? Amateurs. Unless there’s a falcon flapping about in the back, or someone is reading their newspaper at the wheel, or backing up the on-ramp of a motorway, I’m not interested. Also – I must hand it to the transport authority. When we arrived there were about five roads in Dubai, each a variation on a theme, entitled ‘will I get to work and back without being in a car crash today?’. There were no speed cameras, no maps and no street names. Driving frequently involved large tracts of sand, using the now-demolished Hard Rock Cafe as the the mainstay of all direction-giving, and trying to avoid hitting the ‘red flag man’ acting as live bait as your traffic lane ran out. These days, the roads might still be, er, challenging to negotiate, but they are a VAST improvement. And there’s buses, and a metro, and the boat thingy that crosses the creek and the marina, and the trolley is coming…it’s quite amazing, how much has been achieved in less than a decade. Makes returning to the M25, South West trains and the District line pretty unattractive, to be honest.

3. The cleanliness. OMG it’s clean here. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be desperate for the toilet than in Dubai. Nowhere else I’d rather have had my toddler crawling around the floor than here. Nowhere else I can walk along the streets knowing that I will never, ever have to worry about gum, dog shit or bins smelling of sick with filth spewing out of them every 500 yards. It seems like a bit of a weird one, that this has made me fall in love with a city. But, well, I think it’s going to be a huge culture shock to be back in a place where your snot turns black and travelling anywhere in flip flops means certain pedicure death. Sigh.

4. The nightlife. I have been lucky enough to eat and drink in some of the most amazing restaurants in the world. It’s not done my waistline any favours but it’s been an incredible privilege to eat at so many beautiful places. Superficial? Yes. Spoilt? Yes. But it’s been part of our wonderful adventure here and we’ve had some truly spectacular nights out in Dubai. I will miss it.

5. The arts scene. When we arrived, there was one amateur dramatics society, one theatre and a sprinkling of art galleries. Ten years on and the city is blossoming and blooming with stand-up comedy nights, improv comedy, theatre and film festivals, street festivals, art, photography, dance and literature, independent theatres and classes and courses to suit everyone and anyone who wants to flex their creative and cultural muscles. I’m so proud to have been part of building it, at the Courtyard Playhouse – so happy that I got to make real change and be involved in something from the very start. This little corner of creative paradise found will forever be my Dubai. It is the part I will miss the very most.

There’s so many more memories of my time here, of places and people and sounds and smells: Crossing the creek on an abra surrounded by jellyfish;  the old man in Bastakiya creating beautiful calligraphy; the bustling ‘foreign-ness’ of Deira and Bur Dubai; the Disney wonderland of the Madinat at Christmas; the majestic Burj Khalifa; January rain falling on the grey gulf waters; the desert sunsets, beach sunsets and city sunsets; sandstorms and lipgloss; it’s a fascinating place, built on hopes, wishes and dreams, a city that I will miss knowing as it changes and grows without me. But let’s face it, a city is only the sum of it’s people. The never ending waves of people, coming and going and staying and leaving, friendships fluctuating like the tides of the ocean. They are what I will miss the most. They are #mydxb.

Still going…

So, the container left yesterday. There were tears. There’s been a lot of tears this week, and tantrums, mainly in the car to and from places behind the relative safety of my sunglasses so I don’t upset/annoy/embarrass the very people I’m crying over. I’m trying to be mature about the whole thing. Trying not to sulk about leaving. Trying, goddammit, to leave well. (I rue the day I ever heard that phrase). But every time I think I’ve nailed it, something happens, and it’s the last time it will happen, or the last time I will go there, or the last time I will see that person, and my world comes crumbling down again.

I know London is going to be great in so many ways. It’s not going there that I’m sulking about, it’s leaving here. Although, I am sure, as long as it’s not pissing down with rain when we get there, that London will score heavily over Dubai almost instantly, in that it’s pretty much a guarantee I won’t have to stand unloading a container in 45 degree heat. I don’t think I have EVER been as hot as I was yesterday, sitting by the truck ticking off 265 boxes of our stuff on a bingo sheet as they made their way into their metal hulk of a home for the next weeks.No bottle of cold beer has ever been more welcome than the one I popped last night after it was all over. A friend swung by on a mid-morning mercy trip with 24 bottles of water after we ran dry in the house, took one look at the state of me and offered an oscillating fan on an extension cord from the garage, which I refused out of kinship with my packing team. I was okay. I would survive. Of course I regretted the decision around about school pick up when I had a six pack of salt-sweat marks on my vest top and a sunburnt forehead. But I didn’t dare complain, because at least I wasn’t the poor sod lifting my 265 boxes onto the truck. Those guys are amazing to do what they do. Bloody amazing. The bloke that came to pick up some of our furniture at the weekend spouting ‘sorry I’m late, I’m just waiting for my monkeys to turn up’ nearly got knocked out cold by me on the spot. Working in this heat, lifting and carrying someone else’s shit for a pittance of a pay packet…anyone doing it deserves a bloody medal, a hefty tip and a whole lot of respect.

So anyway, now it’s over, and it feels a bit weird because I actually have some time on my hands. As in, I’ve got a stack of things still to do, but I’m not running about like a headless chicken. I’m in purgatory, caught between one world and the next and it all feels very weird. So of course, I’ve spent the day closing bank accounts and shopping for teacher gifts and having a healthy lunch for once and generally trying to ignore thinking about the next bit: getting on the plane.

I don’t want to deal with it. I  keep thinking about it and wigging out. I know it’s just an emotional time and I’ll get over it, but I’m so tired of feeling this way. I don’t feel ready for a new adventure. I like this one, thanks very much. Another one just feels like a lot of work. But, inevitably, I’m slowly coming around to the fact that we just NEED TO GO. I know, deep down, that I’m done. I’ve said my goodbyes, drunk my own bodyweight in beer, made my peace with the fact that the next 6+ months are going to be exultant and arduous in equal terms, and now I just want to get there, get the keys, unpack, stop mourning my old life and get on with the new one. It’s so difficult, letting go, and this bit is the worst, when you know you are nearly on the plane but there’s still time left, which inevitably gets spent with dear friends that you end up even more emotionally vested in than you were before. It’s some kind of torture, then, to finally let go, and walk away.

Even though we aren’t planning a return to live, leaving is not a finite act. We have too many ties not to come here again. I lived half my adult life in Dubai and I can’t act like it never happened. I refuse to act like it never happened. It’s just too much part of who I am. But I know from bitter experience, it takes discipline not to cling on too hard, not to imagine that I can keep my life on ice and pick up where I left off when I pop back here for weekends or holidays. Especially in Dubai, where the expat merry go round spins in continuous motion, I can’t ever come back thinking that it – or I – will be the same as I left it.

Maybe it takes the experience, of leaving, and of being left, to understand and accept that moving on as an expat is bigger than simply changing countries, or going home. I know that when I leave Dubai, I cease to exist. Or at least, cease to exist in the way that I existed before. I will never be the same person again, as I am right now: not even close. That is the loss I am dealing with, that is the pain I feel, the thing that I am mourning.  And no doubt I will spend a large portion of the next few months figuring out where the balance lies: figuring out how to be happy and ‘at home’ in one place and the graceful alumni of the other. Figuring out who I am next.

But for now, I just have to remember to pack my sunglasses for the plane.

…get set…

And suddenly, we’re four weeks away from leaving. My days and nights are crammed with coffees, lunches, dinners, drinks and shows with the best of my friends, in a frantic attempt to make up for the fact that after June 27th, the door will slowly close on all the wonderful times we’ve shared together and things will never be the same again.

My last show at The Courtyard Playhouse was on Saturday. It was a 12-hour Improvathon to raise money for the Children of the Mountain Nepal Earthquake disaster fund. We managed to raise over Dhs 10,000 on the day through sponsorship and donations on the door. If you want to donate, you can contribute here.

The day(and night) was magical. We had a lot of fun, and the audience did too – as you can see here from this rather amusing video taken from one of the shows, there were several silly moments – and a whole lot of laughs. And then there were the tears. At the end of a three year adventure that began in a living room with a bunch of random socially challenged egomaniacs making stuff up, it was a true privilege to perform together one final time to a packed out audience in our wonderful theatre that for me has become synonymous with home.

It’s heartbreaking to know it’s all over. Four of us are leaving, and it was the last performance for all of us. An incredibly emotional day – and given the hole left in our original cast of nine after the massacre is over, not just for the ones of us who are going. While the show must – and will – go on (even I am not big headed enough to think I am irreplaceable), it will never be the same. I feel terrible that I’ve played a part in that – guilty, that I’ve betrayed them in that way. Sorry, my friends, so sorry.

I stood, for a while after the show was over, and watched as audience and performers mingled, and chatted and laughed together. I hugged a few people. I cried quite a lot. I said some goodbyes – to people I’ve taught, people who taught me, people I’ve worked alongside, people who I don’t even know but who’ve been to see the shows and know me, if not by name then by sight. I sat in the front row for a bit, taking it all in. Then I knew what had to be done – the moment I’d been dreading. It was a terribly quiet moment; a contrast to the raucous but comforting noise all around me. I found my friend and stage partner, Erik, who’s also repatriating. I could see he was as lost as me. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘it’s time to go.’ I knew he felt the same; he didn’t want to leave either; it was just too final. But in true improv style, without saying anything else, we held hands, quietly walked the few paces to the back,stepped through the curtain, and with a deep breath, left the stage.

And just like that, the adventure was over. There were drinks, and more tears, and speeches, and more giggles, for hours after, and I know life here, with them, will continue for a few weeks yet. But leaving the stage – saying that goodbye – was the end of something truly wonderful. My time here is something I will remember and cherish forever.

It’s pretty much how I’m thinking leaving Dubai itself will be. A glance back at my lovely friends, the knowledge that I have to leave them to their lives, their conversations, to each other – that I have to let go – and step over some invisible threshold (let’s call it the doors of an A380)  quietly, without any fuss, into the next chapter. It all feels so wrong at the moment, like I’m not ready; I keep feeling that there must be some way of making it last.

But there isn’t. I realise, now, what people mean about leaving well vs. leaving happy. I’m not going to leave happy. Oh no. I’m going to be devastated – I already am devastated – and no doubt my poor husband will cop the worst of it for a while to come. But I believe I am leaving well. I’ve jacked in the idea that anything – work, writing, packing, planning – is more important than just spending time with people until I go. Not just any old people, but the ones that I want to say ‘I love you’, ‘I’ll miss you’, ‘I think you’re an amazing friend/mother/person’ to; friends I want to keep, even though we are miles apart; friends I will treasure in the future as much as the ones I am returning to in the UK after so many years.

And as much as I am clinging on to life here right now, when the time comes, I know I have to go without regret. And I will. I have no regrets. What a phenomenal and special journey this has been. And continues to be. I am so glad I had it – so thrilled to have experienced all of it, even the bad bits, but especially the good. I feel strong even though I am sad; I know things will be okay even though I am scared; I know I want to go as much as I want to stay. I’m older and wiser than I was when I left home and I know that great things lie ahead and this isn’t the end of life by far. It doesn’t stop me feeling sad, but it helps to know I’ll get over it (eventually). I think this is what is meant by ‘leaving well’.

So with four weeks to go, I embrace it all, taking in every moment, loving every part, before disappearing quietly from this, my wonderful stage.

 

Confusion, Emotion and Perpetual Motion

I’m waiting for my flight back to London. Not THE flight; this is the one before that, where I go and find us somewhere to live. Our new home. I thought this would be the exciting bit, but the stress of this responsibility is, I now realise, of an intensity way beyond what I expected. Forget all the coordinating, the logistical nightmares, the turmoil of leaving; these are small fry. They are events that will happen, and pass, and be forgotten about over time. But this decision – choosing our home – will be the lasting legacy of this move, the thing we will all have to live with every day. It forms a major part of what determines whether the transition is successful and happy, or not. 

It’s only four walls, I know. But those four walls contain us. They will gather us together as a family, nurture us, comfort us, and give us the first taste of being grounded in our new world. For my son, it is the place he will take his first impressions of his new life from, the place that will form his memories of living in London forever. For my husband, it is the place that will make him feel all his hard work is worthwhile; that although London is not where he comes from it can still be his home. For me, it is the place I can sit in, alone, and yet not feel lonely; a place I can fill with friends and family or just enjoy the intimacy of our unit of three; a place where I know we can feel at home again in this foreign yet familiar city. 

How? How do I do this? How can I possibly predict where we will be happiest, where we won’t find ourselves wishing we were somewhere else? I remember these feelings, from a near-decade ago, when we left for Dubai. That panicky, slightly sick sensation that I might royally screw up (we did) and be saddled with living somewhere we don’t want to be (we were). I have a list of beautiful homes to look at and yet I’m terrified I won’t find the right one, or worse still I will think I found the right one and then find out when we move in that I’ve made a terrible mistake. I know, I know; we can always move again. But I don’t want to. It seems such a waste of time, energy and emotion. I just want to get it right, first time. I just want all of us to be happy.

On top of this insomnia-inducing anxiety about not cocking up, the fog of sadness about leaving Dubai is finally beginning to descend. There have been at least two incidents this week where I’ve burst into tears in an awkward public display of emotion and I’m trying hard not to make it three. But sitting at the airport waiting to board, all I want to do is cry. It all feels so ENORMOUS. The idea, the notion, flits through my mind, that in some way I’m betraying Dubai. Like some torrid affair, years of sneaking off to see London are finally turning into concrete plans to elope. I’m sorry Dubai. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve changed. It doesn’t mean anything.

What a lot of tosh. It’s HUGE. Of course it means something. It means everything.

The enormity of what is about to happen pushes down on me, threatening to crush my spirit; my determination that this will all be fine wavers like a sapling in a storm, flapping and flexing and fighting to stay upright and alive. I cannot fathom how I can possibly have the stamina to keep feeling this way for months, until it is all over and I know we are going to be okay. The worst thing is, I’ve done all this before: the goodbyes, the leaving, the learning somewhere new. The loneliness, the longing for the old life, the attempt to embrace the unknown. There are so many things to look forward to, but they won’t all arrive on my doorstep the second we touch the ground. I’ve done my research, done my reading, listened to the repat war stories of friends and friends of friends. I know that it will be a long time until we are okay.

Until now, it’s been a lot of talk. Big ideas, imagined lives, self-engineered scenarios. When I get off this plane later today, it all becomes real. Step by step, I must begin the task of converting the picture we have in our minds to glorious 3D technicolor. I’m scared, because there’s no signposts, no guides, no list of rules to abide by. Like a skydiver waiting by the door, there’s only my parachute of intuition, and the trust in myself that I will get the landing just right.

 

So I take a deep breath, and jump.

Going Home: The Upsides

Enough doom and gloom. I am two months away from a new experience and starting to think about all the things I’ve missed, that I can’t wait to get back to and explore with a decade more of life under my belt. It doesn’t feel like going home after so long; it feels like a brand new adventure waiting. I have a different career, a different outlook, a family; I am older, wiser, and a lot more relaxed. Even though my heart aches at the thought of leaving Dubai behind, it beats a little faster at the idea of the next chapter. Why?

1. LONDON

My first love. There is nowhere like it, nowhere I feel more at home. Yes, it’s noisy, and dirty, and crowded and it smells. Yes, it’s a heaving, writhing hell of commuters and tourists. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, the tubes are horrible in rush hour. Yes, your snot turns black and the traffic is hideous, and there’s dodgy areas where you wouldn’t take your mum at night. But then…there’s the parks, and the summers with their long light evenings; there’s museums and galleries and you can walk everywhere and there are pubs and clubs and restaurants and theatres; there’s crazy people and real people and people from every part of the planet pounding the streets alongside you just being who they want to be. The idea…the thought of being amongst it all again, of not being put in some expat wife box and left to find my own way out, is seriously exciting.

2. GROCERY SHOPPING

Well, hello Ocado, how very nice to see you again. Please, come and change my life.

It feels odd to put this as number 2 on this list, but I loathe grocery shopping, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that the very idea that I will be able to buy food without visiting the supermarket three times a week – that I can buy fresh vegetables and free range chickens online – and OMG ready meals – leaves me unbelievably excited. Let’s not even start on farmer’s markets. (Dribbles). And I can buy wine. Without a letter from my husband. Without taking out a second mortgage (drifts into a sort of orgasmic coma).

3. PUBS

Pubs and bars, with food, and wine, and gardens, and roaring fires, and Sunday roasts and Saturday BBQs….pubs spilling into streets, stuffed into old houses, heaving with people on a Friday evening…pubs you can walk to and stagger home from. Pubs on every street corner, to cater for every whim. Oh, the wonder of pubs. I have missed pubs.

4. FAMILY

I suppose they should have come first but it goes without saying, the presence of family in our lives again is simply the most awesome thing. I will finally be able to offer my son access to at least one side of the family on a regular, on-demand basis – and he to them (the other half still being another 7 hours away on a plane, but still remarkably more accessible than before). He will finally understand – or at least appreciate – what it really means to have family nearby. And so will we.

5. FRIENDS

Friends from childhood. Friends from work. Friends from married life. Friends from Dubai. Writing friends, acting friends, old friends, best friends: they will all form the backbone of my new life – and there’ll be new friends too, as time goes on, who are just waiting in the wings for me right now, unseen, unknown and unimaginable. If being an expat has taught me anything, it’s how to make friends again, and that is a wonderful thing I will do my best to honour and celebrate. I know it will take time again, to find my tribe, and I will miss my old one desperately. But I cannot wait to see who fills my world next, especially given there’s an 80% likelihood of them not moving away after two years.

6. CAREER

Where better to be a writer and an improviser? Well, arguably Chicago, or New York – but London is a pretty amazing place to hang out if you’re a Josie Lawrence/JK Rowling wannabe. The sheer number of people doing the same thing – but different – is cause for celebration. There’s so many people to learn from, be inspired by, and share ideas with. The possibilities are endless.

7. EUROPE

Trains to Paris. Two hour plane rides to the beautiful countryside of Spain, France and Italy. Ski slopes that are on actual mountains, not inside a shopping mall. The northern lights, just a hop, skip and a jump away. While I’m aware I’m not going to be going to Europe every weekend, the idea that I can, at any point, choose to head to the continent and stroll around the cobbled streets of some random town on market day scoffing croissants and quaffing rose, is just too delicious for words.

8. ENVIRONMENT

Rolling hills. Mountains. Trees. Clouds. Seasons. I love the desert; love the expanse, the desolateness, the heat. But the thought of staring across Wastwater or spying the deer in Richmond park; the feeling of the wind on my face at Brighton pier on an early spring day; the crunching of leaves underfoot in the woods…once I learn to put up with the dark, grey, wet cold weather that makes up a large proportion of the year, there are so many things to experience again, that we have missed and my son has never even seen.

Is eight enough? I wanted to round it off at an even ten, but this was all I could think of.

‘All’. Look how full it feels already. I know the reality will be harsh; there’s 10 weeks of summer holidays to get through, the wrench of leaving Dubai, the waiting and unpacking and settling in, making sure my son is happy and making friends and enjoying his life, and all the while getting ready to face months of winter time that will shock us I’m sure. But these eight things give me hope that there will be lots of good things ahead as well, in the months and years to come. As a friend said recently, of repatriation: ‘there’s no moving home, only moving forward.’  So forward it is.

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?