x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Feeling of family fades as expatriates scattered to the wind

As the search for a better life spreads us across the world, expatriates are like old Roman citizens, where one could move from the Iberian Peninsula to the Levant.

Two weeks ago, I was helping my husband's sister pack the fragments of her life to ship back to India. Her husband had lost his job and felt there was no use in trying for another one here, since he might make the same or better money back home. So, with only 90 minutes to go, my sister-in-law was trying to stuff every sticker, glass bangle, saucer and hairpin in a box, turning the move into a travelling scrapbook.

And yet, they left so much behind. Two wardrobes, a bed and a kitchen filled with spices, dishes and a stove. It was more than enough for the next person to come in and start cooking. As I helped her sort out everything, I felt a sense of dread. What will I do if I'm the next to go?

In the airport my daughters burst into tears as they wrapped their arms around their "Chachi", or auntie in Tamil, one last time. Next was the turn of my husband's other sister. Embracing, the sisters both used the ends of their sheilas to sop up their tears.

My nephew, my daughters' last cousin here, blinked back tears; nevertheless, he put on his widest smile. He left waving and calling out to his cousins for the entire length of the line to the X-ray machines.

Seeing my daughter, leaning against the wall to hide her sobs, I wanted to grab her and run away from this pain. Such is life for many expatriates, wherever they may be. Family and friends come and go. We all know our turn will come as well, but we pretend like it's never going to happen.

But now it has happened to us. Our family once included 35 members all living within walking distance of one another; we are now six in Sharjah and five in Abu Dhabi. The past three years have been devastating.

This last departure seemed almost like a funeral, where the family tries to get over it quickly, close the box, toss on some dirt and move on. This was my husband's approach, but he was sad too. With his big sister gone, there was one less person to joke and giggle with and to share the stories of their childhood.

Back when we were all together, I'd sit there and watch how he and his mother, sisters and brothers would roar with laughter. And even though I didn't understand a word of it, I didn't care, because I knew it made him happy.

It also saved me from cooking: I'm an American. My mother bought KFC, Gino's and Hardee's every Friday. It might sound like neglect, but from the age of 10 I mostly ate hot dogs roasted on a fork, scrambled eggs, backyard barbecue, and chicken and dumplings with salad. We rarely ate rice, which is a thrice-daily staple in any South Indian home.

With my husband's sister gone, I will have to do all the cooking. This is another tragedy. South Indian cooking is a science and a skill that I don't have, and one which I do not care to learn. It's mind-boggling hard.

My mother-in-law and her daughters can make about 50 dishes with rice, all of them taking about two days. "It's easy," they would tease. Yeah, it's easy to come over and eat it, but not to make it.

One such creation is dosa, made from fermented, ground rice and coconut milk. This crunchy pancake is my youngest daughter's favourite. Every time we visited Chachi she would beg for it. It didn't matter; the batter would be ready.

Now, who will make dosa for my girls? Who will make all of my husband's favourite south Indian dishes? My sister-in-law and her husband have offered to host us in their new home, but five hours on a plane once a year is heartbreaking.

For us, it's the UAE; for others, it's somewhere else. As the search for a better life spreads us across the world, I somehow feel like an old Roman citizen of the empire, where one could move from the Iberian Peninsula to the Levant. These days we call it globalisation. Back then, when your time was up, you were thrown to the lions. This time, it's to the four winds.

As I watched Chachi disappear out of sight, I wanted to cry too. I'll miss her. My sister took care of my girls like they were her own. But most of all, I'll miss the times we spent together, laughing and chatting, and eating dosas.


Maryam Ismail is a teacher based in both the US and the UAE