Being away, I realised that Abu Dhabi has left a deep impression on me
Abu Dhabi has become a home very far away from home for many expats
The plan for my latest holiday was to decompress and forget about work for a while. But during my present break in Melbourne, where I am visiting family, the UAE – more specifically Abu Dhabi – wasn’t far from my mind.
It started as I made my way to the airport in the capital. My sister sent me the latest daily quiz published in one of Melbourne’s leading tabloid newspapers. “The people of Dubai don’t like the Flintstones but...” went the riddle. Perhaps I was tired, but I am sad to say the rest of the sentence flummoxed me for a third of the epic 12-hour flight to Australia.
The answer eventually came to me. Nearby passengers were given quite the fright when I almost yelled “Abu-Dhabi-Do” the minute it dawned.
A few days into my holiday, there was Abu Dhabi again when a question appeared on the Australian version of popular television quiz show The Chase, asking the contestants where the new Louvre Museum was located: Abu Dhabi or Dubai? One out of three got it right.
But perhaps the most interesting reminder of all was the invitation I received. I was asked to be a guest on the national radio broadcaster ABC to discuss expat-hood.I couldn’t help but smile at the opportunity – it offered one of life’s rare full-circle moments.
You see, more than a decade ago my Saturday afternoons were often spent wandering around a chemical factory in Melbourne. I was a security guard, and would listen to the radio in the patrol car, all the while dreaming of the break I longed to take to kick-start my career in journalism.
Then last Saturday, there I was talking on the airwaves discussing my reporting career in Abu Dhabi. The conversation wasn’t all congratulatory, though. Instead it was an enlightening experience – well for me, anyway – in that it allowed me to take stock of the years spent living away from my home city.
It is also showed me that the allure of working abroad remains strong Down Under, and it’s not as much down to adjusting to the hard realities of a globalised economy, but more to do with the exotic and idealistic notions of “starting afresh”, as the presenter dreamily expressed.
While I did agree that expat life had provided me with the important opportunity to “reboot my life” by way of new surroundings and cultures, it also brought into sharp focus some of the things I had taken for granted, particularly friendship support groups I had before I moved abroad.
My circle of friends in Australia are so a part of my life that I sometimes forget where we first met.
I recounted to the audience that living in Abu Dhabi had presented me with the challenge of having to rebuild my social network from scratch. The blank canvas that expat life affords, I explained, is as thrilling as it is daunting, and it posed me a set of provocative questions: what kind of personality am I? What kind of people do I want in my life? What are some of the things I won’t accept from myself or others?
These are some of the soul-searching notions you will find buried in the fine-print of any expat experience. I have seen friends and colleagues rise to the challenge or become debilitated by it.
The life lessons learnt abroad have also proved useful on my return to Melbourne, even if only for visits. In my insecure college days, I revelled in the number of eclectic friends I amassed over the years, but now the limited time I have to spend back home has taught me to appreciate quality over quantity.
This approach has seen a number of friendships respectfully dissolve, and made me truly grateful for those who are still able to put up with me despite the time I spend away.
With the radio show done and dusted, and the realisation that my holiday was about to be as well, panic set in – and the resentment that I didn’t manage to brush off work in Abu Dhabi quite as well as I had hoped took hold.
At that moment, as I wandered around the city and neared one of Melbourne’s largest sporting grounds, Etihad Stadium, perhaps serendipitously, my phone buzzed with a message from an Abu Dhabi friend not informed of
my whereabouts. It read: “Are you alive or what? Miss you, let’s do a coffee when you’re are back.”
I suddenly felt calmer and realised it was time to give myself a break. Melbourne may be where my family is, but my friends in Abu Dhabi now make the capital of the UAE feel like home.