x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The return of the university crowd gets a teenager thinking

Friends returning home for the summer offer a taste of their university experience.

A couple of days ago, Tina, a friend, informed me in a very high-pitched, excited voice on the phone that she was back in Dubai. After a teary graduation from school, Tina had toddled off to university in Canada last year. I haven't - and I admit my guilt - bothered calling her up in 10 months. Out of sight too frequently becomes out of mind. Not that she minds, being too busy with her new life of endless, unrestricted partying to think of those poor souls who must still lead a life of austerity under total parental control.

She's returned brimming with awe-inspiring stories about experiences of university life, having assumed what I think she thinks is a worldly wise, been-there done-that air. As the weeks go by, 19-year-olds now at uni are materialising in droves, wiser by a year or two of real-world lessons.

All of a sudden, they are no longer childish, immature schoolchildren whose most pressing concerns are the pimple on their nose or the football match in the evening. Jon, a typical, fun-loving teenager, having endured a semester at an Ivy League university in the US, was reduced to posting statuses on Facebook along the lines of "UN General Assembly meets to discuss cholera epidemics today!!" No longer is his "wall" speckled with announcements of buying cows or harvesting potatoes in his FarmVille farm. In other words, he's grown up.

Tina was eager to unload her worries and difficulties when we met, the reunion punctuated with squeals and hand-flapping exclamations - in that matter, at least, she remains the same. Her biggest complaint was the food there: it simply didn't taste of home. Having acquired a flatmate to share housing with, they appear to have heated discussions about who's cooking - and knowing Tina's skill in argument, I would put my money on her unfortunate flatmate.

Since neither of them has ever had to whip up a Sunday roast at home, though, they make do with sandwiches comprising of a spread between two slices of bread everyday, and sup at the nearest fast-food joint if they've been driven to desperation.

Tina hasn't lost out on much apart from a kilo or two. Her doting parents are now lavishing attention upon her and making butter chicken, her favourite thing to eat, every night, much to the annoyance of Jason, her younger brother, who is a fierce believer in animal rights and a vegetarian.

It may be the long-awaited flight to freedom for teenagers, but it's not all smooth sailing: managing your own finances is by no means easy, as I discovered when Tina defended her not getting me a present because she ran out of money.

Michael has another issue: time management. He has already completed a couple of years of a course in the fine arts, and plans to open up a screen-printing studio as soon as he gets a degree. His artistic genius keeps him steamrolling nicely on through the course, but he still misses his maternal alarm clock that could have potentially saved him from missing half the lectures during the first few weeks. You can't punch a mother on the nose like you can hit the snooze button on an alarm clock (she'd hit you back). The extended slumber fests are also partly due to the long battles that rage every night in the dorms, arising from the differences of opinions concerning whether the light should be switched on or off. Michael stresses that he can't sleep with the light on, but his dorm-mate, he says succinctly, "is scared of the dark".

These straddlers of the teenage and adult world may yet be children at heart, but they're anxious to show everyone how grown up they are. "Look at her," I heard someone say to Tina's mum. "She's so confident and self-assured; she's really blossomed." And Tina gave a confident, self-assured smile and didn't say anything, but you could see the cogwheels turning frenziedly, trying to work out whether that meant she would now be accepted into grown-up society and invited to all their tea-parties where they reminisce about their youth and university days.

The prospect of going off to university in two years' time suddenly seems much more frightening to me as I encounter those who have returned for good after a semester or two. A friend from India, at university in the US, was so overwhelmed by the stark differences in culture that he decided to transfer to a university closer to home after a year - much to the consternation of his parents. I wonder if teen-hood in Dubai will allow me to cope with cultural potpourris elsewhere in the world. I'm certainly not too confident about how well we're being set up for a gruelling future where we'll have to do the ironing ourselves, and even have to come to terms with living without - gasp - a pedicure every other week.

The writer is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.