Expat Living Redefined
Having lived in four continents and traveled to several countries, I always thought of myself as a nomad and never put myself in any category, especially the expatriate one. This changed when I got married and moved to the Gulf. Much to my surprise, once we moved here, we were firmly pulled into the stereotypical expat life that becomes more accessible in the Gulf due to high disposable income.
Of course, this is not how every expat lives and you’re faced with the harsh discrepancies once you resurface from the glitz and glamour of your expat life. Unfortunately, like many societies, classism and racism are an issue here and there is a clear hierarchy of cultures that lead to segregation. Needless to say, it takes a lot of effort to break down barriers—but I discovered a secret weapon that helps in breaking down these barriers. What’s my secret weapon? My daughter.
Like many families these days, we are wonderfully mixed race. I mention this to show how privileged we are to be surrounded by diversity and to show the constant cultural negotiations that happen within and outside our family. We know a thing or two about cross-cultural communication. However, over the last year and a half we gained the most effective cross-cultural communication tool, and that is my daughter. Little L was born in the Gulf, and from the day she was born, we have had more random people than I would have ever imagined strike up conversations. It’s often hard to start a conversation or share a laugh with strangers, both locals and expats, but it’s a walk in the park for Little L. She walks around, beaming her beautiful smile, and people instantly respond. As a new mother, it took a while for me to get comfortable with the constant touching and hugging that she elicited. I kept thinking people were violating her personal space, and at times mine. This slowly changed as I witnessed the genuine care and happiness that people expressed when around Little L (and other kids). She opens up spaces for us that previously were inaccessible.
I recently was in line at a coffee shop, and an older Arab woman wearing the traditional abaya (long black gown) and niqab (face covering) was in front of us. Little L pointed at a chocolate bar. I ignored her, and the woman turned around, looked at what my daughter wanted, reached over, and gave her the chocolate bar. I said, “Thanks, but she doesn’t need it,” and in response, Little L pointed to another bar—and the woman immediately reached over and gave her another one.
At this point, I knew it would be futile to resist these women and decided to return the chocolate bars when I got to the cashier. The older woman turned to me, and with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, which was emphasized by the niqab, said “Maybe she will have two husbands as well!” I decided to join in the fun and asked her how many husbands she’s had, and she retorted that I don’t want to know! We burst out in laughter and the older woman walked up to the cashier and generously paid for the chocolate bars, putting an end to my plan to return them. I had not experienced this before. Due to the conservative nature of the country we live in, most people are quite reserved and wary of strangers. I walked around eating the chocolate bar (Little L didn’t need it) and reflected on my interaction with the locals and their generosity.
When we enter restaurants, the Filipina waitresses flock to Little L and are quick to go in for a hug. Almost all have left children in their home country and take joy in holding Little L for a few moments. Many share their stories while playing with her, such as how they left their babies as young as four weeks old back home with their families. They tell me how excited they are to go back every year and see their children.
As a mother, I can’t imagine leaving my baby behind, but I know that I would also do whatever it takes to provide a better life for my daughter, even if that means going far away for work. They share these stories with tears in their eyes, but then they revert back to smiling and talk about how they are able to build a new house, start a small business, and pay tuition and bills in their home country. They say the hardship and the distance from their children are worth it when they think of how they are changing their family’s livelihood for the better. I already knew about the long hours and low salaries, but what I learned went past that narrative. I got a glimpse into their families, dreams, aspirations, and how working in the Gulf is making all of that happen. In fact, my family and I learn a little more about the “other” expats every day, the ones that don’t walk around with an air of entitlement.
I found that I wasn’t privy to these stories, but as Little L’s mother, I am. Watching Little L approach people with curiosity, unburdened by notions of race or class, has helped my husband and I to engage in a more meaningful manner with diverse people around us, not just our inner circle. Life as an expat has a way of reducing your circle of friends to people of a similar background, culture, and interests far more than in your home country. My daughter goes around breaking down barriers and building bridges every single day. Seeing Little L in action is inspiring, and of course, it fills us with a sense of pride, because it’s reaffirmation that, as parents, we are doing something right in an increasingly divisive time.