Staying rooted
Karen Ann Monsy
Friday, June 08, 2012

Can you stay connected with your culture when you’re so far awaay from home? Dubai’s expat residents certainly think so — and take pride in it too

A man’s homeland is wherever he prospers, Aristophanes had once said. To us, it seems there can only be one obvious explanation why the comic playwright would make such a sweeping assumption: he hadn’t been to Dubai.

Forget the American Dream. For years now, prosperity seekers have had their sights locked firmly on the Dubai Dream and descended in droves upon the one-time tiny fishing village to make it the vibrant cosmopolitan city it is today. It’s certainly proved to be the land of opportunity for most in the resident expat community — yet home, for many, still stirs up strong nostalgic memories of the place they left behind. We talk to a few residents (of the non-local variety) to find out what is that extra something they do to ensure out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind too.

A slice of India

Most expats eagerly await the yearly summer break to zip off to the home country. There are the slightly luckier ones who travel back more than once a year. And then there are the incredibly enviable ones who cannot bear to be away too long — and so ensure they have more frequent brushes with home. In Sabrina Couto’s case, that frequency of return goes up to at least once a month. No kidding.

The working mother-of-three (a daughter and twin boys) says her family miss their home in Panjim, Goa, so much that they need to keep going back once every month — even if just for the weekend — to keep the homesickness at bay. [Incidentally, at the time of the interview, Sabrina’s husband was preparing for another such trip the same evening.]

The family moved to Dubai 23 years ago in search of “better prospects” because as much as they adored Goa, they also knew it lived up very well to its nickname of susegad, or laidback. “Goa’s all about beaches and fun… and we wanted the children to grow up to be responsible with their studies,” she admits.

Goan beaches, however, soon became one of the things they missed most about the place — so they turned a part of the garden at their Arabian Ranches villa here into a tribute to home. “It’s a very simple theme with coconuts and other typical elements,” Sabrina says, “but I don’t know why everyone feels like they’re in Goa when they come over — probably because I serve them Goan food and play Goan music out there!”

Do the kids share her love for the culture? “Definitely,” she affirms. “For the first ten years after moving to Dubai, we didn’t take them to any other place but Goa for vacations. They grew up loving the place. And when we attended the weddings of their cousins there, they decided they all wanted to get married in Goa too because weddings there are such fun. In fact, my daughter did get married in Goa two years ago!”

If she had to introduce her beloved culture to a foreigner, Sabrina is sure to cook a nice Goan meal — of fish curry, rice, xacuti, sorpotel and the local drink of cashew feni — served in their lovely garden. It’s certainly one way to kiss the blues away.

Howdy, Texas?

Getting transferred from Houston to Dubai a year and a half ago was a big move for Lynda Martinez, who’d lived in the American state for most of her life before her husband’s work brought them to the Middle East. She considers the place a strong part of her identity, which made it even more important for her to “maintain that sense of cultural connection”.

While it helps that she can find similarities between both cities — “the warm weather, bigger-is-better mentality and driving as the primary source of getting around”, among others — there are also many activities that she misses, such as going out for Mexican food, barbeques and visiting museums with the kids.

Recently, the mother of two (“with another on the way!”) attempted to search for hotspots serving good Mexican food Her effort, unfortunately, didn’t yield great results. “It’s a lot to expect anywhere outside of places that are not Mexico, even within the US,” she guesses. “But sometimes, you just yearn for those things…”

Family is what they miss the most though, she feels. And it’s especially tough when special occasions come by. For the last couple of years, they celebrated Christmas in Dubai, which was not “as much fun” but they tried to make do. “We come from big families so the celebrations here have a lot less drama,” says Lynda. “We miss the long-drawn family meals together but the kids still get to see Santa when he arrives — not through the chimney, but through our front door!”

A bit of visual aid was needed to help the kids get a hang of where they’re from, Lynda adds. “We have family all over Europe… My husband’s British, his parents are in Spain and mine are in Italy. So there’s a large map in our toy room that shows where everyone lives. They were just two and three years old when we moved but they’re getting old enough to understand more now.”

Has the family changed their lifestyle in any way to help them feel more connected? “Well, Texas is kinda famous for being very proud of itself,” she laughs. “So you can find lots of kitschy things (like plates in the shape of Texas) around our house… My cooking has changed too,” she continues. “Things that I used to go out to eat there, we try to make at home now. I also make Shepherd’s Pie, paella, and eggplant Parmesan to incorporate elements of my husband’s culture as well as that of our parents. Luckily, my kids are not picky eaters!”

Scot’s honour

Homemaker Linzay Canham can’t explain it. She was born and brought up overseas and spent very little time in the UK — yet feels very strongly Scottish at heart. “It’s quite bizarre but I guess once a Scot, always a Scot,” she declares. “It doesn’t matter where in the world you are; there’s always that little bit of Scotland that travels with you.”

The cheery Dubai-based resident, who’s lived here for over seven years, was recently surprised by her nine-year-old daughter who said she missed their trips to the old villages back home. “It was something we’d started doing over the last couple of years since the kids got older but we constantly miss being able to go to the historic castles, looking at the old jails, actually going into a building that’s a couple of hundred years old and still in use… Oh, and food! Food’s a big one,” she exclaims, laughing. “Thankfully, we’re also finding more and more Scottish food out here, like Irn-Bru (a Scottish carbonated soft drink) and haggis and Tunnock’s caramel wafers — all the things you were plied with as a child when you went to see granny and granddad, I guess! It’s not something that I’d dash back home for… but they’re just things that remind me of Scotland and good times.”

At nine and five, Linzay’s kids Charlotte and Drummond are both active Scottish Highland dancers. Anyone who’s seen this dance form will know it requires a lot of agility and stamina. “The kids are very comfortable with where they’re from; they really enjoy family holidays and love going back to the rain and cold weather,” says their mother. “The dancing is great as it gives them exposure to audiences, such as the St Andrew’s Day ball and the Heriot-Watt Highland Games held in Dubai.”

Traditional celebrations are still lots of fun for them, she says, as they’re enjoyed together with fellow Scots and friends in towns. “St Andrew’s Day, Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year) and Burns Night (in tribute to Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland) are the big ones for us,” Linzay explains. “The latter is more traditional where you serve haggis and meat and patties; it’s also when you recite a lot of Burns’ poetry, which if done correctly, is very witty and funny and a lovely way to get to know Rabbie Burns!”

When in Japan…

Philippines-born Grace Fujimaki applied for naturalisation and got her Japanese citizenship in 2004 — that’s how positive she was she’d be living out the rest of her life in Japan, where she’d relocated when she was 19. With several milestones celebrated there — graduation, the start of her career, marriage, birth of her first daughter — really, who could blame the 35-year-old? But Destiny, as usual, was scripting other plans.

“After 10 years in Japan as a government scholar, I was thinking of looking for work abroad, preferably in the US or Canada,” Grace says. One of the main reasons for wanting to move out of Japan to an English-speaking country was her then three-year-old who Grace really wanted to learn English. “I posted my resume online and while we were quietly living in the beautiful valley of Nagano in Japan, a company from Dubai invited me for an interview, paid hotel and plane tickets and all…

“I didn’t know anything about the UAE other than what’s written in the travel books,” she continues. “At first, moving here was the last thing in my mind. My husband and I both had jobs in Japan and had just bought our house less than a year ago; what would be our reason to move out? But when I got accepted for the job, we thought if we were going to see the world and have an adventure, we’d better do it while we’re young.” And with that, in 2006, they packed their bags and flew out to Dubai.

It’s been five years since and for Grace, Dubai has become home. Yet, she considers herself “fairly connected” to her culture thanks to the little things: cooking the food, speaking the language or interacting with people from Japan and the Philippines.

“I miss the clean air, most of all,” she muses. “We lived in a place surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Think Switzerland, almost. When there is a sandstorm in Dubai, I always dream of our cool, clean air back home. I also miss the authentic food. Although there are a lot of Japanese restaurants here in Dubai, nothing can beat the good old small food stalls, the various ramen shops…”

Distance, thankfully, doesn’t get in the way of observing their more traditional festivals, such as Hina Matsuri on March 3 (“when we pray for our young girl’s growth, health and happiness”) and Boy’s Day on May 5 for their seven-month-old son Benjamin Kazuki. “In Japan, families fly koinobori banners in the shape of a carp,” Grace explains. “Carp are believed to be strong-spirited fish that are known for their determination in fighting up-streams and swimming through waterfalls. It signifies a boy child’s strength. So we have a mini-koinobori at home for our baby boy.”

Is she finding it difficult to teach her kids their culture when they’re being raised away from the place? “Yes,” she concedes. “Our daughter, Pristine Akari, has spent more time here in the UAE than in her birth country. It’s funny because I was desperately teaching her English back in Japan but she would only reply to me in Japanese (English was not used as a medium of instruction in schools there). We moved here so she could learn English and she did, very quickly. Now the problem is my husband and I converse with her only in Japanese but she replies to everything in English! We’ve bought her DVDs of famous Japanese folklores so she is aware of the stories her father grew up with. We also have a day of the week when we insist she speak Japanese only but she gives up after a few hours!”

Grace recommends that when in Japan, do as the Japanese do. “Try out the kimono (because everyone must be curious about how to wear one!). Follow the tradition of removing your shoes when you visit a Japanese home — and, of course, the culture of being on time. In Japan, people mind the time like their lives depend on it. So, never be late for appointment!”

Dubai’s expats may be away from the place they call home, but in their own quirky little ways, they’re making sure that their heart will always be at home.


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