Anna Roberts talks about her experience as a New Zealander moving to Dubai early in her childhood during the mid 90s, and how they settled in and embraced the culture as their own.
“Do they have rice in Dubai?”
A strange question, yes, but it was the first thing I was worried about when my parents sat my brother and twin sister down one evening in our living room in New Zealand to tell us we were going to be moving to the other side of the world. My big appetite has always been a central part of my life and it was clearly a priority at the age of 7 when the family’s biggest decision, thus far in my life, had to be made.
That was in mid-1994 and by December my mother, siblings and I had made the long trip to Dubai via Brisbane, Singapore and Pakistan to join my father who had already set up house in Hor Al Anz six months ahead of us. Although I was born in New Zealand, I always describe my upbringing and memories beginning from 1994. It’s the year that started my life on a continual trajectory towards travel, immersing myself in different cultures and thinking BIG on the Dubai scale. I also got the title of being a third culture kid, meaning I grew up outside of my parent’s culture.
My Dad had already made the expat pilgrimage to IKEA to kit out the two-storey villa the company he worked at allocated us. It was a bit like The Truman Show back then as the furnishings in our neighbor’s houses looked much the same because there really wasn’t much of a selection of stores to choose from. If you didn’t fill a container with your belongings from your home country, you either had the choice of generic Swedish flat pack items or you could head along to Pinky’s, which sold old wooden furniture out of a large warehouse in Sharjah. We may have more selection of shops now, but the traffic certainly hasn’t changed much in twenty years!
Our school days would start early. At 6.45 AM a mini van would show up outside our villa and beep, and us three kids would pile into it and make the long drive to Emirates International School on the other side of the city. Sheikh Zayed Road only had 4 lanes then and we’d drive past the monstrous 30-story Trade Center Building, which was the tallest in the country, if not the region, at the time.
We’d celebrate Diwali at school, eat our lunch in the cafeteria with blacked out windows during Ramadan and make Christmas cards for friends in December. Every July we’d say goodbye to our classmates as we all headed off on summer holidays. Some would go to their home countries and others would travel to exotic destinations. There would always be a few that wouldn’t come back in September because their father’s contracts would have expired at work or they would move to another Gulf country. It’s sad to think I never got to say goodbye properly to some of them.
School trips would be to one of the museums in Sharjah, and my Thursday nights would be spent at the old Dubai Exiles Rugby Club at the end of the creek as my brother trained with his team. On the weekend we’d pack all of our beach gear into the car and mum would drive us to Al Mamzar Park to have a day out. She’d also be the one to go and pay the electricity and water bills at DEWA and phone bills at Etisalat. This is well before the days of Internet banking but she’d make use of women’s only queues, which meant she’d never have to wait in line for long.
I remember going to Al Ghurair center when the first McDonald’s came to town and walking through the vast expanse of Deira City Center when it opened its doors. Global Village used to be a small fair next to the creek and we’d go to the cinemas next to Al Nasr leisure land. Titanic was so long there was an intermission half way through.
Living in Deira meant we’d have the chance to go to our Emirati neighbor’s houses when weddings were on and share dinner with them. You’d be able to tell because there would be lights blanketing the house. I remember going to a local wedding and the band played the Macarena, which we all danced to, after we had our picture taken with the bride up on the bridal stage.
While my childhood was a world away from what I might have experienced had I remained in New Zealand, I am so grateful for the opportunities it presented to me. Dubai, through all of its changes, has shown me I can think bigger and to see that we are all joined more closely by our similarities than we are separated by our differences.
With all of these amazing transformations and evolutions taking place around me in the city, there is one constant that remains. I am still just that little kiwi girl who has a big appetite for food, but today I take more of a bite out of life.