“Where are you from?”
A seemingly simple question, but one I rarely care to answer. To be honest, the asker probably doesn’t have the time to listen. It is usually sparked by my accent: a mix of Irish, English and Californian, apparently. My answer varies depending on the situation I’m in.
If it’s 3am in the smoking area of Workman’s “I’m from Galway.” Details? “Moycullen.” They probably don’t know where is that is so we can stop right there. If I’m accompanied by a friend, they more often than not will interject with a dry “ha ha, you’re not from Moycullen. Tell the truth”. After shooting daggers at them, I’m forced to give an abbreviated, watered-down version of said truth before I can impose a change of subject. Once, a new acquaintance chirped in response “Me too! Where in Moycullen?” precipitating a lot of stammering and backtracking on my part. (Lesson: this approach is ill-advised in a country as small as Ireland). Despite technically originating in Moycullen, my family and I left when I was two years old. I don’t remember it one bit, and I don’t think that counts as being where “I’m from” by anyone’s standards.
Where “I’m from” has had no consistency. Spending a few years here, some schooling there, I’ve come to learn my concept of home isn’t the same as most other people’s.
If I meet a friend of a friend (who isn’t eight pints in) and I want to hold a conversation, I’ll rattle out: “I’m from Galway, but I grew up in Dubai”. My tactic is never to offer information, only to wait until they ask the questions before answering. Doing so, I can keep the subject as brief as possible. I’ve had this conversation a million times. When getting to know someone and trying to make conversation, this is an easy thing for one to latch onto and draw out. I know the questions they are going to ask, and even in what order. From my perspective, these aren’t conversations; they become more like interviews, and I become a subject learning little about my companion. If they persist, the most common questions include things like where I went to school or when I came to Dublin. If I divulge my ping-ponging between attending primary school in Dubai and splitting my secondary schooling between both there and Kildare, before landing in Dublin for college, the conversation can be relatively succinct and we can move on. Otherwise, it’s the same old slew of questions: “Do you speak Arabic?” I don’t. “Does your Mum wear a burqa?” Don’t ask that question, it makes you look ignorant.
Part of my aversion to speaking about Dubai is the associations people automatically make. General impressions of Dubai come from news reports or documentaries which focus on its outrageous displays of wealth and the massive poverty gap, or the latest world record it has broken with the biggest, fastest, most expensive artificiality. Otherwise, friends who have visited for a week or two return with stories of indulgence and over-the-top grandeur. They describe Dubai as a city of beautiful people, expensive cars, palatial houses and ceaseless sunshine. On some level, I suspect people want to hear about the lavishness, the excess. In truth, “boring” is the first word that comes to mind when I think of growing up in Dubai. Excitement lay elsewhere. Until I was about twelve, our family would spend two or three weeks each summer in Ireland with my Granny in Rathcoole and my Mum’s sister and her family in Naas. To my siblings and I, Ireland was an incredible place, the best place in the world, because it was different. In Ireland we were able to do things. By do things, I mean really simple things. In Ireland you can walk to the shop, or to your friends house. In Dubai, that’s often impossible. It is a massive place, extremely spread out. At home, our nearest shop is about a kilometre away, and the heat can be too unbearable to walk for more than five minutes. As a child, you have to plan everything the day before because you need to get a lift off a parent as your friends live a 20-40 minute drive away. Ireland for us was synonymous with ease and freedom. We were excited just to be able to go for walks, or to go swimming in a river. We could wander to the lake to feed the swans. To us, then and still to some degree now, Ireland was far more exciting place than Dubai.
Returning to Dublin for college at the age of twenty, I would often hear people mention friends who they’ve known since they were kids. That was alien to me. Before boarding school, I had never held on to a friend for more than three or four years, not because we fell out, but because they moved away or moved schools and we lost touch. Today, I know only a handful of those I met in Dubai, and they’re now scattered across the globe. It’s is a transient place, especially within the expat community. I’ve never heard of anyone moving to Dubai with the intention of settling. It’s a stopover. Everyone sees themselves eventually returning to wherever they came from.
My parents intended to stay there for only six months. Twenty two years later, they are among the few who have remained. Growing up, we moved house every 2-4 years, always within Dubai but moving outwards from the centre as the city grew and rents increased. Until I was eighteen, my parents had rented, so we had never established a “home”. It’s still novel to me when I visit my friend’s homes and see a height chart notched up the door frame, beginning at the age when they were first able to stand. As with most of Dubai’s blow-ins, there was always the possibility that we may not still be in the same place in a year’s time. Our houses were just providing shelter and storing our belongings until we got a house of our own. This has meant that I don’t readily become sentimentally attached to things. I don’t hold on to clothes, birthday cards or cinema tickets. I don’t ‘miss’ anything when I’m not around it. The dynamic of Dubai doesn’t allow for that. I’m changing all the time, I’m meeting new people and leaving others all the time. I don’t see it as a negative thing. Instead, I’m able to adapt to wherever I go, because I have grown to know how quickly things can change.
With belonging to a place comes some sense of security, the idea that this will always be your base, that if all else fails this is where you can return to. I don’t feel that affinity to Dubai. Then again I don’t feel that with Dublin either. A big part of my difficulty in saying I am “from” Dubai, or calling it “home”, is the fact that I know that I won’t always be there. Like a hotel, or a friends house, Dubai is a place where I am made feel very welcome for the time being, but it’s only temporary.
Where do I consider to be my home? It’s not something I think about that often. I use the word more loosely than someone who does. Most of the time, ‘home’ is a house in Rathmines where I live with my brother and sisters. If I’m out and crashing with a friend for the night, I’ll say “what time do you want to go home” claiming theirs as my own. Even if I were on holiday, and staying in a hotel, I will call there ‘home’, just to save on syllables. I use ‘home’ to refer to wherever I can go back to and rest. Rest is the most important aspect in my concept of home, with security and privacy coming close behind. So when forced to choose one “home” in particular, I suppose that’s wherever my parents are. That’s where I am looked after and can properly relax. At the moment that place is Dubai. That being said, my parents are not planning on staying there forever, and after they leave it’s unlikely I’ll ever have a reason to go back. I’m not precious about where I’ll end up.
Fingers crossed I’ll eventually have a family and “home” of my own. At the moment it’s hard to see one single place as a “home”, going back and forth to my parents and unsure of where I’ll be in ten years time. One day perhaps, I’ll have a bed that is “my bed” in a house that is “my house” in and be situated in a community of people that I want to be with. Then maybe I will be able to give some straightforward answers at 3am in the smoking area.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney