Two of my best friends studied abroad in gap years directly following high school, and I remember them both separately going through a kind of dysphoria after the end of their honeymoon phases. They were over their initial excitement and kind of wanted to be home. Almost all of the literature on studying abroad I’ve read has said that homesickness after the initial few weeks in a new country was common.
I was correct in thinking I wouldn’t have this problem. I go to school a six hour flight from where my parents live, and I affectionately refer to a national park as home. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the disillusionment.
The first few weeks, everyone was so excited to be studying abroad. But sure enough, a few weeks in, a couple of my friends–both international students, and freshmen away from home for the first time–were beginning to talk about how much they missed home. I was amazed by how some people called their parents every day–I don’t even talk to my best friends that often. The time difference made planning Skype dates a bit harder, and as WhatsApp calls don’t work here, I can’t call my parents whenever I want like I could in the US. But I talk to them almost as much as I do during the normal schoolyear nonetheless. Though I always miss my family, it doesn’t affect my mood or wellbeing. I miss my friends, but they’re all over the place anyway; I’m always missing someone. I was surprised by how much people missed their home cultures because I didn’t feel like Dubai was really that outlandish. (They have Nutella at semi-okay prices, something not even Zion and Yellowstone could claim!)
However, while I wasn’t experiencing the homesickness and dysphoria some of my friends were, I hadn’t really re-examined my expectations or thoughts on Dubai until I went to Iran. And when I realised what I was missing out on, I became entirely disillusioned with Dubai.
I love Dubai, don’t get me wrong. But I’m never going to live here; I can’t see it at all. I don’t love it like I love San Francisco, with its general relaxed vibe and its affectionate quirkiness. I don’t love it like I fell in love with Boston in my two visits there, with its deep history and quaint buildings. I don’t love it like I love the idea of New York, with people everywhere walking briskly.
Dubai is very transient, and Dubai is very Western, two things I don’t appreciate in a culture or community.
When I went to Iran, I kind of realised how much culture it was possible for a place to have. The people all had so much pride in their home, yet they were modest too. It felt Middle Eastern. It felt Persian. The bustling bazaars with their tunnel-like feel and with so many independent people haggling and inviting you in were miles from Western shops. Though there’ s a big brain drain, the few people I talked to at the airport who were Iranians living elsewhere talked about how much they loved their country and always wanted to come back. Family is the center of life, and goes hand in hand with hospitality.
Dubai feels very artificial at times. There are artificial islands and lots of tall artificial buildings and an artificial sense of wealth. There are no homeless people here. Other than the people working service jobs, Dubai is filled with rich business people and rich tourists. There are Western chains everywhere, and I pay more at most restaurants than I would in the US. The most popular places to hang out are the malls. How capitalist. Everyone speaks English.
Less than 15% of the population is actually Emirati, and it’s really hard to get citizenship. There are students who have lived here all their lives, who will have to either get jobs or leave after they graduate as they are not nationals and no longer fall under their parents’ visas. There are families who have been working here for decades who’ll either have to leave what is now their home to retire, or keep working forever. Most people seem to only be here for a few years at most, a stopover on their way to another place or another career. This may seem hypocritical as I haven’t lived in one place for more than seven consecutive years ever, but there’s no sense of community or ownership. And I like that, maybe because I haven’t lived in one place for very long. I’m semi-envious of those who have.
The service culture here drives me up the wall. If you eat in a mall food court, you leave your trash on the table. If you’re in the supermarket and you accidentally knock over a display, you give it a condescending look, and instead of scuttling away looking embarrassed or trying to find an employee, you might step on a box as you walk away. The mess people leave in the dorms for the cleaners to find honestly disgusts me.
Meanwhile, four of the emirates in the UAE seem to have nothing but one story buildings and general stops. Driving through them has felt like driving through forgotten towns in the rural US. Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, meanwhile, are becoming more and more like Dubai–more and more Western.
I knew coming in that Dubai would be relatively Western, but I wasn’t expecting just how Western it would be. I’m hoping that next semester when I go to Morocco, I’ll get a different taste of what living in the North Africa/Middle East can be like.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not bashing on Dubai. I just really wish that I’d come here two hundred years ago, before it even really knew what the West was.
I love Dubai, and I wouldn’t change being here this semester. But I don’t think it’s a place I’ll be coming back to often.