*Note: This post has been sitting in my inbox for months. I wasn’t sure if I should share it publicly but here it goes….
My quest to find one word for Dubai has been very difficult. I’m back in London now, completely exhausted and back to being super busy. It’s sunny, I had a fabulous weekend catching up with friends and now, I’m back in my head trying to sort through the feelings and experiences that have gathered inside me over the past couple of weeks. Dubai is the one place that has really rocked my cultural core. The excess, the opulence, the materialism, the poverty, the segregated social class system, the expat community, the wealth, the power, the exploitation. There is so much to tell but the words aren’t coming out as naturally as they usually do.
Unlike other places, Dubai has forced me to grapple with my cultural identity. I am Philippine born, Canadian raised and now feeling more European than North American. I’m an in-betweener, in every sense of the word. In between cultures, customs, traditions, values, countries, lives, loves. This sense of movement in both my actual life and my mental one has always caused conflict in terms of my values and actions. There are many parts of the South Asian culture that I reject and other aspects that I absolutely respect. And in each new country I live, I gather new customs and traditions and make them my own. This makes me un-Filipino, un-Canadian, un-American and un-European and instead, so much more a chameleon – ever changing, adapting and learning from my environment. There is a danger in this flexibility. It makes me open and un-rigid. There are some very basic things that I will take a solid stance for, but otherwise, my mind is open and free to hear all sides of the same story. This forces me to have to consciously test and balance my own values, and many times, because of my background, they clash. In Dubai, I was forced to come face to face with all the contradictions that I myself am made up of.
My first night impressions were just that – first impressions. Often I’ve found that first impressions don’t really count for a lot! I know that many would argue with me, but I really do think that it takes time and effort to get to know a place or a person. When I landed in Dubai, I felt like a queen. A Jumeirah hotel group employee met me right when I entered the terminal. Another ushered me to the very front of the very long immigration lines. Another waited for my bags. Another escorted me to the gorgeous S350 Mercedes which would be my “cab ride” to the hotel. A hot towel and bottles of water were waiting for me inside. When I walked into the hotel, someone greeted me with tea and escorted me to my room where they checked me in at my own desk. All this at 2am in the morning and I was sat dumb-founded, sure that they had mistaken me for someone else. That evening, I thought I’d landed on another planet. A land of pure opulence and excess.
As the days went on, however, I realized that I was spoiled because I was at one of the best hotels in the city. I was lucky. And I was reminded of this feeling of privilege almost every day throughout my week there. The blessing of a good education and a fantastic job was a constant thought in my head. Because I was a professional visiting Dubai on business, the experience had the potential to be exquisite: five star hotels, top notch dining, a great night life, an international mix of like-minded colleagues. And in this sea of expats, I met some incredible people, friends for life. A Lebanese brand manager for Clarins. A French marketing manager for Porsche. Businessmen, venture capitalists, PR people. It was Londonesque hyper stimulus all over again, in the heart of Arabia. However, there was a very ugly side to the opulence.
I could not ignore the migrant workers – from India, Pakistan, the Philippines. They were everywhere and noticeably treated differently. Van-loads of Indian construction workers passed us on the side walks every morning and every night. Filipinos served me at Starbucks, at the mall, in the conference hall, at restaurants. There was a very real and obvious social structure that had been created based on race. And intentional or unintentional, I felt it. I noticed it. And I observed it keenly throughout the week. And this is where it screwed with my own cultural identity. On the one hand, I didn’t like the feeling of being pigeon-holed a certain social status because of my race. On the other hand, in every Filipino that I met, I saw in them the humility, the knowing smile, the hospitality and innate happiness that is present in our people, and I was proud. It was a very strange sensation – to feel both shame and pride in the same instant over your own culture. And something that I could not shake: these migrant workers could have been my own relatives. Like many places in the 3rd world, a large chunk of Philippine GDP is made up of foreign worker remittances back home. We experience this in our own extended family and is a very real way of life for millions of others around the world. And because of the association with my own kin, a very big part of me felt very very uncomfortable being served by these workers. It felt wrong, it felt haughty and I didn’t know how to deal. I have never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin before.
I remember really disliking Dubai for some time. The large contrast in terms of wealth and power vs. the poverty and human exploitation that had to happen in order to build the city at the alarming rate that they did really did a number with my head. It was a heartbreaking contradiction of prosperity and poverty, and the relative differences in what one can achieve in a place so commercial, thriving, so materialistic. It’s a land of dreams, for both the rich and the poor. It’s the land of plenty, the land of opportunity and I guess in all fairness, I really have to see it as such. Everyone comes to Dubai to succeed, to achieve, to do better, to reach higher than they can at home. It’s really not that much different from other major metropolitans in the world – Hong Kong, London, New York. It’s the land of opportunity in the heart of the Middle East. Many say that you just have to turn a blind eye to the injustice and see it as the market economy at work.
Today, I still don’t really know how to describe exactly how I felt about Dubai. The experience there was such a contradiction. After much debate and after giving myself the time to let the dust settle in my disturbed mind, I’ve decided that the word for Dubai is injustice.
Have you ever been? If so, I welcome your thoughts and comments.