I made my husband turn down the job offer. Twice. I definitely did not want to move to Dubai. The city isn’t exactly a very loveable city. Low on culture and lacking in history, it seemed to be a bastion of super-sized shopping malls and sky scrapers that represented new wealth. I had no interest in driving a Porsche or some other ridiculously expensive car, in the crazy desert heat and traffic, making small talk with people only interested in the size of my 4X4 or the designer bag on my arm.
The city seemed shallow, materialistic and too glitzy for my taste. I was also deeply troubled by the prevalent class system and structure in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which places the Emirati locals at the top, white Western expats second, brown expats third, and migrant workers and labourers last. And I loved our expat life in Singapore. Green, lush Singapore, where every day a different exotic bird chirped good morning to us, was our little tropical paradise.
The first rule of expat life though is “never say never,” it made professional and personal sense for us to accept the job offer, and I reluctantly said yes. I couldn’t argue that Dubai was not a safe place to raise our children or that it was not the right move for my husband’s career as it was his dream job. Five months pregnant with our second baby, I couldn’t argue that medical care was not top notch and maternal health and access to services were not one of the best in the Middle East.
So, I arrived in the desert. In my new city. In the 40-degree heat in August. And I hated it. Partly because I wanted to hate it. Because my mind was full of so many prejudices and preconceptions about the city, which I couldn’t look past. I spent the first few months looking at the dust, sand and construction cranes around me, feeling miserable and missing the tiny tropical island on the equator which I used to call home. Was it too late to go back?
So, I asked myself, what do you do when you find yourself in a place you don’t love? How do you learn to love the new city that you have moved to? There is no easy formula, but I believe the following tips can help you in your relocation, whether it is international like mine or even to a different city within the same country.
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7 tips on how to begin your quest for finding happiness in your new place
- Find out what you DO love about it and enjoy that.
Falling in love with a city is not that different from falling in love with a person. It’s okay to be selective in the beginning. Focus on the parts that you do love and enjoy. Maybe your city has a great art scene and you love its creative vibe. Maybe your city has perfect weather for outdoor sports and you can try your hand at paddle-board surfing. Maybe your new city has great museums and spending an afternoon in one of them makes you happy.
As for me, I discovered that while I had absolutely no interest in going up the tallest building in Dubai or shopping at the biggest shopping mall – I did love the traditional charm of Old Dubai. ‘Bur Dubai’ was my place – where the skyline was dotted with beautiful mosques, minarets, forts and souks – it was here I finally felt like I was living in the Middle East. I loved the history, culture and traditional style shopping here and made sure I visited as often as I could to remind myself about what I did love about Dubai.
- Find out what you DON’T love and challenge your preconceptions about the place
This one can be super tricky but it is a healthy part of living abroad or building a new life for yourself in a new city. Be honest with yourself. What is it that you don’t love about your new place? Have you judged it too quickly? Have you formed an opinion on it without taking the time to experience it fully? How can you challenge your bias or preconceptions about the place? One of my major complaints against Dubai was the lack of local culture. I kept comparing it to my previous homes around the world – New York City, Boston, Berlin, Copenhagen – without realizing what an unfair comparison it was.
Dubai is a very new city; the United Arab Emirates (UAE) only gained independence in 1971. But the history and culture of this region pre-dates its independence. So, I decided to start visiting the museums, the heritage centers, the cultural villages and the spice souks to soak in as much of the local flavor and culture as possible. In return, I discovered a calligraphy center, a museum for Arabic coffee and organized cultural walks through the city. I discovered so much culture, that now I firmly challenge every expat who comes to Dubai bemoaning the lack of culture and tell them all the right places to look. Spending time in a new city can help change your perspective about it, if you keep an open mind.
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- Choose one spot which you like and make it yours
Find that one spot in your new city which will become your haven. This is an old trick, self-taught after living in 7 countries over the past 16 years. Each time I arrive in a new city, I yearn to find that one place which is going to be “my spot” – my favorite, go-to place in the city, where I feel happy and at peace with myself. A spot I can retreat to when I’m feeling lost, overwhelmed or stressed out. It could be a restaurant or a park, doesn’t matter.
In Berlin, I would retreat to ‘Gendarmen Markt’ – my favorite square in the city with tons of history behind it. In Copenhagen, my one all-time favorite spot was the Hamlet Castle (Kronberg in Helsingor) where Shakespeare based his famous play Hamlet, which was my favorite play growing up. In Singapore, it was the Botanic Gardens – a walk here would make me feel Zen. It took me some time to find my secret retreat in Dubai but right in the middle of the desert, I found an oasis at The Farm in Al Barari; a popular café that I love to visit. It is a constant reminder to look for beauty in unexpected places. Find your spot and claim it. Before you know it, each time you visit, it will start to feel like home.
- Do something about the local issues you care about
Living in a city which you were not enthusiastic about moving to, means an opportunity to do something about the local issues you truly care about. You could volunteer at an animal pet shelter, or help the homeless. Soon after arriving in Dubai, I realized the plight of the migrant workers in the city who are often outside working in 40-degree heat. This was something I could help and volunteer my time towards.
I started signing up for local community projects such as food drives, Ramadan fridge projects and community dinners. I started talking to the construction workers and taxi drivers in Urdu and Hindi and finding out what they needed and tried to help in little ways. These efforts also alerted me to the considerable work being done by many Dubai residents towards bettering the lives of the migrant workers. The knowledge that I was a part of these efforts helped me in accepting and belonging to my new home. It also helped me to engage with my local community and be a part of the solution.
5. Find out what is unique in your city and appreciate that
Each city has something unique to offer; we just need to find it and appreciate it. It can help us learn to appreciate our new home. Living in Dubai, I realized that I had never lived in the desert before – this was after all a unique feature of my new city. I went from constantly complaining about the sand in my shoes to finding myself appreciating the beauty of the desert. The desert was a force to be reckoned with. Once I accepted it as a unique feature of my life, I found myself enjoying the beauty and simplicity of the sloping sand dunes under the blue, open skies. It has definitely helped in feeling at home in my new city. I know if I were to move tomorrow, I’d miss the desert immeasurably.
6. Reach out, make new friends and understand the local culture
The best way to learn to love your new city is of course to find like-minded people who share your habits and interests. Friendships are important to cultivate in a new place and can sometimes be our lifeline towards understanding the local culture and feeling accepted in the local community. Much to my relief, I was able to find an amazing group of friends in Dubai, who are genuine and fun to be with. The importance of human connections can never be underestimated, so learning to love a place can be a lot easier if we have friends to share our new adventure with. Join local groups, say yes to that neighborhood BarBQ, start that book club, sign up for that expat coffee get together – reach out and make connections with those around you.
7. Remember that happiness is never location specific
It has taken me many, many international and domestic moves to understand that happiness is not location specific. Happiness is not place specific. Happiness is not city specific or country specific. Happiness is something we choose to be. It’s a state of mind that is a choice. And the art of being happy is to find what makes us happy and to follow our passions, irrespective of where we live.
After living in the United States (New York, Massachusetts and Texas), the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Germany, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, I’ve realized I can be happy anywhere. There is no perfect country or perfect city in the world, there will always be pros and cons to where you live. Being an expat has taught me happiness comes from within, regardless of which continent you are on.
Do you have any tips for learning to love the new place you have moved to? Please share in the comments below!
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