May 23, 2013. This is a life-changing date in my life. At least when I tell stories to my kids (and grandchildren) I can start with:
“In 2013, at the age of 23, I left the comforts of home in the Tropics to start a new life somewhere in the Middle East.”
It was two years before I decided to do this. My brother was thoroughly persistent, and my father was definitely pressuring me. After my fourth contract job, I was already disenchanted with the workplace in the Philippines and was contemplating the big move to Dubai. I decided to go when I was promised of faster career advancement and good pay (converted to Philippine peso). Thus we prepared everything, rehearsed what to say and do. On the day itself I carried my baby niece and said to her that her Nanny will not be around anymore. When I passed through immigration, I felt like giving myself a high five. I kept my cool throughout the way from the terminal entrance up to the plane but when I was inside already, my hands were shaking and my head ached badly. The entire flight would have been pleasant if not for the extreme headache. On the other hand, I was already witnessing second-world advantages like the in-flight entertainment brought to us by Royal Brunei’s in seat monitor, remote and headset. I felt like free bird when the airplane took off from MNL, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when it touched down in DXB at midnight. I did the eye scan, the immigration officer stamped my passport, and I established communication with my brother. I thought to myself, “This is IT.” Ciao poverty, goodbye meager opportunities, au revoir third world problems, paalam sa mahirap na buhay (goodbye to the hard life).
I was struck with both wonder and longing during my first week in Dubai. Something like “How do I love Dubai? Let me count the ways.”
First, the transportation system is efficient, albeit expensive. Sharp curves, wide highways, strictly enforced road rules and no toll fee makes riding the car a Fast and Furious experience rather than smooth. Thanks to those sharp curves, especially. I nearly fell off the back seat. The Metro is also fast. I love the Metro. And the feeder buses with their routes to different areas. I love it that pushing is minimal, people are lining up, and the stations are air-conditioned (“A.C.ed”) and with elevators and escalators. Riding the trains in the Philippines especially during rush hour and summer is hellish. And you can navigate everywhere or look for complete directions via Google Map. And since we are on the topic of speed, I’d say that the internet is superb here. The internet is available almost everywhere (In HK, even buses have WIFI). And fast. Never before have I become so connected to my family and friends. Huge apps that I have avoided before are now downloaded to my phone. Video streaming is a breeze; we can watch Philippine shows, too. What’s “buffering” again?
Things are larger than life in here. That is another very conspicuous thing to notice. Large servings, large doors and washrooms, large places, large space. Large! The Middle Easterns are large people. No wonder the Anglophones (native English speakers) and Europeans feel at home. I think I might develop claustrophobia when I visit the Philippines in the future.
Then, the feel and look of luxury. And other luxury brands are within one’s reach if you have the AED or Dhs. The Greenbelts and Gloriettas of Dubai are everywhere! One example is the nearest posh shopping-slash-high-end residence-slash-word-class office location, BurJuman Centre. After some walk-ins to submit resumes, I decided to see this. I felt like entering a hotel. Fountains, flowing water and soft lights, plush sofas and coffee tables everywhere. The stairs are the grand type. The hallway to the rest room, or “washroom”, can accommodate a studio-type Philippine style condo. Then the electronic stores or the bookstores at Dubai Mall are as large as one floor of SM’s department store. At the Dubai Marina Mall, the lotion is free at every washroom. We once passed through a posh village and the bus driver pointed out two entire neighborhood blocks which is actually the residence of the Princess. The driver was a Kabayan, anyway, that’s what Filipinos call each other here. Then the posh villas by Jumeirah Beach. Ah, free beach within a stone’s throw. Am envious of those who can afford those beach-side villas. I could just feast my eyes on Dubai’s opulence. Of course. Mercedes and BMW are average cars here. So are Audi, Chrysler and Volvo. I only saw these inside the showrooms in Greenhills before. I have yet to see a shiny red Ferrari, though.
And of course the main attraction for Filipinos is the job opportunity. A Cornucopia of jobs and the salary and benefits, although average by Emirati’s standards, are definitely double or triple of what we earn in the Philippines. No wonder I plan to save up my earnings in dirhams, then I will have them converted to peso when the exchange rate favors the peso. I can never imagine how much pesos would that be!
Who wouldn’t want to stay here?
It is ironic to say that I have not yet explored the 7,013 islands of my homeland when I graduated from college, not even left the northernmost third of it, when I have already briefly visited Hong Kong and Macau. And after two years of fruitless toiling in native soil, I was persuaded to search for greener pastures in the previously arid deserts of Dubai. No one wants to bet on me, or even hire me full time in my own country. It was sad, two years of no-benefit work and that was it. I said it was not worth it anymore, Not worth my sanity (thanks to back-stabbing fiends), or my chronic back pain (thanks to unwarranted loyalty to my previous job). So I packed and left.
But “leaving on a jet plane” (an Airbus Industrie to Brunei, then a Boeing 77/200 to Dubai) is a huge move, a risk, a gamble especially for a person who is secretly attached to her roots. If this was just a vacation, hell yeah, I would be so damned elated. And I secretly hoped that working in Dubai would be just almost the same as taking a tour in Dubai. Alas, I was thoroughly disappointed by my own expectations. This is different and I definitely shouldn’t have fooled myself. Relocating to another place is more than just a bunch of suitcases, some stamps and signatures here and there, and of course the snapshots on Instagram and “pasalubong” ( take-home goodies for your family and friends back home).
After my senses grew accustomed to the multi-national grandeur of Dubai, came the pangs of longing. First, this is not your home country. No-brainer, but very important to note this one. I came from a tropical place, lush greenery, rainfalls, high humidity and all. When I arrived in Dubai at midnight, I felt the heat wave. Might as well be deja vu: felt the Manila heat when I came to the airport terminal at noon. Temperatures are extreme. One minute you’re freezing cold inside the building but you’ll feel the heat waves when you go outside. Umbrellas are utterly useless. The wind itself is hot. You’ll be cooked whether you’re out in the open or under the shade of anything. Unless if you’re under something with AC.
The good side: I’m loving the egg biryani and chicken tandoori. There are a multitude of Indian and Filipino restaurants and grocery stores nearby.The prices of food can be so inexpensive. One large Oreo cookie for PhP22, when this is priced at around PhP 40 in the Philippines. One cup of Italian gelato is just PhP30 compared to a hundred pesos at a Philippine-based gelateria. Goodies are abound. The electronics and jewelry are much cheaper. Malls, thrift shops and souqs are abound to cater to your every whim. The experience is definitely unique. On the other hand, I miss the savory and flavorful Filipino food. Chowking and Jollibee in Karama can’t even copy the original at home. Then you think that the goodies are cheap, but I automatically convert it to pesos and I see that it’s not. Shopaholics beware! Avoid Dubai if you can’t control your own credit card or your spending urges. I’ve read a news that a Filipina was jailed because of her huge credit card debt and she had to ask for help and donations from Filipinos both in Dubai and in the Philippines to pay off. I wondered what gadgets did she bought. This is stupid. But if you’re a smart consumer, then Dubai is rewarding. Lots of pasalubongs to bring home, too!
Dubai is also already a melting pot of different races. I have seen the whole range of skin color, height, eye shape, and body build. I’ve read that almost 90% of people living in the UAE are expats. I guess that is true. I have seen far more Indians (“Pana”), Pakistanis (“Patan”) and British than local Emiratis. As a person who wants to try new things, I’m loving the experience. I’ve interacted with different races, and heard many stories highlighting negative racial stereotypes (will not mention them, I do not want to promote stereotyping here). I think the biggest culture shock will come from this. The culture is different. Definitely more conservative and less welcoming. I’ve heard stories from fellow Kabayans, ates and kuyas, tito and titas here about their harrowing experiences. Harassment, un-honored employee rights, interoffice rifts and backstabbing are not at all uncommon. One of the Kabyans mentioned that they are asked to leave the condominium because their foreign neighbors claimed that they are boisterous. Maybe they don’t appreciate the golden voices of the singing Filipinos or they just don’t want to hear anything other than their own breathing. Most rifts usually sprout between Indians and Filipinos. Again I’d rather not mention the specifics but definitely these are caused by vastly different upbringing.
Due to influx of expats, the competition for work is of a whole new level. This was my first time to do walk-in application. I had to overcome the fear and embarrassment. I knocked at doors and slipped resume under them if locked. I have left resumes on the front desks. I have to set my expectations to the lowest level in order to get a job and have my work permit and residence visa. And if finding the job is tough enough, staying there is a dog-fight. Again, cultural differences and the penchant for owners and even some races to feel superior over Filipinos, or any other humble or passive people. This is not for the faint-hearted. Really. I’ve cried buckets. Cried more than the yearly rainfall in Dubai for the past ten years. I must know when to bow down and hold my chin up. I have to be strong-willed and resourceful.
I felt a myriad of experience here in Dubai. At first I was awestruck with what I see. Then I felt down when reality struck hard. I was confused and scared of what would happen with my job application, then with my contract signing, then with my employment. My saving grace would be the Friday mass with fellow Kabayans and help from my brother, aunt, cousin and other friends. Dubai then looks a lot better.
Dubai is definitely full of surprises, as affirmed by their tourism tagline.