“Getting ready to pack up and move to a new country is an interesting time. There’s a lot of excitement, but at the same time there is grief, too, which is very normal. “We go through grieving responses all the time – even over small things, such as our favourite shoes being damaged, or losing our favourite bag. We form emotional attachments to restaurants, our cars, the people who work in our local coffee shop... these things are important to our internal life. We like familiarity and order.
If someone came into your kitchen and moved everything around, you’d probably be upset. We usually drive the same way to work, go to the same grocery store... Losing the familiarity of things we typically don’t acknowledge – that’s huge. “Another factor you experience when leaving a country is saying goodbye to the memories you made there. When you pass the church where you got married, or the park where your child learnt how to ride a bike, the memory of the emotional event fires up our limbic system and makes us feel good.
When we leave, we believe we’re going to lose the opportunity to have a connection with that memory. But photos, videos and smells can all bring you back to it. “Another thing you lose when you leave a city is status. If you’ve been here for years, you have a social life, you know your way around, you’re practically an old-timer. Being a newbie again can be hard.
“Similarly, class can also make leaving the UAE hard, although people don’t really like to talk about it. Back home, you were middle class. You come here and you’re an expat living a luxurious lifestyle... that’s quite a big jump up the class ladder and it goes to our heads. Choosing to walk away from that is difficult. Also, for many people, leaving the UAE means their salary is going to be cut in half.
Losing that financial freedom can be scary. “Then you have the pressure and sadness of getting rid of personal items. Personally, I couldn’t believe how much stuff we had managed to cram into a two-bedroomed apartment. We had more than 100 boxes of stuff to sell, that’s not including the stuff we’re taking. We’d bought all that stuff together and enjoyed owning it, and now we have to choose what to take and what to leave – there’re some tough decisions to be made.
Will your next place be large enough for the big L-shaped sofa you love? “My advice to people leaving would be this: Don’t avoid saying goodbye. Host some parties so you can say farewell to people. Do the things you enjoyed one last time – visit the sites, go to the waterpark, get out into the desert... the things you normally only do with visitors. Now do them for you.
“Get the camera out. Take some pictures. Say goodbye to special places. “Remember that although it’s easy to get into the mindset that you are hard done by here – especially once you’ve made the decision to leave – we expats make a huge impact on the UAE’s culture, almost like a cultural footprint. And while the UAE may not be like your home country, the culture has still bent quite far in our direction from where it was.
So, avoid being too critical about the place, even after you have left... sometimes we imagine that being critical makes us look more mature, or can help us distance ourselves from an emotional experience, but it doesn’t do anyone any favours. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, such as ‘I’ll be back next year’, or, ‘We can Skype every week.’ By all means, say what you would like to do – express an intention or desire to come back every year, if you’d like – but don’t promise, otherwise you’ll end up feeling guilty.
“On a personal level, I’m just about to leave Dubai after five years here. I’ve lived in the shadow of Dubai Mall... I love that place. And I love camels, and I love opening the curtains and it being sunny outside every day. So goodbye Dubai Mall, goodbye camels and goodbye sunshine. I’m going to miss you.”
Jared Alden was a counsellor at the German Neuroscience Centre, DHCC (www.gncdubai.com). He is moving to Montreal.