Children growing up in the UAE believe it is their home. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

  • There are many expatriate children born in the UAE on a daily basis.
  • In Dubai, one baby is born every 3.5 hours, as stated by the Dubai Statistics Centre (DSC). 
  • The exposure to cultures that a child gets in the UAE is intense.
  • Gulf News spoke to children, parents and experts on whether growing up in the UAE is turning children into true ‘global citizens’.
  • Final verdict: UAE can make you a globalist.

Dubai: Waffles, foul or dosa for breakfast? Studying with youngsters from 100 different countries? Indian paneer tikka and a French crepe for lunch?

The exposure to cultures that a child gets in the UAE is... well, to quote millennials - intense. But, we’re now talking about a Generation Z that thinks karak chai, iced coffee, chips paratha roll, pizza and fries is how people spend their evenings.

But, how does it affect the way they look at life? Gulf News spoke to children, parents and experts on whether growing up in the UAE is turning children into true ‘global citizens’, after all we are home to the Global Village.

Fries seem to be a favourite snack for the new generation. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Gen-next

There are many expatriate children born in the UAE on a daily basis. In Dubai alone, one baby is born every 3.5 hours, as stated by the Dubai Statistics Centre (DSC). As they grow up, many of them connect to the UAE as their home.

Mishal Faraz, a 12-year-old Indian national based in Sharjah, is one of them. She believes that children who grow up in the UAE, regardless of which country they are originally from, have more opportunities and easier access to facilities.

In her school, there are students of around 90 different nationalities. Interacting with them on a daily basis has helped her learn the value of tolerance and the art of appreciating people for who they are.

She said: “The UAE is a country with so much diversity. I am already aware of sensitivities associated with some other cultures because of the people around me. Children growing up in their home countries are only exposed to one culture, so they are at a bit of a disadvantage. I believe I would be more prepared if I were to move to a different country.”

I am already aware of sensitivities associated with some other cultures because of the people around me.

- Mishal Faraz, a 12-year-old Indian national

She is convinced that the Emirates values the new generation and offers them more opportunities to feel and be more responsible.

“Growing up here develops our minds differently. For example, at this age, I can write to a newspaper like Gulf News, and express myself. This makes us more responsible and helpful towards the community. If I was growing up in India, I wouldn’t be the same.”

Michael Leo Kokkat, a 17-year-old Indian national based in Dubai, believes that being a global citizen is about accepting rights and responsibilities as a citizen of the world, rather than of a particular country. And living in the UAE is as good as that.

He said: “Any child in the UAE will tell you how their exposure to peers of various cultures and nationalities has allowed them to appreciate their ability to contribute to the international community. Even if children grow up in a particular ethnic community, their exposure to lifestyles in the UAE teaches them these values. We see life as much more variable and modular and adaptable than those who grow up within the physical and mental boundaries of their home country.”

Living in Dubai, Kokkat believes, has prevented any sort of bigotry or prejudice in him. When he comes across people who look different or act different, it doesn’t come as a surprise. Living here has enabled him to handle different environments.

Taken for granted?

However, do children growing up in the UAE take the facilities, opportunities and easy access to global brands for granted?

Kokkat does think so.

He said: “Only when they head back home do expatriate children realise how privileged they are and able to reach luxury brands and retailers without having to travel 60 kilometres to the nearest metro city. We’re reminded to appreciate how easy it is for us to have access to everything that we do.”

Only when they head back home do expatriate children realise how privileged they are...

- Michael Leo Kokkat, Gulf News reader

One thing that he does struggle with is the question, “Where are you from?”

“Answering the question has become something of a challenge. I can no longer solely identify as Indian, nor can I claim to be an Emirati, yet somehow I feel a deep connection with both nations. Living here has steadily grown to be one of the most important identifying features of my personality.”

The UAE offers a lot of facilities, opportunities and easy access to global brands. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Mohit Talreja, a 19-year-old Indian national based in Sharjah, believes that schools play a major role in enabling expatriate children to become global citizens.

He said: “Participating in inter-school competitions, interacting with students from different cultures in numerous national level competitions and other such activities go a long way in promoting the exchange of ideas and opinions. This is the best form of training that can be given to a child to morph into someone who can fit anywhere.”

Third culture

Raya Khaled, a 23-year-old Iraqi national, believes that being surrounded by people of different nationalities throughout her schooling years has evolved her own culture. She has never been to her home country and has no connect to it. So, she is of the opinion that she has adopted a third culture altogether.

She said: “We are global citizens and feel that people from our own countries are different. Growing up, I had a lot of friends and I am so used to their food, culture and even language. If I were to visit their countries, I wouldn’t find things to be very different. There wouldn’t be any cultural shock.”

Growing up, I had a lot of friends and I am so used to their food, culture and even language...

- Raya Khaled, 23-year-old Iraqi national

Having access to the various facilities and brands in the UAE also has an impact on the children growing up here, she thinks. But, sometimes, these things are taken for granted.

She said: “You realise the true value of things when you travel to other countries and don’t find the same facilities as the UAE.

This is home

Rabia Ghulam Yaseen, 29-year-old Pakistani national based in Ajman, has only visited her home country twice in her lifetime. She feels she has no connect with Pakistan and refers to the UAE as her home.

She said: “We can understand the cultures of the people around us and vice versa. But, when I visit Pakistan, I feel the culture there is very different.”

Even though she was raised in a Pakistani household, she doesn’t relate to the people growing up there. Their attitude towards life, she believes, is very different compared to hers and she would not be able to adapt to that lifestyle anymore.

She said: “Our family members from Pakistan do visit us and my parents visit them, too. But, I don’t feel connected to my cousins. Even their behaviour and mentality is very different.”

She also believes that the convenience of living in the UAE is a major factor. Getting to places is easy, considering all the facilities available, and she finds this lacking in her home country.

Shawarma being prepared at a restaurant. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Archana S. Nair, a 25-year-old Indian national based in Dubai, is in agreement with Yaseen’s views. As a child, she didn’t wish to visit her home country either. Most of her relatives are based in the UAE, which made it easier for her to avoid travelling.

She said: “I would visit once in three or four years. Every time I went, I would fall ill and end up in the hospital.”

Growing up in the UAE was an advantage in her opinion. She got exposure to different cultures, brands and amenities. However, after all that, her parents sent her to India for college.

She said: “Initially, my dad was really afraid. He thought I was so spoilt here and it would be difficult for me to be there, which it was. We take some things for granted here. When you go back, you don’t have the same facilities and you realise the value of all the things here. My friends in India are a little more narrow-minded.”

She felt it the most when filling out her college application and was asked for things like her caste. Growing up in the UAE, she was never asked for such things.

We take some things for granted here. When you go back, you don’t have the same facilities and you realise the value of all the things here.

- Archana S. Nair, a 25-year-old Indian national

Seizing the opportunity

But is everyone growing up in the UAE gaining such a global perspective?

Marco Blankenburgh, a Dubai-based Dutch national who has been in the business of creating ‘intercultural’ environments for UAE businesses for over 18 years calls the country a laboratory where he and his team can look at the success of the multicultural experiment.

When talking about UAE children, Blankenburgh insists that the UAE does offer the opportunity, but whether families or schools seize it is another matter.

“In our work we have created a behavioural grid, which identifies intercultural critic behaviours and an intercultural learner behaviours. Where your family falls in that grid is probably the biggest defining factor of whether a child can evolve. If you grow up in a family or a school which is critically oriented, you see the world through the lens of ‘my culture is superior than yours’. So, you want to maintain the purity of your culture,” he said.

While Blankenburgh agrees that having a sense of the culture in one’s home country is important, if parents focus too much on keeping the home environment ‘clear of foreign culture’, children might struggle with developing a sense of belonging.

The solution? Create a third culture space, which welcomes people from various cultures, factors in their cultural preferences and offers experiences and a sense of belonging to young minds.

“It is not enough for a school, for example, to say that we have teachers from 30 countries and children from 100 nationalities. That doesn’t create an intercultural environment. You have to work hard to create that third culture space. Create rituals, fun memories and experiences where you do things together that are from other cultures and incorporate the different cultures that exist,” Blankenburgh said.

If you grow up in a family or a school which is critically oriented, you see the world through the lens of ‘my culture is superior than yours’.

- Marco Blankenburgh, a Dubai-based Dutch national

The Thanksgiving tradition, then, doesn’t need to be only for Americans. For Blankenburgh’s family and friends, the dinner table can have his Dutch-South African family, along with 10 other nationalities.

“We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but we realised we all had things that we were thankful for. That’s the type of very practical stuff that becomes fun and memorable,” he added.

Real-life advantage

These experiences are not just helpful for personal growth, they can have a critical impact on one’s job prospects, too. A recent LinkedIn Survey discovered that 79 per cent of recruiters are looking for diverse teams, as they can perform better if they create a space where everybody can feel like they belong and are able to thrive.

In another report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 71 per cent of the students in universities right now said they wanted an international experience when they started to work.

“This is the highest that has ever been. If you look at the two reports, the children who are able to thrive in intercultural environments will be snatched up by the companies in no time,” Blankenburgh added.

A cup of karak chai. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Generation gap?

But how different is the perspective of a UAE parent compared to their children? Parents Gulf News spoke to, felt that if families were intercultural, it meant every member became more culturally intelligent – whether child or adult.

Dubai resident Arvind Sahay’s children are “classic Dubai kids”. His son, 23, moved to the US after completing his school education in Dubai. His daughter, 18, is about to do the same and has filled out applications to American colleges.

“When my son went to the US, what I noticed was that his ability to interact with other cultures was more well-developed than children who came in directly from India. He could connect much more easily because of the way they have grown up here,” he said.

How different is his perspective from his children’s? Not much. Even though Sahay acknowledged that many families can be insular, theirs welcomed new experiences.

“UAE is an amalgamation of cultures but at the same time, not everyone is open to assimilation. You can spend your entire life without interacting with others, it all depends on your mindset. We are very open to experiencing different cultures and meeting people from different countries and that is what we have taught our children. So, accepting something different has been much easier.”

When my son went to the US, what I noticed was that his ability to interact with other cultures was more well-developed than children who came in directly from India

- Arvind Sahay, Dubai resident

Filipina mother of three, Hazel Gilbuena, agrees that instead of being misfits, the UAE experience makes children more well-groomed.

“My sons are still very culturally grounded, because we try to follow cultural practices at home, like addressing elders in a certain way that communicates respect. We also regularly travel to the Philippines so that they can meet their relatives. Having said that, I am very culturally curious and our children, too, love to celebrate when it’s Diwali or the National Day,” she said.

Oman Chips paratha roll being prepared at a restaurant. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

For Egyptian Suzy Sobhi, mother to a six-year-old boy, the UAE is a perfect balance between being exposed to an Arab environment and yet having the chance to engage productively with other cultures.

“When he grows up, no matter where he plans to settle, it won’t be a culture shock for him. Whether he decides to go to Europe, Egypt or any other country, the way is open for anthing he chooses.”

The final verdict?

Yes, the UAE can make you a globalist, but only if you’re willing to step out of your shell.

Third-culture children: First person perspective

Dona Cherian, Guides Writer

For my brother and I, we never felt any different from the many kids at our school in Yemen. In my grade, with friends I had studied with since kindergarten, English was the only common language. Ethiopians, Eritreans, Filipinos, Americans, Pakistanis, Britons, Yemenis, other Arabs and of course, Indians from other parts of the country – we existed cohesively without judgement and exposed to each other’s food and cultural eccentricities.

At home, however, my mother and father spoke in Malayalam making sure we did, too — so we grew up speaking it. My aunt, forced me to learn the Malayalam script and I did that reading comic books in my language. My brother on the other hand didn’t learn it all, and opted for French as his second language.

Life was pretty good and I felt confident in my identity as a Malayali and as a third-culture kid born in Yemen. Fast forward a couple of years, as rumblings of war hit Yemen, my brother and I left for India and our higher studies.

I was fully confident in my ability to gel in with my people, despite the fact that I would be alone and in a boarding school. Only after I joined school did I realise that it wouldn’t be easy at all. There were many things — my spoken Malayalam wasn’t native enough, my English was affected, I didn’t know any old wives’ tales or sayings, I didn’t know the names of my favourite Malayali foods. In my 11th grade at school, classmates seemed to misunderstand everything I did.

In Yemen, growing up with a small number of friends, I had no idea of how wide the divide was between genders in Kerala. Apart from all the fun made of my Malayalam with too many English fillers, someone actually complained to my teacher about me being too ‘friendly’ with boys.

Friends for life

No one spoke to me that year, except literally five people who are still good friends, with me hiding out in the library every break we got. It was hard though. I still remember the day the results to an inter-collegiate higher level essay competition was announced at school, and I won despite being the youngest.

After being called to stage in front of almost a 1000 students, and walking back into my grade’s assembly line with not even one classmate saying a single word to me – the recognition means nothing to a 17-year old if there’s no one to celebrate it with. This was all because I was too ‘different’ and not Malayali enough.

Twelfth grade was easier as I learnt ways to cope – I tried my best to not use English fillers, I threw myself into my studies and extra-curricular activities. Maybe, that year was easier because people saw that I was just like them – a teenager who grew up different, looking for friends. Graduation was easier and by then, I had learnt the ways of being comfortable in my skin in Kerala.

For me, at least, my parents made sure I knew the language and they explained stories, legends as fun stories. For children growing up in the UAE, this is a major issue – most kids don’t speak their mother tongue fluently. I, as part of the third-culture crowd, can attest to the fact that knowing one’s mother tongue can definitely help build your cultural identity. It’s the bare minimum but it can help tackle the culture confusion and the culture shock that we encounter in our own countries.

To this day, I don’t feel completely at home when I am in Kerala. I am proud of who I am and my culture – anyone who knows me can attest to that. However, I would definitely be of the opinion that children who grow up outside their own home countries can find it hard to identify with their own indigenous culture as the influence isn’t as direct or focused.