Geneva Liz Isaac had lived a pampered life before she moved to Dubai. But the UAE’s capital turned her into an adult and taught her some of life’s biggest lessons in her expat life in Dubai.
My alarm clock violently woke me up, shattering my sweet slumber like a honking horn. With a throaty grunt, I spent a few more minutes in bed, half-asleep and covered in sheets as the bolstering sunlight pierced through the window. It’s a brand-new day in Dubai.
I have been calling this city of superlatives my “home” for over seven years, but it feels like only yesterday when I first set foot here. Renowned for its iconic skylines, massive shopping malls, glitzy nightlife, and ultra-modern architecture, people have hyperbolic assumptions that I live in a mansion, own a tiger pet, and ride on a magic carpet to work.
As dreamy as its name sounds, my expat life as a Filipino in Dubai is nowhere near a fairy tale nor a science fiction movie. It is raw, imperfect, and real.
When I packed my whole life in two suitcases and moved here, it was like stepping into the future. Dubai has a stunning blend of tradition and ambition, challenging the limits of science, technology, and human intelligence. It boasts of towering skyscrapers, an archipelago of man-made islands, and a fully automated, self-driving 46-mile train. For someone who grew up in a small city, Dubai was overwhelming, but in a good way.
Growing up, I was pampered by my grandmother. So, when I flew the nest at 25 to work in Dubai, flapping my wings for the first time felt daunting. Thank God Dubai’s internet speed is very fast, it made my first few months in the emirates bearable. My Nanay (grandmother) is just a video-call away, to help me with things I was clueless about like cleaning fish, changing bulbs, or cooking Filipino dishes. And whenever she’s not available, I depend on hundreds of video tutorials on Youtube to teach me how to survive life.
The relative ease of getting things done around here made my transition smooth as silk. Dubai has the best roads connecting to almost all parts of the city, government services are easy to access online, and most food deliveries are available 24/7. My version of suking tindahan is the mini grocery store below my apartment building. Whenever I want a can of coke zero and a bag of Piattos, I just WhatsApp them my order and they deliver to my doorstep in minutes!
Dubai is also ranked as one of the safest cities in the Middle East. I can carry cash without worrying about pickpockets, wear gold jewellery everywhere, leave my bag on a table and return to it untouched, or even jog at midnight! But what I love most is enjoying my favourite novel on my balcony after a long workday, with the stunning view of the Dubai Marina sprawling before me.
For most residents in Dubai, consumerism is viewed as a form of “self-care”, so purchasing luxury brands is as common as getting a blouse at Walmart. Maliit na bagay, ika nga. Fueled by my desire to fit in, I adapted a lifestyle I couldn’t afford.
Living like a queen is totally okay if you have the means. But for a newbie like me who was just starting to climb up the corporate ladder, it burned big holes in my pocket.
Everything was going downhill and in desperation to recover, I put my remaining savings into investments that I didn’t understand, which almost bankrupt me! It was like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. The stress that came with it derailed me for a while.
Good thing, it was never too late to start all over again. So, when I was given a chance to redeem myself, I grabbed it with both hands. I got an offer to work for a local bank which opened doors for my financial breakthrough. It was an answered prayer, but the catch was my boss didn’t like me.
“One more mistake and you’re out of my team!” his words kept ringing in my ears. For half a year, I would wake up from nightmares of getting fired. Sleep-deprived and unhappy, I had to drag myself out of bed every morning to go to work. I would always cheer myself up with, “Laban kabayan!”, but would also end up sobbing to my grandmother on the phone “Ayoko na, ayoko na talaga.”
My boss was a perfectionist, and he expected the same level of output from his employers. I had a hard time keeping up. But after several years, our professional relationship improved as I learned to deliver the quality of work he wanted.
While my career became better, my personal life took a bitter turn. My boyfriend dumped me a day after I turned 30. He ended our three years relationship without an explanation, punctuated with only the words “Ayoko na.” He got tired of me living 6,289 miles away.
The UAE is a multicultural hub with over 200 nationalities. Its diversity is reflected in the variety of food, availability of global brands and openness to different beliefs and religions. But nothing here is permanent. People float in and out like driftwood in water.
Living here connected me to amazing people from different countries. We made beautiful memories, enjoyed delicious meals, talked about diverse topics, drove around the city while singing at the top of our lungs, and supported each other’s dreams. But good things don’t last forever. I will always find myself holding a cocktail at their send off parties or hugging them goodbye at the airport.
It always hurts when friends leave, even though it’s always possible to see each other again. One day it will also be my time to leave Dubai, and while I’m still here, I need to pull myself together every time another friend leaves.
My Filipino expat life in Dubai goes on, as I open myself for new friendships.
Finding purpose in between
Living in Dubai is a never-ending process of growth, learning and letting go. Being an expat is not easy, but it made me discover parts of myself that I never knew existed. It taught me to celebrate small victories, be grateful for what I have been blessed with, forgive without an apology, be smart with time and money, make time for family and to depend on God alone. I chose not to wallow in self pity but wear my battle scars with pride.
Dubai’s beauty still amazes me every single day. And it gives me hope that it’s also possible that there’s someone out there that will feel the same way every time he looks at me. Will I meet my Prince Aladdin in Dubai? Let’s see how my own tale of Arabian Nights will unfold.
But for now, I need to wrap up this trip down memory lane, make my coffee and embrace the hustle.
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Geneva Liz Isaac works for a local bank during the day and hustles as a writer at night. She geeks out about conspiracy theories, Harry Potter, anime, fashion, and classical music. In rare times that she's not glued to her computer typing her heart away, she can be found in museums or aesthetically beautiful cafés.