Life in the Big City
This is an article from the spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
On the first day of class at U-M, my instructor asked us to go around the room and say where we were from. One student was from Lansing, another was from New Jersey. Finally, I got to tell everyone that I was from Dubai. The class gasped.
“But you’re Indian!” one person said.
“Is Dubai in India?” another asked.
“Wow, I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“Isn’t Dubai, like, a desert?”
People treated Dubai like it was this exotic wonderland, but my childhood was pretty normal. The Emirati government controlled the Internet, so I didn’t know about the movie Jackass or what songs were on top of the American pop charts, but I didn’t really feel sheltered. I rode to school on a bicycle and worried about homework and getting into a good college, just like everyone else.
I came to Ann Arbor for college and I loved Michigan, where I learned to communicate clearly and build professional relationships. After graduating, I decided to brave the cold a while longer by taking a human resources job in Milwaukee. After a year there, though, I was ready for another change and decided to return to Dubai.
The culture shock from my return to Dubai was even more intense than it was when I moved to Ann Arbor, an experience that psychologists call “reentry shock.” When I had left, Dubai was a city still finding its bearings in a globalizing world. But the city I returned to was a bustling, over-packed metropolis that barely resembled the place where I had grown up.
It’s easy to point to the crazy aspects of the new Dubai, the man-made islands and Lamborghini-driving policemen. But many of the things I found most disorienting were the ways that places that had been familiar to me had changed dramatically.
The quiet neighborhood I used to ride my bike around now had a highway running through it. The mall I loved going to because it was so big and spacious was now packed wall-to-wall with people every night. The waiters spoke a creole of Tagalog and English that I used to understand, but that talent was gone now, obliterated after so many years speaking English in America. What had happened to my home, I wondered. What had happened to me?
Work was even more disorienting. In Milwaukee, I was late if I showed up at 8:02 A.M., but now I could stroll in at 9:30 A.M., no problem. Whereas Western work culture prioritized punctuality and professionalism, my new job stressed likeability and creative problem solving.
It’s been almost a year now, and I am still getting used to my new old home, and I’m still getting used to life as what’s known as a “third-culture kid”: born in India, raised in Dubai, matured in the United States. Whenever someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I have to give them a 30-second monologue. But I’m grateful for it.
Seeing the world from so many different perspectives has allowed me to become the kind of person who can live and work anywhere in the world. And I’m proud that when I explain all of the places that I come from, I get to say, “I’m from Michigan, too.”
Former Michigan Daily writer Debjani Mukherjee works in public relations at Cohn & Wolfe in Dubai.