What is YOUR background?

Dubai’s melting pot of nationalities means your birthplace is a constant topic of conversation. Where are you from?

The Knowledge

When I moved to Dubai from the UK in 2007, I knew I’d encounter a lot of construction, sweltering summers and that I’d spend a lot of time in malls. But what I wasn’t expecting was the plethora of questioning I’d be faced with everyday.

It started the day I arrived. That was the first time I was grilled with ‘the question’. The conversation went something like this:

Shop Assistant: ‘Where are you from?’

Me (taken aback): ’England’

Shop Assistant (quizzical look): ‘No, I mean, where are you from?’

Me (thinking: is this a trick question?): ‘Err, Ipswich?’ Cue more quizzical looks from her and an overwhelming sense of bewilderment from me.

Shop Assistant: ‘I mean, you don’t look English, where are you from?’

Me (penny drops): ‘Oh, you mean what is my ethnic background?’

Shop Assistant (looking at me as if I’m stupid): ‘Well yes, I suppose so.’

Me (thinking about it and replying): ‘Well, I’m British. I was born in England but my family are Chinese. They moved to England from Hong Kong over 40 years ago, so I would say I’m Chinese British – we call ourselves BBCs – ‘’British Born Chinese.’’’

Shop Assistant (looking amused and full of awe, smiling): ‘Oh, that’s very nice. Dhs56 please.’

She then went back to her work. ‘That was odd,’ I thought. ‘I haven’t been questioned like that before, not in the UK at least. I think a simpler answer probably would have sufficed.’

Two years down the track and I sometimes play games with the people who ask me every day. One time, I was at the gym in Ibn Battuta and the towel guy asked ‘the question’. I replied with a big grin: ‘Where do you think I’m from?’ He and his mate started going through most of the countries in South-East and East Asia: ‘The Philippines? Vietnam? Japan? You must be Japanese? No? Thailand? Nepal? Indonesia?’ I gave him a hint: ‘Think of the biggest country in Asia, and also think about the name of this area of the mall.’ Cue brain whirring. ’Aha! you are from Korea!’. I simply said: ‘Nope, I’m from China.’ Not technically correct, but an easier response.

I’ve wanted to tell someone that I was of royal stock from some far away country – a princess from Bhutan, for example. But, knowing my luck, they’d speak Dzongkha, Bhutan’s official language, and I’d be caught out. Such is Dubai’s stunningly cosmopolitan demographic.

Now, with the UAE population just passing the five million mark and more than 300 nationalities curious about each other here, I guess I’ll have ever more games to play.

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