Expat Brat

Many who read the following scenarios would surely think of me as your typical ‘expat brat’. 

Picture a dimly lit room with lasers fracturing through lingering smoke from a machine. The light is frantically circling and reflecting off the mirrored disco ball, throwing speckles and shapes against all surfaces. The speakers are belting out chest-thumping dance music as figures move on the central dance floor to the beat. Figures belonging to 12 and 13-year-old children. 

Gone are the days of pass the parcel. No more pin the tail on the donkey. Nada to the pinata. “Musical chairs?” You ask—nope. Since when do kids celebrate birthdays at a nightclub? 

Well, apparently they do in Dubai. At least, back in the year 2000, they did. I have no idea how pre-teens celebrate birthdays in Dubai now (most likely by learning how to ski on artificial snow in a shopping centre that also houses live penguins). I am ashamed to say that I was in that nightclub. I was a 12-year-old celebrating a friend’s 13th birthday at the Planet Hollywood Planetarium Nightclub.

We didn’t even know how to dance, with most of us taking cues from the Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC music videos seen on TV. But it was the cool thing to do, and it wasn’t the only party like this that occurred that calendar year. Having just moved to Dubai, I knew having a birthday at a nightclub at that age wasn’t normal. But I also didn’t make a fuss and accepted it as being a way to celebrate in Dubai, as no one else seemed to show concern otherwise.

It was quite the role reversal, with parents sitting outside the club entry doors enjoying a meal in the restaurant, while the children hit the H2O on the rocks hard inside the seedy venue. Looking back, the whole thing seems absurd, or maybe I'm just getting older.

Let's fast forward five years to my 18th birthday. By this stage, I had already moved back to Australia for boarding school and university. My parents remained in Dubai, and I was visiting them over the Christmas holidays. We celebrated my birthday at the Al Muntaha restaurant overlooking the Persian Gulf and Dubai coastline. It’s a beautiful restaurant that serves decadent French cuisine and is located within the rear wing at the top of the Burj Al Arab, a 7-star hotel. It was a wonderful afternoon with my family, spent savouring food in good company and exploring the grounds open to the public. I was so grateful and completely taken aback by the choice of venue, it was truly very special.

Yet how do you explain these life experiences to someone back 'home' without sounding like an entitled child? These experiences happened, yes, but I would have been just as appreciative and found the events just as enjoyable had they been what some other people consider 'normal' ways to celebrate birthdays. I definitely recognise how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to experience some of these things at a young age. However, to convey that to someone who may not know me well enough, retelling my childhood memories could come across as showing off.

If you look up the term ‘expat brat’ on Urban Dictionary, and you will find ‘spoilt’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘elite’ thrown in the description, words that could be associated with the above experiences. I don’t even enjoy being labelled an ‘expat’, let alone a ‘brat’, as the true definition of ‘expatriate’ has been blurred over the years and now carries its own connotations, preconceptions and assumptions about class, education and privilege (but that’s a discussion for another time). There may be people with these qualities and experiences that exist, but to stereotype kids who have grown up abroad with this term is, to be honest, a little offensive (as most stereotypes are).

Growing up in Dubai taught me that living abroad can offer certain experiences that aren’t always available elsewhere and involving one’s self in these experiences doesn’t necessarily make someone ‘spoilt’, ‘elite’ or a ‘brat’. That comes down to how a person is brought up to perceive the world and their subsequent actions. ‘Lucky’, yes. ‘Fortunate’, yes. ‘Humble’, I try my best to be. Sensing the unspoken judgement about the kind of person you are permeate the air around you is not the best feeling.

It is a two-way street, though. I also can’t assume locals will immediately conclude I am an ‘expat brat’ when they hear my story. To avoid any potential misunderstandings, I think it’s a fair compromise to allow myself to ‘reframe the truth’.

So, when people ask questions like;

“How did you spend your birthday?”

I reply,

“I had a wonderful lunch with my family.”