18 November 2018Last updated


Students finding their roots

As university terms begin for this academic year, find out what it’s like for expat teens to end life abroad and go back home

Imogen Lemon
7 Sep 2016 | 09:39 am
  • Source:iStock

I am British and so are both my parents but until last October I had never lived in the UK. If someone asked me where I was from I would say England but when it came down to it, it was the UAE that shaped my identity the most. I was connected to the UK, I had gone back there every year during the summer, but it wasn’t quite the same.

I’d spent all my life looking forward to finally living in the UK and when I finally went over there for university last year it didn’t take long before I felt as though I was at home. But the thing is, that didn’t stop the UAE from also feeling like home, and while growing up as a Third Culture Kid outside my parents’ culture had always given me a bit of a split identity, I hadn’t anticipated feeling such a stranger in the country I was from. I found myself missing all sorts of cultural references and realised that my instincts were skewed towards the UAE. It took a while before I got used to shops closing too early for last-minute present-buying and clear sunny days definitely not making it warm enough to go outside with wet hair. Being a Linguistics student meant that we picked apart our accents and I was always surprised whenever mine had non-British features.


Undoubtedly the benefit of growing up outside the UK was that I got to be excited about things that would otherwise be pretty unremarkable. Even after a year there I still enjoy rain and the idea of snow was such a novelty that one day I stayed up until 4am just because some had been forecast! My friends were constantly amused by how much joy I got from being able to see my breath in the cold air and breaking the ice on puddles that had frozen over. I found myself commenting on leafy smells that they had never thought twice about and I bombarded my family back in the UAE with endless photos of falling leaves and bare trees, snowdrops and daffodils. I remember when I first heard someone mention that the trees were turning and confusedly pictured the whomping willow from Harry Potter twisting around. I got to experience my first ever bonfire night and I was in awe of what for everyone else was just a yearly event. Even small things like being able to buy good fruit at a low price made me so much happier than they would have if I’d grown up in the UK.

Of course, when I traded prayer calls in for church bells there were always going to be things that got left behind. I miss seeing Arabic everywhere. I find it strange walking into a supermarket and seeing shelves of alcohol, and stranger still being able to eat outside during Ramadan. I get confused looks whenever I called Sainsbury’s ‘Spinneys’, or whenever I mutter ‘yallah’ or ‘shu hatha’ to myself. I miss being able to share the wonderfully rhyming ‘Luke, ana abouk’ with people who would understand what it meant. I miss being close to my family, especially when surrounded by friends popping home every now and then for the weekend. I miss the small everyday things like eating fresh pita or seeing bulbuls and hoopoes in the garden that I hadn’t even really thought twice about before leaving.


I spent the first few weeks at university avoiding mentioning where I had grown up. I knew from past experiences that it usually ended up with people assuming I came from a family of millionaires who drive gold-plated Ferraris. After a while though, once I was sure people knew I hadn’t lived in a penthouse in the Burj Khalifa, I loved getting to talk about this place that was so much part of me. I enjoyed the look of surprise on people’s faces when I talked about how my Duke of Edinburgh expedition involved spending four days walking through the desert. I would complain about the fact that it reaches 50ºc in the summer and about the sandstorms that block the drains and cause floods, but they were the sort of complaints that you make with a smile. Whenever people asked me if I spoke Arabic I wished that I had been taught better during my 11 years of school lessons — not because I wanted to impress them, but because it seemed like a part of my identity, a skill I should have. I wanted to show a pride in the place I’d grown up in…a pride I didn’t realise I had until I left.

I’ve not completely left here of course. I’m still back during term holidays and haven’t had to say goodbye to warm, sunny Christmases quite yet. I assume that after a bit more time in the UK, when ordinary things stop being so new and exciting, there’ll be less of a strange clash between being somewhere I consider home and still feeling a bit of an outsider but the seventeen years I spent here are always going to be an important part of who I am. I know that a physical home here in Dubai is temporary, and that once my family leaves I won’t really have any reason to come back but that won’t stop me loving the fact that I’m always going to have these two places I can call my home.

Imogen Lemon

Imogen Lemon

is 19 years old and has just finished her first year of studying Linguistics at the University of Cambridge in the UK