Singaporeans Abroad: Working in Dubai has made me resilient
By Hoe I Yune, Jan 21, 2021
In 2019, 24-year-old Vanessa seized a job opportunity to move from Singapore to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since relocating, she has been documenting road trips to cities and mountains, and where you can find the best kousa and knafeh on her personal Dayre account (@vannvanz).
Exploring new terrain and meeting people in a city where nearly 90 per cent of its residents are expats, Vanessa has grown to love Dubai. It’s broadening her world view and shaping her sense of independence.
Yet moving to a foreign city is not without its challenges, and she shares with us what it has been like striving to adapt to a new environment, being separated from family in Singapore in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and having to self-quarantine when her live-in cousin contracted the infectious disease.
In spite of the moments when she feels out of her depth and alone, she’s steadfast in finding her way and growing away from home.
Living in Dubai, I love being able to make road trips to neighbouring cities like Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and visiting the Ras Al Khaimah mountain Jebel Jais. From cities and beaches to deserts and mountains, there’s so much to explore.
Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve seen tighter border control measures like having to take a Polymerase Chain Reaction test before entering another city. Otherwise, Abu Dhabi is only an hour and a half away by car. You could be spontaneous — wake up one morning and just say, “Let’s go there today”.
Public transport in Dubai isn’t convenient and it’s very common to own a car, which comes especially in handy when making road trips elsewhere. To take a taxi to Abu Dhabi from Dubai could set you back by SG$150 for one way alone, whereas it’s only SG$30 for a full tank of petrol (give or take, depending on the type of car).
I visited Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah, which is the highest peak in the UAE. It’s incredible how in one country, you can get two extremes — 40 degree celsius heat in the city and snow on the tallest mountain.
I’ve become close friends with someone who has been living in Dubai for a while and he introduced me to Arabic cuisine like kousa and knafeh. Kousa is zucchini stuffed with spiced meat and rice then cooked in a broth, whereas knafeh is a syrup-coated crunchy sweet pastry filled with salty cheese. The food tastes amazing, incorporating the most interesting assortment of spices! It definitely satisfies the foodie in me.
Given the choice to work anywhere in the world, I’m not sure Dubai would’ve been my first choice at first. But now, I’m glad this is where I am.
It’s not just about the road trips or the food. I like how Dubai is a kaleidoscope of cultures because of the high volume of expats who come here for work. Singapore is multicultural but Dubai even more so. Through work and friends, I’ve met locals, as well as people from India, the UK, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Before moving here, I wouldn’t have expected to meet people with such different cultural backgrounds from my own.
They have shared with me what it was like to be born in war-torn parts of the Middle East, serving in the military, and running away from the war during childhood. I know of someone who gets anxious whenever airplanes fly overhead, which is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. To hear their stories is eye opening — the anguish of war more visceral and real than when just read about in history textbooks or the news.
For many reasons, I know I’m privileged to have the chance to work here. I am also aware that I’m fortunate enough to be here by choice. That’s why for all the challenges that I face, I want to stay on and continue striving forward.
2020 was a challenging year for many, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I hesitate to say it was especially terrible for me. Yet, it was undeniably a rough year to be apart from family: my uncle passed away on the second day of Chinese New Year, my grandmother was hospitalised during the Circuit Breaker, and my grandfather passed away on Christmas day.
The pandemic made international travel difficult. Singapore went from being “one flight away” to being “one flight and 14 days of quarantine” away.
When going through a loss, nothing beats being home and physically present with family. I flew back in December and served Stay Home Notice (SHN) in a hotel when my grandfather was unwell. He passed away in the midst of my SHN period, which felt abrupt because I had just video called him on that very morning. He was excited for us to be back for his upcoming birthday celebration.
Growing up in a close-knit family, I have always been close to my grandparents and was used to seeing them weekly in Singapore. Overseas, I would call them regularly. It is weird to think that my 92-year-old grandpa is no longer here, but I am comforted by the thought that he is no longer in pain. I like to think that he’s somewhere up there enjoying an unlimited supply of black forest cake and chili crab. And I’m glad that I didn’t fly in a day later or I wouldn’t have made it for his cremation ceremony. I headed back to Dubai shortly after the funeral.
I am heartened by how my parents always encourage me to step out of my comfort zone and learn what I can abroad. They usually say that I should make the most out of the opportunity that I have because the chance to work in Dubai doesn't come easy. It’s one reason for me to be brave and grow in my career.
I was working in the tourism industry in Singapore when a relative asked if I was interested in applying for a job in Dubai. She has been working in the UAE for more than 12 years and said she knew of a job opening. I didn’t feel fulfilled at my previous job, so it was a no brainer for me to submit my CV and take up the phone interview. When I landed the job, I was thrilled.
Life’s familiar and comfortable in Singapore but after coming back from studying in Australia, I didn’t feel ready to settle down just yet. I thought about how much I enjoyed going to cafes, beaches, and neighbouring cities in Australia, and wanted to explore someplace new. I had no qualms about going to Dubai on my own, although my cousin ended up coming along after scoring a job in another industry.
I share a two-bedroom flat with my cousin. As ready as I was to come here without her, it is fun and definitely comforting to have someone familiar from home to navigate Dubai and share experiences with. We didn’t use to talk about our everyday lives back home in Singapore but here, we share every woe and weal; even if it’s something as trivial as drivers cutting into our lane on the way to work.
During lockdown at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, my cousin and I were together almost every waking minute of the day. Dubai had some of the strictest lockdown measures in April. It wasn’t literally called a lockdown but we underwent a city-wide disinfection campaign. We had a curfew between 8pm and 6am, during which we needed government-issued permits to leave our homes. These permits, which could be made online with the Dubai police, were only allowed for essential trips like groceries, the pharmacy and doctor visits. After a week, the rule extended to 24 hours a day, so we couldn’t go out at all without a permit. If caught by the police or on traffic cameras, you need to dispute the Dh3,000 (SG$ 1,000) fine with an authorised proof of exemption.
We could easily get groceries online and carry out work meetings on Zoom, and mentally we knew it was the socially responsible thing to do, so staying in wasn’t too difficult. We kept up with Singapore news while family back home did the same to keep tabs on the UAE. What was probably the most worrying was undergoing lockdown first and seeing the number of infections in Singapore rising. This was before Circuit Breaker measures were announced. We just kept reminding family back home to stay indoors as much as possible and to put on a mask if not.
My cousin contracted COVID-19 in September – thankfully her symptoms were fairly mild. I temporarily quarantined at a hotel and we kept each other updated via texts and calls.
I might easily voice out complaints but I also quite quickly forget and move past them. It is a coping mechanism to not worry too much about things outside my control.
Because of this, the biggest challenge I’ve found myself facing since coming to Dubai is performing well at my real estate marketing job. Unlike the pandemic-influenced air travel or relatives coming down ill, my work circumstance is one that I feel is more within my capacity to improve upon.
The work environment here is so fast moving that it always feels as if things needed to have been done “yesterday”. The company that I work for is relatively new and most people are expats and experienced, so I get the sense that they expect the same of me. Although I can usually get by speaking English, there have been instances when it would’ve been easier to get ideas and points across had I known Arabic or Hindi.
I feel the extra pressure to prove myself since I got the job through a relative. To have relied on a personal connection isn’t something that I’m proud of and neither do I want to let her down.
Before starting, I worried about not being able to match up to her, bearing in mind that she is well-known and accomplished in the field. I studied media and my previous marketing experience was quite limited, so I knew it would be a steep learning curve. But the pressure hit ten-fold once I actually started.
As I joined a new company and received little guidance, I tried to do everything on my own for about a year — social media, helping out with events, filming and video editing. But that led to me pulling long hours and still falling short, because there was never enough time to do everything well. The breaking point came when a superior told me off, asking why I’m not as sharp as the relative who recommended me. “I don’t expect you to be 10 steps ahead of me, just two steps,” he said. It’s really quite frustrating and discouraging to think of how I’m compared to her, but I suppose it can’t be helped when she did introduce me to the role.
At my lowest, I felt so overwhelmed — as if problems were raining down on me non-stop and it was all too much for me to handle. For days, I cried in my car during lunch and after work. But not once did it cross my mind to return home. I had fallen in love with Dubai and knew I wasn’t ready to just up and go. I told myself that I had to buck up.
I lacked a support system at work and it isn’t in my nature to turn to family for guidance, but I realised I didn’t have to only turn to people in Dubai. I reached out to a friend who practices marketing in Singapore. She works in a different industry but through her, I learned to define a marketer's job scope, to prioritise and to draw boundaries.
While I can’t say I’ve succeeded in pulling a 180 and am now thriving at work, I’m trying to be better at communicating where I need help.
Learning Arabic is on the back burner for now because it’s too time consuming and less important than honing my marketing skills, but I do pick up words here and there from listening to people speak. Around friends I’m more comfortable with, I would ask what certain words mean.
I’m not sure for how long I will be working in Dubai but I’m definitely happy here for now and don’t intend to return to Singapore anytime soon. When COVID-19 hit, it seemed as if everyone was asking me to go back home but I just didn’t feel like I could. So much about the pandemic was — and is — uncertain that I don’t want to risk losing my job in Dubai.
I might not have a five-year plan, but I want to make the most of my time here while I have the chance. Coming here has fortified my resilience and taught me to take initiative more so than ever before. If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have experienced the pressure of being compared against my relative; if I stayed in Singapore, I probably would’ve given up as soon as the going got tough at work. Never before would I have voluntarily signed up for online courses to improve my work.
Working overseas, there’s a mix of wanting to be able to prove to others that I deserve to be here and the pressure of knowing that I can’t easily land another job here if I just quit.
It’s only because I’m here that circumstances have forced me out of my comfort zone and that I push myself to be better at what I do and who I am as a person.
Pictures provided by Vanessa. Next week, we’ll be speaking with Pearlyn Koh (Dayre user @pearlynkmin) who is a Singaporean based in Sweden with her family of four. Living in their third country away from home, she and her husband Eugene have adapted to being hands-on parents, and she'll be sharing how this has strengthened their marriage and family.
My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve written about trying to meet my sister in the middle while living together during Circuit Breaker, travelling, and whether or not I really think Malaysian girls are more “simple” than Singaporean girls.
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