How I Got by — and Said Goodbye — in Dubai

How I Got by -- and Said Goodbye -- to Dubai. Written by April Esquejo for

I have seen the Dubai Fountain show countless times. For the past two years, I have always been mesmerized by the way the world’s largest choreographed fountain gracefully dances with the music. As if this fountain isn’t beautiful enough, behind it stands the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s symbol of extravagance and power.

But tonight, it is different. With every sway, ups and downs of the majestic fountain’s water, my emotions also dance to a tune I cannot quite understand. I came here to say goodbye to this beauty, and to this place I have grown to love.

The Dubai Fountain is considered to be the world’s largest choreographed fountain at the Burj Khalifa lake just behind the Dubai Mall. It entertains the crowd several times nightly.

The Beginning of an Adventure

My love affair with Dubai started two years ago. I had a very promising career as a journalist in one of the TV networks in the Philippines. I was living the fine life of a yuppie.

But I am a restless soul. I am always hungry for adventure, eager to see much more. So I packed my suitcase, bode farewell to my family and friends here in the Philippines and decided to buy a one-way ticket to Dubai—the land of opportunities, as I’ve been told.

I arrived in Dubai in May 2014, with much optimism and courage but without a plan. I just wanted an escape, a break from the media life that has started to take its toll on me back then. I just want to play it by ear and watch every single day unfold before my eyes.

As soon as I stepped out of the plane, a hot gush of wind welcomed me, as if saying this is my first challenge, if I were to survive in this place. But the scorching temperature in Dubai was the least of my concerns.

I had to find a place to live in. As rents are ridiculously expensive in the megalopolis, I arranged to share a small flat with a good friend and 20 others in Sharjah that is an hour away from Dubai. This was how most Filipinos survived here—living communally and giving up personal space to be able to save up for their families back in the Philippines.

The United Arab Emirates is a confederation of seven emirates including Dubai, which is known for its luxurious malls and night life.
April in 1st house
My first home in Sharjah, UAE, a 5-bedroom apartment where I stayed for sometime with 20 other Kabayan trying to cut living costs.

Luckily, before my one-month tourist visa expired, I found a job in the industrial area of Sharjah, one of the more conservative among the seven emirates. I am supposed to manage the logistics of the imports of a company that deals with trading and supply of glass, aluminum and steel products. It’s a typical nine-to-five kind of job—very different from the action-packed, unpredictable job I left in the Philippines. But I considered myself lucky. Not all of the people who tried their luck in this country had this kind of opportunity.

I became part of the estimated 450,000 Filipinos working in the Dubai, which is around 20% of its population. Filipinos are just everywhere that you barely need to speak English to get things done. Go to a restaurant and a kabayan will serve you. Go to a mall and most shops will have Filipinos ready to assist you. Coordination among various offices are made easier as most receptionists will be fellow Filipinas ready to entertain every query — of course after the usual banter of ‘Kumusta?’ and ‘San ka sa Pinas?’ Every Filipino will be an instant friend when you are abroad.

Living in a foreign country also required adjustments, particularly to the culture. Far from the open city Dubai, Sharjah has stricter rules. Wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts seem like a crime as people throw condescending looks at you if you dare show some extra skin in public places.

Traditionally more conservative than Dubai, emirate Sharjah is declared the cultural capital of the Arab World in 1998. Hundreds of Filipinos are living and working in this industrial neighbor of Dubai.

I also had to undergo a lifestyle change. While I became used to eating out in the Philippines, I had to learn how to prepare my own meals in the UAE. I also had to wash and iron my own clothes, things that my mother will willingly do for me back home.

Some things never change, however. Come Thursday, our weekend, I usually joined discreet Filipino-style drinking sessions, which we do despite the liquor ban in Sharjah. After a week of work, these sessions become essential—a small distraction to help us keep going for one more day.

In a matter of months, I adapted. I gained new friends at work. The strangers I lived with suddenly became my family—my life-savers in this foreign land. I became a valued employee at work.

In November I decided to move to Dubai where I found a new job as a public relations executive. I thought I’ve seen the reality of working abroad, but the first few months of 2016 became an eye-opener.

April party 1

April party 2
Ladies nights and weekends in Dubai are usually spent with friends both locals and expats.

The Bitter Truth

One of my biggest adjustments in the UAE is its work landscape. It is definitely more competitive as every single person there is looking for a job—people from different races, different backgrounds and different nationalities.

No matter what I’ve already done and accomplished back home, I felt inferior there. I am always doubting myself if I can get a job with the position that I really want. Unfortunately, I learned the bitter truth early on. We Filipinos are considered one of the cheapest labors compared with the other expats.

Hearing stories from other Filipinos and having a firsthand experience, it was rather sad knowing that no matter how good we are with our work, there is really no denying that we will always earn lesser than our white counterparts. Salary somehow depends on the color of your skin/nationality first, your performance second.

Filipinos, along with other Asians, can never earn the same salary as, say, the Europeans or Americans even for the same position. This is very unfortunate, as our work is really world-class. The diligence and hardwork of every Filipino are incomparable and very admired in all sectors here.

The burden to prove ourselves worthy of a good salary is really on us. But then again, despite everything, we settle. We say it’s alright, faced with the fact that most Filipinos will never get the same salary back home.

Burj Khalifa from Highway.jpg
UAE is the third top destination of overseas Filipinos. It is home to about 1 million OFWs, next to USA with 3.55 million, and Saudi Arabia with 1.03 million, according to the 2013 Stock Estimates of Overseas Filipinos by the Commission on Overseas Filipinos.

What Changed?

I came back to the Philippines after two years of working in Dubai, but that place will always hold a special place in my heart. This entire experience taught me one thing: I CAN DO IT.

I never thought I have this much courage until I did this. I cry once in a while, but I eventually find the courage to stick around for just one more day. And then another one, and then one week, one month, one year. Soon, all the fears are gone and I started living a normal expat life surrounded by the new people you get to know along the way.

Culture shock does end. Every day I will find new things that I find very different from my home country but every day I will also accept these things as part of my new life. Slowly but surely, I embraced these new (weird) things and make them my own.

Living abroad is a fulfillment on its own, and my last two years in UAE is a testament to that. I know I became a better person. I have gained so much more from everything that I have been through as an expat—every single thing that happened, incomparable experiences that will surely come in handy for my future endeavors. I didn’t come out unscathed, but I am willing to do it all over again.

We leave the known for the unknown because we want to be better. We chase our dreams. Whatever it takes, we do it. But at the end of the day, we go home: to our families, to loved ones, friends and familiar territories.

We earn experiences and we bring it back home, because back home we are all winners.

Burj Al Arab.jpg
The Burj Al Arab is among the iconic destinations in the UAE where cost of living is staggering. In the Middle East or Western Asia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the considered to be among the most expensive cities to live in.

Dubai buildings.jpg

[Entry 149, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author

April Espejo wrote this piece days before she went back home in the Philippines early May. Since then she has resumed her stint as a news producer in TV5. She plans to explore more of the world in the years to come.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ronnel says:

    Its nice to read your blog..


  2. Nicole Dominguez says:

    Thank you for sharing your experienced. I would help a lot. Specially to those people who wants to go and work in uae. I admire you


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