Growing up as an Expat in Qatar

Growing up as an Expat in Qatar By Abinaya Rajagopal - June 14, 2024
Growing up as an Expat in Qatar

Born in 1999, I was only four months old when I entered Qatar, a country not known by many back then, often referred to as the country next to ‘Dubai’. 

I remember our first apartment in Doha. A quaint little place located near the old airport area. Not much to explore in the country back then, the memory of the towering Sheraton hotel is the only thing that's clearly etched in my brain.  

Too young to remember my earlier days, my first memories here start from me befriending the kids in our apartment, all children from around the world, a gang we had one might say, an experience that shaped me to be who I am today. 

Growing up, I didn’t realize what it would mean to be an expat growing up in a GCC country. For I was always surrounded by people like me, those who moved away from their home countries to make themselves a better life here. Children of different cultures, always hanging around the nearby playground, making the mud our oceans, the park our pirate ships and the domes our sails. The only connection we had to our home countries were the stories our parents told us before bedtime. A fairytale, in my memory. 

I was in grade 1 when I made my first trip back to our hometown. Unfamiliar faces with familiar names, surroundings almost exactly how I had pictured it in my head, a cousin I was very excited to meet.

‘Oh, here’s the foreigner’

‘Foreigner? What do you mean by foreigner, cousin I was so excited to meet?’ 

‘You don’t belong here, go sing the national anthem of Qatar’ 

I mean, I would’ve if I could have. 

That was my first experience of alienation. So used to being able to get along with the people I lived with in Qatar, I was unable to comprehend why was I so rejected by the people of my age in my home country, why I was given special treatment by the adults there and why I felt so out of place in a country I was supposed to call mine. 
‘Ah, I’m an expat living in Qatar’. Of course it means something different. 

My experiences weren't like theirs. 

Going out for me meant daily trips to the Corniche, little explorations into the desert, dune bashing across sealine, the sound of call to prayer echoing across the city, and the blend of aromas from different cuisines wafting through the air at Souq Waqif. 

For them, it was different stories, different adventures, and a sense of belonging to a place that was as natural to them as breathing.

My Oman chips were their blue lays, my capri sun was their rasna, my galaxy jewels was their eclairs. Never allowed to pick a side, learning to love them all. 

As I grew older, the realization of being an expat became more apparent. While Qatar had given me a home and a sense of community, it also came with the understanding that I was a guest, living in a nation where the culture and traditions were not inherently my own. 

Schooling in Qatar meant being part of an international community where we celebrated a myriad of festivals. Fond memories of Diwali, Eid, Christmas, all under the same roof, each one as significant as the other. It was a beautiful mosaic of cultures and traditions, yet it also underscored our transient existence.

High school years brought a different set of experiences. The rapid development of Qatar meant that the city I knew as a child was constantly evolving. 

The skyline transformed with skyscrapers, new malls opened up, and the infrastructure grew at an unprecedented rate. With the FIFA World Cup 2022 on the horizon, the buzz of excitement and anticipation was palpable. The sense of being part of something global was thrilling, a certain pride, knowing that the country I’ve spent my life growing up in, a nationality not my own, but engraved into my soul, was hosting this unprecedented event. 

As an expat teenager, I navigated through the dynamics of identity and belonging. Friendships with fellow expats were easy, as we all shared the common thread of being outsiders together, belonging nowhere, together. 

However, interactions with local Qataris were limited and often tinged with an unspoken awareness of our different backgrounds. Despite the warmth and hospitality of the Qatari people, there was always an invisible line that separated us, a reminder that my roots were elsewhere.

University life took me abroad, and it was during these years that I fully appreciated the unique upbringing I had in Qatar. The multicultural environment I was accustomed to gave me an edge in adapting to new surroundings and making friends from different parts of the world. It also made me realize the richness of my childhood experiences, where cultural exchange was a daily norm and respect for diverse traditions was ingrained in us from a young age.

Returning to Qatar after my studies felt like coming back to a familiar yet ever-changing home. The city's pace had quickened, and the preparations for the World Cup had brought a new vibrancy. 

Yet, the essence of my memories remained. The Corniche walks, the desert escapades, and the eclectic blend of friends from all corners of the globe.

Living in Qatar as an expat has been a journey of self-discovery and adaptation. It taught me the value of cultural diversity, the importance of flexibility, and the beauty of forming connections beyond borders. 

Though my passport might say otherwise, a part of my heart will always belong to this land of golden sands and boundless possibilities.

In the grandeur of my life, Qatar will always hold a special place, a reminder of where I grew up, where I learned to navigate the complexities of identity, and where I found a second home.

By Abinaya Rajagopal - June 14, 2024

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