My brother and his wife welcomed a baby daughter into the world last week. As far as I can tell, my new niece has inherited my nose, which brings me untold joy given that my brother spent a significant part of our childhood making fun of my not insubstantial proboscis. Landmark moments in her life so far (ie the first time she yawned) are being dutifully chronicled and then passed from one member of the Denman clan to another via WhatsApp. This means that family members in Cyprus, Dubai, Kenya and further afield can all feel like they are part of the action unfolding in the quiet London suburb that my brother and his expanding family call home.
All the same, in spite of the pictures and messages and phone calls and videos, I can’t help but feel like I am missing out. I will meet my niece as soon as the family has settled into some kind of a routine, but it is at times like these that being an expat is most difficult – when the big events occur and you are not around to witness them first-hand. One of my colleagues knowingly refers to it as “the expat tax”, the price you pay for living away from home. It is a fair exchange for the opportunities that being in the UAE has afforded me, but I still wish I could have seen that yawn in real time.
I started paying the expat tax early on. A couple of weeks after I moved to Dubai, one of my closest friends got married. I wasn’t there. There have been plenty of other events along the way – weddings, birthdays and other milestone celebrations – that I couldn’t make it back for. I wasn’t there when our family dog passed away or when my mother had emergency knee-replacement surgery. Of course, there are countless events that I did attend, but it is human nature to focus on the ones you’ve missed.
Things have become even harder since children were introduced into the mix. Old friendships and close family relationships can survive long bouts of separation – if they are strong enough, ties can easily be renewed, even if you see someone only a couple of times a year. But forging relationships with little ones – my nephew for example, who is now three and a half, or my god-daughter, who is five – requires a more sustained, consistent approach. Every time I see my nephew, it feels like we are starting from scratch; trust needs to be renewed and fresh memories need to be formed. He understands on some level that I am important, but I’m a stranger all the same. Foundations need to be reinforced over and over again.
I have been known to overcompensate. For one of my god-daughter's birthdays, I realised that I had left it too late to post a present from Dubai to London and so, in a mild state of panic, I ordered an oversized reproduction of the Frozen ice castle from Harrods, purely because it offered next-day delivery. "Dude, who buys a three-year-old a present from Harrods?!" was the message I received from the birthday girl's mother the following day. "I fear you may have been living in Dubai too long!"
Maybe that’s the real expat tax – overpriced Disney castles to try to make up for one’s absence.
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