#11 “Are You Chinese?” (你是中国人吗)? – Dubai, UAE

Travel Date: 10 Dec 2009

I had a 26-hour stopover in Dubai on an Emirates flight on my way to visit my boyfriend in France, and I planned to spend some time to see this city of gold rather than sitting around in the airport terminal which really resembled a classy shopping mall more than anything else.

After a grimy afternoon traipsing along the creek and having sand and dust blown in my face every now and then, I decided to explore the ethnic enclaves near Al Satwa and Al Rigga, upstream of the creek from the more popular Deira area. For people who are more familiar with the sparkling skyscapers and beautiful manmade islands of Dubai, these urban neighbourhoods where the locals make merry and pick up cheap haberdasheries are probably very much unheard of.

I didn’t want to spend a bomb on dinner in this notoriously expensive city, especially having known that there are a lot of delicious local Arabian food to be had in this vibrant area. In the day, the stifling heat sent everyone scurrying for respite, but at night, it was an oasis brimming of colorful lights, street vendors hawking affordable wares and people, mostly men, hurrying along the streets, running errands and doing some evening shopping. I only planned to stay in the area for an hour or so, just to get a quick bite and a feel of the place before heading off to more familiar landscapes like the Dubai Mall, and also knowing that it wouldn’t be entirely appropriate for a young foreign girl to be wandering the streets in a rather complicated neighbourhood where the population consists of a complex mishmash of workers from Africa and South Asia and low-income families.

Before long, the sun disappeared below the hazy horizon, turning the Arabian skies an inky black, and I realized I was walking around in circles. Most of the people on the streets were burly six-foot-tall African and Middle Eastern men, some of them swaggering around like gangsters looking for a fight. I didn’t want to be prejudiced but I couldn’t help but feel afraid and give them a wide berth when I passed them on the narrow sidewalk. One guy on the street particularly caught my eye, not because he was handsome or anything like that, but because I recognized instantly that like me he was Chinese and didn’t fit so well into the landscape. But the divide between us remained apparent, for I was a tourist (with hundreds of euros in my backpack, no less) and he was a laborer toiling away at eight in the evening, loading up a truck with heavy boxes of goods.

Nearly half an hour later, with perspiration pouring down my back, I was back on the same street AGAIN and this time I knew for sure that I was lost for sure.  Despite the organized yet chaotic order of the streets, I couldn’t navigate well with the road maps of Satwa all labelled in Arabic street names that were impossible to decipher. I tried to hail a taxi from the street, but all the vehicles were trapped bumper to bumper on a tiny one-way street, all honking furiously at one another. It was futile, I could get stuck here unless I hiked my way out of the neighborhood, something I would really rather not do in this area at this time of the night. What was worse, I began to feel that someone was following me. I quickened my pace. And then the same guy I noticed earlier on almost jumped in front of me from behind and I startled. My defenses were up, my eyes swiveled around as I surveyed my surroundings. Good, the stores all around were still open and business was brisk… This guy couldn’t do anything to me.

“你是中国人吗?” He asked. (“Are you Chinese?” But literally, “Are you from China?”)

Ethnicity-wise, I’m Chinese, but I wasn’t born in China, neither did I grow up there. But it was kind of hard to explain this in a few lines, with the situation I was in. And besides, I was still wondering about his motives of stopping me in my tracks. I just nodded mutely in response.

“你想去哪里?我可以帮你吗?” (“Where would you like to go? Can I help you?”)

Instantly, I was both relieved and ashamed of thinking the worst of this kind stranger. I briefly explained my situation that I needed a cab but couldn’t get one, and asked where I could grab public transport or a taxi at a less congested stretch of road. I spoke at ease in Chinese, and he pointed me in the right direction and even offered to walk me there, which I politely declined and thanked him, not wanting to interrupt his working hours.

I walked in the direction he pointed out for ten minutes, ended up on a less chaotic part of the neighborhood, jumped into a taxi and was on my way to the metro station in no time. For the best part, I was extremely grateful to have bumped into this guy, and till this day I wondered if he felt obliged to help me out because I was a rare visitor in the neighborhood that shared his color and culture. If I weren’t so eager to get out of the place, if I were better equipped at protecting myself, it would be nice to sit down for a quick cup of coffee and learn more about this angel of mercy that got me out of my fix, and made my trip a smooth and memorable one indeed.

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