FACES OF EXPATRIATION –
THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

I “used to” convert dirhams to dollars and Celsius to Fahrenheit.  Well, I am done doing with stuff like that.  I live in the UAE.  I am adopting and embracing my new home.  My currency is dirhams.  My weather is Celsius.  Sooner rather than later, I will speak Emirati Arabic.  Is it different? Yes. Is it wrong just because it is different? No.


Shirelle Allen is often told that she does not act like an engineer.  With a smile on her face, she responds curiously with one question – “What do you mean?” Usually, the person will either backpedal or start listing out stereotypes associated with engineers and then proceed to tell her how she does not do those things. By the time the conversation is over, it is clear that perhaps she may be wired a little differently than what people expected, but she’s still an engineer –  an engineer, who recently moved to the United Arab Emirates.

Tell us about pursuing your profession abroad?

When things are meant to be, they will be and sometimes you just have to get out the way and let life do its thing. So here is the story… I was determined to go on a trip with a great gal I virtually met while planning my wedding, at the time, eight years prior.  When Kenna announced she was planning a trip back to Dubai I told my husband, we have got to go on this trip (I am sure the excitement in my voice translated to him as okay this is going to be non-negotiable with her)! Since this was our first time traveling to the UAE, we decided to do some activities away from the group to explore and take in the area a little more.  That included a trip to two other emirates – Sharjah and Fujairah.  We enjoyed the day so much that we were not ready to go in and so we took an evening stroll at the Dubai water fountain. I will never forget the song playing as the water danced because it was one of the songs from our wedding reception nine years prior – All Night Long by Lionel Richie.  As we were walking I made a very innocent and off-handed comment that “I think I could live in the UAE.”  My husband responded, “Yeah me too.” Nothing more was said. Previous talks about living overseas were focused on retirement, so these words when we said it we thought were years away. Fast forward nine months later, an expatriate employment contract was signed and we were moving to the UAE about two months later. Total time from first visiting a country and making an innocent/off-handed comment about someday living there to our feet physically touching that same country’s ground again to stay was 331 days. Yes, in less than one year I went from passively talking about residing overseas to actively manifesting a move abroad with my husband!

What field do you currently work in abroad? What other countries have you worked/lived in?

I work in the electric utility field.  I was very intentional when reviewing jobs and researching companies overseas that would allow me to remain in the field I last worked in the US because I truly enjoyed the industry. My experience is you are able to move around to gain a diverse perspective of the business if that interests you and more importantly, you communicate such desire to your leaders so they can be in a position to support your development growth. As an Engineer, I have held roles in Systems Engineering, Programs Engineering, Regulatory Affairs, Strategic Business Planning, and Performance Management. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the first country that I have lived and worked in abroad full-time.

IMG: Anson Antony

How difficult was it for you to leave the US and live and work abroad?

Making the decision to leave the US and live and work abroad was not difficult. However, the resultant actions that were necessary to execute on that decision was what I would consider the most challenging: talking with my parents and telling family/friends, securing a job overseas that would allow me to continue to add value and advance my career, resigning from a company I fully enjoyed working for the past 11 years and having to tell my team I led that I would be leaving them. After those three things, the rest of what needs to be done before my journey overseas all seemed easy: breaking contracts, moving or selling your stuff, etc.

What are 3 things you would advise anyone considering moving abroad?

1. Once you have made the decision that a move overseas is what you want to do,  do it.

2. Allow yourself to go feel whatever emotions you feel at different stages so that you can release them and not hold onto them. Before I told the masses, I’d read an article that included a perspective of how it was highly likely not everyone, including close family members, would be supportive of your decision to move abroad.  Friends may even try to talk you out of it. But you know what? I think it is okay for them to feel that way. They have emotions too. However, just like they are living their life abundantly, you have to live your life to the fullest however you define that to be. To me, even though I was not anticipating what was a fast move, the opportunities were too good for us to not seriously consider moving forward.

3. Commit to being open-minded and seizing the full opportunity that moving abroad will afford you before you board the plane to your new place of residence.  Perhaps you pick up a new skill specific to that country, learn the local language, consider living in an area of town where you are able to truly interact with the people of the country instead of automatically viewing properties where other expats of your nationality reside, etc.

IMG: Spencer Watson

What is the biggest lesson you have learned since leaving the US?

The biggest lessons learned thus far are (1) you really can let go of a whole bunch of material things with really no meaning, (2) forget “used to,” and (3) different is not wrong, it is just different.

Even though a few encouraged me to just pack more bags, I was determined to only bring the “free luggage allowance” on the plane, which was two checked bags and two small carry-on bags. I was not caught up in the number of bags per se but what I was focused on was the amount of stuff I had amassed through my various moves and like seriously some boxes I had been carrying with me unpacked since college years upon years ago.  For this move, I said I am going to use this luggage allowance as an organization/de-cluttering/prioritizing tool. What is important to take with me? As my closet and drawers and space, in general, got emptier, I saw just how much materialistic stuff I had that was wasting space because it surely was not being used.  However, all was not lost! I was able to recycle and/or donate these items to others that had use of them.

I “used to” convert dirhams to dollars and Celsius to Fahrenheit.  Well, I am done doing with stuff like that.  I live in the UAE.  I am adopting and embracing my new home.  My currency is dirhams.  My weather is Celsius.  Sooner rather than later, I will speak Emirati Arabic.  Is it different? Yes. Is it wrong just because it is different? No.

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