Pristine and Uncle Michael

Expat siblings reunited…in Dubai!

We are six siblings and all of us are expats.

I kept on checking the flight status of Cathay Pacific on my phone. Dawn is yet to come and his scheduled arrival was 6am yet here I am, tossing and turning in bed. I’ve set the alarm clock to sound at 5:30am. I am nervous because…I never really use an alarm clock to wake me up. Not in years.

One of my brothers, a marine engineer by profession is set to report to work for a ship that’s docked, where else but in Jebel Ali port! Right here in Dubai!! Of the hundreds of ports possible for him to go to, he was destined to come to Dubai.

To Dubai – where I live along with one other brother and our youngest sister!

Michael Alain Ariane Grace in Dubai

The youngest of my four brothers, Michael and us at the airport

We were not sure how long he can stay around before being whisked away to the ship so I asked my other two siblings to sleep in our house so we can see Michael at the airport.

Four out of six

It was early in the morning – we look like we’ve just been dragged out of bed!

The last time I’ve seen my brother Michael was almost 5 years ago. FIVE. If the next time I’ll see him is in another five years, my God, so many things would have changed that time, like I would be over 40 years old already!

He is 10 years younger than I am so I used to babysit him when he was a baby. Now, he is taller than me but still gives me those tightest bear hugs. BTW, my sister and I are about 5’4″ but we are dwarfed by our brothers!

I wanted my brother to meet my kids so much that I called off from work, hurried home to feed and dress the kids. Michael was being taken to a hotel by a driver from his work and my other two siblings tagged along.

Benjamin cry

Of course Benjamin has to cry – he has not seen this man before! But thankfully, only after a few minutes, he settled.

the kids with Uncle Michael

Meeting Uncle Michael

BIG SURPRISE of the day: Michael thinks Pristine is pretty. Ok, not just thinks but declares it with conviction, “PRISTINE IS SO PRETTY!”, in all capital letters.

Pristine and Uncle Michael

“How did Pristine became so pretty!?”, he asked as if he doesn’t know the obvious answer: because the mother is pretty too!


Seriously, If I had to move mountains for my kids to meet my brother, I would because God knows WHEN is the next time.

When you are an expat (and the rest of your other siblings are), there is really no guarantee when you can see each other again. It’s sad how it gets complicated when you all grow up because there are work schedules, commitments, family and financial matters, etc, etc. We had a serendipitous meet up with my other brother 2 years ago. I have not seen him after that.

We are all expats – three of us are here in the UAE, one is in Japan, two are working in a ship traveling around the world. (One is currently in Norway and Michael is about to travel to several ports in Europe and the North sea)

Nothing was planned and nothing was in our control yet four of us are together even for a few hours in Dubai. It’s unbelievable. We are thankful for little divine interventions like this.

Are you an expat? When was the last time you saw your siblings (or family)?

Top Photo Credit


Countdown to vacation starts now!

In three more weeks, I won’t be sitting at work and counting the hours to 6pm or swim through piles of paper. No more running around in the morning to catch the train or bus. If the little boy allows, I might even sleep beyond 7am.

‘Might’ is a big word, though.

We will be leaving Dubai for a while for a long-awaited vacation. It’s been 4 years since we pressed  that temporary pause button of break-neck pace Dubai life and hop on the plane to Japan.

This was taken at Dubai Airport in 2009. Pristine was only 5 and a half years old and we had no baby #2 yet. It feels so long ago.

Pristine is looking forward to it the most. She LOVES to travel. She always offers to hold my hand during takeoff when I feel my stomachs turn.

Pristine in the plane

She’s a very eager traveler, always on the lookout of our blankets on the plane, making sure everyone is comfortable especially mom. I can already imagine our future trips together. She will be a great travel partner as she is very relaxed and flexible during trips. I never had any difficulties traveling with Pristine (except the time we pretended to be smarty pants and did not bring a stroller on our Europe trip in 2006 – our arms almost fell off carrying her around, asleep and heavily jet lagged from the 9 hours time difference!).

Other than that, she is a travel rock star.

We miss Japan. The food. The menu boards at the street cafes.

street cafe menu board in Tokyo

I miss our hiking trails in the mountains of Nagano. The fresh air. The green surroundings.

Hiking trail in Nagano

The apples. I could be bias but Japan has got to be the place with the best apples in the world. Not that I’ve been to all places in the world. Or tasted all the apples in the world.

Apple farm in Nagano

Most of all, we miss Kono bachan, my husband’s grandmother whom we really looked forward to meeting after four years.

With Kono bachan

Unfortunately, we are too late. She passed away in her sleep last March 11. It’s sad we can no longer hug her and see her smile. Losing her was the first time we felt how tough it is to lose a loved one while living abroad, far away from them.

Meanwhile, on our coming trip, we have a new member of the family joining us: enter Benjamin, the 20 month old unstoppable toddler.


Right now, I’m not going to entertain thoughts like, “I might be tired even before my vacation starts!” or “How will I keep him still in the plane” or Google search things like, “How to fly with a toddler and keep your sanity” or things like that.

Like his big sister, I am hopeful baby Ben is a travel rock star. I am hopeful.

Pristine loves shawarma

You know you’ve lived in the Middle East for long when…

Pristine loves shawarma

The scenario when I come home from work at night is this:

I open the door and look around for my children before I can even remove my shoes. The little boy, like a dog meeting his owner for the first time after a long separation, runs up to me and clutches at my knees, looks up and gives me that oh so cute look, drool and all.

I get down and we roll on the floor kissing each other.

Uh-huh, we are like dogs in that sense.

And then he flips my blouse looking for the portable cafeteria. He’s 18 months and he is still breastfeeding and showing no signs of stopping.

My other child, the much older one waits for her turn. She used to take the stage (my lap) when I go home before baby brother came. Now, she timidly waits until the little brother is finished with his piece of mommy time and she sits down on my lap.

Usually, she starts talking about what happened in school with all the details. But yesterday, she came to me with dropped shoulders and said,

“Mama, my classmate had shawarma during our lunch break AND I can’t stop thinking about it.”

What can a mom do? I told her to get dressed and we’re walking to the nearest local cafe to get a Shawarma. She was ready in two minutes!

So yeah. You so know you’ve been living in the Middle East for long when your child craves for yummy street food shawarma instead of cheese burger or regular sandwich!


What is shawarma?

Shawarma is a Middle Eastern sandwich or wrap made with shawarma meat. Lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, or mixed meats are placed on a spit (commonly a vertical spit in restaurants), and may be grilled for as long as a day. Shavings are cut off the block of meat for serving, and the remainder of the block of meat is kept heated on the rotating spit. Most shawarmas are only cooked in the evenings and they are available in street food joints rather than in restaurants.

Matsumoto, Japan 2006

My expat story


Every expat has a story, what’s yours?

2013 is the year I’ll celebrate 17 years of being an expat. Ten years in Japan and seven years in the UAE. I think I have not shared the story behind why I became an expat though I might have disclosed it to a few who asked.


My being an expat is accidental. Unplanned. Serendipitous.

I dreamed of cold, wintery places.
My mother used to buy posters then frame it herself to decorate our small house.


I still remember those posters very clearly: verdant meadows, snow-capped mountains, cool running river by the hills. I grew up in a tropical country, living without airconditioning system or even a fan. While my siblings and I sweat in our afternoon nap, we would often look at the poster on the wall and declare, “We shall one day live in a place that’s cool. Winter! See and touch snow!”

Japan. Who would’ve thought?

I totally forgot about that dream of living in somewhere with winter until a friend in college rushed through the corridor with excitement:  “There’s a scholarship to Japan. Why don’t we try our luck?”

(Yes we’re like those two friends who played cards to win boarding tickets to the Titanic!)



Hmmm, I’ve never dreamed of Japan. Why would I want to go there? It was not in my mom’s posters back home. But I took the chance, never serious. It was a long shot at luck but I passed the scholarship exam and landed in Japan not knowing anyone (was told someone from the university will pick me up at the airport with my name on it), not speaking the language except to say “My name is Grace.”

I was sad I had to leave the friend who presented me the opportunity, the ‘accidental’ opportunity to become an expat at 19.

At the airport, I still couldn’t believe I’ve been whisked to a different place, miles and miles away from home. And I didn’t understand the language the people spoke! I couldn’t even inform my parents I have landed safely. This was 1996 and I don’t have a cellphone. Neither do they. We didn’t even have a land line at home, much more, internet!

It was October and autumn in Japan made me remember my dream of living somewhere cold. The jacket I brought – the thickest I had from my tropical home wasn’t enough.

I was looking out my dormitory room window to see the beautiful autumn colors.

Autumn in Japan

There I would spend the next four and a half years studying the Japanese language, writing letters by hand to my family and friends (there was no Facebook those days!), entering the university and earning my degree.

Grace Speech in Nihongo

It wasn’t long before I fell in love with Japan – what’s not to love? The people are friendly and polite, the cherry blossoms are very beautiful in spring, the lovely autumn foliage, everything is in order…and there are 200 kinds of Kitkats available!

Kidding. But really Japanese food is awesome. You already know that.

Just before I finished my university course and graduated in 2001, I decided to stay. Japan became my beloved second home. The people around me, my second family. I arrived when I was 19. With all the challenges I experienced living alone, it’s like I “grew” up there. I came of age there.

Celebrating "Coming of age day" in Japan

I did not just fall in love with Japan, I also fell in love with someone from there. *blush*

2001, Nagano, Japan

 This was us in 2001. That’s TWELVE years ago, people. He still looks the same, more or less while I have AGED.

Two years later, we got married, had Pristine in 2003. Look at the place I ended up. I was reminded of the snow-capped mountains in my mom’s poster!And with the jacket I was wearing, you can tell it is cold! I got my dream of living somewhere cold, ha!

Matsumoto, Japan 2006

In 2007, we sold our things and packed up our bags to move to Dubai – a world away from Japan. Now six years after we landed, we are still here, continuing our expat story. Who knows where we’ll end up next?

Are you an expat? How did you end up where you are now?

* By the way, I took the first three photos using an instant camera, the disposable type in 1996-97! Scanned the “developed” photos to post here.

Beautiful Dubai beach

Open beach

How’s the weather from where you are? Here in Dubai, we’re feeling summer-y already! The early mornings and nights are still cool but midday has been warmer. We thought it’s time to hit the beach before it becomes a huge hot tub.

I missed going to the beach because after living here for a couple of years, the touristy feeling wore off and we became lazy bums on weekends. To think the beach is just a few minutes drive away!

Pristine was so ready and immediately run to the shore. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really the perfect beach weather: it was windy, the sea wasn’t calm and because I couldn’t jump in the water with her (plus the water was still too cold for a dip), she decided not to swim. (There are no life guards at the Jumeirah public open beach.)

Pristine Jumeirah 2

There were very few people in the water , everyone just sunbathed and strolled in the sand. And took jump shots.

Pristine in Jumeirah

And more jump shots.

Pristine jump shot

Benjamin, however had no idea what we were doing there. First, he didn’t want to let go. No matter what happens, this baby bear isn’t going down the tree! He is still afraid, as his first day at the beach last year.

Ben afraid

After an ample time of observing the things around, he was ok when I put him on the sand. But he did not let go of my hand. But imagine how terrifying the beach would be to an 16 month old Earthling?

Ben afraid of the beach

He didn’t know why the Earth was suddenly loose, for starters. He’s been walking for almost six months now, very well on firm ground and suddenly, losing balance? This is unacceptable, mama!

Ben hates sand

And this…this water is insane! Why does it keep on coming then going? Coming, going, coming, going. Mama, it’s making me dizzeh! And I don’t like what the wind does to my hair. See?

Ben at the beach

Dear water, can you make up your mind, please?

Ben at the beach

But like everything in the toddler world: conquer time comes. This is the face of conquer time.

Ben at the beach

We had a nice time although it was more like, “hey we’ve wet our knees already, let’s go home!” type of outing. I hope when we go back next week or the next, the weather is better and we can actually swim.

Pristine and Ben

So much for the kiddos – That day marked something for me – no it wasn’t the day I went to the beach in a bikini.

It was the first time in my six years of living here to drive all the way to Jumeirah! All. By. Myself. I even conquered my fear: I drove through Sheikh Zayed Road! Woo Hoo!! I suddenly felt so grown up!

BUT, it was Friday morning when 90% of the people are still in bed by 9 am so maybe it’s not counted?

Expat Life: Why the need to retain your native language?

Last Saturday, I attended the graduation ceremony at the Japanese circle where Pristine had been attending once-a-week classes for Japanese lessons because she’s losing her native language skills. The Japanese language circle not only teaches language but they also hold cultural events to allow the children to touch base with their native culture.

I remember Pristine really loved to take part in Japanese cultural events, like local festivals in Japan.

I am amazed by the Japanese people – they can certainly make something out of nothing. They totally transformed a simple area to that of something resembling a formal graduation stage: they brought white silk cloth to cover the wall, made a makeshift Japanese flag and other effects to make it look and feel like the real thing.

Most of the children* are half-Japanese and half something else (one of the parents are Japanese). The room was full of beautiful children, all struggling to learn to pick up their native language. It was easy for me to tear up at the ceremony hearing the children read their graduation speeches – I have been there.

* There are children whose parents are both Japanese attending the classes too. These children attend international school here where the medium of instruction is English and their parents do not want them to lose their Japanese language skills.

One of the teachers said in her speech, addressed to the children:

Most of you may wonder, “Why the heck am I studying Japanese?” or “What is the need to study my native language when English is the universal language?!” Well, the answer to that is: living up to your identity. As you grow up, you will have to belong to a nationality group. What is your nationality? What is your root? You are Japanese by blood and where ever you’ll go, you have that in you – learning your native language (or the native language of one of your parents) is a natural, beautiful thing.

The speech struck close to home – I’ve been wondering if we’re asking too much by enrolling her to this extra language class. Aside from English, Pristine learns Arabic and French at the International School she’s attending and she’s doing really well. And Nihongo is not an easy language: there are two sets of alphabets (hiragana and katakana) and thousands and thousands of kanji characters to memorize.

As for asking too much? No. On the contrary, I feel that it is her right to learn it and our obligation to help her not to forget the native language. I know a lot of Japanese adults who lived outside of Japan since they were children and grew up not knowing how to speak, read or write Japanese. All of them regretted it and said if they could turn back the time, they would have been thankful if their parents forced them to learn it.

Pristine has come a long way since she started joining the Japanese circle a few months ago – she has learned to read and write the hiragana and katakana and has memorized 80 kanji characters and learned to write it too!

On her summer vacation this year, we will be going to Japan where she would join a grade school class (taiken nyuugaku*) in her father’s hometown, for 2-3 weeks before the Japanese school closes for summer holidays – to experience being a student there. I thought she’d be terrified but she’s actually looking forward to it!

*We initially planned it a couple of years ago but wasn’t able to fly to Japan due to my pregnancy, having a small baby, etc. I’m really going to make it happen this year!

Expat Life: Losing the native language skills

Do you think it is possible for someone to forget their own native language?

As an expat family, our 9 year old daughter, Pristine’s Japanese language skills has become a challenge for us – it has moved from the active part of her brain to the passive side, resulting in a pronounced loss of verbal eloquence. And consequently, communication gap with her father.

It’s ironic when one of the reasons we relocated to Dubai was to instill the English language to her young, still flexible brain (she was 3 years old when we moved here) and now that she’s mastered it, we’re fearing for the loss of her native language skills.

She now speaks Japanese with a very awkward, obviously foreign accent and has a vocabulary of a very young school child.

I feel that I am part to blame for this sad state of affairs – I still use Japanese when my husband and I communicate but with the kids, I tend to jump out to my comfort zone, speaking in English and/or my native Philippine dialect (which they have both picked up so well), only speaking in Japanese to them ‘whenever I feel like it’.

And most of the time, I really don’t feel like it. Guilty as charged.

So in a conscious effort to resuscitate Pristine’s Japanese language skills, we have enrolled her in a once a week language circle hosted by kind-hearted volunteers who work for free (we only pay a small amount for the supplies). They teach Japanese language every Saturday for an hour an a half – or merely 60 hours per year, not enough but still better than none at all. At the Nihongo Circle, the kids are grouped according to their language skills and Pristine belongs to the 1st grade even though she is in Grade 4 as per her real school age.

It wasn’t unexpected – her Japanese language skill is that of a 1st grader in Japan. Language is like muscle – if you don’t use it, you lose it. (Pristine is definitely starting to lose it.)

It’s a tough challenge for her and we sit down a few minutes every day to go through her lessons. But on top of her other activities and school homework, the progress had been slower than we like it to be.

Her father is too disappointed but somehow though, I’d like to think that the Japanese language for which Pristine used exclusively until she was three is just ‘somewhere’ sitting quietly in one corner of her brain and that if re-exposure to this language takes place over a certain period of time and is intensive, then remnants of this seemingly lost language is likely to be retrieved.

I remain hopeful.

Are you an expat parent? Have any of your kids forgotten their first language?

Expat Life: Losing a loved one while abroad

It wasn’t unexpected. She was 95 years old. Still, it broke my heart and I’m still grieving for her to an extent.

We’re planning to go back to Japan in June this year to see her, to show off her new great-grandson. It’s been almost four years since we saw that kind smile. We’re short of 3 months.

When you are living abroad, miles and miles away from your loved ones every phone call at odd hours is terrifying. Thankfully, most of the phone calls during unholy hours comes from my mother in-law who suffers from insomnia. I got used to the ‘harmless’ phone calls but last night, my father in-law was on the other end of the line breaking the news: my husband’s grandmother has passed away in her sleep.

I love my husband’s grandmother like my own. She was always the reason we visit that quiet town during school breaks (when we were still dating) and long weekends later on, baby/toddler in tow. Grandma Kono has visited us too when we lived in Matsumoto years back.

Honestly, I didn’t expect I’d cry, this much.

My father in-law consoled me:

People who die peacefully in their sleep at the ripe, ripe age of 95 are lucky. They passed away without pain or suffering and they have lived their lives to the full.

What about us? We are yet to face our end and it could be in an accident, catastrophe or tragedy. We can only wish we’ll go as peacefully as grandma, don’t you think so?

I wish Japan wasn’t so far away and we had a lot to spend on airplane tickets. I wanted to see her one last time but now, she will only remain a memory, etched in our hearts. Forever.

Are you an expat? Did you have to deal with a loved one passing away while you’re abroad?

That elusive minimalist life

Our next door neighbor opened her main door right when I was walking through the corridor, hurrying up for work. I took a peek. No, I deliberately slowed down and even pretended to search through my pockets as if I felt I’ve forgotten something but my eyes were on what was inside my neighbor’s apartment.

The room was spic and span to start with, they have a flat panel TV on the wall with only a single wire dangling off it.

A sofa set, check.

6 sitter dining table with nothing on on but a vase full of lovely flowers on top of a charming table runner.

Some decorative frames on the wall.

Beautiful drapes that matched the color of the sofa.

THAT WAS IT. All of it.

I died a little inside.

You see, I have that dream of being a minimalist. An aching yearn.You know, watch TV in a setting like this?  (complete with that perfect body).

You think being minimalist is boring black and white? Here are some with splashes of color. While I could do away with that animal skin sort of carpet on the floor, I would like to have that poster on the wall.

I love the warm colors here. But where are the wires of the TV?

And the warmer colors here. Though I can totally imagine our little boy bashing all those breakable things on the floor there like bowling pins. Again, where is the TV wire?

But somehow our living room do not look “minimalist” at all. Quite the opposite, for sure. For one, there’s a queen sized gray Ikea matress leaned in one corner (any takers?), Ben’s clothes are in a wooden shelf in the living room because we are too lazy to run to the bedroom when we change his clothes. There’s a basket of diapers on top of the sofas…sometimes our clothes hanger is kept inside, especially when it’s windy and dusty outside. The dining table is filled with papers for homework or folded clothes.

There’s also a bicycle parked, right in the living room. Gah.

We came to Dubai six years ago with only clothes (and my favorite knife and chopping board) and Merries diapers (the only diaper Pristine used and her bums loved).

How did we accumulate all these things I see around me now? We had a smaller apartment before but if we go back there, there’s no way all these things right now can fit!

I dream of a less cluttered, simpler life. To be able to walk around without the fear of stepping on a lego, without all the eye sore I see: pieces of clothes and strands of electrical wires, lots of wires! Seriously, it’s the 21st century, surely there would be appliances invented without wires already?!

Ah ~ so zen.

I so admire people who can live to be real minimalists. Our neighbor – they even have school aged children but no clutter. Someone close to me (whom I signed lifetime contract with) says I have no hope of being a minimalist. I travel with the best intentions not to bring back stuff I don’t need – believe me I have turned my back on the beautiful stuff I see in markets, in great bargain. There are no exotic collections to speak of. I do not have that ‘collector’ tendencies. Think the clutter are toys? We do not buy toys but we have a small box of random stuff given by friends.

So these little wooden blocks, 1,829 colored pens and crayolas, children’s books sometimes sprawled on the floor, baby clothes, a bike, a plasma car, clothes hanger – they will disappear from my living room when the children have grown up and I can finally enjoy a minimalist space, yes? Yes?

Dubai as others see it

seagulls in creek

I came across a blog post called 7 Great Things About Dubai at Leah Travels blog, written by Kristin Shaw of Two Cannoli.

It’s interesting to read stories written by people fascinated about Dubai during their visit here. It kind of lets me see this amazing city in another perspective because when you’ve lived in a foreign place long enough to call it home, you get used to the ‘wonderful’ things.

According to Kristin,

Imagine a cross between Disneyworld, Monaco, and Las Vegas. Now imagine that combination times ten, and you have Dubai. It’s all of the superlatives in the world in one glittery, sparkling, one-of-a-kind place.

Wow, after so many years here, at times, everything becomes vanilla. Another big mall? Shrugs shoulders. The tallest hotel opens? Ok then, move along. A new artificial island? Rolls eyes.

After a bit of time here, I see the Dubai with normal people – expats who work hard under the sun and probably, have not even been inside the glitzy malls.

merchants at the creek

You explore places not featured in the travel mags and meet people who do not know how to speak English. It’s a pretty diverse place.

At the Heritage Village

Have read about Dubai in a glossy travel magazine?  Dubai is more than the malls, indoor ski resorts and expensive hotels. Thankfully, there are old places and things kept unchanged.


For example, you can race with the luxury cars crossing the creek via the bridges on this wooden boat (you cross the other side of the creek for 1 dirham only). The posh cars will win of course but you pocket the unforgettable experience and get to smell the salty sea air, feel the air blowing on your face and look ahead and imagine what Dubai must look like before all the monies poured in.


Burl Al Arab from afar

Far ahead, the world’s tallest building rises up from the desert sand, dwarfing the other skyscrapers around it. That’s new Dubai living up to the tagline, “the center of NOW”.

When I get emails like, “I’m having a long layover in Dubai, what do you suggest I see?” (I get a LOT of emails like this) I point them to the Dubai Mall/ Burj Khalifa area where you can see the biggest mall, the tallest building, the biggest fountain and aquarium. The tourist would not sue me for time wasted!

But if you have more time than a layover I would suggest you go see the old part of Dubai. It’s charming and I don’t get tired of going there.

Dubai – where the scenic very modern infrastructures, the women in skimpy bikinis at Jumeirah Beach, the alcohol at the hotels, makes you  forget that this is the Middle East… until the call to prayer from the mosques reminds you it is.