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  • Writer's pictureSumbella

Lessons from my Emirati students: personal reflections on 6 core values 🇦🇪

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

To me, one thing I have always loved about #teaching is the friendships that grow from getting to know my students.


When I first arrived in Dubai with a degree in Chinese, I could never have imagined that I would have the opportunity to teach so many Emirati students this particular language.

The resulting friendships I’ve made along the way have led to so many wonderful stories over the years.


Stories like the Emirati grandfather who was so adept at the desert that he could recognise his children's footprints in the sand (!). Even if they tried to swish-swish cover them up. 👀

Or the great grandmother who loved the desert so much, she insisted on living there as long as she could... only agreeing to move to a more habitable place when promised that she would be given a room filled with sand. 🥺💛


I have so many stories like these, so in the spirit of #everydayisaschoolday, and since this week is #UAEnationalday, I thought it would be fitting to share some personal reflections on the values I've observed in my Emirati friends and students over the years.

I have a feeling you may find that many of the values are similar to yours, too.


🕊1. Being very charitable, very discreetly


Yes, the UAE is a very rich country, and it shows.

However, what is not obvious are the number of charitable initiatives for various needy groups and people that are quietly - sometimes secretly - funded by individual Emirati families (not the government). And always without a thought given to revenue or return.

These quietly charitable acts I have had a chance to know about have been so moving to witness. I believe it also stems from an Islamic principle that it is better to do good deeds, charitable acts and positive work quietly, never for showing off.

Intention is everything, and your actions are always noted, even when it seems they're not.


💛2. Being generous, always.


I once complimented my student on something she had, and before I knew it it was in my hands! I soon learned to be tactful with handing out compliments because if I wasn’t, my students would give me everything they had.

I understand this stems from the idea that to give away something you love and own to another, is both a high mark of respect for the other person and also a test of one’s attachment to material possessions.

I have seen my students be generous with their time, their support and their money in so many ways since living here.


❤️3. Greeting others warmly


Growing up spending time with my Pashtun family, I have always been familiar with kisses on both cheeks to greet others.

But triple-quadruple-triple cheek kisses and massive hugs were on another level here in the UAE! And this was one of the first ways I felt so welcomed by the women I came to know here.

In one of my lessons with my Emirati students, I remember a new girl joined to observe our class. When she came in, we all spent at least 5 minutes filled with hugs and a few hundred kisses on cheeks before we settled down. I asked if the students knew each other from before, and most of them didn’t.

With warm, broad smiles they told me, “It’s our culture, Sumbella laoshi (teacher) - we always greet each other like this”. ❤️

The English in me basks in the warmth of such greetings. ☀️


👵🏽👴🏽4. Caring for, respecting and loving the elderly


Every Emirati I have known deeply values and respects the senior members of their families and tribes.

Entire tribes gather round their parents on a weekly basis, if they don’t already live with them in the same area or home. Their parents and grandparents' prayers, views, insights and general respect in the family cannot be overstated.

This is a beautiful common value I think that many of us share. I certainly do. 💛

Plus, you may or may not know that the over 60s get in free and with a fast pass almost everywhere in this country! Fabulous.


🤝5. Offering help readily


In one of my lessons, I mentioned to my students that I was heading to Saudi soon and worried I didn’t have suitable clothes to wear.

The next time we had class, the girls gifted me an Abaya (traditional cloak-like dress).

From small matters like that to huge challenges I faced here, my Emirati students and friends have rallied round like I’ve never experienced. They have always come through with all kinds of solutions - some that my family and I could never have imagined.


🏜6. Nurturing love for the land & desert


When I’ve felt the most tense and faced the deepest betrayals in my work and life here, the desert has been a soothing place to be.

My Emirati students and friends rely on it too, and always share stories of how their forefathers spent time in it.

I especially enjoy the stories of #sheikhzayed, and how he would contemplate in the desert, often alone - as far as he could be, with a simple fire for company.

Indeed, building a desert fire and sitting with a cup of tea or ginger infused milk, has been one of my most comforting and memorable experiences of living here in Dubai.


Perspective changes everything


My friends and family abroad often say the UAE is such a sparkly, luxurious place.

While it is indeed, I am fortunate to have experienced and observed these very grounding values in the time that I've lived here.

There are surely many other values, and so many other stories I could share, but which one resonate most with you? Which ones might you add? Did any surprise you?


P.S. I occasionally sketch doodles to use in my Chinese lessons, and this little dragon is a recurring character. Here she is, also wishing everyone a Happy National Day. 🇦🇪





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