‘Xhosa,’ the strident clip-clop sounds the girls make when they pronounce the word, splinter into a flurry of trilling giggles, as one of them botches the pronunciation of the click consonant in the Nguni Bantu language, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
‘I tried teaching her ‘Ek het jou lief,’ which means ‘I love you’ in Afrikaans, but Elena couldn’t pronounce the words,’ says Jayde Coetzee, of her Ecuadorian-American best friend Elena Thomson, throwing her an affectionate eye-roll.
Elena gives Jayde, 15, a friendly nudge in the ribs before turning to me, still laughing: ‘When she told me South Africa has 11 different languages I was like, ‘woah!’, because in Ecuador you just have Spanish, unless you’re from the highlands where they speak Quechua (the language of the Incans) and everyone would speak English in Nevada where I lived until 2011.’
Language is the only dissonant note in these Abu Dhabi teenagers’ harmonious friendship that has been fine-tuned and deepened over the last year by bonding over music – Jayde is a connoisseur, Elena plays the ukulele and violin, and together they fangirl over the band 21 Pilots – throwing surprise birthday parties for each other, and playing badminton and volleyball. Their actions speak louder than any Spanish or Afrikaans terms of endearment can. It’s a language of acceptance and tolerance that’s second nature to the UAE’s Third Culture Kids (TCKs, children who live in or are born in cultures and countries outside of their parents’). This is a generation of youngsters endowed with unique skillsets and experiences winnowed through the sieve of globalisation — a main factor that has shaped UAE society. It is what makes them in American sociologist, Ted Ward’s 1984 words, ‘the prototype citizens of the 21st century’.
The singular quality that truly anoints them with that epithet is their ability to be a good friend, says Homa Sabet Tavangar, US-based global education advisor and author of Growing up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World, a best-selling book on parenting. Born in Iran, raised in the US and having lived later in Kenya and Peru, Homa is a veritable global citizen who is also raising her own brood of TCKs. ‘I believe cross-cultural friendships are key to social-emotional wellbeing, to thriving communities and even for building world peace,’ vouches Homa. ‘Universally, people think of loyalty, kindness, being a good listener, compassionate, helpful, non-judgemental and fun-loving as qualities of a true friend. On a macro level, we realise these are also qualities of a citizen of a world that transcends cultural, religious, economic differences.’
The four pairs of cross-cultural BFFs (best friends forever) we spoke to echo this opinion, emphasising that their friendship’s most teachable moments were when they realised that different ethnic and racial backgrounds, parenting methods they were raised with, lifestyles and even religions didn’t alter the unalloyed truth that they shared core values of honesty, respect, familial bonds and charity.
For instance, 15-year-old Lithuanian-Indian duo Kseniya Trubovic and Rishika Singh are as wildly different as could be. Besides the glaring physical differences of their European and South Asian ethnicities, the dissimilarities extend to the girls’ lifestyles: in the Trubovic household, dinner is at 6pm while the Singhs would baulk at the idea of any evening meal that begins before 8pm. Rishika still hasn’t quite managed to convey to Kseniya why some Indian people don’t eat beef and Kseniya’s explanations of why her hometown of Klaipeda, the only port in the otherwise landlocked Lithuania, celebrates a Sea Festival amuses Rishika. Their shared values balance out their complex equation and maintains the friendly chemistry that first sparked between them as eight-year-olds.
For Iranian national Esmail Bashirinia and his best friend from school, Pakistani national Yahya Mujahid, friendship progressed from the former tutoring the latter in maths at school at 15 – ‘that Yahya was terrible is an understatement,’ teases Esmail – to training him to kick a football as 20-year-olds. But there’re no penalties to this friendship, only wins with anecdotes that emphasise the blindness of youngsters to diversity. It’s not that they eschew their differences. Rather, their young minds have the ability to open up to appreciate one another’s cultures while relishing the distinctiveness of their own identities. ‘Our group of friends consisted of Indians and Pakistanis and in school we’d have a global day, where everyone was encouraged to wear their national dress. When we learnt that Esmail wasn’t sure what the traditional Iranian attire was, we dressed him in a shalwar kameez like the rest of us so he wouldn’t be left out.’ Yahya reminisces.
It’s the benefit of the healthy salad bowl model of the UAE’s multicultural society that allows families to give roots to their children while also providing them the wings they need to fly from the clutches of ignorance.
Dr Rima Sabban, associate professor of Sociology at Zayed University, elaborates: ‘The Gulf’s model of multiculturalism is a winning one that allows us to protect our language and behaviour, and gives richness to the society we live in and makes the concept of globalisation more appealing to communities afraid of losing their heritage. It could prove an alternative to the modernisation models that force complete integration.’
Homa concurs: ‘When I’ve worked with schools and parents all over the world, the appreciation of their own has grown amidst the framework of global citizenship. You recognise everyone has some heritage and wants to learn more; you realise your heritage, customs and skills are valuable gifts you bring to the table.’
Yahya and Esmail are unearthing new nuggets of wisdom about each other’s cultures even on the day we meet them: ‘I literally found out today that Pakistan has an Independence Day,’ a bewildered Esmail says.
For Yayha, the Iranian New Year of Nowrooz that falls in March was amusing and he was gobsmacked when Esmail cleared his misconception that, ‘Iranians aren’t Arabs too just because they’re from the Middle East’.
Learning about new cultures is an opportunity to tear down walls of stereotypes, or even prohibit them from being constructed in young impressionable minds in the first place. The stepping stone to cultural empathy is an intercultural friendship.
For Jayde, social media endorsed an image of Latinos portraying them as ‘sassy, dramatic and full of attitude. ‘It didn’t sit right with me and when I started talking to Elena I saw she’s nothing like that. Except when she’s truly excited about something and sends me dramatic videos or pictures of her pulling funny faces,’ Jayde jokes. ‘That’s who Elena is as a person and not a reflection of her ethnicity,’ she clarifies, refusing to paint an entire community with the same brush.
Jayde’s cultural empathy transcends the simple process of questioning a stereotype and categorising it as fact or malicious rumour-mongering based on empirical evidence. It has also pushed her to step out of her comfort zone and partake in Elena’s passion for dance. ‘I’m a terrible dancer and never dance but every time I go to her house, she puts on music and starts dancing. It seemed strange at first, dancing for no reason but that’s just what Elena loves.’
As a Latina, dance, Elena says, runs in her blood and Jayde’s support of her love for ballet, jazz and tap dance means the world. Except when it involves having to try Bovril – concentrated beef paste that’s the South African version of Marmite and is a staple slathered on everything from cheese tarts to dessert.
‘Jayde once brought it to school for lunch and I leaned over and sniffed. It was disgusting,’ she murmurs in a low dramatic stage whisper and both girls burst into laughter.
I’m baffled; Jayde’s best friend just ridiculed her favourite condiment – a cultural staple – and the teenager was anything but offended. ‘She says it smelled like garbage and I guess it must be to her,’ she says good-naturedly. ‘Elena’s favourite dish is Guatita, which is cow’s stomach. I’m not sure I’ll ever try it!’
Elena’s sage explanation that follows is brimming with intercultural intelligence that fails most adults: ‘When you learn about someone’s national food and they tell you about the extreme things they eat, you’re amazed. Like when I told Jayde that in the Ecuadorian highlands, they eat guinea pigs. It’s weird but it doesn’t change anything [in a friendship].’
The girls’ perspectives echo the proverbial wisdom of how one man’s poison is another’s food. Their no-holds-barred candour is the kind that stirs a cultural hornets’ nest amongst adults.
Sociologist Dr Sabban has a scientific reasoning: ‘Cultural nuances take time to observe and learn which is why kids exposed to a multicultural environment at a young age make better global citizens as opposed to monocultural adults thrown into a multicultural setting. These kids understand that someone is acting or reacting the way they do as part of their cultural upbringing and that it’s nothing against [the person].’
It is this understanding that has never led Kseniya to question why it is okay to eat food with hands in Rishika’s Indian culture. ‘That’s just how it is, and I don’t see why that is wrong or needs to be questioned,’ she says.
‘When a child forms an authentic friendship with someone not from the same nationality, religion or economic background, the person and their background become ‘real’ to them, says Homa. ‘They care about them. If they hear a negative news story about an individual from that background, their response is one of concern, not fear.’
And this conclusion reverberates with truth in the Indo-Pak friendship of Indian Hirina Moolchandani and Pakistani Sophia Khalid. They call each other their soul-sisters and the 21-year-olds’ earliest memories are of meeting each other in kindergarten and living in the same building. They thank fate for having brought them together but when the same fate parted them at the age of 14 – when Hirina moved to India to study – the girls decided to take the destiny of their friendship into their own hands despite the distance and the sometimes stressful political ties between the two countries.
Hirina tells of how mentions of her childhood best friend being Pakistani elicits pearl-clutching amongst her hidebound friends in India who prescribe to the ‘us and them’ narrative that she finds distressing. ‘It’s funny because they’ve never even met a Pakistani. Growing up in UAE’s diverse setting allowed me to understand Pakistani culture and tradition without any discrimination.’
Sophia, whose mother is Indian and father Pakistani, has straddled the countries’ cultural similarities all her life. ‘Growing up, the only difference I saw in Hirina is that she was taller than me and wore glasses. We both grew up watching Bollywood films and it was only when I was 10 that I realised we’re from two different countries. For me, the biggest blow was when Hirina relocated to India. That’s when I realised my green passport and her navy-blue one made us different and I might never see her again.’ Adds Hirina: ‘In the seven years we’ve been apart, Sophia and I have never once missed wishing each other at exactly 12am on our birthdays.’
If the Radcliffe Line partitioned both countries in 1947, man-made borders couldn’t slice through the bond Hirina and Sophia have forged. They even had a grand reunion in March.
Hirina and Sophia’s friendship is a prototype towards resolving international conflicts says Homa. ‘Major polling organisations like Gallup have found that when you know one person from a different background, your impression of the entire population is made more positive. Imagine, just one relationship and your impression of an entire population changes!’
Dr Sabban credits the element of judgement for this change. [Judgement] is a learned behaviour that comes later in life with ideologies, and behaviours that grown-ups, media and society teach you, she says, adding that it is a reason she underscores the role of schools and parents in raising open-minded children.
That statement doesn’t hold truer than in a country like the UAE, whose social fabric is a motley, patchwork quilt of over 200 vibrant nationalities coexisting peacefully. Diversity, like many other core values, must start at home.
The youngsters we spoke to unanimously credit their schools’ multicultural environments for providing them an unbiased platform to interact and meet their best friends. ‘As children, each other’s nationalities is not even a thought that goes through your head. We recognise that as adults, but it doesn’t get in the way or anything because that is the norm for us,’ says Esmail.
Elena’s American father and Ecuadorian mother are fascinated by the diverse friends she’s made – from Egyptians and Indonesian-New Zealanders in her old school, to Emiratis in the new one – having missed that kind of exposure in their own childhood. But they’ve never questioned or forbidden a friendship because of any cultural biases they might harbour.
A multicultural upbringing has instilled a love for travel in not just Elena – who yearns to visit South Africa after seeing it through Jayde’s imaginative eyes – but also in Esmail who plans to move to Prague to study medicine and is looking forward to the new environment with enthusiasm.
This flexibility and willingness to explore new cultures and countries make them recruitment gold when it comes to jobs in a highly globalised world. ‘Sudden cultural shocks won’t destroy them and they’re trained naturally to understand multicultural nuances,’ explains Dr Sabban.
They’re creative to boot too, according to a study by NSEAD and Columbia Business School researchers who found that deep-seated cross-cultural connections activate creative thinking and problem solving as our minds are opened up to diverse perspectives and get used to reconciling differences of interdependent cultures.
Any way you slice it, multicultural friendships are a passel of positives. While exact numbers of the UAE’s TCK youth are unavailable, according to 2017 data from the Dubai Statistics Centre, there are 700,000 youngsters in Dubai alone in the 0-24 age group.
A study by the Oxford Business Group sums up that people aged under 25 account for around 34 per cent of the UAE’s population, which means we are raising roughly a million ambassadors of a positive model of cultural osmosis.
Will it make these youngsters the Barack Obamas – the poster child for a successful TCK whose background as a half-Kenyan born in Hawaii and raised in Indonesia, is said to have influenced his internationalist world view – of the future? Only time will tell. For now, it’s safe to say that the nation’s TCKs and their inimitable friendships are formative drops in the ocean of a more tolerant and accepting world.