A Journey Of Identity, Culture And Belonging – An Excerpt From Citizen by Descent by Kritika Arya






In 2010, I turned 19 and I knew it was time to leave Dubai and settle abroad. Going to the UK was potentially the beginning of my “forever” story. Who knows, in ten years, I could even have a different passport; the possibilities were endless. Unfortunately for me, there were rumblings that the Tory government would be revoking the post-study work visa for international students fairly soon. Even though I was disheartened, I wasn’t that worried because I had three years. Three full years, to convince this place and everyone in it that I “deserved” to stay here after graduation. How difficult could it be?


I was so desperate to find a new home and to fit in, that I was willing to reinvent myself. That’s what university is for, right? Leave behind the “old” you? Normally, this kind of identity crisis is a process of forgetting. People tend to forget who they are and where they came from. The problem with me was that I don’t think I ever had an answer to either question to begin with. As a teenager, it’s normal to still be figuring things out, but I began with such low self-confidence that it almost ran that process into the ground.


Let’s not even begin to unpack the very loaded question, “Where are you from?”  If I said India, people didn’t think I “sounded” or “behaved” like an Indian. If I said Dubai, they would say, “But you don’t look Arab or Dubaian?” Normally, my icebreakers ended up being longer than most as I rambled on about where exactly I was born, where my parents were born, and why I sounded American. It was tricky and exhausting and I found myself constantly trying to justify who I was.


Deep down, I felt ashamed of whatever this version of me was. Not Indian enough, not Arab enough, not “Dubaian” (which, by the way, is not an actual term, no matter how hard people try to make it one) enough.


I was self-conscious of this amalgamation of culture; I didn’t quite understand how to use it back then. Yes, I may have been more aware and worldly than most, but I didn’t see it as a strength. I was something else. I sounded different. I acted differently. I was strange. I didn’t fit into a box, which is difficult for people when they’re trying to make fast judgements.


I was more nervous about peoples’ opinions of my looks than anything else. I would worry about my personality later. I was convinced my appearance would be the first thing that would be judged. I was grateful that in high school, I had lost a lot of weight, mostly by not eating, and pining over boys. I thought losing the weight would get me what I wanted and give me the confidence I needed. But the reality is that I was never going to be happy with my body or the size of my face, no matter what number the weighing scale spat out. I was hoping I could hide behind my long, thick fringe which covered most of my face. But it didn’t work. It drew more attention instead, especially when I had massive acne breakouts. There was nowhere to hide.


Why was I putting myself through this? Why did I decide to leave the toxicity and comfort of the people I grew up with in Dubai? With them, I know all their tricks, there’s no new curveball they can throw my way. So what makes me think I can handle similar opinions from new people? I know they will be similar because they’re true: I’m an ugly, chubby, pizza-faced pumpkin.


It was my first time away from home, away from my siblings, the first time anyone would see me for me. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that. I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate this world, there was no book I could have read and neither of my siblings had done their undergrad abroad. I was lucky and grateful but very alone. It’s not like I could rely on the other child who grew up in Dubai who was going to the University of York and would be in my college. Several times, I was referred to as “exotic”. Apparently, it’s a compliment.




International students are expected a few days before other students so that they can bond with one another for being different from the general population. I had already made two international friends, not counting my roommate. I was excited and eagerly waiting for the “others” to show up and for a legendary week of partying to begin. Freshers’ week was a blur for me, as it is for most people. I think my liver is still damaged from that week. That’s a lie, it’s damaged because I still drink like it’s Freshers’ Week.


My clearest memory of that week was of having pre-drinks in our block’s shared kitchen, a place I hadn’t really ventured into until that moment. I was lucky enough to get into catered accommodation, which sorted out two meals a day, five days a week. I mean, who needs lunch? The first night in our kitchen there were about 20 of us with our designated S.T.Y.C.s (second and third-year contacts), who were there to ensure that we had the time of our lives. We were all sitting around in a circle on the floor like you would do at nursery, except we had bottles and bottles of alcohol carefully positioned in front of and around us. It was my first time drinking Lambrini and it was the start of a beautiful and long-lasting friendship (for those of you who aren’t aware, Lambrini tastes like flavoured fizzy urine, absolutely delicious). That night, many drinking games were played—from the usual Never Have I Ever! to Fuzzy Duck to 21. There wasn’t a single moment where I wasn’t pouring, sipping, or gulping. I was nervous whenever it was my turn to speak or play or interact, and I was grateful for all the alcohol in my system getting me through it.


As you can imagine, I got wasted that night but I learnt so much as well:

  1. Men should stick a finger up their butt while they masturbate, it’s a feeling like no other.
  2. Spillage is lick-age. Clever.
  3. You need to have had at least one hilarious sexual encounter in your lifetime which could then be used in any game. I didn’t really have one when I first arrived but I definitely left university with a few.
  4. Sitting cross-legged on the ground while drinking for hours is not a smart move, especially when it’s time to leave. Keep on moving.
  5. You need to have a “thing” that makes you stick out from the crowd; it makes you interesting.
  6. Getting a nickname early on means that you have been accepted. I stupidly gave them the nickname I should have left behind in Dubai but I panicked. Once again, I became “Slutika”. However, over the years, it wasn’t the only one- Erotika, Exotika, Fatika, Princess from Dubai—the list goes on.
  7. You can make people laugh if you say something that is shocking, sexual, or stupid which will make them like you. My catchphrase became: “He wants to bone you!”
  8. We were warned about “Freshers’ 15”, it’s when you gain 15 pounds in your first year. It’s real.
  9. Vomiting is known as chunder.


That night I sighed as I took in the pale-yellow walls in the kitchen that gave me such a warm fuzzy feeling inside. I’m not a fan of tube lights but I got over it soon enough. I remember thinking that I finally made it. Look at me, hanging out with people that are not from Dubai or India. It was happening, I think. Am I fitting in?


Excerpted with permission from Citizen by Descent by Kritika Arya 

You can buy your copy here.


Kritika received her master’s degree (MA) in Dramatic Writing from the University of the Arts London in 2015. While in London, she worked in theatre and production, and on a documentary called ‘India in a Day’. In 2017, she moved to Mumbai to pursue a career as a writer. Since then, she has written for an award-winning international web series called ‘Bhak’, worked on ‘Life in a Day 2020’, and worked in a writers’ room for a web series in 2022. She is presently a part of the team making a global documentary about mental health called ‘I Hope This Helps’.