“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”—Joseph Campbell
This quote is very resonant with my life experiences, in particular with the past years I have lived abroad. It’s an unusual road that has brought me, a young African-American from Chicago, to sit today on the divisional board of one of the Middle East’s fastest growing corporate conglomerates, but I have enjoyed the ride.
I have been living in Dubai for about four years now. When I ponder my journey, I’m overwhelmed with mixed feelings of surprise and disbelief. If someone told me in 2010 that in four years I would have lived on two continents, graduated from one of the world’s top business schools, assisted in establishing and later serving on the executive board of a political group with state-level recognition by the Democratic National Committee, and finally gained a position on the divisional board of one of the Gulf’s most dynamic and powerful corporate conglomerates, I would have said, “Get outta here!”
At that time, my life was all set… or so I thought. I’d graduated from Loyola University, where I’d been running track, and I had all of my ducks lined in a row to be a competitive law-school applicant. I had planned to become a lawyer.
I’d interned for then-U.S. senator Barack Obama, and later volunteered on his first presidential campaign. I had also secured a summer position for John Hopkins’s Center for Talented Youth, and was employed for some 18 months at the United States Senate. I’d ticked all the boxes, and even managed to receive some scholarships. But for some reason, despite all these blessings, I wasn’t satisfied, and ultimately declined their offers.
With hindsight, I realize it was the right decision.
That year, LSAC (the Law School Admissions Council) received the highest number of law school applications in its history. Had I attended law school in America, I would have encountered greater competition to find a job or legal clerkship.
Coincidentally, around this time, a job opportunity in Dubai came up through my own networking. I had never been to a Middle Eastern country, had never been exposed to the culture, and the portrayal of the region in western media didn’t look good.
I weighed the pros and cons. I was single, young, with little obligations. My guts told me to take the risk and do something different. But another part of me held me back. Would I be at risk as a U.S. citizen? Would I make friends easily? Could I integrate? How would I cope being so far away from home? All these questions and many more went through my mind, doubts also echoed by my friends and family.
I spent hours thinking it through, and reason ultimately got the better of me. Even if I went to Dubai and it didn’t work out, I could return to the U.S. more mature, having been enriched by seeing the world and experiencing other cultures. I continued to wrestle inwardly, but in the end I took heed to the call for adventure.
In late 2010, having given most of my personal belongings away, I stood at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport waiting to board a plane bound for the Middle East. I was 24 and carrying all I owned in the world with me: an iPod (remember those?), a laptop and a couple of suits. I was both excited and apprehensive about what was in store.
Moving to Dubai was initially very challenging. My luggage got lost somewhere in Germany. After waiting a few days for my clothes to arrive, I got so angry at the airline that I decided to drive to the airport and give them a piece of my mind. On the way there, I ended up taking the wrong exit and arrived in a completely different emirate. To top it all off, I’d misplaced my passport. Holding back tears, I was wondering to myself what on earth I was doing in the middle of a desert country so far away from home. I was angry at myself for choosing Dubai.
A taxi driver took pity on me and told me to follow him back to the city. Once we made it back to the apartment building, I insisted on paying him, but he firmly refused, stating that God would bestow a blessing on him. This simple gesture of kindness from a complete stranger in this foreign land gave me faith in the people of this country.
Dubai is a vibrant city. If you put your mind to it, you can enjoy the best the world has to offer. I have dined in some of the finest restaurants in the world, lounged in state-of-the-art hotels, danced the night away at some amazing concerts: the Weeknd, Kanye West, Jay Z. I’ve also spent nights lying on a mat in the middle of the desert gazing at the sky, looking for shooting stars, chilling with some friends eating home-cooked soul food and reminiscing about home.
There were also times when I found myself in very awkward situations, sometimes lost in translation and cultural differences. I remember during one of my first nights out in Dubai, I was spellbound by the festive nightlife and lost the office phone. Imagine the awkwardness of having to tell your conservative colleagues you lost the office phone, knowing they’d be reading between the lines… But, you live and you learn.
It would be misleading not to talk about the hard work and dedication this kind of lifestyle entails wherever you are in the world. I work long hours and feel exhausted by the end of most days. But I’m enjoying a great career, and have made my way up the professional ladder within a short period of time.
In Dubai, if you want it, you can have it. It’s like everything in life—you just have to put in the work.
In the grand scheme of things, I feel that deciding to travel abroad while young is one of the best decisions you can make. You are no longer bound by the linear progression life normally forces upon us all: study, marriage, house, mortgage, kids.
You can have all of that and more. You just have to dare to live your dream and be prepared to hit a few bumps along the way. Traveling satisfies your quest for adventure like nothing else in this world. It widens your horizons; it gives you time to truly reflect and get to know yourself; it makes you realize that the world is filled with diverse, amazing people and cultures, and that the U.S only occupies a small part of that. Most importantly, travelling changes you and leaves you with memories that last a lifetime.
It remains to be seen how long I will live away from my hometown. One thing I know is that getting on that plane to Chicago, I’ll be a wiser man with a global understanding. To those who’ve never taken a trip abroad: do it. If you allow it, it will change you forever.—Jamar Johnson, as told to Danielle Pointdujour