You Don't Know What You Got Til It's Gone
Recently, the Counting Crows cover of Big Yellow Taxi has been running through my mind, specifically the lyric, “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.” It’s been the theme of 2020 for me and my family, as we keep encountering new things we took for granted pre-COVID-19. Thankfully, there are still so many things to be grateful for, and we even started a daily gratitude exercise to help us keep track.
Today, I want to share another experience that changed how I look at the world. Something I thought I was already grateful for, but it turns out, I’d only scratched the surface of gratitude.
Inside the Emirates Mall, Dubai, UAE — Around Noon
Jontie and his wife, Pik, walk around the Emirates mall, a bit exhausted, after their long flight from New York. They take in all the similarities, such as the brands … and the differences, including how all the signage is in both English and Arabic. They’re also happy to confirm that everyone seems to be communicating in English.
JONTIE (feeling exhausted after the long flight from NYC, turns to his wife): “Hey Pik, wanna grab some coffee? The jet lag is killing me?”
PIK: (pointing at a nearby coffee shop) “Sure, there’s one right here.”
JONTIE (after ordering and sitting down to enjoy some coffee and pastries): “So, what do you think of this place?”
PIK: “It’s like the US or Hong Kong, but newer. But you know me, I’m not impressed by cities.”
JONTIE: “I personally find it interesting how all the shops have the English and Arabic signage, but the Arabic name is just a transliteration of the English. Why don’t they come up with an Arabic name for these places? Armani might need to be transliterated, but I’m sure they can develop local/regional names for a lot of these other stores. Something that has more meaning for the locals.” (as you’ll discover, I have lots of random thoughts)
JONTIE (noticing a faint melodic sound, off in the distance): “Pik, is that the Athan? Where’s it coming from? Inside the mall?”
PIK (pointing): “There’s a directory over there, let’s see if we can find out.
Pik and Jontie walk over to the directory.
WOMAN STANDING AT DIRECTORY: “Can I help you?”
JONTIE: “Yeah, am I hearing the Athan? Is there a Masjid nearby?”
WOMAN: “Yes, just take the elevator to the top floor and you’ll find it there”
JONTIE: “Wow… thanks!”
JONTIE (looking at Pik): “That’s what I call service! A person at the directory to help us?! A Masjid right in the mall?!”
PIK: “That’s really great. I think I’ve just fallen in love with Dubai.”
Jontie and Pik spend the next couple weeks touring Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They visit Dubai’s malls, the historic Dubai Creek and The Spice Souk, along with the famous Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Jontie even meets one of his long-lost cousins along with his wife who are both working in the UAE. They enjoy the day chatting, touring the area and end the day with dinner together. Jontie and Pik also get to visit other friends they had only met online. Mixed into all of this, they attend a conference. They get around using the public transportation network and cabs, and sometimes with Jontie’s friend and his driver. They notice how easy and inexpensive it is to get around. They also notice a lot of the people living there have nannies, drivers, and servants. Speaking to some US transplants, Jontie and Pik discover that these people can’t imagine returning to the US because of the high salaries and easy access to low-cost help.
Inside the airplane at Dubai Airport — Early Morning
Jontie and Pik chat about their experience in the UAE, as they wait for the airplane to pull away from the terminal and begin their flight back to the US.
JONTIE: “So, what did you think of the UAE?”
PIK: “It was interesting. It feels comfortable. It’s a standard of living we’re used to, actually even better than we’re used to. It’s easy to be a Muslim there. No judgement. Easy access to Mosques and other prayer facilities. Easy access to halal food. Overall, it’s really convenient.”
JONTIE: “Yeah, I feel the same way. I’ve never been to a “Muslim country”. It’s so much easier. And to be able to feel that comfortable AND have an even better standard of living. It’s an incredible place. So, if you had a chance to move here, would you?”
JONTIE (laughing): “Me too … what’s your reason?”
PIK: “It’s hard to say. It’s not real. It feels artificial. And I don’t want my daughter to grow up around a society that’s so racially stratified, and where people are exploited.”
JONTIE: “I know, right? It’s such a weird place. The best way I can describe it is … it’s not organic. It’s a society that’s been engineered. Low-cost and unskilled-laborers from South Asia are brought in to build everything, including those beautiful malls, then Filipinos are brought in to work in those shops, Arabs are brought in to manage them, Europeans and other Western-educated people are brought in as professionals, and on top of everyone is this elite class of Emiratis. Fascinating! On one hand I’m impressed by how they’ve built this incredible city in the middle of the desert, and created so much buzz that celebrities, shoppers and globe-trekkers all see it as a must-visit destination. On the other hand, I hate that I can just look at someone, and based on their ethnicity, know their station in life, and know that my convenience is built on their exploitation. I hate knowing that I’m destroying families by being part of this system that prevents their wives, husbands and children from immigrating to the country … to this land they’re helping to build. On the other hand, I also understand the Emirati perspective, where they’ve not only made themselves the elites, but also a minority in their own country. They can’t allow immigration, because they would lose their own country. They can only manage and control this delicate balance they’ve created. But like you said, I wouldn’t want to raise our daughter in that kind of environment, to teach her that this is something normal and OK … just as long as we’re comfortable and taken care of … definitely not cool!”
JONTIE: “You know, I don’t think I truly realized how lucky we are in the US. We have problems with the legacy of slavery and the oppression of Native American communities, not to mention the status of illegal immigrants. But, at least the system wasn’t designed to exploit entire groups of people. Anyone born in the US is automatically a citizen. They have rights. They have hope and opportunity like everyone else. It’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than what we saw in the UAE. I love being able to look at someone and not know if they’re homeless or a millionaire. I love how class isn’t static or based on race and ethnicity. This trip really helped me to realize and be grateful for what we DO have, like our rights and equality under the law. I’m grateful we have systems to guarantee those rights, not to mention how we can hold our leaders accountable, rather than the shameless praise of the leaders we saw on display in the UAE.”
This was truly a life-changing experience for me. It changed how I look at the world, and all the blessings I took for granted. Has anyone else had any epiphanies or paradigm-shifting experiences while traveling abroad?