After working in education and sales in the US, Robert Howard decided to take the leap into international life. He spoke with The Black Expat about his journey into international living and how he fully embraces the exciting opportunities it has provided.
Where did you grow up? Was international travel or living part of your childhood?
I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey until I was fourteen years old and my dad moved us to Hopewell, Virginia. I was a Section Eight kid in Virginia and the Upward Bound program (in the 80s) had a huge impact on me traveling and inspiring me to attend college. The Section Eight program was created by the Housing and Community Act of 1978. It’s a housing choice voucher program that provides assistance to eligible low income families to rent housing on the private market. The Upward Bound program provided support to students from low income families, and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree, and helped to prepare participants for college entrance. The goal of the Upward Bound program was to increase the rate at which students completed high school and enrolled in and graduated from college.
International living was not part of my childhood. It wasn’t until I attended college on a football scholarship and traveled from city to city that I realized my love for travel. That was the beginning of my traveling bug. I loved seeing new places.
What was your first international experience?
It wasn’t until the summer of 1998 that I had my first international experience in Johannesburg, South Africa! I was a math teacher and had a summer job as the math coordinator for the African American Male Academy at James Madison University. That trip was also my introduction to Italy (two day layover). After that first experience, I immediately knew I was going to be an international junkie.
That trip blew my mind in so many ways. However, the biggest eye opening experience was the currency exchange rate. It’s one thing to hear about the beneficial economics of traveling and living abroad, but it’s a completely different animal to live it! Traveling or living abroad has not only become affordable, but with the US dollar increasing in value against most currencies, our US dollars ‘stretch in value’ in comparison to most countries. That is why the first time I experienced a favorable exchange rate it blew my mind; coupled with the typical ‘bartering system’ found in many countries, it is completely to our advantage to live and/or travel abroad!
What prompted the decision to go abroad? Why did you feel this was right decision for you?
Although I moved abroad for teaching, I wasn’t always in education. In fact, I left education after serving the profession for eight years and became a pharmaceutical sales representative for nine years (until I was laid off in 2008). Then, after a two year stint trying my hand at running my own company, I got back into education in 2010. However, I was spoiled by the financial benefits of being in the private sector and the teaching salary was appalling to me. I just knew there had to be a better way and I wasn’t going to allow my emotions of fear (opinions of others and internal) to overtake me. That’s when I decided to try my hand at living abroad as a teacher. I felt like if I’m going to do this, then I might as well get paid for my talents and travel. That was the absolute best decision I ever made in my life!
Was the UAE your first living abroad experience? How did you end up choosing to work there?
No. My first living abroad experience was in Guangzhou, China. I ended up choosing to work in China because they offered me a job first. It’s that simple. I wanted to experience the UAE first, but as the old saying goes, ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. And China was a phenomenal experience! Furthermore, I was only a one hour ferry ride from Hong Kong and embraced the culture and sights almost every weekend. After spending one year in China the recruiters for the UAE contacted me to teach in Abu Dhabi. I accepted the job and was on my way to the Middle East. The rest is history. Here I am, going into my fourth year in the Middle East.
I immediately learned from my first international experience that other cultures ‘value’ my education and leadership experiences. As soon as I connected with headhunters (like Footprints and Teach Away) and proved my credentials, the process of getting hired was fast! I was hired for the job in China twenty-four hours after my interview and it scared me because they wanted me to start in seven days! But I was able to extend my starting date to three weeks. However, this is not the typical rule of thumb… and definitely not for the UAE. All countries have their attestation processes and the wisest advice I can offer concerning the process is to be patient, but don’t be surprised when it happens fast because sometimes it will.
What is your professional background? How does your career in the UAE differ from back home?
As I stated previously, although I was a high school math teacher, I also loved being a pharmaceutical sales representative. I traveled all the time with my company and I loved the experiences. In fact, I believe those traveling experiences helped influence my decision to live abroad. My career (when it comes to teaching) was like night and day compared to teaching in Virginia. For example: in the US we have to pay state and local taxes, rent/mortgage, utilities, additional taxes on food and clothing, and work longer hours. Living abroad I work less hours, my housing is paid for, I don’t pay taxes, my utilities are not sky high (they were paid for in China, but not in the UAE) and more importantly – I get the opportunity to travel from one country to another at the same cost (or less) than when I traveled from one state to another! That is crazy! And I love it. And that is absolutely why most of us are here!
How have you found community as a Black male abroad? What is your support system and do you have any recommendations for others living abroad (or planning to move)?
In the UAE, Black Americans are absolutely here and we are thriving! Our network is strong via Facebook and WhatsApp (WeChat in China). There are always parties and events going on around the region and once you are here, you find yourself very easily establishing new friends and building your network. It’s that simple and that easy. You are never alone! The support groups for African-Americans are friendly and always willing to help (as are the countless people from other cultures).
To all newcomers, I would recommend Facebook and WhatsApp as great social media networking tools to anyone choosing to live in the UAE, living abroad, or traveling abroad. Networks like Black Americans Living Abroad (great networking source) is phenomenal, supportive, and vast! In addition, China’s most popular networking/social media tool is WeChat (Black Life China and Black Life: Travel China).
What has been the most enjoyable experience about living abroad?
Traveling to some of the most amazing resorts and visiting fifteen countries! I am humbled, gracious, and blessed to have witnessed some truly amazing experiences in a short amount of time (four years).
What’s at least one experience someone must have when visiting your host city (or country)?
I’m only a one hour drive from Dubai and in the beginning, I found myself traveling there at least every other weekend! Yes, Dubai is all that and a sight to behold. But Abu Dhabi (the capital) is incredible as well! I love Abu Dhabi too. I would strongly suggest/encourage anyone coming to the region to stay at least seven days and travel to both of the amazing Emirates! This country is fairly new and has developed quite rapidly in less than fifty years! That’s truly amazing.