For some reason Iâ€™ve always felt comfortable in foreign environments. There may be deep (and less than healthy) psychological reasons for this. A friend told me he thought I decided to return to the States because Iâ€™d got to the point where I felt more foreign here than in England. Similarly, itâ€™s said that anthropologists study other cultures because they are not comfortable in their own.
In any case, I often find myself talking to people who arenâ€™t as comfortable in foreign countries as I am. When I do, I immediately start to pry â€“ mostly, these days, because I want to get them excited about visiting China.
What do they worry about, I always want to know. The basic worries include simple-to-deal-with things like food and changing money. But the real issue, Iâ€™m come to see, is that we have different levels of tolerance for uncertainty â€“ in terms of expected behavior, for example, and knowing whatâ€™s going to happen next. And when youâ€™re in another culture, there is a lot of uncertainly, if not outright chaos, and there are often many unfamiliar sounds and smells and flavors. The thing that makes all the difference to me, and to many people I know, is connecting with other people. Once you share a laugh or a moment of annoyance at bureaucracy or a hot sprint to catch a bus, you start to love a place.
But plenty of people travel the world spending time only with people like themselves. This is true of retirees on bus tours, and young people on round the world trips who get back to Australia or the U.K. having made plenty of new friendsâ€”all white Westerners like themselves on gap year tours. How about connecting with people who are different? This is not just a matter of having a richer experience as a tourist; itâ€™s essential if you are going to do business successfully in another part of the world.
I was talking about this in San Francisco with a new friend, Charlie Terry, president of Marketresearch.com and newly elected to the SIIA Content Division board. Iâ€™d arrived that morning from
Hong Kong and there was some joking about the email exchanges Iâ€™d been having with Ed Keating and Randy Marcinko. Photos of sea slugs figured in some of the emails, along with discussion of the unbelievably nasty smelling durian. ((Travel and food writer Richard Sterling says: “… its odor is best described as pig-s**t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia”.))
Charlie said he didnâ€™t feel comfortable in other cultures, but before long he was telling me about how on U.S. business trips he goes out and finds a pool hall. He doesnâ€™t change out of his business suit either, but goes in, hangs out, has a beer or two, and eventually works his way into a game. By the end of the evening, he says that he and his buddies usually feel completely accepted.
I know the beer must help. And thereâ€™s no better way to connect across cultures than with sports. ((But is it really a sport if you can drink beer and play at the same time?)) The important thing, though, is that Charlie gets the same kick, I think, out of connecting with people who are outwardly quite different from him as I do get connecting with people in China or Mexico -or the
U.K. Itâ€™s exhilarating to find out that we arenâ€™t all that different.
And these connections donâ€™t require a common language. Eye contact and body language are also important. I remember a moment not long after arriving for the first time in China, when our English-speaking guide took us to the wrong hotel, and was arguing with the staff at the reservation desk. I glanced at the driver, who did not speak English, and our eyes met. I knew immediately that he too knew she was wrong. We grinned at each other. From that moment I never doubted that I would be able to make connections in China.
Now Iâ€™m trying to persuade Charlie to take me to a pool hall.
(Charlie, by the way, is the chairman of the board of a remarkable enterprise called the Glimpse Foundation, founded at
Brown University, his alma mater. Glimpse does both print and online publishing â€“ of beautiful quality â€“ about the experiences of young Americans abroad. I’m obviously not the only one who’s talked to him about global perspectives! Do take a look. )
Comments about your experiences making connections abroad, positive or negative, are welcome.