Recently I have been getting asked for input working overseas as well as picking up a few seminars on travel safety, working with other cultures, and specifically travel and work in Asia. The work in here comes from a few of my own sources including a dissertation in my post-grad program, a few blogs on travel in Asia and SW Asia (Middle East), and a course I developed for a client on cultural diversity….
So let me start off by saying I am not an expert, I am seasoned. My experience includes negotiating terms with Bedouin tribesmen, training soldiers in Europe, SW Asia, and Korea, working with sales and marketing teams, running projects for orphans in Mexico, and coaching corporate leaders. I count thirty-eight countries to date for work, travel, and expedition. My language skills vary, but honestly I can order a beer or ask for the bathroom without going to jail or having a chicken sacrificed in front of me when I simply ordered the daily special in a restaurant.
I have what I call the “Three F’s”. This is my guideline for getting to know and appreciate various cultures, and more importantly, get done what I need to get done to make my travel or mission successful. While I do carry a pocket guide for language with notes and my own system of annunciation, the basis goes beyond learning rudimentary language skills, it includes a total immersion into the culture. On a quick side note, for language I also carry post-it-notes and everything in my hotel room gets labeled with my annunciation of the item in local language.
First, when on assignment and if possible, I am on the ground at least the weekend prior to beginning to work. I take this opportunity to visit local parks, museums, malls, etc. I do this on my own without a guide. Often it involves a taxi ride to another part of town. Second I carry a “Go-Bag” which I describe in another blog and podcast.
I have always been the guy who took off to explore. I used to frustrate commanders and team leaders when I was in the military because I took off to explore on my own. Post Desert Storm, there were buses that would take troops from Khobar Towers to downtown for shopping at the mall. 40-50 troops on a bus going from the base to the mall, first of all looked like a target to me. Second, most troops, I felt, were kind of loud and obnoxious for me. I would breathe a sigh of relief that the bus had not been attacked on route, then as everybody headed into the mall, I darted across the streets into the sooks- open air markets. There I could test and learn new language skills, explore new back alleys, and try to learn as much as I could about the people. I did the same thing in Egypt and after meeting with a Egyptian/French family for a period, almost wound up with a wife!
The Three Fs: Fun, Food, Faith
While I have contemplated adding another “F” here and there (at one time I used “Future” when working with refugees in Turkey) I have stuck to these main three. I find if I can master these immediately, I stand a greater chance of both getting my assignment completed as well as enrich my own life.
Knowing what a culture does for entertainment makes great conversation starters. Last year when working in Taipei I followed the national baseball team rigorously. The people I worked with in Taipei were highly energized by the success the team was having in the world tournament. This gave me a basis to start conversations with them. By mid assignment I could rattle of the stats, identify players by face, and discuss the previous night’s game. I was allowed to be a part of the frenzy. I was the only white guy sitting in the open mall area with thousands of new “friends” caught up in both the excitement and disappointment as Taipei fell to Japan in a 4-3 loss.
I count museums as fun as well as adding to my historical and cultural knowledge. Not only do I learn about the history, art, and politics of a nation, I see how people interact with one another. I see how children interact with parents, I am privy to interactions between business and customers, and I see the diversity in people who gather in these places.
On most trips I pack my GPS and a stack of printed Geo Cache targets to visit that are close to my hotel (in most cases.) I usually pick areas such as parks, museums, nature centers, etc. It gives me a chance to get out of my hotel and explore. By going to all these different places it not only allows me to take in different samples of the culture and see what they do for fun, but often I gain “an insider’s view” of the city. A few years ago I was working in Shenzhen. My geo-adventure took me to a national nature preserve that was in the heart of this massive city. I spent the day learning about a petrified forrest that most of my counterparts did not even know existed. For more info on Geo Caching, check out my other blogs and podcast.
A guy has to eat. In my time working as a liaison and trainer to many of our allies I learned that most of the time what’s for dinner is only a shade away from “what’s that for dinner?” I know I have eaten things that would put me in the limelight of a travel and adventure reality show on some cable network. The combination of having a mother who insisted I try a bite of everything once and a natural curiosity for food, I have surprised most host.
Breaking bread together is a bond that unites people. In many traditions to host or feast with someone is similar to passing the peace pipe in our own Native American tribes. I have found that entering a food situation that it is better to ask what something is after the meal. More than an understanding what animal or plant a morsel of food derived from, I often get a story about a grandmother who made special dishes or the history behind a food.
As I said above, I travel solo most of the time. This is more by design. I like to go and experience the area before getting the guided tour from my host. I find I can process the experience the host provides much better if I do this. Going solo provides unique opportunities to try different foods in the area. I try my hardest to stay away from the “American” fast food stops and restaurants. I tend to look for where locals are gathering at feeding time and head in the general direction.
On a trip to Korea a few years ago I found myself in what is the equivalent of a “greasy spoon” in the US. Good, cheap food, average service, and lots of people. My tactic is usually the same. I order the same dish as the person closest to me. This not only provides some of the most unusual dishes I have tried, but also respect of my co-workers when showing them pictures the following week. In Korea I experienced Kimche, Bulgogi, and Kimbap all on my own. Bulgogi is probably my favorite. The table-top grilling experience is something I return to time and time again. None of these fantastic foods would have been experienced at a TGI Fridays or McDonalds.
One of the richest experiences of food and fun was my best friend Amund and his wife treating me to a Burns Night when I was working in Scotland. If you are a frequent reader of the blog or listen to the podcast, you already know I am a kilt fanatic, owning eight of them and wearing them most of my free time. (No pun intended.) Burns Night is the celebration of the life of the great poet and includes Haggis, bag pipes, and Scottish traditions. It was truly a memorable night participating in a truly unique experience.
I have very strong spiritual beliefs. I know where I stand in my own faith. Still, in order to better understand people, you have to know what they believe. As I was deploying to Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm, I read the entire Koran. I did the same thing on my first trip to China, trying to grasp an understanding both Confucianism and Taoism.
I have been very fortunate to be invited into various houses of worship. From “High Church” in Scotland to small corner temples in Taipei, I relish the experience. Last year while working in Seoul I had found myself at a large Buddhist temple in the Gangam complex. Right across from one of the largest malls in the world was a site dedicated to faith. I spent the entire day and several nights on the site. I watched “drumming prayers” and monks meditating. I spent time praying my own faith while basking in the warmth of communal fires. I shielded myself from a spring rain in a temple, while reciting complines I had learned in my own journey. Tied closely to food, I was invited to sit and eat a very humble meal of rice and soup with resident monks and other invitees. We discussed life, faith, religion, and history. One of the best travel days I have ever experienced.
I had a similar experience in Scotland where my good friend and spiritual mentor and I spent an afternoon in an older orthodox church. It was interesting in how both places, the conversations were much the same.
Understanding Fun, Food, and Faith of a people has helped me connect in so many ways. It is a great place to start to understand a culture and even the variances within a culture. I always find it interesting when told by a client in an interview, you need to understand (fill in the blank) culture. I believe that there are people who can learn one or two cultures through experience, then there are those who can adapt and assimilate into a culture to a point where they are more than accepted, they are respected and almost made an honorary member of the culture. On a trip to China, I got to know the area and people in the area so well that I was dubbed “The Mayor of Shanghai” by the ladies in the office. As they took my boss and I out for the night, we kept running into people who knew me…by name. That is assimilation.