Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What traveling abroad teaches me

Today I thought I'd pass along a story that happened to me recently.  Please note, there is not an actual update on me here.  So if that doesn't interest you, feel free to skip this.

A few days ago I visit Gimyoung beach for the first time.  It was the definition of kid friendly.  I walked 200 yards out into the water and was still able to sit on my heels and let the gentle waves wash over me.  Good place for relaxing.  I actually ended up in a long conversation with a couple of the lifeguards there (why they had lifeguards on a beach like this, none of us knew).

They were young men, who were lucky enough to be doing their mandatory 2 year army term on Jeju.  In this case, their job as soldiers was to lifeguard.  They were very friendly and had lots of questions, which I was happy to answer.  They were surprised I was at the beach alone (this would be unthinkable for Koreans) and even more surprised that I had no definite plans for when I would leave or what i would do next.  "So you will follow your heart today" was the unexpectedly eloquent response from the older of the two, Jim (his English name).

After a little more mutual Q&A, Jim asked where I had traveled to.  As I answered him, his eyes got bigger and bigger.  He then asked a surprisingly insightful question.  He has many friends who have traveled outside Korea and wondered, what do you learn from living and visiting abroad?

For me there are several answers to this.  First, it helps you to understand your own country, both the good and bad parts, much more clearly.  This can be perfectly illustrated by the current troubles raising the debt ceiling in congress.  I can clearly see fault on both sides (The Democrats uncontrolled spending and fear of touching Social Security or Medicare.  The Republicans and especially the Tea Party's willingness to risk inducing a global recession just because they don't want any kind of tax increases).  But i'm proud that the public has the power to bring issues like this, that no one used to care about, to the forefront with their votes.

Second, it helps remove the latent us against the world mentality that far too many people have.  The more you travel, the more you realize that the average person is very similar no matter where you go.  Most people have friends, take pride in a job well done, are opposed to violence and crime and are willing to help you when they can.  When you get right down to it, people aren't so different after all.

That said, the third thing traveling does is allow you to see and appreciate the differences in people and cultures.  For example, in America who you know can help you get a job.  However, in Korea not only is that true but in most cases, your relationships with your co-workers and boss are the main factor in determining who gets promoted.  It's why after work social events in Korea are functionally mandatory.  Because it is your friendships, not your job performance that often determines your future.  Of course this does happen in the US too but we rail against it and do our best to prevent it.  Not so here.  Here it is seen as a good thing.

Another quick example would be timeliness.  Americans, Swiss and Germans are always expected to be on-time or early for business meetings.  Not so in Korea, Brazil or the Middle East.  And both of these are ok.  Both approaches fit the cultures of the respective countries.

As we continued to talk about things like this, they eventually invited me back to the lifeguard shack for snacks and drinks.  I even helped one of them pick his English name.  He wanted something that sounded tough and manly.  After a few suggestions, I offered Dom and he loved it.  First time I helped with that.  It was fun.

After swapping numbers, I headed out but with excellent memories of my new friends.  (sappy enough an ending?)

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