My journey through foreign cultures and towards mindfulness

Indian girl on her wedding day in Varanasi

I have taken this from the very last paper I had to write to finish my almost six years of university studies. It was meant for my CEMS Global Leadership class – a personal reflection of my intercultural experiences. Here’s the edited version:


Throughout the last years, I have been living in far-away countries for longer periods of time. ‘Far-away’ – this describes the cultures I have immersed myself in very well – compared to the German one I grew up in.  Each journey has brought with it exceptional experiences, shaping me in unique ways and unfolding in front of me new perspectives on the people around me, on the world. Each experience challenging me to switch off my “cultural auto-pilot”, making empathy my key strength.
I will be analyzing the different cultures, how I have perceived and embraced them, and how I have changed and developed my Cultural Intelligence. I’ll also reflect on why being mindful is not always easy and how empathy helps me survive.

Oman

In 2010, as part of my Bachelor studies, I moved to Muscat, Oman, for an internship with a pharmaceutical distribution company. I chose this opportunity over an internship in London – simply because it was something extraordinary. Having only been to the United Arab Emirates once before, I knew little about the Arab world in general but the Omani culture was something completely foreign to me. I was not sure what to expect but thought that it could not be much different than what I had experienced in expat-driven Dubai. Well, it was. 

Though there was of course also a substantial expat community in Muscat, it seemed very small to me and it was more or less possible to avoid it all together. Anyway, I was not there to mingle with like-minded Germans or Brits, I wanted to learn about Oman, from Omanis. And so I was happy that the majority of my friends were native Omanis yet appreciating very much the European friends I had made and who helped me ease into the Arab culture. My friends from work, mostly Omani, some having lived all their lives in that beautiful country, all faithful Muslims; my other friends, having studied or worked abroad for longer periods of time, surprised me with an almost Western mindset and very liberal view on religion and life in general. I loved this contrast between my life at work and my private life. At work, Omani men were dressed in their Dishdashas, the women wearing Abayas, highly respected by Indian employees and Filipino “servants”.

And me, the 21 year-old German girl on her first job, immediately ranked above most non-Muslim employees in the company and treated always with utmost respect. It shocked me how lowly, and often disrespectful, the Indians and Filipinos were treated on the other hand, regardless of how long and how well they had loyally served their Omani bosses. I remember pouring my heart out to my one of my best Omani friends about how cruel I perceived this treatment of people at the lowest end of the social ladder. My friends outside of work, modern, hardly ever wearing their country’s traditional outfit. It almost felt like being home, almost.

Reputation matters and religion is still a big deal in the majority of the country, especially among the elderly. Also, never criticize the Sultan, or your boss. Sometimes, I really did feel like I was compromised in my freedom, the choices I could make, the things I could say aloud. But what I really do appreciate is that once your part of their in-group that is where you will remain. I am still regularly in touch with my closest Omani friends and when I went back, it was like I had never left. So how would that change once I moved to Thailand a few weeks later? I was curious for this entirely different adventure.

Thailand

After Oman, I spent another four months abroad. This time I would be studying in Bangkok, again not knowing a soul when arriving. Admittedly, I was almost exclusively involved with other exchange students and made almost no Thai friends. I found it hard to approach them and to build trust though the Thais we met on the street, in shops or restaurants had always been incredibly friendly and helpful. During group projects in university, it often challenged me and other non-Thai team members to efficiently work with the locals. They were quite, almost never voiced their opinion and felt very uncomfortable when you directly asked them for it. We had all learned during our welcome event that face-saving is extremely important to them so we tried to avoid criticizing them. The French definitely had fewer problems with not being as direct and demanding as the Germans. It was thus interesting for me to see that it was also the French that in the end seemed to find it much easier to make friends with the Thais. Also in Thailand, religion plays an important role but I found it a little less intimidating than in Oman. The King should of course also never be criticized and generally all superiors/elders be respected. Nevertheless, I felt like I was less compromised in my freedom. I would attribute that to the fact that I was treated more like a tourist rather than an actual member of the local community when I was not wearing my Thai school uniform. Tourists can probably get away with almost anything in a country like Thailand that is relying on tourism.

Guatemala

My most recent adventure had been a volunteering trip to Guatemala in the beginning of the year. I had been working with a women’s weaving cooperative in a small, very traditional Guatemalan village by Lago Atitlán. I was living with the family of the founder just above the shop where they were selling the women’s handmade, natural dye textiles. The people from the village belong to the Native American tribe of Tz’utujil, still mostly speaking their native Tz’utujil language, and Spanish only as their second. Nobody really spoke English and with my two weeks of Spanish language classes before moving to the village, the language barriers were quite huge. But we managed well and my Spanish improved tremendously within the first weeks. 

I was living with ‘my family’ for six weeks and felt like part of the family almost immediately. Though for the living standards in Guatemala’s rural areas they lived quite comfortably in a three-story house with 3 1/2 bedrooms and their shop on the ground floor, for Westerners these are quite poor conditions. Running water was unreliable so we showered with buckets of ice-cold water in the morning, cooked over a wood-fired stove and slept with two thick blankets and our coats when temperatures dropped to almost 0°C during the night.  I do not know a lot of Westerners who would trade their nice hotel room and comfort for a ‘real world’ experience like this. I was also the only Westerner living in this village 24/7 as most tourists visited San Juan La Laguna, famous for its artisans, only for a few hours a day. 

But I loved every single moment of it. The warmth and love this family has shared with me was incredible. They accepted me into their family with open arms. Throughout the country, despite the harsh conditions most people live in, everybody was so joyous, prioritizing life and family over work. Though the markets were busy, everybody seemed calm and relaxed, going about life with such ease. 
I think this experience has been the richest for me so far. It was the first time I have fully immersed myself in a culture: Living completely like one of the locals, living with the locals – sleeping, eating, showering, and dressing like them. Though I have never closed my eyes towards the sad realities of life, this experience, for the first time, has opened my eyes completely and let me see the world through a different perspective. It has actually led me onto the path I would now like to pursue in my life: Become a leader with positive social impact.

Culture Mapping

Not speaking Arab nor Thai, and in the beginning only little Spanish, I did of course experience language and communication barriers in all three stays. In addition, Germans are generally more direct with what they are saying, though I do tend to be more thoughtful, listening carefully before speaking up. Observing and analyzing others, especially if their communication style is more implicit, most of the time helped me avoid blundering.  I do remember some funny incidents with my Omani friends – with some English vocabulary missing we sometimes wildly tried to explain ourselves to the other before giving up, laughing. Similarly, I recall one morning, having breakfast with my Guatemalan family that I was hurried away from the breakfast table because apparently the day before I had agreed to hike with my host father to some remote villages in the mountains for forestation purposes. What happened was that in the first weeks, I understood only bits and pieces and thus I answered every single question with ‘Sí’ (Yes), simply because I did not want to miss out on anything. I was eager to try everything, do whatever my family was doing in their everyday lives. Thanks to this ‘Yes’ attitude I also tried some delicious beef tongue which I probably had not, had I known before what I was eating. Furthermore, I realized that knowing the local language, even if it is just being able to say ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Thank you’, tremendously improves your chances of being accepted into the foreign culture and of making friends as well as receiving a stranger’s help. In Thailand, I was treated much more friendly wearing my Thai school uniform, greeting people, ordering food or a tuktuk in Thai. Greeting Omanis with a friendly ‘As-salamu alaykum’ was often an ice-breaker. I believe that what enriched my Guatemalan experience so much was actually being able to speak with everyone in their native language and sharing personal stories with each other. It did make me feel less like a tourist and did give me some sense of belonging.

When reflecting on all those experiences, the three countries could in a way not be more different from each other but the one thing that made them all alike was their collectivistic culture. It was also this sense of unity and loyalty as well as a feeling of harmony that made my experiences mostly very pleasant and helped me feel welcome. However, it did take me some time to adjust to this, coming from individualistic Germany. I needed to open up and accept being accepted into an extended circle of family and friends were group harmony comes above any individual’s interests. I had to bond with people on a different level than I was used to and being in the countries for rather short periods of time, I had to do it much quicker than was sometimes comfortable for me. Building trust usually takes me quite a while but I also did not want to be perceived as the ‘cold German’ who does not want to open up to others.

Plus, solid relationships are in many cultures the foundation for doing business and so when I was in Oman I simply had to reveal some more personal details early on to foster my relationships with my colleagues and boss (task- vs. relationship-oriented). When I first started the internship in Oman, I had my tasks and I set myself deadlines, which as a monochronic German, I generally tend to keep. I was eager to get things done. In the morning, I was the first one to arrive, a few minutes before the official office hours started. Instead of chit-chatting like all others, I went to my desk and started working on my tasks. I may not have realized it at the time but when reflecting back on it, team work became much easier once I had established a good connection with my colleagues; I received more feedback and more support. In Guatemala, the women of the cooperative also approached me more frequently, asking me for help with certain tasks or looking for advice, once I knew their worries and dreams and they mine.

While in Germany, it is mostly work and, please, no sharing of any personal information; in the other three countries, I felt like life was much more appreciated and enjoyed (doing vs. being). While it still drove me crazy in Oman and Thailand that people do not keep deadlines and take appointment times as an approximate figure, in Guatemala I simply took a step back. Most of the time I did not carry a watch or phone so as to rid myself of any time pressure. It freed up more time for relationship-building because instead of feeling the urge to run off to the next appointment, I gave myself the time to finish conversations or eat unhurriedly with my family – not having to think of all the million things I have to do next (monochronic vs polychronic).

Admittedly, being back in Austria/Germany, I do sometimes catch myself going back to old habits. Though I now find it easy to adapt to different cultures, it is not that easy to permanently incorporate values or habits you appreciate so much in other cultures into life back in your home country.

Empathy
BigThink

Empathy has led me onto my path and with empathy I will continue to follow it

Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.

I hope I can educate myself and others, as well as always love even if I don't understand and love when they don't understand. Grace given in all situationsI believe that with every international experience, starting with my high school exchange in the USA in 2005/06, I have developed my Cultural Intelligence. Before, I had based my expectations mainly on what I had “learned” about a culture in the media – stereotypes. But this, in a way, prevents one from actually getting to know a person, and their culture, because with bias it is hard to see below the surface. When I take the example of Indians working on construction sites in Arab countries like Oman or the Emirates in what honestly are inhuman conditions, I also try to see their perspective. They perform this hard work to support their families back home in India where they might not have any or even worse employment prospects. Given the ascriptive Omani and Indian culture people simply accept those fates – I do not approve of it but taking on their perspectives make those situations at least a little more comprehensible for me. 

The first times, I had really mastered switching off my “cultural auto-pilot” was during several visits to India and then finally my volunteering experience in Guatemala. It was in these countries that I have closely interacted with the bottom of the pyramid and I had to somehow try to see the world through their eyes in order to fully understand and help them. I am now trying to apply this “mindfulness” also in everyday life in Europe which admittedly is so much harder than imagined because people of a similar economic/social status to oneself seem so much alike. I am currently trying to comprehend that also seemingly similar people have lots of diverse stories and backgrounds. However, it is a lot harder than one would think to get behind that, seeing beyond appearances and seeing the world through their perspective.

Empathy is a crucial tool for this and I think that my frequent stays abroad have made this to become one of my key strengths. My goal is to leverage this strength throughout my professional and personal life and use it as my key asset in pursuing my dream of a purposeful life – having a career with positive impact on others. 

It is only with empathy that we can make this world a better place.

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