There I stood amidst the hustle and bustle of a thousand foreign faces, speaking a foreign language and exchanging foreign courtesies with foreign expressions. A veritable sea of Chinese pedestrians walked briskly through the airport, shooting me the awkward stare or gawking face as they passed by. They made no attempt to hide their obvious surprise. What was a young, white, American doing in their city?! Was he famous? Rich? Infamous?
I gripped my luggage handle more firmly and pressed on through the crowd of spectators towards the exit… that red sign with weird symbols is the exit, right? I ran over my checklist in my head: no cell phone… check; no currency… check; no idea who was picking me up… check; no idea where I was going… check; no idea of where I was going to live… double check. For most people, arriving in a foreign country, especially one as large as the Middle Kingdom (that's China), with no idea of where you're going and no means of communicating with the outside world can be an overwhelming, even scary experience. For me… it was the most freeing feeling I've ever felt.
It was like being born again. Here I was in a completely new world -- new culture, new faces, new social norms, new… well everything. I would have to relearn how to live. No one knew who I was or where I'd come from, and best of all, no one cared. After all, the Earth is just a tiny blue speck of dust in middle of a huge expanse of space and time. That makes you and I like little amebas living on a speck of dust. Small and insignificant. But I think I find significance in being insignificant. Where you've come from and where you've been can define a significant portion of your life. And a lot of times, where we're headed is determined by where we've been. But when you step off the plane into a whole new world, there's no telling where you might be swept off to. And that is an exciting thought. The insignificance I felt in that moment freed me from trying to be anything but me, and allowed me to completely open myself to be utilized by a powerful force that is writing me into a story of creation. Now that’s an adventure!
To provide a quick background of how I arrived in the aforementioned opportunity (or predicament… depending on how you look at it), I had just accepted an internship to work overseas in Xiamen, China. Ben Briggs, Managing Director of Barrington Handicrafts in Xiamen, has lived in China for several years. Though an American by birth, Ben has lived and breathed China for the past several years of his life, and has grown his company to be well recognized Xiamen. I had heard that he provided adventure-seeking junkies like me opportunities to work in China, and I was lucky enough to get the offer. We only spoke via email only a couple times before I arrived in China, and all I knew when I stepped on the plane in Houston, TX, was that I was going to be living in China for the next few months. Yes… Texas was about to meet China. Howdy, right?
Working with Ben taught me a lot about business, culture, and leadership. Business is an incredibly effective tool to impact someone's life financially, emotionally, socially and spiritually, and that as a manager you are charged with the task of not only serving your customers, but also serving your employees. Ben goes out of his way to care for his employees, often meeting them for dinner and checking up on them throughout the day. Ben even takes the time to learn Chinese sign language (an extremely hard task as it has no correlation to American sign language) in an effort to better communicate with one of his employees that is deaf and mute. Everyone knows that Ben's office has an open door policy. Whether you’re the newly hired factory helper or the chief accountant, anyone is welcome in Ben's door, and that is a powerful feeling. By serving his employees Ben creates a fierce loyalty from his staff, and they go out of their way to make him proud. It shows in the quality of their work, their respect for the workplace, and the smiles on their faces. It's truly a team effort at Barrington.
Interning overseas provided me with many incredible opportunities during and after my trip. I was able to learn a new culture, a new language, and meet some of the most incredible people. Needless to say I made friends with many local Chinese people who I still keep in touch with today, and was able to test my own resourcefulness navigating myself through a foreign land. If you’re like me and “wanderlust” is your middle name and you have a passion to work and live abroad, then starting as an intern is the best way to develop skills, learn tradition and make the connections that you’ll need to make it overseas. And trust me, you’ll need a lot of connections!
Interning abroad also generates a plethora of unique opportunities. It certainly looks great on a resume, and is one of the best conversation starters in an interview. But the best experience one can gain from an overseas internship is the ability to learn about people and foreign business. Business isn’t transacted in China like it is in America. And likewise, it’s different in the Middle East and in Russia. For example, in China business is built completely around relationships or “guanxi”, and companies will spend a long time building and earning a relationship before they attempt to transact business. If you don’t have the right relationship with the right people, you’ll get nowhere in China. Thus, learning how this process works and how to speed it up is extremely valuable. American businesses that desire to break into the Chinese market will pay top dollar to anyone that understands the Chinese business model. But more importantly, learning the Chinese culture is fascinating and will open your mind to so many new ideas.
One of my favorite books is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. In the book, Scout Finch (the main character) learns the value of empathy. In order to truly understand someone, you’ve got to take a walk in their shoes. And living overseas provides you with an opportunity to do just that. Understanding how to empathize with people is one of the most valuable skills you can develop. It provides you with the knowledge of how to meet a person right where they’re at. And when you truly find out what it is that they need, that’s when you can reach into their lives and really make an impact. This skill applies to business, applies to friendships, and, most importantly, applies to living life in service of others. If you can provide more service than you take in payment, that’s when you’ll become an extraordinary individual. When you’re a giver in business or in life, people want to give back. Interning overseas opened my eyes to this incredibly simple truth, and provided me with an opportunity to apply it firsthand. Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” How true it is.
Now before you hop on the next plane to India, there’s one more thing you I think you should understand. There are people in the factory where I worked that may never have another job, and will spend the rest of their lives waking up at 7am every day to go and work on a production line for the majority of the day. Do I wish that upon myself? Of course not… and that’s OK. It’s perfectly fine to have big dreams and aspirations to go places and make a name for yourself. What’s important is the reason behind the dream. So often we leash ourselves to a dream or goal for the wrong reasons. We want to make lots of money, or live in a certain place, or have a specific job with the perspective that we deserve it. We’re so focused on our own world that we forget to enjoy the experience we’ve been given. Sometimes we have to get unleashed from our dream to really find it. Because, who’s pulling who? People often say “follow your dream.” I don’t particularly like that statement as it makes me think I’ll never catch it – like I’m a slave to its whimsical will. Instead, I’d rather chart a course for open waters, cut off the anchor, and explore the dreams that my life takes me to. Solomon calls the unyielding pursuit of material gain a “chasing after the wind.” I think that’s a good analogy. Instead of chasing after it, enjoy the breeze, and wait to see where it’ll take you. You never know what kind of destination is just around the corner. By all means, plan for the future and set goals for your life. But don’t get stuck in a big sea by hanging on to the anchor of what you thought would bring meaning to your life.
And when you start living the way any normal person would live who believes that there’s an incredible journey that’s been written for them to experience, you’ll start leaving a trail of where you’ve been. The universe will know your story. And when it’s time for you to take a step off the edge of the known and dive into mystery that waits, I hope I’m there to catch some of the light coming off you that day. Because when you head out into the land of the impossible and you’re hanging out with the stars and the sun, that’s when you’ll really start to shine.
For me, the stars and the sun were the incredible people I met on a daily basis in Xiamen. Their generosity and friendship taught me the true value of hospitality and loyalty. And it’s a great feeling to know that there are people right now sitting in a dusty factory in China earning a meager $7 a day that affected my life more profoundly than many of my college professors. There’s just no excusing the fact that when you allow yourself to be taught by someone whom the world would say isn’t worth learning from, you’ll truly learn the things that matter. Sometimes you have to excuse yourself from the rest of the world and the social norms that you hold so dearly to, and take a walk with reality. And there’s nothing like being a foreign country that really helps you understand who you truly are.
So take a walk on the wild side. Take a chance on an adventure that might change your life. I can’t promise that it will be all sunshine and rainbows, but I can tell you that my life has never been the same.