An Interculturalist Goes to China!

The countdown is on, and I will soon be heading to China for a short adventure. Naturally, I am very excited! At the same time, I can’t help but notice that the preparation phase has been a great personal reminder for this Interculturalist about the realities of going overseas.

Preparing for a trip is a great motivation to focus on a specific place.

I was always curious about the country and its culture, but ever since we decided to make this trip, anything and everything pertaining to China stands out in a way it did not previously. I have been devouring scholarly articles, updating my OneNote with sites I want to see, watching documentaries and films, and reviewing my notes from intercultural colleagues who specialize in Chinese culture. Putting a trip on the calendar somehow harnesses my otherwise haphazard and diffuse attention; with only so many days until departure, I am living and breathing my research into this single place. And in doing so, I not only develop more cultural knowledge, but I also get a refresher course in what international assignees are scrambling to do before their own departures. It’s a lot to digest, but the plates just keep coming.

But . . . it can be overwhelming.

Maybe if I was a more lackadaisical person I would simply wad a few pairs of clothes into a duffel bag and be on my way, but since I’m not, the logistical preparation eats up a lot of my time. It’s not only the visa application, the trips to the travel clinic, the packing, and the shopping for culturally appropriate gifts. It’s also the time and energy spent researching the requirements and wrapping my head around the things I need to do (and filtering out the things I don’t actually need to do). I can’t really complain, because I know I’m lucky to go, and anyway, if I’m honest, it’s pretty fun, but getting ready for a trip still requires considerable effort. In the meantime, life accelerates as I scramble to tie off projects that need to be finished before I leave!

And a little intimidating.

I think it’s important for intercultural professionals to admit this! Even though I relish the opportunity to visit a new country, I still feel some twinges of anxiety. Will I pronounce the tones correctly? Will I get some sort of wretched stomach illness? Will I become claustrophobic while riding the subway in the most populous country in the world? Will I accidentally offend someone by inadvertently violating a cultural more? Will I lose my suitcase on a packed train? Will I feel comfortable being out and about, taking photos on my own? Will I like it? Will it like me?

If I can experience some trepidation despite having quite a bit of experience engaging ambiguity, it must be even more intimidating for some of my clients, for whom international travel presents a brand new chapter.

Even so, it is exciting.

It truly is. I know that not everyone has the opportunity to do this, and several years ago, I would not have imagined that it could be me embarking on this journey. So, despite experiencing the fear of the unknown and unpredictable, and despite feeling a bit consumed by the process of getting ready, I am also full of anticipation and gratitude. It is exhilarating to consider that I will be standing on the Silk Road – a lifelong dream. I’ll be gazing across The Great Wall, peeking into the Forbidden City, and strolling along the Bund. China truly looks like an incredible country, and I am thrilled to be able to see it up close and personal.

Ultimately, as an intercultural coach, it is good to be reminded of the messy reality of preparing to go abroad.

Although learning about the culture of the host country is paramount to me – and it does truly make a big difference in the quality of the experience travelers and expats have – it can also feel like just one more item on a long to-do list. For intercultural professionals working with busy clients, it is helpful to re-experience this ourselves from time to time, so we can renew our empathy for the many pressures that people departing for new countries really face. At the same time, it is also helpful to rekindle our own passions for seeing the world, so that we may pass that enthusiasm onto others. Speaking of which . . . I need to go study Mandarin on Pimsleur.

Zài jiàn! (Goodbye for now!)

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