cultural exchange

Family First

I am excited to announce the upcoming launch of my new podcast! Tentatively entitled the World to the Wise podcast, in keeping with the name of our company, we will explore new perspectives on culture, including language learning, as well as listen to compelling stories from fascinating people. One such person is Dr. Ming Wang, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago as a guest panelist at the Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which Dr. Wang founded. He was one of the first people I contacted for an interview as I was setting about recording a handful of podcast episodes before we launch. He graciously accepted and we set a date. Just a few days later, I noticed online that his new autobiography, From Darkness to Sight: A Journey from Hardship to Healing, had just come out. I had to read it before the interview! So we postponed the interview and my wife and I are devouring his fascinating story.

You'll be hearing a good deal more about my interview with Dr. Wang, but here is one central theme for starters: throughout his incredible journey from the poverty and oppression of the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China to his astounding success, first as a student and then as an eye surgeon in the United States, his first thought was to bring honor to his family.

In fact, in China and other Eastern cultures, the family name actually comes first. He would be called Wang Ming-xu if he still lived there. (He dropped the "xu" part upon arrival in the US.) I would be called Durham David. The family entity takes priority over the individual identity of the family member. At every milestone on his way to becoming an internationally renowned physician and surgeon, Ming thought of making his family proud. Of honoring the family name.

I can't wait for you to hear more of the story of this remarkable man. Stories of overcoming enormous obstacles, of the gentle encouragement of two devoted parents, of record-setting success against all odds, of facing racial discrimination and prejudice in the Land of the Free, and of a generosity of spirit that is an example to many.

Stay tuned. And in the meantime, you can order Dr. Wang's compelling autobiography From Darkness to Sight: A Journey from Hardship to Healing for an inspiring read.

Why Every Student Should Globalize Himself


My wife and I recently watched an interesting historical fiction movie called "The Physician," in which a young English lad in the Dark Ages hears of a Persian healer who is training other healers in anatomy and medicine. The young Englishman begins his odyssey to the fabled city of Isfahan in hopes of studying under this guru. He finds that the Islamic culture of the East is far more advanced in science and knowledge than his own Europe. He returns home having gained skills far greater than what he had been learning with the superstitious traveling medicine man he had been apprenticing under. In this age of globalization,  the reasons for studying abroad are only continuing to multiply. Most Americans, when they hear the term "study abroad", think of the university years, but you don't necessarily need to wait till then. Thousands of high school students participate in exchange programs every year, and it often helps determine the course of the rest of their lives.

I'll be going into this in more detail in future posts (and talks), but for now a summary of some of the greatest benefits of leaving your shores to learn:

  • It expands your world view. (Why not start with the obvious?) Most high school and college students have lived in the same place for all or most of their lives before graduating, therefore being exposed to one way of life, one sub-culture, one way of buying groceries, one this and one that. As soon as your feet hit the ground of your host country, your life will change. You will be introduced to other perspectives that will fascinate you and challenge your comfort zone at the same time.
  • It grows you up. Graduating from high school and beginning university is in itself a maturing experience. But if you remain in the same culture afterwards, your maturing process will be much slower than if you take the significant step of planting yourself for a time in a foreign culture -- preferably one where your mother tongue is not the official language. You will find yourself having to make decisions and choices more independently, and the challenge of living and communicating in a foreign culture will develop muscles you had no idea you had.
  • It expands your capacity for learning. Not only will you be learning from the courses you take, likely taught in a different style than you're used to and forcing you to adapt, but every day will be a learning experience as you take in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and customs of your host culture. You will quickly learn, if you haven't already, that life itself is a classroom, and you will be more likely to remain a life-long learner as a result.
  • It looks really good on a resumé. Let's be honest. In today's competitive job market, international experience on a CV can often be the difference between you and other qualified candidates for the position. What does that experience signify to an employer? It says you have taken the time to invest in yourself, to stretch yourself, to make yourself more adaptable to new environments, and that you're adventuresome.

And once you've experienced one such adventure, you will find yourself hungry for more....

Stepping Outside, Part 2 - How Spending Time Abroad Makes You a Better Problem Solver

Paris metro
Paris metro

In my last post, I said these two words alone can change your life: stepping outside. Whether it's across the street to a neighbor from a different culture or across the ocean, separating oneself from one's home subculture is a vital step in the maturing process. Whether studying abroad, volunteering with a charity or mission organization, or taking your work with you, living in a foreign culture will expand your horizons like very little else. It will also make you a better problem solver.

When Becky and I conduct the World to the Wise cultural tours, we don't hire a tour bus driver, but take public transportation whenever and wherever possible. We teach our participants how to navigate the different subway and occasionally bus systems, and by the end of our stay in a given city they are generally able to find their own way around the city. Just the process of figuring out how to use the transportation system in a foreign country is a significant step in problem solving. It's like each person has his or her own Amazing Race.

Let's be honest, though -- we are there for just a few days and are there as tourists. The real rubber meets the road when you are placed in a foreign culture for an extended period of time. A radical change of environment forces you to adapt. You quickly learn that each day is no longer business as usual, and as a result your senses are sharpened. In the words of my erudite oldest son, who spent a semester studying Arabic in Morocco and part of a summer in Uganda, you experience the "beauty and richness of discomfort". When you shop for groceries you learn a whole new system. When you are responsible for paying for goods and services, you learn how business is done. You sometimes have to work hard to communicate with your neighbors. Even in a country where your own language is spoken, you become aware of sometimes subtle, sometimes radical differences in outlook and lifestyle.

The result? Sure, a little culture shock in the short term. But in the long term? You become more capable of looking at situations from multiple angles, of viewing life from others' perspective -- and after all, isn't that the very definition of maturity?

How has spending time abroad made you a better problem solver?

If you would like to connect with David on this topic or invite him to speak on it, contact him here.