Lessons from abroad: What it means to truly be international

As a minority in North America, I sometimes find myself thinking about how I SHOULD portray myself to be more compatible with western society. As a result, I observe myself fluctuating between instances when I would castigate my Chinese heritage to appear more “white” and other periods where I try to compensate by overly representing my Asian culture. But which was the authentic me? Am I letting society dictate my interests and behaviors more so than I let on? Given the turbulence and uncertainty of college, how do I even differentiate what is truly me with what external forces are telling me to do? The more I thought about this the more confused I became and the further I drifted from a stable and comfortable sense of identity.

Growing up in Canada, I have always been told to embrace diversity. And while this is certainty true and important for a mixed nation made up of a diaspora of individuals to co-exist harmoniously, it also taught me to never question or actively think about what diversity actually meant. Instead, I blindly accepted the status quo and steered clear of any attempts that others made to discuss the topic. In fact, I tried taking an Asian American Studies course early on in college and felt extremely uncomfortable from the course discussion so I dropped the class. I now differentiate between the kind of blind cultural acceptance that is merely just an avoidance of the differences between individuals and the true observation of cultural uniqueness and the resulting appreciation and celebration of it. I have my undergraduate experience in the US and numerous trips abroad to thank for this.

College has been a transformative experience on establishing my cultural identity by providing me with an eclectic range of experiences to define my values. In particular, my time abroad have been pivotal to this process. Starting with the CASI summer in India, constant exposure to new cultures and customs has given me perspective on what it means to truly be a global citizen of the world. The key realization: when it comes to cultural appreciation, there is no right or wrong, no formulaic answer or way of behavior that is superior. Instead, I think it comes down to being open and curious – to maintain a state of flexibility and tolerance to novel encounters and have the humility and maturity to then learn and adapt your ways. Life is about the pursuit of an endless stream of changes and adjustments and for me, the best way to do so is by exposing myself to new cultures.

The bulk of these realizations came from my summer internship at Aravind through CASI. While I was living in Madurai, I was forced to become aware of the way I differed from the rest of society – not only in terms of drastically different physical appearance, but also through norms such as what is appropriate to wear and say and the ever-persistent question of “where are you from?

Now, it has always bothered me when people ask me that question in America and expect a subsequent answer of a country in Asia. When I answer Canada, a follow-up question always becomes, “but where were you ORIGINALLY from?” However, some of this annoyance soon started dissipating for me in India, despite the same combination of words used. While I started by answering in my usual way, that I am from Toronto, Canada, because that is where I spent the vast majority of my childhood, I soon started to see the genuine curiosity in the eyes of the locals who were asking. In North America, there was always this unspoken judgement that passes through people as they ask the question because the real underlying question was more about whether you are a local or a visitor – in other words, do you belong here or somewhere else? However, the same question abroad did not hold the same connotations and I started to embrace my true identity as I modified my answer to – “I was born in China and moved to Canada when I was young.” As a result, most people were genuinely interested in my experiences in the East and the West and it felt surprisingly refreshing. I had learned that when you are genuine and open in your interactions with others, they reciprocate. This is as true in what you say as it is in how you carry yourself. In other words, be proud of who you are and where you’re from because other people likely find it novel and interesting. In Madurai, I was surrounded at dinner time by travelers, volunteers, and trainees from all over the world – at one time we had representation from France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Britain, Nigeria, Nepal, China, US, and on and on. While I have always been used to meeting XX-Americans (insert ethnicity of choice for XX), I only started to realize how limited that sense of diversity truly is. Therefore, India was the first time I became excited by and exposed to the true meaning of being “International”. The same lesson was reinforced again and again as I backpacked to various other parts of the world after that summer.

I think a truly global perspective is having the tolerance to explore customs that are unfamiliar and even strange to you and the humility to realize that each culture has merits that you can learn from. It then takes openness and flexility to incorporate the values that work for you so that you end up with an expansive range of cultural understanding and awareness. I am so thankful for the opportunities that I have had thus far to travel and the privilege of defining who I am and who I want to be. But just as I am slowly learning about the things that I care about and the ways in which I want to establish my cultural identity, I am also made aware of all the things I still have yet to explore. My summer in India has opened up a pandora’s box for me – a crazy wanderlust that is itching to be satisfied. Whether it is a month long backpacking trip abroad or a weekend getaway in the US, I am excited for future prospects to continue exploring, learning, and growing into the person I want to be.

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About jane21290

My name is Jane Chen. I was born in Hangzhou, China, and grew up in Toronto, Canada. I just graduated from Penn in May 2016 with majors in chemistry and business operations and a minor in religious studies. Check out my posts on my journey to the exotic country of India (Summer 2014)!