I believe cross-cultural living is one of the most rewarding experiences an individual can have. Even if you don’t plan to start a business and be there for an extended stay, I encourage everyone to spend three months to a year living in a culture different from their own. I have seen the benefits in my own life and the lives of my wife, my two boys, and countless others that we have met along the way.
While it may be impossible to describe all the benefits of cross-cultural living, here are some of the highlights:
- It will be difficult, but completely worth it.
I remember days when I had 10 things on my to-do list and didn’t fully accomplish a single one, but not because I didn’t spend all day trying. There were days I wanted to hug a friend or family member on the other side of the globe, or at least talk to them without a 3-second Skype delay. Then there were days when I let the downright trivial ruin my day, like the time when yellow mustard, my favorite condiment, disappeared from supermarket shelves for three months without warning.The frustrations of those days were countered by the days that I enjoyed a long chat over chai with a friend. There were days that we saw our children grow in unexpected ways, like the day we found out after-the-fact that our five-year-old had hired and paid for a security guard/shoe repairman to fix his $2 worn out flip flop. Occasionally, I even spent days in the middle of the Maasai Mara, watching the sun rise as elephants, zebra, and wildebeest made their way across the horizon. The joys of the good days are a sweet reward for enduring the frustrations of the hard days.
- It will change you.
I cannot overemphasize how our time overseas has impacted my family. Our Kenyan friends taught us to be more compassionate, more patient, and more community oriented. We learned to be less individualistic and to think more globally in terms of our values and beliefs. Our faith was strengthened as it was challenged in ways that it was never challenged in the States.I also have grown tremendously as an individual. I’ve learned to value the wisdom and perspectives of national co-workers and advisors. I’ve learned a great deal about effective cross-cultural communication. I’ve learned that I certainly don’t have all of the answers. I’ve been challenged and stretched in a thousand different directions and it has been so good for me.
- You can provide value
First and foremost, it is incredibly important to arrive with a humble attitude, knowing the people and the culture will teach and change you far more than you could ever hope to impact them. There are many stories about the tremendous harm caused when Westerners show up thinking they have the perfect solution to a problem.At the same time, you do provide a different perspective and new ideas. In Nairobi, Kenya the company we worked for started one of the first outdoor teambuilding programs and opened the first rock climbing gym in East Africa. We had seen it work in other places and knew it could work in Kenya. However, it took huge amounts of collaboration with nationals who knew the culture and the community to make it a success.When you walk alongside a community with humility, love, and open eyes, it can lead to incredible opportunities. New companies can create jobs that otherwise wouldn’t be available. Depending on the size of your business, this can have a major impact on a community, region, and even an entire country. As you develop deep relationships with your employees, customers, and vendors, you will mutually benefit as you grow to understand and respect one another.
- There is something special about it.
If you have ever traveled to another culture, you don’t even need me to explain this one. Do you remember the way you felt when someone asked, “How was your trip?” The words probably didn’t come out right and you said something that was way different than what you had planned. There is something incredibly special about living cross-culturally, about falling in love with a distant land and its people, about learning that we aren’t all as different as it first appears.
Living cross-culturally, even for a season, will shape your thinking, beliefs, and actions for the rest of your life. Please don’t take my word for it, get out there and experience it yourself!