When and where did you travel abroad? Did you backpack?
Back in 2006 (has it really been that long?!) my brother was taking a eight-seat van and he was road-tripping from Portugal, where we live, to Romania, in the peak of summer, without GPS, and with only a little camping fridge. He soon started to gather up some friends and eventually the head count reached 30. 30 people were driving, camping and, in a way, “living off the land.” So I decided to tag along and traveled by van through 17 countries in little less than a month, with people I had never met in my life.
What made you want to travel abroad?
Aside from the awesome opportunity to see almost all of Europe, I’m always up for a good adventure. I had never been camping and I had hardly been without Internet or a phone for longer than a weekend. I thought this would be a great opportunity to do exactly the opposite of everything I had ever done in my life. I was excited to travel, meet new people, mingle and finally visit all of the European monuments I’d only seen online, to speak several languages and spend some quality time with my brother.
Can you talk about a particular instance that gave you insight into your host culture or that helped you build cross-cultural communication skills?
We had no problem communicating when it came to the travel aspect, finding our way or securing proper camping sites. Once we crossed the Romanian border, though, it seemed like we had gone onto a whole different planet. There were horses in the streets transporting food and people, cows crossing the streets and walking on the sidewalks, as if it was totally normal. For us, it seemed like the twilight zone. Eventually the need to get a camping site became priority so we thought about asking some people on the street where we could find one. Between all of us we spoke seven languages, but alas, none of them was Romanian! We had to mime our intentions and show them the tent… Eventually they gestured for us to follow them. “Success!” we thought. Where we ended up was a gypsy camping site, complete with horses, trailers, fire, and everything you see in the movies!
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
We laughed the whole gypsy camping scene off and ended up staying because we had no other choice on sleeping arrangements, but it was a totally different culture and we were kind of caught off guard. Other than that things were pretty easy to deal with, except for food. Eating was an ordeal. From braised pig ears with cheese (with hair still attached) to meat we couldn’t even identify, I think we might have lost a couple of pounds in those couple of weeks.
What was your return like?
Returning was way easier than going. We were on schedule, the weather was perfect and although we didn’t have a GPS, we had a pretty nice geographic knowledge of Europe so we just kept on following our paper maps. Eventually we started to recognize borders and monuments that we had already gone through and the closer we got to home, the more excited we became. As we neared our home, everyone was dying for an actual bed and a sweet, warm shower!
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Definitely plan! Start saving up early, whether you are going on a road trip, backpacking or any other travel abroad, planning is a big step. From sleeping arrangements (either you’ll camp, hostel or just sleep in the car/train stops) to monuments you’d like to see, how many days you are willing to spend in each place and who you are willing to go with. The people make the trip. Disagreements and small arguments are bound to arise if you are traveling with a large group in close proximity, so make sure you are traveling with friends who will be there for you through thick and thin. If they are not there for you now, they sure won’t be when you lose your ticket or when your wallet gets stolen!
Describe an experience that made a particularly strong impression on you.
Of all the countries I went to I most enjoyed Poland and that includes the Auschwitz concentration camp. People usually take this the wrong way, but what I mean is that I found it really interesting. It’s incredible that we are able to have a guided tour through a part of history that, since I wasn’t even born yet, I didn’t fully understand. It is a dark and distressing visit, but we are privileged to be able to gain insight into how life was back then, the whys and the hows of the Holocaust. It made me watch movies like “Schindler’s List” with very different eyes.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
Well, now I’ve got the traveling bug. That’s when I understood that international travels and/or working in another country is something I want in my future. I started to learn Mandarin and Russian in college and I have since been going back and forth between Beijing and Lisbon. The fact that I interned at an English magazine while in Beijing last year has also made me realize that communication, media and editing is in my blood and I am not ready to settle for work in a country that does not give English majors much opportunity in the workforce. In Portugal, the entry-level job market still revolves around the intern that fetches coffee opposed to the intern who has a voice.
Joana has already taken the necessary steps to begin internationalizing her career. She has wisely begun learning not one, but two languages, and is making use of her English language skills by working as a copyeditor in China. We commend Joana on her passion for international adventure and her proactive attitude to building a global career. Working in an English-language context in a foreign country can sometimes lead to cultural isolation. We recommend that anyone who takes an English-language position abroad should make a continuous and conscious effort to engage with the local language and culture outside the office environment, in order to continue building cross-cultural communication skills. Also, be sure to take the time to consider your international work environment: What traits or habits do the local workers display? How do they differ from those in your home country? Being able to describe professional cultural differences is a valuable trait for anyone building an international career.
- Reading the quotes and all five articles in The North American Identity section will help you start to think about North American workplace culture in an international context.
- See The All-Important International Elevator Pitch to help get you thinking about the career value of the international skills you’ve built, and how best to discuss them with potential employers.