Reflections on Multicultural Lives and “The Travel Bug”

© Missy Gluckmann

International Education Week rolls around each year and we dutifully plan events on our campuses to encourage students to think about the world around us.  Many of us don’t wait for this week to facilitate programs that will engage our students to think about the world that we live in through a different lens.  On my campus I have facilitated a panel nearly each semester: “Global Citizenship: Multicultural Lives and Multilingual Careers”. The intent of this panel is to illustrate the value of experiencing other cultures first hand and how knowing a 2nd language (or 3rd, 4th, 5th…) can open doors and hearts more than playing it safe and staying at home.

This panel resurfaced for International Education Week 2009.  Keep in mind that I’ve facilitated this panel 3 times and I personally know 3 of the 4 presenters. They are people that I worked with during a stint in the corporate world and we grew close during our long days holed up in the International Assignment Services offices, assisting companies and individuals/families relocate abroad for employment purposes.  We first became colleagues, then dear friends that I have stayed in close contact with for a decade – so I “think” I know these people well.  Round 3 of this panel proved that there is always something new to explore about a life lived in another culture….or cultures!

Four panelists spoke  and shared their passion for other cultures and a total of 9 languages.  Roberto, originally from Brazil, spoke of his father’s insistence that he learn English as a young boy.  A high school exchange program took him to Michigan for a year and he returned home to study for a BA degree, eventually landing a job at an Brazilian airport in customer service.  His little experience with Italian helped him to land this position, which he eventually left to pursue graduate studies in the US.  This is where his little bit of experience with French became particularly important.  He spotted a firecracker of a young woman with beautiful red hair, freckles and bright blue eyes.  Natalie, from French speaking part of Canada, eventually became his wife. When  he met her family in Canada, they were floored that this man from Brazil was able to converse with them in French.  Three children later, they are off to Singapore for a new adventure. Their 3 children speak 3 languages – from the moment they were born, Natalie has only spoken French to them, Roberto has only spoken Portuguese and they have learned English from their school in Connecticut.  As Roberto lovingly stated to our students, “Until they start acting funny, we’re going to keep throwing languages at them.”  They will next learn Mandarin in their new home.  Roberto described this new move abroad as an extension of their need to travel and experience life – this “travel bug” that international educators speak of from time to time.

Karen, another panelist, is an American who grew up in suburban Connecticut.  She quickly became fascinated with Russia in high school.  Something about this place intrigued her; she didn’t know what it was but had to pursue this language.  She wanted to talk with people there and knew that she could not rely on English, so she studied endlessly, spent time abroad in Moscow and eventually returned to the country to, as she put it, “practice my Russian since a friend was living in Moscow and had a couch that I could sleep on.”  She became so fluent that she was offered, with no prior work experience except babysitting and working at Shop Rite, a manager position in the first 24/7 copy shop in Moscow.  She worked with a team of Russians, provided sales outreach to American headquartered companies that had new offices in Moscow and learned as she went.  One of her most important nuggets of learning came when she told students about how she tried to motivate the employees by instituting an “Employee of the Month” program. Little did she know that the employees were meeting behind her back, developing a  strategy about how NOT to be given this “honor.”  Karen explained that she had not realized that a country with such a distinct communist history would not seek pleasure in celebrating an individual. She quickly changed the program to a “shift” award and it was highly successful.

The audience laughed heartily at Karen’s story and all of the unique and humorous experiences of all 4 panelists, yet the common thread was this unending need to go abroad, to learn about “the other,” and to invest in language acquisition. I have friends who are from rural areas in the US, that have never had a family member who has traveled, yet they have spent most of their lives trying to go abroad to explore other cultures.  I’ve met siblings that are as different as they can be – one that has stayed at home, married and settled down not more than a stone’s through from her parents while the other traveled abroad extensively, became an ESL teacher to facilitate more travel options and then spent 2 years in the Peace Corps.

All 4 speakers  referenced the “travel bug” repeatedly and last night I began to reflect, where DOES this “bug” come from and why do I have it?  What drives some people to take that leap of faith, get on a plane and explore another place in this world while others are completely happy and comfortable staying at home watching the news?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this subject.  Do you have the bug and if so, where do you think it came from?