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Explorer, educator, geographer, cruise lecturer, travel writer and dedicated conservationist - all of these titles describe Professor Bel's ability to share her great passion for travel and wildlife with others

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Choosing a Different Path By Sarah Striegel, GEOG 444

                Sarah Striegel

For those with a spirit guided by curiosity and a passion for cultural indulgence, it can be more than difficult to live out a typically satisfying, American lifestyle. In fact, it can be suffocating. At 22 years old I was on track to graduate with my degree at the end of the semester that’d just begun. As a Midwestern woman this was the appropriate place to be in life, right? I was following the well paved path to “success” and knew (all too well) the steps to the rest of this routine. Next, I would find a job, make money, find a husband, establish a home, have children, raise children, and well, we all know the rest.

This, however, was of no interest to me at this point in my life. During my third year of college I took the opportunity to study abroad to Australia, travelling to multiple countries from there. Coming back was much more of a challenge than first leaving home. My perspectives had been changed and viewpoints had become stretched too far in new directions. Later, in that final semester of school and with pressure from parents (as supportive and wonderful as they are), as well as societal norms, I found myself in an entry level class, offering insight to the world of travel and tourism and doors leading to more chances for international discovery. Within the first week I had chosen to delay graduation and picked up a second major in Travel and Tourism. Filled with certainty that my life would simply have to adjust to the occasion of a cross-cultural endeavor, I gave myself up to the possibilities offered by overseas internships.

            Only a couple months later, and with no clue of what to expect, I was on a flight landing in China. I accepted a six month intern position with the five star hotel, Chateau Star River, located in the city of Taiyuan. As I gathered my first impressions in the airport I realized how out of my element I was, but also, how quickly my brain already began consuming the new environment I was surrounded with. Immediately I was learning… growing… as I was swallowed by the characteristics of the culture, and within days I was settled and training for my position as a Guest Relation Officer in the hotel. My experience was immense and unique. It gave me an opportunity to study the hospitality sector of the tourism industry from various angles while learning about and understanding a world dissimilar to anything I’d known before.

 In the hotel I gained intercultural business perspectives and communication skills, along with the ability to manage a facility and customer service levels according to elite standards. With training about the function of all hotel departments and the standards of the Leading Hotels of the World, I performed regular inspections on the various aspects contributing to a guest’s stay. I was also challenged to work directly with both international and Chinese guests to satisfy their needs during their visit, increasing my comfort levels and abilities to work professionally with people of diverse backgrounds. These and other experiences obtained from the business side of the internship are exceptionally valuable for future careers I might strive for.

            Needless to say, however, is that the experience stemming from six months of living life in a world, which has only recently become part of the “world”, will truly be what sets me apart down the road. Studying intercultural communication from a textbook simply doesn’t compare to learning through direct immersion. Coming from an individualist, Western environment led to inexplicable feelings as I gained insight to the collectivist, Eastern culture in China. My comfort and patience levels were expanded inevitably. Clearly placed before me were the different orientations to time and space, as schedules I couldn’t function without before were hardly followed at all and as buses full to the point where a person could hardly budge were filled with fifteen more people at the next station.  Furthermore, I was one of the only foreigners actually living in the city, so on a daily basis I was exposed to what it was like to be noticed as the strange one… the minority. Molding myself around these daily encounters only claimed part of my learning experience though. So many other things, like, more apparent class divisions, extraordinary levels of family acknowledgement, different religious beliefs, proper dining etiquette, the concept of “saving face”, Chinese medicinal remedies, media practices, and more aspects that make up everyday life, yet are completely dissimilar across cultures, kept my mind racing to keep up and engulf everything it crossed. With that said, and after clarifying how hard my brain was working to understand the lifestyle, I am indebted to mention one more prominent part of my escapade in China… My taste buds worked even harder. The food was incredible. Different regions of China held the historical flavors which had been developed within them.  In the North, where I was, the food was full of spice from red chili paste and a hint of sour from provincially famous black vinegar. Soups, dumplings, tofu, and fried vegetable dishes, all accompanied by rice and local types of noodles dominated my diet while I was abroad. I enjoyed every last bite of my time away, coming back with a suitcase of local snacks, cooking ingredients, and perspectives that had been transformed forever.
            It’s been one month now since I returned from China. The time I had there improved who I am as an individual, offered me new realms of knowledge while enhancing the knowledge I had before, and helped me grow in directions impossible to reach within the boundaries of the Midwestern United States. Nevertheless, now that I’m back, the same laid out plan for life and pressures to conform await me.  This time, though, I’m ready to graduate and move on, evermore confidently that continuing an alternative lifestyle of international discovery is the only path for me, a person with a spirit guided by curiosity and a passion for cultural indulgence.

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