When I was 9 years old, my mom came home with an envelope from the post office for something called the "Stamper Club" (or something like that, it was a LONG time ago!) Inside the envelope was a piece of paper with some basic information about a little girl named Elisha who lived in New Zealand and her mailing address. This envelope became the beginning of a lifelong friendship with someone from halfway (literally) around the world from me. Each month we would hand-write each other a letter, decorate it with stickers, and enclose a few photos or small trinkets, put it all in an envelope, address it, put a stamp on it, wait for the mail carrier to pick it up, and eagerly await a reply. Like clockwork, 3-4 weeks later, a letter would show up in my mailbox.
This was my first experience with someone from another place in the world. Elisha and I wrote to each other for a decade and then she came to visit. How exciting it was to meet the person I had been writing to for 10 years. We are still in contact, albeit much easier with social media!
Ever since I received that first letter, I've had an interest in traveling and learning about the world. I have been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to 15 different countries and experience life in many places around the world. Yes, when I travel I see beautiful places and eat delicious food. But there's so much more to it. Here are a three very important things travel has taught me.
1. Learning WHY things are different, not just WHAT things are different is important.
Each country I have visited has a different way of life. Some things are similar to the life I lead, and some are different. It's easy to point out WHAT is different, but learning WHY it's different is another story. Often times key events in history impact cultural norms and perceptions, and understanding that helps us see things through a different lens.
2. Communication is so much more than just the words spoken.
Body language and communication style vary from country to country, and learning to interpret these cues is critical to avoiding mishaps in communication. I have learned how to ask better clarifying questions, to listen to the meaning of a message, and to accept that sometimes what I think I'm hearing isn't exactly what is being said. Important skills to have even when communicating with anyone!
3. We can have different opinions and beliefs, and that's OK.
I have talked with people from around the world about a variety of topics. Even the traditionally "taboo" topics of religion and politics. We have compared educational systems and philosophies, discussed family structure and values, and even chatted about various political viewpoints. And you know what? We are still friends! Because we genuinely wanted to learn another perspective and when we disagreed, respected that we can agree to disagree.
Today I embark on another international journey. I will spend several days with high school students preparing to come to the USA for an exchange year. We will compare and contrast cultures, we will talk about fears the students have about coming to the USA, I will share my personal experiences of travel and meeting people from around the world, they will share their hopes and dreams for what they will learn from their time abroad. And, we will all learn, share, and grow together and be better for it.