By Harine Somasundaram, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws
International borders are increasingly opening up so travel and study exchange are on everyone’s mind. I mean, just open social media and our feeds are filled with travel reels and vlogs, making us add places we’ve never even heard of to our ‘to-go’ list on our phone notes app (very, very guilty of this).
Having completed my Global Leadership Program (GLP) recently, I reflected on the themes and skills promoted by the initiative. The term cross-cultural is especially thrown around a lot in GLP Colloquia, events and courses, even in job applications! When living in a multi-cultural society, there is no doubt most of us, if not all of us, experience cross-cultural interactions in our daily lives. But what does it truly encapsulate? Simply, the internet defines it as an interaction between individuals from different backgrounds to one’s own. While this is the underlying definition, it can manifest itself into different cross-cultural communication, environment, and perspectives. More than ever, as our world becomes smaller through technological communications and globalisation, cross-cultural competency and global awareness have become integral life skills to interact with others effectively.
I’ve spent the last 4 months living, studying and travelling in the Indo-Pacific, specifically Nepal and Sri Lanka, under the New Colombo Plan (NCP) Scholarship – a signature initiative by the Australian Government. Cross-culture is no longer a foreign concept to me but rather my everyday reality. As part of my NCP program I undertook internships with The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and The Small Earth Nepal to learn about the challenges and opportunities environmental management poses in Nepal and to understand its diplomatic relationships with Australia.
I worked with a diverse team of engineers, climate change experts, lawyers, environmental researchers, bureaucrats, diplomats, and social workers to name a few - all of Nepali ethnicity - to undertake research on hydrology and host related events. With my very little Nepali vocabulary and limited previous exposure to and understanding of Nepali culture, I managed to collaborate in research and successfully complete my internships. Although the language barrier was not an issue, what we understand varies when we orally communicate ideas because of the cultural influences and individual perception of words.
My dad, an avid traveller who knows about 7 different languages, always said to me growing up that “language is the key to someone’s heart.” I couldn’t find this to be more true travelling in a new country. Over the last few months, I made the conscious effort to learn Nepali language including speaking, reading and writing. Besides being able to show off my multi-linguistic capabilities to everyone and anyone I meet, I found speaking Nepali, in particular, has helped me better connect with my friends and colleagues. I’ve been able to understand their perspectives through their own words and broaden my own worldview by learning about social norms and values in their true meaning. It has also helped me respect people, whilst also gaining respect back. From being able to communicate your needs in shops to catching local buses to starting conversations with local people and ending up having a nice cup of chiyaa (tea) with them, language really helps you build rapport with someone as you show that you respect their culture.
Being a high context culture, hand gestures, body language and the elongation of words to express feelings, play an important role in how Nepali and South Asian people, in general, communicate. Living in Nepal and recently travelling to Sri Lanka to visit family and deliver a guest speech on leadership, I’ve valued and continue to develop one skill to effectively engage in cross-culture - active listening. I think the greatest leadership skill one can possess in the 21st century is active listening. So much of today’s leaders seek to only assert their own viewpoint by dominating conversations leading to misunderstanding and distrust. There is so much value in just listening to others, what they have to say and knowledge-sharing.
I am currently embarking on my new chapter of my NCP program as a student at Kathmandu University School of Law, Nepal. Studying law here will equip me with a more technical cross-cultural perspective on the similarities and differences of the Nepalese and Australian legal system. It provides a platform to exchange ideas on domestic and international issues. From adjusting to my class teachers accidentally ranting on topics in Nepali to enjoying a warm plate of delicious momo with my classmates, the plethora of cultural experiences and exchange I have encountered has shaped me to be more open-minded and gain better cross-cultural competency.
I think what has helped me embrace cross-cultural differences and adapt to Nepal is drawing connections with my own ethnicity and Tamil-Sri Lankan heritage such as the cultural practices, values and social norms. For example, receiving and giving things using our right hand, removing shoes before entering sacred sites and placing any food items in food containers given to you by someone else as you should not return it empty, are shared practices between the two cultures. Doing so, however, I am still mindful of the unique attributes within each culture despite its similarities.
My advice to anyone considering long-term travel to a country or doing an exchange is to learn the basics of the country’s language before travelling there. Trust your gut instinct as often you will have to make on-the spot decisions without much room to think. Broaden your horizons, meet people, explore cultures with an open-mind. Studying and living in Nepal is not an opportunity many people get or even opt for. I am actually the first ever international student at Kathmandu University School of Law but I believe doing things differently to others not only makes you stand out, but helps you gain a different, unique and local experience. As much as you learn from your experience, it is an opportunity for people to also learn about you and your lifestyle, so get ready to be bombarded with questions and devour heaps of delicious foods!