Internships Advice

Bridging the Cultural Gap: Journal Entries

A meaningful cultural exchange begins with a simple conversation, and grows to completely transform mindsets in how one views the world.

It is the childlike wonderment that one experiences when exploring a new culture for the first time that makes an international experience truly international. The opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and different ways of thinking is something that Pagoda Projects continues to facilitate via a Cultural Mentorship, a key component of all internships and skills programmes. 

We match students on our programmes with their counterparts across the world (Cultural Mentors) who are prepared to discuss various aspects of their culture that our students will find interesting. Weekly topics are introduced in an engaging manner for mentors and mentees to discuss and this has proved to be a successful recipe for cultural exchange in a virtual environment.

Our students regularly update their Cultural Journals to reflect upon their Mentor discussions and learnings. The benefits are clear, not just in broadening knowledge of customs and ideas via genuine cultural exchange, but also as a cathartic activity to have a chat with a friend at the end of a busy day. Vinh from Swinburne University of Technology and Heather from Western Sydney University are two examples of students who have thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Vinh Quang Nguyen – Swinburne University of Technology (New Colombo Plan Funded ‘Engineering in the World’s Factory; China Internship Program’)

Vinh from Swinburne University of Technology gained his experience through our remote internship programme with a host company in Zhuhai, China. Hence, Vinh was paired with our cultural mentor from China. Vinh and his mentor Bella had meaningful conversations throughout his internship with a main focus on language exchange. 

“She seemed happy to continue teaching me Chinese and I was glad to do it since having a 1-to-1 lesson with her actually improved my pronunciation. She taught me numbers from 0 to 10, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Your welcome’” …. “I practised with her over and over again with the numbers and I felt like I improved so much, I was over the moon.”

Vinh had also resolved the issue of a possible misunderstanding when asking permission to take a screenshot of their Zoom call (pictured below). 

“…she didn’t understand what I said. I reworded what I said and she started to understand what I ask her and then she agreed with me eventually. I was happy to practise speaking to someone of a different culture as I was able to understand how I can word things better and using my quick thinking to ensure it comes across smoothly.”

Valuable lessons such as these ensure that students like Vinh are able to confidently communicate across cultures, having learned to be patient and reframe sentences where necessary to accurately convey meaning. This can be taken forward to minimise the chances of future mishaps occurring. 

Not only did Vinh discuss language differences but he and Bella also discussed Chinese food culture. 

“Then she went into talking about zhongzi which I learned later on that it’s a triangle shaped sticky rice. She talked about the Dragon Boat Festival and she simply explained that [it] involved Qu Yuan wanting to stop the bad people from destroying the country and he jumped into the river and die[d]. People throw the zhongzi into the river to stop the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body. The Dragon Boat Festival is for people to remember Qu Yuan.”

By the end of his internship, Vinh had shared his appreciation for his mentor and relationships such as these are created through sharing culture. 

“I was happy to have her as my Chinese mentor and the fact that we have each other on WeChat means that I can message her anytime I need help.”

And Bella also reciprocated the appreciation of their time together during their cultural exchange.

It was very helpful and a great experience for me.” – Bella

Heather Tleige – Western Sydney University (New Colombo Plan Funded Project – Virtual internships in Taiwan and Vietnam) 

Another student, Heather from Western Sydney University, also completed a remote internship with Pagoda Projects. Because Heather’s internship was with a Vietnamese host company she received a Cultural Mentor from Vietnam.

Heather’s Cultural Journal notes provide interesting insight into the mentor side of the relationship and the motivations for taking part.

“She hopes to study further so that she may one day hold her dream job of being a tour guide. She has already worked as a tour guide in Ho Chi Minh, but Covid-19 has placed this on hold. She has been working hard from home during lockdown, and started working with Pagoda as a mentor so that she could share her experiences, her culture, develop her English skills, meet new people, and learn about other cultures. Kate is very kind, great at socialising, and has given me many insights into life in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, and the education system.”

When cross-cultural communication is delivered at a personal level while being thousands of miles apart, it allows relationships to form to the point where both parties are having conversations they may not even have with those close to home. Heather and her Cultural Mentor, Kate, decided to share their opinions on how their countries tackle mental health support.

“Vietnamese people rarely seek mental health services, and are often expected to “get on” with life. In contrast to Australia, where we have ample mental health’s services run by governments, workplaces, schools, and universities, Vietnam has few mental health services, and few people reach out to them” …. “Our discussion on stress management evoked many fascinating contrasts between Australia and Vietnam, and made me reflect on how lucky I was to have supportive networks and systems to help me when I was stressed, especially during Covid-19 lockdowns.”

Heather had many conversations with Kate surrounding culture differences over the course of her internship. Such as COVID-19…

“I learnt about how strict lockdown is in Vietnam (especially Ho Chi Minh) compared with Sydney, Australia. I’m already struggling with the current restrictions, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be in Vietnam! Kate is very strong-willed to have been going through all that!”

And the drinking and smoking cultural differences, plus trying new things

“One thing was common: men love drinking far too much. We discussed all sorts of different types of drinks, the legal age to purchase alcohol and cigarettes, and the places which it is acceptable to publicly drink or smoke.” … “We talked for far too long about coffee- and this week I will be trying to make my very own Vietnamese egg coffee- wish me luck!”

By two people sharing fascinating information regarding their respective countries, a Cultural Mentorship lifts the curtain on what to expect, building engagement and removing psychological barriers, thus acting as a pathway for future travel.   

“The cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are popular for tourists as sites of historic importance, great food, and business centres. She showed me some beautiful places to go in Vietnam, such as the beaches in Central Vietnam like Da Nang, the rural area of Sa Pa in the North, and Paradise Cave.”

Heather and Kate had a wonderful experience together and it is understood that they have developed a friendship.

“We happily spent nearly three months of the program. Every Saturday, we called [on] Zoom to share facts and daily activities of our country related to one specific cultural topic. Heather was really nice and we had a really good time together.” – Kate

 

A meaningful cultural exchange begins with a simple conversation, and grows to completely transform mindsets in how one views the world. Whilst skills relating to intercultural fluency are becoming increasingly important for employability, there is so much more to consider and so much more to be gained from the Cultural Mentor experience.