Random thoughts (in no particular order), from the plane ride to Malaysia

American brands have been in nearly every country, except Mongolia. (They had one single KFC, and Coca-Cola signs everywhere.) McDonalds, Coca Cola, 7-Eleven, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut, KFC, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc. Despite being across the world, these brands have an international presence. And American pop music - especially Taylor Swift - is in the background nearly everywhere we go. One exception was our hotel in Beijing. They had two Christmas CD’s on a continuous loop - one guitar with various accompaniments, the second the entire Nutcracker Suite. After seven days of this, I started believing Christmas in July was a true celebration.

Mongolia has roughly the same population as Iowa - just over 3 million people - yet it’s 10 times the land mass of my home state. Mongolia's development and infrastructure is progressing throughout the country, yet it is at a significantly different (lesser) state than the other major cities we've visited in southeast Asia. There are only 3 major cities in the country, with 2/3 of the country’s population continuing to live as nomads. The students in that workshop had a genuine hunger to learn and contribute towards progressing the country. Yet after traveling just a bit in the country-side of Mongolia, I’m curious how the infrastructure development will be supported and sustained when balanced with the economic and political landscape of the country. I'm also curious to get out of the major cities from all of these countries. We're told that life in the city is vastly different the life in the small villages. 

The one thing I really miss on this trip is cooking for myself. The meals, on average, have been good. But eating out three times a day for three solid months is … A LOT. I’ve kept mostly vegetarian eating some fish. I’ve gotten a lot of odd looks or responses - especially in China and Mongolia - when I say I don’t eat meat. (Being from Iowa, I never thought I'd say that myself .... but it's a welcome choice that I've made. 14 months and still going strong!) Of all our travels, Thailand and Korea have had my favorite meals - I love the spices and variety of food! At one point, I think in Mongolia, I started craving pizza. I had two pizza meals in Seoul, but it wasn’t quite satisfying. A Trekker (from June’s trip) was traveling through China and took us to an American pizza place he found in Beijing. That totally hit the spot. The pizza was the biggest I’ve ever seen (it took two people to carry it out!) - but our dinner party of nine nearly demolished it all. 

I set out to find one of my NEC EM work-study student’s performances while in Seoul last week. It was a short walk from my hotel in a beautiful, historic neighborhood, and I arrived with plenty of time to each lunch at a local cafe. Shortly before the 2PM start time, I went to the stated location - yet no concert was to be found. I asked many people, and pointed to my map. Very few spoke English, and I don’t really speak Korean. No one I asked knew about a concert, but everyone confirmed I was in the correct location when I showed them my map. After searching in the area for 40 minutes, I went back to the cafe for wifi access, messaging the student that I couldn’t find him. My location? Less than 3 blocks from the performance, which was tucked away in some of the side streets. I missed it all …. but had a great catch-up / conversation with him post-concert.

The ALI Teaching Fellows have all met and spent our first week together in China. Two are from Stanford, four are from Harvard, plus Samuel and John (the two running the organization, from HKS and Tufts, respectively). Adam and I are the only two who have participated in both the Trek and Fellowship this year, which is fun - we were both in the HGSE Special Studies cohort, and it’s been great to have a familiar face / friend on the trip. Evelyn joined for just the first week, and Faton will be meeting us in Malaysia for the remainder of the fellowship. Traveling with eight is quite different than traveling with thirty-four. In some ways, I really miss the big group together. But I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the new team. We had a few memorial bonding moments already - both when we were all crammed in the back of tiny Chinese taxis. (Mind you, the shortest of the six Fellows (not me!) is 5' 11" - so climbing into the low-riding taxi felt like piling in and out of a clown car.) I’ve really enjoyed getting to know and learn from each one - not only what they’re teaching, but also various perspectives on wherever our conversations lead. 

Smoking is rampant in this area of the world. Second hand smoke makes me gag, and brings back memories (mental and physical) of what my childhood asthma felt like. The pollution in Beijing (and I’m guessing other big cities in China, too) is unreal. It’s like a fog, all the time. Air quality ratings were “moderate” to “severe” nearly the entire visit to Beijing. On one of the “acceptable” rating days, I went outside for a run as our hotel didn’t have a gym. The inspiration and motivation that day was incredible - I ran through the 2008 Beijing Olympic complex! But my lungs hurt when I breathed too deeply - either from running or when practicing / playing flute (I’ve tied flute into my speech on the importance non-verbal communications have in leadership). It’s a constant reminder of the pollution, indoors and outdoors, spreading throughout the country.

I’m teaching leadership communications - yet I find it odd that I can’t communicate except in English. For some previous meetings (and teaching in Mongolia), we had to rely on translators. For those meetings in particular, there was confirmation by Trekkers that the translators were adding to / helping to improve the story-telling of the actual meeting host. How can one trust what’s actually being said - or the meaning behind the words - without fully knowing the language? For the most part, all the students understand and speak English at a high level. But I’ve continually been thankful for those that are able to translate to aid in conversations. It makes my desire to learn other languages increase ten-fold. 

The students enrolled in our first official workshop in China were wonderful. Teaching “leadership communications” requires an environment of trust and support among the group. I’m using the framework from an HKS course taught by Marshall Ganz called Public Narrative - attempting to teach students how to effectively use their words and stories in a position of leadership. There are also elements of public speaking included throughout the course, yet those basics are taught primarily by another Fellow who’s leading a speech competition at each site. I was impressed with how willing the students were to use the “self, us, now” public narrative framework to craft and tell meaningful stories of how they would each like to lead change. From a high school student calling on her fellow peers to take a stand for changing the educational system, to a 10+ year employee advocating for country-wide limits to smoking and second-hand smoke, to another 20-something sharing her own experience of being bi-sexual to create understanding, awareness, and momentum to push for marriage equality for all, the stories were each personal, passionate, and achievable. And this was only week one. I have changes to make for the sequence of instruction for next week (advanced high schoolers in Malaysia), but I’m learning a tremendous amount myself and am energized that this work is having an impact.

I willingly came on this trip to take myself out of my comfort zone. I’m understanding - in a completely new way - that sometimes the best way to find yourself it to let yourself get completely lost.