One of the greatest ways to learn about a society’s cultural norms is to let go of all forms of digital assistance and become lost. When we are forced to engage with locals to get by, we not only become familiar with the many characteristics of a place and its people, but we also face our fears firsthand and develop a greater understanding of how we react to “cultural shock.” One of the most valuable times studying abroad lies in the very first week, when many of us are left without a data plan. We are helpless without WiFi connection, and we spend the majority of our time close to NYU, whether it be the facility itself or other students, until we have a few hundred MB or a few GB of data to even dare to step food into the (oh, so terrifying) public!
It is disappointing quite frankly. We feel bold in the city, only with access to Google Maps, WhatsApp, Messenger, iTranslate, among several other crutches. About 10 miles away from the airport on my first day in China last fall, my taxi driver confessed to me that he was not sure where NYU Shanghai (Shanghai Niuyue Daxue) was located. I attempted to direct him in my broken Chinese, and he (luckily) dropped me off only about a quarter of a mile away from campus. After about a half hour of dragging my bags in every possible direction and asking about ten different locals in my broken Chinese how to get to a given intersection, I arrived at our campus! It was electrifying! Sure, I was lost. But in those 30 minutes, I learned more than I had learned in all of orientation. Through trial and error, I learned that it is disrespectful to talk to strangers in Shanghai, especially those elder to you or those of the opposite gender. I learned how to ask for directions in Mandarin. I had learned which cafes and restaurants are in the area, which shop owners are more kind and which are less kind. And most importantly, I learned that the Chinese operate very fast (Try crossing an intersection with three suitcases in under ten seconds).
A friend of mine did the Red Bull Challenge, which encourages young adults to go on a European adventure with limited resources. Multiple teams are challenged to cross very long distances across different European countries and meet in one final destination. With limited time and a lack of access to the digital world, the teams are forced to find housing, food, money and transportation through other means. Believe it or not, each and every group found their way to the final destination – on time. People crossed countries and found places to stay by the power of persuasion, performance and politeness. We can survive, live and thrive without digital connection.
In fact, when we stop looking down and start looking up for help, we receive so much more. We realize that many people are willing to help. All we have to do is ask. We are gifted with stories to share for years to come. Such a philosophy applies to so much more than just travel. It applies to relationships of all kind, those out of kindness, those out of formality and those out of love. It applies to career paths of all kind, especially those entrepreneurial in nature. The power of connecting with humans – and not the e-world – applies to every aspect of life. When we dare to let go of our isolated digitalized worlds, we begin the journey of endless understanding.