In 2009, I took a leap into the unknown. Let me explain how…
After work one evening, I met a friend for dinner. She was planning an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Borneo, Indonesia and Malaysia. This was our last chance to catch up before she went, so naturally we talked for hours about her itinerary and what an amazing time she was about to have. She told me about her plans to photograph orangutans in Borneo, and volunteer in an orphanage in tsunami-ravaged Sumatra. For the last two weeks of her trip, she intended to hop over to Peninsular Malaysia for some sun, sightseeing, culture, and food.
Toward the end of the evening, and after several hours of my proclamations of envy, my friend quipped, "Well, why don't you come along?" I laughed… but quite quickly trailed off. What was stopping me from taking this amazing trip? I had enough annual leave saved up at work, and flights weren't too expensive outside of school vacation times.
So, before I knew it, I was booking flights, packing and getting my vaccinations. Within a few short weeks, I found myself stumbling around Dubai during a stopover at 2 a.m., and then stepping off my air-conditioned flight into bustling, humid, thriving Kuala Lumpur. I was dazed after too little sleep, yet incredibly excited to get out and explore. First, though, it was time to find my friend.
I pulled out my hastily scribbled itinerary, and saw that her flight landed in 30 minutes… in a completely different terminal. So, my first challenge was to find out how to get there! I looked up at the signs (none of which were in English), and felt mild panic. I was on my own in a foreign country, didn't know where to go, and didn't know how to ask.
I must've looked lost, because a man walked up to me and asked, with a smile, "American? English?" Naturally, I was suspicious. I clutched my bag tightly to myself and nervously replied, "English." He introduced himself, reached out to shake my hand, smiled again, and asked whether I needed directions.
Suddenly, I remembered something that I'd read in a guide book before I left home: "Malaysians are some of the friendliest people you could meet – they will likely chase you down the street… but only to return something you've lost or left behind." I smiled back, and politely asked how to get to the other terminal. My guide beckoned me to follow him, and showed me where to board the monorail. He wished me a good trip, asked me whether I needed any help with anything else, and walked off with a smile.
This encounter was a great start to my trip, and it went some way toward assuaging my fears about being a single woman in a strange new culture and country. However, it wasn't long before my western skepticism crept back in. After several days in Kuala Lumpur, it was time for us to move on. We'd planned to take a bus trip to colonial Malacca City, further down the west coast. We wanted to experience a less westernized city, and break up our journey to Singapore in the south.
We sat in the hostel bar the evening before our trip, discussing our travel plans. After a few minutes, the hostel owner Mahmud came up and asked whether he could sit down and chat with us. Firstly, he apologized for having overheard our conversation. Then, he told us that he was planning to drive down to Malacca in the morning, along with his female cleaner, to visit another hostel he owned. He said, "Of course, you'll come with us in the car. It's much more comfortable than the bus, and quicker!"
Having grown up hearing "stranger danger" and "I need an adult" regularly, this invite put me on guard. Getting into a car with a strange man, regardless of whether he had a female companion, seemed way too risky. We told Mahmud that we'd think about it and let him know… and he seemed genuinely hurt.
Obviously, we did what any millennials would do, and looked up independent online reviews of the hostel. Had anyone else experienced a similar offer from Mahmud, and was it safe to accept it? We started the painfully slow dial-up Internet computer in the hostel rec room, and were pleasantly surprised. There was positive review after positive review about the hostel, and about Mahmud's kindness, trustworthiness, respectfulness, and generosity in particular. He'd been known to shuttle guests from the airport, give people tours of Kuala Lumpur, look after extra luggage while backpackers went off around the country, and (reassuringly for us) give people lifts to help them out.
After this, we accepted Mahmud's offer, and spent a thoroughly enjoyable trip learning about Malaysian culture and geography, about the sights that we passed on the journey, and about Mahmud's family and businesses. We'd taken a leap into the unknown and shaken off our skepticism. We were pleasantly surprised to encounter a highly generous, kind and giving country and culture, that was so similar, yet so different, to our own.
In our updated article, Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions, we look at how you can understand people from different countries and cultures, and work with them more effectively. Hofstede argues that countries have typical traits and behaviors, and that understanding, accepting and embracing them will help you to succeed in your personal and professional lives.
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