Leadership Lessons From Cultural Exchange – Part I

I was a teenager. I’d never traveled outside my country before. And certainly never been on a plane. And I’d just been chosen to travel as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student. To Australia. To the land of Sir Donald Bradman, Allan, Border, and the legendary Richie Benaud. Most parents would’ve hesitated sending their daughter away for 12 months to a foreign land, then. But my heroic and progressive-thinking dad had said: “the experience you’ll gain is priceless. Nothing else matters.”

Travel preparations began in earnest but it wasn’t before I gave my first public address to a 3000+ audience in Palace Grounds, Bangalore. The legendary Mrs. Vyjayanthimala Bali was our guest of honor and I was inspired. After my address, she wrote in my little book: “…You will be the future Prime Minister of India…” Heck! I’d take that. I didn’t know what it meant to be Prime Minister. But this gracious and extraordinarily talented, movie star had written this to me. I was 3 steps from heaven.

The Big Wine Bottle Rutherglen
“The Big Wine Bottle” – Rutherglen, Australia | Image Courtesy: Flickr CC

Sustaining A Sense of Wonder

From the thrill of my first flight in the Singapore Airlines Airbus A-310 to the most unforgettable sunrise at about 24,000 feet as we began our descent to Tullamarine International in Melbourne, my life was about to change over the next 12 months. And dramatically at that.

Rutherglen, Victoria was a gorgeous, little country town with an approximate population of 2500 people. As my new host dad drove us home from the airport, I saw vast, open spaces, heard strange accents that I couldn’t understand, and experienced my first sighting of blonde hair and blue-eyed children and teenagers. Everything looked like it was from another world.

Young, naive, and inexperienced, I really had no clue or plan to ‘navigate’ relationships, ‘further’ my cultural ambassadorship, or find ways to ‘fit in’. I was simply curious and hungry to learn, absorb, and soak it all in. Even though it seemed terrifying that I couldn’t see a single, brown person with black hair or brown eyes. Or that home was 9000 kilometers (5600 miles) away. This sense of wonder would later teach me invaluable life lessons in building lasting friendships, surviving broccoli, Vegemite, understanding ‘footie’ talk, and Aussie slang. On a serious note, it taught me the immeasurable power of being relentlessly curious.  To have a sense of wonder about everything around me. Be daring enough to push boundaries, stay outside of my comfort zone, and to expand the mind.  It taught me to discard every bit of presumptuous arrogance I had about many things.

Building My Inner Tough

I was hosted by exceptionally gracious and kind families. They invited me to their homes and shared their space with me. They welcomed me and took care of me like they would, their own. Host dads and moms, host brothers and sisters, and the incredible teachers at Rutherglen High – all made my trip interesting, lively, and fun. But it wasn’t always easy.

My first recognition that I was “different” came from an innocent comment made by another teenager like me. Inside the classroom one day, I heard one of the kids chanting: “Darkie! Darkie!” It was a classic moment of micro-inequity. My first instinct was to defy and rebel but good sense ultimately prevailed and I brought it to the notice of my teachers who coached him. The kid’s comment was innocent and without malice. It simply came from a lack of context (and content). He had probably never seen a South Asian kid before. With little or no exposure to social diversity, he perhaps didn’t know how to welcome people different from him.

It was my first exposure to the idea of inclusion, acceptance, and belonging. I had a new-found awareness and experience of what it felt like to be “different” and “not belong”. This incident was one of the earliest triggers that paved the path for my now passionate advocacy of inclusion and celebration of diversity in everything we see and do.

Choosing Accountability

One of the toughest teenage leadership lessons is to choose accountability over passing the buck and whining over road blocks. Living as a guest in the gracious company of 4, wonderful families over 12 months was a primer in the chapter of accountability. One of my Aussie host-dads had once said: “If you starve in our house, it’s your own bloody fault!” While I laugh remembering his brash humor, it’s a reminder of a life lesson that I continue to learn today.

Whether it was about finding a way to “fit in” and truly belong, manage my personal expenses, learn everything I could about the beautiful, gregarious Australian spirit, the responsibility was mine. If I was homesick and lonely and missing my mom’s heavenly cooking, I had nobody to blame. I couldn’t pass the buck. Sure there were days when I cried. But it was okay. It was a part of growing up. I chose to take responsibility for my decision to accept the scholarship and travel. It was the start of my gratitude log and the beginning of shifting my life’s perspective.


Image Courtesy: Flickr CC

What are your traveler tales? How are they similar or different? How have they shaped your leadership journey? Share your thoughts, follow my journey, and stay tuned for Part II! 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 20th and the title has been updated for brevity.  

3 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons From Cultural Exchange – Part I”

  1. Very well narrated Anitha… I had met you in our own Gandhibazaar a few days before you left. I remember you in a beautiful frock like midi {the then in-thing fashion😁}. You were going for some shopping along with your parents in premiere padmini with that ulta door😀. Your mother was in a silk saree and had dressed up with a sort of French knot hairstyle. Your mother was always an angel… I miss her strongly brewed coffee in that typical steel tumbler…

    Reading your blog brought back those vivid memories all at once… Keep blogging👍👌

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