Standing on the peak of HuaShan Mountain, I looked out over Xi’an, China, the starting point of the ancient trade routes that connected East and West via the Silk Road, the view its own rich reward for the challenging road to the mountain’s peak. I looked past my exhausted Swedish and Canadian compatriots toward my old hometown of Moscow, Russia, then eastward toward my new home in Wuxi, China. I soaked in the moment, reflecting on the unique set of circumstances that had enabled me to contribute to meaningful cultural connectedness, just as explorers and traders had done centuries before.
Several months prior, in March of 2014, I was invited by the Nelson Institute of Global Affairs and Drake University in to present research I conducted while studying nationalism through sport at Russian State University of the Humanities. In addition to presenting my findings, I also had the opportunity to attend a workshop hosted by the Center for Citizen Diplomacy on how to be a citizen diplomat.
I embraced the opportunity to present my research, but was skeptical of the idea of a citizen diplomacy workshop. I wondered to myself: “Who and what is a citizen diplomat? Am I a citizen diplomat? What exactly does citizen diplomacy mean? How late can I sleep in and still get from Beloit, Wisconsin to Des Moines, Iowa on time?”
“Am I a citizen diplomat? What exactly does citizen diplomacy mean?”
After completing the Center’s workshop, I had answers to my questions, and I was also able to more effectively internalize and verbalize my own experiences as a global citizen. During the ice-breaker, we discussed our interpretations of the word ‘citizen diplomat,’ detailed our own global experiences, and shared our partner’s stories with the rest of the group. Using this method, we gained insights on how to ask questions to encourage our partner to reflect on a deeper level, at each point attempting to better understand the meaning of words such as culture, global, privilege, and development. The workshop also included techniques to better market myself to future employers based on my global experiences, and how to engage in more meaningful cross-cultural interactions. We ultimately resolved that engaging in meaningful dialogue with people of different countries and cultures provides an important means by which each person can strengthen their understanding of themselves.
Each of these lessons provided an important stepping stone along the path of purposeful global engagement. When each workshop participant arrived on the Drake campus that day, each person had within them the raw materials to be citizen diplomats. Throughout the workshop, the Center gave us the framework and tools to understand how each interaction has purpose, urging us to see how each conversation provides an opportunity for positive global impact.
As a linguist, I’ve felt this positive impact most significantly when communicating in a new language. In learning Russian and struggling through Mandarin, I have personally experienced the feeling of vulnerability and achievement that comes through meaningful personal connection that is only made possible with the use of the local language. In the moments I am having a conversation in another language, the opportunity to discover similarities while exploring differences between cultures and individuals becomes exceedingly nuanced and stimulating. Immersion through language is received by locals as an outsider’s attempt at normalizing themselves to the customs and culture of the region in which they live.
My time in China so far has been a deep immersion into a lifestyle very different from the other cities where I’ve previously lived. I’ve learned that living life as a purposeful global citizen doesn’t happen simply by visiting the Red Square, seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors, or climbing to the peak of HuaShan Mountain. No matter the experience, in your backyard or abroad, an understanding of how to connect as individuals across differences enables people to become purposeful global citizens every day. Extraordinary adventures are not bound by borders on a map, but are created by our individual ability to understand our roles as citizen diplomats.
“Extraordinary adventures are not bound by borders on a map, but are created by our individual ability to understand our roles as citizen diplomats.”
I am by no means a seasoned traveler, yet. When I roam the world, I’ve discovered I can always find myself at home so long as I am willing to express myself and receive others with an open mind. Adventurous by nature and transient by design, the train tracks in my blood stream allow me to follow my passions anywhere they may take me, accepting my failures along the way. Developing the ability to reflect on and learn from failures in order to build a better foundation for success as a global citizen is a process that can happen organically, but is better cultivated through preparation and practice, like that offered in the Center’s workshop.
Like climbing a mountain, the journey to becoming a citizen diplomat can be humbling. I’ve learned that the wealth we harvest is measured by the depth of our hardship, no matter what we do. Developing personal connections despite differing cultures, backgrounds, and ideas is no small task. But with the right provisions, attitude, and company the summit can be reached. I carry around Voltaire’s Candide with me as a constant reminder of cultivating myself as an individual within the greater context of the world. The last lines of the novel read, “but let us cultivate our garden.” As a young citizen diplomat standing at the starting point of the Silk Road as pioneers of culture and trade have done for 1,000 years before me, I’d like to think we’re on the same page.
Danny is a recent student-athlete graduate of Beloit College (2014) double majoring inInternational Relations and Russian language. He is currently an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Chicago at the Center for Economic Progress. He intends to enroll at SIT Graduate Institute in the fall of 2016. For more information about his time in North Korea or other works on national-identity, sport and citizen diplomacy please contact him at [email protected]