Living and Working Abroad Changes One’s Perspectives
Finding your calling can often have many twists and turns.
Before spending the summer of 2011 in a public relations internship in Sao Paulo through IAESTE United States, Todd broke out of his comfort zone by exploring a culinary career in Malaysia.
"I had never been on my own so far away from all that I knew. That experience allowed me to self-reflect and explore new opportunities previously unmentioned or thought of."
Below, he reflects further on his first international experience and how it helped him to appreciate other cultures.
Never had I lived so far from home. I mean, of course, 9,000 miles sounded like a long way but it’s another thing to make the journey itself. Did I really want to travel that far to cook in a different kitchen? This thought plagued me night and day.
One afternoon, as I flipped another customer’s omelet at Donna’s Grill on the Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, I started thinking about that number; nine thousand. It’s really just a number. What’s there to worry about?
Well, I found a lot.
I scooped up the regular’s hash browns and plated them next to his oversized omelet. I must have made 100 omelets that day. Exciting, but not really.
My chef coat was torn on my right sleeve by my wrist and above the elbow, so to hide its faults I rolled it practically to my shoulder. It looked ridiculous, but I used that arm to pick up the customer’s plate, turn and set it down in front of him at the counter. He already had both fork and knife in his hands.
“Enjoy, let me know if I can get you anything,” I said to the dreary looking old man.
He looked at me, then down at his food and started to eat. As I started to turn around he stopped and looked up. With his mouth full off eggs he mumbled, “Where’s te katsup?”
I just didn’t quite understand the man, and 9,000 miles didn’t sound so far away after all.
A few months later, at the end of literally days of traveling, I found myself in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on my own and without a clue how to ask for directions.
But before I knew it I was cooking in four-star kitchens in the lucrative Bukit Bintang shopping district at Starhill Gallery; a long, long way from Donna’s.
Starting in the morning I would walk to the gallery and meet my colleagues in the locker room to change into our chef outfits. All the kitchens were open for diners to look into as they either sat in a multitude of restaurants or walked down classy hallways with track lighting. Appearance mattered.
By the end of my three-month stay I would work in the majority of the Starhill Gallery’s restaurants.
Depending on the kitchen I was working in, I got to try on a new, sometimes flashy, chef’s uniform. My personal favorite was the long pirate-like bandana from the Fisherman’s Cove restaurant.
Before lunch at the Japanese section of the Shook restaurant I made Dashi, a simple but elegant and necessary component to a lot of Japanese cooking. I learned to prepare Miso soup and other foods I loved to eat in the States but never could figure out how to make.
We got a 20-minute break for breakfast, and I took it sitting with coworkers outside under tall palm trees. I’d order my roti bakar (toasted bread with creamy butter) and sip on my tea. On the common chance that we didn’t have a clue what the other was saying we just stopped the conversation and laughed.
During lunch and dinner hours, Western tourists waltzed down the gallery’s hallways and peered into the kitchens through the viewing windows. My fellow cooks and I worked at our stations and watched them “Ooooh” and “Awwww” down the line until they got to me.
Puzzled, they’d stare and we’d laugh, often uncontrollably at their surprise. It is a good thing that some kitchens were so loud that the tourists couldn’t hear our kitchen banter about them.
My days were full of new techniques. My knife and cooking skills quickly grew, as did my mind to a broader acceptance of cultures. My coworkers were Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu. They came from Bangladesh, China and Indonesia.
Some spoke English fluently, while with others I formed strong bonds over how we could so adequately communicate with grunts and gestures. I attended a traditional Hindu wedding and was taken around the city by my colleagues to late night food markets and local music scenes.
Time flew and as it did I was humbled by how different and alike people in the world are. Sometimes I’d spend nights on my balcony watching the city trying to figure out why I was apprehensive to come to such an intriguing place.
I returned home with the realization that through living and working among others internationally, I grew as a person. My brief time in Malaysia prepared me for other situations that otherwise made me uneasy.
It’s not that my confidence increased though. It’s just a better understanding of others and myself that can only be learned through taking yourself out of your comfort zone and into the big, wide world.