How to Internationalize Your State of Mind

You may have heard that 95 percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States. You may also know that only about a third of Americans have a valid passport and over half have never set foot outside the country. Of those Americans who do travel, the majority use their passports to visit nearby tourist destinations such as Cancun and the Bahamas, or to cross the Canadian border to go shopping.

Pause. Think about that for a second.

It’s easy to understand why Americans are often labeled as inward looking, naval gazing buffoons who are ignorant when it comes to international travel. But does it matter?

Putting Things Into Perspective

In truth, the majority of people around the world are even more ignorant than Americans due to poor education and authoritarian control that limits their freedom of information. Take China, for example. Most Chinese couldn’t find Texas or Florida on a map, and they sure as hell have no idea what’s happening in Latin America. The words “Dominican Republic” and “Tegucigalpa” (even when spoken in Mandarin) would not be much of a conversation starter on the streets of Xi’an or Chengdu.

On the other hand, many Europeans regularly travel across borders and speak multiple languages. But that is largely a function of geography. With 100 Euros and a few hours of spare time, you can easily visit multiple European countries by car or train. Meanwhile, in the United States, it takes well over half a day just to drive across the state of Texas.

Then there is the question of motivation. Why would you need to leave the country for vacation when there are spectacular beaches in Florida and Hawaii, and world-class ski resorts in Colorado and California? And for unique and colorful culture, how awesome are cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans and New York? Such a huge country with so many interesting tourist destinations makes domestic travel tough to beat.

Likewise, most American business travelers have enough to keep them occupied stateside without having to travel overseas. The United States is by far the largest consumer economy in the world. Unless you work for a large, well-established company that has already achieved full market saturation in the U.S., it is unnecessary to go abroad as a salesperson while there is still lucrative home territory to conquer.

While it is true that 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the States, a majority of the world’s population is still very poor. In fact, only 16 percent of the world’s population lives on $20 or more per day. The vast majority of the world’s high-income people still live in the United States or Western Europe. As we have seen recently in the news, up and coming countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Nigeria are still just one crisis away from economic disaster.

So what is all the fuss about global trade and how it benefits the United States? Why do we want to engage in business with the world when the majority of people on the globe can’t even afford our products and services? Perhaps we should consider some other numbers.

The global population is currently 7.4 billion and is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050. Almost all of this population growth will happen in Africa and Asia, while Europe’s population will shrink. Even if we take the pessimistic view and believe that 80 to 90 percent of this growth will be comprised of poor individuals, that still results in an additional 300 million earthlings with substantial purchasing power.

In other words, over the next three decades we will be adding the economic equivalent of another United States to the world.

For any entrepreneur or big- picture thinker, this analogy will surely incite all kinds of back-of-the-envelope calculations and will get the gears in your mind moving a bit faster. The question, however, is whether or not Americans are prepared to take advantage of these demographic trends and invest in the self-education that is required to be better aware of global opportunities.

The First Steps to Internationalizing America

In a recent survey of American companies, almost half reported that in the next 10 years the proportion of revenue that will come from international business will be higher. And almost 40 percent of them have reported missing out on international business opportunities in the past five years due to a deficiency in internationally competent personnel.

There are many reasons for this (and many areas of lost opportunity), but the most prominent root cause is a general lack of knowledge about the motivations and desires of people around the globe. Without a deeper understanding of international cultures and global markets, the American economy will not reach its full potential because we will be outmaneuvered by foreign competitors. Future business leaders of our country must work harder to be more vigilant and curious about the world. How do we improve so that collectively our economy is not leaving money and opportunity on the table?

Education is a critical part. We have made great progress in establishing international business education and interdisciplinary area studies at our colleges and universities. Furthermore, the number of American college students studying abroad has more than doubled in the past 15 years. Despite these gains, only 10 percent of students are enrolling in study abroad programs, and among this group, over half are attending programs in Europe (the part of the world that is shrinking). Only five percent of study abroad participants are traveling to the world’s second-largest economy (China). Interest in China and other Asian countries has been growing, yet represents only 12% of the study abroad population. The majority of students traveling to China are participating in faculty-led group programs that are only a few weeks in duration.

While these study abroad programs are a good first step, they are limited in their ability to offer students a deep understanding of a country’s culture and people. In the case of China, students are traveling in groups with other Americans and visiting tourist attractions in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, limiting their exposure to the “real China.”

Such a skin-deep view into China is counter-productive, because it only shows the unblemished and virtuous aspects of the country, giving Americans a lopsided perspective of this multifaceted and complicated nation. And it’s the same experience for tourists and even most American businesspeople. Tourists partake in group tours that are tightly choreographed, while business travelers parachute into the country on short visits, often never leaving the conference room or their five-star hotel. It’s no wonder why we are missing out on so many international business opportunities.

We need to go deeper into frontier markets so we can see how the world works and understand tomorrow’s next set of opportunities and challenges. It’s time to start skipping Beijing and Shanghai, and venture into China’s emerging cities. In the next wave of globalization, China’s service economy and manufacturing capabilities in the ‘new economy’ will continue to advance and will bring even more prosperity to second- and third-tier cities.

Countries in Southeast Asia will also march forward with their development plans and become hubs of low-value manufacturing as capacity moves from China to the ASEAN region. As this region develops and countries in the ASEAN trading bloc become more prosperous, frontier markets such as Indonesia and Vietnam could prove to be a growing destination for American goods and services just as other parts of Asia are today. Likewise, Sub-Saharan African is a destination full of opportunity with thousands of languages and cultures to explore.

Getting Practical About Doing It

Almost equally important as the destinations themselves is the length of time we spend exploring. Anyone with a long-term interest in the world should consider independent long-term travel of at least three months. This means getting away from pre-packaged, “off the shelf” travel tours where every minute of the day and every meal is perfectly planned. Pre-planned tours negate the potential for serendipity and limit exposure to local people who can give insight into local customs.

We must remember that it’s important to take wrong turns every once in a while because they lead to the discovery of new ideas. However, there should also be a purpose and overarching mission behind your travels. Otherwise you are wasting time and money.

Independent long-term travel has the added benefit of being much less expensive than a short-term study abroad or travel group. Through the proper consideration of a budget, personal goals and travel tactics, international long-term travel is not only obtainable, but can be a productive investment in your future.

Speaking of, money is usually the most important component of any travel plan, and we cannot deny that most university study abroad programs are expensive. For example, in my hometown of Atlanta, Emory University offers an eight-week study abroad program in Nanjing and Beijing, China, at a cost of $14,030. Admittedly, a big chunk of that money is going toward Emory University tuition where you will receive course credits, but you could easily enroll directly into a Chinese language program at a Chinese university and get the same education at a fraction of the cost. There’s also a good chance you could transfer the credits from the Chinese university to your school in America. In other words, there is no reason to pay all that money just to indulge our inflated higher education system. You can design your own China experience at a third of the cost and stay four weeks longer, making it a 12-week trip.

Here’s another sample trip to consider. For $4,800, you could study Chinese in Dalian, China, for 12 weeks at Dalian University of Technology, or one of the many other schools in this beautiful coastal city. This budget includes $1,400 for roundtrip airfare, $1,125 tuition at the Chinese university, $550 for housing at the university, $1,625 for food and $100 for health insurance. By making this choice of bypassing the study abroad office at your school and choosing your own adventure, you will not only have a more memorable educational experience, but you will also save money.

The next question is where to find the money to fund this foreign expedition. Each person’s ability to earn and save money is different, but it’s important to start by thinking in terms of planning an accessible budget. Thinking of coming up with $5,000 may seem daunting at first glance. But let’s break it down a bit. Consider the case of securing a part-time job that pays $10 per hour after taxes. To earn $4,800, you would need to work 480 hours total. If you work 20 hours per week, you would need to work 24 weeks. So when all is said and done, you only need to work a part-time job for six months to get the money needed for this adventure. Is that so hard?

Of course, you should also consider that China is even more expensive than other destinations in Asia. If you wanted to do a similar 12-week exploration of Thailand or Vietnam, it would cost about $3,200. Tuition at Vietnam National University to study Vietnamese is around $350 and the costs of living are far less than in China. Thailand is even more inexpensive because food costs are so low.

Travel doesn’t have to be something that only wealthy people do. You don’t need to rob a bank or win the lottery to do this. Just a few months of saving, and you can feasibly take a three-month dream trip to Asia. The lessons you learn from such an experience will pay you back in spades once you return home. And who knows? Once you’re there, you might encounter a new opportunity that extends your visit into a lifetime of exploration.

This piece originally appeared here:

Mike Fenton

The driving force behind sales and business development at Internships In Asia, Mike is a career entrepreneur, adventurer and student of the world. After receiving his Master of Business Administration from the...

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