The sky after a heavy rain was plain grey.
Work was scheduled at 4pm.
Dragging myself out of the last class that Friday afternoon, I felt empty. That time of the year, I was in my worst loneliness ever.
I had just come back from the trip to Vietnam.
I remember the first time coming home after one year of studying abroad, I was so excited. I missed my parents and nothing was better than hugging them in both arms instead of just looking at each other through a cold laptop screen.
This second time back in Australia, I found myself in the middle of emotional chaos. When my flight finally landed at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport, I sighed, hot tears slowly shed from the corner of the eyes.
Studying abroad – when all of that first – year – excitement ends, the second year is just worse.
I could feel the loneliness right in the middle of my heart. I had a steady job, I went well with studying, I had friends to catch up with. But repeated life rhythm got me bored. Every day, similarly to one another, study, work, and study. I miss home. There were days when the last shining ray of twilight disappeared, I climbed up the hill to get home from school. With eyes staring through the windows of houses, I saw families gathering by the dining tables. I remember asking myself so many times that my heart started to cry: “What am I doing here?”. Tired and cold, there were nights that studying abroad and living by myself was overwhelming.
That Friday afternoon, the cloudy sky unstoppably worsened my mood.
I stepped on the uni bus to get to the train station. Work was 60km away from school, I would better hurry or be late.
“What’re you studying, sweet?” – a strange voice interrupted my blank stare at the rainy street. I looked up.
“Communication and Media.”
“I’m in my second year.” I added feeling the previous answer was a bit curt.
“Oh, my daughter studied the same thing when she was at University. But she changed her career and now is a teacher. That little girl loves her job.” Now I realised I was talking to the bus driver. There were just us on the bus in the middle of the day. Jazz being played made the bus’s atmosphere felt blue.
“Is she working in Wollongong now?” I continued the conversation.
“Herself and her other sisters now all live in Sydney. I have 3 daughters. They’re all high school teachers.” the driver smiled happily talking about his children.
I smiled back. Suddenly, I thought about my parents.
I’m the only child in the family and I’m now living far away from Dad and Mom.
“Do they usually come home to see you?” I could feel my voice trembled a bit.
“Not recently. I called them the other day. They’re quite busy with work.”
There was a silence.
“You’re not from here, aren’t you?” he asked, all of a sudden.
“No. I’m from Vietnam. I’m here for 3 years of University!”
“Your parents must miss you a lot. My daughters live 2 hours away but my wife and I feel lonely sometimes.”
The bus stopped in front of the train station. I found myself in a mixed feeling. I stood up and was about to open my umbrella.
“You know what, dear, we as parents love our children so much. We saw them the first day they were born, we saw them grew up, we saw them went to school and made friends. We wish them all the best in life. But when their dreams come true and they move away from home to follow them, we parents at home, sometimes feel like there’s a big, big hole right here…” he pointed at his heart, then waved me goodbye.
“All my best wishes, little girl!”
I smiled at him and said goodbye.
One year and a half after that sudden conversation, I now barely remember the face of the driver. Still, every word of his is there in a little corner of my mind. I’m glad I’ve written the story down that day on the train to work so the memory would never fade away. I remember how touched I was talking to that lovely stranger. I had kept thinking about his words and couldn’t help myself calling home later that night, to tell my parents how much I loved and missed them.
Now looking back at the story, I’m surprised by how a story of a complete stranger has such an influencing impact on me. Is it because it relates to the core family values that I respect? Is it because the story itself was the only encouragement I needed in the midst of self-doubt? Is it because it makes me think? Is it because it makes me feel connected?
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou.
The bus driver and I, we’re two complete strangers. Being an international student living in another country, I find people I meet every day are strangers. We don’t share the same culture, we don’t share the same lifestyle, we don’t even share the same language. But there’s one thing that we all have in common, which is as human beings, we share the same values and emotions. “No one argues with emotions“, someone has once said. And storytelling is a no-better way to share those emotions and values between people.
The power of storytelling is that it addresses human’s core values which are simple to relate to. People don’t need the same cultural and academic backgrounds to understand love or empathy. So that storytelling is such a unique and beautiful way to connect people on the emotional level.
“I think normal, healthy adults have in common that they can all produce a life story.” Monisha Pasupathi commented on the importance of narrative approaches in our everyday life, ” (…) In order to have relationships, we’ve all had to tell little pieces of our story. And it’s so hard to be a human being and have relationships without having some versions of a life story floating around.” This is to say that, since how someone “arranges the plot points” of their life into a narrative can really shape who they are (Beck 2015), storytelling is a good start to get to know people’s personality and values.
Thinking about the future workplace environment, I realise how significant narrative approach can be used to get us connected to future colleagues. Entering a new workplace for the first time after graduating offers opportunities to meet lots of new strangers that we have no prior background information of. As full-time workers, we may spend more time every day seeing these strangers than seeing our family and friends; and we may also have to work with them, somehow, for the rest of our life.
Since we know nothing about our co-workers, how can we generate those qualified conversations to deepen the relationships with colleagues and get to know their values to encourage and support their best performance at work? How do we get to know and treat new people based on their true personality instead of experiences and positions in the workplace?
The issue is now more complex imagining the current emerging workforce where globalisation is bringing more international workers to the workplace. “Globalisation of markets has caused global mobility and this in return has resulted of the emergence of new talent pools from low and middle-income countries.” FM Magazine (2015) said predicting trends of future workplaces. A more diverse working environment will soon take place. The matter now does not stop at how to get to know our colleagues better, but how to understand our foreign colleagues better since we’re not sharing similar cultural backgrounds.
From the cultural perspective, “culture is viewed as occurring in multiple contexts that create common ‘cultural borderlands‘, diversity, unpredictability and possibility, as well as regularity and constraints” (Falicov 1995, p. 373) within the working environment. Since stories “contain the wisdom of the world” and teach “cultural values” (Baldasaro, Maldonado & Baltes 2014, p. 219), the narrative comes in to shorten the gap between “cultural borderlands“. A story told that addresses basic values and experiences of a normal human being that is easy to understand and relate to is a story that moves across cultural boundaries and bring people closer together. “Stories are the way to reach out to people and emotionally connect.” (Smith 2015).
Stories about everyday life are being told and contain lots of implicit meanings about the experiences and values of a person. A narrative about personal values can actually shorten the gap between people from different countries and cultures. Crossing the language boundary, as well as stereotypes or misunderstanding between nations and cultures, narrative practices is bringing people closer to each other by connecting the core values that as human beings, we might all treasure and respect.
Baldasaro, MM, Maldonado, N & Baltes B 2014, ‘Storytelling to teach cultural awareness: The right story at the right time’, Learning Landscapes, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 219-232.
Beck, J 2015, Life’s Story, The Atlantic, 10 August, viewed 27 August 2018, <https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/life-stories-narrative-psychology-redemption-mental-health/400796/>
Falicov, CJ 1995, ‘Training to Think Culturally: A Multidimesional Comparative Framework’, Clinical Theory and Practice – Special Section: Cultural Issues in Treatment and Training, vol. 34, pp. 373-388, <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1545-5300.1995.00373.x>
FM Magazine 2015, Workforce Diversity and Globalisation – The impact on FM, Facility Management, 2 December, viewed 27 August 2018, <https://www.fmmagazine.com.au/sectors/workforce-diversity-globalisation-impact-fm/>
Smith, A 2015, The Power of Storytelling, Ceros Original’s blog post, 25 February, viewed 27 August 2018, <https://www.ceros.com/originals/the-power-of-storytelling/>