THE WHITES ARE truly an international Longhorn family. Jim and Meredith live and teach in Singapore, their son Colin lives and works in Shanghai and their daughter Allie is a teacher in the Austin area. A career opportunity first took Jim White and his family to Singapore in 1999, beginning an exciting but challenging global journey that involved moving back and forth between the U.S., China and Taiwan several times.
This fall the White family will be sharing their insights about Asian cultures, societies and workplaces with current UT undergraduates studying abroad through a new mentoring initiative launched by The University of Texas Texas Global. Alumni mentors will serve as a resource as students acclimate to a foreign culture, while offering guidance to enhance students’ professional development.
Here, Jim, Meredith, Colin and Allie, all four of whom are UT alums, talk about their family’s journey and why they look forward to serving as mentors in UT’s new global mentorship initiative.
As a family, you have traveled back and forth between your original home in the U.S. and your new home in Asia several times in the last decade. What have you learned from these experiences?
Ally: We lived in Singapore the first time while I was ages 12 through 16. At first, I was overwhelmed and shied away from trying things that would have helped me get adjusted more quickly. However, by the time I graduated from high school, I had visited ten different countries. When we returned to the Austin area during my junior year of high school, I actually missed the excitement and natural learning that happens when you have to find your way through a new culture.
In Taiwan, I ultimately ended up making friends with locals by looking on Craigslist for locals looking for a native English speaker with whom they could practice. I helped them learn English and they helped me learn Mandarin.
Meredith: For me, the lesson was about learning to appreciate the many forms of cultural diversity. For example, while the U.S. culture is quite diverse, a few groups tend to dominate. In contrast, Singapore has over 50 different cultural groups and there tends to be much more integration, interaction and appreciation across cultures in everyday life.
As a result, when we returned to the U.S. shortly after the events of 9/11, we actually experienced a bit of reverse culture shock. We’d had these amazing experiences and met so many wonderful people on this beautiful island, but few people here at home were interested in hearing about it. It was a time of strong nationalism and things felt very different. When I got the email from UT about this new global mentoring program, I sent it to Jim and the kids right away. I’m glad we’ll now be able to help students adjust to the culture in Singapore, as well as help prepare them for some of the feelings they may experience upon re-integrating into U.S. culture.
Colin: Our family’s travels ignited my passion for living and traveling overseas, which completely changed my life and career plans. My parents were back from Singapore and living in Texas again when I finished my degree at The University of Texas at Austin. Then my dad’s job sent my parents to Shanghai, China and I decided to go with them. Leaving for Shanghai was the first time the decision to move overseas was completely my own, and it was a great decision for me. Shanghai is one of those cities like Austin that people never want to leave. It’s got such great energy, culture and so much to explore – and I even met my fiancé there.
What triggered your interest in becoming a mentor to UT students studying abroad?
Jim: I mentored young engineers as the Director of Research and Development for 3M Electronics, and now I teach product development at the National University of Singapore. I really enjoy working with students, especially when it comes to helping them learn about cultural differences in the workplace and how they can adjust to the differences in a way that will help them be successful.
In Singapore, subordinates will not question the expertise or authority of management given their culture’s strong respect for hierarchy and role-based authority. When working in Singapore, I enjoyed mentoring young engineers, encouraging them to share their ideas and questions with me and other American colleagues. I look forward to helping UT students adapt to these types of cultural differences in Singapore.
Meredith: I’m a teacher, so mentoring feels like a natural next step for me. And as a mother, I always did whatever it took to help our kids feel like they were at home no matter where we were living – whether that was finding a Christmas tree in Shanghai or cranberries for our Thanksgiving dinner in Singapore. Today, I feel equally at home in both Texas and Singapore – I’m looking forward to helping UT students feel at home in Singapore too.
Colin: I’m currently a director of foreign affairs for an language company that brings teachers to Shanghai to teach English. My experiences living in Asia helped me help them adjust to being away from home and living in a place that can feel, at first, very different. It’s great to now be at a point where I’ll be able to help fellow Longhorns get the most of their own experiences living abroad as well.
So, what initial advice would you give to students traveling overseas?
Jim: When I first arrived in Taiwan, I had GPS in my car but the voice spoke Chinese and the street signs were in Chinese as well. So, when visiting a new building for work, I followed the directions pictured on the GPS screen but was never quite sure when I “arrived.” To solve that problem, I would call ahead and tell a colleague who spoke English what my car looked like. He could then look for my car as I arrived and flag me down in front of the building.
Colin: Getting lost can actually be one of the most fun things about traveling in a new place. When we first got to Shanghai, I would write our address on a piece of paper so that I could show it to someone if I needed to get home. I would take pictures and wander the side streets. The fact that I couldn’t speak with anyone - or even read the street signs – both made me creative in finding ways to communicate, and freed up my focus to really take in the beauty of the city.
Written by Angie Pastorek