POV: What it looks like when cultures come together…

POV: What it looks like when cultures come together…

Have you ever said Yes to a job, without knowing just what was involved?


I’m sharing this story because I’m sure many of you have found yourself in a situation that’s completely out of your depth. That’s given you that deer in the headlights, what the hell am I going to do next feeling. 


The Job

I had accepted a translation job to support a group of Chinese television, website and media journalists, and travellers. We were to journey into the Top End of Australia, to an uninhabited, harsh environment, surrounded by beautiful but terrifying wild animals.


The adventure would cover a group of young people from China, experiencing the local indigenous culture, and wild animals, for the first time. A kind of concrete jungle vs. Australian jungle concept. 


We would meet the local indigenous people, and hear their stories. Learn about bush medicine and food. And track wild animals, such as boar and buffalo. The location was deep into the heartland of the wild Northern Territory, and we’d live like locals, camping in the outback. It all sounded like a great adventure. 


But the reality was a shock. I was totally unprepared for the level of discomfort and bone-chilling fear I was about to experience. It was also a dry camp, which meant no alcohol. The thought of not being able to settle back with a quiet drink after a long hard day trekking through the bush was hard to bear. Even the idea of hunting was a turnoff. And I most certainly was not prepared for the words I’d need to translate. There was no WIFI. No Google. No mobile phone. I was in the middle of nowhere.


I had the standard Chinese vocabulary for essential words. Pig. Buffalo. Danger. All the words I thought were essential. But in fact, I needed way more words.


The Trip

We met the crew and the participants at the airport, and off we set– bright-eyed and ready for a great adventure. After four hours journeying into the deepest outback, we found ourselves in a remote part of the Territory, where we would pitch our tents and call home for the next week. But there were three events that would change my view of the world from that point on.


Interaction with indigenous owners of the land

The indigenous owners of the land had welcomed us to a remote part of the Top End coastline. While I’d grown up in Darwin and went to school with many indigenous Australians, this was my first real experience of learning about their culture directly from the source.


On one of the evenings, we sat together around a campfire and experienced a traditional Welcome to Country and storytelling. While I was admiring the shoreline, one of the locals warned me not to sleep on the beach, because that’s where “the big croc sleeps”. I made sure my tent was as far from the waterline as possible, behind plenty of others.


Our Chinese counterparts, who shared stories of their customs and traditions, were incredibly inquisitive about the indigenous culture. While both were very different, their views and questions were similar. At the time, these two peoples of ancient cultures had more in common than I could have known.


I listened to Aboriginal stories of inter-family relationships, cultural practices, and their relationship to the land. These were complex issues, and I really had to concentrate on taking it all in. Translating this to Chinese was going to be a challenge, and it sure was, as I didn’t have all the words. There was a lot of drawing in the sand, and hand actions.


Similarities in cultures that I discovered included ideas around respecting elders, marriage and traditional medicines. Both cultures had many different dialects and ways in which to honour their culture. Who would have thought the Chinese and indigenous Australians had so much in common?


Hunting mission

This experience was one of the most dangerous I’ve ever had. I was chosen as the translator that would go on a hunting mission, which included a hunter with a bow and arrow, a traditional land owner, and two Chinese photographers. We were to travel by quad bike into a very dense and dangerous location to hunt wild buffalo. 


As we neared a small river, we found it difficult to locate the buffalo. Instead, we happened upon some wild boar. But we had to cross the river, because a bow and arrow had a limited range.


As I waded across the river, water up to my armpits (and I’m tall) the traditional owner shared a story with me from two weeks earlier. He’d killed a buffalo further up this river. It was too big to carry, so he floated it down the river. But along the way, a huge crocodile stole it! In the same river we were wading across.


Pure fear was my only feeling. However, I decided not to share this story with the Chinese film crew, as I imagined a panicked departure from the river would alert this croc that we were there. We survived, but I felt like a cat that lost some of its nine lives to fear.


Buffalo hunt

After surviving the croc-infested river, you might think it was all plain sailing from here. But wait. There’s more. A lot more.


Our hunter with the bow and arrow says there are buffalo nearby, and he tells us to take off our boots so we can travel quietly through thick mud. While I was taking this in, someone slapped mud on my face “for camouflage”. Not a good look when I was asked to translate the safety briefing. And it was no ordinary safety briefing, not for city people, that is.


Buffalo were very dangerous, we were warned. They had pinpoint accuracy when it came to mauling people with their horns. I had few words, not just because my Chinese vocabulary wasn’t equipped for this, but because I was deep in thought. I looked at our guide, hoping for a glint of sarcasm or humour. But nope. He was 100% serious. So I did my best to get the message across. The Chinese had no questions. I think they may have been in shock too.


We waded through waist-deep water, and the thick, squelchy mud from the buffalo. It was slippery and difficult to walk. The men quickly got ahead of me and a female journalist with her heavy cameras. The men were so far ahead that we decided to stay behind and wait for their return. We climbed a tree to get out of the mud, and sat there for over two hours – a good move, as it turned out. We watched a snake slither past, and wild boar run across the horizon.


By that stage, I didn’t really want to speak Chinese, as the questions were getting very difficult. “Is it a poisonous snake? “ “What do we do if they don’t come back?” “ Are there crocodiles in the water?” They were questions I had for myself but I did not have the answers.


Eventually, the guides and photographer returned, and I gave a huge sigh of relief. As were were led to safety, I was happy to discover that the buffalo had escaped. Back in camp, after a big clean up and a hearty dinner, little translation was needed. By the end of the trip, everyone in the group was deeply bonded by the experience, promising to stay in touch and remain lifelong friends. I returned to Sydney and the safety and comfort of city living.


I reflected on my experience as a translator and my takeaways from this trip. 


1. You don’t always need to know all the words when translating. If people genuinely want to understand, they will find ways and means to bridge the gap, whether through charades, drawing in the sand or words. The takeaway is that motivation can solve any problem, even language barriers. 


2. Culture is so important, yet people often only think about their culture and not the culture of others. When cultures are brought together, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the similarities between other cultures. The key here is to take the chance and time to learn. 


3. In your professional life, you can take the easy or the hard path. While it’s tempting to choose the easy path, the hard path can be so much more rewarding.


Seeing the professionalism and courage of the Chinese photographers, journalists and participants in the wild outback gave me a real appreciation of their can-do attitude. They were entirely out of their comfort zone, as was I, yet they got on with the job and found beauty in everything – from the people of the land, to the land itself. It was inspiring.


On the flip side, seeing the Indigenous people welcoming, sharing their stories and enjoying the conversation with the Chinese was joyous. If I hadn’t ventured to this outback jungle and had the opportunity to experience this event, I wouldn’t have seen the beauty and true value of how cultures in harmony can work. I hope to share this with others through my words. 


Get in touch

If you’d like to extend your business to new frontiers in China, get in touch. It’s another type of adventure, but one that can open your business eyes to immense possibilities.


Lisa GoodhandManaging Director


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