I have two people from out of the US in my first timers group for PASS Conference 2011 - one from South Africa and another from Australia. There are people from several countries attending the conference, from all over the world. It is a huge effort for someone to travel several miles, take time off from work, fight jet lag, get used to another culture and still make the best of what the conference has to offer. It is even more impressive when people do it on their own expense, which can be considerable for some countries. (A very good friend of mine from India is actually travelling on his own expense.)
In this post I am sharing some of my thoughts and some issues I ran into as a foreigner several years ago- I was not quite like travelling attendees, I always lived in the US so it wasn’t that hard for me in terms of travel, and some cross cultural issues were easier too – but I still faced several issues when I attended the conference for the first time that had to do with my non US origins.
1 I went hungry, a lot – I am a vegetarian – on my first conference in Texas I didn’t get much to eat other than conference food, which was not enough. I don’t eat most stuff in vending machines either, and was really miserable/hungry. If you are vegan/vegetarian – there are lots of places to eat in and around the conference center (and Seattle is a lot more vegetarian friendly than Texas!!). Some of my choices now are -
1.1 Oatmeal at Starbucks for a low calorie breakfast
1.2 Sandwiches at Subway for the occasional bite or if I don’t like lunch/am too tired for dinner
Both are located in the conference center, and there are several in and around it too.
1.3 Whole foods market is an easy walk from the conference center. It is expensive,but you are very likely to get something from their deli that is healthy and good.(Directions in links below)
1.4 Most hotels offer a kitchenette (microwave/fridge) in the room for a small additional cost. If you are doing the conference on your own and want to save some $, or like me, simply don’t get a good meal outside, this is the best option – although most people need to get used to the idea. I carry some curries which I make and freeze or buy frozen dinners at whole foods and just make them in the room. A small electric rice cooker is also a good thing to take along for anyone who wants to go this far to eat well.
1.5 If I am not too tired, I like to walk down and eat at the wonderful bakeries and little coffee shops around Pike place market. Most are very vegetarian friendly although not necessarily calorie friendly.
If I get concerns of food and feeling hungry out of the way the conference is much more easy and enjoyable.
2 I got lost, a lot – wasted considerable time walking and losing valuable energy. I lost or misplaced maps and spent too much time trying to figure my way around without them. Now I always keep a map of surroundings/event book on me – although downtown Seattle is a lot more easy with practice. If I feel lost I ask for directions or refer the map.(The map is always a better option). I never assume I will figure it out somehow and keep going.
3 I didn’t carry much cash – Cash is needed for tipping hotel staff,taking cabs if you venture out, and the occasional snack/other needs. Using ATMs not supported by my local bank simply cost me unnecesary extra $. Now I always keep cash, especially small change like $5 or $10 bills.
4 I did not know enough local etiquette – arguably the hardest thing and took very long.The trick here is to be forgiving of mistakes you make and keep trying, on a persistent basis. It took me a while even to master simple things like introduce myself by name, and to offer my hand to shake. Also a considerably long time to understand and interpret american ‘friendliness’.
5 I carried too many things around – walking light is a relief, especially when you have to walk a lot. Carrying unwanted stuff including a laptop sometimes can be well avoided with some planning. There are ‘browsing booths’ set up at the conference center for occasional logins and checking emails – unless it is a work related emergency or my laptop is super light(which it is not) i’d rather leave it at the hotel and just take basic things around.
6 I collected too much stuff – SWAG is nice but too much swag, especially with airlines charging for luggage is not a good thing.SWAG is also a pain to carry around. If it is for a user group and really worth it I try to go to the post office and ship it out to myself. Otherwise I only take only something that is light and really cool – no t shirts, no bulky anything if I can help it.
7 I did not make arrangements when going out – I have not exactly been in a spot with this, but found myself wondering why I did not do better planning before. In american culture people often assume you have made your own arrangements. They do help you if you ask but if you assume someone will ask or offer to walk/drive you back, it does not always happen. This is particularly important if you are a woman – now I ask and make sure someone is giving me a ride back to the hotel (and he/she is not likely to get too drunk to drive!), or walking back with me.) Worst comes I have a cab company’s phone # on me and call myself a cab(most hotels will have names and numbers of local cab companies).It goes without saying cash is needed to pay the cabbie.
8 Learning to take things less personally – this might be an odd thing to say but perhaps the #1 issue most people from out of the country have when they try to network. When people get together to socialise invariably the topics get around to a few things a person from non US origins may not know or care much about – for example, bacon,baseball or strong argumentative views on religion or politics. Some more things I personally don’t have a clue about are western music,alcohol mixes with weird sounding names, and the highly complex pros and cons of PASS election process. If the conversation gets around to any of this and keeps going on, I just wait a bit and then leave.I don’t waste time pondering why I didn’t belong or feel included as I realize it is their stuff and they may feel similar perhaps in some other country or among some other people.
The important thing to keep in mind as non US attendees – is that we are all part of a community, a rare inclusive community that is worth travelling and being part of. A considerable part of the team who made the SQL Server product are from outside the States and that is worth being proud of. With some simple effort we can all be part of the ‘PASS League’, or the ‘SQL League’, if not the bacon league.
Listing of Ethnic restaurants around downtown Seattle:
Wholefoods Market,downtown Seattle:
Cab company, Seattle
Embassies and other useful info: