Xiaomin Mou was born in Chengdu, China, and at nine, she moved to Pittsburgh. “In China, I heard of America and thought, what is that? I imagined America to be a big forest. I had no concept of a foreign country.”

But now, Mou has seven times lived and worked in countries across the globe, including Japan, Germany, and China. “When you go to a new country, you feel a bit like an outsider, but once you’ve worked there, speak the language, and learn the customs, you can be at home no matter where you go.”

Mou, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in The Harvard-MIT Division of Health, Sciences, and Technology, participates in the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), which prepares students to live and work across the globe by offering internships in Japan, China, Germany, India, Italy, France, Mexico, and Singapore. After two years of intense instruction in the language, culture, history, and politics of a country, students spend two to 12 months of hands-on work in labs and offices across the globe.

Mou says the internships are great because you’re treated not as a student, but as a professional; you learn the business practices of another country; and you have the chance to establish colleagues around the world. You discover how to communicate, listen, trust each other; and once you transcend cultural differences, somehow you begin to focus less on how we are different but on how we are the same.

“Traveling to other countries, you feel more ownership to the world you live in. You become a citizen of the world,” she says. “You have a sense of belonging wherever you go, and you feel that the world belongs to you as well.”

WORK LIFE

Mou earned an MIT degree in 2000 in electrical engineering and computer science and a master’s in 2001. She hopes one day to bring technology to people across the world who really need it.

Mou has participated in seven MISTI internships –– five in China. She worked for the United Nations in Beijing, where she interviewed Chinese experts on the human genome. She worked at the Women’s Federation in Tianjin, where she taught out of work women how to use a computer. And she also taught Internet technology at the Xi’an Jiaotong University High School, where she instructed students to create home pages and write HTML.

On one trip back from China, Mou’s plane was delayed for 24 hours and sitting in the airport, she met a woman from Japan. The two formed a bond, and that encounter inspired Mou to learn Japanese. She studied the language for six semesters back at MIT, and eventually she flew to Japan for another MISTI internship, this time working for IBM at the Tokyo Research Lab, where she was in their speech technology group.

“At IBM, I was the only woman in the group, and I was from the U.S.,” she says, adding that at first her colleagues were not very accepting. “But as soon as they realized that I could speak Japanese and knew the customs and the culture, they were taking me to sushi parties, teaching me to swing a baseball bat, and taking me to see their annual fireworks.”

HOW TO ASSIMILATE

One Japanese friend taught Mou to assimilate with the Japanese even more, when she told her: “Xiaomin, stop saying, huh. Americans say that. The Japanese say, eh?” And Mou also learned never to say in Japan, “See you later.” The Japanese say, “I’m about to leave before you, so take care.”

“When you travel, you see yourself mirrored in all these foreign faces. It’s like foreign parts of yourself are coming together, and you have the chance to rediscover who you really are.”

Later, two German friends who Mou met in China inspired her to travel to Leipzig, Germany for another MISTI internship. “The special part of these internships is connecting with people across the world,” she says, adding that she now has friends in other countries. “Now, I feel at home in the world, and I feel that everyone is familiar.

“When you travel, you see yourself mirrored in all these foreign faces. It’s like foreign parts of yourself are coming together, and you have the chance to rediscover who you really are.”