On Cultural Immersion
Out And About
There is one main theme in almost all of my travels, whether inside or outside of the United States: Americans can be very ignorant of their surroundings.
I do not, under any circumstances, think that this is maliciously and intentionally done. I know from experience that many travelers are simply overwhelmed by all there is to see and do in a foreign land, and the need to understand the local culture just happens to falls by the wayside in the chaos of travel. But this often means the difference between experiencing only the surface of an unknown land and being totally immersed into its inner-workings, the latter of which often results in a much more memorable experience that lasts a lifetime.
It is a firm belief of mine that if one should experience the good fortune of traveling abroad (and even states other than your own), to reserve some time to become acquainted with the local history and culture of your destination. Whether it be the Gettysburg battlefields where the famous Civil War raged for four years, the towns of Jamaica where one can bear witness to a violent overthrowing of the local government, or a vibrant, pulsating city in Mexico, people need to become more aware of their surroundings and provide them with the reverance they deserve.
I truly believe that we as people should become more familiar with the practice of cultural immersion; that is, immersing our actual selves into the culture of the area. Learn a little bit of the history and language- even just a little bit, but more than simply knowing how to ask after the location of the bathrooms- and enjoy the difference between your experiences. Not only will the natives that live there year-round appreciate the effort, but new and vast opportunities will await the traveler who seeks to understand his or her surroundings as opposed to merely passing through them.
Take a chance and hire a tour guide. In most tourist-rich locations, these individuals tend to be veteran guides or, the exact opposite, college history/anthropology students. Either way, it's a win-win situation for the avid American traveler; these two groups of very different people are both knowledgeable and genuinely passionate about the information that they are sharing with you. You'll see places that you might have otherwise missed, and you'll hopefully get the opportunity to learn about the local culture and native people. This would also provide the uneducated traveler with the opportunity to seek answers from someone who truly knows the area and the people who live within it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you'll stay informed about local places not to go. Some locations are simply not safe for tourists, and it's best to avoid these areas from the very beginning!
The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.— Sir Richard Burton
Learn the Culture
Did you know that in Korea, it is frowned upon to wear your outside shoes indoors? Or in Arabic countries, where it is considered offensive to lean away from someone who is speaking to you?
Our American concepts do not always translate well within other countries. There are several things that we as a people do that are considered offensive by other cultures around the world. The idea of "personal space", for example, tends to be very American, and members of foreign cultures may not respect our need to keep our "bubbles" intact. On the other hand, there are other cultures who prefer enormous amounts of personal space in order to remain comfortable. However, it is always advisable to minimize the amount of offense that you may unconsciously cause to learn about these customs and cultural expectations beforehand.
From my limited experiences, I have learned that much of the world considers Americans to be brash and somewhat obnoxious. We are gregarious and spirited, oftentimes to a fault. Therefore, I consider it my personal responsibility to demonstrate the more positive characteristics of our country and culture, and I use those stereotypes to start conversations (many of which have been very entertaining!)
Many of these negative perceptions came to light when I spent a week on a native american reservation in the mid-west. Due to the history and the trauma sustained by the natives who still to this day call the reservation their home, there was a distinct cultural barrier that existed. But rather than rail and complain about how unfair it is to be stereotyped, I simply listened to the stories that these people wanted me to know about in order to demonstrate the reverence and respect that I held for them. It was through my actions that I challenged their preexisting stereotypes, and by the end of the week I didn't want to go home because I had connected on such a deep level to the natives and their culture. Sometimes it serves us well to be humble in the face of the unknown, and to embrace that which would normally make us uncomfortable.
Acquaint Yourself With the Language
There is a humorous story that I like to tell people about a visit to Costa Maya, Mexico, that I made several years ago. Both myself and a friend were seated at the bar in this tiny resort town, listening to the other tourists butcher the language of the bartenders. It was obvious that these attempts were insulting; a few of these tourists simply took English words and affixed an "o" to the end of them. Rude, to say the least, and such rudeness towards language is certainly not well tolerated in the United States. I happened to speak enough Spanish at the time to engage in conversation with the bartenders, who rewarded me for several extra drinks on the house. Their advice to American tourists? Learn a few basic conversational pieces before traveling, such as basic questions whose purpose is to identify essential information (e.g. "where is the bathroom?" and "where is the hospital?"). There are several apps available now that will help you learn some fundamental phrases, and then provide you with the digital opportunity to practice what you've learned.
Enjoy the humorous video above which compares certain languages to others!
Have you ever met a foreigner here, in the United States, and really taken a liking to him or her? That instant affection makes you want to show and tell them everything wonderful about your country, doesn't it? Americans who are well-educated in the cultures they will be visiting oftentimes find themselves enjoying that same level of familiarity. It is both smart and respectful to learn about the places you will be visiting as well as the people there and their customs. This preparation reflects well on you not only as an American, but as a person.
And who knows? You might get to see something that only the "locals" know about, or go to a secret party or bear witness to a special event. Regardless, your efforts on behalf of the locals to increase your familiarity with their culture and traditions will only serve to improve both your travel and your immersion experience.
© 2011 Jennifer