How to immerse yourself in a culture
The best way to get to know something is to become it
One of the biggest goals of mine when traveling is cultural immersion. Cultural immersion is a huge topic to me because I believe it to be the only way to truly experience another country. When I travel, I spend almost all of my energy attempting to learn and adhere to local customs and traditions. I have often been asked questions like: doesn’t everyone know that you’re American? Don’t they just know? People know only what you tell them, and not a thing more. I’m not attempting to be pompous, but just because you step out of an airplane that doesn’t mean you are American. Unless of course you were your flag on your sleeve. There are some ways to give yourself away by your actions, but mostly you are the one who chooses to give yourself away.
If you want to act like a tourist, then you can. People will treat you as such. I’m not going to argue about the difference between a tourist and a traveler in this article, but I think there is a difference. If you wish to immerse yourself culturally, then you have to throw out everything you think that you know about how to act. You have to have an almost out-of-body experience, truly seeking to know: why? Sometimes, there is no answer. Other times, you will be shown answers through sharing. So, how can you immerse yourself in another culture?
Tips for cultural immersion
Cultural immersion starts with confidence. You have to be able to confidently walk into a culture on the opposite side of the planet, not knowing the language, and act like it is another day in the park. You have to be able to mimic the actions of locals, in that you see purpose in what they do. You have to feel the language they speak as if it were your own.
- Watch the locals. This is the most basic form of learning. What are the locals doing? Are they all sitting around in a park enjoying life? Are they rushing from one building to the next? Are they doing handstands and kartwheels in the street? What makes them tick? There is probably a method to their madness. If you pay attention to them, you will be taking the first step to understanding local life.
- Don’t tell people where you come from. This is a trick that I use often. I don’t believe in lying, but I don’t openly tell people where I come from when I travel (in public areas I mean). I do this for a number of reasons. The main reason though is because I don’t want to be treated like a tourist. I want to be treated as if I were the person next door. If you must tell them, then tell them whatever you like. I use an American island in the Caribbean, which isn’t technically a lie. This way, no one knows where it is.
- Don’t speak English. The second people find out that you speak English, you are finished. You will be classified as a foreigner, a tourist, and rich. No matter what, even if none of the above are true. Speak with a heavy accent if you have to, but try to speak another language.
- Don’t carry anything with you. People recognize what you carry with you. Obviously, a big back pack will signify a vagabond spirit. A camera around your neck will signify a foreigner. A map will signify both that you are a foreigner and lost (i.e. vulnerable). Be mindful of this.
- Change the way you dress. I dress as locally as I can. Even if I have to invest in a new garb or shirt, I try to wear something that doesn’t scream tourist. That means, ditch your clothes that classify you. Wear something that looks more local.
- Adhere to local custom. This is a very broad suggestion, but covers a lot of bases. For example, if you are a man traveling through an Islamic country, why not grow a beard? If you are traveling through Europe, why not wear nicer clothes? I think that you get the point, but ask yourself what is it that locals do, that I can do also.
- Live cheaply. I have gained some of the most interesting insights by living cheaply when I travel. I have traveled at times with very little money and because of it, I have seen things from a different perspective. You have to buy street food, stay in shady places, and inconvenience yourself. All which make you a better person. In my opinion at least.
- Never stay in hotels. Hotels are the epitome of tourism. They are overpriced, uncultured, and secluding. The absolutely best places you can stay are with locals. However, hostels make a close runner-up. Hostels can be uncultured because of foreign backpackers, but you get to meet a lot of really interesting. I met a millionaire once who told me he’d never pay for a hotel again because he missed out on too much because he was isolated in his room.
- Get lost. Seriously, get lost. The very first thing that I do when I arrive somewhere is get my bearings in order. I secure my belongings in wherever I am staying, then I hit the streets. I walk until I am lost, then find my way home. It is nice to have a map, but never pull it out in public. Only use it when absolutely necessary. (Obviously, don’t get lost in places known to be dangerous).
- Ask questions. Try and find a local that you can get to teach you about the local culture and answer any questions that you may have. Ask why?
- Speak a second, third, or fourth language. You have got to spend the time to learn another language. It will change your life. It will open doors for your that you never thought imaginable. It will change your entire experience traveling. It will help you to blend in.
- Know your stuff. Part of immersing yourself, is knowing how to get around. Be able to quickly adapt to new situations and obstacles. Walk through them as if they don’t phase you.
- Be stern. Don’t give in quickly, that is what tourists do. They just believe what everyone else is saying to be true because they don’t know any better. Be firm.
- Keep a low profile. Nothing screams foreigner more than someone who is loud, obnoxious, or just obvious in general. Play the observer role, don’t get too engaged when you don’t have to. Watch 80% of the time react when necessary.
- Walk everywhere. Whenever I travel, I walk a lot. You get to see more things, and save money on public transportation, but those aren’t the only reasons that I walk. I also walk because people don’t expect you to. Tourists don’t walk. If you do, people will less likely associate you with a foreigner.
- Travel solo. Traveling solo is my preferred method of travel in most regions that I have visited. I think that it is a more authentic experience and you get exposed to more things than you would if you were in a group. It is alright to travel with another person sometimes as long as you are on the same page and travel with the same mentality. Traveling solo is a great way to blend in. People often travel in large groups, which makes you stand out immediately. I’ve done that in the past, and won’t be doing it again.
- Don’t be phased. Don’t allow yourself to be easily phased by things that happen. If something strange happens, don’t sit there and gawk at it (train wreck syndrome). Just keep going about.
It is right of you to think that this cannot be done everywhere. It isn’t always so easy. For instance, I am darker complected so fitting in with Scandinavians might be a bit of a challenge. However, it still is not impossible. We no longer live in a black and white world. We live in a very colorful world and multi-cultural world. People are mixing rapidly and even combinations once thought of as unthinkable are occurring daily. As a testament to this notion, the other day I was at dinner with a few friends from around the world. As I sat there looking around, I bet to myself that if someone had to guess which countries we came from they’d be totally wrong. The reason I say this is because few of the people at dinner were ‘stereotypical’ people from their region.
A good friend once told me that we don’t live in a cookie-cutter world. Not everything is so easily defined. He was absolutely right. People surprise me every day.
There is a reason that some holy books, such as the Bible, mention people adhering to local cultures to best reach them. Those books know a secret: the best way to get to know something is to become it.
Cultural immersion is entirely possible should you wish it so. If you take into account the tips above and truly seek it, then I believe you can immerse yourself virtually anywhere.
If you want to talk with me personally about cultural immersion, or ask me about some of my past experiences. Please contact me. I am more than happy to talk to you about my experiences.
What are your thoughts?
Do you believe in cultural immersion?
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