How to make it happen
One of my greatest adventures in traveling is cultural immersion. I usually take it a step further than most would consider normal, but I am alright with that. Most would say that it is too difficult when you are traveling to adhere to all cultures. This notion is true to a certain extent, but I believe that this excuse can also be a cheap scapegoat.
I take great pride in cultural immersion. To this point, one of the things that I attempt to do when traveling is to get mistaken for a local. If I accomplish this, then I consider my efforts a success.
I pride myself in cultural immersion because I believe true cultural immersion is the only way to embrace other cultures without getting a ‘postcarded’ view of it. (I took the ‘postcarded’ description from a traveling buddy, basically just a touristy version of a city with no local feel whatsoever) If a traveler does not embrace the local culture then there is much less a chance that they will be treated to local life in an authentic way. With local life comes local knowledge, which is where you really start to learn.
I have compiled a list of a few tips on how you can respect culture when you travel. Here they are:
1.) Always initiate in the host language and tradition – Do your best to always initiate in the local culture when you are traveling. For example, say ‘hello’ in the local language as best you can, or if you are asking for something piece something together, even if it is simple like ‘one that’. Little things such as language will be highly respected by locals if you do them. Once when I was traveling through Iceland, I was trying to order a hot dog in Icelandic. After I had butchered something like, “please one that” together, the attendant smiled and thanked me for attempting to learn their language. Then, we focused on getting my hot dog. Did that really matter in the long run? I’d argue that it does, but that is just my thinking.
2.) Learn the ‘big 5’ – I wrote an article a while ago about phrases that you should know in any language. The intent of that article was to give you an idea of which phrases you should really take the time to learn when you visit a country, at least in my opinion. I find those listed to be the most important.
In line with the first point, I’d never ask some in English if they spoke English. Personally, I’d always do my best to ask in their language no matter how difficult out of respect for local culture. That is at least one good phrase to know.
3.) Know the boundaries – There are some things in the world that are for locals and there are some for travelers. It is important for a traveler to learn when it is acceptable for them to be included and when they should just observe. One major boundary is typically religion. You should know that unless you are invited to attend or join in a celebration or prayer service, it may be best for you to stay away. A good reason for this is because as a foreigner you may do something disrespectful and not know it at all. Religion is probably the most fundamental clay of any culture outside of language, which is why you’d be wise to respect it when on the road.
4.) Leave it better than you found it – This is one of points from the duty of a traveler. Traveler’s have a very important obligation to leave things better than they find it. In fact, it is better to leave no trace at all, only footprints, as one has said. Ray Bradbury, in his short story A Sound of Thunder, illustrates this point beautifully. His story, although embellished a bit, is about a group traveling back in time to see the dinosaurs. The group members are given strict rules not to step off the ‘path’ illuminated before them. The guide warns them persistently that interrupting a minute thing such as a plant can add up infinitesimally in changes to the future. One of the members steps off the path and accidentally kills a butterfly. The member thought nothing of it, but when they returned to present-day, they immediately noticed the smell of chemicals and a sign was in a different language. Effectively, they had altered the future by making a small change. Granted this short story is intended to make you think. It may be slightly exaggerated, but it is food for thought. What are your thoughts on this?
5.) Ask a local – When all else fails ask a local. Most locals would be more than willing to give you some pointers about local culture. Tell them that you want to know the local culture and take some notes. Nowadays with all the resources available to you as a traveler, this is quite easy to accomplish. For example, you can easily find someone through Couchsurfing.org to show you around. I’d be really surprised if you could find a local to teach you some things.
- Do some studying before you leave. Learn some phrases, read up on the religion, learn the geography, maybe some random facts.
- Try just try, we have an obligation because if we don’t who will.
- Be flexible and adaptable to subtle cultural changes.
Please let us know what you think below. Do you think cultural immersion is a waste of time? Do you believe in its cause? What are your tips for respecting culture when you travel?
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