In the last few years I’ve gained a deep appreciation for cultural understanding, but I didn’t start out this way. As an American growing up in a fairly homogeneous area, I was taught to have an open mind but had little practical understanding of what that meant. I first traveled outside the US at age twenty one and from there my curiosity gradually escalated. The sense of wonder, relief, and peace that I find from realizing how many ways there are to be human is part of what motivates me to continue pushing outside my comfort zone when I travel.
I often travel alone and in immersive ways – public transport or on my bicycle – in countries that are culturally quite different from my home.
Stay in the Know
This has brought me to some fascinating places, including rarely visited West African countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, the mountains of Rwanda and Uganda, the desert of Sudan and Egypt, the green mountains of rural Southeast Asia, and even across my own large and diverse country, the USA, on my bicycle.
To make the most of these cultural learning opportunities, it’s essential to travel with an open mind. This isn’t always easy. Some days the discomfort of travel and “culture shock” catch up with me and I feel vaguely resentful of everything unfamiliar.
My best tip for keeping an open mind in these situations – and the open heart that goes with it – is to practice flipping my perspective.
I remind myself that everywhere I travel is someone’s home, as normal and unremarkable to them as my home is to me. I imagine how I must look from their perspective. What do I do and say that is bewildering to them? How would they feel if they traveled to my home? In this way our meeting becomes more of an equal exchange, and less my own one-sided struggle.
I also try to stay curious about the beliefs underlying behavior I find confusing or uncomfortable: being asked constantly about my children (I don’t have any) in Uganda, being asked for sex in West Africa (where limited contact with western women has supported some ridiculous stereotypes), being asked for money on the Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda (and many other places), and even being asked if my husband “lets” me ride my bike alone across my own country in rural America. These people aren’t trying to be offensive or difficult. Their questions make perfect sense to them. Trying to understand how that’s possible is interesting enough that I often forget to be offended.
Stay in the Know Finally, I understand that my brain is wired to feel uncomfortable around people who seem different from me. It’s a biological survival strategy rooted in the need to make quick life-and-death decisions in a complex world. I don’t think we can ever make this go away unfortunately, though I believe it’s at the root of many issues of racial injustice throughout the world. But we can be aware of it and make a conscious effort to compensate for it and to change our minds in light of new information. This is at the heart of my approach to safety while traveling, leading me to travel solo in places that others assume are too dangerous.
The spark of connection with another human across boundaries of culture, language, and geography is one of life’s special experiences.
These efforts at cultural understanding have many rewards. Learning to interpret behavior in cultural context makes it easier to interact with people from different backgrounds on the road and at home. When navigating my own personal journey through life, I find freedom in knowing that some of my personal values – for example an emphasis on individual independence, achievement, and planning for the future – are culturally influenced and just one possibility among many. I can lean into some and try to lighten the influence of others, as I see fit (and I recognize that even this approach is a very individualistic, American point of view). 🙂
I have only seen a small portion of the world, but a few cultural themes keep repeating themselves. One of most obvious is prioritizing individual freedom versus family and social networks. While I might feel successful for having the freedom to travel alone, I’ve met people on the road who pity me for this situation. Another common difference is directness of communication style, especially when delivering “bad news.” In some cultures people tell me what they think I want to hear (the bus will be on time, your visa will be ready tomorrow) when we all know it’s not true. To me this is misleading and dishonest; to them it’s polite.
Despite differences like these, travel has also taught me that people are similar around the world.
We all have fears, hopes, questions, desires, and memories. We have personalities that run deeper than our culture: we are introverts or extroverts, optimists or pessimists, analytical or emotional, open-minded or withdrawn. We have good days and bad days, days when we want to connect with a stranger from another culture and days when we crave familiarity. When we see each other as individuals living in the context of our cultures, we can marvel at the diversity on our planet and feel connected even as we celebrate our differences.
Author: Alissa from Exploring Wild