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- and more often than not, are- very ignorant of their surroundings.
I tend to disapprove of this not only as an American, but as a lover of world culture and language. There is nothing that irks me more than an individual boasting about spending one day in Rome, or mere hours in one of the infinitely beautiful countries located around the world. Comments made to these effects possess the ability to incite me to firmly grab ahold of these people and shake them. Do they not know the ancient histories and legends of Rome, the birthplace of Democracy? Certainly it can be considered insulting to pass a singular day in the company of such majestic structures as the Parthenon, the Colosseum, the various Triumphal Arches dedicated to the heroes of the past!
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 witness a violent overthrowing of the government, or a vibrant city in Mexico, people need to become more aware of their surroundings and provide them with the credit they deserve.
Another point worth mentioning is the treatment of the natives. I have born witness to bossy and obnoxious Americans ordering about the locals of their traveling destination to little or no avail. It would be much the same if a person from another country traveled to America and proceeded to tell an American what to do. Believe me, Mexicans know how to mix a decent alcoholic beverage, and Canadians are extremely familiar with Niagara Falls. (What these people should be focused on is the unfortunate fact that their wallets were just taken from their back pockets in that side street in Florence while they fought over the price of a newspaper.)
I truly believe that Americans should become more familiar with cultural immersion; that is, immersing their 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. Not only will the natives appreciate the effort, but new and vast opportunities will await this educated traveler while the other tourists are still trying desperately to secure a cab from the airport.
Take a chance and hire a tour guide. In most European countries, 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 interested in the information that they are sharing with you.
Learn the Customs
Did you know that in Korea, it is frowned upon to wear your outside shoes indoors? How about that in Arabic countries, 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.
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 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. "Where is the bathroom?" is probably a good place to start.
A Side Note
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!