Through cultural immersion, we discover that our own societal values and norms are just a tiny glimpse of the huge diversity that exists, and the way humans choose to live their lives contrasts dramatically across the globe. The benefits of taking the plunge and stepping into a new community are far reaching, from the opportunity to learn new languages and taste new foods, to uncovering the key ingredients to happiness and well-being. Cultural immersion also helps put your own life in perspective and creates more compassionate individuals, something that is essential in the world we live in today.
Traveling or volunteering abroad is not just about seeing new places, eating different foods and meeting life-long friends, but pushing your own boundaries of comfort and discovering the immense diversity and beauty that exists in the world. While you may have grown up in a fairly homogenous society with customs that you consider “normal”, journey to the other side of the world and you may encounter a completely different way of life and behavioral expectations.
Breaking down stereotypes
Without a doubt, traveling to new countries and immersing yourself in other cultures helps shape a more rounded understanding of humanity, as well as breaking down stereotypes. For example, NGO television adverts often depict Africa as a land of poverty and malnutrition, but when you venture there yourself, you’ll probably discover a more complex scene. You’ll see first hand that it is a continent of immense diversity in terms of lifestyles, religions and cultures within its more than 50 different countries.
As you break down preconceived barriers about other cultures and people, you suddenly become a global citizen. While you probably won’t lose your nationalistic pride or concern for fellow citizens, chances are you’ll feel an increased desire for all the world to live in peace and with access to the necessary ingredients for a good life.
You may discover that there are both happy and unhappy people in societies no matter their living conditions or social class, and that the cause of happiness is completely unrelated to wealth. Culture and a sense of community are often more vital ingredients for our well being, and by immersing yourself in these things, a little is bound to rub off on you.
Authentic cultural experiences
But having an authentic cultural experience while abroad is not always as easy as it sounds. Music, dance and social events are often staged for visiting tourists and determining which is authentic (and which is fake) will probably not be apparent until you are there.
In some destinations, your best chance of finding authentic cultural experiences is through credible tour operators. With so much transparency created by online travel review sites, you can usually gauge the authenticity through other’s feedback and comments. Community festivals are another reliable opportunity to experience the local culture, coupled with live music, dance and normally an abundance of food.
But often the most authentic cultural experiences are those you just stumble upon yourself or while opting to live within a local community for an extended period of time. A few days at a village homestay is one way to get an unique insight into the local lifestyle and chat openly with community members. Study and volunteer abroad programs are also fantastic opportunities, enabling you to live in a foreign country and really immerse yourself in the culture through everyday routines, community work and language studies.
Living like a local (rather than visiting as a tourist) offers a completely different perspective, and suddenly you are not on the outside looking in, but right there amongst the people. Volunteer and study abroad programs allow you the time to establish meaningful and long-term friendships with people from vastly different backgrounds to your own, whether they be from the community you are living in itself or other participants from countries around the globe.
Discovering the benefits of community and culture
Your routine will reflect that of the local society’s and you will be exposed to the challenges of daily life, as well as its rewards that you may not have previously considered. As the western world moves towards a more individualistic approach to living, the broad reaching benefits of having a sense of community and culture are gradually being lost. Time spent living abroad can be an incredible opportunity to reconnect with the advantages of community and having a sense of belonging that is essential to human well-being.
Rapid language development
Cultural immersion also enables you to develop your language skills more rapidly as communicating in a foreign tongue may be the only way to get by in daily life. Rather than an hour a day with a text book and language CD, you’ll be completely immersed in the new language and be pushed to develop much faster. The inhibitions you may have about making mistakes will be rapidly broken down and you’ll have increased motivation to practice compared to what you would back home.
Through learning local languages, you’ll also uncover unique cultural insights, such as why some cultures have seven different words for something that only has one in English!
Who does cultural immersion benefit?
While cultural immersion has unending benefits for those who take the plunge, this also extends to those who open their doors to you. It may bring much-needed economic benefits to local communities and provide work in places where there aren’t many alternative options. In turn, this may increase the morale and living conditions of local communities and reduce some of the hardships they previously experienced.
Perhaps you will be assisting to build vital infrastructure or helping to educate children in a community where teachers are lacking, improving the opportunities for its people to lead fulfilling and enriching lives. It also enables those within the community who may not have the financial means to travel to discover a little about your culture and way of life, broadening their perspective on our world and its incredible diversity.
But the best part about cultural immersion is the people you meet along the way and gradually discovering that despite our differences, we are inherently the same.
Preserve indigenous cultures
Culturally immersive travel experiences and volunteer abroad projects can help to maintain indigenous traditions and ways of life that may be struggling in the face of globalization. It’s an opportunity for communities to share their culture with travelers, rather than having to leave their villages to find work in big towns or cities. When this happens, traditional views are challenged (and sometimes rejected) in favor of modern technologies and an urban lifestyle, which invariably leads to a loss of long-established traditions.
When indigenous communities share their culture with others, it often reminds them of its worth in the world and makes them more enthusiastic about preserving it. This is a vital step in ensuring that traditions and customs remain alive for future generations and that the wider world can be educated about their importance.
Create meaningful interactions
It is sometimes difficult to create meaningful connections with locals when you travel, particularly outside of business transactions and when there are language barriers in place. Cultural immersion provides an authentic opportunity to interact with people and discover what they are passionate about. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you will be able to connect through gestures and emotions in what is a shared human experience.
It might be learning about indigenous cooking methods or trying your hand at traditional weaving. When you sit down with people to hear their stories and traditions, you are opening yourself up to meaningful connections and friendships that may last a lifetime.
How to have a rewarding cultural immersion experience
Culturally immersive experiences such as homestays and volunteer abroad programs come with an eye-opening array of benefits to both the participant and the local community, but they can also be challenging at times. Because both parties may have different religious backgrounds, speak different languages and carry out their day-to-day in different ways, there are usually a few teething problems. So how do you have a rewarding experience without becoming overwhelmed or frustrated in your new environment?
1. Managing language barriers
One of the most challenging (and sometimes frustrating) aspects of culturally immersive experiences is overcoming language barriers. If you’re accustomed to communicating only in English, you might find it difficult at first to communicate using gestures or cues with those who speak another language. But you’ll rapidly pick up new terms and build your vocabulary, with communication becoming easier each and every day. People will be understanding and do their best to assist you, so don’t dwell on mistakes but just enjoy the experience of learning a new language surrounded by native speakers.
2. Brush off misinterpretations
Language barriers and differing customs often lead to misinterpretations. So rather than being offended by something your host does or says that seems out of the ordinary to you, try and understand where they are coming from or ask someone who is more familiar with the culture. It’s important to brush off any miscommunication or misinterpretations and trust that the people around you have the best of intentions. Sometimes it’s these moments that offer the most fascinating insights into a culture and what makes people around the world unique.
3. Practice cultural sensitivity
Just as you might be offended by something your host does, they might find aspects of your behavior offensive when it feels completely normal to you. Simple things like pointing at someone or wearing your shoes indoors can be considered very rude in some cultures, so it’s a good idea to read up a little on the customs about what is and isn’t acceptable so you don’t step on any toes.
If you’re traveling with a volunteer abroad organization, they will probably introduce you to some of the local etiquettes during your orientation and the “dos and don’ts” in your destination. While you might not always agree with the ways things are done or the traditional roles and beliefs in the community, it’s important to practice cultural sensitivity, rather than trying to impose your ideas on them.
4. Observe others
One of the best ways to acquaint yourself with the local customs and acceptable behaviors is to observe others. Even if you don’t speak the language or can’t ask what is right and wrong, you can learn a lot by watching how others interact. Observe how the youth engage with their elders or how females and males interact with one another, as well as how you should greet people when you meet them. Should you shake hands, kiss people on the cheek or hug? And what gestures of respect are normally shown to elders in the community? Observing people is a great way to pick up particular mannerisms and understand the role they play in the local culture.
5. Set goals and commit!
If you’ve decided on a cultural immersion experience like a volunteer abroad program, there are probably reasons why. Maybe it’s that you want to develop your language skills or are looking to boost your career possibilities in the future. Before you head off overseas, write down what you want to achieve from the experience and outline your goals, identifying specific activities you want to do throughout the project and what you want to take away from it.
The first few days away from home are usually the most challenging and when you’re feeling homesick or overwhelmed, look back on this list to remind yourself why you are there and stay committed. Perhaps you’re experiencing an information overload or your own beliefs are being questioned. It’s perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable when you’re navigating a new and unfamiliar environment, but don’t let it get the better of you.
As the days progress, things will become more familiar and you’ll start making connections with the local community. By the end of your volunteer abroad project, you’ll probably wonder why you ever thought of heading home! So stay focused and committed when you’re feeling down because you’ll be glad you did in the long run.