burmese family

How To Seek Out Cultural Exchange

Following yesterday’s post about the importance of culture when travelling we are sharing our tips on how to actually seek out those opportunities to learn about another culture when you are travelling.

My most treasured memories from travelling have included spending time with local people. I have been honoured on many occasions to learn about their culture, customs, rituals, everyday concerns, ideas and life in general.

In the past I have been invited to a private nunnery in Burma to spend time with the nuns and local monk. I have volunteered at a Thai hostel, eating and living with the family. I have stayed with cocoa farmers in the Dominican Republic learning how to live without running water.

All of these experiences have involved the sharing and exchange of culture. They were as eager to learn from me as I was from them. Sometimes the communication was hard and frustrating. Often language is a barrier. But when necessary a bit of charades is all you need.

Cultural exchange has involved truly humbling and enlightening encounters. I treasure those memories.

How To Seek Out Cultural Exchange

How To Seek Out Cultural Exchange

1. Background Research

A first port of call, before even visiting a destination, would be to do some background research.

Grab a guidebook, pop on the interwebs, or reach out to people who have been there already. Familiarise yourself with a brief overview of their history, basic language (such as hello, please and thank you), some customs, and any cultural or religious observances you need to follow (i.e. covering up for temples, not pointing with your feet, eating with your right hand).

2. Find a tour guide

When you arrive try to find a local who can speak some of your language as well. It’s not essential but can help with answering questions about their culture. Maybe a tour guide or student who would like to practise English (maybe pop them a tip for their time?).

3. Immerse yourself

You could throw yourself into the deep end and head out into the local area and see who you meet. Even if you don’t speak the language you can often find ways to communicate. You’ll be an expert in non-verbal communication in no time.

4. Take your time

When you rush from city to city you often miss the chance to connect with other human beings. So slow down and take the time to meet people, listen and learn from them. We talked about our preference for slow travel here.

5. Be curious

Most people are happy to talk about their culture. In fact, I’d go as far to say that all human beings like to feel heard. So ask questions and listen. Ask a few more questions and seek to understand on their terms.

6. Ask around

Don’t take one person’s interpretation of their culture to be fact. As with everyone they will have their own bias, so try to spend time with various locals to get as wide a view as you can on a culture.

7. Be willing to be challenged

There will be times when you feel uncomfortable, in disagreement and even affronted by the things you learn about another culture. And that’s ok. You don’t have to agree or even like what you learn. The important thing is to be willing to take it on board.

Do you spend time learning about new cultures when you’re travelling? What is your favourite approach? Do you have any success stories?