What is travel without experiencing new cultures? Learning about different ways of life and living are part of the mind-broadening, creativity inducing, crazy fun aspects of travel. It’s this boundary-pushing, comfort zone crushing quality of international exploration that I find the most character building, and invaluable to cultivating my creativity as a designer. However, at times it can also be the most overwhelming and downright scary. As an experienced traveller and expat who has lived on three continents, I have instinctively developed ways to cope with both short and extended immersions in foreign cultures. Furthermore, in many places around the world, just being interested and willing to participate in cultural exchange can lessen locals’ apprehension and open doors. Here are my favourite, tried and tested ways to ease into new cultural landscapes and enjoy the experience.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock is disorientation and frustration that may result from being surrounded by customs and lifestyles that aren’t your norm. Generally, culture shock is thought to occur in 4-5 stages that look something like this:
- The process begins with a honeymoon period of novelty and exploration, where you’re excited about all the new things around you. If you are travelling in short stints, this stage might last the whole trip.
- After the honeymoon phase, distress and frustration may set in. The novelty has worn off and you’re feeling isolated, unable to adapt and lacking support systems such as family and friends.
- Next is an adjustment phase where you start to find your way again. Navigating new places, foreign cuisine, language and meeting people becomes easier.
- Finally, you return to yourself but transformed by the experience. At this point, you have a better understanding and appreciation for the differences in your surroundings. You accept the differences around you and find ways to cope with your new environment better. Confidence returns and you feel less isolated.
Who can honestly say that there isn’t a way to their heart through their stomach? I took my first cooking class at the Baipai Thai Cooking School in Bangkok. If you had asked me a mere three months before, I hadn’t considered travelling to Thailand. Ever! If you asked me if I ate Thai cuisine, I would answer no because the very word “curry” made my stomach turn. Nevertheless, when two girlfriends were planning a sojourn to South East Asia and invited me to join them, I wasn’t going to say no. Always up for travel no matter where it is, I agreed to go along. Back at the cooking school in Bangkok, I realised by seeing every ingredient that went into the dishes and cooking them myself, there wasn’t a single one I didn’t eat. Furthermore, the expectation I had of Thai food was completely misguided and the combination of flavours was unique to anything I’d tried before. I instantly became smitten with Thai cuisine and remain a fan to this day! Over a decade later I take cooking classes all over the world. I’m no great cook, and I rarely reproduce the dishes at home, but the cooking school environment makes trying new foods a less daunting venture.
Really not that into cooking? You can still get in on the eating action with a food tour. I took my first food tour this year in Miami. We booked our walking tour for the afternoon we arrived in the city, and it provided the perfect orientation to South Beach. Our moveable feast gave us not only a feel for the diverse cuisine available in Miami but also a sense of direction and a list of food outlets to return to during the rest of our stay. Many tours combine food with other interests such as regional architecture or street art, to create a more comprehensive cultural experience.
Music and dance
I’m a dancer from way back (an amateur I assure you) and I never forgo the chance to take to the floor and learn a new style. I’ve danced the Tinikling in the Philippines, Salsa in Cuba, Hip Hop in NYC and learnt traditional tribal moves in the jungles of Laos. It only takes a willingness to try. Often you don’t even have to leave the hotel, as resorts usually offer cultural nights once a week. So get involved! If you prefer to stay off the dancefloor, music alone is a great way to cut through language barriers. Sing, play an instrument, learn a new instrument or just soak in professional performance, such as water puppets in Vietnam, whatever is familiar or fun to you. If you’re looking for opportunities to see or participate in dance, I charted this bucket list of traditional dance styles and their cultural birthplaces.
Party with the locals
In many instances, it’s counter-intuitive to visit a destination during a major local holiday, celebration or event. Tourist attractions may be closed, crowds excessive and price hikes send us running in the opposite direction. However, if you are willing to brave the downside of a significant cultural celebration it can pay huge dividends. Festivals and ceremonies are a window into cultural values and new ways to honour and celebrate occasions that you may just take home with you. Chinese New Year (east Asia), Thaipusam (Singapore), Thanksgiving (U.S.A), Rio Carnival (Brazil), and Mardi Gras (New Orleans) are some of my favourite festivities and cultural rites so far.
If you’re ready to take your cultural experience to the next level, it’s time to try a homestay. Local families host guests in traditional settings all over the world. In most circumstances, you’re going to have to give up most modern comforts of a hotel room for a night or two but let me assure you it is worth it. Husband James and I spent a long weekend in Borneo, enjoying a homestay in a traditional longhouse belonging to the Bidayuh people. The longhouse stay wrapped nearly all the above mentioned cultural experiences into one. We ate cuisine cooked in the traditional style by our hosts, had a neighbour drop in to show us how to play a unique percussion instrument, and we partied with music and rice wine until late, enjoying the ceremony and celebration of a harvest festival. We certainly feel our understanding of, and connection to the Bidayuh people and their way of life is much stronger than if we had just taken the day trip option.
Cross-cultural learning is one of the most exciting aspects of travel. By learning about, and connecting with other cultures, we not only have the potential to change our own lives but build the bridges of acceptance and tolerance that are needed to change our world. Science also says it makes us smarter and more creative – who doesn’t want that? You can dip a toe or fully immerse yourself, any venture outside your comfort zone is going to come with great rewards.
What is your favourite way to experience new cultures? Have you tried any of these ideas? How did it go? Let me know in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travels,