5 Fun Ways To Experience New Cultures
June 30, 2016
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5 Fun Ways to Experience New Cultures

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 in unfamiliar cultural territory, 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.

Cooking classes

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.

Bai Pai Thai Cooking Schoo
My first Pad Thai, cooked and devoured at the Bai Pai Cooking School, Bangkok

Food tours

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 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 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.

Learning Tinikling in Boracay
Awkwardly learning the Philippines national dance, Tinikling

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.

Rio Carnival


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.

Annah Rais Longhouse, Borneo
Learning to play a unique percussion instrument at Annah Rais Longhouse, Borneo

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 explore new cultures? Let me know in the comments below.

Peace, love & inspiring travels,

Madam ZoZo

5 Fun Ways To Experience New Cultures | Duende by Madam ZoZo #culture #travell
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About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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There are 10 comments

  • […] glorious food, is a fun way to delve into the roots of a culture; to peel back the layers of influence and taste the history of a destination. The American South […]

  • […] the local fare is an essential ingredient in my travel experiences. In fact, I try to immerse myself in local cuisine for at least two meals a day (because I am firmly […]

  • Katie says:

    Love this! Another suggestion is to try an EatWith experience…I’m not sure if you’ve done it, but it’s basically a big dinner party for strangers in which the host or hostess cooks a traditional meal. It’s a really fun way to connect with the culture and meet both locals and other travelers!!

  • […] The key to reaping the brain building, creativity cultivating benefits of travel, is engaging with the place, people and culture of a destination. You’re going to have to get comfortable outside your comfort zone; mix with locals; observe keenly; and ask lots of questions. If you don’t know where to start, you may want to try my 5 fun ways of experiencing new cultures. […]

  • Greg says:

    These are all great suggestions! I feel there is little point to traveling without having authentic cultural interactions. I can’t recommend homestays enough. And if your host also enjoys cooking then it can double as regular cooking classes!

    • Madam ZoZo says:

      Hello Greg,
      Thanks for stopping by Duende. Yes, a homestay host that loves to cook is a great 2-for-1! Have you had any stand-out homestay experiences?

      • Greg says:

        Yes! Eight years ago I spent three months in a homestay in Oaxaca, Mexico. The matron of the house taught cooking classes in her kitchen which meant I got to help prepare (and eat) so many fantastic meals.Two years ago I was able to return and attend her daughter’s wedding. We still keep in touch.

        • Madam ZoZo says:

          Wow, that’s fantastic! I bet the food was amazing and it’s wonderful you keep in touch. Every traveller should be so lucky to have such an experience.

  • […] and dance are two of the most fun ways to experience new cultures.  I don’t know about you, but I’m now fascinated with the concept of tarab and […]

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