Most of us know that in general, people from other countries hate Americans. “Well traveled” Americans know this and if they’ve been the least bit studious of other cultures, they know why. Have you ever heard someone say: “As an American citizen, you should travel overseas at least one time. I can’t put my finger on it, but for some reason it just makes you a better person.” I firmly believe this, and I can even “put my finger on it!” Cultural awareness makes all of us better people. We may not be willing to embrace certain aspects of certain cultures (Indian food may not be for everyone, for example), but when we learn why people do the things they do, or that they’ve been doing it for hundreds of generations, it gives us a broader perspective to understand the politics and motivation that different groups of people have to live, thrive, and survive.
This is true within the borders of America, too. For example, I live in Minnesota now and it just amazes me how many Minnesotans I meet who have never been beyond the MN border. They’re very colloquial people, the Minnesotans, and they are fiercely proud of their state. They were born here, raised here, they married and divorced their high-school sweethearts here, they vacation here, and they see no reason to go anywhere else BUT here. Consequently, ethnic restaurants rarely do well here and there are very heated discussions on talk radio about immigration and cultural diversity, even though U.S. Census data shows that most of Minnesota is more than 90% Caucasian (Norway and Scandinavia contributed to most of the local culture. Skol Vikings!). A Minnesotan traveling to New York or Texas would experience an enormous cultural shift and I believe they’d return home and be a better person for it.
So as you travel, look around. Pay attention. I have listed a few different tips here that will help you become a better student of the local culture while you travel:
- There’s no better way to observe the local culture than to stay in a B&B or a local motel. Make friends with the proprietor and ask questions over breakfast or dinner.
- While on vacation, try to keep it slow. Don’t hop from city to city every other day to “canvas the area” and don’t spend all of your time on the tours.
- When you do visit a tourist site, take equal time to “see the people.” Eat locally, shop locally, etc.
- Be open to new menus. Personally, I never wanted to eat a testicle but I certainly had a “ball” during the Rock Creek Lodge “Testicle Festival” in Clinton, Montana…
- Take the bus once in awhile, or a taxi. Ask your local cab driver to wait while you shop, and smile and talk to him/her. Ask about restaurants or other points of interest that he/she can show you that might not be on the map.
- Leave your resort! Resorts are expensive anyway, so lock up your valuables and go for a walk. I saw a ton of things in Bandung, Indonesia regarding the way people eat and live that scared me to death, for example, but I understand their gut-level motivation for change better now, too.
- Don’t “feel sorry” for people. In some countries, local folks may be just as accustomed to their local way of life as you are back home on your leather sectional watching satellite TV. Bringing an attitude like, “Awww, look at that poor woman, honey, give her some money!” can be very insulting. How would you feel if Donald Trump tossed $100 at your feet because of his perception of your “poor living conditions?” I’d punch him in the mouth…
- For goodness sakes, don’t raise your voice and talk louder to people! People that don’t speak English aren’t deaf, necessarily, and they’re not stupid either. I was born in Wichita, KS and I’m as “white” as any other U.S. Caucasian, but my skin is much darker than most Minnesotans. It baffles them and I’m asked on a very regular basis, “What are you?” or “Where are you from, seriously?” Recently at the airport, a well-meaning local walked up to me and shouted, “HELLO, ARE YOU GOING HOME TO HAWAII??” **sigh** It’s no wonder people hate Americans…