You have it all?
What about a new perspective and fresh way of thinking that gives you the edge?
“A huge slice of the male population is missing out on the life and perspective-changing experiences that come from study abroad … and they will make decisions based on a highly limited world view.”
Alex Berger doesn’t pull any punches in his analysis of the imbalance of gender among those who study abroad. He likes the idea of men developing a broader global perspective.
I like the idea of ‘pan.’
Not just pans for cooking or finding ore, but ‘pan’ for its meaning as a prefix. ‘All inclusive.’ Pan-cultural, pantheist, pan-political. What a great way to answer all kinds of questions about religion, politics, and culture. Not to mention the echo of ancient Greek gods who convey the archetype of the Wild Man. Pan speaks of the goat and the pre-agricultural bond they have with humans, which is a relationship that runs pan-era through human existence. Pan-orama also speaks of movement and the creation of a broader view that encompasses more detail to gain a truer appearance of the original scene.
These thoughts of language, its differences, similarities, and shared growth are the unintended results of almost two decades of travel. In 1996 I became a turtle, my home carried on my back. Though I would settle in for years at a time and really get to know a place, that old black rucksack is always 75% packed and ready for the road, by any means necessary, at any time.
Immersive travel gives us access to a variety of culture. It gives us a place to explore new ways of thinking through community participation and contribution. Travel can strip away the most deeply ingrained stereotypes we never even knew existed inside us. The discovery of community connections with a culture vastly different from our own conditioning exposes common human concerns: environment, stability, and choice.
The traveler on a journey immerses in the ebb and flow of cultural change, changing towns, changing landscapes, and changing people whizzing or crawling by depending on the mode of travel. The traveler picks and chooses a balance of cultures; one’s own and a blend of local cultures traveled through.
If you choose to live, work, or study in another culture, it brings the game to a whole new level. Here the cultural door is much wider open than in any other possible travel experience, because you become an active participant in the community. You become socially connected and learn to grow and adapt with the community under the guide of local culture and customs. A simple concept we might be familiar with is growing up in a small town or large family. We just don’t often apply that experience with another culture.
A young mental health intern from Korea introduced me to the reality that global travel could challenge my mind. He said:
“If you want to open your mind, visit another country that uses a different language. If you want to really challenge your mind, live in another country that uses a different written script.”
A couple of years outside the cultural condition you grew up in can be totally mind-altering if it is approached from outside your conditioned frame. The furthest I could imagine to remove myself from the culture I grew up under was to go to China, a different culture, country, language, and script. How do you even look up a pictograph-based language in a translation dictionary without the English word being known first? Culturally, China was a huge reset button on my perspective and frame of mind. When you are living, immersing, participating, and contributing to the community, you fit into the flow in ways you never did at home. Fresh eyes and new scenes enliven the mind. If I don’t see something each day that makes me say “I’ve never seen that before,” then I’m not paying close enough attention. Even the day to day never really becomes commonplace anymore.
How can we reset the mind through living in another culture?
The whole concept of cultural judgment can kill the travel experience for many. You cannot go into, or interact with, another culture by basing your perspective from your own culture. First you have to learn the other culture to an extent where you can see the culture through its own eyes. Then you begin to balance and rationalize between your own cultural conditioning and others. Starting is easy if you show a bit of respect for the local culture by demonstrating knowledge of just one custom. This can open the cultural door to an exchange that you are likely to find equivalent to some of the best travel literature ever written.
Simply thinking that the trip should be like home is one of the biggest and most common mistakes that lead to sadly disappointing trips abroad. I know what you might be thinking, “Why leave home if you want the other place to be like home?” And you are correct, but it is not a conscious thing that pops up. It is a slow thing, a little detail about another culture that rubs the wrong way, like sand between two folds of skin. It begins to irritate. Then the comparisons with home culture begin. This is dangerous ground. If you step too far, you start judging the other culture by the standards of your own. A very common thing that is done day to day while we watch the drama of international news play out. However, when you are immersed in another culture, and you try to play by all the same rules and standards that you would at home, you are setting yourself up for a bad trip. You don’t have to play by all the rules, but choosing a balance makes things go so much smoother.
Travel, especially immersion in another culture, enhances our perspective and gives an ability to see beyond the surface of things. It enriches the depth of perspective that is possible. When you are living and participating in another culture you get to know the neighbors, the vendors, and the people you interact with everyday. Even the most socially isolated people can’t avoid positive interactions when they are living in a vastly different culture. You get to know the routines, the manners, the in and outs and the up and downs of another way of thinking. You start to balance and weigh the possibilities of different ways of seeing. It starts to strip away at the differences, and you start to focus on the commonality. The things we all share. One common connection I have found from years of talking with people from numerous cultures is the importance of the environment and concern about its protection. This is the common ground of humanity that living abroad can show. We discover the real street-level human concerns in this critical era of change.
Immersive travel, the type where you live, work or study in another culture begins to stretch your point of view. Other cultures act as sculptors on your self-image and worldview. These sculptors don’t chip away so much as they add to, stretch and try to encompass more. Cultural exposure becomes like a set of building blocks. You find a detail block from one culture that suits the circumstances. Then add another detail block from somewhere else that fits the situation. You gain bigger sets of examples and options the more cultures you spend time in. You discover yourself and communication forms that go beyond words. You find out who and what you can really be.
The diversified cultures and perspectives that are offered by humanity are a testament to the human ability to adapt to any conditions and survive. Each culture has a piece of the global puzzle to offer. The solution to reforming global society into a sustainable and safe environment for all forms of existence is achievable. We just might have to make a really big Rojak to find all the needed cultural tastes to create a world that provides the real social nutrition we crave. The leaders who will solve this puzzle are not in office, yet. I don’t know who they will be. However, I do know that they will all need broad cultural experience in order to achieve the goal of balance for our planet.
Of all the changes that travel can induce, one of the most difficult to face comes after the fact, when the journey is done. The change you have experienced is rooted and set. Then you return home. Your changed perspective can be shocking when you focus it on your home culture. The new insight into yourself has been growth inducing. However, this same new view placed on the culture you were fermented in is not so easy. The biggest manifestation of this can come in the form of friends and family. After a few years abroad, absorbing and assimilating other cultures, languages, and ways of thinking you are not the same you. Old home culture interactions can be a struggle. The ‘you’ you were and your new cultural perspective and outlook can be far removed. It is challenging. Do you just play the role of the old you, or do you embrace the new you, or is there a balance to be met? Regardless of the choice you make, the fact remains that the adaptability you have gained from immersive travel will help you choose.
For me, I have chosen to make fewer and less frequent trips back home. To the point that ‘home’ is not really the place I grew up anymore. Now, I connect with the place where I am; the pack on my back. My returns home have been lively and fun, until the best of my travel tales have spun out, and the conversations of ambitions, hopes and dreams begin. At times I played the ‘me’ that every culture I have participated in has made me. At times I just let myself be cast in that old ‘me’ role. No matter how many years had passed since I had worn that hat. Now, I just try to keep it in the present and be with who is there. I try to see what the prevailing winds of that place are. If the winds blow with me, I ride. If the winds blow against, I take a pause to reflect on the local culture and its ideas, whether from far lands or the hometown of my old friends. I wait a few beats before I jump in to evaluate or criticize. That last part is a tough one. It takes some time to develop an outside view of the culture you grew up in and be tolerant of it.
A big hurdle for me was recognizing that socially negative behavioral responses to stereotypes are a conditioned part of cultural and social indoctrination. These behaviors can manifest without total conscious choice. Only by learning to adapt inside other cultures can we evolve our social model to become tolerant and inclusive of all possibilities.
Self-confidence, self-reliance, creative problem solving, patience, tolerance of difficulty, ability to assimilate into new situations. This is quite a list that reads like highly marketable qualities for adaptability and success. All these things I have seen increase in others and myself who have spent time living in places far removed from their hometown cultures.
Make a plan, get up and get out before it is too late!