How to Connect with a Foreign Culture

How to Connect with a Foreign Culture. A bus schedule in local bus station of Luang Prabang

After reading five-star reviews and going through two-hour lineups, how much free will is left to experience the occasion for what it really is for us? The event is so framed with preconception that it drifts closer to an act of checklist confirmation than self discovery.

Social media has fundamentally changed the way we travel. With a few mouse clicks, we can locate popular places to go and the transportation required to get there. Our knowledge extends from which dish to order down to the best route the taxi should take.

In extreme cases, it is not even necessary to speak a word of the language of the host country. We can look for guides who converse in our language and have menus and signposts translated to make decision making as pain-free as possible. And when everything else fails, there are always iPhone and Google products to rescue us out of a cultural quagmire.

While it is impressive the possibilities such advancement brings to us, they can also make it more difficult for us to connect with a foreign culture. Sharing a similar grand narrative, we end up seeing things the same way as others see and understand things the way others understand them. Things end up getting boring very quickly.

Two reasons why convenience makes personal connection difficult:

  1. By utilizing social media services designed to make traveling more convenient, such as crowd-sourced reviews and guides, we give up the opportunity to interpret experiences on our own terms free from the influence of public consensus.
  2. It makes it that much harder to interact with the locals because we can have questions answered from a device instead of a human being. It is naturally more comfortable for us to stay within what is familiar (e.g., our phones) than to talk to a stranger.

In one sentence: to build a personal connection with a foreign culture, it is essential to cultivate local ties and experience things independent of public consensus. We need to be judicious in the use of social media.

Influence from Public Consensus

Take foreign restaurants as an example. When traveling, we often rely on crowd-sourced reviews to decide which restaurant to visit. Unfortunately, when we read ahead of time the ins and outs of an location before even stepping into the place, the whole experience becomes a struggle between what we feel and how we should feel.

After reading the five-star reviews and going through the two-hour lineups, how much free will is left to experience the occasion for what it really is for us? The event is so framed with preconception that it drifts closer to an act of checklist confirmation than self discovery. The joy of surprise greatly diminishes and anything less than expected becomes a disappointment.

Even if we were able to suppress inflated expectation, the chance that a restaurant stays consistent to its pre-fame quality is small. More often, they would have altered their ingredients to further profit on their ever-increasing fame. Some are pressured into changing form to meet exaggerated expectations from the growing number of tourists.

It is from the experience of many that the likelihood of feeling satisfied or disappointed from a famed restaurant is similar to one chosen randomly without reading reviews beforehand.

This is not to say that crowd-sourced reviews are not useful by design. In a city where we already have an established connection with, reviews serve to enhance those connections. They weed out establishments inconsistent with a developed preference derived from a familiar culture.

In a foreign city, however, such preference and familiarity have yet to mature, making them especially susceptible to constructed opinions that may be incompatible to our own. This is why it is so important to be cautious of public consensus especially during the early phases of experiencing a new culture.

So here is a challenge — the next time we are in a foreign city, go to a restaurant without looking at the reviews ahead of time. We might very well end up in one that is highly regarded. But without knowing that, we allow ourselves to connect with the food on a more personal level and not have the pleasant surprise spoiled by the reviewers.

Even if the place turns out to be unpleasant to our taste, we would still have a more engaging experience unique to our own and perhaps a more interesting explanation as to why it is not to our liking. And many times, what is surprisingly unpleasant can be as educational and memorable as pleasant ones, especially in retrospect.

Hinderance to Cultivating Local Ties

Over-reliance on travel assistance also makes it less pertinent to interact with the locals, which in turn makes personal connection more difficult to establish.

In the past when modern technologies were nonexistent, traveling to a foreign country was fraught with risks. It was more likely to walk into dead ends, getting ripped off, or even putting oneself in physical harm. To alleviate such risks, it was crucial to establish relationship with the locals to secure allies and obtain life-saving information.

When a traveler’s survival depends on the relationship he builds, it becomes necessary for him to step out of his comfort zone and interact with strangers. By immersing himself in such interactions, he takes in the social cues, tones, and gestures and becomes proficient at deciphering that foreign language.

As a result, he typically has a more profound relationship with the place and its people. After all, a culture is not a culture without its people and language.

In today’s world, on the other hand, globalization and technological advancement have largely got rid of this need so, as a traveler, we can stay in our bubble of habits and predispositions and still navigate through a foreign landscape unscathed. When we are lost, we open Google Maps instead of asking for help. When we need conversation, we go on Facebook rather than chatting up a stranger in a cafe.

While these inventions bring unprecedented convenience to travellers, especially the business kind, for those whose goal is to connect with a culture, this convenience is at the same time an obstacle to overcome.

10 Ways to Build a Personal Connection with a Foreign Culture

Traveling without over-reliance on modern technologies is easier said than done, and it is not always advantageous to do so. In the preparation stage of a trip, for example, it is useful to acquire basic understandings such as weather pattern and transportation system.
But if we wish to seek that kind of personal connection with a foreign culture, it is necessary that we find the delicate balance between independence and convenienceHere are a few ideas how we can build a more personal connection with foreign cultures:
  1. Avoid previewing the streets or reading crowd-sourced reviews before arriving a new city.
  2. Use a map only sparingly. Budget enough time to get lost, for it is often when we get lost we walk into the most interesting encounters.
  3. Immerse in the environment and not the smartphone. Take cues from the surrounding instead of following step by step guides online.
  4. Take the train and get off at random stations, explore, and move on to the next.
  5. Use local lodging listings such as Airbnb and CouchSurfing instead of all-inclusive hotels.
  6. Be proactive and invite strangers to meals. Magical things happen when people share food.
  7. Enlist the help of locals and not your guidebook.
  8. Always ask questions. Not on Google, but the person beside you.
  9. Measure the success of a trip not by how many sites seen, but by how many friends made.
  10. When in doubt, walk in.



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