I wasn’t sure I heard her right the first time.
“I said leave my store! I have many windows you can look in from!” she yelled, probably mistaking me for an impoverished immigrant she didn’t want in her shop.
Visibly stunned, I vowed never to return to culturally diverse Luxembourg. As I marched off, the words “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!” stopped me.
Another middle-aged woman was chasing me uphill with a bag of groceries. She finally reached me, panting to collect her breath. This perfect stranger had also been a customer in the store.
“Je suis désolée! I’m so sorry!” She apologized on behalf of the shopkeeper.
I could have stereotyped the shopkeeper as a rude Frenchwoman, but I chose not to do so – based on the actions of another French woman. Instead, the rude woman remained only a rude woman.
Just keep an open mind,” is a phrase that’s easier said than done. Even the most intrepid of travelers morph into creatures of habit, reverting back to their comfort zone when faced with challenges.
Keeping an open mind does not mandate that you ditch your core values and spiritual beliefs. On the contrary, it implores you to acknowledge that others have their own beliefs as well.
An open mind allows us to ask questions of other cultures and of ourselves, evaluating the possibilities that there might be answers different from ones we’ve always held.
Clifton Fadiman, a writer and critic, eloquently explains that “…when you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
Though years of immersion can draw you closer into the true belly of a culture, on many levels, you’ll always remain a foreigner.
Locals may reject your notions of what you think is important. While many Western cultures view time as money, a large portion of the world views time as something to be savored.
When dealing with “island” time or other cultural norms, constantly remember that you are the stranger. Locals are not required to adapt their lifestyles to accept you. If they do, you should consider their flexibility a privilege.
On the opposite end, being accepted too quickly might mean that locals are treating you differently as a foreigner, giving you false insight into their true culture.
The key to keeping an open mind is to evaluate if they’re giving you preferential treatment because of your physical attributes or what you represent, rather than you as an individual. Use keen observation to view how locals interact with each other to get a truer sense of their daily lives.
Assessing each situation independently
The key to organically experiencing a different culture is to assess each situation independently. One tends to fall back on widely known stereotypes and overvalue one’s culture when suddenly faced with unpleasant encounters.
Maybe that Luxembourg shopkeeper was having a bad day or just had deep-seated prejudices. I’ll never know, but I’ll always remember the stranger who apologized. I’ve since been back to the Benelux area multiple times.
Stereotypes are born when we take the actions of an individual and apply them to an entire culture, race, or generation. It is important to understand that a culture, though vastly different from yours, is innately logical to locals.
For example: Swedes freeze sliced bread to preserve the freshness. For centuries, the Aztecs and Chinese have dealt with stress and anxiety through simple meditation and breathing techniques to more “controversial” methods like acupuncture.
Some cultures view sleep as that unnecessary period deterring us from getting work done, while others welcome sleep with open arms.
Observing how others handle similar issues can both teach and enrich us.
Dealing with more controversial practices
For altitude sickness in higher altitude locations such as Cuzco, Peru, you could spend time popping pills to combat altitude sickness – or you could do as the locals do: chew coca leaves or drink coca tea.
The indigenous cultures of the Andes and Altiplano have lived in the region for decades and know how to suppress symptoms naturally and very quickly. Taking coca leaves outside of South America is prohibited because, in very large quantities, coca is the underlying raw material used to manufacture cocaine.
Eating poppy-seed bagels does not equate to using opium, neither does eating grapes equate to drinking alcoholic wine. We usually evaluate alternate solutions when solving problems.
Solutions from within different cultures should not be automatically deemed nonviable because we don’t completely understand them.
There isn’t a clear line to cross when absorbing other cultures into your lifestyle. You draw the line where you want to cross based on your own personal convictions and beliefs.
Challenging yourself to try new things
You don’t have to bungee-jump off a bridge over Waikato River in New Zealand to prove open-mindedness if you know you’ll go into cardiac arrest.
Nor should you eat fried tarantulas in Cambodia if the sight alone invokes violent retching.
However, travel demands you step outside your comfort bubble. Challenging yourself to sample facets of a culture is the underlying purpose of travel. Whether it’s trying local cuisines or undertaking a new activity, the only way you can truly enrich your life through travel is to participate.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home,” said the popular American Author, James Michener.
As you open up your mind, you will notice your heart expanding in parallel. You’ll find yourself more forgiving and your own prejudices slowly chipping away over time.
Have you had an experience on the road where you could have exercised open-mindedness? Leave a comment below!
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Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström
Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström is a MatadorU faculty member and Network contributor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Vogue, BBC, Fodors.com, and many more. Follow her photoblog at Sweden.se.
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