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You may fill your backpack, but have you remembered to bring an open mind?

Photo by Lola Akinmade

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.

Practicing Tolerance

“Just keep an open mind,” is a phrase that’s easier said than done.

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.

Facing Rejection

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.

Photo by Lola Akinmade

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

Solutions from within different cultures should not be automatically deemed nonviable because we don’t completely understand them.

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!

Culture + Religion


About The Author

Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström

Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström is a MatadorU faculty member and Network contributor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Vogue, BBC,, and many more. Follow her photoblog at

  • Rebecca

    I really liked your article. Whenever I travel I do take an “open mind” with me. People are people no matter where you go, even if it’s in your backyard! For example, I moved to Arizona from Ohio. I decided to drive from Ohio to Arizona. Yikes! Ohians drive differently from Arizonians. The speed limits in Arizona are higher than in Ohio, even in school zones. People do “U-Turns” all of the time with ease. This was total “shock” for me. If you did a U-Turn in Ohio, you most likely hear a police siren. Of course, Arizona does have many people moving to the state from different parts of the USA. This means driving habits will differ! I did not think about this until it was pointed out to me.

    Also, you mentioned that “Swedes freeze sliced bread to preserve the freshness.” My mom freezes bread all of the time. No, I am not part Swedish.

  • chris

    Keeping an open mind is sooooo hard when traveling overseas. I admit that I usually don’t do it. If nothing else, it would be smart just for safety’s sake. Very nice article. Thanks!

  • Matt

    Well-written, and such a timely topic.

    I spent some time living and working in Germany, and although I had studied the language and culture for some time, German “Gemuetlichkeit” is something that is hard to understand, or even explain, without experiencing.

    It’s that sense of comfortability and relaxation with company and in social settings that Americans (the inventors of dinner AND a movie, lest we not cram as many activities as possible into our oh-so-precious time slots) struggle with. I found myself antsy, always asking “what’s next?”

    I grew to appreciate it, but could never quite shake my anticipation.

    Just a small example, but an interesting one nonetheless…

  • Julie

    This is a great, great piece. I really loved the shopkeeper story when you told it to me, and I liked it even more this time. My friend Diane tells me: Always ask yourself; What are the 10 possibilities that someone is acting or doing something differently from the way you might wish or expect? The question frequently comes in handy, while traveling at home in daily life or being abroad!

  • Spillay

    I truly enjoyed reading this post! We can never be reminded enough about having an open mind :) .

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  • Amanda

    Lola, this is fantastic, and full of very good points. All of which I totally agree with! It was interesting that you wrote about foreigners getting preferential treatment for no reason other than their foreignness – I remember this happening quite often in Japan (for example, a stranger on a train, who hadn’t even spoken to me, gave me a mandarin one day – I’m sure she wouldn’t have given it to a Japanese person) and I felt uncomfortable because I hadn’t done anything at all other than look different.

    Keeping an open mind is definitely the key to successful and satisfying traveling. (Hmm, maybe for life in general!). From my travels and also from my English language students I’ve learned not to judge any “strange” idea until I’ve let someone explain it to me some more. I hope I always stick to this.

  • Lola Akinmade

    Thanks guys for your comments and great examples

    Amanda – Spot on regarding preferential treatment. As one travels to more remote locations, you get more of both extremes – preferential treatment or absolute rejection.

  • Kellea Croft

    Yep, another fab article. It is soooo true. If you don’t travel with an open mind you will miss the whole point of why you went to see another country in the first place.

    I had a pom (British citizen) stay with us for a week while he was visiting Australia. He kept asking merchants what that price equaled in British pounds and telling everyone “I’m English …” when starting a conversation. They were put off by him because he wanted special treatment for being English. He didn’t get to experience the true country and was bored by the whole trip.

    Even though a lot of countries speak English, they will not attempt to let you know that fact unless you make an effort to speak theirs. In Germany I went to German schools and know that it was a requirement to learn, but until I was fluent in their language they would stick their nose up at me.

    I was put off by a store keeper in Paris that scared the living hell out of me pulling me into a shop to buy shoes. I was 13 and thought this man was trying to run off with me. I screamed bloody murder until my parents came. But when in painter’s square I met the nicest people willing to work with my inadequate French to learn about what was going on with their work.

    You take from a country what you bring to it.

  • Turner Wright

    Well said, Lola.

    I can definitely identify my open-mindedness in Japan as the first time I tried a hot springs (onsen) over here; it actually took me eight months because a) I wasn’t in an area that had decent hot springs and b) I was still pretty closed-minded about the idea of communal bathing. This was rather stupid on my part, as I had studied Roman history, and knew that these people, once considered the epitome of civilization, used bathhouses very similar to those in Japan. Once I did actually take the plunge, both literally and figuratively, I was hooked, and can’t imagine what it’s going to be like living in Thailand without this simple comfort.

  • brice2b

    I couldn't agree more with you Lola!
    an open mind is for sure the right attitude to have while traveling. it's not an easy task though! we are so formated by our own culture that our mind meets difficulties to accept other ways of thinking but our own…
    I personally always try to get rid of those old habits we tend to have: judging people from other cultures on the basis of how we would think or do things at home. I think it is part of being a good traveler.
    The world would definitely be better off without all those clichés and stereotypes…

  • Adrienne

    Great article Lola. I don't want to sound perfect here, but I usually travel with open mind and I find it is the gift that keeps giving. I'm certainly not suggesting anyone toss their own values, morals, eating habits, beliefs, etc. into the wind, but an open is your very best friend abroad. That's where the exchange begins – the magic! Agree to disagree, right?

  • HyderabadChick


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