Can we ever really integrate into a local culture when we travel abroad?

“Ninataka samaki tafadahli.” I closed my menu, confident in my ability to order a meal in Kiswahili.

“You want fish?” The waiter asked the question, confirming my order in English.

“Ndiyo,” I replied in the affirmative. “Asante sana.”

“You’re welcome.” He placed half a paper napkin and a fork on the table, took the menu and walked into the restaurant’s kitchen.

I fumed. I’d been living in Kenya for nearly eight months and once again I hadn’t made it through the conversation in the local language, though this wasn’t due to my lack of language proficiency. Despite my greatest attempts to assimilate into the culture, I found myself feeling frustrated that I was still treated like an outsider.

Respecting Customs and Culture

In traveling overseas, we’re always told that we need to respect the local customs and culture. This means wearing appropriate clothing, avoiding photography in sacred spaces, knowing what types of body language can be offensive, and receiving and giving gifts or food in certain occasions.

During my training as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, we spent hours talking about the local culture and customs. I took copious notes on the little things I could do to help immerse myself in the Kenyan culture and become a true member of the community I would live in during my service.

I was living in a culture where indirect communication was the norm. So when street hawkers at the bus stop hassled me, instead of telling the men that I didn’t want to buy their cheap items at all, I told them I was not interested in buying them today.

I had been advised not to wear sunglasses so that those I spoke to could see my eyes. I tucked my shades into the corner of my suitcase and wrote them off for the remainder of my stay. Better to endure retina burn than offend my neighbor.

In a country with tens of thousands of street kids, there was no doubt that I would be accosted and followed. To deal with the situation, the best thing I could do was turn my back and walk away like the other folks that wandered around town. As just another local person, the street kids would read my body language and find someone else to bother.

Translating my desire to fit in with the local culture and my success in doing so were two entirely different things.

This all sounds good in theory, but translating my desire to fit in with the local culture and my success in doing so were two entirely different things. Despite my greatest attempts to do everything I was told in order to respect the local culture, I was still treated like an American. My actions might have read “Kenyan” but my accent and skin color screamed “Westerner”.

I was the minority so I stood out from the crowd. Even though I did what I could to assimilate and immerse myself into the culture, it was impossible to escape the person I actually am.

Searching For Balance

Photo: babasteve

Kenya is not an isolated case for me; this happens frequently when I travel abroad and make an effort to observe the local culture and customs. I understand that this is something I must face. I also know I am not alone in trying to find the balance between fitting in with the locals and being myself.

In a recent blog post on The Longest Way Home, Dave wrote about a similar struggle in his nearly five years on the road:

I’ve lived in a local community, given my time, money, and experience. In return I’ve been treated very well, I’ve been awarded great prestige and honors. I’ve been invited to houses for dinners, parties, celebrations. But, I still have not been able to grasp true social integration with local people. Maybe it never happens. There is always a missing link that neither side can manage to cross over and truly grasp.

Even in my attempts to “become” a local by observing the same habits and body language that the Kenyans had, the people with whom I interacted responded to me like the person I am – an American. In this way, we would volley back and forth between cultures, me playing the role of a local person and the local person responding as though I was a Westerner.

It happened in restaurants, with street hawkers and on public transportation. I ordered in Kiswahili, they responded in English. I said I’d consider buying something tomorrow, and instead of walking away, street hawkers hounded me more, moving from simply trying to sell me cheap goods to touching, laughing and pointing at me. Ditto with the street kids, who didn’t think twice about harassing me while I meekly tried to shoo them away.

Accepting Who I Am

I look back now and think that it took me too long to realize I could never fully assimilate into a culture that wasn’t mine by nature. By the time I recognized this fact, I felt like I’d lost my self-respect and integrity in an attempt to please the local people.

I felt irritated, angry and jaded. I realize now my efforts at being someone else can’t come to fruition simply because, underneath the façade, I am still me.

This isn’t to say that being a Westerner abroad has to be a bad thing – it just means that when I travel now, I acknowledge the things that I will face as a result of being an American on the road. I do long to fit in seamlessly with the locals I meet on the street, whether they are in Cusco or Kampala, but the reality is that it can never happen.

I have learned, instead, that I can respect the local culture and customs, but I can expect to receive different treatment than those actually integrated into the culture. If someone is going to treat me like an American, in certain situations I have to act like one, like myself – in the most respectable way possible.

If I need those sunglasses I so carefully buried in the back of my suitcase, so be it. Perhaps I’ll pull them out and slip them on after all.

Have you had a similar cultural experience, or do you think it’s easy to assimilate into certain other cultures? Share your thoughts below.

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