All of us who desire to fully experience another culture find ourselves at odds, at times, with our basic human natures. Craig Storti, author of The Art of Crossing Cultures (Intercultural Press, 1990) offers this advice:
“We speak of cultural adjustment, but in fact it is not to culture that we adjust, but to behavior. Culture, a system of beliefs and values shared by a particular group of people, is an abstraction which can be appreciated intellectually, but it is behavior, the principal manifestation and most significant consequence of culture, that we actually experience.”
We have to adjust to the behavior of the local people which unsettles, confuses or annoys us, Storti says, to successfully integrate ourselves into the culture, even if for a short visit. This consists of “learning how to recognize and check the impulse to withdraw” when we become uncomfortable. “The more we withdraw from the people, the more fault we find with them. The less we know about the culture, the more we seem to dislike it.”
How to overcome this quirk of human nature? Storti says don’t expect the local people to act or think like you. “In this age of the shrinking planet and the global village, we all know the world is composed of an enormous variety of peoples. How is it possible, then, to be steeped in the notion of cultural diversity and at the same time assume that everyone else is just like us?”
Explore what you can learn from others and celebrate the different perspectives of the world held by others. To do this opens you up to the possibility that you will return home with a much broader understanding of the world and your place in it. As T.S. Elliot wrote in the middle of the 20th century: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Contributed by Global Volunteers, www.globalvolunteers.org, a nonprofit, nonsectarian international development organization that coordinates more than 150 teams of volunteers who participate in short-term human and economic development projects as “servant-learners.” About 67% of volunteers are older adults; 70% are women.