What makes a cultural experience a good one?

21 May

What makes a cultural experience a good one? I think good in this case means something like feeling part of a culture, being immersed in it or in other words: getting over your culture-shock, because you start seeing the culture that ‘shocked’ you as ‘normal’. To put the terminology right: I used culture-shock in this blog kind of as ‘not feeling at home’. A bit of that feeling you have when coming in a strange place and having no clue what is going on and what is considered as normal in that place.

I think managed to overcome my culture-shock in Guatemala, but not so much in Australia. In this blog I want to try to identify some of the factors that help to overcome a culture-shock by comparing these two experiences.

In Guatemala I felt like an outsider until I learned to speak the language and became able to interact with my host family and started to make local friends. From the moment I tried to communicate in Spanish I ate with locals, partied with locals and worked with locals on my project. As for Australia my local interaction is not that intense. I live with a bunch of internationals in the village and contact with Aussies is pretty much limited to some people I know from my classes. So one of the factors to overcome a culture-shock is the intensity (and duration) of contact with the locals. To increase this intensity you should speak the language, but more live with (and like) the locals.

A second factor I thought of is money. You need to be able to do something, travel around, party and meet people. The more locals you speak with, the better you will understand their culture and it’s internal differences. In Australia I happen to be chronically short of money and stay at home a lot to watch a movie and drink a beer from the liquor store. In Guatemala it was a bit like I had cash to burn. It’s relatively cheap for an European, so in three months I had seen every bar in Antigua, traveled around the whole country and talked with many different Guatemalans in many different places.

A third factor definitely is the openness of the foreign culture. Australia is one of those cultures that overuses technology: think about it, how much communication goes via Facebook alone already? Australia is also not a closed culture, people and friendly and willing to help, but it’s not comparable to Guatemala. I think it also helps to do something different than just tourism. It’s more likely that you get an understanding of a local culture by studying together or teaching school kids rather than asking somebody from STA-travel to show you an aboriginal site.

In Guatemala I learned what it was like to be a Guatemalan, in Australia I’m still an international hanging out with other people who don’t have a clue in what sort of country they’re actually living. Not that it really matters, my main reason for being here is to study, but the point to make is that whether you feel at home in a foreign country or not depends partly on the foreign culture and partly on what you do in that country and how much effort you put in to actually understand why you are ‘culture-shocked’

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3 Responses to “What makes a cultural experience a good one?”

  1. stellainindia May 21, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Oh, you really got me thinking how welcoming we are in Aus. You should not be here to study, we travel for experience, to meet new people. Not saying you are writing a cry for help, but it changes the way I look at my country, knowing that it is foreign. I’m going to put in some effort next time I meet an exchange student. Less drinking a beer at home, more party time I think.

    • Christian van Ommeren May 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

      Haha, well I am exaggerating it a bit, trying to make my point 🙂

      The difference between Guatemala and Australia is not so much in fun, but more in how much it was a ‘cultural experience’. Here I live with internationals, drink (with internationals), study courses with more internationals than aussies and I’m gonna travel with my (Dutch) girlfriend. There I went alone, lived with locals, drank with locals, learned a foreign language and worked on a voluntary project.

      So yeah, I guess how much you do with local people is how much you feel at home. It’s probably more of your own choice than how welcoming the Aussies are 🙂

  2. Andrea June 8, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    – Whoa, whoa, whoa you’re in Xela?! Is this a Compassion trip? My best friend lives in Quetzaltenango (locals call it Xela , in case you haven’t neitcod). I love that place. If you’re there all week, I’d love to connect you with him. He teaches English at a Christian-based school. Would love to connect you, if you’re interested.And you’re right Guatemalan breakfast is awesome.

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