Being immersed in another culture is one of the most important and enjoyable parts of traveling. But can you take it too far?
Traveling abroad with an open mind means exploring the customs, cuisine and fashion of another culture. Yet adopting the practices of a culture that isn’t yours can raise criticism and debate. For example, is a Thai tattoo a permanent reminder of your time abroad, or a sign of appropriating Thai traditions?
Cultural immersion is an important part of GVI’s volunteer programs. It’s essential for reaching a deeper understanding of your host country and the issues they face. With that in mind, we’re exploring the idea of appreciating another culture while treating it with respect.
What is cultural immersion?
Cultural immersion is simply diving deep into a culture that isn’t yours. An open mind is key. Learning about your host culture can involve living in a homestay and trying out traditional meals, learning to speak or greet people in a different way, or shopping in the neighborhood markets to pick up an outfit in a style of dress preferred by local communities.
Integrating culture with tourism can benefit both travelers and locals. Experiencing and participating in other cultures is usually the most memorable part of traveling. It’s what makes spending time overseas so compelling and is the foundation for becoming a more conscious global citizen.
Adopting local customs or dress can also be a sign of respect and help you assimilate faster and gain a better understanding of your surroundings. For a host country, sharing culture with foreigners can help bridge misconceptions and break down stereotypes.
Cultural immersion vs cultural appropriation: What’s the difference?
Cultural appropriation can most simply be described as adopting aspects of another culture as your own. For example, if you are taking the traditional clothing of another culture and using those items as statements to be trendy or edgy, then there’s a good chance you’re appropriating that culture.
The key difference between cultural immersion and appropriation is that when people appropriate traditions, cuisine, dress, or language, they do so while marginalizing the culture where those things originated.
Immersion might explore the same artifacts or areas of interest, but with a much more sensitive and respectful approach.
If enjoying aspects of another culture benefits you more than the local people, it is likely straying into the territory of cultural misappropriation. On the other hand, immersion is a way of appreciating a culture and facilitating meaningful exchange.
How to draw the line
The line between appreciating and appropriating another culture can seem blurred. However, if you stick to some basic guidelines you’ll find yourself comfortably on the side of immersion. Being a conscious, responsible traveler is important in making sure you appreciate, rather than appropriate, culture.
Recognizing your privilege as a foreign tourist is step number one. Understand that you are a guest in another country and should act accordingly.
Take the time to learn about the culture of you host country. Ask questions, observe, and do your own research. Background on what artifacts or customs mean to locals will help you appreciate and understand them, and help you avoid accidentally exploiting them.
Instead of buying something because it looks cool, buy it because the history fascinates you, it reminds you of your homestay mom, or it will be a souvenir you can treasure as a memory of your trip.
Understanding context is often the key to separating out immersion and appropriation. For example, if objects are sacred you should make an effort to understand their significance and whether or not it is appropriate to take photos of or even buy certain objects.
It’s also a good idea to question how your participating in the local culture impacts people. For example, if you shop for souvenirs, try to buy from local craftspeople and vendors. If you buy from large companies who are making a profit from producing cultural items, you could be contributing to that culture being exploited.
Cultural immersion while volunteering
GVI actively encourages cultural immersion on volunteer programs. Volunteering is a great way for people to participate in other cultures and take part in cultural exchanges.
All of our volunteer programs take a community-driven and collaborative approach, which means volunteers will be placed at the heart of a community.
You’ll find that locals are happy to teach you how to speak their language and conduct yourself in public like them. This will help you integrate even further into the community and see life there with an insider’s eyes.
The respect you gain for your host country’s culture and people will be helpful in guiding your decisions around how you behave and the kinds of souvenirs you choose to take home with you.
In GVI’s volunteer program in Chiang Mai, for example, volunteers are accommodated in homestays and develop close relationships with the local community. Housing is typically basic, but you’ll be living with a warm family who will introduce you to traditional ways of life. You’ll learn to adapt and develop a deep respect for Thai traditions.
Overall, we believe this makes volunteers’ experiences much more meaningful, and ensures that the local community is always closely involved in the running of the volunteer program.
Explore more volunteer programs around the world to find your opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture.