Cultural Humility and Perspective

Aside from just being a lot of fun, foreign travel changes the traveler. For example, Chris likes to say that everyone should travel abroad so they can experience what it means to be in the minority.

Unfortunately, the stereotype of the obnoxious traveler can occur, I believe, when we enter another culture without the proper respect and appreciation for our host country. Foreigners sometimes criticize cultural differences (or similarities) rather than embracing them, and thus may come across as arrogant and unpleasant. For example, I overheard Americans commenting at length about the graffiti observed from the train… as if the French shouldn’t have graffiti when we have it all over our major cities.

As a minority who was born and raised in America, I’m pretty sensitive to being a racial minority but oblivious to being a cultural minority. In other words, a Caucasian traveler in the US may feel culturally conspicuous as the customs or language of the host country may be vastly different from their own.

When in the cultural minority when I travel, I find the language barrier mortifying.   I have never been very good at learning other languages, including the one that I should be able to speak (Mandarin, since I’m the daughter of Mandarin-speaking immigrants; this is particularly embarrassing for me). It’s almost worse when the locals speak English yet I can barely speak a word of their language while I’m visiting their country. To me, this disparity feels intensely disrespectful and I’m all the more impressed with others who are at all fluent in a language other than their native tongue.

In addition, foreign travel gives one a fresh appreciation for differences in culture and custom resulting in a new perspective of one’s own customs (What? We have to weigh our own fruit?).   There is so much about our own culture that I completely take for granted, so being submerged in another culture reminds me that many perspectives and approaches are equally valid, valuable and important, not only across countries but between cultural backgrounds within our own country.

Unfortunately, those differences are all too easily misunderstood (No, we’re not stupid. We’re ignorant). I believe a disadvantage of being American is that for most of us, foreign boundaries are all too far away and we often take for granted that the American way is THE way. Even if we don’t feel that way, it’s too easy to fall into complacency about our cultural assumptions. The problem with that complacency is that we are a large and extremely diverse country and it’s too easy to make assumptions about how ‘it should be’ when it may not necessarily make sense for another American with a different cultural sensitivity.

This subject came up recently when discussing what it is like for international students at our university. In other words, how can we accommodate and respect the cultures of those students but yet set certain standards on campus? We’re walking a fine line where we expect foreign nationals to respect and abide by our cultural norms while trying to respect theirs. The university setting is just a microcosm of our culture at large… we face the same issues on a national and even international scale.

I don’t really know the answer to such questions as I’m simply a pharmaceutical scientist and positive psychology practitioner. Perhaps the first step is to simply try to understand someone else’s perspective, withhold judgment as much as possible, and try to find the upside of that perspective even when we disagree with it. After all, isn’t that how we would want to be treated?

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