Are you keen to learn about cultures, but don’t know where to begin?
It seems to me that a lot of people have a general curiosity about other cultures, but that they are either unable- or unwilling to follow through with that curiosity.
Quite honestly, that is probably not so surprising. Curiosity is important, but for most people it isn’t a strong-enough driver to take action.
That is such a shame, because immersion in another culture has so many personal benefits such as:
- gaining the ability to look at the world from a new perspective
- learning incredible amounts about yourself- and your own culture
- preparing yourself for the workforce of the future, which is defined by diversity and needs a high degree of cross-cultural competence
- turning every day into a unique learning opportunity
From this point onward, this article will address two main points. First, I will discuss some of the major barriers to cultural immersion. Next, I will talk about some strategies on how to fully immerse yourself in other cultures.
Barriers to complete cultural immersion
Barrier #1: Cultural immersion is very time- and energy intensive
This is a barrier to cultural immersion, but it is also the one thing that makes it so incredibly powerful.
You can spend your whole life learning about different cultures, and you will still only have scratched the surface. You can even spend your whole life immersing yourself in one single foreign culture, and you will still not know everything that there is to learn.
Each individual culture is the collective wisdom that hundreds of generations of its ancestors — as well as currently living members of that culture — have accumulated. Plus, there is a sheer unlimited amount of cultures out there in the world. After all, when we talk about culture, national cultures are only the very surface of where it begins.
In other words, cultural immersion is a lifetime job.
You can not just follow your curiosity for a while, learn a little bit about different cultures here and there, and then think of yourself as somebody who is competent in intercultural communication.
Instead, you will have to find ways of making cultural immersion a part of your daily routine. The people you spend time with. The work you do. The place you live in. The environment you expose yourself to. The books you read.
Every aspect of your life needs to be adjusted to the process of complete immersion.
Barrier #2: Cultural immersion requires creativity and self-motivation
Nobody will ever tell you: “go and learn more about other cultures!”.
Well, at least it is very rare. I actually do know somebody who is taking part of a program by Samsung which is called the “regional experts program” or something like that.
What this involves is that it sends high-performing employees to one specific country for two years, where they primarily focus on learning about the country’s language and its culture. During this period of time, they are not actively working, but they still receive a full salary.
Anyways, I am drifting off. With the exception of programs like these, which are very rare, people have to make their own effort of immersing themselves in other cultures. Plus, there aren’t really any well-defined learning objectives. Sometimes, you are not really aware of the real effects that this learning process has on your own development.
So, making cultural immersion a part of your life requires quite a large degree of creativity.
Let’s just assume for a moment that you are still living in your own country. How would you make sure that you have regular learning opportunities about another culture?
One example could be that you find “Skype friends” on the internet. People from another culture with whom you are building a relationship by having conversations regularly via Skype.
Or, you could do some research and find out that there is actually a “Chinese networking group” in your city which meets once a month and also allows people who are interested in the culture to join.
There are so many ways to expose yourself to another culture, but finding them requires you to search actively, use your creativity, and stay motivated.
That also includes the kings class of cultural immersion: moving to another country. It takes a lot of planning, searching for information, preparation, and willpower.
Barrier #3: Cultural immersion causes negative feelings
There is a lot of pain involved in the process of true cultural immersion.
A friend of mine described this quite accurately before:
Adapting to another culture involves two main forms of pain. Firstly, the pain of recognizing that a lot of the things you believed in were wrong. Secondly, the pain of internalizing beliefs that are completely different from anything that you are used to.
Unfortunately, our instincts tell us to avoid pain.
This is the case for all processes of growth. Whether it is the pain that you get when you do physical exercise, the pain that you get when you expose yourself to work beyond your capabilities, or the pain that you get when you are doing hard mental exercises for a long period of time.
Perhaps the main differences in cultural immersion is this: the pain doesn’t go away for quite a long time.
Because it is a pain that results out of the questioning of your core beliefs and the restructuring of your own belief system, the pain stays for quite a long time… until you are finding yourself in that new cultural environment.
The only thing that you can really do here is to remind yourself that this pain is necessary in order to move forward, and that it is the beginning of a process of personal transformation. A necessary step in your process of growth.
Tips on how to fully immerse yourself in other cultures
Tip #1: Start wherever you are right now
This is among the best business advice advice that I have ever heard, but it also holds true for cultural immersion.
Just look around you: what opportunities are there for you in close proximity to you that will allow you to immerse yourself fully in another culture?
An acquaintance of mine who studied Persian Studies at a university in Germany spent almost all of her time in Germany with friends who were originally from Iran. In that way, she had learned to speak relatively advanced Farsi before she ever came to Iran and in a relatively brief period of time.
Start putting your brain into a mindset where you are actively searching for opportunities to experience other cultures.
The brain is always unconsciously screening the environment for the things that you are programming it to search for. It’s just like that phenomenon that when you buy a new car, suddenly you see the same type of car everywhere. Become conscious about it and search for learning opportunities all the time.
Tip #2: Find a culture that you are passionate about
The first real exposure of what it is like to be immersed in another culture was when I was about 17 years old. Together with a group of about 10 people or so, I went to Indonesia for about a month to volunteer in a reforestation project on Bali.
We were planting trees, and helped to take care of the children in an orphanage, all the while working closely together with local people.
Unsurprisingly, for my first longer stay abroad with AFS Intercultural Programs, I decided to go to Indonesia. I had already gotten a glimpse of the Indonesian culture, and I was curious to learn more about it and understand it better.
Start exposing yourself to a lot of different cultures. But also start developing a passion for specific places. You will be drawn to them for the rest of your life, and it will be enriching for you in so many ways.
Tip #3: Prepare yourself for moving abroad
This preparation depends very much on your individual life circumstances. If you are a student, for example, you will have to start looking for universities in the country of your choice. If you are planning to work over there, you will have to start looking for potential employers and for things like visa issues and so on and so forth.
Regardless of where you are in life, this preparation always starts with one thing: the decision and the conviction that you are going to do it… and that you will do it by a specific time.
For example, I had a friend from New Zealand. He had already moved to Australia, but now he was ready for making a move to a country which was much more culturally different.
He had a passion for East-Asian countries, but his job was in the area of construction — technical drawing to be precise.
From his perspective, he thought it wouldn’t make sense to try and get a job in that field in East Asia. So he started to take classes to become a certified English teacher while he was still working in Australia.
At the same time, he started reading more about different countries — Japan, Korea and China in particular, and eventually he decided that Korea would be the best possible option for his own circumstances. He started to approach headhunters, and also started learning a little bit of Korean.
The whole process of preparation took about a year or so, but eventually he made it. He moved to Korea.
Is he going to work as an English-teacher for the rest of his life? Probably not. But it opened the door for him to move to his country of choice, and now he can plan on how to move forward from this point onward.
Tip #4: Go for full immersion
Whatever you do when you are moving abroad, please don’t fall into the most common trap: the expat bubble.
It is normal that when we are moving overseas, we have the tendency to seek out other foreigners. Foreigners always feel that they can understand one another much better than people who have lived in their own countries’ for their whole lives.
And it is true. We need somebody with whom we can share our experiences in the new country. With whom we can sometimes complain about stuff that is bothering us in the new country. Somebody whom we can understand without exerting a lot of energy just trying to understand what is going on.
The more we get drawn into the expat bubble, the lazier we become.
I can see this in myself sometimes, too. The more I spend time with my foreign friends, the less need do I feel the need to socialize with local people of the country I live in.
When we feel lonely, we are forced to seek out real intercultural experiences. But when we feel like we already belong to groups of people, we slowly stop actively trying to get to know other people.
Seek out local people all the time. Read about your host culture. Participate in local communities. Go to language classes. Adjust every aspect of your life in ways that they bring you in contact with the local culture.
Tip #5: … but don’t forget to maintain balance.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, exposure to another culture often leads to mental overload and fatigue.
It is exhausting to be constantly talking in a second language. It is exhausting to be exposed to new ideas and beliefs all the time. It is exhausting to adjust our behavior to the needs of the people around us all the time.
If you are living abroad and you find that you are constantly exhausted, you will have to ask yourself whether or not you are giving yourself the space to relax your mind sometimes.
Sometimes it is so relaxing to simply speak German for a while. Sometimes it gives you a feeling of home to simply eat food from your own culture. Sometimes it is really nice to simply listen to some music in your own language. Something that you grew up with since your childhood.
But the keyword here is: “sometimes”.
I think, one of the best things that you can do is to turn these kinds of occasions into rewards for yourself.
What do I mean by that? Well, whenever you feel like you have made good progress in terms of learning about another culture, you reward yourself by having a night of just relaxing with your friends from your country of origin. Or by cooking yourself a nice meal from your own country. Or by taking a vacation back home.
Rewards are incredibly powerful in that they really motivate you to take action.
So, one of the best ways of motivating yourself to make progress in terms of learning about other cultures is to consciously say:
“Yes, I do allow myself to simply relax and enjoy stuff from my own culture from time to time. But first and foremost, I spend my time in complete immersion for a while. And then I reward myself with a nice sausage”.
[German style. Although not my thing — I am a vegeterian. Vegan sausage, perhaps]
Some last words:
Real cultural immersion is a decision for life. And, it is a decision that affects literally all aspects of your life.
If you really want to learn more about other cultures to the point that you want to make them an important part of your own identity, you will have to choice but to make these cultures the center of your world.
As for your work — find a job that exposes you to people from that culture all the time.
As for your friends — try to spend as much time as possible with people from that particular culture.
As for the books you read — try to find as many books about that culture as you can possibly find. Or read books written by authors who are from that country.
I could give more examples, but I am sure you get the point.
So, the question is: are you willing to go for full immersion in another culture? Are you ready to commit your life towards life-long learning and exposure to other cultures? Are you excited about the possibility of constantly learning new things and exposing yourself to new perspectives about the world?
If the answer is yes, then make a commitment in writing here now in the comments below. Start today, build a habit, and if you like, stay in touch about how the process is going.
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