Being Forever Changed

By: Lauren Bowker, Greenheart Exchange Work and Travel Program Assistant

One of the most beautiful things about traveling abroad is discovering a new culture. The language, fashion, food, customs, and even the bathroom can be very different from your home. When traveling abroad even for a short period of time (such as a week or a few months), it is a good practice to go in with an open mind and heart. The new country is going to have similarities and differences from your culture, but your trip will be more meaningful to you if you go to learn! With that in mind, here are 3 steps that I’ve used to learn a new culture!

1.  Try new things

Trying new things can be scary, especially when it comes to eating new foods or doing something you have never done before. Growing up, I used to be such a picky eater! I would refuse to eat things I thought looked peculiar. As I got older, I stopped being as picky; however, there were still many things I was unwilling to try. When I began traveling overseas, I soon realized that it would be rude of me to refuse to try culturally relevant foods. When someone would say, “you must try this. It is the food that everyone eats here!” I knew I needed to be more open and give it a try.

There were a lot of dishes I was completely afraid to try. One experience I vividly remember is trying fufu in Ghana. Fufu is a staple for many Ghanaians. It is generally a bowl of soup accompanied by a pretty generous portion of what looks like uncooked dough. You take the flour ball, tear off a piece, dip it in the soup, and then put it in your mouth and swallow. No chewing is involved. I gave fufu a try, but I did not like it much. Sorry to all my Ghanaian friends out there!

2. Make New Friends

During my trips overseas, I always had a great time whenever I was invited to someone’s house for a meal. Making friends with people who are from the country you are visiting will help you feel more comfortable with the new culture you are experiencing. You get to see how families live in that country. In addition, you learn who lives in their house, what kind of food they prepare at home, what is important to them, and so much more. You also get to feel like you have a little piece of a real family in that country rather than feeling like you are simply traveling and feeling homesick.

One time I was visiting a friend at his house for his birthday party in Uruguay. His parents were very sweet and they had a lot of food and drinks for everyone. I quickly found out after eating a lot of appetizers that there was much more food still to come. We had bread, cheese, pepperoni, chorizo, small pieces of sausage, hamburgers, and bigger pieces of meat. Since it was my friend’s birthday, we also had ice cream! Needless to say, I was stuffed after being at my friend’s house, and we were there for hours. His parents just kept feeding us! After missing my family, it was nice to go to his house and be spoiled by his parents for a bit.

3. Take Public Transportation

Figuring out public transportation can be difficult, especially in a language that is not your own. However, it is generally a lot cheaper than relying on a taxi, and faster than walking everywhere. Learning how to use the bus system or metro can save you a lot of money and open up new opportunities to explore. Generally, bus and train schedules can be easily accessed by visiting the station or looking online.

Once, I was visiting Trujillo, Peru. Trujillo is quite a bit smaller than Lima but it is still a pretty big city. One of the reasons there are a lot of people there is because there are a lot of universities in Trujillo. This also creates a need for affordable and accessible transportation. The buses would drive by and stop at places that did not feel like typical stops to me. One of the workers on the bus would hang out the side and shout where the bus was going. Once on the bus, you did not pay until you got off since they charged you based on distance traveled. This was information not available online! Instead, I asked people walking by or waiting at the bus stop to help me figure out which bus I needed to take. Taking public transportation definitely teaches you a lot about yourself and how adventurous and uncomfortable you are willing to be.

After you experience new traditions and ways of life in the country you are visiting, you may decide you really enjoy some of the food, customs, or fashion. That is one of the truly unique parts of traveling and discovering new cultures, you can add some of their traditions into your daily life. I remember when I traveled to Great Britain, I really enjoyed tea time. I loved how the whole country would take a break in the afternoon for a cup of tea and a little treat. Being an American, I find it difficult to take a break in the middle of the day because our culture does not like to take the day slowly. However, before I left Great Britain I bought some tea I liked and decided I would implement tea time in my life when I got back to the United States. I carried on the tradition for a little while, but it slowly started to fade. However, I do find myself more likely to take a little break in the afternoon by getting coffee or taking some time to myself while I am at work. This helps me feel like I am not overworking myself and I am taking some time to rest.

Wherever you go, if you learn something from a new culture that you absolutely love, I encourage you to somehow implement it into your life when you return home! Cultural exchange helps us grow and understand the world more deeply; it will change you forever.

Do you want to try new things, get lost in a new city, and make friends from all around the world? Check out our cultural exchange opportunities by visiting Greenheart Exchange!