So I readily admit that I was one of those people who originally signed up for GLI because it was easy to click ‘yes’ and because I got to travel from it. I know, I know, but really, what did I know at the time? I was 18, a little bit younger and more naive than I am now. It sounded cool and I got to learn about more cultures.
The thing about that was that I really didn’t understand the word ‘culture’. I went the first 18 years of my life without really understanding what culture is, at least from the perspective that this experience has taught me to (Disclaimer: this is my personal definition of culture and identity, not to be applied to culture as a whole. I’m an Anthropologist, I realize the nebulous-ness of this debate).
The problem stems from the fact that I was raised in the same house, with the same people, in the same neighborhood for my entire childhood. I thought that everyone ate dinner at the same time, everyone ate the same food, everyone had the same general values. At least in America. Eventually I learned this was not the case but it did not sink in. I did not have the opportunity to fully comprehend the differences between cultures until I was physically thrown out of my culture and into someone else’s.
Which was possibly the best experience I’ve ever had. Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Truer words have never been written down. Admittedly political correctness acknowledges the rudeness of the quote, but the unbiased truth still stands. Learning and living in places where people’s world views are different, sometimes entirely so, from my own has forced me to see that culture is not just American – it is French, Italian, Japanese, Egyptian, and all the other nations of the world. Culture is distinct and wonderful wherever you go. People are different. Culture is a facet and a way to sum up those societal, political, and economic differences.
It was an important lesson to learn. It is also impossible to adequately describe another’s culture. I can’t even adequately describe my own and I’ve been living in it for twenty one years. Culture is internal as much as it is external. I hope to eventually be able to share my experiences in other cultures, but first I feel like I need to meditate and mentally dissect everything that I’ve experienced. I’m even mentally dissecting things right now. I’m still figuring things out as I go along, which is good because you never stop learning.