If you search for travel tips you can find all sorts.
- How to book a flight to save the most cash
- What you pack depending on where you’re traveling
- How to eat like a local
- Where to find the off-beat curioities of a particular area
- Or safety tips depending on when and where you’re traveling
However, there are apects of travel that most people don’t talk about opening. Parts of travel and experiencing a new place can be difficult or a challenge. A lack of preparation for these challenges can make the traveler feel like they are doing something wrong or that something is wrong with them. Intercultural differences can definetly be a form of culture shock and if you aren’t prepared you could start becoming judgemental and closed off to your new location.
So, I wanted to write a post about some of these unspoken travel challenges.
- Space: Interpersonal space is not a universal concept. People from the US are used to having large amounts of personal space, even in a crowd. Our understanding of space and interpersonal space is a cultural concept.
- Here’s a few articles that get into this concept a bit more:
- “What personal space looks like around the world” [click here]
- “How personal space boundaries vary in different countries” [click here]
- “Which countries have the smallest personal space” [click here]
- Silence: Not just silence, but also when is it culturally approprate to speak and when are you expected to be quiet. Silience is a luxury that people living in most cities do not have. When you relocate to a new country or study abroad country you may find people talking when you would normally expect quiet, but noone else around you seems to be bothered by the noise. No, you aren’t alone or the first one to experience a struggle with this issue. Places that I’ve experienced this includes: movie theaters, conference presentations, airplanes, government offices…The funny thing is that when you do a search for “Why are [insert nationallity here] so loud?” You can find an article for almost every single country. Which just proves that its what we’re used to and then someone from another country or culture comes along and violates this norm. How we regulate noise levels or modulate our own voices is a cultural construct. So…here’s a few articles I found that speak to this issue.
- “My cultural noise threshold is being violated” [click here]
- “Cultural differences in percieving sounds generated by others” [click here]
- “Why are Americans abroad so loud and obnoxious” [click here]
- Smiling: Okay y’all. I’m just going to be totally real on this one. Americans are a little obsessed with happiness and a bit too cheerful for the rest of the world (see the article above about us being loud and obnoxious). I mean, we really do smile, a lot. Is everything really awesome?! In your new country strangers probably won’t exhange smiles with you on the street (I still can’t help myself most of the time and that’s okay). But this doesn’t mean that they are being rude to you, its just not part of their cultural practice.
- Table manners: How we eat varies widely from country to country. We use different utenciles and the types of food that we consider to be staples varies. So, it makes sense that the idea of what is rude or not at the table would vary from culture to culture, as well.
- Here are a few articles to help you understand how table manners are constructed around the world:
- “A guide to table manners around the world” [click here]
- “What proper etiquette looks like around the world” [click here]
- “Dining etiquette around the world” [click here]
- “Renaissance table etiqutte and the origins of manners” [click here]
- Public transportation: Now that you are in the other country, how are you going to get around? What looks like public transportation varies from country to country and you may be missing out on a budget friendly transportation option.
- What are the some of the varieties of transportation options?
- “Around the world in 30 unique modes of transport” [click here]
- “Top 12 world’s super authentic means of public transport” [click here]
- “8 unspoken rules of public transportation around the world” [click here]
- Alcohol: Buying alcohol around the world or even just from state-to-state within the US, can vary widely.
- Are you old enough to drink? A guide to the min. drinking ages in 190 countries around the world [click here]
- Is drinking even legal where you’re traveling? Here’s 14 countries where drinking alcohol isn’t legal [click here]
- Okay, you can buy it here, but how expensive is it? Here’s a guide to how much alcohol costs around the world [click here]
- Now, you know if its legal, if you’re legal, and how much its going to set you back, but what should you drink? Here’s a guide to the best booze to drink in 43 countries [click here]
- If you’re going to have ‘one drink’ how does the alcohol content vary around the world? Good question [click here]
- Food labels: If you have dietary requirements that make reading food lables a normal part of your shopping experience, you may not be ready for how other countries label their packaged food. (Also, you may want to get a metric converter app for your phone to help make sense of international food lables)
- “Differences between EU and US nutrition lables go far beyond ounces and grams” [click here]
- “Food health labels around the world” [click here]
- “Global plan to streamline ‘use by’ labels” [click here]
- Operating hours: When are businesses open? In the US we are acustomed to businesses being open early and staying open late with many stores not changing their hours of operation for the weekend. However, this is something that varies widely from country to country and even within a country, if you move from a large city to a small town or village. For example: in the US if a store is open on Sundays it will most likely open later in the day (noon is quite common) and it will likely close early (6 p.m. is still common). However, in South Africa a lot of stores will open at the standard time, but close early.
- Work/life balance: If you are living abroad for an extended period of time you are probably working in a new culture. But working and living in a new country can be very different from working in the US. I’m not fully going down that rabbit hole here, but in general understanding how your new country places work into their overall cultural understanding of life will help you undertand your new neighbors and friends even if you aren’t working directly in the new country (I’m looking at you digital nomads).
- “Working hours around the world” [click here]
- “The 13 countries with the best work-life balance for expats” [click here]
- Women in the workforce worldwide (Pew Center) [click here]
Traveling can be fantastic! And anyone who knows me knows that I’m always trying to find yet another way to go abroad. However, its best if you’re aware of the many variances between countries that could catch you off-gaurd. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you encounter a difficulty that you weren’t expecting when you travel or relocate to a new culture. Culture shock is real and sometimes you don’t know when its going to show up!
The items I included in this post were things that I’ve encountered and caused me some stress as I acclimated to my new environment. What did I miss? Please comment with things that were an unexpected culture shock for you when you studied or moved abroad.
Poverty porn or poverty tourism is one aspect of my time in South Africa that was difficult to understand. Before I go any further I will state that the United States also has issues with poverty porn, which plays out on television for millions of viewers on a number of “reality” shows. The US entertainment industry has exported this idea to the UK too. You’re welcome. No, really-I’m sorry.
I took a couple of tour trips into townships, two of them were with my school group on a city tour. When the bus pulled into the township children and men (unemployment rate is 26%) would come toward the bus. Some of the people smiled, but many of them flipped us off and yelled obscenities at the bus. I couldn’t feel mad at them because almost felt like we shouldn’t be there. Yes, going through the township helped me visualize the conditions, but it just felt wrong. It felt like the residents were, yet again, being exploited without their consent for the gain of the country. The people looking on our bus with distain did not know that we were students eager to learn about their country and trying to do it with a sense of respect. I think what bothered me the most on the township tour was that the tour was not given by someone who lived in the township. People deserve the right and ability to tell their own story. Especially, when it comes to people from the continent of Africa because a single African story has been so deeply woven into the fabric of the Western narrative that the majority of westerners do not realize what a fallacy it is.
Billed as a themed B&B where “you can experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access! The Shanty Town is ideal for team building, braais, fancy theme parties and an experience of a lifetime.”
Here’s a video compilation of our long trip back to Minnesota from Port Elizabeth. We flew from PE to Johannesburg. From Johannesburg we flew into Dulles (Washington, DC). Then we got a shuttle from Dulles to National Airport to avoid a 12-hour layover. Then from National we flew into Minneapolis.
I just spoke with an instrucor in the English Skills Center, about the Nigerian students that I’m working with. I had pieced together an idea of why they were here but didn’t feel like I had a complete understanding. She told me that they are here via a Nigerian government sponsored program to get a university education. The background on the students goes something like this…
They are from the Niger Delta region of the country, which is where the oil reserves are located. The land in the area has been exploited to harness these oil depositories. However, the refineries and processing plants are not in the region.
This translates into few jobs or money staying in the area from where the oil is extracted. A by product of the drilling and development is that their farmlands were destroyed. Therefore, the people in the area took up arms and became aggitators or terrorists to gain some control over the area in which they lived. They did things like kidnapping foreign nationals and hold them for ransom. They also fought the Nigerian governmental forces and it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed in this time. They approached companies who were drilling and charged them a security fee for protection. So, what the Nigerian government proposed was a three month amnesty to these gorilla fighters. The government promised development funds to the region and one of the pieces to this development pie was university education. The fighters had to turn in their weapons and register for this program. The number of fighters who signed up for this program is somewhere between 22 and 30 thousand. The first group of students who came through didn’t seem to be people who were directly involved with the fighting. As one could easily imagine gorilla fighters would be skeptical of the government saying, “Turn in your arms and we won’t prosecute you.”
So, the first group of students who came through this program seemed to be people who may have been better connected in the region or on the margins of the fighting. These students were better prepared academically for univeristy work. Now, the second group of students is at NMMU and it is evident that they were more involved in the fighting. I picked up on this by the things that were said in the classroom…be careful when you ask someone of this group who their political hero is! When this topic came up in orientation, one student answered with a story about a general who had been slapped and proceeded to murder a whole village of people. Not the answer the teacher was expecting after spending the whole morning discussing Nelson Mandela.
With this background information in mind, I find it even more interesting that all of the students I have worked with so far are majoring in policy studies. One student wants to be an ambassador, while another student is studying policy implementation (my undergrad degree). It is interesting to think about the transition from an armed struggle to a political one. Even more interesting to me because this is not an abstract idea but rather a real practice I am witnessing in a very small portion.
Saturday a group of us decided to go down to the Southend Museum. It had been recommended to us on our city tour on Friday. I called to make sure the museum was open and then all 16 of us piled into a combi for the museum. When we came streaming into the museum the tour guide on duty was a bit surprised to see us.
But he recovered quickly and did such a good job of telling us what the museum is all about.
Southend was an inegrated community, in Port Elizabeth, that was ripped apart through the governmental policies of Aphartheid.
I am including these two photos which I think best illustrates the diversity of the Southend neighborhood. These houses of worship are from across the spectrum: Jewish and Hindu Temples; Anglican, Methodist and Seventh-Day Adventist churches but what I found most remarkable are the dates that these were founded, some of these worship communities dated back to the early to mid-1800’s.
We speak often of diversity, community, and cross-cultural community, but many times we fail to achieve this ideal. Then when you see an area that seemed to have achieved this diversity being pull apart for no reason, its sickening.
The Southend Museum, like other monuments and museums I have visited in South Africa, is both a place of on-going reconcillation and commemorating what happened.
This shirt is from a 4 year old boy who was caught in the crossfire between demonstraters and police. The holes you can see were left by the bullets.