Monday, September 22, 2008

Fitting In While Sticking Out

A fellow traveler recently asked me a very interesting question, which went something like this: "Do you try to be French when you are in France, or do you keep your American habits?" "Of course I keep my American habits," I replied, "I'm an American!" Despite my convincing response, it's actually a bit more complicated than that. Adapting to the local culture is an enjoyable and even necessary aspect of living in a foreign country. Can you imagine spending time in Paris without trying smelly cheeses, riding the metro, or buying your food at an outdoor market? Neither can I. In fact, those where just some of the things (along with speaking French and wrangling with fonctionnaires) that I did to fit in. But what if you don't want to lose your own culture or identity along the way? How do you find a balance between having an in-depth and meaningful travel experience and staying true to who you really are?

Experiencing a foreign culture first-hand is just plain fun. There is so much to learn/taste/try/do that even everyday tasks become big adventures. Stay in the culture long enough, and the new will become the familiar. Getting mistaken for a local is one of the biggest thrills a traveler can have. Unfortunately, this "when in Rome" mentality can sometimes lead to guilt over pursuing habits or activities that stem not from our host culture, but from our own. Should an Irishman never go to and Irish pub abroad? Well, maybe if he only has one day in his selected destination, but if you're on the road for a week or more, why not? Truly familiar things can stave off homesickness, and can even be a great way to meet your fellow countrymen who can often prove to be fantastic resources for traveling information. Did I enjoy buying and wearing the must-have clothing items in Paris in an effort to blend in and try something new? Absolutely! But there were also days when I wanted nothing but my jeans, a hoodie and a pair of comfortable shoes, even if those choices did make me stick out. Look! There's an American! But hey, considering it was rainy, windy and cold most days in Paris, my get-up was actually a very practical choice.

Unless it's exactly what they want to do, travelers shouldn't feel pressured to "go native" all of the time. Yes, doing like the Romans do can immensely add to your overseas experience, and respecting local social norms is an important part of being a responsible traveler. But I think you can respect and appreciate a foreign culture even while you keep some of your hometown habits. Besides, foreigners are interesting. Exhibiting your own local activities and characteristics can be great conversation starters with locals. The Frenchmen and women I met weren't interested in talking to me because I looked and acted exactly like them. They were interested because I was different. Difference, just like adaptation, can be an asset. So get out there, try, do, experience! Just don't forget to be yourself, too.


Lola said...

Great post!. Exposing your culture to others who may not have other avenues to interact with people from your own background aids in cross-pollinating the world culturally through awareness.

Tanya said...

Lola: Exactly! And it's so much fun to challenge people's stereotypes and preconceived notions just by being yourself.

Julie said...

I love that photo of the flowers!

Tanya said...

Julie: The best part is that Paris is filled with gorgeous flower stands with even more beautiful flowers than that. I miss French flowers so much!