One of the benefits of travel is the opportunity to have new experiences and witness different cultures. While the benefits to your general well-being from vacations have long been reported, the same can be said for experiencing new cultures. By immersing yourself in new cultures, you may encounter culture shock, but you also have the chance to learn new skills and learn more about yourself.
Often the best way to really delve into a new place and culture is by spending some considerable time there. While a quick vacation may give you a glimpse into your destination, experiences like student or work exchange programs allow you the time to properly immerse yourself in a new culture. These kinds of opportunities provide you with a support network as you adjust to your new surroundings and make it a far less scary proposition.
Dealing with Culture Shock
From its name, the idea of culture shock certainly comes across as something you want to avoid. This then begs the question, what is culture shock and is it a bad thing?
In general terms, culture shock is a response to your new surroundings when abroad that can leave you confused, anxious and feeling isolated. It generally includes frustration at how even the simplest things can be different in the new culture in which you find yourself. While it may include homesickness and a longing for your familiar life back home, it’s usually more than missing your friends and family.
The thing is though, culture shock can be seen as a problem but also as an opportunity. It’s only by learning to adjust to and accept your new surroundings and culture that you can hope to understand and appreciate it. Persisting through culture shock can lead to untold rewards.
Adapting and Learning New Skills
Finding yourself in a new place typically means facing new situations, which present the perfect opportunity to refine life skills and develop new ones. While taking time off to travel was once seen as an indulgence and a gap on your resume, nowadays the many soft skills that you develop are recognised as genuine benefits of this experience.
Learning to Adapt
People often say that travel is a great way to develop new skills, since you’re constantly being put in new and unpredictable situations. Even just learning to cope with the unpredictable and adapt to what’s unfolding is a skill in itself. It is after all, just another form of problem solving and trusting your instincts. Certainly, thinking on your feet is a trait that many employers desire in employees.
Perhaps the most obvious lesson learned with travel though is the importance of language. After all a new country and culture is the perfect opportunity to learn a new language. Even just learning the basics of the local language can make getting about and making new friends easier. Trying to overcome the language barrier also teaches you about the importance of non-verbal communication. Since you can’t rely on what is being said, you learn to tune into people’s tone and body language. This makes you a better communicator even when speaking your native tongue.
Classes and Courses
Besides the incidental skills you develop along the way while travelling, many travellers use the occasion to actively learn a new skill through classes. This could mean taking languages or cooking classes or something more adventurous like learning to ski.
All of these new skills learnt can then be brought home with you to enhance your lifestyle, like a souvenir that takes up zero luggage space.
Meeting New People
Meeting people and making friends while overseas is both a necessity and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the experience. Travelling to new cultures is a great way to expand your social circle and meet people that you never would have gotten to know otherwise. You may be exposed to people from different walks of life, find a kindred spirit, or in fact both at the same time.
Although there are many scenarios where meeting new people can be useful, not feeling lonely is a big one. Just as we were speaking of skills early, one important skill when traveling is learning to overcome a feeling of isolation that can pop up. Although technology today makes it much easier to stay in touch with social media and instant messaging, the best way to fighting it remains interacting with other people.
How to Meet People
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to meet new people and maybe even make lifelong friends. First, meeting other tourists and visitors couldn’t be easier; after all, you’re all in the same boat. Whether it’s by being on the same exchange program, staying at the same hostel or making the same day trips, you’ve instantly got something in common.
Making local friends may seem a little more daunting, but you never know how you might spark up a friendship. You could be asking someone for directions, shopping at a store or simply enjoying a drink and strike up a conversation. Japan in particular is a great place to meet people, since Japanese people are usually very friendly, eager to help foreigners and practice their English.
Customs and Etiquette
Regarding meeting local people, it may be worth doing a little research beforehand to avoid making any faux-pas or signs of disrespect. After all, Japan is quite a traditional country and you should do your best to adhere to local customs and etiquette. For instance, make sure to take off your shoes when entering someone’s home or not to point with a finger at people or things.
Experiences with Friends
It’s often through making new friends that many of your other experiences and opportunities open. Your new friends may share with you what they enjoy from their culture, be it books, movies, drinks, activities etc. No matter whether it’s with other tourists or with locals, meeting new people on your travels is bound to be a valuable cultural exchange for both you and them.
Surely a joy of visiting somewhere new and different is the excitement that comes with exploring a brand-new culture. You don’t know what you’re going to find, or which aspects of your new surroundings will offer unexpected inspiration. This new way of life can also be extremely liberating as you don’t necessarily have to think or behave as you normally would.
Sightseeing and experiencing the local cultural can expose you to local art, music, cuisine, architecture … the list goes on. In each of these creative disciplines you may come across new approaches or elements that you bring home with you; maybe it’s a certain combination of ingredients that you add to your cooking or a new touch you adopt for your own home’s design.
And it doesn’t have to be the result of these creative endeavours that inspires you, it may well be the process behind it that speaks to you. A great example of this is the art of calligraphy, where the order and weight of brush strokes leads to a perfectly crafted character.
Time to Think
It may not seem it but going on vacation or travelling can even help you with your work back home. While you might be leaving problems or tasks behind, often taking time away from things can provide you with the clarity you need to resolve or complete them. A study by Haiyang Yang of Insead Singapore states that by shutting down your conscious thought on a task, it can allow your unconscious thought to come up with more innovative solutions.
Experiencing Personal Growth
In the end, the big takeaway is how travel and experiencing new cultures can change you as a person. It’s almost impossible to see the world the way you once did after all the new experiences and sights you’ve encountered. These moments force you to challenge your values and preconceived ideas, and ultimately, grow as a person.
Often it takes seeing things done differently elsewhere to make us question why and how we do the things we do. You may not change completely, but your time away may make you reflect on whether you should change aspects of life. There’s any number of values and priorities that somewhere like Japan might make you reconsider, from the importance of respect and responsibility, to the role of community.
For students and young adults, experiencing a new culture on your own can be a crucial opportunity to develop independence and responsibility. You’re away from the structures and support systems of home and facing these challenges on your own presents the chance to mature.
The Little Things
A truly simple example of seeing the world a different way is eating meals with chopsticks rather than a knife and fork. Both approaches allow you to eat but offer vastly different methods for doing so. In Japan, other examples include the act of bathing or behaviour on public transport.
Each of these aspects of social culture may seem minor in the scheme of things, but together can have you reflecting on living life a different way. And while it may open your eyes to all sorts of new ideas and ways of doing things, it can also make you appreciate life back home.
There’s no question that travelling to a new place and enveloping yourself in a new culture is going to change you. It’s a transformative experience that subjects you to a host of new situations. These conditions and moments changes the way you think, the way you act and the things of which you’re capable. Ultimately, there’s no escaping how these foreign experiences will shape you for the better.