One of the best things about travel is the fact that we get to experience and learn from different cultures. A world so fascinating and diverse, we need to be able to learn from it.
However, I cannot stress it enough, how important it is to be educated in your travel, to be culturally sensitive, to embark on journeys through awareness and education so that you can have a fulfilling experience not just for yourself but for the people around you as well.
For example, for decades, Western culture has had problems with appropriating culture or creating negative stereotypes because of racism or ignorance. Cultural appropriation defined by the Oxford Dictionary as:
“The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
There needs to be recognition of power imbalances that many cultures face. For example, many music festivals that I have been to recently have exhibited aspects of appropriating culture. To give the classic examples, the Native American headdress, bindis etc. This too applies to travel.
Respect and understanding are key.
With travel, especially, we are in the privileged position of being able to respect and understand through the fact that we are surrounded by locals and can easily ask them for advice and for them to teach us how to properly embrace their culture. By adopting parts of culture that we don’t understand, it diminishes its value and therefore creates a power imbalance.
When looking at examples like the Native American headdress and bindis, the power imbalance is even more evident because of the fact that people from those cultures have been discriminated in the past and in the West, for wearing such things. It has to go further than just understanding a feature of a culture’s background, we also have to acknowledge that discrimination of certain cultures and cultural superiority continues to exist in many places around the world.
Another example is one that went viral on social media, an Instagram post by @mindbodycolleen, where she described a situation where she lost a phone in Jaipur, India. The story she described was a very melodramatic and insensitive one where she described the city as “one of the most scammy tourist cities in all of India” as well as saying things like “…even if someone found it…they probably would not even know what to do with it…hardly anyone in this country has an iPhone period.”
India is not a country disconnected from the world and worldwide products such as iPhones. And it was sad to see such a response because it showed some massive generalisations and the complete ignorance of the people she was surrounded by about the country she was in.
There’s nothing wrong with embracing another culture but what is important is doing it with accuracy and awareness.
This is vital when embracing aspects of culture like language and clothing. With recent examples like Ariana Grande and brands like Reformation who have misused language and traditional clothing respectively, we have to be better. People make mistakes, but it is our responsibility, celebrities’ responsibility and brand responsibility to learn from these mistakes.
As travellers, we are guests in a country and as a guest, we should be mindful of the people who live in that country. It is important that, through travel and the joining of cultures, we are positive influences on each other. It’s as simple as doing your homework before you leave, being wary and willing to learn as you go and then being able to share these experiences with people back home.
Take time to think about and embrace differences where you feel comfortable. Travel is all about pushing your comfort zone and this includes culturally. Think about how you would want people to treat your own culture and how you would want them to act around you in your country.
We need cultural sensitivity not just for our own integrity but also in order to have a good relationship with the country and people we are visiting, to promote sustainable tourism, understanding of different people and places and mostly to be educated and aware in our approach.