Getting to know a new culture

Masaya town

I travel in order to learn about other cultures. There are only a limited number of ways to learn about another culture. One, of course, is to read about it, but we are often very aware that this is framed by the perspective of the author. Another way is to visit the country. Often, we tourists only observe: we look at architecture, see a museum, and steal a glance at local people eating ice cream in the central park. Some places, the people in hats and long sleeves might get approached by a number of locals selling sunglasses and pottery whistles, but this may not (and hopefully does not) represent the normal life with locals.  As an example, I recently showed a local woman a intricate woven palm heart made by a boy of about eight in Masaya, Nicaragua, and she was very impressed. She had not seen this type of weaving before. So, although the tourist being presented with the craftwork, might assume it is a local craft of longstanding tradition, she would be wrong.

Observation is of course also limited by the perspective of the viewer. We might not be as aware of how this frame limits our view, since it is our own perspective. It limits all of our views: of our neighbours, of politics in our own place of residence, and of course of other countries as well. The limitation serves a purpose of helping narrow what we see, so it is not overwhelming, but in fact these frames also are less flexible than they need to be. We can overcome the frames confining what we understand in new countries by asking questions. However, many people do not ask questions: they assume what they get from observation is the complete and correct. In addition, with questions, one encounters communication problems – of language or of understanding each other. (A Belgian co-traveler asked a Nicaraguan man the other day how many women there were here compared to men, and he didn’t get the answer he expected giving relative percentages in the population!)

I am currently traveling with a group of Americans, and one Canadian, and I notice the penchant for long monologues and no discussion. This style means understanding the point of view is either accepted or rejected, and it is assumed that the monologue is understood as intended. It is quite a passive method of understanding for the audience. This leaves no room for adjusting and adapting frames through better understanding the perspective of the other. I miss being able to ask more questions without it being seen as challenging. I hope we all learn to ask questions and review our frames, as the adaptation of the frame through which we see the world may well be essential to making real change in our challenged societies.

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