Tuesday, August 22, 2017

It is Easier to Become Acquainted with a Foreign Culture in One's Home Country than in the Foreign Country Itself

For many people, one of the primary reasons to travel to foreign lands is the ability to see those lands for themselves, in the process becoming familiar with the local culture and people.  By being there and experiencing everything they possibly can, people think they will, over time, become familiar enough with local realities that they can assimilate into local life, whether or not that was the original intention.  However, in many cases, stepping directly into a foreign land with the sole purpose of understanding local life can be counterproductive, as practical obstacles hamper productive efforts to absorb local knowledge.

Certainly, for most people, being thrown into a completely new place with a whole new set of cultural norms is overwhelming.  When one steps into a foreign land, one at least expects some cultural traits to be similar to (or at least, directly translatable from) their counterparts from one's home country.  After all, for any person, the way to communicate with others, for instance, is so natural and reflexive that it is difficult to imagine how it can be done in any other way.  When something so basic as one's communication method is rendered ineffective in a foreign land, any effort to learn about the foreign land in detail becomes all the more arduous.

And it is not just difference in cultural traits that makes learning about a foreign land in the foreign land difficult.  A whole new set of local context must be understood in advance of actually arriving at the foreign land, for the journey of learning to be smooth.  The local economic conditions, ethnic makeup, linguistic diversity, social structure, and political organizations all affect the local culture in a way that is too subtle and diversified to be fully elaborated in books and news articles.  For foreigners not having grown up in the context, to fully immerse themselves in it will take years and decades, if not a whole lifetime.

In contrast, if one is to learn about a foreign country in one's home country, the task, while not nearly as comprehensive or accurate, would become much easier.  One can choose to learn about a certain aspect of a foreign culture in isolation so as to not be overwhelmed by the entirety of foreignness.  For example, one can become acquainted with the cuisine of a certain foreign country in a specially designed foreign setting, while speaking in one's native language, dealing with one's compatriots who can explain the foreign cuisine in terms understandable from the home country's cultural context.

Because there is no barriers in language or styles of communication, to become acquainted with a foreign land within the native country makes the foreign content much more digestible, even for people who have little experience traveling to or living in foreign countries.  And once interest is piqued by understanding one portion of a foreign culture, learning can be expanded into more different aspects of the foreign country, using the same method of relying on compatriots with in-depth knowledge of the foreign country to be the medium of explanation and acculturation.

Of course, such method, predictably, has massive downfalls.  By relying on compatriots for instructions, one's understanding of foreign lands become prone to absolutist stereotypes and biases that cloud objectivity toward its holistic nature.  Both the negative and positive points are often amplified to the degree that the person trying to understand the foreign culture can no longer see the culture as anything more than a mish-mash of black-and-white ideas that is either "good" or "bad."  Such a view of the foreign land prevents formation of a well-rounded view.

And the "mish-mash" nature of understanding is cemented by the practice of learning about the foreign culture in a piecemeal fashion.  By learning first about food, then fashion, then customs, for example, a person will come to see the foreign culture as a set of distinctive physical pieces with no visible connection to one another.  The ideologies and social practices that bind together these physical pieces are almost completely lost in the process.  The lack of ability to see the culture as a whole makes the person even more prone to describing the foreign culture in terms of stereotypes and biases.

Yet, despite all the downsides, for most people, learning about foreign cultures from the comfort of one's own is simply the only viable option.  Their inability to coherently undertake the task of navigating foreign lands without being overwhelmed by their sheer difference from the homeland makes it impossible for them to go through cultural immersion.  At the end of the day, for more people to know at least a part of some foreign cultures, however biased and incomplete, is much better for the purpose of international exchange and globalization than their knowing absolutely nothing at all.  

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