“Cultural immersion” is such a buzzword buzzphrase (can you say that?) these days. Nobody wants to be a “tourist;” they want to be a “traveler.” Nobody wants to skim the surface of a country or a culture; they want to become “immersed.”

Though I think the whole traveler/tourist debate is a load of elitist baloney (Amanda at A Dangerous Business has a great post on this), I would say that I’m a fan of cultural immersion.

Well, what the hell is it anyways? And, how does one go about getting culturally immersed?

Here are ten steps for how to experience cultural immersion in any country.

1. Learn the language

This is a no-brainer. Though there are many benefits to learning a language, the biggest reason for me is travel. When you speak the native tongue of the area you’re visiting, the number of meaningful exchanges is amplified. That’s why I enjoy traveling in Latin America so much: I can communicate. Sure, most people working in the tourism industry in Thailand speak good English, but it’s not the same.

To understand the lilt and expressions of someone speaking in their own language is so cool. You can become culturally immersed without it (I did so in Korea), but true understanding only arrives after communication in the native language.

At my Parisian university, La Sorbonne
At my Parisian university, La Sorbonne.

2. Work, study, or volunteer

Whether you’re traveling 200 or 2,000 miles, the culture is going to be different. And if you really want to get to know a people, you’re going to have to stay a while. But just hanging out in a hostel with a bunch of other backpackers for a few weeks isn’t going to tell you anything about the country itself. Believe me; I’m speaking from experience! You’re going to have to interact with the local people on a deeper level.

How can you do this? Settle down for a few weeks, a few months, or a year. Work, study, intern, or volunteer at an organization that is mostly made up of natives. 

For example, when I lived in:

  • Geneva, I attended Swiss public high-school
  • Paris, I interned at a local non-profit and studied at La Sorbonne
  • Tanzania, I volunteered at a community center and orphanage
  • Guatemala, I attended Spanish language school
  • South Korea, I taught at a public school
  • Nicaragua, I volunteered at an elementary school

Those experiences have all been my deepest moments of cultural immersion, as well as my favorite travel memories. I was integrated into the everyday lives of the people, and through that, I learned SO much.

My confusion about eating in Korea led to a lot of new friends.
My confusion about eating in Korea led to a lot of new friends.

3. Eat the local grub

So much of culture centers around food. When I think about the things I love most about America, many of them are food-related. Find out where the locals eat, and chow down. My favorite places are usually the ones without a menu. Who cares if it’s gross — if you’re traveling in a developing country, it’s going to be so cheap that it’s not going to matter.

And the more confused you are, the more likely you are to get some assistance from a friendly local who feels sorry for you and your pathetic attempts at ordering/eating correctly. New friend, check!

4. Drink (and dance!)

Get drunk. After all, when else can you chalk it up to an educational experience? Pretty much never. So take advantage. Liquor is a super lubricant for speaking foreign languages, so you’ll have ample opportunities to practice your language skills. You’ll also be less afraid to chat up locals — and hopefully make some new friends.

Dancing is an important part of many cultures, and people everywhere appreciate someone who isn’t afraid to bust a move. I am a terrible dancer, but I do it with such enthusiasm that I always make friends out on the floor.

My Tanzanian host family
Some of my Tanzanian host family. Despite how it looks in this pic, I swear they didn’t hate me!

5. Live with locals

Though not always possible, this will super-speed your cultural immersion. I lived with families in Tanzania and Guatemala, and I felt ULTRA-immersed. When I studied abroad in Paris, I searched long and hard for a program that didn’t require a homestay or dormitory living. And let me tell you, finding a short-term Parisian apartment in a non-whorehouse was a challenge, but so worth it.

And no, the whorehouse reference wasn’t an exaggeration; one of my finalists was an apartment in a building used by working ladies. The landlord even told me so. I would’ve taken it, but the door was broken. And that didn’t seem like the best idea. In my dad’s words, “What an experience that would be!” My mom wasn’t quite as enthralled.

I ended up living with a lovely French girl near my age. We didn’t become the best friends I’d hoped, but we only spoke French in the house, and we chatted about normal 20-year-old stuff. I learned a lot about the French psyche (and slang!) during our interactions.

(If you’re visiting Paris and would like to stay in a self-catering apartment à la moi, check out: All-Paris-Apartments.)

I got invited into this home because I was so obsessed with their puppies.
I got invited into this home because I was so obsessed with their puppies.

6. Play with kids and pets

Everywhere in the world, kids and pets serve as a great icebreaker. It’d probably be weird if you just walked up to a stranger and asked them how they were, but petting a dog or playing catch with a kid is a great way to meet new people. In every culture, people are insanely proud of their children, and showing interest in them will win you a conversation partner, and maybe even a friend.

7. Pursue your passion

Whatever you like to do, do it your new home. Enjoy playing soccer? Find some locals to kick the ball around with. Into art? Then take an art class — with the locals. Some of my best cultural immersion moments have been local fitness classes: tae-bo in Korea and zumba in Nicaragua.

If you’re really good at something, you should consider teaching it to locals. Maybe show your neighbor how to cook a classic dish from your country, and she’ll reciprocate the favor. Be creative; everybody has something to teach.

7. Make the effort

Remember this: you’re a visitor in someone else’s country and culture. YOU need to make the effort, not them. Nobody’s going to walk up and ask you if they can be your cultural liaison while you’re in their country. It’s up to you to seek out opportunities and talk to people.

When I moved into my house in Nicaragua, I made marshmallow-oreo treats for all of my neighbors. Goodies in hand, I went and introduced myself in broken-ass espanol. They’d had a lot of volunteers as their neighbors, but they automatically felt closer to me after my minimal efforts. Though they thought the cookie treats were totes weird, they appreciated the exchange. In return, they were super friendly to me and would sometimes invite me into their homes. Score!

My Nicaraguan student, Ashley, knows how to smile. (And throw gang signs.)
My Nicaraguan student, Ashley, knows how to smile. (And throw gang signs.)

9. Be open

You’re traveling to experience another culture. It’s probs going to be very different from your own. Try to be open and non-judgmental. Of course, there are going to be things that you don’t like about another culture, or that you think your country does better, but save that for internal reflection. (And use it to make yourself more thankful for where you came from!)

It’s also good to try to be trusting. There are always people who want to take advantage of you, but if have a good gut feeling about someone, try to work with it. As long as you don’t lose your head. As a female, it’s much more difficult to walk the line between open and cautious. I know I’ve missed out on some awesome cultural experiences from being overly careful, but I’ve just tried to find cultural immersion in other ways.

10. Smile

So simple, but it works. Even if you can’t speak a word of the local language, you can sure as hell crack a grin. As cheesy as it is, it’s totally true that smiles are universal. People say that Americans smile too much, but I’m proud of that fact. Smiling has opened the door to more cultural exchanges than any of the other nine items on this list.

What did I miss? What are your tips for cultural immersion?

This post was brought to you by GowithOh.