Our planet. 7,000 languages, 150 ethnicities, 200 countries. There is literally a whole world of cuisine, art, music, literature, different modes of spirituality, and different ways of thinking. Learning about other cultures can enrich your life and provide new points of view.
Deeply learning another culture will also provide new connections, open up new career opportunities, bring new friends, and often even new love interests. It changes your life in ways that are impossible to predict - for the better!
But how do you go about really understanding another culture?
Obstacles to Travel
Here's the problem. There are many reasons why most of us can hop on a plane any time they feel like it and immerse ourselves in the culture of our choice. Insufficient money and time, work and family obligations, health and safety concerns, physical disabilities, language barriers. Some countries are ruled by oppressive regimes or even embroiled in armed conflicts. Maybe you live in such a place and cross-border travel is impossible.
If you can't go there often or maybe even live there, you can't learn the culture, right? My answer is definitely not. I'll explain.
Be There Without Going There
I used to buy into this myth, too - that unless your feet touched the soil of the country you were interested in, really no effort put into learning the culture "counted." Conversely, simply arriving in a given country magically provided deep insight that gave the traveler authority to speak on the culture.
Let me share a couple examples of the many experiences that changed my mind. I met a guy who had a really good understanding of Japanese culture. He had never been to Japan and he didn't speak the language, save for a few phrases. However, he had worked with Japanese colleagues daily for years. He was interested and he paid attention. He understood so much more than other Americans I had met who had travelled to Japan.
When I was in my mid-20s, by chance I met this woman in the language sections of a bookstore. She was in her 60s. She and her husband travelled the world. She spoke non-stop about all the places she had visited. At first I was intimidated. She had been everywhere. I was self-conscious about having only been to one other country at the time.
As I listened, however, it became obvious that she didn't really know about the places she had visited. Her travel was a trophy collecting exercise. She was interested in seeing famous places and bragging about it. I began to wonder if she even really enjoyed the travel itself, or just the story-telling later.
So just as it's possible to go to a place and not really be there, it's also possible to "be there" to a large degree without physically transporting your body. This was never more true than now! Here's why....
The World Has Changed!
Over the last couple decades, with the increased reach and capability of the internet, it has been increasingly easy to access foreign content and language learning support. But, in the past few years it's been explosive.
Axios has reported that Americans are watching more foreign content than ever with streaming services such as Netflix. Countless apps are available for language learning, listening to foreign radio and musical artists, exploring foreign locations at street level, connecting with people around the world. There has been an increase in people living and working abroad.
How do you sort through all of these tools and opportunities for exposure? How do you avoid wasting your time on inferior tools, or spending too much money? Learning new tools can take a lot of time and you can still miss amazing features.
That's my job! This is what I do. I just enjoy doing this and sharing what I know. Through my blog and (soon to come) podcast, I'll explore new apps and websites, reviewing the best and worst of the tools out there. I'll teach you the tips, tricks, and little-known features to make the most of them.
In addition to the digital tools, you likely have many opportunities for in-person engagement with your chosen culture - right where you live! And I'll help with that, too! Finally I'll give you ways to coordinate these tools and make them work together so that you aren't just juggling half a dozen apps to no real effect.
To do this, we need to start with some very helpful key concepts....
Adopting a Second Culture, Cultural Saturation, Virtual Tourism, and WAND.
You won't see these terms anywhere else because, so far as I can tell, they don't exist anywhere else. I'm sure that some people are making use of these concepts in their lives, but so far there seems to be no self-aware movement or structured way of discussing these concepts. In other words, these related phenomena have not had names. I've found that I had to have names to properly communicate these ideas and really bring to light the amazing opportunities that are before us in our world of today.
Let' look at these individually and how they go together...
Adopting a Second Culture
When you adopt something, something that wasn't originally natural to you becomes natural. If you learn another language, it becomes your "second language." Riding a bicycle becomes "second nature." After moving to a new location and living there for 20 years, it may become your "second home."
You can consciously adopt another culture. You learn about it and engage it to the point where you begin to think in terms of you chosen culture, almost as much as your own - or maybe even more! You have, then, two cultural viewpoints - two different systems of perception - with which to consider the world around you. You'll be able to watch a Japanese movie (just as an example) and say "Wow! That is so Japanese!" You will 'get it'. You'll catch nuances naturally.
Of course, I will talk a lot about "adopting a second culture" in my blogs and podcasts.
So how do you effectively go about adopting a second culture and making it second nature?
Cultural Saturation - NOT cultural immersion. What's the difference?
Cultural immersion has long been held as as the superior method for absorbing another culture. While there is no agreement on definition, it always involves the idea of the learning leaving behind their own culture and language entirely and living in the target culture and language 24/7. The idea is usually to spend 6 month to 2 years with a family, or at least in a village, living the life of a native.
It's probably obvious that this is not practical for most people, given jobs, families, and social commitments. And it may not even be desirable. Is that family (or village) a good representation of the culture in general? And as an American, if I went to Germany to have a "pure German" experience, it would be nearly impossible to avoid American films and music in English. And if I did manage manage somehow, my experience would be out of touch with modern Germans.
But what is possible is what I call "cultural saturation". With apps, websites, and streaming services, it has become possible to surround yourself with the music, movies, and language of your desired culture. Radio apps let you hear what they hear. Web TV and streaming services let you see their sitcoms and news. You can read the same websites and media sources that they do.
I'll guide you on what apps and sites are best and how to coordinate them. Check out my blog for in-depth coverage. This is what I love to do, and I want to help you create the experience that will lead you to a profound understanding of your target culture.
I've never heard anyone put a name to this, nor even describe this anywhere - but I know I'm not alone in this. I think it's a silent movement. "Virtual Tourism". Taking a virtual trip through technology.
Walk the streets of a town in Italy or Korea with Google Earth. Pick out a hotel. Find a cafe. Pick a museum. Then go further. Look up the hotel online. What is it like to stay there? What's on the menu at the cafe? Check their website. They may have a walk-in view on Google. Look up the museum. You get the idea.
And then, meet someone online from that town. Ask questions. Listen to radio from that town. Can you find the local newspaper in that language? Read it daily as if it's your location now. What is the town known for? Can you find it locally or online for order?
To understand the culture more deeply, become a "virtual expat". What if you lived there? Where would you live? Where would you work? What would you eat for breakfast? Where would you shop? Would you marry a local? Where would your kids go to school? By making it real you cause yourself to ask daily questions that naturally organize the different elements of the culture you hope to absorb.
And one step further: "virtual native". What if you were born in Italy or Japan (or wherever). Map out this alternative life and ask all the questions necessary to make this mental "you" real. This will help you truly think in terms of your adopted culture.
Again...I'll spend plenty of time in-depth in my blogs. Follow along!
WAND - World Adventure Next Door
This is another term that I've coined for something I'm sure others do. I just don't see anyone talking about it as a specific, conscious activity.
WAND - World Adventure Next Door.
This is not so much about tech, though it can definitely work together with it. It is likely that you have an expat population near you. No cross-border travel. This is about a trip to your local Vietnamese restaurant, your Latino grocery store, or your city's cultural festival. Maybe even a house of worship.
I'll help you learn how to find these opportunities and make the most of them. Trust me. These experiences can be a lot of fun!
A Final Word On Travel
Please don't get the idea that I am "anti-travel". Far from it. If I were king of the world, I would have everyone live in a foreign land for about 3 years. I believe that would do much to change our world.
It's just that travel doesn't magic transform someone's mind unless they are open to it. Not does a lack of travel mean that a person can't have a genuine cultural experience. There is so much that you can learn without getting on a plane. AND...when you do get on a plane to your country of interest, you'll definitely get so much more out of it! And engaging a culture deeply over time and meeting people of that culture as a magical, magnetic way of drawing you into opportunities to visit in person.
So, imagine visiting Paris for a month after you have learned your way around, learned the language, and even made friends online who are waiting to greet you. Now that's a very different experience!