I wrote about this topic last year, but I believe it is important to revisit it this year as well.  I currently live in SE Asia, where the celebration of the Chinese New Year is an important and revered time.  This years’ lunar new year also falls on the first day of black history month.  I am a black woman of color who experiences all that being a black woman entails, so celebrating black history month is especially important for me.  I believe travelers must be aware that they will experience cultural differences when they travel and need to respect the culture they choose to place themselves in.  Here are five ways to become a more culturally sensitive traveler.

  1. Know that culture is not limited by race or ethnicity. People have different cultures based on their upbringings, language, gender, religion, or sex, to name a few.  As a traveler, expect to see people with different experiences, backgrounds, or viewpoints.  For example, there are people from China, Japan, Korea, and many other places that I frequently see people categorize as Asians.  However, each region has distinctly different practices that others should recognize individually.
  2. Know that you will see, hear, and possibly feel things different from what you are familiar with. For example, queuing or standing in line is common when traveling through airports in the boarding process.  The boarding process can be chaotic in some cultures as some cultures are accustomed to a “me first” mentality.  However, it will be frowned upon in some cases if you do not queue as requested.
  3. Know that even though you might recognize your destination for a particular culture, this does not mean that you must abandon your own culture. Be culturally sensitive as many places are multi-cultural, and you can add value to your destination with your own culture.  I embrace Asian fashion and particularly the concept of wearable art.  I don’t see it as cultural appropriation but simply a fashion choice and a healthy respect for the talented artists that make the fashion.
  4. Know that culture influences people’s attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior. Try not to judge a person based on what you presume to be their culture; often, your judgment is based on your own unrecognized bias.  For example, Sikh people are confused with Muslims, but they are two distinctly different cultures.
  5. Know that travel becomes a much more pleasant experience when you have learned to accept and respect people and their differences. You will become much more open to new knowledge and experiences and add value by sharing your own culture with others.  I often get asked about my natural hair by people here in Asia.  I appreciate those who ask as I am willing to share that part of my culture with them and respect that they are eager to learn.

Traveling has opened my eyes to seeing people as they are and not what I think they are or should be.  As a black ex-pat, I don’t believe we need to celebrate a single culture, but we must appreciate the cultures in which we place ourselves.  Has traveling opened your eyes culturally?  Please let me know in the comments below.