Connecting Across Cultures

Ours is a world of wonder. Its sights, its sounds, its smells, its creatures. There is nothing like being in a new place to renew the spirit of awe and wonder within our souls. Nothing so sparks in us an awareness of the richness of this creation or the wonderful diversity it contains.

Every destination holds within it a unique beauty and an opportunity to delight. Customs, traditions, folk tales, dance, art, language, nourishment. And every destination holds within it its own spirit, its soul, its way of understanding, its place in eternity.

There are many ways we can travel in this world. Vacations offer us exotic locations and respite from the demands of our daily life. But too often we are only observers as we move from place to place, seeing the sights that attract the tourists, protected from the harsher realities and the deeper spirituality of the lands in which we move.

Mission trips offer us an important opportunity to serve and to work side by side and hand in hand with brothers and sisters of a different culture. We move beyond the shelter of resorts in order to be exposed to the harsher realities of the lands we visit. But these trips usually limit our experience to one particular place and consume our time with one particular task. Often they set us to work before giving us an opportunity to listen and to learn what the true needs of an area are and where we can most be helpful.    

A Cultural Immersion Experience, in contrast, seeks to walk the middle road. It is an opportunity to visit a variety of places and to meet with and learn from local residents at each destination. In the process we become participants in the culture we are exploring, rather than onlookers or do-gooders. We take the time to be fully present in our surroundings and to contemplate what meaning we might discover as each situation unfolds before us.   

An integral Cultural Immersion Experience does just that, it immerses us completely. Our body is engaged through movement and sensory experiences of touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell.

Our brain is stimulated as we seek to understand the history and current climate of the places we visit so that we might put our experience in context, gain knowledge, and be able to draw comparisons with our own culture.

As we allow ourselves to be totally present in whatever situation we are experiencing, our spirit is free to develop insight and wisdom that connects with our personal, unique vision.

Our psychodynamic self grows as we learn to see life and living from a new perspective. A true immersive experience changes us, deepens our understanding and empathy, and shapes us in ways that nothing else can.

We learn to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And then we begin to see the lens through which we see the world ourselves.

We all have such a lens. Through it we see a world that makes sense to us, that matches our expectations of reality. Our lens is made up of our values and our basic assumptions. It includes our ideas about personhood, family, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, race, religion, economy, education, and so on. Those views become more powerful and rigid when they remain unnoticed and unnamed.

But when we are able to start seeing the lens itself, we can start to put our experiences and the experiences of others into their own unique context. We develop empathy, compassion and understanding. We move beyond tolerance to a kind of admiration and deep respect for others.

Whenever we enter unknown territory, we have the rare opportunity to see our own construction of reality in a way that the barriers come down and we realize that we are no different from the people with whom we are interacting. All that is different are the situations and conditions surrounding our lives.

We return changed. And with that change comes the responsibility to share our experience, to tell another people’s story, to become agents of peace and goodwill in a world that too often fails to celebrate the beauty and the value of diversity.  

We all return from Cultural Immersion Experiences touched in different ways, moved by different experiences. But every one of us who is willing to open our eyes to new realities is changed. We see the lens of our own cultural upbringing and that allows us to recognize that it is time to break old patterns and redefine relationships.

Too often we Westerners have tried to “help” a people by telling them that what they need and then giving it to them, knowing all along that what they need most is to be like “us.” They don’t need to be like us. It’s time to engage in a different dialogue. Let’s start by asking what is needed of us. Then there is an even more important question for us to ask. We need to approach our brothers and sisters from other cultures and say with all humility: I’m on a journey in this life – will you walk with me – will you help me find my way?