It’s very much en vogue to throw around words like cultural purity; cultural appropriation and cultural awareness. But do people really have the same understanding of these terms? They might think they have the meanings memorized and have familiarized themselves with the Americanized versions of these cultures. Good for them. But traveling to the places where these cultures originate can blow those definitions out of the water.

Here’s why.

Let’s start with cultural purity. Most cultures today have been influenced by another culture to some extent. In some cases this is helpful, and in some, no so. Even in mostly homogenized Japan you see a major American influence and influence of globalization and the military occupancy after the war. Iceland, as focused as they are on maintaining the purity of their 1000-year-old Viking language, is also heavily influenced by both North America and Europe in other parts of society. And so it goes all around the globe. So what do people actually mean when they say cultural purity? I don’t think it really exists anymore. The world has intermixed far too long for there to be many holdouts. Globalization has made a blend of cultures – food, music, dress, religion, language, and we freely share with each other. But we must be cognizant to respect and value the difference within other cultures that are not our own. It is important for young generations to embrace their heritage and learn cultural norms from their parents and grandparents so that traditions are not lost.

"Cultural Awareness Is Not In a Textbook"

That brings us to cultural appropriation. America is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, traditions, foods and everything else. In large metro areas people grow up in neighborhoods filled with a mix of races, nationalities and cultures. Habits, recipes, clothing styles; all manner of things are shared and this is a wonderful thing. It promotes understanding, acceptance and warm friendships. The word appropriation could really be replaced by sharing in the United States as long as the other culture mutually benefits. As we travel outside the USA, as Americans, to other countries, it’s sometimes a challenge to realize that we should research the culture in the country that we are going to. Why? To avoid indirectly forcing our norms and expectations on another culture. Just be respectful to and value of everyone else’s culture, norms and history and we will be fine.

"Cultural Awareness Is Not In a Textbook"

That brings us to cultural awareness. Travel is the greatest clarifier of this term. You can study a culture in a book but not really grasp the culture. It must be felt, eaten, and experienced on the ground. You must live with the people of a culture. You must learn the language. You must celebrate their holidays and learn their traditions. Only then do you become fully aware of a nation’s cultural mentality and why it is the way it is. You understand the attitudes of the people. You feel what they feel because you are living it, too.

To fully embrace a culture is to move there for a time. Become one with the country and its people, language and customs.

Global volunteering is a great way to do just that. It can be a very humbling as well a great character-building experience for anyone, especially leaders. Immersion forces us to quickly learn to adapt to new languages and traditions and allows us to stretch beyond our comfort zone. Put your textbook down and spend a few months or even a year learning a culture by living it. You might learn something about yourself in the process.

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