When Does Cultural Immersion Go Too Far?

davidlivermore | April 18th, 2016 8 Comments



It’s easy to travel far away from home and experience very little of the local culture.

Study abroad students are encouraged to get off Snapchat and soak up the local culture.

Business travelers are told to go beyond the hotel lounge to meander through the local streets.

And staff and students are told to move outside their in-groups and interact with peers who are different from them.

This comes pretty naturally for me. I describe myself on my Twitter bio as “insatiably curious” and my family shares my curiosity for all things cross-cultural. Whenever we travel together, we try to encounter the local culture up close. We prefer to stay in locally run hotels or better yet, we usually rent an apartment or house in a local neighborhood.

We did this a couple weeks ago when we took a brief vacation together in Panama. We stayed in an apartment in Panama City and rented a little house in Bastimentos, a coastal village on the Carribean side of the country. We asked locals to tell us their favorite places to eat and we used public transit. When the water stopped running for awhile in Panama City, we asked our neighbors what to do.

As much as I loved being in the cosmopolitan world of Panama City, I particularly enjoyed visiting Bastimentos, a sleepy island that is only accessible by boat taxi. Soon after we arrived in Bastimentos, we headed into Old Bank, the little town on the island that has a mini supermarket, a few cafes, a couple churches, a police station, and no cars. I felt completely alive. This was a curious traveler’s dream! Most everyone we walked by appeared to be locals. And given that there are no cars or roads, it was pretty tough to walk around without seeing the culture up close. While trying not to stare, it was impossible not to get a glimpse right inside people’s homes where men were chasing chickens, women were bathing their children, and teenagers were heading off to school up the hill.

Whoa! And all of this was just a short flight away from the U.S.! It was intoxicating!

But then…I started to wonder if we were intruding. The pathways around the island went right alongside people’s homes. Our home in Michigan sits alongside 11 acres (45,000 m2) of public woods and I was trying to imagine how I would feel if I looked out my window and saw a Panamanian family strolling by our house with smart phones in hand.

Bastimentos has only recently been discovered by travelers like us. We had lunch one day at a local café. We were the only foreigners there. We started talking with the grandmother who runs it. She’s lived on this land her entire life and we asked her how she felt about people like us coming to her village. What’s she supposed to say, right? But in between her hospitable welcome, we picked up on her growing concern that gringos are taking over the island. She was grateful for the new opportunities for business—though she said most of the foreigners simply stay and eat at other foreigner’s businesses. And she wonders what her homeland will look like in the years ahead.

These same realities happen closer to home. A neighborhood near us is often lauded as a compelling picture of revitalization. It’s gone from having little more than a liquor store to being filled with hip boutiques, coffee shops, and foodie haunts along with lofts and condos. A woman who has lived there her entire life recently said, “I don’t feel comfortable walking around my own neighborhood anymore. I suddenly feel like an outsider and like I’m invading the newcomers’ community.”

There’s a lot of useful research that analyzes the complexities related to tourism and gentrification. We ought to resist easy answers and I’m certainly not suggesting we should all stick to ourselves and leave others well enough alone. But for curious travelers like me, our CQ Drive—the interest and motivation to engage with different cultures, must be combined with CQ Strategy—the ability to plan accordingly in light of the cultural context.

Vincent Mattox, an administrator from Kentucky State University attended our CQ Certification program last week. Vince introduced me to the idea of “delayed curiosity”. He suggests that while curiosity about other cultures is a good thing, it runs the risk of being offensive and may sometimes need to be restrained. Vince agrees that political correctness is not the way to create a culturally intelligent environment, however, he sees the importance of tempering our expressions of curiosity when we aren’t sure how our questions and observations might impact others. Just think of the wildly-popular video where the Caucasian runner asks an Asian-American woman, “Where are you from?” Curiosity is a huge asset for creating the necessary interest and motivation for working and relating with people from different cultural backgrounds; but it needs to be guided by the other three CQ capabilities—knowledge, strategy, and behavior.

I will continue to advocate for getting to know a culture up close and moving beyond surface-level encounters. But I’m going to think further about when I need to delay my curiosity or even give up some of the cultural experiences I’d like to have because they may do more harm than good.

When has your curiosity gone too far? How do you encourage others to get outside their comfort zones without needlessly making another uncomfortable? My curious mind wants to know!

8 Responses to When Does Cultural Immersion Go Too Far?

  1. David –

    Once again you have absolutely hit it out of the ballpark with your insights.

    I have seen this with the Amish in my childhood neighborhood – it seems even worse with pictures b/c they believe they should be remembered for their deeds and not their physical appearance. …at any rate they do not like their picture taken.

    Also, in South Africa we went to a village where the homes were made from dung and tourism was their industry. It was hard b/c they did tribal dances, ethnic food, history of the Zulus – but as we were leaving a man in a Mercedes drove by and we were told he was the owner of most of the land – it was a mixed bag – he obviously made the lion’s share of the money but the local residents had no money without his connections/savvy.

    I also find it sad that our way of repaying Native Americans is with a job that involves gambling/drinking…two vices and ones that involve a bad reputation for Native Americans in general. As a Christian nation would this be what we should do? Would we want this for our children? How do people reconcile visiting Casinos and talking so poorly of Native Americans?

    In Japan – peering in through the atomic bomb museum in Nagasaki was voyeurism in a good way – the sadness and reality of what our country does and continues to do is truly sobering.

    Thank you for your newsletters – keep fighting the good fight and thank you for seeing the complexity in CQ…I come from a family where my grandmother was from Nagasaki Japan and my grandfather from Indiana – they lived in what is now North Korea working the gold mines. My dad lived their as a child for over 10 years and saw the effects of the Imperial Guard of Japan, the flight of the White Russians, and visited Manchukuo. The stories he told were full of CQ events. Your ability to see things from many perspectives is so refreshing. I am 55 – I have lived my whole life believing this perspective would come forward – I wish my dad were alive today to read this article.

    Best wishes…


  2. This was an important article. Thank you! I’ve thought about cultural curiosity as potentially a form of colonialism, a form of the “gaze” from on high.

    I think the question, though, of good vs bad curiosity distracts from the question of whether curiosity is actually motivating the questions. “Delayed curiosity” is not actually “delayed” but is simply another form of curiosity.

    If I wonder how my curiosity will affect others, I am still being curious. I am asking myself about the context, interests, and feelings of others–that’s curiosity. Rather than asking questions and engaging right away, I am observing and keeping a distance, for a time, at least.

    In the video of the “curious” Caucasian jogger asking the Asian-American woman about her “culture,” what was funny was that the man was incapable of self-reflection. He was trying to make a point about how much he understood her culture–and the distance between reality and his “knowledge” made us laugh. Moreover, when she followed the same line of questioning to him, he just thought she was being weird.

    He was incapable of listening. When she said she was from Orange County, he assumed she misunderstood him. He wanted to tell her he liked “her people’s” food, not find out what food she actually ate or enjoyed.

    The point is that we may have to begin by listening and learning before we open our mouth. We may need to stand corrected when we say something silly. I don’t think that means disengage or delay our curiosity; instead, let’s disengage our assumptions and need to make a point so that we can really understand where someone else is coming from.

    Again, great article. Thank you!

  3. Wonderful reflection, David. I had never thought about ‘delayed curiosity’….an interesting concept.

  4. I have always lived in a reasonably large city, never moving too far from my place of birth. But I have been lucky enough to travel abroad regularly, be it for work or holiday.

    My eldest son, however, has been more adventurous. He has lived in many cities and towns in many countries. Wherever he was, I visited him. There were 2 places that stood out. Daegu, an industrial/business city in South Korea and more particularly an area of Southern Japan, where my son lived in an isolated farming area. I went for 10 days. I commuted daily to see him as I did not stay in his apartment with him. Instead I stayed in a small town called Obama.

    Walking around Obama, up and down the small streets, it was soon evident that I was nearly the only person who spoke fluent English. I only met 2 others – an old lady who was watering her garden and a man who was the ‘lollipop’ person – helping students across the street going to/from school. Not shopkeepers, not hotel staff, not the bus drivers. Some people spoke limited English but it was difficult for us to communicate.

    I realised that I must not travel the world as the so-called ‘ugly tourist’, the person who wants things in his language, in his way, not the local way.

    Using my 10 or so words of Japanese was not good enough. I tried harder, I tried to more fully observe and understand manners, rituals etc. I tried to use more non-verbal signs, rather than just ask questions in English, hoping or even worse, expecting a response from the people in this small town. I probably did not succeed, but I tried.

    As with the experiences in Panama and in South Africa outlined in this posting, or with my other own-life experiences in South Korea and many years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya, as tourists or when working, we owe it to our hosts to be understanding of their lifestyle, their business styles and their country.

    So, yes, the article and the experience in Panama is something that must be shared. We have all done things insensitively or wrongly somewhere at some time. We must all learn from our ‘ugly’ ways. We should not intrude, knowingly or unwittingly. If a person is doing something that is not being done the way we do it or the way we like it (eg clearing a plate at a restaurant or greeting you in a store), accept it. It is their way. It is what they do at their place. And the smaller the town, the further away from the big cities, I have learnt to expect the differences (the ‘non-western ways’) to be even bigger.

  5. How do we best engage cross-culturally then without being invasive? Walking down the street in certain rural locals is seemingly invasive as you indicate your presence interrupts the daily life going on in the homes around you. Are we to avoid going to those places then? Just thinking through this…

    • Fair question Tara. And I don’t think we should avoid these places but perhaps treat them as you would when going over to a friend’s home…wait until they invite you beyond the front door….living room etc. And whenever possible, a cultural interpreter is a must-have–so that someone can help us navigate when we’re crossing the line.

  6. This is an interesting issue, which like other travellers (and, especially those of us who are trying to claim a distinction between travellers and tourists) I have pondered on.
    I partially agree with your analysis and conclusions. On the one hand, there are tourist dynamics at play (i.e., more and more tourists wanting to visit certain wonderful far away places that are attractive for them) that such considerations are not going to affect (that is, only a tiny number of the tourist industry would stop and consider modifying their behaviour this way).
    On the other hand, like you, i am attracted to less tourist-impacted places and i mused over these points in my recent travel through India and Vietnam. The issue with true immersion is that it has less impact than fast-and-furious type of tourism. When wishes to immerse, one does not seek to change the environment (social or natural) to fit his/her needs and it is unlikely that such a traveller will stay and eat in predominantly foreign-owned places. Thus, when it comes to immersive, low-impact tourism, i don’t see a good reason to avoid it as, from my experience, it provides for a genuine two-way cultural exchange.

  7. Thank you, David, for these vivid reflections on the paradox of cultural immersion.

    It constantly strikes me there’s such a broad assumption that, even when travelling, cultural immersion has to have the picturesque, the obviously different as its starting point.

    I was reminded of the mock travel book ‘Molvania – A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry’ whose ‘contributors’ believed that you’re not experiencing a country’s culture unless you’re plunged into illness, discomfort and constant privations: ‘Why pay for a bland Westernised meal in an overpriced tourist cafe when for half the cost a street vendor will sell you a piece of salted cod and a bag of lemon rind?’

    In recent travels to El Salvador, Costa Rica and the US I stayed with Salvadoran friends and acquaintances whose outward trappings of life weren’t much different from my own. The cultural immersion here was being immersed in the psychology of their life situations and those of their friends and family. It was also their different assumptions from mine about what constituted social pleasure. The emotional conversations, the cultural tensions held below the surface of warm hospitality, the simmering stress of the opaque world of undocumented migration became overwhelming the longer I stayed. There was the relief of shared disclosures, joy of sharing, interest of discovery, but I have left such experiences feeling depleted.

    In circumstances like these, there is no (unintended) cultural voyeurism but the impact of the cultural immersion is profound. Your reflections reminded me that cultural immersion has many faces and the effects can flow many ways. When you pose the question: ‘When does cultural immersion go too far?’, this is something that springs to my mind. Food for much more interesting reflection.