Traveling open-minded to avoid cultural bias

I remember sitting with my new Indian friend in the evening in his room. We were celebrating. After many years of consultations with his agent, getting a student loan, learning English and more, he had finally received his student VISA for Canada. He will be leaving India in 2 weeks, for the first time in his life, and still, he offered me to come to his home and took the time to show me around his city.

I think back to the first time I saw him. We were both helping out at the Vipassana meditation center, to ensure that the new students have a successful course. My mind started to build a picture of a person I didn’t know, yet.  Without any one-on-one conversation, my impression and the idea of him were that he is kind of cocky, inflexible and not interested in me. The next day, I still had this impression taking over my mind but slowly becoming aware of it, I told myself: I have no idea who he is and I should have an open heart and mind to anyone.
Said and done, the next day, instead of taking a mid-day rest (since as servant you get roughly 5hrs of sleep at night), I went to the dining area where he was dusting the carpets and cleaning the tables and offered him help. He was really grateful for my help since it takes him more than an hour to clean everything. To make it short, I helped him from there on every day because it was the only time we were able to talk with each other (it was a silent meditation and as servers, we should not speak in presence of the students). I was positively surprised by his wide knowledge of German cars, his interest in my journey and he was able to tell me a lot about the history of India and its culture.

I once heard a podcast and had it mentioned to me many times, that it is embedded in our DNA and instincts that we, as humans, always try to make a picture of new situations. The sapiens needed to observe and feel, whether it was safe to get out of the cave or as an alpine mountain climber, it is necessary to be aware whether to continue and push to the peak or turn around. It’s kind of a safety feature within us.

In my opinion, it all comes together to be aware in the present moments. Aware of yourself, if you are acting out of your conditions or if you stay open minded while talking with other people. Aware of a situation you are finding yourself the first time and if you are pushing yourself too far. Or just in daily life, if you are always on the run and never take a rest. With human interaction, it doesn’t if you meeting them for the first time or have a chat with your childhood friend. It is hard work and we all happen to be in those situations where we fall in patterns of distrust, doubt, and prejudice. It won’t happen overnight but if you manage even one out of ten times, sooner or later it will happen more frequently. What I experience in my case, it helped me to get to deeper, more meaningful conversations and also, learning about the life of people I probably would have ignored. Due to that, I start to get a better understanding of culture, different peoples opinion and escape my prior narrow-minded thinking.

During my travels, I found that being open-minded is also crucial to avoid any cultural misunderstandings with locals, and traveling through India I was facing them many times. I was happy to have been in India already once four years before, so I kinda understood already the general behavior of Indian people (without generalizing at this point). Being now in addition aware of my emotions and environment, I managed to help others to see these misunderstanding. Let me give you another example.

At the end of our Yoga Teacher Training, we were reminded by our teacher and the manager to do the review on two big social media platforms. Important to know, the school transparently mentions on their website and told us on the first day, that they are not paying any dollar to be on the top of a search engine. They offer us a deal and give us something in return for our review, a free of charge laundry service and a free massage. If the student doesn’t want to give a review, he just pays the money for the laundry.

We all have been very happy to have chosen this school. As our teacher was born and raised in India, he was also saying things the way Indians do. Indians are pretty direct, don’t use too often the words “please” or “could you”. Not because they are impolite but because that is just the way they talk to each other. So, our teacher told us after writing our theoretical exam to get our phones and come back to the hall to write the reviews. And what happened, although everyone had an amazing experience, a few students got the feeling to be forced to do it and got upset.

In the evening, I talked with one student and tried to make her understand, that there was no wrong intention and it is just the way they are. She lives in the U.S. and as you may know, the interactions with each other are also different. In the end, she managed to change her perception and understood that there might be nothing wrong. A few also just forgot that the reviews are of course voluntarily and that we actually get a discount.

As a guest in a foreign country, we should treat people and their land with respect. But it goes the same way around and I must admit that I sometimes also felt mistreated because of where I am from. To be open-minded goes for the guest as much as for the local. As a traveler, I am interested in other people lives and their culture (especially food) and as I was a host, I loved to show my guest around and give them a great chance to get to know a new place. I remember taking time to drive my friends from college around, especially because as a tourist you have many things to take care of like renting the car, where to drive, different street rules etc. Or having couch surfer (my favorite travel community) over for just one night, having conversations about their lives in a different country.

I could write down many more examples and I do understand that pre-judging people or situations are deeply embedded in us, our personal development and what one has experienced in life. A woman being asked for sexual conduct by a cab driver or confronted with other harassments has all the reasons to be more careful and keep her distance in the beginning. Nevertheless, we cannot judge someone by the mistake or misbehavior by someone else or due to cultural bias. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful, but in trusting your instincts and still being open-minded, you will find the balance in staying safe and also be open to find the good in others. Because in the end, it is not about what differentiates us from others, it’s about what we share and have in common. That is love, compassion and the joy of living.

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