The thing about cultures is that they are glorious. They are beautiful. They are unique. I’ve come to the realization that there are some aspects of cultures that one simply can’t comprehend without having been born and raised within them. There are subtle norms etched into the very souls of those who grew and developed within their cultures. Some things an outsider looking in can learn and perhaps even emulate. Other things, well, outsiders can learn to adhere to, but they’ll most likely never fully understand. And here’s the thing… I’m learning that it’s alright not to understand. Existing together and learning from each other isn’t an experience to be completed. There is no end goal. Instead, it is a continual educational process founded on repeated immersive exposure. The goal when learning about cultures is not to jet away from them feeling all-knowing, but to cultivate a sense of understanding and respect for cultures and those who live amongst them.
My Vietnam Experience
Having lived in Vietnam for such a short time, there are so many aspects of Vietnamese culture that I’ve had the privilege to experience: the food, the language, observing social interactions. Even so, there is still so much that I do not understand. Initially, I was frustrated by what didn’t make sense to me. I have had so many encounters with local Vietnamese folks where, due to the language barrier or perhaps just the depth necessary for a thorough cultural discussion, I haven’t been able to get all of my questions answered. This prompted me to ponder and percolate ideas pertaining to how exactly can someone explain the subtle nuances of their culture?
I keep hearing from locals and expats alike about this idea of “saving face” in Vietnamese culture. I still have yet to properly understand this idea as I have experienced it in Vietnam, possibly I never will. There are distinctly unique cultural aspects to this phrase that I have witnessed here, and, in my eyes, the behavior that I’ve seen played out seems almost disrespectful. However, I am aware that I only perceive it that way due to my own cultural conditioning from having lived in the U.S. I’m coming to terms with the reality that some aspects of our cultures are so deeply engraved into who we are that we, ourselves, may not even be fully aware of them. Let alone be able to accurately articulate them in all their precise details to a foreigner.
The Complexities of Cultures
Not only are we faced with the unique communal cultures embedded within us from our countries of origin, but also the cultures of our local communities and even those imbued within our own families. For example, one could say that each state in the U.S. has its own subtly different culture that separates it from the other states. A person from my home, Seattle, and another individual born and raised in Kansas City are likely to have some very different beliefs and potentially different morals as well. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is due to culture. Looking ever deeper, we can even argue that each family has its own set of norms and, daresay, its own mini sub-culture. Development and growth is such a complex and layered phenomenon. It makes any sense of complete cultural understanding utterly mute and void.
That isn’t to say that it is not still worthwhile to explore the minds and social practices of those you don’t understand. This journey of traveling, learning and growing is not a race to obtain a complete and comprehensive knowledge of other cultures. This journey is about exactly what it is: a journey. Learn as much as possible. Ask all the respectful, culturally sensitive questions that you can and develop yourself to the fullest and bestest that you can be. In the end, if you learn nothing else from global exploration, learn that every culture, every person is glorious, beautiful, and unique in so many ways and it’s okay if you don’t understand their depths. Traveling is meant to teach us all the value in coming together, learning from one another, loving one another, and respecting each person’s individual growth and development. The thing about cultures is that they are the bridges between us and they deserve to be respected with a ravenous passion of learning and acceptance.