My second speech is a ‘How To’ speech, and I am giving it today. Thoughts?
“Hallo, wie heiBen Sie? Wie gehts? Woher kommen Sie?” You stare blankly at the German woman as she speaks to you. You are tongue tied, but don’t want offend by silence. You murmur some indecipherable response and turn bright red. By a show of hands, who here has had an experience like the one I’ve just described? Have you been unfamiliar with a cultural norm or flabbergasted by a foreign situation? Who here has thought ‘wow, I feel like such a tourist right now!’?
My name is Micah Lambert, and I have just described a situation I found myself in while traveling in Germany, and will undoubtedly find myself in again next year in Heidelberg. Although it is unlikely I will speak fluent German by departure in September, I can study their cultural customs and traditions to understand and thrive in my environment. During our time together, I hope to impart some wisdom I’ve garnered through both my research and time in Germany, England, and China. Although you may never travel to these specific countries, it is my hope you embark on your journey to any country knowing how to be a traveler, not a tourist.
If you find yourself in the beautiful country of Germany, or Deutschland, there are a few ways to blend in with the locals. Tip number one: when in Germany, dress as the Germans do. German clothing is typically tighter than American clothing, and more layered. Stay away from baggy jerseys, cargo shorts, track suits, and flip flops. The weather can change on a dime, so always have your coat handy. Tip number two: efficiency and punctuality are key. The Germans run their lives like they run their trains- on schedule and on task. As a California girl, I tend to operate a few minutes behind the rest of the world. This does not fly across the pond, as their time is valuable and it’s our job to respect it. This is not to say the locals won’t give you the time of day, they are very generous, hospitable people. If you meet for coffee, for instance, they will give you their full, unwavering attention and are not easily distracted. The third and final tip for your travels in Deutschland: small talk and chit-chat are fopas. Germans like to get straight to the point, often skipping the question “how are you?” because it seems superficial. They enjoy discussing religion, politics, philosophy, and many other subjects that are considered off-limits in America.
So you’ve just finished galavanting around Germany in style, and now you’re off to England! If you are like me, you think, ‘we speak the same language, so we must have the same culture, right?’ Wrong. Britain has a distinct culture, and has many sub-cultures within it. Tip number one: anticipate more reserved personalities. A Brit may not divulge their life story on your first encounter, but it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. It is customary for them to spend a longer time getting to know you before really opening up. Tip number two: embrace their subtle, dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. For instance, imagine you are soaked to the bone in a rain storm, and upon entering a London cafe, the waitress says, “You’re a bit damp, bless.” We are used to more blatant humor, and may need to tune our ears to catch their unpronounced wit. Tip number three: adopt a quieter voice register. Unbeknownst to us, Americans speak in a louder register than most of the world. Brits emphasize politeness and manners, and speaking more quietly signals you care about what the other person has to say. Oh, and never try to fake a British accent, they can always tell. Follow these three rules, and you are sure to travel the motherland in grace.
Similarly, how does one blend in in China? You can’t. You just can’t. I could speak perfect Mandarin and wear the latest fashion, but I will always stick out like a sore thumb. However, just because I do not fit in physically, doesn’t mean I can’t honor their culture. In 2010, I participated in a three week mission trip to Beijing, China, where I taught English using the Bible. While there, I learned three valuable lessons. Number one: group happiness is valued above individual happiness. Americans are fiercely independent, and often put themselves above others. However, this is not the way Chinese culture works. My trip taught me humility and compassion as I leaned how to serve others before myself. Secondly, personal space is a luxury, not a requisite. By nature of their environment, the Chinese are used to closer quarters. I can recall my first metro ride in Beijing. It is stifling out, at least a hundred plus humidity, and a Chinese man stands practically on top of me. His arm pit is in my face and he sways closer with each turn. My immediate reaction was to move away in disgust, appalled by how rude he was. However, I realized that he considered this distance perfectly normal, and as a traveler in his country, it was my job to assimilate. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Chinese operate in two circles- the inner circle and the outer circle. The inner circle consists of family, close friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The outer circle is everyone else. They do not teach politeness to strangers like we do, if you do not normally associate with them, there is no need to treat them tantamount to your loved ones. Although it is impossible for most of us to physically blend with the locals in China, I desire for you to be able to adapt more easily to their culture.
Next time someone asks you if you have ever been unfamiliar with a cultural norm or flabbergasted by a foreign situation, I hope you do not raise your hand. Through my experiences abroad I’ve learned the importance of being a positive ambassador to all nations. I have gleaned a love for other cultures and a deeper appreciation for my own, which has shape me into the person I am today. I urge you to continue exploring the world as a more well-versed, knowledgable traveler and less of a befuddled tourist. See the world from a different point of view, I promise you will love it, or as they say in German, “Sie werden es liben!” Thank you.