WANDERLUST: Editor reflects on navigating new culture

Originally published in The Mooring Mast September 20, 2013

When you travel to a foreign country, at first you don’t know anything. You don’t know who the local sports teams are. You might not even know what sports are popular.

You do not know the differences between the political parties, or even how many there are. You don’t even know whether to say “sorry” or “excuse me” when you bump into someone. It’s confusing, it’s embarrassing, and I want you to embrace it.

I was at dinner the other night with some friends, including an international student, talking about President Obama’s speech on Syria and how cool it was that King 5 came to PLU to interview some students, when the international student asked what King 5 was.

Which got me thinking.

When I went to Germany, I didn’t know any of the local news stations either. I didn’t know which ones were right or left leaning, or who the president was. I didn’t even know Germany doesn’t have a president – they have a chancellor.

And you can’t know either. These things, these little things that make up the cultural fabric and background and history of a place are so different all over the world, and there are just so many of them, you can’t possibly know them all. It’s too much.

All you can do is spend time in that place and try to pick up on as many of them as you can.

This past summer I did an internship at a major German newspaper in Berlin. My internship coincided with the start of the campaign season for their upcoming September election, which the organization did ongoing coverage of.

I did tons of research on the various political parties. I learned about the big ones and the little ones, the start-ups and the giants, the radicals and the moderates. I asked people their opinions. I felt very smart — an expert in world politics.

After my internship ended, I visited a friend in England for a week. Suddenly I was an ignorant American again. I didn’t speak the language, or at least I was immediately recognizable by my accent, and I didn’t know anything about anything. I had spent so much time focusing on German politics that I hadn’t brushed up on Britain’s at all.

Sure, I’d heard about William and Kate’s baby boy in the news — who hadn’t? But my friend had to explain to me what the difference between the Queen and the Queen Mother was, and who all the royals were, and where they fell in line for the throne and why everyone hates Prince Charles.

When I got back to my hometown after three months of being abroad, I was relieved to finally be somewhere where everything was safe and familiar.

Guess again — I had missed a huge news story on a sexual abuse scandal that had rocked my community of 11,000 to its core. Once again, I was out of the loop, struggling to keep up.

But while being the one who doesn’t know anything is embarrassing, it’s this confusion that allows room for new knowledge.

Don’t be afraid to go new places and ask the dumb questions. In the long run, you’ll wind up expanding your knowledge — it just doesn’t feel that way at first.


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