Almost Fearless

Should You Adapt When You Travel?



Today’s guest post is by the amazing travel and food blogger Akila from The Road Forks.  If you haven’t read her before, now is the time to go bookmark her site.

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Five guidebooks, each covered with pictures of golden temples and vivid spices, gave me the same advice: when I go to Southeast Asia and India, I should use the right hand to eat and gesture because the left hand is considered unclean. I do not know what these guidebook writers would have thought of my left-handed cousin, who was born and raised in North India, and always used her left hand even when accepting the offerings of Gods at temples. Her left-handedness was important to her and she was not willing to sacrifice it merely to satisfy the whims of strangers.

We travelers get this type of advice all the time, that is, advice on how to fit in to the community to which we travel. I have been advised to wear black clothing and designer jeans in Italy, to speak exclusively Spanish in Spain, and to dress modestly and avoid speaking with men in Middle Eastern countries. But, though I may try my best to adapt, I will never be mistaken for a local. And, even if the subterfuge of changing my dress, language, and mannerisms would be enough to mark me as a local, do I want to give up my heritage, culture, and predispositions merely because I have crossed borders?

The Problem With Adaptation

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species

The traveler who adapts to foreign customs is most likely to manage the hassles and pressures of travel. Though I was born in Philadelphia, spent most of my life in Alabama, and speak Tamil poorly, my skin color and features instantly define me as a person of Indian-descent, so I wear salwar kameez when I travel in India to avoid being stared at or hassled by the local touts. We adapt not only to avoid the irritations of the foreign nation but also to show respect for the culture and customs of the people upon whose country we descend. At Ayers Rock, when the aborigines asked us not to take pictures of their sacred sites, we complied even though we saw other Westerners pressing their flash buttons.

As with all things, there are people who take adaptability to the extreme. When we were in Ireland in 2003, we met Americans who slapped Canadian stickers on their backpacks, not because they were ashamed of their country but rather because they did not want to be questioned and antagonized about American policies and the Iraq war.

No matter how we adapt, whether simply changing our clothing or deceiving others about our origin and nationality, we lose a bit of our authentic self through the process. Some will argue that these changes are good and by adapting, we become more broad-minded about ourselves and the world around us. I hesitate on that point. Middle Easterners argue that adaptation to Western society is killing their culture and customs, as children are exposed to shocking sexually suggestive lyrics from musicians and nudity on television. In the same way, I wonder why I voluntarily set aside my beliefs in feminism by acceding to the wishes of conservative nations and cover my head, shoulders, and legs while traveling through those nations.

This is the problem of adaptation. Though our attempts to change ourselves may assure our survival in a foreign land, we may not be happy in merely surviving.

The Problem With Authenticity

Then, let us reintroduce the self – like my left-handed cousin who refused to use her right hand at temples, I decide which beliefs are important to me and I place a strangle hold on them, refusing to adjust or alter them despite foreign customs to the contrary.

A good example is my vegetarianism. I was raised vegetarian in a South Indian household and remained vegetarian even when my brother and cousins started eating meat because I did not wish to consciously harm an animal by my actions. Traveling as a vegetarian is undoubtedly a challenge. I lived in Spain for two months, where roast pigs and beef hang from every second storefront, and never tried paella; I spent a month in Australia and ate mostly pastas and French fries; and I have lived my entire life in the United States and never tried a McDonald’s hamburger or a thick cut steak. I refuse to eat meat because vegetarianism is part of my world view though many cultures do not understand that viewpoint.

The extremists, who refuse to adapt at all, do exist as well. This is the stereotypical “obnoxious American traveler” who sees the country through the window of a tour bus and demands McDonalds everywhere, without interest or desire in meeting the citizens whose country they seek to visit. Recently, for example, one couple advised us that when we go to Egypt, we should not step out of our hotel or tour group or try to meet the local people because of the chaos and unsanitary conditions. Even world-renowned traveler Rick Steves may fall into this category with his advice that travelers should abandon learning foreign phrases and instead use “Special English,” by speaking like a “Dick and Jane primer,” while in Europe.

The problem with remaining true to our principles while traveling is that we may sacrifice opportunities. Though Saudi Arabia is incredibly beautiful, I do not plan to travel there because I would be embarrassed and suffocated in a place where I could not enter a restaurant or drive a car because of my gender. I do not criticize the Saudi Arabians for their beliefs but recognize that mine are different and that I do not want to alter my beliefs in feminism just to satisfy my curiosity about their culture and country. Similarly, because I am vegetarian, I miss many important cultural experiences, such as eating fresh caught sushi, Argentinian barbecue, and French foie gras.

The Balance

The hardest part of travel is finding the balance between authenticity and adaptability. Though I do not eat meat, I eat everything vegetarian, including oddities like sweet potatoes cooked in geothermal steam and durian. We have seen girls wear shorts in India yet immerse themselves in the local culture and cuisine. We have Sikh friends who speak fluent English, eat American food, but wear their beard long and a turban wrapped around their head.

All humans an intrinsic desire to fit in to their surroundings, yet, no matter how much we try to mimic the language, patterns, practices, and customs of another country, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” We bring our customs, our beliefs, and our lives with us when we cross borders and, in doing so, educate others about our own country. The question every traveler faces is which beliefs and habits to give up and which we should hold on.

About the Author

Akila has itchy feet and an insatiable appetite.  Her mind (and waistline) is expanding as she travels, cooks, and eats her way around the world with her husband.  Follow her journey at The Road Forks.

Pic: paullikespics

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”

THERE ARE RARELY HAMMOCKS.

http://christinegilbert.com

31 comments

  • I will go out of my way to avoid offending others when I’m travelling, but I expect some amount of respect in return….. there are parts of the world I don’t plan to visit (you mention Saudi) because I wouldn’t be prepared to do what their culture would require of me. (I’m also a vegetarian who has survived on some very limited supplies!)
    .-= Rachel Cotterill´s last blog ..A Short Story =-.

  • It’s interesting that in some cultures, you find things that you can’t agree with and prick your conscience as well. Sometimes, in China, you’re really frowned upon if you don’t drink lots and lots of strong alcohol. You’re viewed as unfriendly and even untrustworthy if you don’t drink at business dinners.
    .-= Gordie´s last blog ..How To Stop People From Driving You Crazy. =-.

  • Excellent article, and it poses questions that do bother me from time to time as I travel. In the end, I try to find a compromise that works both for me and the people whose country and culture I’m temporarily a part of. As far as I know I haven’t managed to seriously offend anybody (well, not by a lack of adaptation at least…) so I guess it works, but then again I haven’t spent time in several of the places in the world where the culture gap would be the widest – the Middle East springs to mind.

    I think there is a point where you probably aren’t being true to yourself if you ‘adapt’ beyond it. That point will be different for each person, but I would suggest that that is about the point where you don’t spend (any more) time in that particular country or region. You are the visitor there, and have the choice to leave if something is offending you that much.
    .-= Dave´s last blog ..Travelling light, and how I haven’t managed it =-.

  • Nice essay. I agree with you that any traveler who thinks that they can become a chameleon and fit into a new culture without being detected is probably kidding him- or herself. I have bright blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. There are loads of places I’ve visited where I had no chance of fitting in at all like India.

    For me, the most important thing is to try and be polite and open to new experience. Part of this attitude anywhere in the world is taking cues from the people around you – observing how they behave and courteously following their lead.

    And I think you are more tolerant than I am – I do object to the belief in some countries that women shouldn’t drive or be seen in public without their faces cover.
    .-= Mara´s last blog ..Mondays are for dreaming: Off to the Caribbean =-.

  • One of the things travel has taught me, especially when I’ve gone to places very culturally different, is what values are really important to me and what I’m not willing to change just because things are done differently locally. For example, I have no problem covering up with long sleeves and long pants/skirts when it’s appropriate (e.g., Central Asia). But, while I am respectful of local culture, I’m not willing to adapt to being a second-class citizen because of my gender (unfortunately, common in many places). I also am not willing to adapt to accepted societal discrimination or cruelty to animals.

    When you travel, you choose to go to that country. And I do believe there are some behavioral adaptations that fall into the category of respecting the place you are visiting. But, I believe you can respect local people and culture, without accepting everything that is part of it.
    .-= Audrey´s last blog ..Peruvian Food: More than Just Ceviche =-.

  • I think that it’s more about respect than the actual action. If you can show people that you respect their cultures and customs, most people are ok with that. You have to know which things are extremely sensitive to people (like religion) and make sure that you don’t do anything that will really offend anyone.

    Outside of that, feel free to fit in or not fit in as you want!
    .-= Kyle´s last blog ..One Guiness and One Gigantic Burger Later =-.

  • Nicely done, Akila! I agree with Kyle. I think most people are turned off by the caricature of the “Obnoxious [insert country] traveler” because there is an implicit disrespect in that posturing. Perhaps a worthy discussion would be adapting vs. assimilating in cultures.
    .-= Keith´s last blog ..Savage Travels: Isle of Arran =-.

  • A very intriguing post, Akila. I think that respect for other cultures is extremely important when traveling. Too often, I have seen such disrespect as you did with the Aborigine sites that I feel compelled to make up for such rudeness. I’ve never felt like I’ve lost my true self however, because showing respect doesn’t change who I am.
    .-= Fly Girl´s last blog ..The Power of Haitian Art =-.

  • Adapting to other cultures is a touchy subject. In my opinion, it’s just another way of experiencing the culture. Granted, I will by no means throw out my real self, my beliefs or my ideals. In a lot of places, my hope is that the people from the host country will be interested in my own culture, as I will be interested in theirs.
    .-= Adam´s last blog ..Do What You Love =-.

  • I think adapting also depends on ones personal motivation and personality as well. Some people adapt better and blend in more than others. Some people travel in order to meet and learn from locals while other travel to see environments. Some prefer to stick with what they are use to. Either decision or personal preference is alright as long as each decision is respectfully considered and thought out.
    .-= Migration Mark´s last blog ..24 Hours at Angkor Wat =-.

  • Often the problem arises precisely because people remain as travellers. This is what sets them apart and demands that they either adapt or be awkward. The issue is solved when you start to act as if you lived in the country and the culture, Of course, respect is a vital part of how you behave but it goes deeper than that. When you live somewhere it is important that you strike a balance between being true to yourself and following the dictum, “when in Rome do as the Romans do”. We should start by looking at what we expect from ‘travellers’ in our own country. When we the put ourselves in their place we can begin to understand. It is not about adaptation but cultural understanding.
    .-= Graham Phoenix´s last blog ..Travel is in my Blood =-.

  • What a wonderful post, Akila! It really does take artful balance. Sometimes it is best to adapt a bit for safety — if you look like a clueless tourist, you are a prime victim for pickpocketing or scams. And sometimes we don’t want to offend other cultures. But you’re right that we also shouldn’t have to sacrifice ourselves and our traditions, like our eating habits, especially if that changes who we are or pushes us out of our comfort zones too much.
    .-= Emily @ Maiden Voyage´s last blog ..Review: Edinburgh’s Canon Court Apartments =-.

  • Akila makes a strong point on balance. I am also a feminist and vegetarian (flexible with seafood). There were moments in past travels when those intrinsic parts of me were tested. In the same vein, I attempt to be mindful of cultural edict. It pays to heed good judgment as situations arise. The stereotypical obnoxious traveler tends to miss the point – what’s the point in going at all? I would think to learn, as much as observe.

    I do disagree that in adapting one becomes assimilated. A core of self was shaped long before you step out of the plane or bus. Travel experiences can add to that core, not take away. I guess it’s all perspective. 🙂
    .-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..A Reprieve =-.

  • Some advice really annoys me. Like: “Don’t wear jeans to Europe.” or “Fake a Canadian origin and get treated better.” But if it comes down to behaving a certain way in order to not give extreme offense or in order to actually experience another culture then I am more ok with it. I cover my shoulders in Italian Churches out of respect and don’t feel I’ve sacrificed an essential part of myself.
    .-= Lise´s last blog ..Have a Cup of Tea =-.

  • By acquiescing to the norms of the region, I feel your own national identity tends to weaken, and that’s exactly what I love about travel experiences. Some of the best moments I’ve had were the ones that removed me from my own whether-worn identity and allowed me to wrap myself in the local fabric. If it meant bending some time-honored principles to take part then so be it. I feel It’s better to evolve as an individual than to refuse because of principles bred out of a narrow-minded and inexperienced perspective.

    Unfortunately my weak stomach doesn’t allow me too much assimilation where food is concerned.
    .-= AirTreks Nico´s last blog ..A Bridge-Lover’s Round the World Trip =-.

  • For me, it really just depends for me on how much I’m being asked to adapt. If it’s something that’s a habit not based on principle, such as wearing long pants or taking off my shoes, then of course I’m not bothered to go along with it. I pay with two hands in Korea and though it seemed funny at first I think it will be hard to break the habit. A lot of our habits and customs are rather arbitrary and I’m quite happy with substituting something else equally arbitrary.

    But if the custom is one I am not philosophically behind, I consider it as questionable to ask me to change as I am being rude in not observing it. As a vegan, traveling can be quite tough and I do have to go hungry at long times if I haven’t prepared correctly. And I’m okay with that; there will always be catch-up bowls of pasta at some point. But it always surprises me when someone feels slighted at my not eating. I would never dream of forcing tofu, soy sausage, or toffutti cuties down someone’s throat (other than my own, of course!) So just don’t be offended if I’m not eating your chicken, eggs, or water buffalo.

    I blame the golden rule. Too many people subscribe to the creed: “Treat others how you want to be treated,” when it should really be: “Treat others as they want to be treated.”

  • Great advice. In a little under 8 weeks time I’ll be travelling solo from Japan to Bali so imagine how many customs and values I would have to adhere to! There was so much ‘advice’ in the guidebooks I read I was already beginning to forget what I had read…knowing that I can compromise but still be respectful is great to hear!
    .-= Toni´s last blog ..What not to say on a Monday morning*… =-.

  • Great post! I will bookmark her blog for sure!
    so true – the challenge of balance. I always want to be true to my heritage and I like to be myself when traveling, however I do take certain actions, like not wearing short shorts and tank tops when in the Middle East, and taking my shoes off when entering Japanese homes… we must step outside our customs many times when traveling in order to be respectful, but also being true to ourselves – it´s not because you are in Argentina that you have to eat meat, yes they have great steaks but if it´s not in your value system – simply pass.

  • Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out more about local stuff. When we were in the US for the first time, we couldn’t find decent fresh vegetables. Turned out we just didn’t know where to look for. Asked around and Americans pointed us in the direction of the right grocery shops.
    .-= Anne Moss´s last blog ..Four Healthy Vegan Sandwich Ideas =-.

  • The “big reveal” that comes with extended travel is that the world is a very big place – but the differences between people are actually pretty small. It is these small the differences, the cultural quirks of every society, that people cling to desperately to distinguish their culture, and ultimately themselves from everything else. Most traditions are actually coping mechanisms for dealing with the after effects of oppressive regimes, prevailing class structures, harsh environments and extreme poverty.

    If you think you can teach a local something about your culture by flagrantly disrespecting theirs – expect a cool reception. I have traveled through 20 different cultures, and by learning a few words of the lingo, and some of the etiquette, I have been able to enjoy great conversations with English-speaking locals over (insert exotic alcoholic beverage here) – gaining not only insights into their cultures, but deeper insights into my own.

  • Great post – nice and thought provoking. I think everyone has to find the right balance for themselves. One of my favorite things about traveling is learning about new customs and cultures and I often find that the best way to learn is to try and participate where I am welcomed, but I will surely never do anything degrading or against my morals.

  • If think that there’s a “problem” with adapting and that is that you will adapt to become the stereotypical person from that culture/country. For example: People in Italy eat lots of pasta, pizza and drink coffee small cups, right? Well, but there is also a Starbucks in Rome, and you can buy all kinds of different food if you want it and if you find the right store. So there are Italians actually buying and consuming these things too.
    In my homecountry, I don’t consider myself as a stereotypical person and even detest some of the traditions essential to “my” culture. So, I wonder, if I adapted to every tradition here in Italy, would I become just another obnoxious stereotype?
    So, I think you should adapt to those habits that seem right for you, as an individual, but still retain some of your own personality by not doing _everything_ the way “everybody” does it.

  • I do agree that you need to adapt to an extent in order to fully embrace a culture while you travel, I am not saying that you need to pretend to be something you are not, just try to explore what the culture around you truly is. Be a tourist, but allow yourself to explore the culture from the local perspectives.
    .-= Sealand´s last blog ..Hello world! =-.

  • As a vegan travelling around the world I expect a certain amount of resistance / shock / dismay with my eating habits from others. I’d seen the same at home and will do the same as I did there, be respectful with their choices but stick with what I feel is right for me. I know I’ll go hungry quite a few times when I forget to prepare, but that happened at home to 😉

    I have thought quite a few times about how this means I’ll miss large portions of some cultures, but there’s a lot more to experience other than food.

    As for countries where women are treated as second class citizens, I’ll have to see how I react internally as I hit each new roadblock. I’m ok with covering up, and not driving etc. but I know inside I’ll feel sad for my sisters in those places that aren’t doing it by choice and for whom it isn’t a temporary experience.

    Compromising without going against my personal beliefs is part of the challenge of travel, I’ll have to learn to adapt a bit or move on.
    .-= Catia´s last blog ..Pre Trip Planning Tips for Backpacking Around The World =-.

  • I read the Rick Steves piece you linked to, and I don’t think it describes a traveler who refuses to adapt. I have been living in Japan for ten months. It is my first time living outside of the U.S., constantly immersed in a language I didn’t speak at all when I arrived. I’ve found that speaking to my coworkers (I am an English teacher at a high school) in “Dick and Jane English” has really helped me adapt. Originally, I thought it would be disrespectful if I spoke to them in English. But though they are not fluent in English, they all studied it in school, and we can communicate in it better than in Japanese. English is a great tool for us, and when I learned to speak simple English and forgave myself for using it (mixed, more and more, with Japanese), I found a tool for getting the most out of my experience here, and contributing as much as possible to the people are excited to get to know me.

  • In many ways, ‘adapting’ is ‘traveling’.

    Once the rules become too clear, it’s as if the game is clocked and it’s time to move on.

    The fun stuff is surely where things remain borderline.

    Personally, I think it’s a wonderful thing when two cultures collide and at least one is left looking like a confused gimp.

  • Dee dee ji,

    I love your article. I have travelled for five years outside of the States with my daughter, now nine. My daughter calls India home as she was nearly born there. She and I have lived there for nearly three years. We moved to Taiwan to try it but decided that India is our true home. My daughter looks Indo European, but I am white and blue eyed. We have received only kindness and help from most everyone jn India while travelling.

    Your article touched on some big points that I have often wrestled with while living abroad; how can I give up my true self and have I? I think I have become a better person from travelling. Have I given up bits of myself? Yes. I am not the nasty, loud-mouthed, opinionated American twerp I was when I left. I am more reserved now, careful before I speak. I will not ever be Indian, nor Taiwanese or Tibetan, but I know how to act politely in Indian society and Tibetan society.

    I have become socially adaptable. That isn’t to say that I don’t open up and totally share myself. I do! I do it with friends who accept that I can be a cut up and translate dirty jokes in Tibetan or tickle one of my Aunty friends. I love the people I choose to love and they accept me. If they criticise who I am, I remind them that I am not them and I am different. I share and try to be true but I am also adaptable.

    My only gripe? I wish people wouldn’t stare. In India, I felt welcome, although sometimes a walking ATM by touts, especially in Delhi. In Taiwan, here in a more remote area, I am stared at. My daughter, not so much.

    My daughter talks to people. I can’t yet speak Chinese well, but I understand a lot, enough to have basic conversations and answer questions. I remind people we are people too. I have called people out on staring, saying they are rude or ask them if they need help. I am tired of being here. It’s just not the level of comfort and acceptance that we got while being in India. I feel that here, I have had to hide myself more than at any other time. I hate it and it’s to survive comfortably. We are also socially isolated here…I am glad for the experience and glad to leave back to Himachal Pradesh, back to our friends.

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