Integrating into Local Communities
Whether you study abroad in a remote Nepali village on the Biocultural and Diversity in Nepal trip or camp in a Thai National Park on the Elephant Conservation in Thailand travel program, integrating into the local community will have a significantly positive effect on your overall experience abroad. As students, travelers, and mindful global citizens, it’s our job to be open and embrace the cultural and social differences we encounter. We are guests in the communities that help facilitate our experiences. Integrating into local communities is an essential step to build lasting friendships, which is often overlooked in sustainable development.
Getting A Running Start
The first step in integrating into local communities starts before you ever leave home. While preparing for your trip, watch movies, cook a meal, read books, listen to music, or use youtube and language websites to learn a bit of the language from the country you will be visiting. Get excited about your trip. Find things you are intrigued by that you can explore more once you arrive in country. This will help you build relationships with people if you are interested in parts of their culture they would not expect general tourists to care about.
Upon arrival, begin to engage with the local culture. The best way to do this is to take part in the community-driven development projects and cross cultural-education activities in each village. While working with locals, begin to build relationships and learn about each other’s cultures and customs. Not only is it important to show interest in other peoples’ way of life, but to share your culture and experiences. While in your homestays, practice the local language and continue to learn it. Don’t worry if you don’t pronounce words correctly. People will appreciate the effort you are making to speak with them in their tongue regardless. Also share English vocabulary. When your family is cooking, cleaning, going to the market, or doing any other family activity, join them and contribute however you can.
Sometimes it’s necessary to overcome some hurdles when you first arrive in a new village. It’s understandable to feel nervous or unsure of customs or social norms. This can cause people to worry that they are going to do something culturally disrespectful. Consequently, they try not to impose on people and keep to themselves. Part of learning in any environment is about making mistakes and growing from them. It’s no different during a study abroad or travel program. It’s ok to make mistakes. People will understand you didn’t mean to, especially when they know that your intentions are good. Have a sense of humor and be willing to put yourself out there. It will make the whole experience fun and enjoyable.
Being able to integrate into different communities helps teaches you to work in a diverse range of environments, heightening empathy and cultural competency. Ultimately, if you are open to experiencing a different way of life by embracing the things that make it unique, the relationships that develop as a result will be meaningful. The connections and friendships that we make in the communities we visit are the foundation for long lasting partnerships based on mutual respect, shared visions, and support of community-led development.