Two years ago, I had the privilege of spending three months traveling around China. While I was there I got to know the people on a more intimate level. I shared meals with them, learned about their history, spoke their language (sort of), and even came to call some of them friends. After three months of these types of experiences, I felt that I was past the honeymoon stage of being abroad; I was finally beginning to transition into being immersed in the Chinese culture.
Just as I was beginning to feel truly integrated, the rug was ripped out from under me. My time in China was done and I had to return to America. When I got back I was frantic. I finally had a taste of the kind of travel you see in movies or read about on the Internet, and I was hooked. I knew that as soon as I finished my last year as an undergrad, I had to get back out there and experience more of that type of travel — the type of travel that I had only previously dreamt about.
Photo courtesy | Jonathan Corbet
Since graduating I have been living and working in the countryside of the Dominican Republic. Everyday I get to eat their food (lots of rice and beans), speak their language (I’m getting pretty good!) and feel like more of a Dominican and less like an American. One of my favorite parts about living in a place so different from where I grew up is that I’m learning things I never thought I’d learn in this lifetime. From tangible things like how to ride a motorcycle or use a bullwhip, to the intangible including patience like I never thought I’d be capable of, and a whole new way of looking at the world. I’ll try to better explain the intangible things, because I think the true value in learning about, and being immersed in, a different culture lies within them (although driving motorcycles is extremely fun).
You’ve probably heard that in Spanish speaking countries; the people take siestas in the afternoon and don’t care if they’re on time to meetings. While I’ve found that this holds true here in the Dominican Republic, I’ve learned that it’s so much more than what we may identify as laziness. It’s an entirely different way of perceiving the world and the reason that they are in it. This mindset is a reflection of the things that the people value most in their culture, not just a desire to sleep for an hour after lunch.
Photo courtesy | Jean Marc Astesana
Early on in my time here, this was not an easy concept for me to grasp. An example: I teach two days a week, and on the way to school we pick up the kids who live far away. School starts at 2 o’clock, so I just could not understand why the parents wouldn’t have their children ready to go at 1:45 when we were passing by, and it frustrated me each and every time. But, I would take a few deep breaths and move on. As the months have passed by I have come to better understand what this cultural difference says about the people who live it, and it has taught me a level of patience I never imagined achievable. Newfound patience is just one case of the plethora of lessons I have learned from spending time in such a remarkable culture.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about truly becoming immersed in a new culture is time. Taking a year or more off from the real world to have such an experience isn’t always possible for a multitude of reasons, but I can say with great confidence that if it is a possibility for you, it is worth doing in each and every way.
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For more on Mikey Levitt read his personal blog.