I do my best to approach travel within our global village as a learner. Utilizing books, documentaries, and curious conversation, my education frequently begins by learning “about” the place (and its people) that I’m set to immerse within. My intention is to crawl inside the history, politics, culture, customs, and current events of my host country so that my learning curve isn’t quite so high when I’m on the ground. I want to have the “google-able” questions answered so that I can be more present in a foreign-to-me context and free to wonder with the locals about their cultural values and landmines, unarticulated nuances, past pain, and dreamed-of futures. For, I’ve found, it’s within these conversations that the relationships are forged that expand my learning from “learning about” to “learning from.”
Located firmly in the “learning about” phase, Hargraves and Tan provoked wonderings in me about three realities that seem consistent, regardless of where we find ourselves on the planet: (1) every grouping within humanity generalizes itself and is generalized by others, yet the benefit of generalizations vary depending on one’s proximity to power; (2) the responsibility for cultural intelligence and hospitality is on the newcomer as well as the local; and (3) stepping off the manicured trail of tourism and into everyday reality with humility, generosity, and curiosity shifts learning into transformation.
Both Hargraves and Tan offered and affirmed the generalization of British locals as a people who are prompt, proper, and reserved. Yet as each reflected on London as a global city, the differences in cultural expressions found between those of diverse origins began to emerge. So too did the nuances and subtleties between the various boroughs that form the city. As each reflected on the diversity found within London, specifically, and England more generally, a far more colorful tapestry emerged than the gray tones that were initially suggested.
When I speak to anglo friends from London, each affirm the “prompt, proper, reserved” generalization of Londoners, yet are quick to point out that the label is like a gray raincoat that they populate while in public spaces and that they quickly discard while with those of their own tribe. I get the impression that the “raincoat” is beneficial in that it offers them the opportunity to blend in, helps them maintain a relatively uninterruptible demeanor, and, therefore, increases their ability to be as efficient as possible.
When I speak to immigrant friends to London, they too affirm the accuracy of the generalization, yet experience it as a barrier to relationship and as a direct non-verbal instructive to remain with their own kind. Thus I get the impression that migrants and refugees from more colorful, relational origins learn to embody the “raincoat,” often against their own cultural values, as a tool of protection and in an attempt toward assimilation. At least in public, embodying the generalization seems to cost non-dominant culture Londoners a part of themselves.
My observations here make me wonder about my own haphazard use of generalizations to describe people from particular creeds, origins, orientations, and neighborhoods and how, in the use of generalizations, I am minimizing the more colorful truth about those I am less familiar with. As we immerse into London, I’ll be watching for splashes of color through the landscape of gray in an effort to tune my eye to a broader more beautiful truth about those we come in contact with.
On Cultural Intelligence & Hospitality
There’s a misconception about international travel, whether as tourists, volunteers, students, soldiers, or missionaries, that I’ve discovered largely among dominant culture US Americans. It suggests that our global village is our playground that we can drop in on at any time. Once there, our actions often reveal that we believe these places and people to be consumables that we can benefit off, consult, and/or destroy at our whim. Rarely, it seems, are US American travelers required to consider, much less learn from, the real people with distinct cultures, diverse languages, and beautiful customs that live there. Thus, we tend to enter and navigate our global village as inarticulate hero-consumers rather than thoughtful, humble learners.
As I read the breadth of knowledge that Hargraves and Tan demonstrated, I found myself pondering the importance of cultural intelligence (CQ) which I would define as one’s ability to grasp the commonalities and differences of those from backgrounds different than my own and leverage them, collaboratively, for the common good. I’m left to wonder how a commitment to increasing CQ deepens one’s experience, not only of foreign-to-me contexts, but also of one’s own neighborhood, city, and state. I’m convinced that it is my responsibility to live as a learner who does my homework, listens to the experiences and perspectives of another, and allows myself to be changed by what I’ve heard. Put another way, I must commit to understanding another’s perspective first. In order to do so, I must distance myself from the need to be understood. It is also my responsibility, as a guest of another, to receive hospitality graciously and, in creating space for their contributions to impact me, demonstrate hospitality in return.
As we navigate our time in London, I’ll be watching for the moments when cultural realities and preferences embodied by our hosts collide with my own, noting how my body responds to and mind absorbs the moment, and choosing curiosity over premature conclusions.
On Stepping into Reality
As both texts read as manuals for those considering a move to England or London, I was struck by their invitation to step off the paved trials of tourism and into the life-flow of the place. With the turn of each page, I consistently heard in Hargraves and Tan the invitation to shift from outside observers to real-time participants in a place brimming with beauty, diversity, history, and opportunity.
Considering their invitation to do so, I began to wonder about the obstacles that keep us enshrined as observers rather than participants within our own contexts that, too, are brimming with beauty, diversity, history, and opportunity. Busyness, platform-building, image-management, and fear immediately come to mind as four primary obstacles that are both real and entirely surmountable. These are obstacles that seek to lock us into the “learning about” space and keep us from expanding to the “learning from” space. My conviction is growing that so long as we remain imprisoned by fear, we will perpetually exist in the “learning about” space and distant from others who’s lived experiences differ from our own. The result is that, while we will become smarter, we will not become better, more connected and generous versions of ourselves.
As we navigate our time together in London, I will be watching for these and other obstacles to surface in me and will be curious to learn how others are overcoming similar obstacles.