Living Beyond the Tip Of A Cultural Iceberg

What is the best way to learn about a country’s culture and customs? Would it be short-term tourism or long-term residence at a given place? How do we find out if certain places are more full of rigid and closed-minded locals, or open and accepting?

There is a clear distinction between what meets the eye and what lies underneath. We get a glimpse of cultures and way of life in different countries by watching movies, reading the news or going for a holiday to that place. There are tons of people who are documenting their travels with fancy Instagram filtered vacations.

But how often do we get to know exactly how the locals perceive tourists and people from faraway lands?

When we visit a place for a short time, we too, only portray a superficial image of ourselves as cultured, open-minded tourists willing to absorb new experiences, like the tip of the iceberg visible only to those who we encounter. But when are given a chance to live in a place for a longer period, the hidden, massive and more prominent part of our being, starts to unravel step-by-step with different situations.

Hence, the only way we can look deeper into other cultures, are by exploring the hidden dimensions of the cultural iceberg, and when we are subjected to a longer exposure.

For instance, Italian coffee is world famous. But coffee itself is not from Italy. It gets exported from South America, Indonesia or Africa. In Italy, what happens is the roasting and giving coffee its various flavors. Coffee did not originate from Italy, but ‘coffee culture’ did. However, Italians do know how to enjoy their cup of Java with a myriad of techniques, machines and with the various types of drinks available.

It is interesting to think how certain things originate in some places and find their way to a host country and centuries later, they are associated with the host-country and become a completely embedded element in every local’s life.

The famous English tradition of ‘a cup of tea’ existed in Asia for millennia prior to finding its way to England in the 17th century. India’s most beloved bread ‘naan’ was a gift from Persia, where it was first made around 1300 AD, and the world famous Islamic Hammam baths spread widely throughout Europe.

Have we ever thought how it would be if this cultural transfer never took place centuries ago?

It is so easy for people to accept customs and traditions as their own, while they originated from elsewhere, yet after centuries of such exchanges, there are still people who find it hard to accept other people in their country. Rigidity and closed-minded views arise from insecurities, where people are threatened by foreigners ‘sharing’ their resources.

But how would we perceive this if we understood that foreigners are also ‘creating’ resources? Taxes are being paid to host countries and new incomers are mixing with the local culture, and growing as human beings.

If mobility among nations was looked at as a negative aspect, then most customs and cultures, which most countries are proud of, would not even exist in the first place. Instead of being prejudiced shouldn’t people from host countries feel proud of those who are brave enough to look beyond those cultural differences and evolve as a global citizen?

For all those who come across bigotry and encounter locals who find it difficult to accept foreigners, just remind them that the person on the other side of the table has stepped out what is familiar to them. Instead of being intolerant, locals should try to get inspired and learn to get out of their own “comfort zone” at least once.

Anjali Gaur is a Researcher living in Pavia, Italy. She studied biomedical sciences in Australia and the UK. Her current work involves research on ‘Red Blood Cell Ageing” funded by the European Commission. Prior to this she worked in Hong Kong and Sweden, where she developed ‘Phage Display Antibodies’.

For more articles by Anjali Gaur click here.