“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
So I'm in the midst of a life change right now and I find myself in hostel in Los Angeles. The fun part about hostels is that one gets to meet people from different cultures, backgrounds, walks of life all here in the city for different reasons. One of my dorm mates is a taiwanese girl who just arrived from Taiwan a few days ago to study english. I ended up having a beautiful chat with her giving her advice on how to connect while in a foreign country as well as tips on learning a language.
It then occurred to me that the advice I gave her is applicable to ANYONE whether one is a study abroad student learning french in France, or a Brit on holiday on the beaches of Spain. There are countless opportunities all around us to make meaningful connections. Trying to make friends from people who grew up in another world so different from yours may seem like an obstacle but in reality it's an opportunity if we keep a few important pointers in mind. I'll share with you the pearls of wisdom I showered on this girl from Taiwan.
Firstly I encouraged her not to get sucked into the trap of hanging around people who spoke the same language as her. In a foreign country it is natural to gravitate to those who come from our cultures. Nothing wrong with that but if all we do is spend time speaking our native tongues and doing the activities we do at home, we aren't making the best of our time. My advice to her was to be brave, and go out and have as many conversations and experiences in a foreign language as possible.
Another thing that I advised her was that even if one cannot fluently speak a foreign language, if you learn a thing or two about the culture, political background, or food of the place and are able to talk about it in english, that opens opens up a multitude of conversations. The two subjects that get people going are the topics of food and politics. What helps while one is abroad is to go try a food that only locals would really be familiar about it and go talk to them about your experience. In other words, don't only go and eat sushi and talk to locals in Japan about it. Everyone knows about sushi. Try something that is common knowledge to the people who live there but not necessarily common to the outside world. When locals hear that you've tried something out of the norm, it gets them talking.
In addition to that advice I let her know that sometimes when one doesn't know how to start a conversation from someone of another culture, a helpful tip is to google unusual facts about that country or culture. That way the next time you see the person you can tell them about the things you found out about their culture. In my experience people deeply appreciate it when they see that you've taken the time and effort to find out more about the culture and background they are from and feel extremely proud of.
Here in Los Angeles, I've made it a rule that right now I'm not doing any theme parks. Instead I'm going to all the hidden places that most tourist skip because they only go to Universal Studios, Disneyland, and the Hollywood Walk of fame. But during my time here I've already ate at a Hawaiian restaurant and tried Loco Moco, visited little Tokyo, gone to the arts District as well as the fashion district. And there are so many places on my radar that I could visit to expand my mind. I had no idea that there is a district called "little Ethiopia" full of restaurants and shops related to the Ethiopian culture. The words of wisdom I write to you are ones that I am taking myself.
Politics is another great topic you can venture into while abroad. . Find out something that has been going on about the country that only the locals know about and talk about it with them. Engaging in those conversations will help you become a well rounded person. You'll find out things like why people from Taiwan don't like to be called "Chinese". Why don't the people of France really favor the city of Marseille? Why is there a street in Santiago Chile called "11 de septiembre"? And if you dare decided to engage in both the topics of politics and food at the same time, make sure that you have nothing on your schedule for the next few hrs because you'll be engaged in a conversation for a loooooooooooong time :)
What made my talk with this Taiwanese girl even more interesting is all the advice that I was telling her, I was actually using on her. I would also ask her about Taiwan and bring up things only a Taiwanese person would know. It made her feel connected to me. Little did she know that while I was talking to her my mind was searching my memory bank for anything I could remember about Taiwan.
A funny moment happened in our conversation when I asked her about a famous restaurant in Taiwan. In Asia themed restaurants are very popular. And there is a restaurant in Taiwan where it is toilet themed. When you go into the restaurant the seats are shaped exactly like toilet bowls. When I brought that up her face beamed and her voice quickened. Even with her broken english she knew what I was talking about. We had a really good chuckle about this unusual restaurant that is famous in Taiwan. That is another thing to watch, when you've said something that people are deeply connected to, their body language will change. They will start to talk faster and become chatty. Their eyes light up as you touch on something that is familiar to them.
Often times people's greatest mistake when trying to connect is talking too much about themselves to start. Instead, put yourself in the other persons shoes and think of what themes they might be connected to. And you'll find as you do this, endless flow of conversations start. And eventually you'll get to talk about yourself and people will want to know about your background, culture, and history. And before you know it, you'll have mastered the art of turning foreigners into friends......
The Last Bookstore
The Broad Museum
Graffiti in the Arts District