You don't have to go overseas to experience a different culture - there are a variety of deep and wonderful cultures anywhere, thus the most important thing is the way in which you approach any different culture. For instance, traveling from North Carolina to Los Angeles is no doubt going to be a different experience and there's often little need to go to the other side of the globe to push your comfort zone. That being said, in the words of Holly Bull from the Center for Interim Programs, "perhaps the most important aspect of a Gap Year is the student making their own decision." In other words, whether you feel called to be in Hawaii working with dolphins, in Louisiana engaging in service-learning about environmental issues, or in India living in a yoga ashram, the fact that you as the student are making your own decision is the largest predictor of a "successful" Gap Year.
All of that being said, here are a few tips that are important to remember when you're talking about visiting a foreign culture:
- There are no excuses for "inappropriate." No matter what, if you feel unsafe, threatened, of if you generally feel a bit off about what's going on, then no amount of cultural norms make it okay. If, as a woman, a man is touching your leg or neck, in almost every culture such behavior is unacceptable unless you're at the least dating . . . no matter what the man may say. Please, for your and every other traveler's sake, tell the man "no" firmly and leave.
- So, if you're traveling for three months, spend the first months simply engaging and observing: try to see things from the local-perspective and then when you feel comfortable, venture into sharing some of those opinions of your home country. This extends to simple things like taking pictures, or constantly asking "how much is that" . . . these are things that leave a big and stereotypical footprint that inevitably put you in a box and limits your experience as much as it shows your ignorance of the local cultures.
- Remember to travel lightly. This is in reference to the environment as much as it's in reference to the culture. But in general, traveling with your ear rather than your opinions is the best way to make friends and experience the local cultures authentically. For instance, when traveling in a Muslim country, learning about Islam, cultural values as they are represented on the ground, and the state of the average family are going to be far more educational than watching the news about radical Islam. The reality is that the differences that divide us as a species are far less numerous than the similarities.
- Be a good guest. It's often said in other parts of the world that the "guest is god." It's a way of saying that when a guest comes in, that you'll be treated as if you were royalty with all things shared and all invitations made. Oftentimes, in a more impoverished setting, the family may give you (a single person), the only bed room while the entire family sleeps in the living room (where some of the rest of the family would sleep on any other night). Even though this may be uncomfortable, it's probably rude in these circumstances to refuse. However, Americans consume enough as it is . . . so don't simply take everything without consideration for the rest of the family nor for the power of cross cultural communication.
- For instance, one night, offer to cook your host family or friends or coworkers a traditional meal from your home rather than them always cooking for you. In the author's experience, there was a time the family was making hot water so he could take a shower. They had gone out in the woods, cut down wood to burn simply so he could take a hot shower. He didn't know about this, and so consumed three-quarters of the water from the bucket in a 'new and exciting bucket-shower' as the locals do. However, unknowingly, the entire family was now relegated to using only the final quarter of the bucket for their shower.
- In most cases, it's better to make excuses rather than refusals. It's one of those understood issues of living culturally that if you don't like a particular food, or if you're a vegetarian for instance, then rather than saying that you "don't eat meat," say that you're "allergic to meat," or a vegetarian. Of course this is perhaps even a bit misleading, however, it's an understood way out from cultural expectations and half-truths are often understood culturally better in different countries than here in the States.
- Traveling with expectations is overrated. It's impossible to walk into an experience without expectations - they are usually subconscious and fed by media, friends, or just generally your own American culture. However, being a good student in life is perhaps just as importantly being open to being wrong: if you enter into anything with a point to prove, then usually humans will only seek out information that supports your points (or expectations and stereotypes). Walking in as an anthropologist in lieu of an "American" - inasmuch is possible - is invaluable.
- Keep a journal. We know . . . this sounds like homework and who wants to spend countless hours writing in your journal? But perhaps one of the most important aspects of a structured Gap Year is keeping a journal. How often do you know how you really feel until you've thought about it a bit? How often do you just remember that really great insight without a little help writing it down? The point of it, above all else, is to keep the reflective element a daily practice rather than just ghosting through your experience or simply photographing the local people.