5 Ways To Engage In Cultural Exchange While Living Abroad

Cultural exchange and the opportunity for slow travel are the two main reasons why I'm a big advocate for living abroad. Soon, I'll be into my third international home (Italy <- Lithuania <- China <- Connecticut, US), and in each home, I've tried to immerse myself in the culture as well as share a bit of the US with friends.

There are rampant misconceptions about culture coming from both locals (no matter the country) and foreigners (no matter where we are coming from), so the opportunity to exchange cultures is so important to create acceptance and understanding, and to eliminate prejudices. I've certainly received some interesting comments about being American -- everything from you're not fat to an explanation of Easter (I'm Greek-American, I celebrate Easter) -- but even the smallest interactions can help to provide new perspectives.

Below are a few of the ways that I've engaged in cultural exchange during my years abroad.

1. Barbecues

Making burgers in a wok ;)

Making burgers in a wok ;)

What is more American than a barbecue? Great food, beers all around, and lots of laughter -- barbecues are a great way to enjoy the sunshine and share culture with friends. I've enjoyed barbecues in China with friends and colleagues as well as here in Vilnius.

If barbecues aren't your thing, how about cooking a meal? Sure, it can be difficult to find the exact ingredients from home, but it is often fun to figure out how to make do. I mean, check me out cooking burgers in a wok on a hot plate!

2. Exchange of Knowledge

In China and want to learn to make jiaozi? Ask your roommates, find a cooking class, or ask a friend to teach you. In China, my friend bought a little oven and asked me to teach her to make cookies. I went out and purchased all the ingredients and we had a great night baking cookies with sprinkles, Sichuan peppers, and chocolate. It was awesome.

Other than cooking, language exchange is a valuable means for share culture as well. Even just learning words here and there can introduce new aspects of a culture.

Here in Lithuania, one of J's colleagues offered to take us mushroom picking. It was awesome to learn which species of mushrooms were edible and which should be avoided. We also learned about cooking mushrooms and dishes that were best with mushrooms. Being open to new experiences and an exchange of knowledge is so important while traveling and living abroad. Imagine what you might experience during your next trip!

Learning how to pick mushrooms in Lithuania.

Learning how to pick mushrooms in Lithuania.

Here in Vilnius, I also took several pottery classes as well as a felt slipper making class, and although these classes were short, meeting up with the local teachers and learning traditional crafts is super valuable.

3. Sharing Travel Tips

I love learning about local spots for travel. Obviously, locals are the best sources for nearby getaways, especially those that are usually affordable.

Along the same lines, traveling together with friends is a great way to learn about cultures. One of my favorite trips of all time was visiting Fu Xian Lake with my friends and their families. This lake is one of the deepest in China and is pretty much unknown to foreign tourists. This hidden gem has amazing food, cheap accommodations, and fun activities -- and I would have never learned about it without learning about it from locals.

4. Holidays, Celebrations

Holidays, birthdays, celebrations, graduations, and any other joyous or sorrowful day is important to pay attention, learn about, and perhaps even celebrate in your own way. Sharing your own cultural celebrations and holidays are also important.

For example, here in Vilnius Jeremy and some friends threw me a baby shower, inviting international and local friends even though baby showers aren't a thing here Lithuania. It was fun to experience this with friends.

5. Talk and Listen

Take any opportunity you can to listen, absorb, and ask questions about the culture you are living in. While in China, I remember a conversation with a hairdresser about if everyone in America had brown curly hair just like mine. At first I was so surprised by the question, but I realized that I was possibly the first American he had met and definitely the first who could speak Mandarin. I explained that no, America was full of so many different people with skin and hair of all different color. That every nationality could be found in America including some of the ethnic minorities he was familiar with in Yunnan. It was cool to make this connection during a simple thing like a hair cut.

Imagine taking part in simple cultural exchanges like engaging with someone in a market, chatting with a hairdresser, or learning a new skill. Imagine how these experiences can open your mind and those who you engage with.

How else do you engage in cultural exchange while traveling or living abroad?