When I first encountered the concept of cultural immersion, it sounded something like this:
To understand—to truly understand—another place and people, you must eat, sleep, dress, breathe and speak like the locals.
The Anthropological principle of “participant observation” essentially takes the same tact.
And it’s simple, right? Not easy, but simple:
When in Nepal, eat dal bhat, sleep on wooden pallets topped by thin thin cushions, wear salwar kameez, learn Nepali—or, in my case, attempt to learn Tibetan—take the bus and wear a mask against air pollution. When in Italy, eat pasta with bread to fare la scarpetta, speak Italian, ride scooters and dress… however it is Italian women dress. When in Kenya… need I go on?
Except, no. It’s not that simple.
First of all, unless you’re a linguistic genius, you can’t possibly learn all of the languages, and if you want to travel to many places, your communication skills will suffer in the balance. More than two months in Kenya, and I have yet to muster the energy to tackle Ki-Swahili. (I will though… I will.)
And then, what is “Italian” in the patchwork of dialects that is Italy? In Nepal, a country of at least fifteen distinct ethnic/cultural/linguistic groups, what language should you learn?
What is “traditional dress” when every other “modern Indian woman” opts for blue jeans?
What is local food? Sure, staff meal might be rice and beans, but those who can afford it sup on steak frites or pasta marinara. Valid or non-valid dimension of a “local” experience?
The answer, of course, is valid. It’s all valid. Local ≠ traditional ≠ authentic. We attach far too many judgments of value, ignorant assumptions and foreign stereotypes to these words (as I have, doubtless, asserted many, many times already…).
Local, at this moment in Kilifi, Kenya, means teaching yoga and tango at a four-day milonga event. The absolute last thing I expected to find here, and I could not be more pleased.
At this moment, local means dancing five hours a day and creating lesson plans with my new Italian dance partner, so that we can teach foreigners and Kenyans alike about connecting to their bodies and one another through Tango.
Local means ordering grilled cheese and butternut squash soup for lunch because it’s f*cking delicious and I have no desire to eat rice and stew every day.
I no longer wish to limit my experience to what is appropriately immersive. Not, I hope, at the expense of learning (I really need to get it together and study Ki-Swahili), but in the interest of embracing reality in all its syncretic, contradictory beauty.