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Living in between

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I loved about Tanzania. Was it the friendly and vibrant people? Was it the slow and relaxed pace of life? Was it the liveliness of the streets, always filled with movement and splashed with the bright colours of traditional dress and market stalls?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I actually love is being in between.

When you travel, you are always between cultures. No longer within the culture that you’ve grown up with, but neither are you part of the culture that you’re visiting. And in that open space lies the freedom of being released from cultural expectation.

Every culture contains behavioural norms (often unspoken and unacknowledged) that define the ‘way we do things around here’. When the cultural ‘code’ is removed, it can leave you feeling strangely uninhibited.

As a traveller you are taken just as you are, at that particular moment. Your identify is no longer reflective of a shared cultural framework that is understood by other members of a group. You’re always defining yourself afresh when you meet new people, on your own terms, without a set of shared cultural references.

Being in between cultures also gives you the opportunity to observe a culture with an inquisitive mind, and to think critically.

When you step outside your culture and sit for a while in others, it becomes natural to reflect and consider which cultural norms you accept, and which you would challenge. It also makes many cultural norms from your home country visible, whereas when you live within a culture, cultural values are so deeply embedded and taken for granted that often they are difficult to name.

We’ve noticed that people ask ‘why’ much more often when they’re travelling.

When you meet people from other countries, conversation naturally turns to the ‘way things are’ in the place they call home. Often to outsiders, the ‘way things are’ in a different place doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  It’s interesting that when the ‘why’ question comes up, it often leaves people wondering about the answer. Now that they think about it, why is it that things are the way they are?

We’ve observed with curiosity how actions that we take for granted vary across cultures.

We learnt that in Austria, you show thanks to a speaker in an informal setting not by clapping, but by tapping your hands on the table. We leant that in the Cayman Islands, you wave and say hello to every single person you see, but in Denmark, you don’t say hello to anyone.  We learnt that in Tanzania you cover your shoulders and knees in public, but in Cuba, nude sunbaking is quite acceptable. And we can’t even remember how many times you are meant to kiss someone on the cheek as a greeting in all the different places we’ve visited (it seems to range from one to four)!

It’s from the ‘in between’ vantage point that the norms of other cultures become not only quite fascinating, but highly visible.

The space of in between offers the opportunity to ask questions about other ways of life, especially your own. It allows you to learn from different ways of living. And it’s much easier as an outsider to see the cultural barriers that impede communities from thriving – to reflect on why things are they way they are, and whose interests that serves.

Perhaps being a ‘traveller’ is a culture in itself, always living in the space of in between with a curious mindset.

But perhaps there is also an opportunity for us to adopt some critical thinking in our own communities. That way we might have the chance to make some different choices, that are not only better for us, but for other members of our community.

Perhaps the first step is to ask a simple question – ‘why?’.

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