Travelling to foreign cultures, especially when you’re on your own, can be a daunting prospect. But there are huge rewards and opportunities that come from taking the time and effort to get to know the local people. Part II of this article series covers some advice on how to integrate yourself into a foreign community.
Find Part I here: Thoughts on belonging from a year on the road
Over the last couple of years I’ve spent a good amount of time with indigenous hunter-gatherers. Each case involved immersion in a culture far flung from our Western society, operating under different paradigms and a vastly alternative way of life. Isolated from the universality of the ‘developed’ world’s social structure, forager groups are perhaps the most far removed of all cultural comparisons, and as such, to live amongst them requires an openness and integration period unlike any other.
That said, whilst my experience in writing this article is with socially-isolated, indigenous societies, I do believe that the advice applies to living with all foreign cultures to a lesser or greater degree. I hope that it may be of use to anyone embarking on their own cultural expedition, at least as a list of useful considerations.
Home in the jungle | A dysfunctional family portrait with my adopted tribe
A HOME FROM HOME | ON INDIGENOUS ACCEPTANCE
In my experience with forager groups (albeit extremely limited, and with cultures of well-known kindly reputation), they are extremely accepting. They don’t seem to have the default of distrust, judgement and social scrutiny that our western society possesses—perhaps a product of their simple lifestyle and hierarchal-less community. Whilst gossip often flows rife, it appears to be only surface level, and the concept of serious judgement less entrenched—a social paradigm that seems to be simultaneously both more primitive and more advanced.
As a result, if you can show such a community that you come with goodwill and are genuinely interested in learning their ways, they are likely to ultimately take you in as if one of their own. Your differences in background and looks appear to be of far less consequence to them than it does to our ‘developed’, ‘socially equal’ and ‘politically correct’ society. They seem to look beyond, with far more interest in you as a person than in your appearances, background or stereotype.
And when that moment comes that you are taken in, and over days or weeks of learning they begin to treat you with an air of acceptance and casual routine, it is a beautiful feeling—the sense of community, trust and belonging that makes it a home.
It’s a fair question. Whilst it’s nice to be part of the group if you’re staying somewhere any length of time, it’s probably unlikely you’ll be looking to find a permanent family and settle down in a foreign society. But, aside from the sense of belonging it brings, there are a good number of practical reasons why such integration may be necessary.
RESPECT FOR YOUR HOSTS
Perhaps most importantly, if you’re going to be living amongst another culture—especially if they’re hosting you directly—it would be extremely rude and awkward not to make an effort.
This is obvious if you’re with a tribe of isolated hunter-gatherers, but even if you aren’t living with the locals directly, or your focus is on other things than the culture itself, it’s still common curtesy to make an effort. Learn the basics of their language; respect their belief system and social paradigms. However uninvolved you are you’re still an outsider, and the respect (or lack of) that you’re shown by the surrounding community is most likely a reflection of your own efforts.
DEPTH OF EXPERIENCE AND LEARNING OPPORTUNITY
The depth of your experience when living with a host community will be in direct proportion to your success in integrating with it. Not only will doing so make them more inclusive and forthcoming, but the more you can become no longer a novelty, and instead ‘one-of-their-own’, the more you’re likely to see and do.
The same goes for learning from them. If you can learn their language and their way of life, you’re far more likely to be able to pick up more. When living with the Batek it was only once I began to gain trust and learn the patterns of village life, that I began to notice and be included in goings-on of which I’d previously been entirely unaware. Only by staying up talking late into the night did I witness night-fishing and turtle butchery, and only once they began to take me with them into the forest further afield did I discover their methods of fish poisons, mouse hunting and root digging. It sounds obvious, but you’ll be surprised at just how much you’re unaware of.
TO ACHIEVE UNBIASED PHOTOGRAPHY, FILM, DATA, ETC.
To achieve ‘reality’ and a lack of bias in data and media recording requires you to be fully integrated—no longer a novelty that changes the situation. I won’t go into it here, but for a longer discussion and tips on the subject, see: Awkwardness and Cultural Responsibility | Photography and film advice with indigenous cultures.
Achieving integration for the purposes of ‘reality’ in media is also of paramount importance for the accurate portrayal of vulnerable communities in the public eye—see the link above for a rather convoluted rant of my thoughts on the issue…
Photos like this and the opportunity to live in a Batek jungle camp don’t come about without a long-term development of trust and friendship
CONSIDERATIONS AND ADVICE | HOW TO INTEGRATE
1) RESEARCH CULTURAL CUSTOMS
When I headed into the interior of Fiji, I had little idea of the depth of strict rules and customs that the indigenous villages adhere to. I brought the essential—Sevusevu: the guest’s gift of kava root—but was otherwise oblivious to the many cultural politenesses required to live among them. Thankfully my adopted family were understanding enough to introduce me to these protocols, but I could have saved a lot of confusion and more than a few moments of impoliteness on my behalf by being more clued up to begin with.
Asking around or putting in a bit of research in advance is usually pretty easy to do, and adhering to social expectations can help a lot with initial impressions and ongoing acceptance. It’s also worth making a concerted effort to pick up social customs and appropriate behaviour as you spend more time with a group—some of the more subtle aspects are unknown to the outside world.
Also be aware that culture and community is in a constant state of flux. Depending on outside influences and changes in living situation (habitat destruction and resettlement is unfortunately pretty common in indigenous groups), be prepared for significant differences compared to anything you may have read previously. Be open to how you see others behave and interact, and adapt accordingly.
If all else fails, remember that a smile and well-meaning attitude can often diffuse the odd blunder.
2) LEARN THE LANGUAGE
Learning the language makes everything a thousand times easier, and if you can get to grips with the basics in advance then great. The problem is, with isolated communities and niche dialects this is often impossible.
If so, then make a concerted effort as soon as you arrive. But at the same time, don’t panic—you’ll be amazed at how much can be communicated without a common tongue, and linguistic ignorance can actually be a very useful excuse for cultural mistakes early on.
How hard actually is it to learn languages in situ? In my (albeit rather non-typical) experience it actually comes pretty naturally when you’re fully immersed, especially if the community doesn’t speak yours. It took me about a month to gain basic (and I mean really basic) fluency in the Batu Jalan Batek dialect, although I was helped by one individual who did speak a little English. I can count myself among a select few who can converse in one of the world’s most least spoken (read useless) languages…
It’s important to be open minded about language learning, especially when the language has never had a written form. Small isolated communities breed linguistic peculiarities, and the conceptual bases and structures are unlikely to match our own linguistic paradigms. I spent many weeks confused as to the word for ‘they’, before realising that the Batek had two: one for when ‘they’ were close by, and one for when ‘they’ were far away. This was just one of many idiosyncrasies: different words for ‘eat’ depending on the food; the grouping of all forms of water, from river to tea, under a single word; or a selection of pronoun options dependant on the verb. Each example is obvious when you know, but unlikely to be guessed from our own understanding of Indo-European languages that just don’t operate that way.
A serious Batek language test!
3) BE ADAPTABLE AND OPEN TO ANYTHING
Every culture is different—some dramatically so—so be prepared to adapt. For example, in Fiji the traditional customs were majorly important, but they were extremely friendly and welcoming from the outset as only Fijian culture can be. With the Batek on the other hand, there is very little social etiquette or conduct that needs to be observed—instead the big challenge was to overcoming their intense shyness and suspicion of outsiders.
You also need to be prepared for misunderstandings as a result of cultural differences in interpretation of situations and actions. Try to put your own preconceptions aside and look at everything with new eyes. In Batek culture, men and women of all ages regularly hold hands and massage one another. In our society such affection would be indicative of romantic involvement, while in theirs is signifies little more than friendly affection.
4) FOCUS ON THE KIDS
Children, although shy at first, have far less inhibitions than adults and are often much more confident in approaching new people. This is especially true in cultures where the Western false-politeness to strangers is not the norm, meaning that adults may hang back with an uncomfortable shyness that is rarely seen in our more ‘in-your-face’ and ‘avoid-awkwardness-at-all-costs’ culture.
Kids’ natural curiosity is also far less likely to be culturally restrained, meaning that they tend to interpret your novelty as simply a new play thing. I cannot count the amount of times my distinctly non-Batek hair was pulled and inspected by throngs of young Batek children.
You can use the kids’ interest and confidence to your benefit—use them as a way into the group.
5) DON’T BE AN OBSERVER
Whatever your ultimate purpose, integration will be far smoother if approached with the attitude of an individual, friend to friend, rather than that of an observer looking for content.
To approach with a primary concern for photos, film or data collection is to send the message that you’re there not for them but for what you can gain from them. Approach instead as you might approach making friends—for their company and to share their lifestyle, with any other aspects as a biproduct of your experience. It’ll also make your own experience far more enjoyable and less stressed—trust me.
The same goes for trying to learn from them. By all means show an interest and enthusiasm—they’ll likely welcome it (see point 6 below). But be careful not to make it too formal or obviously systematic in a way that distances you on an emotional level. At all costs avoid adopting the dichotomous roles of observer and subject—it only acts to further separate you from them.
Once the locals of Cirisobu discovered I’d never ridden a horse, there was no way they’d let me leave without first giving it a go!
THE BIG THREE
6) GO TO LEARN, NOT TO TEACH
Without wanting to address the complex debate on societal aid and the influence of development (a discussion for another time…), I strongly believe that the only effective (and non-damaging) way to attempt to integrate into an indigenous society is to do so on their own terms, with an openness to learn from them.
Too often I have seen individuals approach with the sole intention of ‘helping’ a community that in all honesty, is far more sustainable and happy than their Western counterparts. To do so without first shifting your perspective to the paradigms of the culture (which in itself can take months), is to judge rashly and uneducated—a watered down shadow of the imperial colonialism of old.
In the context of this article, to approach a community with an openness and will to learn, rather than a judgement and imposition of mismatched societal ideals, will quickly be picked up. Instant barriers will be put up against a confrontation of culture, however well meaning, while a desire to understand and learn will usually be met with appreciation and subconscious acceptance.
Do note that I’m referring here to one’s approach as an intention and attitude, not so much the act of teaching in a literal sense. Teaching itself, whether language skills to a developing tribe, gently educating on the dangers of sugar and plastic, or bringing medical aid to a rural community, can be extremely beneficial if conducted appropriately and with cultural understanding. However even with these examples, their efficacy can benefit tremendously from an overall approach on the host community’s terms.
7) BE AS ONE OF THEM
If you truly want to integrate with a foreign community, you have to adopt their ways. The only way you’ll: A, be able to see them and their culture from the ‘inside’—the true reality of their lifeways—and B, that they’ll see you as one of their own, is by acting and living as one of them. Otherwise, however long you spend with them and manage to gain their trust and friendship, you’ll always be observing from an outside point of view, and they will always see you as separate in more than just appearances.
Dependant on who you’re with this may push you a long way outside your comfort zone! For me with the Batek it meant trekking barefoot through the jungle, building and sleeping in their hayak shelters rather than my hammock, climbing fruit trees, being bitten by more leeches than I could shake a stick at, and eating all manner of jungle products, from monkey to civet cat paws to the liver of river turtle (I wouldn’t recommend the last—it’s a bit like gritty foam with the taste of a very strong paté). Perhaps more importantly it meant embracing the social systems and norms of the village, in many cases at odds to my own.
Of course, living a tribal lifestyle can raise a number of health considerations. For one thing their immune system is almost definitely far stronger than your own—it’s likely that my eight months of leptospirosis recovery were the result of drinking Batek tea. You have to use your common sense and mitigate risk appropriately. But equally, how much do you really need your home comforts and routine—if you truly want to learn their ways the best way is to live them.
And whilst leptospirosis really is worth avoiding, bruised feet and a few intestinal worms is a fairly minor sacrifice for acceptance and trust!
8) PUT IN THE TIME
Integration won’t happen overnight, and there’s no shortcut to earning trust and acceptance. It took me three months of visits plus a month of full-time residence with the Batek tribe before I gained some degree of acceptance and novelty-loss. And I’m still far from understanding it all. There’s a reason anthropologists spend months at a time in the field.
It'll also be obvious to the group if you’re there to be in and out as quickly as possible for whatever purpose. They’ll realise you don’t care to establish long-term relationships, and respond in type. Would you bother to open up if you’re only going to be knowing someone a few days? If you’re serious then take the time to do things properly.
Although rather elementary by Batek standards, putting in the effort to build my own hayak definitely gave a good impression
FINAL THOUGHTS | BEYOND THE COMFORT ZONE
‘In any given moment we have two options: To step forward into growth or to step back into safety.’
— Abraham Maslow —
Gaining trust and acceptance doesn’t just happen. You can’t be passive about it and hope that it comes to you. It most likely won’t. When I first arrived in the Batek village to stay, I was simply watched from afar. No-one approached or spoke to me—they just watched. And at this point they’d already known me for a couple of months! It was only be actively engaging that I developed the seeds of a relationship. See here for an account of my rather nervous first evening with the Batek.
You have to make an effort, and that often means facing awkwardness and social situations that are way beyond your comfort zone and societal paradigms.
But if you do make the time and put the work in the rewards are so incredibly worth it. To find acceptance and develop a bond with a foreign community is to make it no longer foreign. In doing so you find a home, and a belonging that can affect you deeply. Only then can you begin to see the people and their culture in all its intricacies—a unique expression of the human animal and its diversity.
Exploring the local menu is a key component of long-term integration!
Find Part I here: Thoughts on belonging from a year on the road
Do get in touch if you have any other ideas or questions—it'd be great to hear from you.