Have you read the article about the fastest and youngest person to travel to every country in the world?
It’s not the first piece published about this type of thing.
People like to read about people who have completed the seemingly impossible tasks of visiting every country, stepping foot on every continent or seeing every U.S. state.
Sure, traveling is great. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit jealous of these people.
But is traveling as quickly as possibly the best way to see and experience the world?
I have to say a big no on this one.
The idea of being a “country collector” doesn’t appeal to me.
Why? Because I know the motivation behind my trips.
It’s not because I have FOMO (fear of missing out). Or because I want to brag about my adventures.
It’s because I want to fully immerse myself in cultures and learn about the world.
Traveling: Country Collecting or Culture Collecting?
Traveling as quickly as possible all but guarantees you won’t be completely immersed in the culture on your journey.
It would be like paying a visit to your parents simply because you feel obligated to stop by. You finish eating dinner with them, it’s time to clean up, but—oh!—you’ve got to dash. There are friends to visit and things to do elsewhere.
As a millennial, I’m aware that we’re the first generation to experience such a fast-paced life. It’s very easy to get caught up in this speed without being aware of it.
Rushing around all the time and trying to tick off a country means we never really make the most of culture immersion travel.
You may step foot in a country. Maybe you buy a beer or take a few photos. But until you stop, put your phone down and chat with the locals, you’ll never truly understand the culture.
Sure, there are benefits to visiting tons of countries. Seeing as much of the world as possible is on my bucket list, too! It’s just important to do it the right way.
I’ve met numerous people who are planning a week-long trip to Europe, and they want to visit three or for countries in that time.
On one hand, I get it. Flying to Europe can be expensive, and you want to see as much as you can to get the most for your money. But are you even going to be able to experience anything unique by spending one or two nights in a city?
So while three or four countries in a week is doable, I certainly don’t advise it. You could easily spend a week in Berlin alone and not have enough time to see everything!
The country and people deserve your full attention.
If you want real cultural immersion travel, you’re going to have to take your time.
Let’s see how you can do just that!
Don’t Just Be a Country Collector! Here’s How to Experience Cultural Immersion Travel
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Why study abroad for cultural immersion?
Studying abroad is one of the best forms of culture immersion travel.
It’s easier than moving abroad for work, because you usually receive support from both governments. And if you’re studying abroad for high school or college credit, you also receive support from your school.
It’s easy to meet people in a classroom setting. You can immerse yourself in the culture by exploring after classes, on weekends and during holidays.
Plus, being a student means you’ll likely be in the country for a relatively long time.
But there are some disadvantages. The main con is that you may not be fully immersed in the language. If you take classes in English and only hang out with fellow study abroad students, you’ll miss out on the language aspect. So remember to be intentional about immersing yourself!
The best study abroad exchange support programs
There’s a vast sea of study abroad programs around the world, as well as study abroad scholarships. It doesn’t have to be expensive!
Here are a few of the best study abroad support programs out there:
JASSO: Japan Study Services Organization
DAAD: Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (German Academic Exchange Service)
Confucius Government Scholarships to study abroad in China
Why volunteer for cultural immersion?
Volunteering abroad is incredibly rewarding. Plus, it’s a great way to immerse yourself into the culture by surrounding yourself with natives.
No, I’m not talking about volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand for two weeks.
Voluntourism has become a global problem, and you need to make sure that the volunteer program is really benefiting the community—not just you.
Explore your options and get out of the main tourist zones. Search online for legitimate programs. (More on that below!)
Living in Japan, I volunteered at a dog shelter with only a few other staff members. It was in the middle of the countryside and upon arrival, I wondered if spending two weeks here was going to be worth it.
No one spoke English. I had to kick my Japanese language skills up a notch.
But I had a free bed and could explore a new, largely unexplored part of Japan. It ended up being one of my favorite travel experiences of all time!
The best volunteer abroad programs
There are many different volunteer options available.
Workaway is one of the best volunteer abroad programs out there, and it provides opportunities all over the world.
You have to pay an upfront yearly fee, but you have access to locations around the globe. Many people will offer you free food and accommodation for your work.
Progressio is a great volunteer organization based in the U.K. that offers a wide range of volunteer opportunities.
They go by the motto “People powered development,” and operate on the idea of “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” They don’t simply give money and resources, but instead pass on teaching and knowledge.
Why work abroad for cultural immersion?
Make money, finance your travels and completely immerse yourself in the local culture!
Working abroad gives you a unique opportunity to gain new experiences.
You’re thrown in the deep end. Even if you know nothing about the language or culture, once you start working, you pick things up quickly.
You can also travel in your time off. And you spend time around your colleagues, which automatically gives you a friend group!
Most importantly, you learn about a new culture in a totally different environment than most people do. For example, working in Japan opens up the big world of Japanese business culture.
What jobs can I work abroad?
Frankly, the options are endless. But there are several types of jobs that are ideal for expats.
First, you could teach English as a second language.
If you’re a writer, photographer, editor or developer (among other things) you could travel the world as a digital nomad.
Seasonal jobs are great if you just want short-term work. This gives you the opportunity to give working abroad a chance before committing to it. Or you can work a series of seasonal jobs if you want to travel as you work. These jobs typically include working at ski resorts, wineries and yachts.
How to immerse yourself in the culture when you travel
Maybe you don’t want to study, volunteer or work abroad. You just want to spend as much time traveling as you can.
Take your time when you travel. Immerse yourself in the culture and language.
This way, you can travel like a local. You can still enjoy classic tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower and Machu Picchu. But you can also dive deeper by visiting places other tourists don’t know about.
Meet locals and interact with them! To truly immerse yourself in the culture and befriend natives, you’ll need to become conversational in the local language.
Attain cultural immersion through a tour group
A great way to travel and immerse yourself in the culture is by traveling in a tour group.
I know, I know, this may seem counterintuitive. But hear me out! As long as you choose a quality company, traveling as part of a group can actually give you many advantages:
- You meet a lot of new people
- You can ensure you see everything you want to see
- Your tour guide can give you insider information
- Meet locals and do things as locals do
- Travel to places that you may not be able to go to otherwise, such as North Korea, where many nationalities can enter, but only through a tour group
Group tours and cultural immersion programs to consider
- Intrepid Travel: This tour operator offers small group tours, so you receive personalized attention and can actually engage with your fellow travelers and the culture in a small group setting. Intrepid Travel ensures cultural immersion and intercultural exchanges are made in a responsible, respectful manner.
- Culture Explorers: Culture Explorers bases itself on culture immersion travel and offers small-group tours in Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and many other countries.
- Koryo Tours: Koryo Tours offers small group tours to less-visited destinations, so you’ll have experiences not many other tourists get to have! They’re the main tour providers to North Korea, and they go to Mongolia and places in Central Asia.
Travel is like anything else in life. You get out what you put in.
Travel slowly. Meet locals. Immerse yourself in the local culture.
You’ll find you get a lot more out of a trip than you ever expected.
Zoe Stephens lives in Beijing, where she works in Chinese social media and as a freelance tour guide for North Korea. She began freelance writing when she moved to China over a year ago. Driven by her love for traveling and learning about new cultures, she’s tackling her fourth language: Chinese.
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