The way the encounter with an “Other” is usually described, it follows a set pattern
First, you are fascinated by a different culture – until you actually go there. Then, you are first fascinated by all the differences, but soon frustrated because people in another place are still only people; but in a foreign place, you encounter all those little things which are different from what you are used to and, therefore, troublesome – “culture shock” ensues.
After some time, if you are one of those able to adapt well, you learn to take it all as just another kind of normal, and cruise along – until you encounter another twist.
Often enough, that twist is said to be the return to your homeplace, which somehow doesn’t quite fit anymore – welcome to “reverse culture shock.”
As I said, I’ve never been one for that, and the more I live somewhere else and try to engage more deeply with that place, the worse I find that supposedly normal pattern. It just doesn’t cut it when you are looking for a deeper understanding.
Yes, the allure of foreign, exotic cultures tends to lie, well, with the allure of their being exotic.
The first thing that draws you in – if you are not repelled by the strange, alien, problematic sides – is all that is noticeably different and fascinating.
Just think of Japan, China, India (or just as well, of the USA if you are a European, of Europe if you are American, or both if you come from somewhere else) as a travel destination, and chances are you will think of the things which are different and enticing: signs of old civilization or modern life, strange habits, novel sights and sounds – and smells and tastes…
The problem is that this enticement is oftentimes based on surface aspects that are noticeable, but may not be too relevant in daily life. Moreover (or is that a result?), there tend to be misunderstandings and disappointments when expectations fail to be fulfilled: the other is not only as fascinatingly foreign as thought before, it is also more similar, more mundane, and different in ways that irk…
It is not enough for more than a quick trip and stories to tell back home to only be fascinated or disappointed; if you want to engage further and become able to educate better, you need to go deeper still.
Even as you will probably remain an outsider, you need to become able to function as a member of the society you want to learn more about. Hence, what the anthropologists term the “second socialization” one has to go through in fieldwork, and the very reasoning behind fieldwork itself.
The orientation on cultural relativism asks us to understand the “other” we want to come to terms with in its own logic, not just ours; but it is equally necessary to avoid “going native” and only take that adopted culture’s logic as the truth (as the common caricature of cultural relativism as saying that everything has to be accepted would have it).
Compare that to “culture shock,” where you learn to function in and accept “the other.” Okay, I guess it’s better than being one of those who live somewhere other than home, but only complain about all the dumb, noisome people surrounding them there – but it often ends with not much more than a shrug and a “that’s just the way things are here.”
It is a concurrent abiliy to accept an “other” as just another kind of normal, but coupled with a deeper awareness and understanding of where those differences come from, looking at cultural patterns through history, that get you to the point where you know more, and become able to explain more – if you so wish and are able to do the same with your own background, rather than remain mired in mere acceptance..
Admittedly, this kind of learning never stops, and people can still surprise you – they are not just representatives of a culture, but individuals, after all.
For some, I guess that’s reason to never go too far, because a surface understanding is quite enough to look the part of the expert (and, in fact, sound more convinced of your great insight than somebody who really has it, and is aware of its limits and complications).
For others – and yes, I count myself amongst those – it means that there’ll always be more to learn, something interesting and worthwhile to do.
Who needs TV when there’s real life?