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‘Cultural duty’: learning by stepping out of your comfort zone

Cultural duty: spending a year in a culture different than yours. It should be a compulsory part of life. Diving into the deep sea of habits, languages and beliefs that are new, confusing, interesting at the same time. In the last year I experienced how enriching it is to go out of my comfort zone and to be challenged in every thinkable area of life. When I look back at last year, I’m proud of how much I learned but even more of the fact that I took the chance and made the change.


Going out of your comfort zone and submerging yourself in a different cultural world is scary. There’s a reason why it is called comfort zone: it’s a nice place to be. However, going out of it is the best mirror one can get in life. This mirror won’t tell you that you have sparkling eyes and a beautiful smile. Rather, it will show you who you are and why you are like that. It forces you to open up your eyes and will show all the different sides in you.


When in Rome...

It’s difficult to explain why last year was enriching for me and what it is exactly that made me learn so much. I think it’s the process. In the beginning, I was not aware of certain things. For example: I felt very uncomfortable at my first visit to a traditional Indian family. I didn’t know how to behave because I was so afraid to do something which was inappropriate or offending, given their customs. But I also didn’t want to just copy everything because some of their habits where weird in my opinion and I was afraid of being untrue to my own norms and values. The situation was awkward.


Once, I shared my thoughts about this with an Indian, and he taught me a lesson by explaining his way of traveling:

‘When you’re in Rome, act like a Roman’, he told me. ‘In the fist ten minute of my arrival, I smell and feel the energy of that place. I learn to count from one to ten, some practical sentences and to eat the local food.’ When I asked him whether he wasn’t afraid to lose his norms and values when submerging himself in a new culture, he answered: ‘You can take the man out of India, but you can’t take India out of the man.’ His approach made me reflect on my own approach and its effect and showed me a different perspective which I liked.


Curiosity is key

I think my mindset and mentality was the key factor to survive my year in India. I learned to look trough the eyes of Indians. Wanted to understand why they are how they are and what motivated and moved them. It was this genuine curiosity and interest in people that nurtured me. It opened closed doors and situations or relations with people changed completely.


At the same time this didn’t bring me awareness or make me change my behavior. What did change my behavior? Unconsciously, I applied Kolb learning’s circle in every situation. Every one of my learning moments in India started with an experience. Sometimes a success, sometimes a mistake. Reflecting on this experience always gives me certain information about the situation, which gives me context and helps me understand what happened. Every time, the emotions I had about my experience where for me the big learning moments. I was scared, angry, happy, depending on what the experience mirrored in me. Depending on my emotions about these reflections, I changed my behavior or not. Kolb’s learning circle doesn’t have an end – it always continues. You create a new experience with the awareness and knowledge of last experience. I never made the same mistake twice, but I do make new ones all the time…. Learning from them and deepening my understanding of Indian culture and of myself every step of the way.


Trusting yourself

Going out of your comfort zone is unpredictable, scary and challenging but it’s something I embrace. Why? Because it expands my horizon and all the things which used to make me hold back suddenly disappeared. Of course, sometimes I have doubts or I’m uncertain about things, but I stopped being afraid. I know that whatever situation comes my way, I will manage. Last year, I solved such challenging situations that I know I can trust myself and will find a way.


Looking in the mirror...

India is a survival society and I saw the more difficult life is, the more easy people make life. Whereas in the Western society, we sometimes have very simple lives, but make things very complicated….. People have a mentality that fits their world, but I experienced last year how changing your mentality and mindset will also change your world. It reflects on people and it reflects back to you, like a mirror.

In my year in India, people often gave me the feedback that I leave the impression of being a friendly, warm, intelligent and optimistic young lady. Being on the journey forced me to reflect on who I want to be. And I discovered that I not only want to be like that, but actually am….


Kathalijn Vergeer is a Dutch Master student, who spent the last year with K&S in India. She blogs on her experiences and reflections on a regular basis