From Colin’s journal, on the way to Europe:
The real challenge for you here (and the real growth) isn’t just adjusting to a new culture. No, the bigger issue here is being in a place where you are no longer the majority. Despite your open-mindedness, you have always been a white English-speaking male. A very dominant position. You’ve now hit the first barrier. No longer are you in a place of English speakers. One of your foundation pillars has been knocked out from under you.
So, what do you do? You instinctively get quieter, observe more, become more passive. Which are decidedly female traits, I suppose. Or so we have called them before. You hole up and become reflective rather than deal with the constant confrontation. What’s more, you seek out people in the same situation. Fellow English-speaking travellers. This is more difficult to do, since there are few commonly recognized gathering places. Hostels, of course, are those places. Sometimes you need the group; but other times you can go it alone for a while.
We’re really back to fear again, aren’t we? Not only fear of not knowing, but fear of doing something wrong, of not saying something the right way, of not acting appropriately, of being culturally clumsy. But it is impossible to be right all the time.
No matter how good you are, you can’t walk into a foreign culture and language and expect to absorb it in a week, even a little bit, let alone flawlessly. This trip’s very nature means you will stumble lots, frequently, and sometimes in a major way. The solution is simple: admit your ignorance, and simply be as observant as you can. You are a foreigner, make no mistake! This is probably what upset you so much about the Americans in Paris. There were clumsy and uncultured, but the difference was they didn’t see their faux pas as they traipsed around Paris. You, on the other hand, are far too acutely aware of yours! So? Enjoy the trip more. Take in the wonder that is the world. And stop worrying about getting it right all the time. If you are basically honest in your intentions, you’ll almost always be all right, even if people get upset with you, for their own personal reasons.