How to Meaningfully Immerse Yourself

Today’s guest post is by Troy Erstling of BrainGain.co

Some people like to bounce from country to country, seeing as much as humanly possible, checking off countries as they go and counting the number of passport stamps along the way. Not me.

When I travel, I like to live somewhere for an extended period of time. Preferably at least 6 months, but the longer the better. Why do I do this? Because I like to dive deep into a country. I like to live somewhere long enough to get past the surface level and truly immerse myself in a thorough understanding of not just places to go and things to do, but the mindset of a country. Exploring how people think, how their way of thinking differs from my own, and then incorporating their philosophy into mine.

So far I’ve lived in Argentina for 6 months, Korea for 1 year, and India for 3 years. When I left Korea I had a choice – Backpack the world for an indefinite period of time, or take a job in India. I chose the latter because I wanted to live somewhere for an extended period of time instead of bouncing from country to country. I wanted to immerse myself.

Along the way I’ve learned a lot about how to truly integrate yourself into a culture and learn as much as humanly possible. Am I perfect at it? Absolutely not. I’m horrible at learning new languages and still struggle to practice what I preach. Having said that, I do what I can, study what has worked well for others, and incorporate it into my own life whenever possible.

Here are some of my favorite ways to meaningfully immerse yourself in a new country:

1) Choosing the right country – Before we get started on how to immerse yourself once in a country, I’d like to take a quick note on taking the road less traveled. Many people all want to visit the same places; Europe, Australia, New Zealand – the places where it’s easy to travel, life is predictable, and uncertainties are few. The fact is, their way of life probably isn’t that much different from your own, and you’re only limiting yourself in the travel experience.

Immerse yourself in local culture
Photo by Troy Erstling

Many people want to travel while staying inside of their comfort zone. They want to go somewhere that allows them to say that they’ve been somewhere new, but not leave their bubble of comfort and ease of life. To me, that’s not traveling. The best way to travel is to get outside of your comfort zone and embrace unpredictability and chaos, and then see how you respond to it. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and you’ll learn a lot more about the world as a whole.

So when choosing the country you want to visit, keep this in mind and select somewhere you probably didn’t consider. Choose somewhere like Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Tajikistan (or any of the “stans”), Myanmar or Iran, Zanzibar or Kenya. If your friends raise an eyebrow when you tell them you’re going there, you’re on the right track.
On Safety – A friend of mine recently returned from a short trip to Iran. Prior to his departure he was a bit anxious about his own safety, but upon coming back he said to me “not once did I feel threatened or unsafe. Everyone was incredibly friendly and treated me very well. It was amazing and I’d love to go back someday.” For most of the world, this reigns true. It’s probably not as unsafe as the media portrays, and with basic precautionary measures you will be fine wherever you land. You will find that people everywhere are kind, compassionate, and just want to live their lives and provide for their family just like you do.
immerse in culture
Photo by Troy Erstling
2) Live there for as long as possible: Wherever you decide, live there for as long as you can. The longer you live somewhere, the more you can immerse yourself and truly learn about the nuances of a culture. I know I already said this above, but I say it again to reiterate how important it is.
Get to know locals and immerse yourself
Photo by Troy Erstling
3) Learn the language: This one seems obvious, but it’s so important. Learning a language is the best way to see how locals live and interact with them in a meaningful way. Especially in today’s world of products like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, it’s never been easier to get started learning a new language. Picking up a few small phrases like “What is your name?” and “You look beautiful today” can make a huge impact on your journey in a new country.
Unfortunately, I’ve made the mistake of not learning languages because of the bad attitude “When am I going to use it after I leave?”. This was a big mistake. Learning a language isn’t about applicability later on in life. It’s about learning to converse with locals, learning phrases that will make people laugh, and showing people you’re not just a traveler passing through, but you’re genuinely interested in their culture and way of life. I don’t have many regrets in life, but not learning more languages is definitely one of them. Don’t make that mistake.
Hack – Date a local: I asked a few of my friends who are particularly proficient at learning languages, “Whats the best way to learn a language quickly?” They all said the same thing – date a local. Getting yourself in a relationship with a local is an incredible way to learn a new language, learn the nuances of their culture, and challenge yourself in the most meaningful way possible. Misinterpretations and communication barriers will definitely be frustrating, but it’s worth every second.
Moreover, say what you want about Tinder/Bumble/Dating apps in general, but they are a great way to meet locals, even if you don’t want to date them. When I went to Jakarta I met a girl on Tinder who offered to take me around the city on the back of her motorbike and show me the best things to do. Can you ask for a better way to experience a new city?! It’s an easy way to meet someone and quickly dive deep into the culture, and who knows, maybe it can turn into something more!
4) Eat at the same local places every day: In our never-ending search for novelty experiences we often have a tendency not to visit the same place twice. Generally I adhere to this rule, but with one major exception: Food.
immerse yourself with locals
Photo by Troy Erstling
In Argentina I ate at the same restaurant nearly every day. Whenever I walked in I was greeted with a smile, a conversation, and sometimes even some discounts and specials that others wouldn’t get. When I lived in Korea I went to a restaurant called “Bap Mani” almost every day. The owner messages me on Facebook in Korean all the time and I have an apron from their restaurant hanging up on my wall at home (find a picture!!!). In India I went to the same yoga/organic restaurant so many times that the owner eventually taught me meditation + pranayamic breathing exercises and cured me of my asthma, gave me my own menu with my own prices, and is still a close friend to this day.
The experiences I had at these restaurants are some of my most cherished memories while living abroad. I don’t look back on the food, I look back at the relationships I developed with the owners. How many times do you remember that one-off meal that was such a priority during your trip planning? Not very much. Instead, find a place with great food and dive deep into supporting a local business. The impact these restaurants have made on my life is priceless.
5) Read books: I’m not talking historical books (although those are great too), I’m talking fiction. Creative writing. Poetry. Philosophy. Discovering the most prolific authors of a country and reading their work. Understanding their perspective. Not only do you get to enjoy some of the greatest writers you wouldn’t have discovered on your own, but their insights into the culture of the country you’re living in will change the lens you view your own life from, and things you never noticed will begin to take on new meaning.
immerse yourself with books
Photo by Troy Erstling
6) Listen to local music: My favorite memory in India was hanging outside of a train to Kerala watching the Indian countryside pass me by while listening to Hindustani classical music.
Music is an embodiment of culture, and teaches you how to listen to the nuances of cultural undertones that would have been left otherwise undiscovered. I’ve often noticed that life in a country moves to the rhythm of that country in a weird way, and I love nothing more than cruising around in a tuk-tuk or train seeing how mannerisms and body language mimic the music of that country.
immerse yourself in local sports
Photo by Troy Erstling
7) Sports: Another great way to meet locals and develop close relationships (plus learn a new language), is to join a sports team in the country that you move to. Joining a team creates a solid foundation for building close relationships and getting to know people you wouldn’t have otherwise met. Sports also have an interesting way of forging bonds through the hardships of winning and losing. Although I’m not particularly athletic or play sports, many of my friends have developed incredibly close relationships by joining a sports team, so I had to throw this in here as it’s commonly overlooked.
8) Avoid Expat Groups/Meetups: Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting expats, but surrounding yourself with them is a great way to insulate yourself from the culture of a new country. There’s always a tendency to stray towards the familiar and comfortable, and just about anywhere in the world you can meet other expats who will bring you closer to your life back home than the reason why you stepped out in the first place. If you do decide to go to expat groups, do it once you have been somewhere for a little while and already established a solid friend circle on your own.
9) Homestays > Hostels/Hotels: Hotels isolate you from culture. Hostels you only meet other travelers. Airbnb you have the place to yourself and are isolated. Stay in a homestay whenever possible and live with locals.
immerse yourself with local food
Photo by Troy Erstling
10) Avoid common tourist spots – The Taj Mahal sucks. Yeah, I said it. Out of all my travel experiences, the best experiences have never been at the common tourist spots. Every time I’ve visited one of the “must-see” places, I’ve always been disappointed. Perhaps it’s because of the hype and false expectations, or maybe I don’t appreciate architecture, but in my opinion traveling isn’t about seeing what everyone else comes to see. That’s being a tourist. Traveling and immersing yourself is about finding the nooks and crannies of a place. Traveling is about getting lost for the sake of getting lost, winding up at a random restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and creating an experience that is truly unforgettable. Avoid the common tourist spots, create your own experiences from the seemingly mundane.

Take the road less traveled, hang out with locals, stuff your face with food, and most importantly, have fun! Life in a new country is the most beautiful experience I could have ever asked for.

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Troy Erstling has lived and worked abroad for the last 7 years in Argentina, Korea, India and now Malaysia. Troy is the Founder of BrainGain.co, a platform connecting people to international work opportunities.

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