A Metaphorical Packing List for Life Overseas - Intentional Travelers

10 Jun A Metaphorical Packing List for Life Overseas

This is a guest post by Karen Bortvedt. Karen is a long-term volunteer with Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Cambodia. You can learn more about her daily life and work on her blog.

Toothbrush. Check. Toothpaste. Check. Passport. Check. Large stuffed polar bear. Check. While all of these things are important to have on the ‘must pack’ list when traveling intentionally or moving to a new culture, I think there are a few even more essential items that people should include on their lists.

From my perspective, the most important things to pack when traveling are an open mind and inquisitive heart. By the same token, often times travelers bring a significant amount of unnecessary baggage. The most important thing many pack along, to the detriment of all they encounter, is a belief that there is only one ‘right’ way.

An Open Mind

Eat bugs? Sure! On a recent trip to the USA, I had the opportunity to share with a group of four and five year old munchkins all about life in Cambodia. One little girl said what most of you were likely thinking when you saw these pictures, “Why do they eat bugs? That’s GROOOOSSSS!” Thinking of that adorable face with the five different braids going in various directions still makes me smile. My answer to her was, “You know how you eat fruit snacks here at school for snack? Do you like those?” (Yes, was of course the answer) “For kids in Cambodia, they grew up eating bugs just like you grew-up eating fruit snacks.” Not the most eloquent summary of that buzz term cultural competency, but, for me, that really just means to keep an open mind. You will likely have opportunities to try and experience things you never even knew were possible.

Inquisitive heart

Just as there are six questions we are all taught to include in every presentation, invitation, or essay, those are the six questions that lead us to learn about the new people and places we are encountering. Inquire. Ask. Be respectful, but interested. There is nothing we all love more than talking about ourselves, our culture, our way of living. People are generally open to answering many questions. Why do the students go to school in the morning one month and then switch to the afternoons the next month?* Why do you hold your hands in front of your chest when you meet some people and in front of your face when you greet others?** Why are there always tents with loud music in the streets?*** (If you’re curious about the answers, see below.)

The “Right” Way

Remember that saying, “When in Rome…”? We would all be better stewards of this world if we took this to heart when traveling or making new countries our homes. It is important to accept, to some extent, the culture into which one enters and to not go with the explicit intent of changing it based on our agenda.

Here are just a few examples that I have witnessed. Going to a culture where the native women do not usually wear shorts or tank tops? As a female guest, you, too, should follow that norm, regardless of your personal belief about acceptable dress. Or, going to a country where two piece bathing suits are the norm (as a friend recently explained in her experience moving to Brazil), time to exchange the swim-team suit for something that shows a little more skin.

Going to a Muslim country? Don’t pack a huge box with copies of the Tao Te Ching to distribute to those you meet. Do you show up to a friends house for dinner and tell them how to cook it? Spiritual beliefs are usually deeply personal and tied to familial, cultural, and historical experiences. How would you react to someone telling you yours were all wrong and lies? I believe the psycho-social impact is not positive.

Do you make changes to every menu item like Sally? If you do not speak the native tongue of your server or that is not a cultural norm, don’t get upset when your food comes out just as it was listed on the menu. In some cultures, it is the norm to have ‘made-to-order’ meals but in others, especially when there are language barriers, menu items have numbers by each one for a reason. It is not right or wrong to have a special-for-you meal, just a difference that needs to be respected.


The one caveat to this, in my mind, would be that one must consider: will conforming to a cultural norm be doing harm to myself, others, or the world? Just because the host culture throws trash in the road does not mean you should conform and do the same thing… nor should you chastise strangers for the practice. If locals drink the water from the tap or local stream, please don’t try it just to ‘fit in.’ You will learn about a whole new kind of culture, the one taken to a lab to diagnosis your parasites.

* Because it, historically, rained in the afternoons, students switch the time they attend school or the morning class would have far more class time. When it rains, it is often impossible to get to and from school.
** The position of the hands varies as a sign of respect, greeting an equal status friend and greeting a monk are done differently.
*** Weddings and funerals are often held at the family’s house. Since homes are small a large tent, complete with electricity, will be erected in front of the house, often blocking the whole street. No permits are needed. There is just more traffic in wedding season, at times you can go for blocks unable to make a right hand turn as all the streets to the right are blocked by celebrations.

What do you think are essential internal items to bring along to a new culture? What is on your No Pack list?

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