There’s no more pivotal time for cultivating and nourishing a sense of multicultural understanding and openness to new experience. There’s no question things in all dimensions are advancing at unprecedented rates. With change, there comes a need to preserve the important elements of the past while inviting the innovations of the future. Those who do not grasp onto the ever changing present will be left without the know-how to navigate the turning cultural tides. As things evolve, we must keep in mind their roots, for we cannot enjoy the apple tree without appreciating its seed.
One of the greatest representations of the traditions and changes experienced by any society can be found in its food. A great peek can be taken into a culture just by experiencing its culinary culture. Traveling all over the globe to familiarize yourself with foreign cuisines is an invaluable experience that teaches an awareness and acceptance of the new through the most universally enjoyed experience out there. Eating food is not just an act of necessary indulgence. Food is one aspect of a meal, that cannot neglect or replace the equally important customs therewith. No food thrives without its story. The occasion, preparation, presentation, and traditions of any culture provide a way to connect with aspects of culture that are ingrained in a society’s view of itself.
It starts with something as obvious as recognizing the differences in geography and climate. Stepping outside of the connected world where importation and exportation blend cultural lines, one still finds the cuisine reflective of indigenous availability. They don’t eat much fish in Kansas, because there aren’t fish in a land-locked state. By contrast, famous port cities along the Mediterranean coast develop their culture around marine biospheres that are foreign to mountainous terrains.
The views people share as to what animals they eat also reflect societal attitudes, and can enlighten sheltered or unknowing minds. And while concepts like respect go a long way in any culture, the manifestation of such a concept is ultimately varied through the uniquities of culture. You can imagine the differences in views toward eating beef in India, where the cow is respected and considered sacred for its generosity, and in the United States where cattle are the playthings of food plant corporations and have sustained meals since the 20th century. These views often become ingrained in the traditions that characterize a culture’s individuality and palette. Mythologies are integral to cultures and acknowledging them breeds empathy necessary for mutual respect. Often the stories told reflect the society’s understanding. Jewish and Muslim religious communities will refrain from eating pork because it was viewed as unclean and forbidden by God. On the Chinese New Year many different fish are cooked, all symbolizing various qualities such as good luck or prosperity. In fact, many Chinese will refrain from eating a certain type of dumpling on the New Year because it suggests a bleak future.
Travel raises awareness of other cultures. For an example, to someone whose scope only goes as far as United States’ boundaries, Mexican food may mean Taco Bell or Chipotle, and Italian food may mean any number of pizza chains like Domino’s or Papa John’s. However, these imitations of true foreign culture deny them of their authenticity. Fast food chains claiming to represent a foreign culture say more about the American melting pot than they do about the authenticity of their food. One can only rely on the source for a fair experience.
Travel also raises awareness of one’s own culture. A similar phenomenon happens with students studying a foreign language. The technical components of a language such as grammar and syntax are not as clear to a native speaker whose nearly instinctive capacity takes them for granted. It is only after studying a foreign tongue that one can appreciate the structural mechanisms in his own language. (For example, one may not know not to end English sentences with a preposition until he is taught that it is unacceptable in Spanish.) Many travelers voyage across continents, are enthralled by the exquisite unfamiliarity and drop all intentions of returning home. Others, however, learn to appreciate what they have come to know. The Amish have a custom called Rumspringa during which an adolescent is separated from his community and experiences the external. After his extended leave, he is given the choice to return to the community or leave permanently. Interestingly enough, the majority stays within the church. The clichés of “there’s no place like home” and not knowing what you have until it’s gone ring true here. Traveling shows you what other cultures have, and by that very same measure, it shows you what your culture has.
From the days of antiquity, life in one city was not enough to keep people from exploring uncharted territories, and exploring always opened up doors for innovation. Cultures borrow from one another, and the blending of communities presupposes the acknowledgement and acceptance of one another. Even on television today, hosts like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern continue the undying quests for knowledge and experience. Most would scoff at the reduction that these shows teach little more than habits of ingestion. Undoubtedly the greatest novelty in trying new foods comes from the many tales and customs that accompany them.