Instead of planning a new trip, my husband and I are eagerly awaiting a new cultural experience: Our first foreign exchange student. For five months, our exchange student (a 16-year-old girl from Slovakia) will live with us, go to the local high school and immerse herself in American culture. But something tells me she won’t be the only person who will be rewarded with the benefits that come with an exchange like this one. By the end of the year, I’m sure I’ll be much more versed in Slovakian culture than I ever anticipated … and I’m sure I’ll learn a fair amount about the United States as well.
A lot of people lament the fact that they can’t travel as much as they’d like to, but the fact of the matter is that there are lots of ways to enjoy foreign experiences at home. Hosting a foreign exchange student is one way to immerse yourself in a foreign cultural experience at home. Here are a few others:
> Eat at ethnic restaurants, or hold dinner parties featuring foreign food. Whether you’re craving Indian fare or want to try Ethiopian cuisine, involve other people in your flavorful discovery of foreign food. If you choose to prepare it, you also get to embark on the culturally significant act of cooking the food as well. Drinking your way through beers and wines from abroad is also a fun way to experience a new culture.
> Watch foreign films. Spend an evening catching up with the latest foreign language films, or dive headfirst into a particular culture by immersing yourself in several films from the same destination, whether they’re goofy Bollywood films, emotion-heavy movies from Europe or anime straight from Asia.
> Find a foreign pen pal. You might be surprised to learn how many people are interested in handwritten letters. If you’d like to give snail mail a go, find an overseas pen pal and start writing. Not only is receiving mail fun, but exchanging letters with an overseas pen pal is a great way to learn a lot about a different place for a local’s perspective. PostCrossing is a fun place to start.
> Attend local cultural events. Some communities are better than others when it comes to cultural events, but take advantage of what is offered to you. These might include readings or lectures from visiting guests at the local university and parades celebrating holidays from around the world.
> Learn a foreign language. Have you always wanted to learn German, Spanish or Japanese? Or how about Gaelic, Norwegian or Swahili? Audit a class at the local community college and immerse yourself in a new language for a little taste of what it might sound like somewhere else in the world. Not all languages are available via in-person classes, but there are other options if you’d like to speak a foreign tongue. iTunes has an increasing number of language podcasts available, and programs like Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone offer a wide variety of language options as well.