The Fine Line Between Cultural Immersion and Being a Tourist

The Fine Line Between Cultural Immersion and Being a Tourist

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”

– Maya Angelou

There is a very fine line dividing the experience of cultural immersion and being a foreigner observing in the way that one walks through a museum. This is especially true when you’re only in a place for 2.5 weeks. Feeling as I’m being more of a harmful observer than immersing myself into the culture of South Africa is something I have really been struggling with, especially when on placement and agency tours. I understand that seeing these are important to learning about the true work and efforts of social workers in South Africa, and while I am extremely grateful and humbled that the social workers are so willing and wanting to share their full, true experiences with us, I can’t help but also feel like I’m this privileged foreigner who is further marginalizing and oppressing individuals who are already going through so much. I say that because on these tours it can feel like some of the clients who these agencies serve have unintentionally become put on “display” during these tours. It begins to feel a little invasive when I know that these individuals didn’t get a say in who’s walking through their sleeping quarters, or who is walking by and looking at them through their holding cells.

Starting off the program struggling with these feelings set up a precedent for how I believed I would feel going into Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township, and participating in the walking tour there. I have to say that while it was still uncomfortable walking through these people’s communities and homes in a large, privileged, ‘tourist-y’ group, walking through Langa was a different experience than walking through the placement facilities. Learning about this community, understanding more of the individuals’ perspectives on what it is like for us to be there, and to hear about the entrepreneurial efforts of the community members in starting things such as the township tour, showed me that these people had a say in what was going on and happening. It felt less like they were on display and being negatively exposed than it did when individuals who had no say in what we were doing there were involved. Instead, there was a sense of pride that emanated from the community members who created pottery and sand paintings to sell, led us on the tour of the community they grew up in, cooked endlessly to help feed and support the youth in Langa, and from the Happy Feet youth participants who performed songs and dances with such passion, love, and joy.

After a few conversations and interactions with various individuals, I have to remember that this experience really isn’t about me and how I’m feeling. While it may feel very much like I’m exposing, further marginalizing, or harming others by taking tours of facilities and neighborhoods, I can never know the true impact I’m leaving until I have conversations with the ones who are being affected by my presence, actions, and words. I also need to think about the intentionality of these tours and understand that they impact everyone involved differently. For the South African social workers, this was an opportunity for them to show us an uncensored version of their job conditions and be able to share the experiences they encounter on a day-to-day basis; all which are essential in cultural immersion. It was an opportunity for them to teach and us to learn, and I am so grateful to have been able to take part in this incredible experience.

Handcrafted Pottery in Langa

Handcrafted Pottery made by community members in Langa

A beautiful poem posted in the work space

A beautiful poem posted in the work space

Langa community members preparing a sheep's head

Langa community members preparing a sheep’s head

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