Monday, May 11, 2009

Tour Guiding, Cross-Culturally

I've recently had the pleasure of hosting international visitors - a delegation of friends from southern Africa. My friends were traveling to the U.S. on church-related business, and I was representing my church in welcoming them to NYC.

Showing them the city was a particular joy. We rode the subway and the bus. We stood in Grand Central Terminal at rush hour -- commuter culture fascinated them. We took pictures of yellow cabs, which New Yorkers find annoyingly ubiquitous, but these friends found hilarious and strange. We rode the Circle Line (a tourist cruise around the island of Manhattan) and for some of them, it was their first time on a boat!

I've hosted American guests in the city before, but tour guiding becomes quite a different job when the guests are from out of the country. It was a unique challenge to explain our culture and lifestyle to folks living so far outside of it. I felt there was no better way to be an effective tour guide than to try seeing the city through fresh eyes. I tried to observe everything, then brought in my actual knowledge to explain the significance of various buildings, vehicles, people and patterns of behavior. The experience helped me recognize and appreciate (and occasionally abhor) many of the cultural attitudes, values and activities that I take for granted on a daily basis.

Our week together was both exhilarating and exhausting. We saw so much of one another, and so much of the city life that it was overwhelming. I was sad to see them go, though, as I watched them disappear through the maze of airport security. It struck me then that it really is a rare opportunity to see one's own culture through others' eyes, up close and personal. An opportunity I hope to have again!

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