Intercultural competency is all about having the courage to keep going. The only way you can really learn to interact fluidly within another culture is to observe, ask, and most importantly, try. And with trying (unless you are somehow superhuman or way more socially intelligent than the average person) comes failing, but that is the greatest lesson.

Usually when you’re travelling, and especially when you don’t speak the language, you try and then fail in a million different little ways every day. These (hopefully) aren’t big mistakes, just small “faux pas” that probably have the locals shaking their heads or muttering to themselves. For example, I quickly realized that I was walking in the wrong direction around the Hoàn Kiem Lake “track” (see previous post about the world’s largest outdoor gym). There’s this unspoken rule that you always walk in a clockwise direction, something I didn’t pick up on until the walking traffic got busier later in the morning, and I was totally like a lone salmon swimming against the stream. So, small mistake, easily corrected, and now I walk the correct way every morning.

And of course, I learned a super valuable intercultural lesson by realizing I was going the wrong way, and asking why. There’s a good reason for this cultural behaviour. Buddhist meditative walking is always done in this direction, keeping the object (a monument, Bodhi tree, or Buddha statue) to the person’s right. At Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the holy object is the Ngọc Sơn temple, located in the centre of the lake. Now I walk more purposefully, respecting people around me more, and looking for other clues to really answer “why do they do that?”.

Sometimes you try and fail, and really fail. This can be major, like miscommunication that leads you to miss a travel connection, or something really disrespectful, or – you get hurt, like in my case. My mistake was learning how to be a passenger on a motorbike. This is the main mode of transportation in super congested Hanoi, and you really aren’t embracing the local culture if you don’t try it. Lots of people order motorbike taxis to get around, and it’s efficient and cheap. I personally love the zen feeling of just being part of this beautiful, orchestrated chaos, and letting someone else do the driving.

On my first motorbike ride (ever, not just in Hanoi), when the driver stopped to let me off, the traffic was zooming past on my left hand side, and the sidewalk was on my right hand side. Still in my hyper-safe Canadian mindset, I thought, “oh, well I’ll get off on the right, to avoid traffic”. That’s when I burned my right leg on the exhaust pipe. A super hot, fast, second-degree burn that is still healing a week later. Don’t worry, I will be ok – probably just a scar that many dub the “Thai Tattoo” because so many tourists have it.

But I keep thinking that this mistake was an excellent example of intercultural learning. Intercultural competency is about knowledge, skills, and attitudes. This motorbike ride experience gave me all three:

  • Knowledge: now I know you always get off on the left, regardless of traffic – the drivers will move to avoid you, as everyone knows passengers always get off on the left.
  • Skills: how to ride a motorbike!
  • Attitude: I’m proud that I was brave enough to try the bike, and I have rode many times since. I recognized that it was my own fault, and so I still have a positive attitude about it and the story that I can tell from the experience.

Hopefully that’s the last major mistake of my trip, but definitely every day is another try –> fail –> learn –> try again adventure.