1. Become conversational in a language that you didn’t grow up speaking. It is true that the older you get, the more difficult it is to learn a language. But learning a language is not only good for improving your brain’s cognitive function, even at a conversational level, it will enhance your understanding of the world as you describe your experiences in a new way.
2. Visit a site that marked a great human tragedy such as genocide or war. What’s the point of doing this? There’s something about being in a place where human suffering has occurred that will make you develop great empathy for humankind. It will also make you weary of violence in all its forms.
3. Spend time with children who grew up differently from you. You don’t need to travel half-way around the world to do this; in fact, there is something inherently wrong with using usually “poor kids” of particular cultures as your “transformative” life experience. Instead, consider yourself a student, and someone who can give as much as they can receive in this situation. Spending time with children of a different culture or sub-culture informs you of the differences and similarities of different childhoods, and how important it is to understand where people come from in order to understand them.
4. Compete in a physical activity that draws people from all over the world. It can be a run, a walk, a cycling race, etc. It doesn’t matter. There is something cathartic about competing with thousands of people in something that tests your physical abilities. You will see the limitations of being human; but you will also witness the incredibly beauty of humanity where the human spirit perseveres against the human body. And people you don’t know – those who compete alongside you – and those who cheer you on from the sidelines, will be rooting for you.
5. Commit to a recreational activity that is completely out of your comfort zone for a period of time. Whether it’s going to a dance class from a different culture or learning a new musical instrument that is culturally-specific to a place that you are unfamiliar with, commit to an activity. Partaking in a feature of culture in this way informs your knowledge of that culture in a nuanced way. You become truly invested in a practice that people from a culture identify with, and you realize that you can celebrate a culture without appropriating it.
6. Volunteer in a place that you think will bring you the most discomfort. Even in our efforts to be good citizens of the world, it is easy to stick to the people and places that are most familiar to us. Pick a population that you know little about or that you are scared of, invest in being educated on that population, and see how you can participate in getting to know people in that population in a way that is meaningful.
7. Create a project about your family history and heritage. Whether it’s a short book or just a collection of essays, interview the elderly members of your family about their lives and traditions of their time. Try to research as much history about your ethnicity as possible and put the two collections together. There is much to be learned about who you are and where you come from, and it’s a good reminder of how culture changes over time.
8. Become a pro at making another culture’s cuisine. Food is one of the most important features of any culture and learning to cook the foods of any culture is both a humbling and exciting experience. You will learn about spices and herbs and ways of cooking that you didn’t know existed. But you will also understand the variety of taste that exists in humankind’s plate, and it’ll make you more open to trying new things outside of the kitchen.
9. Pray in a way that you usually don’t. Prayer means different things to different people. Prayer means nothing to some people. But there is something beautiful about learning how others pray and joining them in their prayer. Whether you have a faith that you practice or none at all, you’ll appreciate that spirituality can be a beautiful experience.
10. Travel or live in a place for an extended period of time that is different from the one you grew up in. This is an obvious one but I will always recommend going somewhere that is very culturally distant from the culture(s) that you know. Whether it’s having to learn a new language or making new friends and building a new support system or becoming accustomed to a vastly different daily way of life, it is a scary, exhilarating, life-altering experience.
Whatever cultural experience you choose, you’ll learn a lot of things you didn’t know. But you’ll also be reminded of a very wonderful universal truth: That no matter where you’re from, most people want to be safe, happy, and healthy; to live a meaningful life. And they want the same for their children. And sometimes you need a life-changing cultural experience to remind you of this fundamental human experience.