We scour the Web for answers and might even check out a few books, probably all non-fiction.
If we want to dive a little deeper, we might try to find local media sources -- online newspapers where we can read about what's going on in the place we are going to visit soon or are interested in.
Maybe we'll also search YouTube for videos from this location, and maybe we'll look for bloggers writing about it.
If we are really motivated (and planning to spend a lot of time there or spend a lot of money for a one-time trip), we might delve even deeper, buying not just guidebooks but books that tell us about that place's history, politics, and social problems.
But what about fiction? It's easy to overlook fiction when doing research about a new place or trying to learn about a different culture. We want real information. Hmm... a real mistake. Here are a few reasons why fiction is a great way to learn about another culture:
- Fiction is fun! It's way more interesting than plowing through a non-fiction book on politics by an academic author.
- Fiction gets at the heart of culture. Culture isn't about maps or good hotels or places to avoid. Culture is about what's important to a society or people within that society. Culture is about the way people think and what they worry about, what they dream about, what they hope for. The only way to really learn these things is to know people from the culture, and in many cases, it may be difficult to get to know someone in a short time period from the culture you are trying to learn about. Fiction can provide a faster insight (albeit not as deep) into the lives of "real" people.
- Fiction gives us insights into daily life. It's hard to really get a sense of what daily life is like by reading a guidebook, a book about politics, or even the news. Fiction presents us with the lives of several different people who live in a particular culture. We can learn fairly quickly which behavior and activities are considered "normal" and which are not.
- Fiction helps us identify the things that are hard to identify. If you ask someone to define or explain a culture, they will usually find this request difficult. Think about it: how well could you answer a question like, "What's important to people in your culture?" We tend to think about the variety within our culture and stumble up, unable to have a clear answer. But someone from another culture simply wants a general overview: what is typically considered "normal" for people to find important in your culture? A list of these things is bound to forget some and also bound to be confusing. Fiction, on the other hand, presents us with tiny moments from life -- dilemmas that characters face, conversations, arguments, dreams, strange happenings. Through reading about these experiences, we are likely to notice a few things that strike us as surprising -- things we would not expect to hear about or think about or do in our own culture. It's these little tidbits -- the tiny things no one in a culture really thinks about -- that are what culture is often really about.
- Fiction helps us develop an empathetic relationship with someone from another culture. When we read fiction, we tend to identify with the protagonist (or perhaps in rare cases, with another character instead). In this way, fiction offers us a view into another lifestyle. It makes us consider why people do the things they do and what we would do in a similar situation. It helps us feel more compassion for people who are different from ourselves, and it gives us practice trying to understand different viewpoints.
These are just a few reasons. If you have others, please share them!