By Abigail Soryal

My first real experience of tourism took place when I took time away from a stay in Prague to accompany an older woman on her three-day whirlwind tour of Budapest. The first day’s marathon wore me out completely. CastleHillMargaretIslandNewYorkCaféTheParliamentOfBudapestTheFisherman’sBastionSzechenyiThermalBathsandHeroes’Square! 


By the second night, after we had sped through Matthias’ChurchGellértHillTheCitadellaShoeOnTheDanubeMuseumOfFineArtsSt.Stephen’sBasilicaVajdahunyadCastleDohányStreetSynagogue… 


…I had already lost track of the previous morning.  

When I finally returned to Prague, I was in semi-shock and could wear only slippers. 

It might have been unexpected for me, but this kind of tourism is typical for many. 

Globalization, and the advent of cosmopolitanism has inspired in many of us a value for the intercultural. Intercultural skills, multilingualism and cultural fluency are not only becoming increasingly prized in the workplace, but they are also becoming themes in our personal lives. And, because family and friendship shape us as individuals, in our world of increasingly intercultural businesses, families and friendships, we are more and more likely to be shaped by more than just one culture. I am no exception. 

Born to parents from different continents, in a country in which neither of them claimed citizenship, I was, one could say, destined for cultural curiosity. As I was growing up, the cultures at home mixed, clashed and melded. Although I still do not fully comprehend the full impact of that mixture, I watched my parents come out of their own cultures, challenge the assumptions, norms and values that they once took for granted and choose what was important to them. It was that process that made them some of the deepest, most thoughtful, open-minded, yet principled people I know. It was the desire to deepen myself, to see the world through another lens, to satisfy my curiosity about how culture had shaped me and could change me that brought me around the world to Hong Kong. 

But when I arrived, I was not sure how to pursue the transformation I wanted. I felt instinctively that tourism wasn’t going to cut it for me.  

Tourists? You can spot them. They stand out like sore thumbs. Think selfies, backpacks, walking shoes, loud voices. They are always on the move. They don’t speak the language. They come and go. They’re insensitive. They aren’t really interested in anything more than a fast-food version of your culture… Tourism is pretty much intentional—but controlled—exposure. It makes for stories, photos and a whole lot of receipts. But it is just one step beyond ignorance. What I was looking for, however, was something more like the transformative cultural experience I had witnessed at home, something that was created through more than exposure: the fruit of prolonged, whole-hearted, cross-cultural interaction.  

Don’t get me wrong. Exposure is important—important enough to bring me 13,000 kilometers out of my comfort zone. But it is also almost entirely useless if that is where I stop. It’s just the first step, or the first layer of understanding. Exposure is not likely to give anyone much by way of understanding, appreciation, or wisdom. It doesn’t educate you on what to do or how to do it or in what context. It just lets you know that something, whatever that thing might be, exists.  

Tourism, or exposure, is kind of like the toddler who goes about collecting as much experience as possible—using all his senses—inadvertently inflicting his parents with near heart attacks and trips to the emergency room as he “tastes” anything that will fit in his mouth and touches everything he can get his hands on. He’s been exposed to an electrical outlet before. He’s watched his parents plug and unplug chords. But his exposure is useless. He still does not understand that if he were to put his hand where his parents put chords, he could die.  

How does a child grow up to be culturally fluent? Fluency is not the product of nature but of nurture, and nurture is inherently relational. In other words, the purest form of cultural fluency must be transmitted through relationships. It is through his observations and interactions with those closest to him that this child becomes aware, correlating what he observes and experiences with the advice of his parents. He follows his parents around, attempting to mimic their behavior, gestures and speech until one day it comes naturally. This is where tourism falls short. Tourism does not involve creating relationships and therefore it can neither foster cultural fluency nor provoke transformation.  

I decided to approach Hong Kong like a toddler, without foreknowledge or expectations—to move naturally from exposure to appreciation and hopefully, one day, to understanding. I don’t know about you, but I want to be more than an isolated expatriate or a casual passerby. I want to do more than just consume or commodify a culture; I want to know a people, appreciate them and their culture, and be changed and challenged in so doing. For me, just like for the toddler, friendships come first. Period. But friendship isn’t merely the means to an end. It is the means and the end. 


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