Traveling + Learning About Other Cultures? Here’s A Recommended Reading List

Learning about other cultures and understanding varying perceptions on what we consider our socio-cultural norms to be can be new and exciting. For frequent travelers and individuals curious about the world we live in, there is always something to learn from fictional and non-fictional narratives that show you how others around the world live and see life. Here is our recommended list of good books to read that do just that.

Americanah  by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a classic love story of two teenagers, but with a gripping twist on how a separation by distance and time did very little to affect the love connection between them, and their love for Nigeria. It almost feels like they are true soulmates who were destined to be together.

Here’s the skinny: Set in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze must decide what to do as Nigeria succumbs to military dictatorship. They leave Nigeria for different countries in search of a better life. Ifemelu leaves to start life in America as Obinze begins his new life in London. Years later, when they return back to Nigeria, they are reconnected with the same feelings of love for each other and Nigeria, but have to make very important decisions about their future. One interesting theme throughout the book is the perception of what it means to be black in the United States, Nigeria and Great Britain. This is not a nuance that is lost on me as I continue to understand how other Africans in the Diaspora define who they are and what shapes this awareness. A great read.

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
The Iowa native turned journalist explains how living the rural life in the small town of Des Moines ignited a desire in him to travel the United States. He decides to journey through several states leaving the familiar behind for an adventurous path of new experiences and travels. Searching for the ideal, perfect town leads Bryson to several states across the South before traveling north to Washington DC where he finds the tourism industry a huge exploitation. Ultimately, he is disappointed, though he continues his journey further up north and eventually heads west where he finds the land mostly barren and dismal. Nevertheless, Bryson is faced with nostalgic memories throughout his statewide travels and eventually finds his way back home to Des Moines, where he missed the qualities of the simple life as a child.

Moral of the story: As much as I love my country, I haven’t visited nearly as many states as the author has, but it was interesting to view the United States through his eyes. The author clicked his proverbial ruby heels and found himself back home, but not without satisfying his wanderlust. Reading this novel also reminded me that no matter where you live or go, there’s no place like home. Sometimes you have to journey outside your comfort zone to appreciate your life as you know it.

Eat.Pray.Love  by Elizabeth Gilbert
With over 5 million books sold and a wonderful film adaptation starring Julia Roberts, it’s easy to see why this is such a popular read.  This is a book that can easily connect with anyone who has endured hardship in personal relationships of severe emotional damage, and needs to find spirituality to successfully heal and gain inner self-confidence. Elizabeth Gilbert, a journalist and writer, had internal conflicts dealing with the dissolution of her marriage. In order to avoid a complete breakdown, she decides to take a year off and divide her life into three sections each lasting four months. (Eat) Gilbert decides to live life in Italy. She immerses herself in the culture learning the Italian language and learning how to deal with her emotions, but not relying on men or medication. (Pray) Traveling to Bali and communicating with a spiritual advisor, Gilbert finds how to use spirituality to control her negative thoughts while communicating with others. Learning Indian yoga and meeting new friends, she also builds confidence within herself to be self-dependent and in control of her decisions. Gilbert finally meets her husband in Bali, Indonesia and finds (Love).

Why this is worth the purchase: If you love traveling, this novel is for you.  Following Gilbert’s journey from leaving her failed past in New York to the peaceful and exciting adventures of Italy and an exotic and spiritual quest in Bali, you will be totally immersed in her story and how the sights and sounds of each destination develop her into the woman she was meant to become.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
In 1968, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, an immigrant couple from Calcutta, India living in Cambridge, Massachusetts gave birth to a boy named Gogol. As Gogol grows up, he is faced with the reality of his unusual name and identity. Gogol fully immerses himself in the American culture by changing his name and dating others of different ethnicities and cultures — which is primarily fueled by his disdain over who he is. Eventually his father passes away and he is immediately consumed with guilt. This life changing event alters Gogol’s  view of his life and who he is.

A narrative that keeps things real: Golgol starts to reconnect with his family and embraces his Indian heritage. The Namesake is a touching story of a boy who learns to appreciate the nuances of his culture and to accept himself through his experiences. The struggle is real for first generations to fit in, and this book gets very real about the very thing that causes such an identity crisis.

The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade
This book is a departure from the stereotypical narrative on the African continent and seeks to elaborate on the development that Africans experience today with technological advancement, changes in family dynamics and the environment, as well as ardent youth engagement. The paradigm is shifting and the question now is, ‘What can and is Africa doing for itself?’

Why this should be on your bookshelf: The author traveled through seventeen countries over the course of three years to personally experience the continent’s immense potential. I enjoyed reading about how Olopade is lending her voice to dispelling stereotypes about the African continent — it provides the opportunity for many of us in the Diaspora to rethink the way we approach discussions about the continent and how we relate to it.

The Turk Who Loved Apples by Matt Gross
This book is for the ‘frugal traveler’ who enjoys writing about his or her experiences and is especially for those who just want to be when traveling to different places. As the author describes his experiences in different locations around the world, he teaches us that it is okay to travel the world almost without the structured list, ideals and expectations.

This book will make you want to travel differently: This is not your typical travel book, and it does not even try to be one. It is an honest reflection on the ups and downs that come with traveling the world. Reading it leaves you with a sense of fearlessness as you vicariously live through Gross’s anecdotes and experiences. He gives great attention to detail when describing the characters he meets, and describes how traveling to India changed his life upon returning home. With the vivid imagery and details, you will feel like booking a flight and creating your own personal travel story that is about unique as it may get.

Shavonda Miles is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, GA, who enjoys partnering with media outlets to provide quality content. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.