When I traveled to Finland/Sweden in 2015, I didn't feel out of place or like I wasn't in a familiar place. Obviously, the environment was unfamiliar and I had no idea where I was at any given moment, but the areas I visited didn't feel so "foreign" that I felt like I was actually in another country. I could very well have been visiting different states/cities in America (except I would say their architecture is pretty unique).
This was not true in my visit to Uganda. I will wholeheartedly acknowledge the privilege I have in being a white woman. I have no idea what it is like to be a person of color or oppressed (aside from work-related gender discrimination but it's not nearly the same as POC deal with). I have always been the minority in my classroom. All 13 years of my career, I was the minority as most of my students have been of color. It has never affected me too much, however, because I've always been in an environment/culture I'm familiar with. That was all gone when I arrived in Uganda.
It is not uncommon for people, children especially, to see a group of white people and immediately point and shout "Mzungus!" (Mzungu means white person in their native language of Rukiga [pronounced Ru-chi-ga].) We would never in a million years in America point to someone of another race and proclaim their race. But it's normal for this to occur in Uganda. It took a few days for us to get used to it. It would even occur as we were traveling to our schools or to the excursions. People would see our buses/vans driving by and point and shout. It was decidedly odd. Fortunately we got so used to it that many of us bought shirts that say "My name is not Mzungu" as a joke because they know they do it and we experienced it. It became funny after awhile.
Another thing that was pretty different was how women are treated. We could argue all day about whether women are treated well in America (see Women's March). I saw a mix of how women are treated in the area we were in. The night I arrived in Uganda (to the airport in Entebbe), there was another group of fellows that arrived after my plane landed. As we were waiting for everyone to get their Ugandan SIM cards all set, we got our first glimpse of how women are second-rate to men. The last group of fellows were getting their SIM cards and these two men walked up and more or less cut the line to add money to their phone accounts. The person waiting on them allowed this to happen - the men were allowed to cut to the front. I also noticed this during the school conferences: men would move ahead of us fellows (mostly women) in the line for food.
This is not to say that they treated us poorly. They did not. That is not the impression I want to leave. It's just DIFFERENT. Men don't hold doors open for women there and I would bet money that the term "ladies first" has never been thought of there. What I found to be the most interesting about this is how some of the men we worked with showed care toward women.
One school day I had a really upset stomach and went to school late. One of the team leaders had to go into town and said I could just go with her later if my stomach was feeling better (I had taken some medicine and we were just waiting to see if it had worked). On the drive to my school, a boda boda (motorbike taxi) was driving toward us very fast and erratically. The roads are pretty rough and mostly dirt. He was driving way too fast for the condition of those roads. We had passed these two women walking on the side of the road just before this boda boda went past. It was pretty obvious the dude was losing control and sure enough, just after he had passed us, he wiped out. One of the Ugandan men who works with the organization I was with turned in his seat and expressed concern for whether the women behind us walking had been hit or hurt. (He even went on to say he didn't care about the boda boda driver because he was acting stupidly.) Having seen how women were not necessarily revered in other respects, I was touched to have seen this obvious care for whether these women had been hurt by someone being careless. I'm positive it was actually care for the women that mattered to him because there were other men around and he didn't express concern for whether they had been hurt/affected by the reckless driver.
At our school one day, during a break, we had a wonderful discussion with the local teachers we were working with. They were just as fascinated by what was normal to us in America (or the UK as was the case for one of our fellows) as we were to what was normal to them. The head teacher was fascinated to learn that my husband didn't have to ask permission to marry me or pay a dowry of cows or goats to my father in order to marry me. They were equally surprised to learn that my husband can't tell me what to do. (That conversation will forever been embedded in my mind. I think you had to be there, but it was quite funny when he said, "so your husband can't tell you what to do?" and I half-laughed and said, "well he can try, but it doesn't mean I will listen.")
I think one of the most fascinating parts of their culture, for me, was how the women dress. We had been told prior to our fellowship that we needed to be sure we had long skirts (that at least covered our knees) and shirts that didn't expose our shoulders. We could dress as we pleased at the lodge but at any time we were in town or our schools we needed to be covered. As a born and bred American, I can assure you I realized how vastly immodest we are in the States. The women in Uganda dress for modesty. We do not. Of course there were exceptions (we did see women in pants in some places, but they tended to be much younger women), but for the most part this was true.
I'm forever grateful for the opportunity to visit Uganda. I learned a lot and recognized how one culture is not better or worse than another. In fact, during that conversation when the other teachers were asking us about marriage in America, one of the teachers I worked with said, "that's their culture though, it is normal to them." (I was proud of him for recognizing that it's not weird, just a different culture.)
Going into another culture with the expectation that you'll learn from them and be changed by them is the best way to experience another culture. Being open minded and willing to learn allows you to really immerse yourself into the experience and be part of something unfamiliar without feeling like you have to shed your own culture.