Globe-trotting basketball player Kevin Owens knows that travel abroad can be an incredible experience. Such an experience is more likely, he says, if a traveler does some homework before heading to a foreign country.
“Learn the language, be open-minded about the local cuisine and be respectful of the local culture,” Owens advises. “And, if all else fails, just smile and nod. Trust me, it works every time.”
Owens, who played basketball at New Jersey’s Cherry Hill High School and Monmouth University, traveled abroad with pro teams based in Australia, New Zealand, Kosovo, South Korea and Estonia. He now runs a consulting company, Overseas Famous, for athletes earning a living in a foreign country. He is also a podcaster and the author of Overseas Famous: The Travels and Tribulations of a Basketball Globetrotter.
“I was a reluctant traveler,” says Owens, 32, who also played three seasons after college with the Roanoke Dazzle in the NBA Development League. “I was forced to travel for my job, which was one of the more unorthodox occupations out there. I spent my 20s and part of my 30s traveling the world while living out of a suitcase. I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing moments and cultural mishaps, but I’ve also learned a lot along the way.”
Here are some tips, Owens says, “to help you avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made.”
*Language. “I’m not exactly linguistically gifted, and I’m pretty sure I’m fluent in the universal language of awkwardness. But, when you’re traveling abroad, it’s important to at least attempt to learn the local language. Trust me, nothing screams ignorant tourist like demanding someone speak English to you. Take the time to learn a few key phrases in the local language, including hello, thank you and where’s the bathroom. You’d be surprised how far these simple phrases can get you. Also, do yourself a favor and download a language app or invest in some language classes. And, if all else fails, just embrace your inner mime and act out what you’re trying to say. It may not be pretty, but it’ll get the job done.”
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*Dining. “Be open-minded about the local cuisine. Don’t be that person who only eats at McDonald’s when traveling abroad. One of the best things about traveling is experiencing new foods and flavors. Be adventurous and try something new! However, do your research on local dining customs and cuisine beforehand. I once made the mistake of ordering a foreign dish without knowing what was in it. Big mistake. It was goat brains. Needless to say, I didn’t finish my meal that night. When in doubt, ask the waiter what’s in the dish. It may save you from some unwanted surprises.”
*Shopping. “When it comes to shopping and haggling, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a sucker. I once paid five times the going rate for a knockoff Ed Hardy hat, because the vendor was really good at haggling, and I wasn’t. Don’t be like me. Do your research on local prices, and don’t be afraid to walk away if you’re not getting a fair deal. As tempting as it may be to barter for the best price, remember that haggling isn’t always appropriate. In some cultures, it can be seen as disrespectful or even offensive. And, whatever you do, don’t insult the vendor by lowballing. Remember, they’re trying to make a living, too.”
*Local culture. “This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people forget this. Do your research on local customs and traditions, and follow them as best you can. In some cultures, for example, it’s considered impolite to show the soles of your feet, while, in others, it’s customary to remove your shoes before entering a home. Every culture is unique, and it’s important to approach each one with an open mind. If you’re unsure about the customs or etiquette in a particular country, ask locals for advice. Most people are happy to help and will appreciate your effort to learn about their culture.”