You Want Me To What? Coping with Cultural Difference
In India, touching the feet of an elder is a complicated ritual for an outsider. The gesture is made in a quick, elegant bow: You touch both hands lightly to the other person’s feet and hold them, then stand up and fold your hands for a graceful “Namaste.” In my first attempt to do this to the family matriarch, however, I over-thought it, and hit the floor a few seconds too long—until she pulled me up by my hair. I just managed to squeak out a “Namaste” before scurrying to the next room.
Initially, I felt embarrassed and meek. And my American sense of entitlement made me question why I would have to bow down to anyone. But after researching the meaning behind the touching of the feet, I realized that this tradition is not about submission at all—but rather, about a show of respect when you meet someone for the first time, honor an elder, or participate in a ceremony.
Throughout my travels, I’ve realized that there are a number of traditions that at first seem disempowering or strange, when, in actuality, they have a deeper meaning and purpose. I’ve now learned not to make judgments too quickly.
Sometimes, you’ll need to take a stand for your beliefs, but oftentimes you (and your hosts) will appreciate it when you indulge the local customs—and more importantly, understand them. Here’s some insight behind some common traditions you might encounter around the world:
In many countries, women are expected to wear long sleeves or skirts, which Western women can find oppressive. But actually, covering your skin can be empowering. When you show regard for others’ culture, people will listen to what you have to say, rather than staring at what you’re wearing. You’ll also avoid drawing unwanted attention when roaming the city.
Besides, long sleeved loose cotton blouses like a Kurta or a suit set like a Salwar Kameez will keep you much cooler in hot weather. Plus, you won’t be scrambling for a long skirt or scarf when entering sacred sites.
So have fun with it. Add local clothes to your wardrobe and ask local women what’s in fashion at the moment. If you must wear a head covering, ask how to pin your headscarf to reflect current styles.
Get Out of the Kitchen—Or Not
Imagine this: You’re at a family dinner in Poland, and your brilliant aunt, a law school graduate, works tirelessly as a housewife, and rarely steps out of the kitchen. You’re about to launch into your gender-equality tirade and tell her to sit down with the rest of the family when she proclaims: “It is my joy to cook the best food possible, and your joy to eat it.”
Keep in mind that in many countries, women hold power only in the private sphere of the house. In Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and India, women have only recently emerged from the home and entered the work force.
So instead of passing judgment, try to understand the unique gender politics of a country without comparing it to your own. Learn the history of the women you spend your time with, and their unique stories, hobbies, and dreams. They will be grateful to find a confidant rather than a preacher.
Travel with an Escort
In places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, it may be illegal to travel outside the house alone without a male escort, especially in rural areas. While this might seem patronizing (not to mention annoying)—it’s not something to be taken lightly. If you’re new to the area, or a foreigner, it’s an important precaution for your safety, and, in many places, it’s a national law.
If you’re living in an expat area, gauge the situation—talk to locals and see what they recommend. However, in a conflict zone, especially if you’re not familiar with the area, don’t try to be brave or unconventional. Women have gotten their hands chopped off for much less.
Take a Seat
In some cultures, women usually eat, sit, and socialize separately from the men. But as an outsider and guest, you may be offered a seat at the men’s table. This may happen out of curiosity, respect, or simply because your hosts want to get a closer look. But consider carefully whether to accept the invitation. Will this affect the way you are perceived in the community? Will it impact any goals you may have for your time abroad? Or is now a good moment to serve as a cross-cultural ambassador? The other women may find this fascinating, or they may find it taboo. A good rule of thumb is to ask your hosts what they think would be acceptable, then decide.
To Serve or Not to Serve
In West Africa, if you are a host daughter, you will likely be asked to serve your uncles and other men in the family tea, or even dinner. The men in your host family may find this amusing—and you’ll likely find it infuriating. This is a tough situation to navigate, and can lead to resentment and confrontation. So, before arriving, consider what you’re comfortable with. Be clear with your hosts about the roles you are willing to perform in the house beforehand, and stick to them.
It’s important, though, to pick and choose your battles. Once you understand the unique cultural context of a situation, you may find yourself willing—or even wanting—to participate out of deference for your hosts and their customs. But remember: You always have a choice. If you’re still uncomfortable with a particular custom, think about what it is that gives you pause, and then talk about it over with the locals. It’s okay to occasionally sit out and not participate in a tradition, but what’s most important is that both you and your hosts feel mutually respected (and that you stay safe).
Have you ever participated in a tradition that at first you weren’t sure you were comfortable with? What changed your mind?
Photo courtesy of ~Mers.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author