I am a firm believer that an international experience is one of the best educations you can get. To leave your culture and your comfort zone and delve into new perceptions, flavors, smells and ideas can be the quickest way to realize both one’s humility and humanity. Wake up and smell the Serengeti at dawn, or paddle down the Mekong River Delta sipping on a coconut. These experiences will stay with you for eternity.
However, there is a certain type of tourist who can spoil an experience before it’s even begun. Now, there are stereotypes of such people. They are often depicted as clunky, middle-aged westerners with fanny packs, sandals with socks, and zinc smeared across their noses. Early 20s backpackers sniff at such people, mocking them as “vacationers” instead of “travelers” like them. Those silly old people are search of a bottle-blonde vacation package instead of real independent exploration. Yet in my experience, I have found that cultural disrespect knows not the bounds of middle age, hipster tourists, or continent weary backpackers. Anyone outside their comfort zone can display these tried and true dickish moves. After spending my life living a number of major tourist hubs and doing my own extended travels, I’ve noticed the same four problems over and over again. Here’s what they are and how not to be that someone:
1. Do not assume locals should know or understand your own culture.
It is easy when you live in the Western world to see the pervasiveness of your culture. From Amman to Tokyo there are McDonald’s hamburgers and Metallica records. Yet it’s important to be aware that these are only surface traits. I don’t care how much Mariah Carey your Moroccan friend can sing, you still take off those shoes when you enter his salon. Furthermore, never point the bottoms of your feet at his family, wash your face when you wake up, and make sure that when they give you the big portion of meat, you eat it all with a grateful smile.
Do not suppose that they will understand your high-fives or your thumbs up or your “A-OK” symbols. Many of these are considered downright disrespectful overseas so tread lightly. Do not assume that the way you do things intrinsically makes more sense or is a “logical” conclusion. Do not expect your friend from a remote mining town in Bolivia to know all about evolution. Do not expect him to agree with you about it just because you explained it to him. You’re not the authority and your way is not the best way. Rather it is one way out of thousands. If that seems too harsh or vaguely off-putting then you might want to stay home and visit more local points of interest.
2. Do not assume that their history is ancient.
In the West, and especially in the United States, it’s common to dismiss things that happened “a long time ago.” But our measure for “a long time” is a bit different than most of the world imagines it. There are plenty who think the Vietnam War happened ages ago. Well, the Vietnamese don’t. They are still living with the remnants of destruction. And if you are going to travel there you need to be aware of that.
Similarly if you head out to the Middle East, prepare to be schooled in US foreign policy. The vast majority of people from the Middle East will always divorce the individual’s “guilt” from the actions of their country. How could they not, given their own systems of governance? But in the West we’re taught not to do this. We think of our country as ourselves. So when we find out that the US is actually responsible for a number of very questionable (and sometimes murderous) actions overseas, it’s natural to become defensive or upset.
But take a step back and you realize you’re getting angry at somebody for telling you their history. If they are not dismissing you as an individual then there is no need to be up in arms. There is a lot about US foreign relations that is not taught in schools and hardly covered in university settings. The only way you will ever hear about this stuff is to travel to these lands.
For many communities, what happened in the 1800s is still impacting them today, so bringing it up is relevant in conversation. Social mobility does not always exist in other lands, so if ancestors were made a slave or a peasant under colonized rule, those scars are probably evident in everyday life.
Really, what happened in the 1800s in the United States still shows in everyday culture too. Although for some odd reason it’s taboo to say as much, race relations, sexual politics, and foreign policy still hold many social historical remnants. If you square with this fact before you go step on an airplane your experience abroad will be a lot easier. That way, instead of getting angry when someone inevitably chuckles at your sanitized version of former policy, you might come away with new knowledge of a forgotten historical period.
3. Do not divorce the people from their land and accomplishments.
I have heard a number of times, while walking through Istanbul or relaxing in the Luxemburg gardens, comparisons between the people and their worldly contributions. “Look how amazing the Hagia Sophia is, if only Turkish people were less pushy.” or “I really love the souqs of Fez but the locals make me so uncomfortable.”
Do you know who built and maintains the souqs of Fez? Those creepy locals. Do you know who has kept the Hagia Sophia from being destroyed? Pushy Turkish folk. To dismiss the culture as archaic while celebrating their art is one of the most insulting things a person could do.
I hear this all the time in Paris, the city where I live. People come to town acting as though they were the first tourists to set foot in a metro. Once they realize the indifference of those around them, they give up on the entirety of French culture and simply click photos of the sights. I hear these tourists all the time in restaurants, sipping their cafÃ© noir and mumbling about how very rude the French are. I’ll give you this; there are a lot of rude French people on Earth. But there are a number of incredibly delightful French people out there as well. These are not the exceptions; they are an integral part of the cultural landscape. If you dismiss the bulk of French society (or Greek society or Chinese society), you are missing out on half the experience. Who these people are shows in their monuments. Paris only achieved architectural continuity because of their compulsive tendencies. Certain rules within Islam dictate calligraphy over human form and an almost mathematically perfect symmetry when decorating mosques. If you dismiss one part in favor of another you end up living in a schizophrenic humanity, as the two are inseparable. And remember: you chose, even paid upwards of thousands of dollars, to come to their culture.
“I really love the Blue Mosque but why do I have to cover to go inside?” “I didn’t know I couldn’t wear a tank-top in the Vatican, Rome is so hot, what am I supposed to do,” “You have to cover your legs at Bangkok’s Grand Palace? Why?”
Because it’s not Disneyland. Because these are people’s important cultural institutions and they are giving you the privilege to look inside. If covering your head is too much indignity to take, then go home. Nobody is going to miss you, and as important as you think your Dinar are to the local economy, it’s not worth the cost of humiliating the people around you. So get off the self-righteous train headed to AllAboutMeVille and respect those ancient traditions.
4. Do not culturally appropriate all the easy things.
India is a popular destination for a number of people on holiday. No doubt, this ancient land full of spiritual, chaotic, and beautiful sights is one to be celebrated. Certainly, western use of Indian traditions has become popular worldwide. Yoga is from India, as is ayurvedic medicines and the idea of chakras.
But these are ancient, spiritual things that don’t always come with simple or easy applications. They come with real sacrifice (giving up meat and gluten is not a sacrifice) and serious spiritual contemplation. To just skim the easy, good things off the top while ignoring the larger, less Western-friendly implications underneath cheapens the culture.
And this is not to say that everybody who does Yoga is some kind of clueless India groupie. But it does mean you need to be aware that you’re participating in a version of Yoga that is fairly divorced from its roots. That way when you go to India you don’t end up lecturing Yogis on downward facing dog. You may think I’m being funny, but a friend of mine from Goa once wrote me about an English woman who traveled to her city and proceeded to lecture people on the names of certain Yogic positions, even offering to teach a class. You may think this is an exception but more often than not, supposition that Western people are privy to special “knowledge” is fairly prevalent.
One man I know who runs a hostel in Delhi tells a story of a woman who went to see an ayurvedic doctor. After her session he referred her to the western hospital down the street. She was confused; couldn’t his ancient treatments cure her? This traditional healer was trying to tell her that there were limits to his applications and that her symptoms (which turned out to be amoebic dysentery) might require some immediate intervention. She proceeded to berate him on not taking his own practice “seriously enough.” Later, after passing out on the hostel floor, she was taken to the local hospital and given the proper medications.
Another good example comes from when I was living in Marrakech. I saw a couple from California tell a group of Moroccan women why the veil seemed like a “cool idea” and that they were totally down with the practice. They then proceeded to giggle as they tried to put on their own. Playing make believe with scarves is fun, I’ve had a number of my Western friends enjoy seeing what they look like in a proper hijab. But women who choose to veil don’t just take their scarf off when the sun hits high noon and temperatures climb to the triple digits. Understanding that gives you a deeper level of appreciation for what these women choose to go through and should render respect rather than giggles.
The bottom line is that you are a guest in their home. You are not owed a grand entrance or smiles from every person you meet on the street. If they do smile, then by all means make a friend. I’ve met locals from Belize to Vietnam who have vastly improved my entire experience of the country. But don’t go in thinking that these people don’t have anything better to do than make small talk in a bar with you.
Really, you are a representative of your country and culture. If you are initially treated poorly, do what you can to be polite anyway. It’s likely that the person who came before you was rude and now you have to work twice as hard to prove to them that you’re not all bad. Likewise, if you act rudely, the person who comes after you will bare the brunt of your indignities and be stuck cleaning up your cultural messes, which isn’t a fair thing to do. Even if you dislike the place that you’re in, you’d be surprised at how much the locals can improve your experience. So lace up your boots, get your SPF on, and go out and explore. As Saint Augustine said: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read a page.” Enjoy yourself, relax, and remember your manners. Also I don’t care how deep you can smush it, never, ever hide your passport under the mattress. Ever. Happy trails!