Culture and politics forum

Respecting local culture

  • MADMAC

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    This is an interesting topic that we were discussing but was a trailer of another thread when it probably should have been its own.

    At what point do you ignore local culture because it conflicts with your own? Does anyone here have examples of where they were confronted with such a conflict and how did they resolve it?

    #1 Posted: 18/6/2009 - 14:49

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  • somtam2000

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    Quite a few years ago I was on a small island Thai island, Ko Jum. At the time there were only two places to stay on the island, both of which were on the west facing (sunset) beach. Over the other side of the island (still walking distance) was the main village on the island -- it was a very conservative, Muslim, fishing village.

    In both of the guesthouses they had a short flyer displayed saying something along the lines of "You're welcome to go to the local village for a looksee, but please dress and act appropriately -- these are conservative people etc etc"

    So one day, a friend and I are over in the village having a coffee in a little "cafe" (I use that term very liberally!). Lo and behold, here we go, walking down the middle of the street come two other backpackers who were staying at the same place as us.

    He was in boardies with a t-shirt, she was wearing a bikini bottom.

    ...

    Yes, that is all she was wearing.

    You've no doubt seen the Wild West movies where the guy walks into the saloon and everyone shuts up (and he's not even wearing a bikini!) well the scene was very similar. They walked by us, had a bit of a poke around and eventually wandered back to the guesthouse.

    What do you say to people like that?

    When we returned to the guesthouse we found the woman concerned and we suggested that perhaps she should have put some more clothes on -- after all she was fully dressed in the restaurant at the guesthouse -- her response:

    "I'm on holiday and I'll do what I want".

    So here's someone who ignores what the guidebooks advise, ignore what the guesthouse says, and then ignores what her "peers" say -- some people!

    So, not meaning to answer your question with a question, but what should the locals do when foreigners ignore their cultural norms?!

    #2 Posted: 18/6/2009 - 18:38

  • DLuek

    TF writer
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    During my times in Thailand and Vietnam, which have virtually always been spent with Thai or Vietnamese people, I've had to bend my cultural preconceptions many, many times. I've always done my best to respect the cultures, and tried very hard to act in ways that were acceptable to them. For example, I'm 29, but while recently staying with my girlfriend's parents in Vietnam, we slept in separate rooms and never showed affection when her parents were around. We live together at home, but here we had to respect the traditional customs.

    The one time I can think of that I probably confused or maybe even offended my Thai or Vietnamese friends involved alcohol.

    I have been sober for 14 months, which is something that in my home (US) is considered comendable and very much to be respected. In America, to offer, and push alcohol on someone who you know does not drink is considered very rude.

    In Vietnam, however, beer and wine are not even really considered "alcohol." Beer is sold along side Coke, it's no big deal. The whole concept of "alcoholism" doesn't really exist either, and from what I've seen most men at least drink beer, especially while celebrating with friends and family.

    When I had meals with my girlfriend's big extended family in Vietnam, which were in celebration of her return home, her uncles and cousins pretty much forced wine on me, even after I had repeatedly said "no thanks, I don't drink." Still, they put the glass in front of me when at dinner, and even explained how nice the wine was. When I had my girlfriend tell them I really didn't want it, they insisted, saying, "Don't worry, don't worry, it's not strong." Feeling a great deal of pressure, I drank the glass and switched to coffee and tea after dinner. I didn't make a big deal out of it, but I have to say it did make me want to keep drinking.

    So, the next time it happened, I decided I needed to stick to the promise I'd made to myself (and to some Buddhist monks who had previously bestowed on me an oath to refrain from intoxicants), and just refused. I'm not sure if my girl's cousin was offended or not, but this is the first area I can remember that I felt it necessary to break from the local cultural norms.

    #3 Posted: 18/6/2009 - 20:29

  • MADMAC

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    "So, not meaning to answer your question with a question, but what should the locals do when foreigners ignore their cultural norms?!"

    What would you do at home? In this cased, what she did was probably against at least a local ordinance. It certainly would be in most counties in the states where topless bathing is illegal for women. I'm surprised she wasn't arrested.

    After that it's kind of case by case. Thais don't have big expectations that we're going to follow their cultural norms because in many cases tourists don't know them. But there are obviously limits, and those are limits that common sense would dictate anway. So no, I don't go climbing on a large Bhudda statue to get a photo op, for example. Person sits with his legs crossed inadvertantly showing the bottom of his foot to someone - this will be ignored most of the time. Hell I've seen Thais do this by mistake.

    #4 Posted: 18/6/2009 - 23:23

  • BruceMoon

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    Somehow, this really only occurs when one seriously starts travelling. Until one has travelled extensively, there will be times that confront. After a while, one just takes the differences in ones stride.

    - - -

    Early in our travels, We were at the Bianyifang restaurant in Beijing. As for the epicentre of Chinese celebratory culture, this place is IT. As we (my wife and I) were westerners visiting Beijing, we were the 'guests of honour. Our son was with us, but as he'd been living in China for a year, he wasn't considered a guest of honour.

    Like at most restaurants, the Peking Duck is served in pieces on a largish platter. However, at Bianyifang, a special gold plate is presented to the guests of honour that merely has the neck and head.

    As we were 2 people, the head and neck were sliced (by bandsaw?) vertically. So, there were two almost identical pieces.

    We recognised upon presentation that something was expected...

    We consulted our son who advised that no one starts to eat until we'd consumed the neck and head. And, he advised us you HAVE to start with they eye.

    OMG!!! No Way!!! That's not food, that @#$%#@*&!!!

    While I knew that this was expected, I also knew from the reactions from my wife that she was not going to have any part of it.

    Outcome?

    I suggested to my mischievous son (his 'start with the 'eye' bit' triggered me to realise) that he'd have to find an excuse for his Mum, but that I'd have a go.

    We got through.

    But it also taught me a lesson. There is no such thing as right and wrong, just that everyone has their own aspects.

    - - -

    On another aspect of China, I found it really difficult to accept smoking in public transport.

    On a busride from Guilin to Yangshao, a guy in front of me was chainsmoking. I indicated to him that I found it offensive and could he move further up the bus. He knew enough English to understand, but chose not to be supportive. Another 'translated' and advised me that his view was that smoking is a Chinese cultural 'right' and I ought get used to it.

    I became annoyed, so stood up, went around the seat pulled down my zipper and said to him very slowly, I don't like your smoke, if you don't get rid of it I'll piss on you.

    Fortunately, the provocation didn't end up in drama.

    He threw his cigarette out the window, said something in Chinese, and all the other smokers in the vicinity also threw their cigarettes out the window.



    Cheers

    #5 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 08:36

  • MADMAC

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    "He threw his cigarette out the window, said something in Chinese, and all the other smokers in the vicinity also threw their cigarettes out the window."

    Man, you were lucky they didn't throw you out the window.

    I don't like second hand smoke myself much either. But until recently, it wasn't forbidden in German government buildings. So when serving in the German Army I just had to get used to it.

    #6 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 09:24

  • smash

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    I suck it up. You're a guest in their country and if you don't agree with their culture than they probably don't agree with yours and therefore whose to say either is the right way.

    #7 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 09:44

  • fondo

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    Yeah. Nice work Bruce.

    Personally, I would have liked to see you whip the old fella out at the Bianyifang restaurant.

    Then you would really have a story to tell.

    #8 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 10:06

  • fondo

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    Yeah. Nice work Bruce.

    Personally, I would have liked to see you whip the old fella out at the Bianyifang restaurant.

    Then you would really have a story to tell.

    #9 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 10:07

  • somsai

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    Somtam2000 There's nothing to be done, only whatever makes you personaly feel better. Maybe throw a shoe or something.

    Guidebooks used to say more about what to do and not. In amongst the regular text where it might get seen and taken to heart. No matter how often told from how many sources people choose to ignore the simple requests of the people and country they are visiting.

    My personal cure is to try to go to places where the chance of having that shrinking feeling is reduced.

    I'll take the opportunity to link.

    http://www.ecotourismlaos.com/dosdont.htm

    #10 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 10:24

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  • smash

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    Any other bi-cultural people here? Being 1/2 Chinese, I grew up with between two very different families. It's wierd not 'fitting in' completely with either side - especially as my mother is the only one of six to marry a "non-white" as it's been put and my father is the only one of five to marry a "non-Chinese". :o)

    #11 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 10:46

  • Nokka

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    Yeh, I'm bi-cultural. My mother was a Yorkshirewoman, my father's a Londoner.

    #12 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 16:55

  • BruceMoon

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    Yep, Ash, I'm bi-cultural as well.

    My father was from Mars and my mother from Venus.

    Cheers

    #13 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 18:30

  • MADMAC

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    I'm uni cultural but have the bad habit of adopting other cultural norms wherever I go. So when I was in Somalia I was always killing people. When I was in Germany I was always telling people off. When I moved to Thailand I was always chasing women at Karaoke bars...

    #14 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 19:13

  • Nokka

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    Don't know if you've ever been to England, Mac; but if you have, did you suddenly understand irony ?

    #15 Posted: 21/7/2009 - 19:49

  • MADMAC

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    No, never went to England. Irony - can you explain that?

    #16 Posted: 22/7/2009 - 01:09

  • BruceMoon

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    Nokka

    John (MADMAC) is a yank. As you know, the term is lost on most yanks!

    Cheers

    #17 Posted: 22/7/2009 - 05:40

  • smash

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    *rolling eyes*

    lol...

    #18 Posted: 22/7/2009 - 06:44

  • Nokka

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    Sorry, Mac; not a dig at you, honestly.

    Brits like to tease Americans for having no sense of irony, that's all.

    A perfect example is on Alanis Morissette's song 'Ironic', in which she lists various things that she finds 'ironic'. The trouble is, none of them are at all ironic, just unfortunate. Take a listen.

    #19 Posted: 22/7/2009 - 18:33

  • MADMAC

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    Alanis is Canadian. Of course, I doubt she wrote the song. Probably just sings it.

    #20 Posted: 22/7/2009 - 19:52

  • Jon_Mak_Mak

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    Sotamm says

    "When we returned to the guesthouse we found the woman concerned and we suggested that perhaps she should have put some more clothes on -- after all she was fully dressed in the restaurant at the guesthouse -- her response:

    "I'm on holiday and I'll do what I want"."

    I fucking hate that!

    I've been embarressed by many friends while in Thailand becuase of there total disregard for the local culutre -which is a very strong and different culture to the west- One example was a firend who had his feet up on the taxi seat!

    #21 Posted: 9/8/2009 - 15:42

  • BruceMoon

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    Jon

    It is worse when it's someone you (sometimes even sort of) know.

    I get the feeling that the scruples of these people are oft left at home when they leave.

    cheers

    #22 Posted: 9/8/2009 - 18:03

  • MADMAC

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    It's hard to offend here as well. You almost have to try. A simple "I'm sorry" is all it takes to make something right again.

    #23 Posted: 11/8/2009 - 00:43

  • wanderingcat

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    from MADMAC's reply (#16) on this thread:
    Although I think it's foolish to be "sensitive" about having your picture taken in public.

    & #8 on this thread:
    I don't buy the "you have to ask permission to take someone's photo" nonsense. If they're in public, they're fair game. Just like I am. Photos are basically non-intrusive. Simply capturing a moment and place. It would be different if you were skuling around their garden or installed a hidden camera in their bathroom.

    do the people in the villages around Ou Tai (those GT Rider photos) have the same level of understanding as MADMAC of what a camera is / how it functions / that it doesn't cast any spell nor captures the souls of whoever it's pointed at? don't think the Akha minded so much about being photographed topless as being photographed at all. same kinda reasoning why Hmong shamans cover their faces with black cloth during ceremonies - so that bloodthirsty spirits cannot recognise them & take revenge.

    taken someone's picture in a dusty village was not a criminal act in Laos

    perhaps futile to try & explain cos MADMAC's experience seems to be only with lowland Lao...not a criminal act legally in Laos as a country, but seen as tantamount to a criminal act in the society of whatever ethnic group in that area of Laos. they may not have laws or a constitution like we know it cos they don't have a written language, but they have their own system of rules & meting out justice/punishment e.g. for Akha, giving birth to twins is a crime, punishment = death of the babies + house of parents destroyed + parents either driven away from the village or have to move to live at the lowest point of the village, pay a fine (animal sacrifice) & be subject to various forms of ostracism. & they do impose it on outsiders - touch their village gates (destroys the protection of their village from forest spirits) & you'll be fined at least one pig to cover costs rebuilding & consecrating a new gate - exact same penalty for villagers, so fair & square. if your wife has had kids before she can wander around their village topless, it's legal in their society.

    for quite a few ethnic groups, 'private space' extends well beyond the walls of one's house. house = bedroom, village space outside houses = living + dining + kitchen + pantry + bathroom + WC. just like our estate agents mark out floorplans of our properties to include front lawn + backyard + driveway, their floorplans include the entire village around their hut (have gone through this 'floorplan' drawing exercise with them before & we ended up mapping the entire village). their villages look like public areas to us, but there are gates/etc marking the boundaries between the outside world (governed by spirits) & their world (governed by themselves). they will tolerate strangers entering unless they break any of their rules or demonstrate themselves to be 'non-human' (by not accepting a drink at a home = you are prob a spirit in disguise infiltrating).

    #24 Posted: 26/10/2009 - 02:00

  • sayadian

    Joined Travelfish
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    Good evening, good day, good night

    Warwickshire Police's handbook 'Policing Our Communities', issued to every member of its staff, gives advice on communicating with people from different ethnic groups in a section entitled 'Communication, Some Do's & Don'ts'.

    It states: 'Don't assume those words for the time of day, such as afternoon or evening have the same meaning.'

    A force spokesman said: 'Terms such as 'afternoon' and 'evening' are somewhat subjective in meaning and can vary according to a person's culture or nationality.

    'In many cultures the term evening is linked to time of day when people have their main meal of the day.

    'In some countries including the UK, the evening meal time is traditionally thought of as being around 5-7pm but this might be different say for a family say from America who might have their main meal earlier and thus for them 'evening ' may be an earlier time.

    'The point is there is an element of subjectivity leading to a variation between cultures that we need to be aware of - taking steps as far as possible to ensure our communication is effective in serving the public.'

    In another section entitled 'Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Communities' the force's handbook confusingly states that the phrase 'lesbians and gay men' is likely to be satisfactory for most situations when talking about sexual orientation.

    But it says 'homosexual' is 'best avoided' as the word is 'interpreted differently by many, and relates to sexual practice as opposed to sexual orientation.'

    Following a Freedom of Information request to police forces and fire services about the guidance they give their staff on their use of language, it has also emerged that a number of organisations, including Essex Police and Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, instruct staff to avoid the phrases 'child, youth or youngster.'

    This is because such phrases could have 'connotations of inexperience, impetuosity, and unreliability or even dishonesty'.

    The guide used by them also states that addressing someone as 'boy' or 'girl' may 'cause offence'. It suggests using the phrase 'young people' instead.

    The same guide also warns against the phrases 'manning the phones', 'layman's terms' and 'the tax man', for 'making women invisible'.

    London Fire Brigade instructs its staff not to use the terms 'businessmen' or 'housewives' because they 'reinforce outdated stereotypes'.

    #25 Posted: 26/10/2009 - 05:12

  • MADMAC

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    I detect a certain level of apology when cultures are screwed up. Let's start with my own. Not very long ago, calling a black man a nigger, and depriving him of the rights of others was, in many circles, culturally acceptable. That doesn't mean it was OK. It means the culture was F#$@@# up.

    In Nazi Germany in WW II, the barbaris treatment of Jews, Roma and other "undersirables" was perfectly legitimate. Culturally normal.

    Where Akha or any other Laotian (or whatever) group are acting like barbarians over issues of child birth and photography, I have no problem at all saying their culture is screwed four ways to Sunday.

    What's the rule here? That anyone can act like an animal so long as they are sufficiently different from ourselves in race and language?

    #26 Posted: 27/10/2009 - 00:01

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    Lastly, thank God that globalization is ridding us of these ridiculous beliefs. It's slow coming, and we have a long way to go, but my tolerance for this nonsense is about the same as my tolerance for Born Again Christians trying to impose legal sanction in the name of their religions back in the states. BS is BS, no matter where it's happening.

    Does anyone here seriously think that the killing of newborns, in any cultural context, is OK?

    #27 Posted: 27/10/2009 - 00:24

  • somsai

    Joined Travelfish
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    Location United States
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    No but you might think twice before snapping a photo without permision. If they can kill twins and ostracise a family that has lived in a village for scores of generations just think of what they could do to one aging falang on a bike with a beer gut. ;-)

    More to the point just as it's not cool to go around using the N word I hope that someday the guy that took that photo comes to realize just how rude he was calling a bunch of middle aged women "girls" and snapping a photo he had been expressly signaled not to take. That it's not ok to laugh at and snap photos of bare breasted women who come from a culture where going bare breasted is not only the norm but done by every single married woman. I'm very sure they wouldn't appreciate their photos being put on the web in such a way. Think if one of those women were your mom or sister or cousin Carol.

    I think the women in Ou Tai were more likely outraged for reasons similar to those I feel when strangers decide they will take my photo without permision. They have after all seen photos and music videos before. I've known people in America who look upon smashing cameras as the correct response and equal to the transgression. Anyone who has ever looked into responsible travel knows you never take a photo without permision.

    Why not enter the next millenium and learn to respect people who don't look like you or talk like you or have a Y chromosone like you, or even come from a similar culture.

    #28 Posted: 27/10/2009 - 09:33

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
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    "If they can kill twins and ostracise a family that has lived in a village for scores of generations just think of what they could do to one aging falang on a bike with a beer gut. ;-)"

    Somsai - no beer gut. I'm an active boxer as well as dancer. In fact I'm suppose to fight in Laos, at Savan vegas - IF they can find me an opponent. Why that's so difficult don't ask me.

    "Think if one of those women were your mom or sister or cousin Carol."

    My cousin Carol doesn't walk around topless. And when she's with my mother she is subjected to a barrage of annoying photograghy, as am I. We just grit our teeth and tolerate it.

    "I've known people in America who look upon smashing cameras as the correct response and equal to the transgression."

    They would be wrong, and could be criminally prosecuted for it.

    "Anyone who has ever looked into responsible travel knows you never take a photo without permision."

    Usually this extends only to people. Am I suppose to ask a tree if it's OK that I take it's picture. But what of a location with many people in the background? Should I ask everyone? The bottom line is that, while some might not like it, and some might consider it rude, when in a public space you are subject to photograghy. That is, unless you live in Saudi Arabia.

    "Why not enter the next millenium and learn to respect people who don't look like you or talk like you or have a Y chromosone like you, or even come from a similar culture."

    This isn't a question of respect for people. I respect all people. This is a question of respect for cultural traits and having the cajones to call a spade a spade. If someone asked me not to take their photo, of course I would respect their wishes (assuming I had a camera). But the question is who is in the right and who is in the wrong in this particular incident? The guy who took the photos was on the right side of the law. The women threatening with machetes were on the wrong side of the law as well as on the wrong side of morality. Somsai, stop being such an apologist here. Just because it's local doesn't make it right or good.

    #29 Posted: 27/10/2009 - 10:33

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