Respecting Other Cultures While Abroad (My Experience and Approach)

“Respecting another’s culture” is a catchphrase that gets thrown around without much thought as to what it really means. The actual experience and process of respecting another’s culture is far more complex than these few words make it seem, and to borrow another catchphrase—it’s easier said than done.

As a frequent traveler to other countries, I’ve experienced first hand what it means to respect other cultures. There have been times while I was abroad when I felt overwhelmed, and a mental trick that often sustains me in these situations is to simply keep things in perspective.

A perfect example would be the three times I’ve visited Egypt. As part of the culture, I conformed to the standard practice of dressing among women by wearing a long skirt, sleeves, and covering my hair with a hijab. This style of dress is loaded with symbolism of every shade and connotation, especially in the West, but to me, once I put it on, it was nothing more than clothing.

I see no difference between wearing a hijab in Egypt and putting on fancy shoes for a wedding. To me, it is just a piece of cloth on my head. It only carries as much meaning as a person gives it.

Honestly, when I put on the hijab, it wasn’t out of some great respect for Egypt’s overall culture, it was actually more out of respect for the people I went there to see. My visits to Egypt were for the sole purpose of seeing friends, who told me that there were no laws in Egypt that mandated wearing a hijab; however, they would feel more comfortable being seen with me outdoors if I was veiled.

At first glance, a remark like this seems terribly offensive, but their request was based on circumstances beyond their control. These circumstances are best illustrated by an earlier experience of mine: I had posted a picture of myself from graduation day online, and I was wearing short shorts. A friend of mine from Syria deleted me on Facebook but remained my friend on Skype. I was upset about being unfriended.

When I asked him what the problem was, he told me that he had absolutely no issue with how I dressed but that if his family and close friends had seen the picture of me on his social media, it would have created tension between them. When I asked him why he didn’t simply express this issue instead of unfriending me, he replied: “I didn’t think you’d understand.”

But I did understand. Like my Egyptian friends who requested I wear the hijab, he couldn’t control anyone’s behavior or emotional reaction except his own, since all he could do was go with the cultural flow of his situation. And for my part, I couldn’t seriously expect him to agitate his relationship with his family and intimate friends for the sake of a girl he met on Facebook.

So when I travel to countries such as Egypt, I put on the hijab out of a sense of perspective, as I recognize and understand how small of a thing it is to me, and how important it is to those around me.

Often, I tell my fellow travelers when living in or visiting another country, you should accommodate that country’s culture as much as possible, but you are still entitled to your own set of limitations. This occurred to me personally when I first started working in China.

While working with my colleagues there, there were several instances where I experienced a degree of physical contact that exceeded my comfort zone, even though we were the same gender. For instance, if a Chinese teacher wanted me to stand in a certain spot, she would take me firmly by the arm and physically pull me to that spot. I raised this issue with the other non-Chinese teachers and some of them shared similar experiences, simply chalking it up to Chinese culture and standards for personal space.

The assistant supervisor, who was from Australia, responded perfectly, “I agree it’s a cultural thing, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to say I don’t want to be grabbed.”

So, while I always attempt to respect other’s culture, I am also unafraid of setting my own limits even as a stranger in a strange land. This same idea guides me in deciding when and where I can demand that my own sensibilities be respected.

Much of my conduct in other cultures is guided by my “keep perspective” approach, which is about recognizing when a situation really isn’t as weighty or serious as it might seem. However, on occasions, matters will arise that really are serious and arouse powerful emotions on one or both sides, and these are the times where I have to be careful.

For instance, when I travel the world, I find myself in places that have a different level of tolerance towards domestic violence. I have witnessed significant physical violence against children in broad daylight right in front of my eyes, and I have seen things that would have resulted in a 911 call and arrest in America.

But that’s not an option in many places; in fact, depending on where you are, there’s a very real possibility the authorities might side with the abuser.

When in the Philippines, I met another traveler who recounted an occasion when an acquaintance of his was in China and witnessed a man savagely beating his wife in public. The man ran in, got in between them, and verbally berated the husband. This same man, the do-gooder, was detained by the police when they arrived, ultimately being deported for interfering in a family’s “domestic life.” Nothing happened to the husband, and the observer ended up much worse off than the aggressor. In all probability, the domestic abuse continued.

This uncomfortable notion of following cultural norms applies to places like the United States as well, where publicly humiliating the aggressor is not recommended because, while it may stop the immediate abuse you witnessed, the abuser will likely resume and vent their embarrassment and frustration on the victim at a later time. This sensitivity to public image is much greater in other countries I have visited so the effect would likely be amplified.

So then what? Do I just turn a blind eye? No, I don’t just ignore it as my sensitivity to such things is so deeply ingrained in my conscience that I can’t just “suck it up.” For cases like this, I’ve adopted an approach of “interrupting,” which I learned from a plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative.

The idea is to that people can safely and effectively intervene in an instance of violence without confrontation or the use of violence.

For example, a boy who attended one of their training sessions was riding his bike through a Delhi neighborhood when he heard a husband assaulting his wife in one of the apartments. He got off his bike, walked up to the room, knocked on the door, and asked the occupants if he could use their phone even though he didn’t need one.

I employed this tactic once while witnessing animal cruelty. I was walking home from work late one evening through a back road in Nantong, when I saw a woman repeatedly kicking and smacking a small dog she had on a leash. It was shocking, but I took a deep breath, walked by and said in a loud but calm voice, “Ni hao, ni hao ma (Hello, how are you)?” She stopped hitting the dog and, in a surprisingly cool voice, replied “Ni hao,” and went on her way. At the end of the day, getting by in another culture requires empathy, creativity and, frankly, a willingness to let the small stuff go.

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I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to California to get my first bachelor's degree. I am currently living and working as a teacher in China while studying the University of North Dakota's online bachelor of Communications/Journalism program.

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Respecting Other Cultures While Abroad (My Experience and Approach)

“Respecting another’s culture” is a catchphrase that gets thrown around without much thought as to what it really means. The actual experience and process of respecting another’s culture is far more complex than these few words make it seem, and to borrow another catchphrase—it’s easier said than done.

As a frequent traveler to other countries, I’ve experienced first hand what it means to respect other cultures. There have been times while I was abroad when I felt overwhelmed, and a mental trick that often sustains me in these situations is to simply keep things in perspective.

A perfect example would be the three times I’ve visited Egypt. As part of the culture, I conformed to the standard practice of dressing among women by wearing a long skirt, sleeves, and covering my hair with a hijab. This style of dress is loaded with symbolism of every shade and connotation, especially in the West, but to me, once I put it on, it was nothing more than clothing.

I see no difference between wearing a hijab in Egypt and putting on fancy shoes for a wedding. To me, it is just a piece of cloth on my head. It only carries as much meaning as a person gives it.

Honestly, when I put on the hijab, it wasn’t out of some great respect for Egypt’s overall culture, it was actually more out of respect for the people I went there to see. My visits to Egypt were for the sole purpose of seeing friends, who told me that there were no laws in Egypt that mandated wearing a hijab; however, they would feel more comfortable being seen with me outdoors if I was veiled.

At first glance, a remark like this seems terribly offensive, but their request was based on circumstances beyond their control. These circumstances are best illustrated by an earlier experience of mine: I had posted a picture of myself from graduation day online, and I was wearing short shorts. A friend of mine from Syria deleted me on Facebook but remained my friend on Skype. I was upset about being unfriended.

When I asked him what the problem was, he told me that he had absolutely no issue with how I dressed but that if his family and close friends had seen the picture of me on his social media, it would have created tension between them. When I asked him why he didn’t simply express this issue instead of unfriending me, he replied: “I didn’t think you’d understand.”

But I did understand. Like my Egyptian friends who requested I wear the hijab, he couldn’t control anyone’s behavior or emotional reaction except his own, since all he could do was go with the cultural flow of his situation. And for my part, I couldn’t seriously expect him to agitate his relationship with his family and intimate friends for the sake of a girl he met on Facebook.

So when I travel to countries such as Egypt, I put on the hijab out of a sense of perspective, as I recognize and understand how small of a thing it is to me, and how important it is to those around me.

Often, I tell my fellow travelers when living in or visiting another country, you should accommodate that country’s culture as much as possible, but you are still entitled to your own set of limitations. This occurred to me personally when I first started working in China.

While working with my colleagues there, there were several instances where I experienced a degree of physical contact that exceeded my comfort zone, even though we were the same gender. For instance, if a Chinese teacher wanted me to stand in a certain spot, she would take me firmly by the arm and physically pull me to that spot. I raised this issue with the other non-Chinese teachers and some of them shared similar experiences, simply chalking it up to Chinese culture and standards for personal space.

The assistant supervisor, who was from Australia, responded perfectly, “I agree it’s a cultural thing, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to say I don’t want to be grabbed.”

So, while I always attempt to respect other’s culture, I am also unafraid of setting my own limits even as a stranger in a strange land. This same idea guides me in deciding when and where I can demand that my own sensibilities be respected.

Much of my conduct in other cultures is guided by my “keep perspective” approach, which is about recognizing when a situation really isn’t as weighty or serious as it might seem. However, on occasions, matters will arise that really are serious and arouse powerful emotions on one or both sides, and these are the times where I have to be careful.

For instance, when I travel the world, I find myself in places that have a different level of tolerance towards domestic violence. I have witnessed significant physical violence against children in broad daylight right in front of my eyes, and I have seen things that would have resulted in a 911 call and arrest in America.

But that’s not an option in many places; in fact, depending on where you are, there’s a very real possibility the authorities might side with the abuser.

When in the Philippines, I met another traveler who recounted an occasion when an acquaintance of his was in China and witnessed a man savagely beating his wife in public. The man ran in, got in between them, and verbally berated the husband. This same man, the do-gooder, was detained by the police when they arrived, ultimately being deported for interfering in a family’s “domestic life.” Nothing happened to the husband, and the observer ended up much worse off than the aggressor. In all probability, the domestic abuse continued.

This uncomfortable notion of following cultural norms applies to places like the United States as well, where publicly humiliating the aggressor is not recommended because, while it may stop the immediate abuse you witnessed, the abuser will likely resume and vent their embarrassment and frustration on the victim at a later time. This sensitivity to public image is much greater in other countries I have visited so the effect would likely be amplified.

So then what? Do I just turn a blind eye? No, I don’t just ignore it as my sensitivity to such things is so deeply ingrained in my conscience that I can’t just “suck it up.” For cases like this, I’ve adopted an approach of “interrupting,” which I learned from a plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative.

The idea is to that people can safely and effectively intervene in an instance of violence without confrontation or the use of violence.

For example, a boy who attended one of their training sessions was riding his bike through a Delhi neighborhood when he heard a husband assaulting his wife in one of the apartments. He got off his bike, walked up to the room, knocked on the door, and asked the occupants if he could use their phone even though he didn’t need one.

I employed this tactic once while witnessing animal cruelty. I was walking home from work late one evening through a back road in Nantong, when I saw a woman repeatedly kicking and smacking a small dog she had on a leash. It was shocking, but I took a deep breath, walked by and said in a loud but calm voice, “Ni hao, ni hao ma (Hello, how are you)?” She stopped hitting the dog and, in a surprisingly cool voice, replied “Ni hao,” and went on her way. At the end of the day, getting by in another culture requires empathy, creativity and, frankly, a willingness to let the small stuff go.

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