Travel has its obligations. Ideally, we will leave no negative trace of our presence. Like a backpacker in the wilderness who restores a campsite to its prior state when moving on, and packs out all trash, we should leave a place the same or better than when we arrived. This pertains not just to the physical world, but the host society as well. It’s your actions, not your thoughts that need to be regulated. Respect for a culture doesn’t mean agreeing with every aspect of it. So for instance a female traveler in Saudi Arabia might say “I’m an emancipated woman. I’m not going to cover my head and lead a cloistered life.” But how will the citizens of the country view your actions? Will they see you as a reasonable voice of dissent, or will they see you as disrespectful of their culture. Clearly the latter. And what possible good can come from that? What will you leave behind? The inflammatory impression that people from the West don’t respect their culture.
Similarly, when you’re visiting a culture where the sexes don’t show affection publicly, you might think that doesn’t apply to you, an outsider, as you cuddle with your partner. Once again, do you think that you are having a positive impact on the local culture? Remember, it’s not your idea of what constitutes individual freedom that matters here. It’s how the act is perceived, and the “trace” that you are leaving behind. Anything positive?
Friendships are a good and positive trace that we can leave behind. We should strive to build friendships through mutual respect and understanding. This is really pretty easy to do. Most people are open to forming bonds with others. But it is possible to carry this too far. Friendship, like everything else should remain within cultural norms. In a country where men and women have restricted relationships, is it right to ignore these restraints? The most common error we can make is to express friendship through a physical gesture – the innocent hug. I’ve seen this many times. We love to hug. The French and Russians love to kiss on the cheek. Do this in India and you’ll cause a stir – and not a good one. The actor, Richard Gere, kissed an Indian actress on the cheek in a playful Western way, but it quickly became an international incident.
On our India program, one of the first stops of the orientation program is Fab India, a clothing shop run by a women's collective. They sell somewhat westernized versions of Indian clothing (women's and men's). You would not go there for a sari, as pictured above, but it is a great place to buy socially acceptable attire that you might also wear when you return home. Here in the office, we love to see pictures of out volunteers and interns who have made this acknowledgement of local customs.
Rule of thumb: pick up your cues from the people around you. If the host culture doesn’t do it, neither should you.
Want to read about Richard Gere's faux pas? Arrest warrant issued for Richard Gere
By Kevin O'Neill