Tag Archives: cultural understanding

Traveling in a Box

There’s something that so many Chinese people tell me about myself that makes me very sad. I know that a lot of different flavors of people from many different countries travel the world and they all have their own motivations. They also have their own hangups, preconceived notions and cultural expectations of how things are supposed to work in the world. I’ve worked really hard to stay completely open to whatever situation and culture I arrive in, observing and interacting with, as often as possible, more curiosity than judgement. I feel like this is the best way to extract the beauty in differences between the way that cultures have evolved. Ultimately, this allows a greater understanding of what got them where they are and, ultimately, how I came to be who I am.

people in glass box over cityYes, it seems crazy that African people are cooking inside their huts with no ventilation. They’re “doing it wrong”. But it turns out that if you move the cooking outside, the smoke from the stove doesn’t rise up through the roof. If the smoke doesn’t rise up through the roof it doesn’t keep away the termites and, in literally a matter of days, they’ll go into a feeding frenzy and you’ll have no roof on your house. Every part of a long established culture is woven into a network, an integrated ecology of systems, methods and beliefs that impact each other in uncountable and unpredictable ways. Certainly more ways than can be quickly discovered by an outsider who immediately attacks each separate piece of a place that is unlike their own.

There was an Australian who wrote a long post on an expat board recently about how angry he was that, in China, peasants were allowed on trains, especially standing in the first class area. He had several people agree with him. His idea of how an experience of riding on a train should be was in conflict with the reality of another world he had chosen to enter.

He was also unable to take a moment to revel in the countless fascinating implications of this. Those peasants are now able to move quickly from place to place, filling roles essential in the rapidly growing cities of China. The growth of industry couldn’t happen without them. By “them”, of course, I’m talking about people who are exactly like every other person in China only a few years ago. Everyone was a peasant and only recently have the Ferraris appeared. The difference between the two was not desire and hard work but location and opportunity. He might as well complain that there are Chinese people in China, and too many mountains.

With every conflict between your expectations and the reality of another place or culture there is also this fantastic moment to see yourself for the first time. There is a moment to wonder why it bothers you that people walk shirtless down the street when it’s hot. If you think about it, it’s quite practical. There is no health or safety concern. But if it’s tugging at some part of you that you didn’t realize was there, now you can go talk to it and ask for its justifications. You may not decide to change your belief or action, but for the first time you can transform what was formerly an unconscious decision implanted by culture into a choice you yourself have made.

I used to live in a large old house with seven unrelated housemates. In America, this is not very common. When people would step into the house they all had the same first response. “Wow this place is amazing!” Next came, “how many people live here?” Then their brains kicked into gear. A new choice was suddenly visible that had not been before. They had to think about how they lived and why they lived that way. After a moment of thought they would end with either, “I could never live like this” or, “are there any rooms available?!”

So when I talk to Chinese people and again and again they tell me how absolutely different I am from every other western foreigner they meet (and some of these people meet quite a few), I would like to believe that they are referring to my amazing ability with chopsticks. Unfortunately, it seems like my desire to understand, instead of blame people from other countries for doing it wrong, is much more rare than I could have ever imagined. I can only hope that this myriad of travelers looking out from their carefully sealed cultural boxes, with the fingers they use to point, complain and laugh, accidentally punch a few holes in those boxes.

Image links to photographer’s site