How Far Will You Go to Respect a Host Culture?

July 2, 2011

I love dogs. I have had dogs all of my life, and they have been my best friends, my children, my security blankets in times of need. Dogs are not only my favourite animals, but I like them better than some people. So when I was offered dog meat in Asia, I was a bit horrified. What did I do? Read on.

When traveling in another culture, especially one that is markedly different than your own, there is always the question of how much to try to blend in and respect the etiquette of that culture. After all, as a guest in someone else’s national house, it is only right that the visitor try to follow the customs and etiquette of that land. But to what degree?

Remember in high school, when that foreign exchange student showed up, that all of the girls went crazy for him, no matter where he was from? That was because there is a natural tendency to be enchanted with another culture, another way of living, another accent, another worldview. It is not always necessary to completely submit to another culture, to pretend to be a native, because everyone knows that you are not.

On the other hand, have you ever seen those obnoxious tourists abroad? The ones who refuse to respect cultural norms of dress, of volume, of politeness, of language? No one, I imagine, wants to be those people. That sort of behavior is rued and insulting to anyone.

So, there must be a balance. How does one find that balance? What I find works well, is to first study the place you are going, before you go there. Learn what is considered the most important etiquette, and what is not so set in stone. As an example, if you are traveling to a Buddhist country in Southeast Asia, it is considered terrible to touch someone’s head, because the head is the holiest part of the body, while the feet are unclean. So, to prop your shoes up and reveal the soles is very bad. This is a very important rule in Myanmar.

But what about food? In most places, the hosts want to share what they enjoy with their guests. Making sure that a guest has an abundance of good food is very important. So, even if you do not care for the food, or are hesitant to try it, you should not refuse it. Always try to at least make an effort to taste it. In some countries, not finishing everything you are given is rude, while in others, it is not such a bad thing. But to completely refuse food, or to tell the host that it tastes bad, is just bad sense.

So, what about that dog I was served in Asia? The idea of eating it offended everything in me that I know and love about dogs. It was like being presented with a micro-version of Sophie’s choice. But, in the end, I tried it. And, unfortunately, it was very good.

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