I care a lot about being culturally considerate when I travel. It’s something that has helped me shape this blog and the message I want to get across to others. I would like to think that I am working hard to be more aware when I travel and to open my mind to new ways of thinking and being as a traveler as we transition as a global society.
However, there are some instances when I have had a hard time being culturally considerate. Sometimes, I know it is my own issue, but many times it is a part of a culture or experience that rubs me the wrong way. I believe travel should make you feel uncomfortable at times, but there is a difference of feeling disrespected and feeling as though you have to capitulate at times to another way of life.
I’ve had to fight this issue numerous times on my travels. From daring to go out after hours in Tokyo to fending off sexist remarks in Italy, to finding myself ripped off as a traveler even when I spoke the language, there is a line there that requires that you stand up for yourself as a traveler and approach each culture with your own in mind.
I received an email from a reader not too long ago after my post on wearing a headscarf in Egypt. After finding that wearing a headscarf kept me from feeling humiliated and approached by men, I started wearing it in order to avoid attention. I received a complaint from an Egyptian woman telling me that I was “asking for the attention” and that I was dressed as the equivalent of a prostitute.
“What else were you expecting?” she told me.
I couldn’t help it. I was livid. I had been as respectful as I could be with my knowledge of Egyptian and Islamic cultures. I had tried to “blend in” as much as I could as a foreigner. And I had a good Egyptian friend (a male) who encouraged me to go without the headscarf.
“You aren’t a Muslim,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to pretend to be.”
This isn’t the only instance of something similar like this happening. My Italian roommate (also male) encouraged me to cheat on my boyfriend with him because “that’s the way we do things here.” (Uh, no thank you.) I have been cursed at and spat in Hungary for not dropping a coin in a gypsy’s plastic cup. And, I have received body shaming in several cultures because I don’t fit in with their standards of beauty.
So where is the line of having enough respect for a culture to understand a different point of view and also having respect enough for your own culture and yourself? Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. Each culture and experience is different—and your experience with that culture is even more unique. I didn’t mind when I was told I was worth 1,000 camels the first time it happened in Egypt (and half a kilo of bananas), the tenth time I was a lot less forgiving.
It’s a personal line, and knowing when to stand up for yourself and admit that you are a foreigner. And there is a polite way to assert yourself and let others know that you won’t accept that type of treatment. When I feel as though I am treated as less than a human being, and especially as a woman, I know that is the line where I need to say something and make my opinion known.
This isn’t an easy issue, and one I feel we are going to battle more and more in the future. But it is an important one so we all learn to live together in a more peaceful world.
How do you distinguish that line of cultural consideration?