Cultural Consideration: Sometimes I Don’t Give a Sh*t

cultural consideration

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?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander


  1. Luzel

    As I clicked the link to this post I thought “bet it will be shit”… but honestly, so well written! I found myself thinking “oh yeah! That has happened to me!”

    This is not ok! Classing such acts under “culture” is almost giving it a free pass. I mean FGM is a cultural thing, but in actual fact it is body mutilation.

    Anyway, Good read and I appreciate your honesty here!

    1. Post
      Alex Schnee

      Hi there! Glad that this spoke to you. It’s a lot more complicated issue than I think we want to admit sometimes. It’s finding that line between respecting others and respecting ourselves. Thanks for your comment!

  2. WorldPacking Canuck

    Great article. Same as the previous comment, I thought the article would be pure ranting, but man was I wrong!
    I’ve also had to deal with some of those things you write about, but definitely not as much I guess as others (I blend in well in many countries due to my South American background). That being said, respect commands respect, and being mistreated or disrespected is definitely NOT part of any culture, but part of few badly raised individuals.
    Keep writing awesome posts!!!

  3. Stewie Overseas

    This is very thoughtful and well-written. You’re right, I don’t think we should have to sacrifice respect for ourselves to fit into another culture. The headscarf incident sounds frustrating. I’m going to share this 🙂

  4. Raphael Alexander Zoren

    ONLY 1000 camels? I never accept an offer of less than 5000 camels and 200 sheep. Kidding aside, I think that individuals have universal alienable rights but cultures and ideologies don’t.

    Personally, I think it’s 100% possible to respect someone else’s culture/religion and at the same time perform actions that are completely opposed to that very same culture or even call them out in practices you don’t agree with (for example, I once was invited to a family dinner in a Muslim country with a female companion of mine and we both immediately left after it was evident that the men were ONLY talking to me and completely excluding her from the conversation).

  5. Helene Choo

    Great post, thanks for sharing! Definitely very difficult, especially if like me, you are an international citizen (Chinese ancestry, born and raised in Europe)…

  6. chikonahoka

    Hmmm… for me that line is whatever it means, in *their* context. Like, if the honourable way of admiring a woman is to place it in the context of being suitable to marry (like my friend’s penpal in school was probably doing), then I will take a ‘1000 camel’ remark in the context it was given – once I work out what it is. And if what I’m doing or wearing is signalling something specific locally, then I’d adjust to whatever is the local signal for the ‘me’ I want to come across as. Essentially I try to be laidback about the *form* of social communication, and focus on the substance. It’s akin to learning the local language – just not a verbal one. It’s like, these are similar social signalling and risk adaptations you’d make in your own country – but you’d use your culture’s norms and ‘visual language’, right?

    I’d also try to gloss over unnecessarily mean rebukes to my errors while I’m still working things out. Because uncharitable people like the person with the ‘prostitute’ comment aren’t worth it. I mean, ‘Yes I worked that out now, thanks and no thanks?’ And besides, they may not have been anywhere to understand that norms are different where the foreigners come from.

    The line for me is when the offensive thing is offensive even in *their* context. Like being cheated – which they would consider wrong for themselves – like that’s somehow turns ok because you’re foreign. Or anything that isn’t actually a normal necessary part of being out and about in a community – like the cheating on your bf one. I mean, yes ok even if that were true, exactly how does that follow that you’d have to do it? Besides if you want to signal fidelity to your partner, I highly doubt that this is achieved even there, by sleeping with some other person…

  7. Craig

    I feel your pain. As an American who has been living in Europe for 20 years (in 4 countries), I get the usual anti-American sentiment and bitterness. Mostly I get negative remarks and a padded bill in pubs and restaurants (and occasionally, even physical assault). But this must be nothing compared to what a woman has to endure living in a repressive, religious, patriarchal country like ones under Muslim rule. Knowing how these countries are run by such troglodytes, chauvinists and luddites, why would you choose to live there? Financial considerations aside, many of the people in these countries are not going to be on your side unless you are in their tribe. But know this: most of the millions of people who immigrated to another country (like America) over the years faced even worse treatment. People fear anything different. I wish you the best of luck in your travels and cultural lessons abroad.

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