Being Culturally Insensitive (or why people shouldn’t be allowed to do construction at 6am on a Sunday)

(Author’s Note: The below is meant to be a humorous take on some of the head-scratching moments we’ve had on our trip. Despite the title of this post, none of the below is intended to be insulting rather just a compilation of some of those times when rather than getting angry you just have to shake your head and laugh (or vent by writing a ranting blog entry). So enjoy and if you get offended then apologies from Meg who was against posting this entry.)


So you may say that we’re being culturally insensitive, but as I’m writing right now at 6am on Sunday morning, the loud noise from the construction next door is pretty darn annoying. Maybe I’m missing something endemic to India culture here but really after getting to bed at 1am (not a completely unreasonable hour even if they do close the bars at 11pm here in Bangalore), I’d really just like to be able to get some sleep now. So I really wish there was a law (like there is New York) about the hours during which one can do use their heavy-duty saw (or whatever it is that is making that terrible noise).

When traveling we’ve all had instances like this, when we say “you can’t be serious, you aren’t really doing it that way?” Or perhaps more mildly something like “why do they do that? It seems that our way in the US might make more sense.” Often in our politically correct age, we can chalk some of these annoyances up to the school of thought that says “cultures are different and just because they do it differently doesn’t mean it is wrong.” And there really are many things that are different and that’s just fine (and part of the fun of traveling is seeing the, often innovative, different ways that people do things)- but maybe sometimes (like at 6am on a Sunday morning) there really are better ways of doing things…

Obviously one of the goals of our around-the-world journey was to learn about the aspects of different cultures and to broaden our world views. And there are many things that we’ve seen done differently that are just as good, or better, ways of getting things done- for example the reusable electronic tokens in the Delhi metro system (much more environmentally friendly than disposable plastic Metrocards). And there things that really just can be chalked up to the idea that people do things differently, though not necessarily any better or worse, in different places. For example, there aren’t mini-marts at gas stations in India because not many people go on long distance road trips and traditionally meals aren’t eaten on the go. While it would be nice to be able to buy a coke and chips at gas station, one can accept that not having a mini-mart is a just cultural difference.

But there are some things that no matter how culturally sensitive we’re being that just seem like they could really be done a better way. What follows is a list of other things that we just can’t wrap our head around why anyone would do something this way (or just things that we have found really frustrating):

1.     Littering: Many of the countries we’ve been to have enormous trash problems. Many places there is just trash everywhere. In some cases there are probably very reasonable explanations for this ubiquitous of trash- for example, not having the funds for a fleet of municipal garbage trucks certainly makes it hard to effectively remove residential trash from city streets. Or living in a rural area where the government hasn’t created a centralized trash dump could certainly mean that trash is in more places than one might like. But we can’t think of anything that explains away why you would throw your empty soda bottle out the bus window- when driving through the midst of a beautiful rainforest! When we were in Dar Es Salaam, Meg walked around with an empty water bottle for 20 minutes looking for a trash can with no luck.  Finally, given the heat, we stopped to buy another bottle of water and Meg asked the vendor if he had a place to throw away the empty bottle.  He said yes, took the bottle, and promptly threw it on the street behind him.  When he noticed the disgusted looks on our faces, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said “This is Tanzania.” Yes, there are worse problems in the world, but nonetheless but littering just seems disrespectful to your country.

2.     Playing movies on full volume on an overnight bus. Sometimes watching a movie on a bus can be a nice way to pass the time. But on an overnight bus when everyone is asleep, what sense does it make to play a movie? And in what reality does it make sense to play the movie’s sound over the bus’s PA system at 95 decibels at 3am?  This is just a bad idea (especially when you’re en route to Cairo and it is a horror movie with incessant screaming in guttural Arabic).

3.      No shower curtain in the bathroom. While we may think that showering is the best manner to wash one’s self, we can understand why other people might choose to bathe in an alternative manner. But if going through the trouble to construct a shower, why not do that last 1% of the job and install a shower curtain. We’re not talking about a fancy shower curtain (like those great ones they have in US hotels now that bows out away from the tub so the shower curtain doesn’t stick to you) but just a simple piece of plastic sheeting (which is clearly available everywhere since it is used for everything from roof coverings to carrying sacks). It would seem that the benefit of shower curtain would be a non-cultural thing- who doesn’t like to keep the toilet and bathroom floor dry when they are showering? But no, seemingly the concept of not soaking the entire bathroom (which inevitably stays un-usably wet for the remainder of the hotel stay) while showering is a cultural thing- who knew?

4.     Sidewalks and the free passage theron: Many places in the world it clearly doesn’t make sense to have sidewalks. On a country road with little traffic of any kind, no one would go through the trouble or expensive of building a sidewalk. Or even in a larger town or city with little pedestrian traffic a sidewalk might not be worthwhile (for example, it is unclear why they bothered constructing them in Des Moines, Iowa). But in jam-packed city where people walk everywhere, then it would seem like it might be worthwhile to construct a sidewalk. For instance, it might lead to less traffic accidents if people weren’t walking in the same place as speeding cars or rickshaws, as the case might be. Additionally, once you go through the time and expense of constructing a sidewalk, it might be nice if it was possible for pedestrians to actually walk on it. But if your sidewalk has been taken over by stores displaying their wares, vendors cooking things, and farm animals, this renders the sidewalk useless to pedestrians. So while Jed has been accused of being anal for monitoring NYC sidewalk cafes encroaching outside their prescribed boundaries, it is a slippery slope to unusable sidewalks.

Of course, there are also countless things that could be changed about American culture (our penchant for being very demanding about how other people should do things, thinking that the key to someone understanding English is voice volume, or the New York Yankees) but the above is just a few things that would seem to transcend culture differences.

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