Cultural Sensitivity: It’s Not That Easy

When I went through my Peace Corps volunteer training, hours were spent on cultural sensitivity. What to wear and what not to wear. What to say and what not to say. Which hand to eat with–always the right, and what do do when a cultural faux paux is made. Because The Gambia is a Muslim country, albeit with more traditional African influences than traditional Arabic ones, there were nos not to cross in order to not offend. I never showed my knees and learned to eat right-handed out of a common bowl with a spoon even though I’m left-handed. Being culturally sensitive became second nature to the point that, after awhile, I didn’t need to think about my actions when I was in the village. In tourist hot spots, like beach restorts, what was right and wrong became a bit blurred. You can bet I wore a bathing suit.

In tourist areas village life goes away, even thought the people who work at the resorts are often villagers who’ve headed to the city for a job. Tourists often have no idea how they are perceived by the locals. There is the tendency to not follow the adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but the “If it’s okay at home, it’s okay here.” As a westerner, I fluctuated between feeling horrified by the attire tourists wore–itty bitty shorts or bikinis, for example, and feeling bad that the Gambians were probably passing judgment on the tourists’ morality based on what the tourists wore. Women were scrutinized much more than men. Of course, just like with any culture, the people who are from a place have a variety of opinions. Not all Gambians had the same ideas about decorum.

Regardless, as tourists head to countries with different cultural values, there are interesting issues to consider. Does one alter how one dresses to make the locals feel comfortable? And if one is within the confines of a resort, what does it matter? Here is the article, “In Egypt, tourism and Islam live uneasily side by side,” from the L.A. Times that brought about my musings. I found out about this article when I came across it at eTurboNews.

Bulgaria versus the European Union

People in poorer countries always have a romantic image of just how perfect life is in the United States or the European Union compared with what they have to endure in their homeland. Throughout my travels in Russia and Eastern Europe, for example, people I’d meet would say things like, “we have many of potholes in our country! In America, you have not potholes, right?”

Sure, things were and still are bad in many parts of the former communist empire, but life is never as perfect as most people imagine it to be in the West. And that is why I had to laugh at the short animated film above. It basically sums up this concept as it flashes between life in Bulgaria and life in the EU. Naturally, everything is just perfect in the EU; Bulgaria, on the other hand, is falling apart.