When Cross Cultural Differences Are Shocking

by Lisa McKay on December 3, 2013

I was busy working yesterday morning during my daily precious kid-free hour, when I heard my three-month-old baby give a great shriek of panicked distress from outside. It was the sort of scream that makes a mother drop everything and bolt for the source.

When I located the source he was naked, sucking frantically on his fist, and still kicking his fat legs in protest. Our housekeeper was carrying him inside. She looked at me and grinned, then pointed to the garden tap and my child’s bare, wet bottom.

“Alex poo poo,” she said.

I leaned over and patted Alex on the head.

“Welcome to the world of cross cultural differences, little one,” I said. “They’re not always going to feel comfortable.”

After spending the best part of my life so far hop-scotching around the globe (not to mention some time working in a maximum security men’s prison and some more time working with the police) I like to think that I’m fairly unshockable. But then something happens …

I meet someone at a Mardi Gras party in New Orleans, for example, who tells me they’re on a health kick that involves drinking their own urine every morning.


Source: nydailynews.com

I visit my parents in the Philippines and learn that some penitents there mark Easter by beating themselves bloody and then recreating the crucifixion.

I go to childbirth classes in an area of Australia that some might refer to as being “well populated by hippies, tree-huggers, and granola-types.” There, one of my classmates proclaims that she’ll be having a lotus birth. Later, I learn that a lotus birth means you don’t cut the umbilical cord after the baby is born, but wrap up the entire placenta and carry it around with the baby until the cord stump rots out and falls off, “naturally” detaching the placenta.

Three weeks after we moved to Laos, I accompany my husband, Mike, on my first trip to the villages. Right in front of me – just after I’ve been introduced as Mike’s wife –the village chief turns to Mike and inquires whether he will also be taking a Lao wife during his time in Laos. He even asks this in English. It was awesome.

The other night I asked Mike about these sorts of things.

“You’ve lived and worked in 15 countries now,” I said. “What cross cultural difference has shocked you lately?”

Mike paused. I wondered if he was remembering that this article was going to end up on the internet and calculating the risks of saying anything too disparaging about the Powers That Be in our current host country.

Then he smiled.

“Once in Tajikistan, a local co-worker I didn’t know well informed me just 30 minutes before his wedding that I was going to be the best man,” he said. “That came as a bit of a shock. It also came with a lot of sheep-fat-eating and vodka-drinking responsibilities that I really didn’t want. There was also the time in a village in Uganda when the women were so happy we’d installed two borehole wells that they sang and danced for two hours without stopping.

Uganda-1 (2005)

Occaisionally these cross-cultural shocks are wonderful – moments of surprising collision with a different sort of beauty or love or kindness, and you’re moved and humbled and enriched all at once.

Sometimes these sorts of moments are shocking simply because they fall outside the boundaries of anything we have considered before. Voluntarily drinking your own urine, for example, is just not something I’d ever thought of before that moment in New Orleans. It’s not something that I’d say is necessarily wrong. It’s just, well, icky. And I have trouble understanding how it could be a good idea to drink something your body has already disposed of as a waste product once already.

However, sometimes the shock we can feel in these cross-cultural moments goes beyond surprise. Sometimes I can’t just shrug my shoulders and think “not for me, but to each their own.” Sometimes there is a healthy dose of serious judgment mixed in there. These are the cross-cultural encounters that I find more enduringly troubling, because they force me to grapple with my fundamental ideas about right and wrong.

I think, for example, that certain widely-practiced initiation ceremonies (e.g., Female Genital Mutilation) are not just different. They’re wrong. I’m probably on pretty firm ground with FGM, but what about when it comes to other cultural sexual practices that differ markedly from the Westernized norms? What about mutilating yourself physically in the name of religious devotion? What about practices or customs that disregard or objectify women?

Sometimes it’s hard to know when a cross-cultural shock is simply a serendipitous invitation to broaden my worldview and when it’s OK to draw a line in the sand and dare to label a particular practice or custom as “wrong”.

Many of you, I know, have lived among worlds for some time now. You might have become quite practiced at waking up one morning in Arusha and then, just 48 hours later, greeting the sunrise in Los Angeles. You might feel equally comfortable shopping for vegetables at farmers markets in Bangkok or Sydney. You might even be able to switch languages (and adopt an attendant, different cultural persona) with a casual and admirable facility.

But I’d wager that cross-cultural differences still sometimes catch you completely unawares. Do share your own stories below …

Have you been shocked by a cross cultural difference lately?

And when do you think it’s ever OK to point to a different cultural practice that you find shocking and label it “wrong”?

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Whitney Conard

    I have tried to become more aware of how I describe the cultural practices of the Cambodians I live among. I find myself saying, “It’s so weird!” which is judgmental in itself – so I try to say, “It’s just really different.” One practice is coining, which is using a hard object to rub against the skin hard enough to leave long bruises. I used to be horrified by this, but Cambodians swear it makes them feel better and heals their sicknesses. I decided I couldn’t argue with them – I know from a medical standpoint it didn’t do that at all, but I just accepted that this was their way of dealing with illness when no doctors or medicines could be accessed. I think the Bible has to be our standard for evaluating cultural practices – both our own and those of our host’s countries. I can’t use my own culture as the standard! Great thoughts on the subject – thanks for sharing!

    • “It’s just really different.” Good reminder of how even the words we tell ourselves shape perceptions and attitudes (and, ultimately, how we act).

    • Richelle Wright

      really appreciate what you’ve said here, Whitney. different is the word i tend to use, too… but find that in can be judgmental even in that – trying to learn to appreciate the beauty in the different or discern what makes God smile or makes Him sad… so hard when we’re so flawed in our perceptions and so biased by our own backgrounds.

      • Whitney Conard

        I heard it said that our attitudes are shaped more by our spoken words than by our fleeting thoughts. When I called other practices “weird”, it created a really judgmental attitude. But when I intentionally changed my words or just refrained from sharing my opinion when it wasn’t necessary, it changed my heart position. I still think you need to call wrong wrong. But it does take the wisdom of the Holy Spirit helping us discern where to draw the line sometimes and even helping local Christians learn when their former practices are still coloring their faith (I.e. I hear a lot of Cambodian Christians saying that when something bad happens to them, God is punishing them for not doing some good deed – which is basically karma in Christian clothing!)

        • Richelle Wright

          i totally agree that sin is sin and we don’t label it otherwise for cultural convenience – just commenting that it is easier to label uncomfortable or different as wrong than it is to take the time to prayerfully discern and determine… and sometimes i’ve been surprised to discover that my comfortable and accepted cultural practices are sinful while what has made me uncomfortable in a foreign culture actually can point to Christ.

          • Richelle, I’d love to hear more on that. Can you think of an example? Not an easy question, I know…

          • Richelle Wright

            the one that comes readily to mind (and is more from my growing up days than more recent time in w. africa) is human sacrifice – practiced by some native american/american indian/first nations (depending on your terminology) tribes. i find it horrifying (and rightfully so) and it is unquestionably a sinful practice – yet it clearly points to man’s soul knowledge for the need of a valuable, human blood sacrifice to cover unrighteousness and the stain of sin (i.e. the verse in the Bible that points out that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins). recognizing that need makes the sacrifice of Christ make sense and speaks in those cultures in a different way than perhaps it does to me – I tend to focus more readily on the laying down His life for my sake and skip over the blood part. yet, at the same time, how often in my western culture, i’m willing to sacrifice another for the sake of competition, personal status and convenience because sacrifice is not inextricably linked in my mind with the image of blood.

            another one that i’ve often thought about – the facial scarring done by many as a sign of identification with their village or tribe, or for beauty… can become a tool of how we are to visibly identify and be recognized as set apart for Christ, not unlike circumcision was a sign for the israelites. at least in w. africa, due to pressure from international human rights groups and many church groups, there is a push to stop that practice. i’d have to ask how piercings, tatoos, etc., mostly accepted in our culture, are different – and even that perception is changing from what it once was in western culture.

            i don’t know if those examples make sense to others or not, lisa… but i do know of cross cultural workers using those specific examples as cultural bridges to help explain the significance of what Christ accomplished and what it means to be a Jesus-follower.

          • That’s fascinating. Both of them. That whole issue of sacrifice is so interesting to me. I remember being challenged ten years ago in a Bible Study to identify times when I’d sacrificed … really sacrificed to the point that it hurt and you don’t want to take it on … and it was hard. Also, the question of does it have to hurt to be sacrifice fascinates me too. One of my editors once talked about how he would willingly take on pain for your children to spare them, but did that make it any less sacrifice because you WANTED to take it on rather than see them go through it.

          • Richelle Wright

            i wonder if hurt or cost is the more accurate word to describe genuine sacrifice…??? or then again, maybe both?

  • Sandie Willis

    We were a little surprised when our Thai maebaan confessed that the series of difficult events we had encountered in recent months was the result of the fact that she had not hung a pineapple above our dining table. Apparently our house was not a good design as having a bathroom above an eating area was sure to bring bad luck… unless a pineapple was strategically placed to intercept the spirits. Funnily, however, our landlord had hired a Feng Sui consultant when designing the house.

    • Now, I’m not a subscriber to Feng Sui, but you can totally see where the “rule” that having a bathroom above an eating area isn’t a great idea comes from. :). The pineapple interception, however?

  • I think you got the good examples of practices that really are wrong.

    Sometimes I’ve had trouble not laughing at the superstitions around me. I don’t know if they count as shocks, but they can be so inconvenient. I want to tell our landlady, “Look, you work all day everyday; can’t we just pay you at night this one time!?!?” Instead of going crazy trying to cross paths while the sun is shining.

    I think there was something that shocked or surprised me recently, but I can’t remember what…. I’ll have to ask my husband.

    (By the way, I seem to have stopped getting these posts by email. I tried to sign up again, and it says that I’m already on the list. Any other suggestions of what I can do?)

    • Phyllis– where are you trying to sign up? In the sidebar? Hmmm . . . we’ll work on that. 🙂

      • Yes, that’s where I had signed up whenever it was. And it worked fine for quite a while.

      • Jeri

        I have the same problem. Used to get email, and now I don’t….

  • Lotus birth I heard about in Vancouver Canada, from a friend who wanted one. And they don’t just wait for the placenta to rot. They salt it so it doesn’t rot, and put it in a special pouch next to the baby until it dries and falls off, just as the bit of umbilical cord that we leave behind dries and falls off. The idea is that is it a more gentle way to separate a baby from what was it’s primary life source for so many months.

    I’m still getting used to the way the Thai people will just take my baby out of my arms and walk off with him to show their friends. It’s a bit shocking.

    And a “cultural” practice that I have observed that I feel pretty comfortable saying is wrong is the way the Lisu beat their wives, and how often they commit adultery and then beat each other up about it afterwards.

    • Yeah, I think you’re on pretty firm ground with the whole wife beating thing, too.

    • Sarah

      I was surprised when an employee at a Latino store gave my baby a cookie without my noticing it. In my worldview, you always ask permission from a parent before doing something like that in case the baby has food allergies. I think that in other cultures, children are seen as more as belonging to the community and not just individual parents. Kind of sweet.

      • Yes, people give Dominic food here all the time. Usually loaded with sugar and preservatives (sigh) but they’re so good-hearted about it I usually let him take it (or some of it) and then take some of it off him (not all of it) once we’re out of sight.

    • Been answering some other comments and saw this on lotus-birth again. I still find it very strange, honestly. I get the idea behind the “gentle separation” thing but… it’s a first world luxury, I guess, like so many other things. As far as I know there’s no other culture on earth that regularly does this – it’s too hard to keep clean and sanitary and avoid the rotting placenta from contaminating everything around it and causing disease. I should do some googling though and find out where the whole idea DID come from.

  • Brooke

    I find some of their marriage customs “weird”. The Bride cannot smile on her wedding day, if she does it is a sign of a proud wife which is bad news. During the engagement they never meet the in-laws but try to avoid them in any way possible. Once married one must bow low when greeting the in-law of the opposite gender, avoiding all eye contact. They will never eat with that in-law, the daughter-in-law or mother-in-law will take her food to the kitchen. Never would you greet your in-laws with a hug!

    • Yes, even having seen this at play in some ways, I still find it strange (and, to be honest, a bit sad). Mike said the same thing about brides in Tajikistan – although his explanation was that if she did so it was a sign that she was looking forward to having sex, which was considered shameful.

  • Linda Funke

    My husband and I work at a Christian Secondary School in which almost all the students are boarding students. We really struggle with the use of corporal punishment. For our part, we do not and will not use corporal punishment as a form of discipline, but we recognize that it is a well-engrained part of the academic culture here. We have to choose our battles. There have been times though where I have put my foot down and said “This is wrong,” such as the time when a teacher was beating all of the girls because one had stolen something and he couldn’t figure out which one, or the time when several students ended up seeing a doctor for injuries related to their “discipline.” My husband and I are really trying to model different forms of discipline and remind other teachers that school should be a safe place for students and how we treat them should point to Christ.

    • Hmmm… so interesting! I spent my teenage years in ZImbabwe, and corporal punishment was still accepted there at that time (probably still is) as part of the educational culture. I think the examples you gave of where you drew the line make perfect sense. I’m just thinking about this in relation to my own two boys, now, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. We’re (mostly) not using corporal punishment either (deliberate biting has been one exception we’ve smacked for to date). So I’m not sure I’d want them in a school that could use corporal punishment but it wouldn’t be a “deal-breaker” on a school for me.

  • Jeri

    Though not “wrong,” we struggled when our son became interested in an Albanian woman. Though he was working in her town and involved in her church, he could not demonstrate or otherwise disclose his interest in her until he was quite sure he wanted to marry her. To do otherwise would serious damage her reputation and possibilities for marriage to another good man. And even then, he could not meet her parents (nor them him) until ready to propose and enter a formal betrothal. He, and we, too, of course, felt his parents should have a chance to get to know him, and he them, as part of the courtship process.

    Then when the formal proposal came, there were some gymnastics around the family involvement expected in the betrothal agreement. With a lot of generosity and compromise on both sides. I ended up making a special trip to Albania to doing our family’s part (which should have been done by a male family member). They accepted that Curt simply could not go at that time due to his work, and we accepted that someone needed to go (bearing the traditional gifts, etc) despite it being international travel.

    And then, iaw Albanian culture, her parents offered their marriage bed to the newly engaged couple. Sexual union at that point is more or less expected. Our son and believing future daughter-in-law respectfully declined. Smile….

    I suppose where I run into “this is just wrong” is mostly in the area of gender relationships where women and children are marginalized in favor of men. Men free to do pretty much as they please; women expected to stay home alone. Men consuming the majority of the family food budget while out and about with friends, while women and children mostly eat what they can grow–resulting in men consuming much more protein. And of course sometimes a lot of alcohol. I have several friends where we live know who were pulled out of school for work at ages like 8 or 10 years old while brothers stayed in school. And then, of course, there are the far more physical forms of control, restriction and violence that in many cultures are seen as appropriate.

    But even there, I’m not at all sure how appropriate it is for me to speak out. It may be wrong, but is it helpful for me, the foreigner, to try to dictate moral behavior? What is the role of the church–both the missionary-led and the indigenous church?

    • Jeri

      Oh my. Just re-read my opening sentence. We saw nothing wrong with Dan’s interest in Eda. It was the cultural differences in marriage formation and gender relationships that were challenging–though not in the least bit wrong. Just so different. We have been deeply blessed by our Albanian daughter-in-law and her whole family. One of the lovely differences is that men and women don’t marry so much as families join, and we have been so graciously received by them despite our strangeness.

      • Thanks for that clarification. I must admit I didn’t know which way to take it :). And I’m with you on the gender relations thing. It’s hard to see a culture that hands men that much power and control (physical and financial) as anything but skewed. Thanks for sharing your fascinating experiences in such detail.

  • elise

    Resonated with what you wrote, Lisa. When do you label something “wrong”? and what do you do about it? and when? 6 -14 year old girls forced to marry, and many very young first time mums suffer not only having 4 men force the baby out of their bodies as soon as labour starts….but suffering a lifetime of consequences of too-early pregnancy….often losing the first baby, others afterwards….having an average of 13 babies in their lifetime and losing 8. Prolapsed wombs and bladders……….Most people would say WRONG. And I’m right with them. But living and working in a tribe yet to hear the Gospel, we learned very quickly that to just tell people “That’s wrong! Stop it!” will just drive it underground. It’s a mindset. It’s a bondage of fear of going against what the ancestors and spirits have taught them. It takes them meeting Christ and Truth and that doesn’t happen just by telling them to. Waiting as relationships formed, and trust grew, learn the language and culture and get inside it, earning the right to speak truth into their lives took time, patience, and grief …. But o! it was worth it! Now the truth is penetrating, and a new generation of young people are being raised up who know the Truth and it is setting them free.

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  • Julia

    Female Genital Mutilation is clearly wrong, but many people are just as upset about male circumcision. To American ears, the thought of male circumcision seems totally normal, but Brits and Australians are rather horrified that it’s a common thing to happen to an American baby boy. What we find morally wrong is very culturally dependent. And yes, I know that the worst forms of FGM are worse than male circumcision, but a lot of female circumcision happens to baby girls, in hospitals with anesthesia, with only the clitoral hood removed. Analogous to what happens to baby boys.

  • Erin

    One of the biggest things that shocked me was all the hitting done in Cambodia. Here, it is completely normal for a friend, relative, or complete stranger to smack you if you do something wrong or just because they like you. Once I dropped my phone at a gas station and didn’t realize it. The gas filler upper guy saw it, picked it up got a little angry and smacked me on my arm. It wasn’t extremely hard but enough that it stung for a while. It shocked me/made me a little angry for a while that a man would just hit a woman like that and it wasn’t seen as “not good” or “not nice” Sometimes a person tells me that I should hit the person joking with me but I just say “I don’t like to hit” and go on with the conversation. It still shocks me though when someone does this or tells me to hit someone else.

  • AKgoestoINDO

    one time I noticed some batteries festering in a hole a palm tree and the owner told me the batteries would make the tree grow better. That one took a good bit of self-control when responding. =)

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