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.

nydailynewscom

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.

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