An Alien Culture?

More people travel for leisure purposes today than have ever done so in the past. And many work abroad on short- or long-term contracts, often with a certain amount of leisure time available to experience the culture that surrounds them there.

And this will result in these travellers meeting the people that make up the indigenous society where, for a while, they find themselves. Will there then be a meeting of minds?

Having lived in an ex-pat society, as I have referred to on here before, I am familiar with the laager mentality that often pervades it. I won’t go into all the permutations, but there is frequently a combination of arrogance and fear that leads to a strong feeling of ‘us and them’.

Many travel with the firm conviction that their own society is superior to any other, and are unwilling to see any good at all in any others. Some who go away to work resent being uprooted, and arrive with that resentment packed in their baggage. Some find the experience to be fearful, if they do not understand the language being spoken around them or assume that this alien society has values that somehow threaten them.

And they can either lock themselves away and peer over the barricades, or they can embrace the experience and learn from it.

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Travel broadens the mind, it is said, but sometimes it seems to just cement prejudices more firmly in place.

And how easy it is to travel around just looking for things to justify prejudices!

One of the more infuriating things that I come across occasionally is a bigoted and ignorant letter or article in a local newspaper (it often tends to be the local ones) where someone’s idiot views are justified by the phrase ‘I know; I was there’. I imagine them living their entire time in a foreign country in a compound that they rarely leave, yet thinking that they now know exactly how the society functions beyond their walls.

I’ve met one or two of them, over the years.

I spent three years in Oman, working, and I’ve travelled fairly extensively in India, but I do not imagine or pretend that I really have much more than a superficial experience of these places. I knew little of the local culture in Oman beyond what I could see in the streets and villages and markets that I visited. I didn’t know anyone well enough to spend time at their homes or in their social circles. I went with groups of other westerners to places of interest. I did spend a lot of time exploring the desert and the nearby towns on my own, but I was effectively still inside my own little bubble. It is a huge regret that I never got deeper under the surface.

I have, perhaps, managed to learn a little more about the real India, especially through spending time on a project in a village, although I cannot pretend, even to myself, that I really have any idea of what it is like to actually live in an Indian village.

During the later days of the British Raj, the rulers took the approach that their civilisation was naturally superior, and that there was nothing in Indian civilisation worthy of their consideration. The irony of this is that around the end of the eighteenth century, and the first years of the nineteenth, many of the British in India had taken a keen interest in Indian history and culture, themselves doing a tremendous amount to unearth much of the history that had been lost and forgotten. For that comparatively brief period, it would seem that many of the British treated Indians and their culture with a deep respect.

The reasons that this changed are probably deeper than my understanding, but two things stand out. Firstly, that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, many British women came to India in search of husbands, bringing with them what we tend to think of as Victorian attitudes, and secondly, there was an upsurge of evangelism in Britain, which translated itself in India as a movement to convert the ‘heathens’ to Christianity. These combined as a new feeling of superiority, and contempt for a society that was now seen as inferior, especially when much of it resisted their overtures.

With this, the British as a whole seemed to become more intolerant and arrogant, and less respectful of sensibilities. This culminated in the horrors of 1857, which could be said to be caused directly by these attitudes.

To return to the present day, it seems that many travellers have attitudes no better than their Victorian predecessors’. I wrote a post a few months back that mentioned a number of westerners I came across in a Himalayan hill resort, https://mickcanning.co/2015/10/25/the-mad-woman-of-the-hill-station/  should you wish to view it, whose behaviour and attitudes were just downright arrogant and disrespectful. They were doing no more than confirming their prejudices as they travelled, and at the same time I daresay they were confirming many people’s views of western travellers.

Yet there are many people who travel with open ears, open eyes and an open mind, and their rewards are far greater than those of the blinkered traveller. They have the wonderful opportunity to experience and learn about different cultures at first hand, speak to people who hold different beliefs and ideals to them, and perhaps learn a little of what drives them. In return, they have an opportunity to enlighten others, perhaps, to things in their own society that might not be understood by those others. In a small way, each and every one of them can choose to contribute either to different societies coming to understand and become more tolerant, or to the further spread of tensions, mistrust, and misunderstandings.

And all of these little interactions, added together, are as important and influential as the contacts between politicians and diplomats.

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51 thoughts on “An Alien Culture?

  1. Oh don’t start me on this. While I was working in Iraq, I was regarded as an expat because of my British citizenship but I loved hanging around with my local colleagues. I loved their stories outside the green zone and they in turn enjoyed my company. But There was this one girl. An Iraqi. Who lived almost all her life in Baghdad. She managed to lure the boss to help her get out for safety to Jordan and then from there to the states. She got married, spent about a year there, got her green card and came back to work as an expat. Omg! She was the most arrogant person I’ve ever met. She refused to speak Iraqi, changed her name to a more western name, and spoke with such an attitude with her former Iraqi local colleagues. “I’m an expat now, you need to respect me” she would shout at them. I couldn’t work with her and I asked the COL to transfer her to another place. She was very vulgar towards everyone. And she was NO expat. Lol

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    1. That’s a side I never saw. All of the ex-pats I came across really were westerners who were out working for however long. Some had pretty good attitudes, some were basically arrogant s**t-bags, and most fell somewhere in between. I never came across an Omani in that role, although I can’t really imagine any would have the incentive to do so.

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  2. I never truly understood why people with such interesting characteristics shall we say, go to these very cultural regions. Surely they just find themselves bored as they are unable to appreciate the locals different ways of life, when I find it fascinating! I believe people often forget what travelling or holidays to these countries is really about!

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    1. Definitely. At least under work circumstances there is the excuse that they are simply there for the money, although that certainly doesn’t excuse bad manners and attitudes. But I have come across some travelers who appear to hate the whole experience of travelling and meeting people. And yet…they carry on travelling. Truly strange.

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  3. Mick , I so agree with you. For example, I still find many westerners to focus their phography on the poverty and slum while in India, instead of the rich culture, amzing natural beauty and friendly nature of people. I am often vocal about the fact that, in many western countries, I have seen beggars and dirt, but I never focus my writing over those. But now I wonder, maybe the false sense of superiority compels them to do the same. I also agree, there are manh sensible travellers as well, like you, like peggy and few more I have encountered here at wp.

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    1. I find that awkward, too. Inevitably, when taking photographs one tends to record the less affluent as well as the more so, but the deliberate focusing on the poverty is a strange thing which I am not entirely sure I understand.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I wonder why one don’t want to catch the beautiful things along with the bad side he or she is trying to catch to show the cultural differences ! After all, the poverty is greatly the result of colonialism.

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      1. Yes, any sensible person ll be uncomfortable. India is a big country with her own share of problems, at the same time it has a 8 trillion dollar economy and growing fast. If we go through the history, we ll see how east India Inc destroyed the economy of the country, which was once very much stable and richer than most of the countries at that time. Still now, our two much precious possession, the largest diamond of the world ” kohinoor” and a throne made entirely of gold and precious stones ” mayur singhason ” are still occupied by British government, just to give an example. so I definitely don’t enjoy this kind of photography by some insensitive, arrogant and history – ignorant people. Mick, u must forgive me for saying such tough words in your post, I know you are extremely sensible man, and I believe many of the westerners are like you. But few of them certainly do not possess these best qualities of yours.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Forgiven, of course. I agree with your point – The British, like all the colonialists, looted their colonies. I think the Kohinoor is part of the British Crown jewels now, although I’m fairly certain that the Mayur Singhason was actually taken back to Persia in the eighteenth century by the Persians.

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  4. An excellent post. I lived in China for almost six years and made great friends there. I consider it to be my second home.
    Yet, many Indians and Westerners were guilty of “expat” behaviour…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure a lot of people travel with the expectation, nay, the certainty, that their culture is the greatest one anywhere, and so look down on every other one. In the end, of course, they are the ones that lose out. Unfortunately, during the journey they usually manage to poison a few other minds.

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      1. Yeah. I agree. I used to eat a lot of Chinese food, with locals. One topic of horror, amongst Indians, was the food that the Chinese eat…. Forgetting that our habits can be strange to others

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  5. Great post and very true Mick, but it’s not only Westerners that are arrogant expats… owing to the Empire, I think the British presence in foreign climes led to the “Expat” term being awarded to us, nowadays it seems some other cultures have learnt from our Raj days arrogance. Most Brits do say please and thank you (often we are mocked for it), some of the tones I overhear now makes me cringe…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, we appear to have taught some of them exceedingly well, Vicky. In fact the ghastliest examples that I ever came across were not Westerners, although my lips are sealed (at least for the moment) on their identity.

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  6. well it has a ring of truth about it and made me think about how I have spent ” time” with local peeps and then thought I had their lifestyle sussed. So I shall refrain from commenting, save to say it was a darn good yarn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I think there is a world of difference, though, between getting your interpretation of a lifestyle ‘wrong’ (as I assume you’re saying) and the rudeness and arrogance shown by some.

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  7. I suppose it’s safe to say you’ll encounter arrogant, holier than thou types as well as open minded folks regardless of whether you travel halfway across the world or halfway across town. But you have a good point; if you don’t like the changes of environment that come with traveling, why are you traveling?

    I’ve never done the expat thing, and for all too many of my travels because of limited time I haven’t really had much chance to experience the natives. This begs the question, am I really traveling or just sightseeing?

    Maybe that’s why hanging out with the WordPress community is interesting, you can experience other people’s cultures and impressions without leaving your living room.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, Dave, it’s a great window into other places. I know nothing of the USA, but a couple of your posts have really made me want to go.
      We’re all sightseeing, I think, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not travelling, too. I have walked around a Buddhist temple in India with an Indian acquaintance, whilst discussing the differences in various aspects of our respective cultures. I think that covers both labels in one hit!

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  8. Being a third culture kid – parents are from different countries, and I’ve lived in three other countries – means I’m fairly used to being around different cultures.

    Still, when I first moved to London from Italy, I had to learn quite a few cultural norms. The differences weren’t as dramatic as those between Western and Eastern countries, but they were still there!

    It does wind me up though to come across close minded people, wherever they are from. Like some Italians who are horrified that I live in England because the food is supposedly disgusting here… *eye roll*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People will come up with some pretty strange reasons why they couldn’t live in other places. Presumably those that think the food will be dreadful wouldn’t be prepared to cook their own? Yes, there are always cultural differences. Even if I cross the Channel to France I see differences, and there are plenty of people here who will moan like hell about the French. But the cultural differences are what makes travel interesting and exciting.
      Thanks very much for commenting.

      Like

  9. A very interesting post, Mick. I’ve travelled quite a bit and lived abroad for a while but always immersed myself in the place I am – what really is the point otherwise. I’m forever flabbergasted why people leave their western homes if they only exchange it for the safety of a compound / hotel only basis once abroad!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. Admittedly, some have no choice about the compound – I knew a couple of people who worked in Saudi Arabia, and they had no choice but to live in the compound where they were allocated houses, of course. But in most places they would be free to travel around. I’ve worked briefly in a couple of other countries, and there were always plenty of opportunities to explore.

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  10. I’m afraid I’ve also met my share of bigoted travelers in my time. I’ve sometimes found myself wondering why anyone would go to all the effort and expense of visiting another country just to denigrate every aspect of it.

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  11. Very true fact. I truly appreciate your writing on this topic. I think in those days of India under the British till now most of them see it differently and ppl are sure arrogant. But here in Kenya I have noticed the expats are ok. Not so arrogant but there are settled Indians who came long time ago for laying railway line in Kenya, who show arrogance. Intriguing part is they own most of the businesses and the way they behave and treat the locals oh my god it’s pathetic. For me whoever it might be I cannot see my house help like someone who does work but I see her as my help and treat her like a human. Many don’t do that. Generally heart speaks out the inner you. If we start seeing all as humans then this situation will vanish.

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  12. It is not everyday one gets to read such an honest article about travelling and the feeling of superiority and being in them… I have been in England for two years and I sometimes felt their anger or racism towards me for being there not from everyone though…travel yes I will, I love that beautiful country of red buses and telephone booths! haha…

    As an Indian though I have read about English women and men who took great interest in the culture and civilization of Indian people during the British Raj and I am thankful for them.

    Thanks for this wonderful post..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome. You touch on the English colonials who really did care about India; I will probably write a post on them at some point. they were one positive aspect of that time in history.
      As for the feelings of anger or racism that you feel directed towards you at times, I’m sorry that this is an aspect of our society today. There are a lot of bigots in England (although, of course, every country has some). Personally, I have always been struck by the fact that I have been greeted with better manners and more politeness in India, even by the poorest, than would happen if the roles were reversed.

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