A week ago yesterday I got back from a trip to South Korea and Thailand. South Korea is a country I’ve lived in already for a few years, but this was my first trip to Thailand, making it the tenth country I have visited. I can without too much difficulty order food and ask for directions in four different languages, and on a good day I could understand the directions given to me in more than one of those languages. I have never refused foreign food that was offered to me. So, I like to think that I have a fairly high level of cultural sensitivity. My default approach is to say that each culture I visit and every custom I observe has something to teach me. I think travelling is pretty futile without that approach.
Sometimes though, that mindset slips back a bit. On just about every trip I take, there is a moment when I forget my place in the world. When I look down from the pillar I have built for myself and I ask, “What is wrong with these people?” Now, before you shake your heads too easily at me, walk a mile in my “I bought these at a roadside stand because I only brought shoes from Canada” sandals.
There is something about sitting in an airplane for a long time, eating foreign food and bouncing around less than perfectly paved roads that helps me develop a keen eye for public bathrooms. It’s a scary sight though, when instead of a place to sit I find a porcelain lined hole in the ground. It is at these times that I ask myself, “What is wrong with these people?” Even though much of the world does it this way and it is actually much more efficient for the task, I feel entitled to a comfortable place to sit and tank of ten or more litres of fresh, clean, drinkable water that I can dispose of my leisure.
Maybe I just grew up sheltered from the realities of the world, but I have no idea where I would go in any Canadian or American city I’ve visited to find a prositute. Granted, it likely wouldn’t be very hard if I started looking, but off the top of my head I don’t know where they are. But in more than one foreign city I have stumbled across these women and been absolutely certain about what profession they were in. One time I was in a car with a pastor and a school teacher who accidentally drove me through one of these areas and then sheepishly explained to me that this practice was illegal in their country. I was a little skeptical that these buildings which were designed and wired for the specific purpose of displaying their wares had somehow alluded the attention of local police. I look at these women and the infrastructure around them, and I ask myself, “What is wrong with these people?” Sure, we have the same industry in Canada, but they hide it, don’t they? Our police work harder to enforce those rules, don’t they? While prositution represents a smaller portion of our tourism industry, a close look at the local news and the classified section of the newspapers in our country’s largest cities will show you that we are in no position to condemn.
I make those comments about a business I’ve never and what I’m about to say within the context of a happy marriage. When I travel to other countries, I am constantly impressed by the women. Everywhere I go I meet incredible men doing incredible work, but as a whole, the women impress me more. They take advantage of new world opportunities, they pursue and gain new world education, and they enjoy and promote new world rights, but they go home to old world husbands, live out old world responsibilities and face old world limitations. Looking at their plight, I often wonder, “What is wrong with these people?” These women look at me and want to hear about Canada, a place where women don’t face the same limitations, where husbands don’t physically intimidate their wives and young women don’t define themselves by how they appear in men’s eyes. I want to hear about that version of Canada too.
When I travel, I like to bring gifts home for my family, but it is increasingly difficult to buy cultural gifts that aren’t just souvenir trinkets. If you can find cultural clothing, it’s irrevelevant because nobody wears it anymore. Main streets are crowded with western businesses selling western products and genuine local cuisine and cultural expressions are pushed farther and farther into the obscure. Sure, I think that people all over the world should be given a choice about what they can eat, what they can wear and what belief systems they can adopt, and sometimes those choices have to be presented to them from other places, but isn’t there still room to honour and uphold old cultural expressions? Whatever pride I had that this wasn’t the case in Canada came crashing down this week. I returned on Thursday of last week and on Tuesday of this week I sat in on another session of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission in Calgary. Speaker after speaker told stories of how their cultural identity had been made to feel worthless, how their family structure had been depleted, and how they as human beings had been abused, neglected and discarded. This time when I ask “What is wrong with these people?” I need to ask that about myself and about the men who sold land to my ancestors that was not theirs to give.
I don’t know the way forward. The solutions to these culturally engrained problems are not easy, but they will not come from us blindly exporting our answers to them and they will not come from them or anyone closing their eyes and ears to the realities of the world around them. It is not whether their side or ours is correct, it is about how we walking side by side can arrive at the destination together.