Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Thin Line of Cultural Sensitivity
A while ago, I was listening to NPR (that's getting old, I know, but I have no TV, and something has to spark thoughts) and I heard an American woman reporting on a her experience of the Hajj in Mecca (listen). She described how spiritual she felt running in the Sayee, feeling a connection to the story of Hagar that the event represents, when a local woman grabbed her arm and told her to stop running, because women didn't do that there, only men. The commentator goes on to explain basically why she felt that custom was repressive and dumb, and how she told the woman to proudly remember, "Hagar was a woman."

While I'm sure as a well-raised feminist, I should feel proud of this story, instead I felt mostly annoyed. It didn't raise issues of breaking gender barriers to me, but instead brought to mind thoughts of how exactly people should act when in another country. There are two sides to this story. On the one hand, the commentator was an American woman also participating in the pilgrimage and having an intense personal experience. On the other hand, she was a guest in another culture, and should not have felt that her status as an American gave her leave to behave as others could not.

This woman was just on a short-term visit to the country, though. These issues become much more confusing when a person finds themself actually living in the other country. One wants to be sensitive to the other culture, and do as much as one can to remain unobtrusive (at least socially, if not ethnically). However, does one really want to give up all the vestiges of one's native culture for the sake of blending in? Besides, if one tries too hard to blend in, one runs the risk of being derisively seen as "going native" by both fellow foreigners and natives alike. Where does one draw the line?

Personally, I had it kind of easy in Japan in this regard. Part of my job description, after all, was to "be American." I was there to teach my native language and give cultural insights that the Japanese teachers couldn't offer. I wasn't expected to become completely fluent in Japanese or be accepted into Japanese society as one of their own. I was there to be exotic. I was also there with the expectation that I would then be going home. Perhaps, really, it was not so much the job that made it easy for me as it was Japanese society, which is unfailingly polite to guests, but always makes it clear that foreigners *are* guests, outsiders, not from 'round here.

What would it be like in a society where I actually felt like I could fit in more? I recall being flattered the few times someone took me for a Chilean during my semester abroad, but living with a host family held me in the mentality of permanent "guest" status, and I never really felt tempted to really blend in. I'm not sure what it would be like if I was living there more as a person and less as an exchange student. Where would I draw the line? How much would I want to change? How much would I *not* want to change? I don't know. Everyone must have their own internal equilibrium.

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