Sometimes we forget that the totally normal things we do at home can be seen as totally not okay elsewhere. Before going to Egypt, we were asked not to go running through Cairo. For one thing, between the smog, the traffic and the craterous sidewalks, it’s quite dangerous. And for another, it’s insulting. Some people ignored this advice and ran anyway. In their mind, no one has the right to tell them not to exercise. But in the mind of an Egyptian, running is an ostentatious show of wealth. For hard-working poor people, the idea that you have so much energy and time that you can exert yourself for fun is downright insulting and bizarre.
In Benin, students came to me upset about the behavior of an otherwise excellent student. He was such a nice guy, such a good friend, that they couldn’t believe his parents had raised him, “that way.” Confused, I figured out they were referring to his smoking. Like in the Dominican Republic, very few people can afford cigarettes in Benin. For someone to smoke them often in public would be akin to flashing expensive watches and purses in an American slum.
Whenever traveling, there are special considerations that vegetarians need to take to ensure their health and suitable meal options. It’s important, though, to remember that vegetarianism (while some people firmly believe it has the moral high ground) is a way of being picky. This means that additional limitations beyond the lack of meat can often be incredibly difficult to honor, and are generally seen as demanding. The concept of vegetarianism is upsetting for many of the world’s poor, as they can’t imagine ever being so wealthy that they could afford to say no to protein.
Sometimes, it’s just rude to insist on being vegetarian. For example, when the women of Egbe Misogbe (the women’s micro-enterprise collective I volunteered with in Benin) offered us a humble meal of tilapia, rice and vegetables, I attempted to force our group members to eat everything on their plates. While the meal was humble to us (and a bit gross to me, as I dislike seafood in general and food that watches me eat it specifically) it was a huge sign of thanks from them. Tilapia is their country’s specialty, they took almost no food for themselves, and they even got us beer and American soda with ice (ice!) that took many miles of walking to get. I understand the reasons for being vegetarian, but I found it wildly impolite for students to refuse to eat that meal, especially for those who simply claimed vegetarianism as a quick out.
Body language can also being misinterpreted easily, and I have found that crossing your arms over your chest is a clearer and more negative symbol abroad than it is at home. It can show disinterest, or sometimes is seen as a very confrontational signal that you disagree with the speaker. In Cuba’s Santeria celebrations, crossing your arms and standing still shows that you are not welcoming the proceedings, and our lack of movement even conveys your desire for the celebration to not go forward.
Before I went to Egypt, I had already studied the Muslim world quite a bit and thus knew that some men may not shake my hand, and not to show the bottoms of my feet. I like to curl up in chairs, and while i was conscious of not crossing one leg over the other, it didn’t occur to me that tucking my feet under myself was not okay either. Another thing I didn’t realize was that my common practice of going out with wet hair (due to my aversion to hair dryer’s and my tendency to be late) was actually a signal to many that I work as a prostitute. Quelle horreur!
The point is, we can’t all foresee the many ways we can possibly offend and confuse those we meet on our travels, or even at home. But, with some research we can avoid potentially uncomfortable situations for ourselves and our hosts. And, perhaps more importantly, if we carry ourselves with an air of open-mindedness, approachability and respect, perhaps those we encounter along the way will be more likely to inform us of our foibles in a friendly, gentle, helpful way.