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When Cultures Clash: When to Conform

June 14, 2013

The idea of cultures clashing is one of the great cliches of the international affairs world: it’s easy to imagine two radically different cultures, sussed up in traditional garb, running at each other with ‘traditional’ weapons. (That, ahem, would be the physical version of ‘cultures clashing’). I’m referring to the idea of cultural norms meeting and…disagreeing.

The 2012 Contestants posing in bikinis, sourced from India Today online

A great example that’s been a hot news topic recently has been the removal of the bikini segment from the Miss World pageant, which is due to be held this September in Indonesia. In order not to insult the Muslim-majority country (religious clerics were calling for  the pageant to be moved to another country) Miss World decided to scrape the bikini segment from the show. If this had been decided after a torrent of feminist rantings (yeah, right) as a motive to encourage acceptance of different body types (albeit healthy), I could get behind the decision, even though the reality is that most girls who participate in the pageant are fit, and have worn many a bikini in their pageant days; I also like bikinis. However, this is not the case: the pageant removed the bathing suits from the program because a bunch of men were making threats and saying it wasn’t compatible with Indonesian culture. Oh, men.

Normally, I post about Islam on my S-L-M: Peace blog, but the fact is that I do not discuss Indonesia/Melaysia/countries outside the Middle East on that blog, and furthermore the incident reminded me of a subject that often comes up in the International Affairs that makes for a great (and unfortunately controversial) discussion. The question is: when, if ever, should one conform to another culture? This might seem like a completely stupid question, you might say, questioning my intelligence. When visiting another country, one should always be polite and respect local traditions, because you’re not on your home soil! What about when you visit someone’s house, I’d ask-sure, the host may ask you to remove your shoes, but the host also seems to want to make you very comfortable in a “your wish is my every command” way.

Respecting local traditions seems to be the time-honored response; any diplomat or international careerist will have certainly been in countless situations where, ahem, diplomacy is key. Of course one must remove their shoes before entering a house, accept a cup of tea or a fourth helping of a dish one loathes, cover their legs if visiting a super-conservative community, etc. Yet a lot of what I just listed is very personal, very one-on-one I’m-visiting-your-house acts. I doubt presidents and diplomats are forced through many of the traditional codes-of-conduct but-aha!-they seem to reside in that globalized upper echelon where American/Western (there, I said it) behavior is the cultural norm.

The Indonesia Miss World incident is wrong, in my opinion. Who gave the greenlight for the show to take place in Indonesia, anyway? The Indonesian government? Their Ministry of Cultural Affairs? Were they not aware of the bikini segment of the show, did they not agree to have it when they signed whatever contract that was set up? Removing the bikini scene isn’t going to destroy the integrity or scope of the pageant (unless you’re one of the contestants and want to show off your flawless thighs in that teensy-weensy polka-dot bikini), and surely if the suits really were going to offend the Indonesian people then they shouldn’t have been worn. But to cave in to a few men is unfortunate.

What I’m about to say next might come off as…well, think among yourselves. If it is common courtesy and in the interest of diplomatic relations to conform to another culture when one is traveling abroad, then the same should be said about people who either visit or, more importantly, come to live in America. Ah, one of my favorite topics. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. If I am expected to learn a few words in the local language when visiting a foreign country, then shouldn’t tourists and immigrants who visit America be expected to do the same? Citing America as the “land of the free” and how we’re supposed to be accepting of other cultures (both true) might seem justified here. But if these two truths are so valued by non-Americans, then why don’t they inject a little of them into their own cultures? So the next time I go to Egypt or some other Middle Eastern country I don’t have to cover up when it’s 110 degrees out? Why are Americans expected to be so accepting (obviously not a bad thing) but when we go abroad our conduct is critiqued or condemned?

This is a little observation I made during my first semester as a graduate student and I will state it here now: the general consensus seems to be that America has no culture. Or, that our culture can be so easily transmuted because of our melting pot heritage that it doesn’t have to remain the same; we have no true, base ‘cultural heritage,’ nothing that can be  overridden or changed. The United States government was founded using the English language, NOT Spanish. After colonialism a lot of former colonies elsewhere in the world retained the imperial country’s mother tongue as a second language, as is the case of North African countries who speak Arabic or Berber first and French second.

Sometimes colonized countries have accepted colonial languages as their first language, such as Central and South American countries which keep Spanish or Portuguese as the official language or many African countries which use French, English or Spanish as the official language of the government. Because these countries were made up of many diverse groups of people who possessed different languages (this is particularly the case in many African countries like Nigeria), picking one language seemed a good idea; the reasons for choosing a ‘colonial’ language are many and can be disputed as being bad or good. Nevertheless, the United States of America was founded on one language; if immigrants wanted to keep their native tongue this was acceptable, but the official language was expected to be learned.

No one seemed to disagree about this until recently. If I move back to France or Egypt or another country someday, I will make an effort to learn the local language if I do not already know it. Especially if I (of course) will be working. I took a taxi in Brooklyn yesterday with my twin sister and husband and the cab driver, unable to understand the street name we gave him, asked us if we knew Spanish. Que?  Were we speaking to each other in Spanish? If you can’t speak the official language, maybe you ought to try learning it-or find a job that doesn’t require you to speak to people in English. I fully understand that some people-especially adults-are not adept at learning a second language. It is difficult but not impossible, even if your are poorly educated or illiterate, a statement I can back up and will in my future post on Folk Arts Rajasthan.

At this point, my honesty might have rubbed some people the wrong way, unfortunately. But here’s a tip: try replacing America with a different country. Try France: the French are going to roll their eyes even if you do speak French fluently (don’t I know) or try to. I’d imagine that going to Italy or Germany and expecting serene smiles when one asks for change in a language like Chinese or Afrikaans would be unlikely. Working in Indonesia without knowing one of the local languages would be disastrous. If I move to a majority-Muslim country I’m definitely going to be expected to act a certain way, to change myself, but when many Muslims arrive in the United States or Europe they expect to be treated in accordance to their cultural norms. They demand that they be allowed to live according to their own beliefs. Which is fine: America tolerates religious freedom, except when it infringes on American laws. If you think it’s fine to marry a 12 year old girl, then-shudder-go do that in your old country, because by law that is not permissible. This brings me back to the Miss World-Indonesia issue: it is not illegal for women to wear bikinis, or any type of bathing suit for that matter, in Indonesia. Even if most of the population is Muslim, there are many ‘types’ of Muslims, some of whom may feel that wearing bikinis (or at the least other people wearing bikinis) is fine. Yet the Miss World organizers caved to a social/personal norm being pushed by a few male clerics.

My Gender Studies in the Middle East professor (who I will probably end up quoting endlessly on my other blog) grew rightly tired of me and my classmates ranting on and on about the hijab and the freedom to dress however one likes. Am I, like many other feminists, Republicans and liberals alike (!) just getting hung up on a simple scrap of fabric, about a superficial symbol that we equate with freedom? No-because it’s so much more than an argument about letting beauty queens saunter across a stage in a bathing suit. It’s much more than my little First-World tirade about a taxi driver asking me if I spoke English in New York City. One of the first things you realize when it comes to International Affairs is that nothing, absolutely nothing, exists in a bubble. Why does this irony exist where American culture is exported around the world, yet on our home turf the English language and the Christian religion, which our Founding Fathers both spoke and believed in, became…irrelevant? If I move to Indonesia I am expected to respect Islam, but if children in an elementary school want to sing Christmas songs for their ‘Holiday’ pageant, it is feared that singing these songs might offend non-Christians in the audience? Au contraire, I think not; were non-Christians really offended by seeing Christmas decorations or hearing Christmas carols pumped through mall speakers in the past, or is this more of an apology by the majority-Christian American society (and, despite our great diversity, our government) for…for what? Our culture? In a democratic state ‘majority rules’ is not applicable when it comes to culture because people seem to feel that, even if one recognizes and promotes so-called ‘minority’ or smaller-number (in population) religions or ethnic backgrounds, that promoting the ‘majority’ group is somehow demeaning to the smaller groups…. it’s food for thought, even if you disagree.

The point I’m ultimately trying to make is that American culture is(and should be) accepting and we embrace all people into our country (this is humorous because the AIS and Immigration Office are NOT easily welcoming) but this does not mean that the inherent values which have remained at the core of American culture need to be trampled upon. American culture exists! Are you surprised? I don’t see why. Our culture is the source of what world critics like to designate “globalization,” which, in case you weren’t aware, has become quite the dirty word. The culture clash and class continues….

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 9, 2013 9:16 PM

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