Wednesday, 19 April 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 7

Patras (Greece) - Athens (Greece) - Muscat (Oman) - Sur (Oman) - Al Hawiyah (Oman) - Nizwa (Oman)

It’s not clear that the Amazing Racers had thought about how they might look to local people in Oman — whether the Arab majority or the 20% minority of Pakistani expatriate, mostly single male, guest workers — or how that might affect those people’s willingness to help them along their way.

In a place where even “a glimpse of stocking”, much less of female skin, is looked upon as something shocking, what might people think to see Monica go past in a tight t-shirt wet with sweat? And in a country whose monarch has invited the USA to use local military bases, partly in exchange for military and other help from the USA in putting down the local anti-monarchist and other democratic and dissident movements, what might the reaction be to someone like Barry, literally wearing his Americanism on his head like a flag in the form of a red, white, and blue stars and stripes kerchief?

Not surprisingly, what actually happened seemed to be that … passers-by were as helpful to all the racers as ever. If anyone tried to pinch Monica’s arm, or swipe Barry’s American flag bandana, that was edited out of what we were shown on the reality-TV show.

That’s normal. Non-Muslim “Western” women may worry about sexual harassment in the Arab world (although I get a higher proportion of reports of serious harassment from some other regions), and American may worry about being held to answer for the actions of the government that acts in our name. But most people are polite even to people they think are being rude, and give lots of slack to foreigners who are assumed (often rightly) not to know any better.

I’ve met few people anywhere in the world who take out their grievances against the USA government on ordinary USA citizens unless they chose to present themselves as apologists for the current administration and its policies. In a country like Oman, why should they? It’s not as though the sultan of Oman holds elections or is accountable to the citizenry, much less to the “guest workers” who can never acquire citizenship, even if they were born in Oman. So why should they expect that of the USA or its citizens?

Yet there was no sign than Monica or Barry realized that they might be giving anyone offense. Sure, we saw every man (which, in such a place, was virtually everyone visible in public) staring fixedly at Monica wherever she went. But, as my partner pointed out, “women who are considered pretty by conventional standards get used to turning men’s heads”, and think nothing of it. (Those standards vary greatly from culture to culture — fat is beautiful and a sign of wealth in much of Africa and parts of the Caribbean, for example.) My guess is that Barry is proud to be an American, regardless of what he thinks of specific government policies, and associates the stars and stripes with that national pride rather than with the things it might mean to his hosts and passers-by in Oman.

That too is typical. Most guests and hosts are well-meaning people. Cross-cultural misunderstandings and animosity are caused by ignorance much more often than by malice.

To address that ignorance, a group of business people in the USA have underwritten a public relations campaign, written up in the Wall Street Journal this week (and sneered at in some overseas newspapers) to educate their fellow citizens not to be unwittingly Ugly Americans. “Anti-Americanism is bad for business”, says their Business for Diplomatic Action Web site.

Their World Citizens Guide (you can download an abridged version as a PDF file, or order a printed copy through their Web site) was produced by students of advertising — not anthropology, cultural studies, or education — at Southern Methodist University. Not surprisingly, it’s slicker than it is substantive, and lists some obvious but inferior resources, rather than less well-known but clearer superior ones on the same topics. But it also shows that some of the most important ways to be a more considerate traveller are the simplest and most obvious:

  • Look. Listen. Learn. New places mean new cultures and new experiences. Don’t just shop. See the sights, hear the sounds and try to understand the lives people live.
  • Smile. Genuinely. It’s a universal equalizer.
  • Think big. Act small. Be humble.
  • Live, eat and play local.
  • Be patient.
  • Celebrate our diversity.
  • Become a student again.
  • Try the language. Try to speak some of the language even if the only thing you can say is “Hello”. And “Thank you”.
  • Refrain from lecturing. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes a whole nation of them.
  • Dialogue instead of monologue.
  • Listen first. Then speak.
  • Be safety conscious, not fearful. If you went to certain parts of any city in the U.S., you’d watch your wallet and make sure you had your wits about you. So why should it be any different anywhere else?
  • Dress for respect.
  • Keep your word.
  • Show your best side.
  • Be a traveler, not a tourist. Before you touch down in another country, learn as much as you can about it. Go beyond the guidebooks and pick up some of the music and the literature of the land. If you can, rent some movies from that country.
  • Have a wonderful trip! Make new friends. Bring back the best of the world and leave a little of the best of yourself wherever you go.

All of this is equally applicable wherever in the world you go, and little of it has to do with memorizing lists of destination-specific “do’s” and “don’ts”, which is hard to do if you are going to lots of places — much less in The Amazing Race , where the teams don’t know where they are going to go.

There’s more on how to travel responsibly in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World , but here’s what I say about how to prepare for your trip to avoid these problems:

Avoiding Culture Shock Through Preparation

Preparing for travel in a way that minimizes the likelihood of an unpleasant degree of culture shock is not primarily a matter of learning specific facts about the culture(s), people(s), customs, or mores of your destination(s).

Paradoxically, learning more facts about “the way it is” can serve to give you more fixed expectations that make it hard for you to cope when you encounter — as you inevitably will, no matter how much you know — things that are unfamiliar, unexpected, and confusing…. It’s important to cultivate enough patience and trust to be able to go along with things, up to a point, without being too bothered by the fact that you haven’t yet figured out what’s going on, or what it means….

The kind of learning that will help you avoid culture shock is the kind of learning that enhances your humility, your open-mindedness, your awareness of the extent of your ignorance, and your desire to learn more. You won’t avoid culture shock with the kind of learning that enhances your sense of “being in command of the situation” or convinces you that you know all you need to know about where you are going….

Preparation for avoiding cultural shock is thus primarily attitudinal: learning how to adapt to, assimilate into, and accept cultural diversity. A diverse, multicultural outlook and awareness is the best immunization against culture shock. Recognize that people elsewhere do things differently. Don’t presume that different means inferior, or ascribe unfamiliar attitudes or actions to barbarism or backwardness. Instead, start with the assumption that there is a reason for a behavior that is functional in its context, and try to figure out what that is.

When it was presented to me in college in an introduction to anthropology, I resisted accepting the presumption that cultural beliefs and practices have value in any society (for someone, not necessarily for the practitioner or believer).

But the more travel has given me experience as an amateur anthropology field worker, the more sense it makes. And, more importantly, the more sense the things I see when I travel make if I approach them with that assumption in mind: Even the things that seem strangest (to us) have a purpose, in the minds of the people who do them. Understanding those purposes is often the key to understanding those people, and their actions.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 19 April 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)


I've thrown some heat your way in the past because it seems like you write about The Amazing Race a lot. Now I see that you use it as a springboard for passing on your travel advice.


Posted by: Matty, 22 April 2006, 17:34 ( 5:34 PM)

Dear Sir,
I speak to you as an Omani citizen who has been around the world including the united states. I do agree with you that misunderstandings and ignorance are the causes of animosity. I hate it when people blanket a whole nation or society by what they might "think" they know about the region. You can't even throw blank statement about people in the same country.
Have you ever been to Oman? How can you assume that the ladies were harrased or that someone might try to assult a tourist, just because they happen to wear their nations flag. These people were guests in our country and we do take pride in our hospitality and tolerence.. Please try to keep an open mind and don't assume anything. We might dress differently, speak a different language, but in no way are we "backward people". We are not Saudi arabi nor are we Iran, just as much as you are not Canadian nor Mexican.

Posted by: Abdullah, 22 April 2006, 17:41 ( 5:41 PM)
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