The content of each post is solely written by that contributor and only expresses the contributor's personal views. Each post does not represent the views of all the contributors or Women of Color Living Abroad as an organization. Each contributor is speaking from their own person experiences and/or perspective.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What's Your Footprint?

By: Brittany S

Not all prints wash away as easily as these.
Just as you get country stamps in your passport, the country will inherit your footprint.  I don’t mean this literally, although you will do your share of walking.  What impression will you leave behind?  Although you are on vacation, you are visiting someone’s home and your choices will often impact their (and your) beliefs and actions.  So here are a couple of things to consider increasing the chances of your vacation being pleasant for both you and the locals.

Respect the Culture:  Three American Girls Head to France

Girl A studied French before the visit and was able to have basic conversations and read signs in French to help her get around.  She was able to take the metro and when she was lost or needed to find the restroom, communicate her thoughts in French.  If the locals knew English, they pleasantly responded to her in English.  If not, they were patient with her French.  She found the French to be very friendly throughout Paris and hopes to return one day.

Girls B & C didn’t study French and were advised by Girl A to at least learn how to say “Hello” “Thank you.” “English?” and “Sorry.” if nothing else.  She offered to write these phrases and the translation for them but they declined and said they’ll be fine.  When they went to the metro, the attendant only spoke French and they couldn’t read the machine to buy their own ticket (even though there was a button to change it to English, they didn’t know the French word for it).  Annoyed, they walked out and headed to something American: McDonalds.  When they tried to order, the young girl didn’t understand them and they became very impatient.  Completely irritated, the girls grabbed their food and flagged down a taxi.  They instructed the driver to take them to their hotel (in English) and the driver deliberately overcharged them.  When they refused to pay they started yelling at him (in English) and he slapped one in the face and pulled the other’s hair.  Defeated, they paid, hopped out in tears, and vowed never to return to France again.  After all, they heard the French were rude anyway.

I had a BLAST! Can't wait to return...
Extreme?  Well, this actually happened.  I’m Girl A.  I studied French in school, but didn’t know much.  What I did know was French culture.  I knew a lot of French people are really annoyed with foreigners, especially Americans, expecting everyone to speak English.  Sometimes they refuse to speak English to you if they know it, and other times they are rude in return like this taxi driver.  The two girls refused my help and spoke 100% English the entire time.  Each encounter they had made the French person(s) uncomfortable to say the least.  So now those people they met may have a resonating belief that Americans are arrogant and rude and the two girls feel the same about them.  In reality, not everyone is like that, but those people will tell others of their encounters and the negative feelings toward the other group will spread and solidify.

Respect the People: Two Black Girls Go to Korea
A group goes to Korea to teach English as a second language for a month.  Koreans’ views on Black people range from them wanting us to leave their country all the way up to wanting to copy our style of art, music, and fashion.  Somewhere in the middle lies a fear and/or curiosity of the unknown (in this case, the Black person).  Both girls received a brief orientation of Korean history, culture, and customs, particularly how it pertains to foreigners.

Girl A decided she shouldn’t have to change who she is just because she’s in Korea.  Why should she have to bend to the will of the group?  Whenever an older Korean woman kindly asked her to be quiet on the bus (as most Koreans travel in silence), she rolled her eyes at the woman and continued talking, remarking that the woman only told her to be quiet because she is Black.  Whenever she would catch children staring at her, she would shoot them a mean look and they would quickly turn around and hide their faces.  About a week later, she contracted H1N1 (“swine flu”) and was quarantined.

When you're open, random (cool) stuff happens to you.
Girl B embraced the “when in Rome” mentality but acknowledged that even Rome fell.  She'd do things the Korean way, as long as it didn’t change who she was at the very core.  She understood children weren’t trying to be insulting when they called her a man (because of her short hair) or asked if she was dirty (they'd never seen someone so dark before so they thought it was unnatural).  She had fun sharing na├»ve moments with adults and happy that she could serve as a teacher for the curious youth.  Even though one of her roommates (and some of her friends) contracted H1N1, she didn't.  She returned to Korea years later to teach full-time.

Ok, so I know this story was a bit over the top, and no, I am not suggesting that if you are rude to elderly people on buses you will contract H1N1, I just wanted to make the story dramatic, but again, this is a true story.  I’m Girl B and I came to Korea to work for a summer camp with 69 other teachers.  We knew very little about Korean culture so they briefed us.  Some were unhappy with what we learned and deemed some things unacceptable (and as something they will completely disregard).  Others felt things may not have been ideal, but at least tried to discern why things are that way in order to best combat them.  As with any people, if you are not exposed to others, you will only know what you encounter in media.  Particularly in rural Korea, there are many people who have never left their province.  As far as foreigners are concerned, most don’t exactly fly 15+ hours to visit a Korean rice field, so these Koreans never see them.  During our orientation, we experienced an H1N1 outbreak and a lot of teachers contracted it.

Bottom Line: When you travel, please remember that YOU made the choice to visit that place.  No one is twisting your arm saying “Come to my country and force your country’s ways on it.”  History has shown us how that has go horribly wrong time and time again.  However, just because you visit another place doesn’t mean you should not be yourself.  You can still be yourself and be respectful of others.  If you feel too strongly about the host country’s requests of its visitors, please choose another country.  You’ll enjoy yourself so much more if you are somewhere you feel unrestricted.
When we go to different countries, we are a representation of our country, race, gender, and/or culture to everyone from the little girl on the bus to the government.  It works both ways.  What you see and who you meet will greatly shape your opinion of the place and its people.  These opinions that you will form of each other will shape future interactions.  So if you insist on going to a particular country, you may have to compromise a little on some things.  It’s usually nothing major, just something different.  After all, how horrible is it to be silent in a silent bus?  Tread softly. :-)

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