Villages Don’t Have Bad Neighborhoods, Do They?

An interesting link on Arts and Letters Daily recently was this one, discussing the following point:

… those who travel and live abroad must be continually alert and never fall for the myth that we live in a “global village”. Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to religious observances, traditions, manners and gestures in other parts of the world. It is all too easy to be caught in cultural crossfire.

The impetus for this discussion came from the incident involving Gillian Gibbons, a middle-aged British schoolteacher who did something very silly in Sudan. (She let her class name a teddy bear after a classmate named Muhammad. Some secretary with a grudge took the opportunity to accuse her of insulting the Islamic Prophet of the same name, and had the woman jailed.

She could have been given 40 lashes or much more time in prison. And like the rest of the blogosphere, I agree: that’s so ridiculous it’s beyond comprehension. It really is. Religious tyranny ain’t cool, ain’t acceptable. If a cleric stays out of my way, I’ll stay out a his, but when religious nuts take over public life, it’s time to get out the guillotine.

But I still think that Ms. Gibbons was foolish in her actions, too. I mean, this is not London. This is Sudan. You’re living under an Islamic regime. You’re living in a place where, yes, everyone isn’t a religious fanatic, but where such fanaticism is socially acceptable and even upheld by the state. This is where you are living, lady. And you name a teddy bear — a toy animal — the same name as the most important figure in the local religion? I mean, wouldn’t you think twice naming a toy animal “Jesus Christ” or “Yahweh” if you were teaching in a school in, say, Mississippi or Alabama? (Or, for that matter, with the latter name, in Israel?)

The stakes are much lower in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Israel. So too, in Korea, especially because, right now, Korean society itself is in transition and is adopting a lot of Western sensibilities. Couples can hold hands in the street, and a kiss will not get you death threats or the possibility of jail — though individuals may try to tell off couples of the wrong racial composition, when their paths cross.

But I’ve seen the same attitude among a fair number of short-term expats living here, especially those planning on being here only one or two years. It’s like they’re actually just living in a Korean annex of Canada — that’s how they behave. Yes, Canada — lots of the white people here these days are Canadian, not American (like me). They walk about as if they’re in Canada, or, worse, as if they’re in some kind of inferior country where the rules don’t apply to them. Dumb-assed white boys carrying beer bottles into an unlicensed coffee shop where beer cannot be sold or consumed, and then settling in to a long poker game: this is where, in Toronto, or in Oshawa, or Vancouver, the shop owner would kick you out and if you didn’t comply, they’d call the cops. So why do it in Korea? These guys do not realize they’re not God’s gift to Korea. They do not seem to understand that there are rules here, too, and that they apply to them the same as everyone. It’s worse than not realizing this isn’t their home country: it’s not even realizing that every place in the world has norms and rules, and one doesn’t rise above all that because of his or her skin colour.

Even among my well-adjusted friends, early on, there have been gaffes. One smart, cool buddy of mine went shopping for fishing gear. He was struggling to ask a surly old shop owner a question, and the shop owner — no sweetheart himself — basically indicated he wasn’t interested in trying to understand a question in badly-spoken Korean. He basically gestured for my friend to leave, and when my friend, annoyed by this, muttered, “Fine. Fuck you, too,” the old fellow caught it, understood it, and starting hitting him in the head with a fishing rod while yelling, “Puck you? Puck YOU!” (At least, that’s how I remember the story he told.) My friend here was following North American rules — replying to rudeness with rudeness, which seems much less common in Korea — but he was also assuming (wrongly) that non-Anglophones don’t know what, “Fuck you” means. Luckily, all that happened was he failed to buy a fishing rod. I don’t know whether Koreans would consider the man within his rights to tell off a Westerner who cussed at him under his breath, but I do know that most Koreans wouldn’t do it themselves. Frustrating as that is, that seems to be how it’s done here: rudeness on the others’ part doesn’t always justify a rude response on the part of the offended party.

The article linked included a long list of etiquette points for the world traveler, but failed to make the most important point obvious:

Realize that you don’t know everything about how to behave in this culture, and pay attention to the locals for cues on how to do so. Not knowing is not an excuse. Think about it, or better yet, ask a local.

Once you know the rules, and the consequences for breaking them, you can make personal decisions about when to follow the rules, and when to break them. That option is, at least, available to everyone living in a certain culture, and you’ll always find locals who ignore certain cultural norms routinely.

For example, Koreans will tell you it’s rude to eat noodles as the Japanese do, slurping and making noise as you consume them. But go to any restaurant, and you’ll hear a few Koreans slurping their noodles. Koreans will tell you that eating with your mouth open is rude, but of course, a few people do it regularly, and don’t get asked to close their mouths. (A lady eating with her mom the other night put me off my dinner by the sheer torrent of noise she made chewing with her mouth open.) Koreans will tell you that kissing in public is not normative in public, but you see a couple doing it every once in a while. How do these normative violations differ? Well, living here long enough, you’ll know that the hangups about sexuality and especially sexuality between Koreans and non-Koreans run so deep that one is much better off slurping his noodles and not kissing his girlfriend on the subway than he would be doing the reverse.

The thing to realize is that the “Global Village” metaphor is simply a poor one. We are, on this planet, much more like a global metropolis, at least at thing point. Different cultures, ideologies, and belief systems aren’t the reason for this — people in a village can differ. It’s the fact that fundamentally different cultures, ideologies, and belief systems guide the behavious of people in different areas, and that some of those areas tend to be dominated not by a pluralistic, accepting attitude toward difference. Sudan is not an example of a single house in a Global Village — it’s much more like a poor, messed-up neighborhood in a big city, and one that should be visited with great caution. One does not just pop into the worst district of one’s home city for an “adventure,” nor should one go abroad thoughtlessly seeking for that reason.

13 thoughts on “Villages Don’t Have Bad Neighborhoods, Do They?

  1. I always try to keep in mind that I am a guest when I am in another country and try to conduct myself as I would in another person’s home. When I go to another person’s house there are things I do and would not do to make my host comfortable and obey their house rules. It’s the same thing when living or travelling overseas. I was constantly appalled by some of the actions of people I saw in Indonesia. Indonesia is a modest Muslim country and I kept on seeing people wearing tank tops and very short shorts. That’s not necessary, and it’s pretty easy to read a few books and find out the proper way to dress yourself while you’re there. I was also pretty disgusted with some of the vegetarians I met in Mongolia. These people wanted to go stay with herding families, but said that they wouldn’t eat meat given to them by the families because killing animals was wrong. Okay, so you want to take someone’s hospitality, but you don’t want to eat their food or accept their way of life which is based on keeping animals and consuming animal products? That was so unbelievably arrogant and rude to me.

  2. “lots of the white people here these days are Canadian, not American (like me)”

    I would move the parenthetical to after “Canadian,” lest people think you are an American. We wouldn’t want that now, would we? ;)

    As for the post in general, I would have a hard time disagreeing.

    (And after reading Alexis’ comment, my first thought was: “Vegetarians in Mongolia?” Obviously they didn’t do too much research on the Mongolian diet before they went (I spent six months in Mongolia myself, so I know).)

  3. There is a difference between the woman in Sudan you’ve just described and the Canadian “white boys” behaving like chimpanzees. The British woman was actually doing something useful in Sudan, and while I could be wrong, she doesn’t look like the kind of person who would deliberately go out of her way to flout cultural norms (whatever those are) in Sudan.

  4. I almost picked up Living in a Foreign Language (subtitled a memoir of food, wine, and love in Italy) at the library last night, just because I liked the idea of the title.

    However, I reached my lifetime quota of expat-in-Italy memoirs quite a while ago, so I passed on the book. But I’m still thinking about the title: what that means for wherever I go.

    And it seems like an appropriate thought for clueless expats everywhere (not you, of course).

  5. While I agree with the gist of your overall points here, I have to give the teacher a little more credit than you did. Mohammed is an incredibly popular name in Sudan, more along the lines of naming it Jesus in Mexico. And apparently, it was named after one of the most popular boys in the class, and the name voted on by the class members. Granted, the possible problem should have crossed the teacher’s mind, but in this situation, it’s not as obvious as calling it Jesus in a Fundamentalist Xtian society.

    But yeah, tourists get a bad name everywhere for not knowing local customs–and if you’re staying somewhere more permanently, it’s crazy not to try to understand local customs and to follow them to the best of your ability, given common sense, your own essential ethical stance, etc.

  6. Hi Gord,

    Many commenters have already said what I want to say. I also agree with the gist of your entry, but I wouldn’t be too harsh on the British woman involved in the teddy bear incident. I think she was truly coming at this with good intentions and oblivious (unlike the unruly Canadians in Korea). Many articles I read quoted her saying (upon return to UK) how much she loves Sudan, its people, and how she’s grateful for the time she spent there. Naive yes, but I don’t think she was arrogant or malevolent like the Canadians you described in Korea.

    As for cultural values and global village, I totally agree that there are wide variations within a culture. However, I’m not sure what you meant by “Different cultures, ideologies, and belief systems aren’t the reason for this — people in a village can differ.” In the line of work I do, we emphasize that there are deep divides in values (often invisible as you said; the iceberg model of culture). But some folks tell us that it’s more a matter of differences in personality rather than culture — a line of argument that we actually sneer at. It’s so easy to attribute “strange behaviors” to personality because we never bother to investigate. Anyway, not sure if you were implying that cultural values do not lead to these differences….

    Lastly, I was a bit taken back by what you said at the end about Sudan being “poor, messed up.” Perhaps in some ways yes, but I would be careful about juding a country based on your own set of values/criteria and then labeling it negatively. I’m sure lots of expats in Korea would label Korea as “messed up” too. From my own experience in Norway, I could easily say Norway is “messed up” too. But I don’t. Each country/culture has a very different way of doing things. I don’t think “messed up” is a useful term to promote understanding because we simply slap a label on and refuse to try to understand. For example, how useful would it be for immigrants/tourists to Canada to complain about the way Canadians do things and call it “messed up?” I think these types of immigrants/tourists are blinded and have a hard time growing/succeeding.

    thanks for the food for thought…

  7. Replying to comments one by one here:


    Yeah, I try to remember that people have a way of doing things, and I mean by that, to keep myself aware of it. I don’t think this bars me from making judgments, and I find my judgments line up with those of individuals locally surprisingly often. For example, many Koreans I know agree that people in general are quite inconsiderate on the subway or the sidewalk — they cut one another off, at times shove, or blare noise into an already-noisy and uncomfortable environment. Locals don’t always agree, but culture doesn’t blind them to many of the annoyances of daily life — they would change things too, if they could.

    The vegans-in-Mongolia, though, sound like morons, and it seems to me this is a good example of why human omnivorousness helped us spread worldwide. Arrogant and rude? Yeah, but also just plain stupid.


    You’re right, wouldn’t want people to think I’m a Merkin. I’ll make an edit.

    When were you in Mongolia?


    Owch! Yes, maybe the woman was doing good there, but like the evangelical Koreans in Afghanistan, one’s do-gooding gets a little tarnished when one causes a headache for the old government back home. I don’t think she looks like the sort to willfully offend, like the frat-boys-in-Korea I mentioned (not all of them white, by the way: some Korean-blooded Westerners, some of other backgrounds entirely). But I’m not entirely sure she isn’t the sort to just kind of stumble her way into Sudanese jail cell.


    I haven’t read any expat-in-Italy memoirs, ever! I didn’t know there was a genre. But yeah, living in — or on the outskirts of — a foreign language, it’s a strange thing. I’m at the point where I could either go back into Korean study, or… do other things. And I’m torn. I think it is indeed an appropriate thought for me along with those other expats. (Though, as I pointed out to one guy I know, and was pointed out to me very early on by a Westerner who was learning mid-level Korean at the time, quality of life goes up when you study — but on certain occasions, one would much rather not understand what’s being said around one. Especially when it’s a table of guys cursing out the “effing American” that they assume you are.


    You’re right, Mohammed is a more common name in the Muslim world than Jesus or Yahweh is in Anglo-America or in Israel. Also, the secretary-with-a-grudge thing makes me question whether naming a toy Mohammed would be considered an insult by your average Sudanese Muslim… or, anyway, considered risque enough that a local, experienced teacher would steer clear of the name. Personally, I’d have gone for an English name like Mike or Winnie.


    Yeah, I didn’t bring out enough that I also sensed she was oblivious… I just don’t feel certain that such obliviousness is excusable. And I’m not sure the Canadians I mentioned are so malevolent, really — they’re stupid, oblivious, and also young males. Young males are just more stupid, brash, and prone to push limits. They’re dickheads, but “malevolent” seems a strong word. I think a certain (relatively similar) segment of Korean males also acts this crassly — just in other ways, ways considered unacceptable in Korea but tolerated in practice — and they’re not considered malevolent.

    As for cultural values and global village, I totally agree that there are wide variations within a culture. However, I’m not sure what you meant by “Different cultures, ideologies, and belief systems aren’t the reason for this — people in a village can differ.�? In the line of work I do, we emphasize that there are deep divides in values (often invisible as you said; the iceberg model of culture). But some folks tell us that it’s more a matter of differences in personality rather than culture — a line of argument that we actually sneer at. It’s so easy to attribute “strange behaviors�? to personality because we never bother to investigate. Anyway, not sure if you were implying that cultural values do not lead to these differences…

    My point being that vast chasms of difference in attitudes, in boundaries of acceptability, and so on exist within each culture, too. In a lot of subjects, between certain cultures — like, say, prairie Canadian culture and urban Korean culture — I’d say there are fewer differences than between prairie Canadian culture and youth culture in Toronto. In other words, cultures aren’t really hyperdetermined narratives, as much as regions of acceptable narrative surrounded and occasionally punctuated by specific borders highlighting acceptable and unacceptable narrative transgressions. Those borders are moving slowly but constantly, all the time. Because cultures are alive inside individuals. Cultures are modular, and like everything else that imperfectly self-replicates, they cannot help but change over time. (The idea of memes — imperfect self-replicating idea-units that spread infectiously from mind to mind via language — comes to mind. Not patronizingly: my head’s full of memes too. In every culture, there are some who question the memes in their heads, and many who don’t, or do so only occasionally.)

    As for issues of understanding and respect, Sudan’s issues with pointless religious wars and, more recently, genocide — and government support of the latter — are what made me use the term “messed up.” I’m comfortable with not promoting an understanding of genocide from the cultural logic of those performing it.

    Which is to say, Canada is not currently messed-up in the general way I was describing — though not long ago, it was, very much so, and was leading the world in inventive ways to deracinate native people. (Australia took a lesson from Canada.) I have no idea about Norway. Korea is much less messed-up than Sudan, or than Canada was, in terms of race. In terms of the gap between rich and poor, it’s worse than Canada.

    And finally, when clerics and religious doctrine are so powerful that a person can be jailed for giving a name suggested by children to a toy, a common name, because the name is also the name of a religious figure, when clerics and their fantastical notions can actually put someone behind bars, I have to admit, I’m less than interested in understanding. When morons are out there calling a death sentence down on a middle aged foreign woman for naming a toy what Muslim children suggested, I have to say that those civilians are messed up. Maybe not many, but if the protests actually took on critical mass, then yes, messed-up is a description I feel justified in slinging at Sudan.

    Note I’m not disrespecting the religion itself, just the morons who allow themselves to be lathered up over it, to the point where they’re calling for someone’s death over a minor insult. (Though I should add that I vaguely, uninformedly, suspect the fuss would never have happened if it’d been a Sudanese teacher.)

  8. I was trying to find a mystical object that would give me control over the very fabric of the universe. Or I was teaching English. One or the other. My memory is a bit fuzzy.

  9. Fuzzy Memory Syndrome is a symptom closely associated with being tricked by Teh Forces of Teh Evol who screw you out of the very kind of Mystical Power Object (level 3+) that you mention. Do you remember, even vaguely, anyone with a long, waxed moustache, or perhaps a buxom young woman in tight black/red leather with a cape and a pair of swords? If so, we have much to talk about at our next visit. I’ll invite my tea… er, my friends who have a common experience with yours, “teaching English” in “strange places.”

    On the realz, teaching English in Mongolia. What was that like?

  10. Tell you what. Sometime this month or next, we’ll have to get together and I’ll tell you about it over beers. I could probably write a book about my sixth months there. There’s way too much for a blog comment.

  11. Charles,

    Sounds good. Exams are done in a week, I’ll be grading a bit more than that, but I won’t leave on any holidays for a while. (Maybe January, if at all…)

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