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Cultural differences every traveler should know |

Travel and Tourism

Cultural differences every traveler should know

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE - Jim Paredes - The Philippine Star

The world is not a homogenous place, thank God. There is diversity everywhere from the way people look to how they conduct themselves in everyday life. It’s a multicultural world.

When traveling abroad, it is best to know the customs and traditions of the place you will visit. A foreign traveler may be friendly, open and well-meaning but if he behaves in a way that the people in a host country find objectionable, he may get into trouble.

There are little things or topics one must know and watch out for  to avoid  downright trouble that may come up in everyday life. An innocent action, an insensitive, tactless remark, an unknown breach of protocol on the part of the visiting traveler can cause great embarrassment, or distress. A little “local” knowledge is not only handy but also important to help you avoid disappointment and may also endear you to the natives abroad.

Here are a few things that are good to know. Some may be obvious while others may get you scratching your head!

 1)  Toilets — something we take for granted — are not standardized around the world. In Europe alone, bowls come in different sizes and designs.  Some toilets have a “landing  space” or platform before yesterday’s meal is washed away by the water and flushed forever.

In Britain, toilets are known as “water closets” or W.C.s.

In countries like Japan and most places in the Middle East, one must often squat on top of an elongated, porcelain hole while resting the feet on two footholds on both sides. It is amazing that even old people in these places have no problem squatting probably due to the life-long habit of doing it this way. But thank God, there are also western-style toilets available everywhere.

With regards to bathing, Asians generally like to take daily showers, sometimes more than once a day. Many Europeans can go for a few days without taking baths.

2)  In Indonesia, don’t point with the forefinger or pass anything with your left hand. Always use your right with the palm up with the left supporting the wrist. 

3)  In Thailand, never touch a person’s head. It is a grave insult to do so since the head is the most esteemed part of the body. Also, never cross your legs in company or point your toes to another person. It is considered an insult since the feet are the lowest part of the body.

         It is also bad form to enter anyone’s house with your shoes on. You must take them off and leave them by the door.

4)  In many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, it is quite common to see two men walking while holding hands. It is not a sign of  homosexuality or anything like that. Body language and expressions are just different in many places.

Arabs, for example, like to talk with little space between themselves and the other person, much to the discomfort of Westerners.

5)  In India, a nodding of the head back and forth or up or down does not mean or signify  a “yes.” A “yes” is expressed by the movement of the head from side to side.  This can be quite confusing when you encounter it the first few times.

6)  In Brazil, nudity or close to total body exposure is a national sport. In beaches everywhere, women don the skimpiest bikinis or go topless. When I went to Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro years ago, I was quite surprised that women actually seemed to enjoy being stared and ogled at and were not bothered by loud comments from men.

 In Arab countries, it is the exact opposite. Women are covered literally from head to toe to intentionally hide every curve, or anything feminine about her. The little areas left exposed such as hands, wrists, eyes, ears, etc. are usually bedecked with gold and jewelry.

I often wonder how little children can find their mothers among a group of such women, but they do!

 7)  Drugs are a no-no in many countries. Often, drug possession alone can lead to a death sentence. Take this very seriously.

9) Though a country may appear very secular and tolerant, it is generally still taboo to visit churches and holy shrines in shorts or very revealing clothes. Dress accordingly.

 10) Finally, in many Asian countries, rice — not bread or potato — is the most popular staple. Not only is it popular but there is also something sacred about the connection between rice and life itself.

The throwing of rice at weddings originated in the east. Rice supposedly symbolizes fertility and abundance. In China, the word rice means “to eat.” In Japan, the planting, harvesting and preparation of rice have religious overtones. A little boy or girl who finishes every grain on his/her plate is called a Little Buddha.

 So, in sum, be ready to adjust  to the culture of the place you will visit, or do not travel at all.

 I’d like to end this by recalling something attributed to Mark Twain. He once wrote that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”



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