Westerners must work to understand, respect other cultures' perspective
Globalization is the buzzword this century, and it’s not solely for economic reasons. More than 30 million Americans cross the U.S. border each year, and the number of university students participating in study abroad programs has nearly doubled since 2000. Despite this grassroots diplomacy, the stereotype of the loud, pompous, ignorant American persists.
When you watch television shows typically popular with Americans who travel or wish to travel abroad each year, a pattern develops. Whether it’s the “cool guy” swagger of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” the clumsy English humor of Karl Pilkington in Ricky Gervais’ “An Idiot Abroad” or even the adventurous spirit of the award-winning “Departures,” TV programs exposing the traveling-inclined to new cultures make the same mistake of many anthropologists a century ago: documenting the culture from the outside perspective.
Up until that point, many anthropologic efforts had been focused on documenting “the other,” or cultures differing from what was perceived as normal. The problem with this perspective is the assumption of what is “normal,” which typically ends up being the majority culture. For example, in America this would be white culture. The prevalence of this misunderstanding becomes apparent in the humor and uneasiness of someone documenting white culture. “Stuff White People Like” is an entire business model around the humor this kind of discussion provokes, and the humor is a response to the assumed “normality” of the culture.
When the assumption of normality prevails in a dominant culture, foreign cultures more than likely become “exoticized.” Due to American and Western cultures’ dominance over world media, economic strength and political influence, all other cultures become something strange and different to ogle, cringe or laugh at rather than to understand. For most of the popular travel shows, the “look at that strange thing they are doing” attitude overshadows the “how do these things look from their perspective,” if the latter is used at all. More air time is given to a Western host gaping over a Shaolin monk bending a spear with his throat than finding out why he doing this, why he became a monk, what it means to him to be a monk and what kind of struggles or enjoyments he encounters on a daily basis.
The reason for this is simple: It makes good TV. Where would Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods” be if he spent more time making the audience understand why a given delicacy is perceived as normal for some people instead of making faces and talking about how weird it is? Would “An Idiot Abroad” be nearly as entertaining without Karl’s comical revulsion of foreign cultures? As more and more Americans travel, however, it’s important to eradicate this attitude and our idea of what it means to be exotic. In respecting foreign cultures, we may in turn earn their respect.