June 28, 2010

The culturally insensitive American and the new Middle East

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I finally got around to watching Sex and the City 2 this past weekend.  I have no issues with admitting that for years, I was an ardent fan of the TV series.  I liked the fashion, although sometimes it got to be a little too much.  I thought it was great that women could get past 30, be single and independent. 

While I found the movie to be very entertaining, this time Samantha really got on my nerves.  For years I'd been a big supporter of this successful career woman who doesn't take no for an answer and flies in the face of convention.  Not this time.

Samantha was the stereotype of the culturally insensitive American.  Loud and brash, they walk around the world expecting everyone else to speak English, mainly because it's the only language that they themselves are able to speak.  They don't bother to study the local customs or language, and feel that they can do as they please anywhere.  While I haven't met many of these people in real life, especially in recent years as I tend not to move in those circles, anecdotal evidence suggests that they do exist.

I may not speak the language of every country I visit, but I take pride in the homework I do on the customs and culture of the people of those nations.  I dress modestly when I visit temples around the world.  I take care to point the soles of my feet away from people in Thailand, and I don't pat children on the head.  I don't extend my left hand to greet others while in Muslim countries, and PDA is the furthest on my mind.

I'm not sure what kind of message the writers were trying to send the audience.  For me, I always knew that while the Middle East has "modernized" over the last few years at a breakneck pace, it doesn't mean that the people have thrown away their culture or morals.  So while Samantha may scream "The new Middle East, my ass!" I would attribute her mistake as a combination of arrogance and naïveté.

One should always be aware of the legal and moral boundaries wherever one goes, and cross them at one's peril.  I have zero sympathy for people who cross the line, plead innocence, then decry the local laws as being "barbaric" and "outdated".  I always thought Michael Fay deserved the caning he got, and that Bill Clinton was wrong to plead for mercy.  Same with drug traffickers who got caught and were hung in Malaysia.

I hope that while the audience got a few good laughs at Samantha's antics, it also served to remind them how not to behave.  It really doesn't pay to act insensitively in foreign countries, as it could only ruin what would otherwise be a pleasant experience.  Next time you're in a country like France, instead of hollering in English, try a couple words of your broken French.  My guess is that you'll find a much warmer reception than you were expecting...

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