Travelers from other parts of the world don’t hesitate to wear a kimono in Japan, a sari in India, get their hair braided in Africa or toss one of those funny looking straw hats on their heads in Vietnam. They don’t hesitantly post the photo op to social media hoping their feed isn’t attacked by trolls accusing them of cultural appropriation. Outside of the overly politically correct culture of America, concerns of offending an ethnic group or nationality simply by wearing something originating from that place is just not a thing.
Only in America would people decide that something is offensive to someone else without even asking the affected group if it bothers them or if they even care. When I first got to India I was hesitant to wear the traditional clothing because I'm so conditioned to worry about offending someone even though I had heard from several locals that it was totally appropriate and even appreciated. That's when I came to the conclusion that there is a difference between painting on "black face" and simply wearing a sombrero in Mexico. It comes down to intention. It’s one thing to wear a burka on Halloween and another to wear a hijab in a Muslim country or in a religious area out of respect.
In India, where women aren’t always shown as much respect as they should be, I noticed a change in how I was treated when I was wearing the traditional clothing. In a culture where it’s customary to dress modestly with your knees and shoulders covered, wearing a sari or other traditional clothing makes the most sense because they are made specifically for the area with climate and conditions taken into account. The material is lightweight, cool and comfortable. While dressed in my Panjabi suit, the women seemed to appreciate the effort in taking an interest in their culture and the men seemed to see me as less of a tourist, which garnered me more respect.
As an American abroad, not only am I more aware of my own actions being perceived as offensive or not politically correct, I find myself being shocked almost on a daily basis by what other foreigners as well as locals have the nerve to say out loud, in front of other people.
For instance, on a tour of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the tour guide explained why the women were covered head to toe even in the blistering heat. Contrary to most people’s assumptions, it isn’t for religious reasons. The women wearing long sleeves, pants, socks with sandals and even gloves are not covering their skin for the sake of modesty, they’re hiding from the sun.
The Vietnamese tour guide went on to explain that Asian women view fair skin as more beautiful and desirable than tan or dark skin. Standing in front of a bus full of ethnically diverse travelers, the guide spoke openly about disliking her own olive skin tone and admitted that most women in south east Asia use skin bleaching products. As the "whitest" woman on the bus I was incredibly uncomfortable. I nervously adjusted my posture to angle myself away from the guide and looked out the window, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with any of the dark skinned women she had just deeply offended.
I sat there for a while thinking about how inappropriate her comments were; feeling a sense of outrage on behalf of the rest of the women on the bus. But now I realize I was doing the same thing I'm complaining about. Shaming the guide on behalf of the people I decided were affected by her comments and actions. I never asked the other women how they felt about her comments, I just sat silently in judgement of the guide and the situation. Shocked that anyone would have the nerve to say something like that in mixed company.
Looking back, I'm glad the guide shared that anecdote about her culture. Regardless of the negative connotations associated with seeing light skin as more attractive than dark, it sparked a lot of really interesting conversations with people I shared the story with and explained why women all over SEA wear gloves and socks year round.
Vietnam isn't the only place where people seem to play fast and loose with potentially offensive comments. A travel blogger I follow posted a picture to Instagram this week from South Africa and it reminded me about how I felt the first time I visited the country and heard someone referred to as "colored." Her caption reads in part:
Really fascinating stuff if you can just get beyond that initial shock factor and let your curiosity have some freedom outside of the confines of fear of judgement.
(You can check out the post and more from Gloria Atanmo @glographics on Instagram.)
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