The Perils of Cultural Criticism

When I was a teenager this guy named Joey, an Australian, moved in next door. Joey was a generally loud person, and spent a lot of his time making negative comments about Canada. The main points that I remember were that taxes weren’t included in the prices and that “you would never see Australian drivers stopping for jaywalkers.”

Joey’s opinions about Canada grated on me. I even went so far as to justify the Canadian way of doing things in my head: “Well, not having taxes included in our prices makes us better at mental math, and people stop for jaywalkers because Canadians must care about each other WAY MORE than Australians.”

Later that year Joey hosted Kim, a young woman from Australia. If I had thought Joey was annoying, this woman was 1000 times worse. On top of her seemingly constant criticisms, she had a whiney voice, and I have this one memory of her sort of moaning at me, “It’s soah weiird that you guys dye your cheese yellerhhh.”

Ergh! I just wanted to tell her where she could stuff a block of white cheese. Leave us and our yellow cheese alone! Nobody forced you to come here!

Needless to say, I may have taken Joey and Kim’s cultural observations a bit personally.

Now that I’m older and better travelled, I understand that it is a bit strange that Canadian prices don’t include taxes and that our cheese is dyed a truly disconcerting shade of yellow. I’m also a bit ashamed about having been so defensive about Joey and Kim’s criticisms, although I also still understand why I felt that way.

The point of this story is that, now that I travel a lot, my feelings towards Joey and Kim have become more gracious because I have realized that I sometimes make similar comments in the countries that I visit. I struggle with the tension between the fact that, while I like expressing and communicating my feelings and I don’t generally consider them illegitimate, these comments can actually cause personal hurt or irritation to people from that country.

Here is one small example: I love food. I cook a lot at home. I spend more money on food than I do on rent. And I have generally have high standards for what I eat.

I’ll be honest: I don’t love Turkish food. I know it is famous around the world. I wouldn’t say that it’s unpalatable or disgusting. I have had some really good meals in Turkey, and some Turkish dishes are counted among my favourites. I am also especially thankful to Turkish people who have hosted me and cooked for me.

Generally, however, I find that Turkish food all tastes pretty similar and that the Turkish spice repertoire is limited. And there’s no vanilla in the cookies.

And so every time I come to Turkey, I end up dropping 5-10 pounds because, even though Turkish food is fine, I’m rarely enthused about eating it. To add to this, almost all Turkish restaurants serve exactly the same meals, so knowing that the same foods are all available to me at any time takes away my motivation to get really excited.

After a little while in Turkey I looked in the mirror and realized that, once again, I’d lost weight. Turning around to observe the new way my shirt was hanging, I made this observation out loud.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have done this. People were being very hospitable to me, and I wouldn’t want to imply that they weren’t feeding me well. Except that maybe that’s exactly how the comment came across. Now that I’ve left Turkey, I can’t help but think back on that moment and feel kind of ashamed by how rude this comment must have sounded. And it isn’t just that comment. There are actually a lot of things I don’t like about Turkey, and I comment on them fairly often. I would not be surprised or blame a Turkish person if I made a comment and they thought, “Nobody forced you to come here.”

On the other hand, I also think that it’s okay to feel conflicted about a place. I love Canada, but there are a lot of things about it that I don’t love (ranging from our history vis-à-vis our Aboriginal populations to the fact that it’s a lot harder to make friends to our generally sub-par public transport systems etc etc.) The difference is that, in Canada, if I make some comment about us having a bad public transport system, nobody will take it as a personal affront to Canada, but when two foreign girls did the exact same thing last year, they were disparaged as sanctimonious foreigners who had absolutely no understanding of how Canada works. (Make sure to read the comments at the bottom of the article. They are embarrassing.)

It’s a balancing act that I hope I don’t flub up too much. I love Turkey, but I don’t love all of Turkey. And I love Canada, but I don’t love all of Canada. And I try and hope to express my opinions in kind ways, and to express only opinions that matter, but often I don’t. Unfortunately for me, my status as a foreigner makes this a trickier road than usual to navigate. Who am I to say anything? Nobody forced me to come here!

It’s maddening. It’s one of the really uncomfortable things about travelling. It sometimes makes me wonder if I am actually a decent person. And yet, somehow I have to get past it and keep going and live with myself. Even if I’m not proud of things I’ve said or done, or if I feel conflicted about the value of expressing my opinions, or if it irritates me that my opinions are interpreted differently than those of a person from the country I am visiting.

I wish I could come up with some better kind of conclusion, but I can’t. This is just a challenge that comes with being on the road.

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  1. Ron Abarbanel says:

    This applies to more than just travel. Opinions in general are a minefield. If I hold an opinion about a political party, people in that party can be easily offended. Or about teachers, airline personnel and so on. But if I belong to the group about which I have an opinion, all is good. I have permission. Self effacing is ok, ripping other people’s faces off isn’t. I’ve never walked through a minefield without losing a limb or two! Have fun!!

    • Kate says:

      Haha, yes I know, you’re right. I do think it’s worse when travelling though because you don’t just have the option of running back into the fold of people who are like you (except virtually, of course.) Knowing that there are still a few months of this ahead of me is a bit daunting! Whereas if you make a joke about airline personnel at some kind of airline personnel convention and it doesn’t fly (haha!), it’s easy to call your best friend or go home to your wife who feels the same way about airline personnel…

      Unless they don’t, of course. Still, generally speaking I think it is easier to find people to validate your opinions in your own culture.


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