There are seemingly endless tips on how not to offend the locals while traveling. We know that tank tops and shorts won’t fly past the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. We know not to leave a tip on the table while dining out in Tokyo if we don’t want to be pursued out of the restaurant to have our money returned by an insulted server.
We try to familiarize ourselves with local customs. Pack scarves and slip-on shoes. Make an effort to blend in. (See our 12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place for advice on this front.) We make this concerted effort not to offend out of respect for cultures different from our own. However, there are times when we, as the outsider, may feel awkward, insulted or even threatened by local customs or behavior.
Imagine walking through a mall in central Bangkok where a popular store sports a nearly life-sized doll that resembles the hate-child of Ronald McDonald and Hitler. Young people imitate the faux Fuhrer’s salute, posing for photographs with it. (Check out CNNGO.com for photos.) They wear T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator as a pink Teletubby, in a panda outfit or with the fast-food chain mascot’s red bouffant hairdo and yellow jumpsuit. To Western eyes, it’s offensive. It’s disrespectful. It’s also ignorant.
Similarly boorish is hefting a beer with a Buddha-tattooed arm right outside that very same shopping mall in Bangkok. In fact, Thailand is considering a ban on tourists getting religious tattoos because we fail to understand how offensive it is to drink alcohol, party and misbehave with such sacred ink showing.
Fair enough. We can respect that. But some things make us bristle — like being rebuffed if, as a woman, we try to sit down alone at a cafe in Morocco, or dancing the night away in a Jamaica club before we realize the lyrics to the music encourage homophobic violence.
How do you respond when you find yourself at odds with local ways or laws?
— written by Jodi Thompson
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