This blog post was updated on September 30, 2021.
It seems like everybody is talking about being mindful nowadays — and a lot of us are trying the practice out. But travelers have been concerned with implementing the art of mindfulness for a long time. In fact, traveling with an open mind, being aware of cultures and customs, is something of a must-do when it comes to being an authentic traveler. There is nothing wrong with this idea in theory, but it seems to have been taken it a bit further than merely being “aware” of different cultural traditions: Travelers are now preoccupied with the sentiment of being respectful of different traditions and customers — regardless of the tradition’s moral rectitude.
When cultural norms range from the innocuous to the ethically ambiguous, it becomes difficult to tell travelers to be respectful of traditions simply because they are traditions that have been around for decades (that, in fact, relies on a logical fallacy called the “Appeal to Tradition”). To address this, we’ve compiled a sniff test of questions to ask yourself when confronted with a morally ambiguous tradition abroad.
Do You Understand the Context of the Tradition?
As with any cultural tradition, there is certainly a historical precedent for the practice — it didn’t just come out of nowhere — and, more often than not, it probably has deep, important roots in the culture and means a lot to locals. A good example of this is bullfighting, one of Spain’s iconic traditions. While those unfamiliar with the cultural context of the tradition might balk at the apparent cruelty of death for public entertainment, a deeper dive reveals the cultural nuances that surround it. Whatever your personal ruling may ultimately be, it’s important to do your research before coming down with a judgment on another culture’s traditions. Be sure to approach the issue both from the perspectives of those that agree and disagree with the practice and make your judgments after thorough research.
Is the Tradition Actually Wrong…or Just Different?
Are you reacting negatively to a tradition because it’s wrong or because it’s just different than the cultural norms that you’re used to in your home country? This question is often asked in terms of the food practices of other cultures. In regions of Southeast Asia and the Philippines, there is a common dish called balut. It’s a nearly fully developed fertilized chicken or duck egg, boiled and meant to be eaten straight out of the shell. Depending on your personal dietary views, this could seem wrong only because it’s different (if you’re a vegan, it would be as wrong as eating a hamburger). If you’re perfectly fine with eating meat and dairy products, though, and you still balk at the idea of eating balut (or dog or horse meat), the tradition is not actually wrong — it’s simply different than what you’re used to.
Does This Tradition Harm Others?
Again, this question will have different answers for different people on some issues. For example, some animal rights activists might see bullfighting as harming others, even after doing their cultural research and fully understanding the tradition. But some issues are unequivocally wrong, such as the tradition of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet, literally “Black Pete,” as legend has it, is the companion of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, who comes from the Northern Africa region every December to distribute gifts. The controversy revolves around how Zwarte Piet is “celebrated”: People paint their faces black, their lips an exaggerated red, they don curly wigs, and dress in 17th-century Moorish garb. Though a majority of the Dutch population argues that the practice is a harmless tradition, that the perpetuation of garish racial stereotypes is harmful cannot be argued. Just because it has been a centuries-long tradition does not make it inherently correct. Some Dutch parades have noted this and Zwarte Piet is being slowly replaced by Sooty Piet, a character who delivers presents by sliding down chimneys, bearing a few sooty smears on their otherwise unpainted face.
You may also like: How Well Do You Know Christmas Traditions from Around the World?
If the tradition in question passed your sniff test — congrats, enjoy your travels and offer the differing customs the respect it deserves. If it didn’t, you have to ask yourself some more questions before you embark on your trip. For example, can you avoid the tradition during your travels or do you have to conform to them in order to travel and do everything you’d like to do (such as covering your head, shoulders, or knees in certain religious settings)? Even if you do not agree with the tradition — after you’ve done your contextual research, of course — is it worth it to you to uphold the customs in order to visit this place? These, and other important questions, are things that only you can answer for yourself. If anything, it further stresses the importance of doing your research and understanding the intricacies of cultural norms before you book those red-eye flights you were browsing a few days ago…especially if the destination is a place where you’re not sure about the customs and traditions observed by the people who live there!
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