Allie Holtzer, 127 TCCS
As Peace Corps Volunteers, we go through months of training to learn how to be culturally appropriate in our host country. There are a ton of expected behaviors in different countries – not being aware of the accepted behaviors can be detrimental to our integration and in the long run, our service. In America, we learned key manners to become a polite member of (American) society. Those manners include waiting in line, not burping in public, and covering your mouth when you cough. However, other countries have their own set of rules…
The first time I went to a store in Ukraine, like any polite young lady, I went to the cashier and waited behind the person who was paying. All of a sudden two people walked right in front of me and put their stuff on the counter to pay. I looked around and asked what they were doing, they said there was no line you just go. Although I was a little ticked off at the initial cut, I thought I could get used to this.
Some behaviors that are “no big deal” in America are serious offenses in Ukraine. If you whistle inside a house in Ukraine, you are whistling away the homeowner’s money. This rule is taken very seriously and can ruin relationships with host families. Another serious rule is the seating position of a single woman at a table: If a single woman sits at the corner of a table, she will never get married. So when planning dinner parties or meetings, it’s extremely important to think of the placement of women because marriage is very important to living a happy life, obviously.
After I returned home from Ukraine, I found myself getting a little antsy when Americans didn’t follow the norms I learned in Ukraine. I was frustrated at 7-11 waiting for the person in front of me. I avoided sitting at the corner of the dinner table. I’d whip my head around whenever I heard someone whistling inside. These new behavior patterns stick with you!
As time passed and I was getting ready for my service in Thailand, I found myself Googling manners and superstitions in the country and the Buddhist religion. I knew I would be trained on these things, but I was still anxious about what new ticks would be engrained in me this time around.
When we got to Thailand, we got the typical run down of appropriate behavior like being aware of your feet, dressing conservatively if you’re a woman, using a fork to push food onto a spoon to eat, and… well, everything! As time goes on, these things become second nature. I know at every dinner or meetings, the oldest person or the person holding the highest job title gets served first and the youngest does the serving. I am aware when greeting my co-workers every morning, I have to bow to the oldest person first and go down the line in age. I know these everyday rituals – they’re easy to understand and follow. But the more unusual ones really light my fire. If two men in one village die, that means a ghost is angry. Homeowners hang red shirts outside their houses to tell the ghost there isn’t a man inside and to float on by. That red Fanta you might see on spirit houses? It’s placed there because ghosts drink blood (duh) and the Fanta mimics the blood and keeps the ghost/spirit from entering the main house with all those pesky living people.
I find myself asking people why they adhere to these rituals and where they came from. A lot of people reply that it’s just what they do, and it seems like things have gone well so far so why stop?
Now that my service is ending in less than a month, I know for a least a little while, I’ll be conscious of my feet, make sure to cover my shoulders and will probably have trouble using a knife. I plan on traveling to several countries after my service, which means back to Google to learn appropriate manners in various countries.
I find myself “ruined” after Peace Corps, I’m hyper aware of being proper. Although this is probably a good thing, it can be quite stressful for myself and for my more free-spirited friends.
We often stay in hostels in Bangkok when we have to go to the city for medical or meetings and I find myself scolding women travelers heading to the temples in shorts or drinking out of bottles. The first time I told a woman she was dressed inappropriately, I saw her face change to confusion and a little anger. I realized I was basically the old woman yelling “get off my lawn”, and to be honest I didn’t care that much and I still don’t. I feel as citizens of the world, people should be more cognizant of the cultures they’re visiting, just as we would feel about foreigners visiting America.
So the next time you’re planning a vacation, do yourself a favor and Google some do’s and don’ts. And if you ever visit Ukraine NEVER walk in front of an old woman carrying an empty bucket…unless you want to get yelled at and probably hit with the bucket.