Undoubtedly one of the best things about travelling is the joy of experiencing a different culture. Of course there are other things too: the varying landscapes and architecture, weather and wildlife. But experiencing another culture is fundamentally profound. It forces you to recognise your own assumptions, biases and cultural values that shape your perspective, most of which you may not have known were there. Although it has become little more than a cliché to want to ‘find yourself’ travelling, perhaps there is some truth in it. Exposing yourself to new cultures allows the possibility of revaluating your own identity and the various peculiarities of how you perceive the world at large.
Despite the numerous benefits of immersing yourself in a different culture, the experience can place you in a uniquely vulnerable position. As any budding anthropologist will argue, culture and cultural taboos provide the rules by which individuals navigate through society. As a result, it can be difficult when our own rules, the ones we have accepted and made use of all our lives, no longer apply. Furthermore, there can be a litany of new rules that you have never been taught. These rules can lead to more than just miscommunication and social embarrassment; they have legal implications.
This was discovered by Naomi Coleman, a British woman who found herself arrested and deported from Sri Lanka for having a Buddha tattoo on her arm. The country is also the place in which two French tourists were tried two years before, having taken photographs where they pretended to kiss a Buddha statue. What is perhaps the most challenging aspect of these cases is the level of cultural subjectivity they entail. Laws about disrespect, particularly with regard to sensitive religious and social issues, predicate knowledge of what ‘respect’ means not only to individuals but also the laws of a nation. Ms Coleman was a practicing Buddhist so it is unlikely she intended to disrespect the image of the Buddha. When it comes to kissing religious iconography, there are some cultures that actively encourage the practice. It is clear that what is deemed socially acceptable to one person may be deeply offensive and disrespectful to another, laying a minefield of cultural taboos and tricky legislation for any incoming traveller.
Also, it is easy to forget just how different our own Western cultures actually are in relation to sexual liberality. In the most recent case, ten foreigners, including five British men, were arrested in Cambodia for posing in sexually provocative positions at a party. Anyone familiar with British nightlife would not be shocked by the images that have emerged of this case, which would probably not be deemed ‘pornographic’ according to our cultural norms and assumptions. In more conservative societies, however, these assumptions cannot be applied. Indeed, it has been reported that one of the men arrested stated the cause of the case as ‘just a difference in culture’.
Evidently, the vulnerability of being ‘culturally blind’ in a different environment can lead to real legal issues for individuals who break social taboos and laws that they may not have realised existed. While we can learn about the quirks of our own culture when immersed in another, it is a misstep to assume all that is acceptable to us is acceptable everywhere else. Although researching social norms and laws can be more difficult than looking up the weather or places to stay, there are some resources which specialise in just this. The FCO, for instance, provides a wealth of free information on these customs as a part of their Travel Aware initiative and Travel Advice pages with in-depth and specific information for 225 countries. After all, preventing an incident before it occurs is infinitely preferable to dealing with the consequences of finding yourself on the wrong end of the law.
It is clear that exposing yourself to another culture is one of the main motivating factors in any decision to travel. It influences where we choose to go, how we relate to our own cultures and how we understand our perceptions of the world at large. But it also forces us to recognise that what we consider perfectly normal may not be deemed acceptable elsewhere. Approaching this cultural minefield demands preparation, prudence and an open mind. But worry not; if you tread carefully, the destination may be worth the journey.