When westerners encounter cultural differences, the tendency is to view the other relative to the western norm and to apply a linear/ Darwinian logic.
People think of development as linear and always progressing. The western/ developed world is at one end, and everybody else is lagging someplace behind. As a part of this, we often assume that the problems in our culture or society are not only present in other cultures, but worse.
I know I’ve been guilty of this. When I first came to Asia, I noticed that there was no street harassment. This was very strange to me. Dealing with street harassment was just so normal, like watching for dog poop or jaywalking.
“Maybe they don’t like white western women,” I thought. “But surely other women are getting harassed. I’ve got to figure out who they harass here.”
After a few days of reflection, I came to see the many fallacies in my thinking. I had taken a common culturally-bound experience and mistaken it for universal, for a part of how things are.
After a little traveling and a lot of listening, I’ve noticed a couple other interesting examples of this same sort of thing. These examples come from Vietnam and Bhutan and concern courtship and marriage.
“Marriage by Kidnapping” by the Black H’Mong Tribe in Northern Vietnam
Here’s the western take: if a boy wants to marry a girl, he and his friends sneak into her room one night and kidnap her. They take her to the boy’s house where she has to cook and clean for the family for three days. Then they get married.
Sounds awful, right?
I talked to my guide about the practice. His parents were married this way.
Here’s what really happens: The girl would know it was coming because she and the boy liked each other. She would be anticipating the night with excitement. Her parents were looking forward to it, too, and they would be happy for her the morning they woke to find her gone. She then got a chance to “try out” her new home and really get to know the boy’s family (but absolutely no sexual interaction). After the three days, she would go home. Either family or party would get a chance to back out of the nuptials.
Part of the problem is the word “kidnapping” which implies a lack of consent. How about “Marriage by Surprise Elopement and Trial Period?”
“Boy Meet Girl” by the Sharchop in Eastern Bhutan
Actually this is usually referred to as “night hunting” in English. Out of respect for my Bhutanese friend who explained the practice to me, I’ll use the literal translation from Sharchop.
Here’s how the practice was explained to me by Westerners in Bhutan: in the villages, a boy will sneak into a girl’s room at night and rape her.
What the practice actually is: if a boy and girl like each other, the boy will come to her house at night. They will both sneak out to talk and flirt. After this goes on a while, the girl’s family will say to them, “Hey, we know what’s going on. You two should marry.”
(This makes far more sense anyway, since a Bhutanese family will usually all sleep together in the main room of the house where the furnace is. Also, I could never quite reconcile the practice- as wrongly explained to me- with what I knew about Bhutanese people and culture.)
This example also has a language problem. “Night hunting” implies lack of consent and predation. It’s pretty creepy and terrible really.
What to do?
I try to follow my three steps for cultural growth:
- Notice the jolt you get with you encounter something like this.
- Pause and learn more.
- Try to see how the practice is functional in the other culture.
It’s also good to identify and challenge any inflammatory, judgmental, or salacious terminology.
And while you’re at it, ask what your assumptions about other cultures tells you about your own.