Our Own Kind

1 Jan

I am basically a pretty patient person. And, I think, a pretty even-keeled, open-minded person, too. I think I do a fairly good job of not judging people, especially based on appearances. I’m good at giving people the benefit of doubt, assuming that they basically mean well, even when words or actions make such assumptions tenuous.

At least as long as they’re not American.

* * *

At face value, it seems like the movement to reduce ethnocentrism among aid workers might well be one of the more successful internal endeavors that The Industry has undertaken over the past two decades. Most of us have taken at least a class or two in anthropology (applied anthropology, of course) in which the importance of deferring to local sensibilities whenever possible, of refraining from value judgements about another culture and language, and that proposing change or abandonment of a local practice should be undertaken after exhaustive study to determine that no other way was possible were drummed into our heads. In some cases we were regaled with extreme stories of expats, some well-intended, who’d run off the rails by failing to properly understand or appreciate local traditional wisdom. We heard aid horror stories about how ethnocentrism and a lack of appreciation of local ways had in various ways led to this terrible outcome or that.

We’ve all been through orientation someplace where a local person, very polished and articulate in English, led us through a discussion of what we must do or not do or expect or not expect in that particular cultural setting. Don’t pat kids on their heads or point your feet at people because those are both rude. People often laugh when they’re embarrassed, so when the waitress spills coffee on you and then laughs, it’s not because she thinks it’s funny, but because she’s mortified and wishes she could crawl under the table and hide. It’s clear that we’re expected to adjust, to understand. There’s almost never any discussion about our being understood.

And that’s all good and well. We do need to spend our lives, among other things, concertedly trying to be less ethnocentric. I really believe that.

* * * * *

One of the great pleasures of this job, for me at least, as I travel around “my” region is meeting the ordinary citizens of the countries that I visit. I’m naturally curious about how they live, what they think, what they are like. And as much as I normally try to keep encounters about them, in almost every visit, sooner or later it comes back around to them asking me about myself and where I’m from. And I continue to be amazed at some of the things I am asked. Or, more precisely, just how ethnocentric people are. Against me and where I’m from.

It’s common to rail against the citizens of the United States as uninformed, generally, about the world outside of their country’s borders. And I often find myself agreeing with such statements when they’re made in my presence. But as I talk to shopkeepers in Amman or taxi drivers in Baku I’m struck with the feeling that they’re no better. No nationality or race is more adept than any other when it comes to ethnocentrism, flash judgments and plan misunderstanding of the other.

Most times it’s innocuous enough. Don’t all Americans carry guns on their person all the time? Do I drive a Hummer? Do I spend my weekends partying at discotheques? Most days I just indulge villagers with good-natured answers. I’m amused at some of the misunderstandings out there, and I enjoy those conversations a great deal.

Other times it can be more disconcerting: Are all American women sluts like Madonna? (I was seriously asked that once in exactly those words) Did I kill lots of women and children in the Vietnam war? (I was seriously asked this as well, much to the horror of the others in the room, by a mid-ranking cadre who was clearly drunk – too drunk to recognize that I could never have even been in Vietnam during the war.)

* * *

One thing that has come increasingly clear to me over the past years is that very often people are most ethnocentric against their own. From Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia and a host of places it has almost always been the Diaspora visiting home who displayed some the worst symptoms of culture shock that I’ve ever seen, and had the most shockingly ethnocentric things to say about their own people that I’ve ever heard.

And as I think about it, I’m sad to say that I’m no different. I can chuckle and banter with rural Ghanaian farmers or Afghan colleagues about the ways in which people from my country are misunderstood and how those misunderstandings translate into their assumptions about me, personally. Assumptions that can lead to everything from those uncomfortable questions to them insisting on feeding me stale white bread with years-old, dried out peanut butter at every meal rather than delicious local food.

But as soon as I get back into my own country and encounter the American equivalent of the drunk Vietnamese cadre or the misinformed Ghanaian farmer, my patience and tolerance has a way of disappearing faster than an ice cube in Khartoum. I can be gracious to the people of rural Kampong Chanang, but I’m exasperated with the People of Walmart before I’m five steps inside the store. The toothless old grannies of southwestern China with all of their horribly ethnocentric assumptions about western men still manage to leave me charmed. But the toothless bubbas of West Virginia or southern Washington make me think thoughts so ethnocentric that I’m shocked by them and have to catch myself and try to un-think them. 

* * *

Back when I was in college there was a young Thai woman in my social circle. She was nearly finished with her undergraduate degree in nursing and one of her course requirements was to do an on-site practicum in a medical institution somewhere. Like many visiting international students, she’d seen the big sights of the United States during breaks – Los Angeles, New York City, Disney World. And so when it came time to choose a site for her practicum, she looked at the list of options next to a map of the USA and chose…


A number of people, including me tried very hard to talk her out of going to Alabama. Wasn’t safe, we told her. Too many racist rednecks. Not a good place for an unaccompanied young woman of another race for whom English was a second language.

But she insisted on going. And in the end it worked out just fine. She found a local family that let her stay for free in their spare room, and to hear her tell it, they basically took her in and treated her as one of their own. The staff at the hospital where she did her practicum loved her. One dark night, trying to fix a flat tire in a rural area, a local southern gentleman stopped and helped her out and wouldn’t accept a thing in return.

She never had even a tiny little bit of trouble. No racist attacks, nothing. The worst thing, really, was that people kept calling her Chinese. She loved it and came away with an impression of America’s deep south far more favorable than my own, and it’s part of my own country.

I should probably try to be less ethnocentric against my own.

2 Responses to “Our Own Kind”

  1. Linda (@meowtree) 2 January, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    Once more you nailed it. Have thought about this a lot.

  2. laura 11 January, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    This is a really well-articulated reminder, I know I definitely can fall into that mindset against the US as well.

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