Hospitality, Travel, Colonialism
So, I’m planning a trip to New York City and was looking at the menus of restaurants in Chinatown.
This got me thinking about my dad. Now, my dad is English with a dash of Irish, but at some point in his life somebody (He has never been clear as to who) taught him how to properly use chopsticks. He passed the skill on to me - I’m as comfortable with them as with a knife and fork, as long as the dish is prepared in a chopstick suitable way.
When I was struggling with them as a kid (I’m not the most coordinated) I clearly remember him explaining to me WHY I needed to know how to use chopsticks.
“Because one day you might be invited to a Chinese person’s house for dinner, and it would be rude to ask for a knife and fork.”
Now, there are quite a few British Chinese - Wikipedia gives 379,502 in England, although they appear to be including Malaysians in this. Not a huge minority (0.7%), but they’re there, and Nottingham has a substantial Chinese community. Not quite enough for a proper Chinatown, but…
So, it wasn’t a bad thought process that I might, indeed, end up in a Chinese person’s home at some point.
The important part though, is the second part. He was explaining to me that a guest should not bring their own culture into the home of their host and should not expect to be catered to, but should do their best to adapt.
The second part of what he taught me came years later when we were on the Greek island of Corfu and I was about 14. He said:
“Remember we’re a guest in their country.”
And the two things came together in my head into a philosophy I’ve attempted to apply to all foreign travel since.
1. You are a guest in their country.
2. A guest respects the culture of their host and does not expect their host to cater to their own.
Walking into a foreign country and expecting them to change for you is colonialism. It doesn’t matter whether the foreign country is Canada or Ghana. (Or, for that matter, the United States). It’s still colonialism. Westerners, with Americans often being the worst, can be horribly colonial when we travel overseas.
Then we blame the people we’re visiting.
“French people are so rude and the service is terrible in Paris.”
Well, let’s see, I spent three days in Paris and the only person who gave me bad service was the ticket taker at the Eiffel Tower, and they had huge lines - I think she had a reason to be a little bit abrupt!
In fact, I got fantastic service in Paris, from wait staff who are well-paid career professionals not kids who are terrified they won’t get enough tips to pay their bills.
Because I actually took the trouble to look up what French dining culture and etiquette was and follow it instead of expecting them to put up with me being a loud Brit (or worse, an even louder American). If you dress business casual, greet the maitre d'hote properly (If you don’t greet them, they assume you aren’t ready to be seated) and at least manage “Bonjour” instead of “Hello” you will get good service. Because you are being a good guest.
Thinking of yourself as a guest, as somebody who has the privilege of being allowed into their home (country) helps overcome those feelings of entitlement that we - particularly white Americans - tend to be raised with. It’s fine to think of your country as the best. It is not fine to walk into somebody’s home, demand they change their culture and break the furniture if they don’t.
A lot of white people don’t want to be blamed for the colonialism of the past. But if you really want that - then think about how you can reduce colonialism in the present.
Be a good guest.