Stop defending unacceptable behavior abroad

defending unacceptable behavior abroad

Every once in a while, I like to let myself get completely livid about something I read online. Today, it was this article in defense of Chinese tour groups.

Some background, for those of you that want to spare yourselves the 10 minutes of reading it. The writer, himself Chinese, talks at length about his mom and dad’s background during the Korean War, during famine and communism. And ultimately about traveling to magnificent places around the world that had never been accessible to them until now.

I can appreciate that and personally empathize. Both my parents, Cuban immigrants who lived their entire lives under a communist regime, had similar experiences of rationing food and being lied to about the evils of capitalism. And they’ve since ventured out into the world themselves, like their Chinese counterparts.

That’s all well and good, but it’s largely irrelevant to the writer’s argument: that the background of Chinese people justifies unacceptable behavior abroad. Here is an excerpt of the article to that end:

“At the same time, how should we judge those who don’t like to queue up in your country when food rationing was still a thing until 1996 in theirs?

For whom bumping into you on the street is typical behavior in their congested home town of 11 million people with a sink-or-swim daily reality and where ‘personal space’ is a contradiction in terms?

Should we reprimand those who quite possibly spent a lifetime under oppression and have only recently eeked out the means to see a world that they’ve been told is the enemy for traveling by bus with a group of friends?”

Actually, the answer is yes. We should reprimand people, Chinese or not, for traveling in other countries like the entire world revolves around them. I appreciate the article’s attempt at giving context to behaviors that we find annoying when traveling. But there’s a difference between giving context and providing a defense.

Though I feel for the plight of the Chinese throughout history, that in no way justifies them disrespecting cultural norms when they travel. Because if I were to lie down on the floor in a Buddhist temple in Beijing, you better believe I would be reprimanded for not showing the proper cultural awareness and respect that I should.

I couldn’t justify driving on the right side of the road instead of the left in London by saying “Well, that’s what’s typical in my congested hometown of Miami.”

That’s like justifying rape by saying, “Well, he was abused as a child, so you have to understand where he’s coming from.” The fundamental logic of that argument is flawed.

Travel is a privilege, certainly. And not everyone is lucky enough to be able to do so, but when you travel, you have to understand that the onus of learning about the other culture to make sure that you are not stepping on anybody’s toes is on you. A lot of people praising the article mention that the tour guides are to blame for not telling Chinese tourists that they can’t cut people in line or that they have to respect personal space. The guides are definitely not helping the cause, but it’s also not their problem.

If you’re going to a country that’s new to you, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself about what is and isn’t considered acceptable behavior so you don’t offend. Simple as that.

You have to adhere to another country’s norms and customs if you’re going to be in their country. Because no country in the world exists to be visited. And just like Americans can be jailed in North Korea for illegally attempting to take photographs of propaganda, so should the Chinese be reprimanded for not following normal cultural norms in the US or Europe.

And really this applies to anyone of any racial background. The Chinese (like Americans and Russians) just tend to be a little worse because they’ve been told their whole lives that their country and culture is more important than everyone else’s in the world. And though that can also give a lot of context to explain why they behave this way, it doesn’t make it acceptable.

So let’s stop defending unacceptable behavior abroad under the guise of cultural awareness and empathy. And for the love of God, let’s stop praising flawed and illogical think pieces just because it makes us sound really tolerant.