Culture Clashes

Couchsurfing can make people nervous for various reasons, but questioning what it might do for your reputation or job security is not usually something that comes up. Janet at Journalist on the Run published a letter her friend received after hosting CSers at her flat in Korea. In it, her supervisor warns that her neighbors have filed a complaint about her because several strange men have been seen exiting her apartment over the past month.

Basically, her supervisor says, “I know you’re doing Couchsurfing, but you look like a slut, which is not the image we want for teachers in Korea, and you’re hired by the government of Korea, so you gotta change your ways or risk being fired.” Janet and the commenters discuss whether the supervisor should have supported the employee or whether the employee should have taken a cue from CS and adjusted to the new culture she finds herself in.

It’s a fine line between respecting cultural norms that are different from yours, and standing up for your own beliefs and way of life. This particular issue is made trickier because it involves her job. I guess for me, knowing that my job protection as an American in Korea is basically nil, I’d err on the side of caution and keeping my job. Then engage in conversation with other teachers and parents over the course of the year, with the goal of gently encouraging alternate points of view. Actually, if you’re a teacher in the States, your job security is pretty bad too, so that’s probably the tactic to take here as well.

Now, if it didn’t involve employment, I might act differently. Living in an apartment in Rome and my landlady disapproves of my nighttime visitors? Too bad, lady, I pay you each month and my bedroom is my business. Miming trying on a skirt at the night market in Chiang Mai and the merchant just laughs and says “too big! too big!”? Okay, that’s blunter than I’d hear at home, but you know your product better than I, so I’ll move on.

It can get a lot more serious, of course. A woman visiting Saudi Arabia? Cover your head. A lesbian couple visiting South Africa? Don’t hold hands. A Sikh man visiting rural Alabama? Bring a white friend. These aren’t matters of cultural misunderstanding so much as basic personal safety. How do we integrate respecting other cultures and respecting our own integrity? A question for the 21st century, and one that can only be answered by including the voices of people from the countries we visit as outsiders.

There’s a lot more to say on the topic, but I find myself posting later than expected today. Weigh in, dearest fellow travelers. What would you do if you were the teacher in question? What changes do you make in deference to cultural differences when you travels? What changes do you refuse to make?

4 thoughts on “Culture Clashes

  1. I know of an Asian-Australian living in Malaysia who used to be a big CouchSurfing host. She got into trouble with the police, as you’re not supposed to be an unmarried woman with male overnight guests if you’re Malay. When they approached her, all she did was wave her Australian passport at ’em. HAH. Take that, morality police!

    I love that story.

  2. I don’t think there’s much more to say that you haven’t already said, Lis. There are a lot of people whose definition of what’s right isn’t yours, but you don’t want to be dead right.

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