I consider myself to be a tolerant and polite person for the most part. I make a very conscious effort to be a gracious guest and patron, not only when I am traveling, but also in the homes, restaurants, stores and other businesses when I am at home. If visiting a foreign country, I try whenever possible to learn a few basic social words such as hello, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me, etc., in the native language in order to show respect for those who live in the country I am visiting.
To be clear, I am not professing to be a seasoned world traveler, having only been out of the U.S. three times prior to this visit to India. On one of these occasions I befriended a Belgian family who gave me the very gracious compliment of telling me that I was, “not like most Americans.” While I love the U.S., I understood immediately that they meant this as s compliment and appreciated my genuine interest in their native culture. I was raised in a very open-minded, liberal home where I was taught no real prejudices, except for perhaps an intolerance for narrow-minded, intolerant or otherwise prejudice people. All in all before coming to India I felt confident that I would have nothing but appreciation and respect for the people and culture here, including their accompanying nuances.
I regret to say that I was wrong about myself. As much as I hate to admit it, I am a “typical American,” in several ways. I should have seen this coming:
I speak up loudly and often in group situations.
I am prompt, direct and strive for perfection.
I rarely shy away from confrontation.
I am independent to such a degree that I sometimes unintentionally, alienate myself from others.
I am driven to succeed by a force that can only be explained by the characteristically American ideal of Manifest Destiny.
All of these things I realize have made me unintentionally act, or at least be perceived by others, as impatient, rude and/or intolerant. I have caught myself in these situations before, and because I almost never intend to be rude or offensive to others, I apologize for my actions and work to be the kind of person I want to be. Other times, it’s not until after the situation has passed that I realize I have spoken or behaved inappropriately.
This happened to me today. I was complaining about the slow service in our hotel at breakfast, just as I had the day before. Tired of waiting for someone to bring the tea that I had requested, I simply got up and poured it myself. The second time I got up to get a refill, one of the hotel employees offered to pour it for me once I already had the pot in hand. I told him that I had asked for tea and no one brought it, so I would rather get it myself. Upon sharing this interaction with a fellow student she reminded me that service is simply slower here and that things take a little longer.
Later when I was packing to leave, it hit me: I was being that Asshole American who makes citizens in other countries think we are all rude!
As I thought about various social situations I have been in during our time here, I realized that there have been other occasions when I have been impatient or annoyed with the service here, be it the slow moving line at the checkout counter, at servers taking (from my perspective) a long time to take our orders, or the salespeople at the stores who seemed to hover over me as I shopped. In these cases I had said nothing, but I had felt annoyed.
I KNEW BETTER! One of the main goals of this trip was for each of us to act as contemporary anthropologists and ethnographers. As one of our readings, Ethnography for Marketers (Mariampolski), stated, in order to gain knowledge about a culture, we must study our subjects in their environments while suspending our own assumptions, judgements, and categorizations. I am truly ashamed of myself for not having done a better job of stepping away from my American self-reference criterion in order to truly embrace and appreciate the Indian culture. While it may have taken me nearly a week to come to this realization, I’m glad that I did. I am making a conscious effort to be more cognizant of my actions, words, and perceptions in order to avoid another instance of (albeit inadvertent), cultural imperialism.
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