I’d been in Jodhpur, India, for a little over a week when a situation arose that we had been warned about during our orientation week. We had been told not to talk about religion or politics with our host families. At the time, I had thought to myself, “Well, that’s a bummer. Those are things that I care about, things that I really like to discuss.” Even so, having spent six weeks with a host family last summer in Paris, I had a sense that the subjects would come up whether I brought them up or not. They pretty much always do, and personally, I’m too lazy to try to casually avoid the topics.
Well, whether I wanted it or not, the “touchy” subjects came up over dinner one night when my host uncle was visiting. All of us were sitting on the floor, eating . I was pretty much minding my own business, with Hindi conversation taking place around me, hoping that someone might start talking to me. Maybe they’d ask me where I was from or what I was all about. I didn’t really care; I was just getting a little bored. Well, my wish quickly came true as my host uncle started asking me several questions in broken English about my family. The questions were along the lines of “How many people live in your house?” and “How many brothers or sisters do you have?” Everyone was laughing as he talked, which later I was assured was directed not at me but at his English. Very unexpectedly, the conversation shifted onto the topic of how small and inferior the American family structure is to that of the Indian family. “Indian families are large and everyone lives together in one house,” I was told. “American families are too small.”
Unfortunately, any effort of mine to contribute to the conversation was quickly ignored. The lecture quickly began to accelerate. I felt hopeless trying to get in the way of this barrage of questionable opinions that were being presented to me as facts. “America supports Pakistan too much. Pakistan is a terrorist country. … America is a great and powerful country. It gives milk to the snake of Pakistan.” My continued efforts to turn the lecture into a discussion proved a failure as the rant aggressively proceeded. All the while, the five or six other female family members sitting with us started laughing. I didn’t really know what was happening, but I somehow didn’t feel all that flustered. At this point, I had kind of given up and was just passively listening to whatever was said.
Across from my host uncle sat his wife, on the ground with her legs crossed. With a veil hanging over half of her face, she sat and laughed as her husband entertained everyone with his tirade. Honestly, I was slightly entertained myself; at least there was more action than there had been during the meal. My host uncle pointed at his wife and defiantly told me, “A covered woman is beautiful. A woman should be covered. A man, not covered, is good. A woman not covered is not beautiful.” Again, everyone kept laughing and no one seemed to have a problem with what he was saying. I started to say something but was so quickly overtaken by him repeating himself that I just gave up.
Let me just say that I am not here to tell a story about my experience as a foreigner whose culture was attacked and who was shocked by the unfamiliar gender norms of another country. I am not a die-hard American patriot who is going to declare Western culture and values to be the best and only way of life. In my opinion, every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. To be honest, I think my host uncle may have actually had somewhat of a point when talking about the American family. Maybe Americans could use some more family time. That’s beside the point though.
Ultimately, this experience taught me the importance of standing up for what you truly believe in. I realized how strongly I disagree with the request of my host organization that we avoid talking about “touchy” subjects like politics, religion, culture or whatever it may be. In my opinion, the beauty of travel is that it brings about the meeting of different worlds. If we choose to suppress our own personal views or ways of living when traveling, then what’s the point of it really? Every native of the country that you’re in is just going to think you’re a poser or they’re going to be misled into believing that you’re something that you’re not.
Again, I want to reiterate that I’m not promoting a conscious effort to create controversy. I’m not telling you to go to Saudi Arabia and wear short shorts because that’s what you think your culture is all about. Every individual needs to make a judgment call and evaluate what aspects of his or her culture really matter to him or her. Which of my values do I truly believe in? Which am I willing to defend?
My ultimate hope is that no matter which cultural values are important to you, whether it be the right to drink alcohol or the right to dress a certain way, you stand up for them when you have the chance. I believe that only through genuine and thoughtful discussion will we as a people and as a world come to better understand ourselves and each other. If we’re going to talk about going to do service in foreign countries to support the plight of women or the poor, the fight starts with the minds and the hearts of the people. So when that opportunity comes to dive into the tough conversation, don’t miss your chance to stand up for what you believe in. I did once, but I don’t plan on letting it happen again.
Philip Doerr is a Trinity junior.