So I have been in Sri Lanka for almost a week (one-week tomorrow to be exact.) Granted, in this week, I have been entirely in Colombo and mostly working. However, I have been able to explore the city a little and in my evenings, my fellow housemates and I pick a new restaurant to try or world cup game to see. I’ve gotten started at work and I’m slowly getting my bearings. This isn’t a sprint, it’s more like one of those 10K family runs in which you can take your time and everyone that finishes gets a ribbon. I realized that I often ‘hit the ground running’ when it comes to my travel and for the first time, I am trying to take a step, breathe a little, and just see what comes up.
As I am reflecting on this calm week in Sri Lanka, I told myself that I would write about the most interesting cultural experience that I had in the entire week. This blog is about culture, so I should comment on it. However, to me, there is not one single interaction that stands out in my mind, but a disturbing acceptance on my part that seems to continuously occur.
You see, I have spent the majority of my formative travel years in Morocco. Although I’ve traveled a fair amount to other countries, Morocco was my first outside-of-the-US experience and as such, my sort of ‘travel defaults’ are from this time. I realized that one of the most disturbing defaults I have is my acceptance of harassment. In Morocco, and quite frankly most other Arab countries, women get harassed. It’s just a fact of life. I couldn’t walk 5 feet without someone wanting/needing/demanding to talk to me and enter my personal bubble. This could have been for a variety of reasons, and not all of them malicious, but like it or not, I could never get from point A to point B without drawing A LOT of attention to myself.
This is not normal, nor is it ok. I accepted a lot of it because “it was a cultural thing” and I knew and understood the variety of reasons around it. That still doesn’t mean it’s ok for a man can walk up to me, get in my face, and I just bow my head and walk away. It might be a necessity and a fact of life, but it shouldn’t have to be.
Sri Lanka is not like this at all. Granted, Tuk-Tuk (motorcycle taxi) drivers are a little aggressive and there isn’t a huge walking culture here, but just because I’m a woman no one feels like they have the right to just come up to me. I walked for almost 3 hours on Sunday and I was not harassed once (in my mind). I honestly could have been but because it wasn’t incredibly blatant, I recall the most peaceful 3-hour walk that I have EVER had in a developing country capital. In talking to my other housemate, I can hear the frustration in her voice with the tuk-tuk drivers and how people are a little more in your personal bubble than usual.
To me, this place is heaven. Why? It’s because I am assuming that once I leave the US my right to have a personal bubble is gone. Even in Ghana, I would walk outside and the children would shout “white lady!” (which opens a whole different can of worms for me being that I’m half-black, but I wont get into that) and even in Spain and Italy I drew the unsolicited comments of males passing by. Instead of getting outraged, I have become complacent. I’ve bowed my head and just moved on.
I cannot tell if this is a good thing, but it leaves an unsavory taste in my mouth. On one hand, I have found my week in Sri Lanka to be incredibly enjoyable and relaxing because it exceeds my (clearly low) expectations. I have found Sri Lankans friendly and helpful and so respectful of my space and my existence. On the other hand, I have become complacent about harassment. I know it’s not a black and white issue and I can argue all day long why this attitude became a necessity, but as I am sitting here going over my interactions in the last week, I’m beginning to want to argue otherwise.
When is harassment ok? When is the bombarding of females just for the sake of being a female an acceptable practice? Why do some cultures allow this and others have evolved against it? I do not mean that cultures that accept harassment are thereby less evolved, but I do mean to wonder this variance exists. I am also aware that the definition harassment varies greatly and that the American definition of the ‘personal bubble’ is quite a large amount of space.
None-the-less, in the world of ‘cultural sensitivity’ should accepting the varying degrees of harassment as a fact of life be something you pride yourself on? No, I don’t think so. I’m not proud of that and I don’t feel like it’s a box I can or should check off. I am proud that I was able to set aside my personal beliefs to try to really understand the reasons behind it without my own personal prejudices. I really wanted to evaluate my set of beliefs especially in regards to the large American personal bubble and rebuild them from the ground up. Maybe that’s what I’m doing at this moment – rebuilding my beliefs. In fact, I hope I am constantly doing it. Either way, I’ve to come realize that every person deserves to be treated with respect and although there are serious cultural differences as to what ‘respect’ means, I want to continue to seek out what it to means to me because really that’s the only culture I can control.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue to accept the plus sides of my “cultural sensitivity” and enjoy walking on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka.