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The Cultures Within

Last weekend, I relived my recent solo trip to Hong Kong.

Turning the pages of my travel journal, I was reminded of something that had happened in a temple.

I’d bought a pack of incense sticks to light and pray with. Once I’d lit a handful and placed them in the sand beneath a grid of black and white photographs of the deceased, I realised I had a lot of sticks left. I didn’t feel I could light them for the Godly shrines occupying the rest of the temple floor, simply because I didn’t know what each God stood for, and therefore if I believed in what they represented. But not wanting to waste them, I politely stopped an American couple who were being given a tour and said, “I bought too many incense sticks, would you like to have these?”, thinking it might add to their experience. But the man threw me a look of disgust and annoyance as he replied tersely, “No thank you”, his stiff tone suggesting I was a pest trying to sell him something inappropriate in a sacred place. I was taken aback. I felt like I’d been stung.

Beneath the story in my journal, I’d written this question:

‘Do we even understand our own culture?’

As a studying anthropologist, and generally a curious being, I’m always interested in the way other cultures and societies function, from their street slang to their customs and rituals. That was partly why I was in Hong Kong — to explore, discover, try to understand and challenge what I believed I knew.

I didn’t give the altercation much thought for the rest of that day, or the trip, but now, having re-read that question, it’s been playing on my mind. While I’m not American, I am (half) British, and I both grew up and live in a predominantly Western way. Americans and Brits share many of the same values and ideas, principles and rules. I don’t think the incident was simplistic enough to dissect as just: some people are rude.

I started thinking about our behaviour in foreign countries, and in particular in sacred places or places we might not be familiar with. No matter how adventurous and open we are, most of us retain a wariness as we wander, the notion — just in the back of our heads — that we are not from this place, nor do we know this culture inside out. It readies us to say no to the street sellers quickly, before they can start following us, hollering to buy their product. It readies us to note our location in the interest of safety and comfort. It readies us for anything unexpected. Perhaps that’s why he reacted the way he did, and if so, I understand.

But his behaviour, this behaviour, doesn’t account for an entire culture. Not all Westerners, or Americans or Brits, would have done and said what he had done and said, of course. It struck me that there are so many sub-cultures tucked away under any primary culture umbrella. Not to be mistaken for personality traits, these sub-cultures might be born out of localisation, or family cultures, maybe even the effect of a work environment.

I think, more than anything else, the interaction we had taught me that culture isn’t just something you find on the other side of the world exclusively with populations that don’t look or sound like you. Set cultures can be found in your office, your hometown. Maybe the man from the temple frowned at me because that’s how everyone in his family treats those giving things away for free.

In the end, I carefully stacked the sticks on the side. It seemed a better fate than throwing them away. Hopefully somebody picked them up and decided not to waste them, or followed the age-old rule of ‘finders keepers’. Perhaps that’s in their culture.

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