“You didn’t free the bird, did you?”
“No, I just didn’t like that he didn’t have much room to move, his water was dirty, and he didn’t have any toys.”
Dear Westerners (*** You know who you are),
I am writing to announce to everyone that I am… a “westerner.”
I suspected it when I toured parts of China in my comfy exercise pants. I grew further suspicious when I tipped the room cleaning staff at the hotel. It was utterly confirmed when I used the squat toilet and almost fell over.
Even though I tried to hide it under the pretenses of being open to new experiences and ways of thinking, my thought process feels inevitable sometimes:
This is not right.
I love grabbing food from a small vendor in Seattle or Ann Arbor at the farmer’s market or random stands on the street. Street food is supposed to be the most authentic and tastiest food so it is a requirement to try. All of the food is exposed to the outdoors and the meat is raw, not having been refrigerated for many hours. Even the food that has been cooked, such as the most amazing egg tortilla-like wrap with lettuce and a bit of hot sauce, is accosted with unwashed hands that just touched a grime covered plastic garbage can. On similar lines, when my friends asks for a hot waffle, the street vendor has her touch his one of the already made waffles to prove that it is warm. No matter the lukewarm temperature of the soggy waffle, she asks for a hot, fresh one to which he shakes his head no.
For most of my life I have been riveted by the county health code ratings and reviews in the U.S. It was my favorite page in the ‘Local’ section in my newspaper and I looked to see if I recognized any places so I could read what shock and horror had occurred.
Another example of where I struggle is the outwardly homeless dogs and cats on the streets with a layer of dust and mites. I try to adopt all of them, dreaming of taking them to the U.S. but my professor says it is not possible.
Even with all of my cultural competency learning and awareness, I see my privilege and ignorance most in these moments. Thinking about my “White Savior Complex” in the context of wanting to start city-wide health inspections including certifications and random visits and finding homes for all homeless animals is a new concept for me. My traveling mindset is still saying my way is automatically better. Why does this happen when traveling even if you try so hard to avoid this mentality?
As a Westerner, it is even harder to appreciate the cultural differences because I am too focused on loading my UM email via dial up internet speeds circa 1995. The Communist Party of China (CPC) aims to limit exposure to western culture and globalization. If I lived in China I might also give up on using Facebook, Google, and reading the Economist. It is not because I needed to use a technically illegal VPN to access these sites but rather because I would rather spend the time getting a foot massage.
Yes, meeting people around the world makes you realize how we are all people and may even have similar cultures. Focusing on commonalities to build relationships, we can blind ourselves to the differences and struggles that define our identities in society and the greater world. Even though I can text, call, Facebook message, Tweet, and am not isolated from the western world, I am insulated from different communities within the U.S. due to geography, social circles, and socioeconomic status.
I learned a lot from visiting a new country, especially one as interesting as China, however, you don’t need to leave your everyday life to question your way of thinking. When you have the opportunity to have a discussion about a potentially ‘foreign’ issue such as racism, sexism, income inequality, you have an opportunity to visit a new world. Use the concept of China to evaluate your own exposure to all of the diverse perspectives you isolate yourself from.
Oh and Westerners… be okay being uncomfortable. Our privilege is our freedom to seek information and knowledge.