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Food for Thought

'Mobile Hostiles' and
Culture Clashes

(Part I)

Farah Ghuznavi

One inevitable aspect of our supposedly shrinking world is that different cultures are inevitably finding themselves in closer proximity to each other with the (predictable) resultant culture shock. This is true for migrants, travellers or even unwary satellite TV addicts. In fact, even some of those who remain glued to the idiot box are nevertheless heard to complain that the onslaught of multiple channels is undermining local culture. Debatable as that may be (because I think a strong indigenous culture can fight back and co-exist with external influences, not least by educating its young to appreciate their own arts, culture and music, while allowing them to enjoy some foreign imports e.g. rap doesn't have to mean the death of Rabindra Sangeet, and it shouldn't be allowed to!), it must be conceded that there IS something depressing about the fact that “Baywatch” is the most-watched television show in the world!

Of course, “real” journeys are not without similar perils of cultural dislocation. After all, it's all about the “baggage” you choose to take along with you! In the old days, they used to say that travel broadened the mind, but that's one thing which should never be taken for granted...There are those who manage to journey far and wide without ever stretching the confines of their narrow-minded perspectives. Whether going abroad for work or pleasure, they make a point of ensuring access to a place with the very same atmosphere, identical décor, and perhaps most importantly, food virtually indistinguishable from what they would find at home. And that's what they want all the time.

By contrast, there are also those who may be prevented from visiting the wider world due to constraints related to finance, family responsibilities and so on. Yet they remain firmly engaged in the world beyond their doorstep, keeping themselves informed and updated by being well-read or utilising media such as the internet - and of course that old stand-by, the television set.

The "Coca-colonisation" of the world has certainly made it easier for the 'mobile but hostile' travellers I mentioned earlier to remain firmly within their comfort zone in whichever country they may be visiting; Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and other such outlets are mushrooming at an astonishing pace all over the world even as I write these words. But I can't help feeling that it rather defeats the purpose of travelling if one is determined to ensure as little exposure as possible to the indigenous culture of the places being visited!

If you think I'm exaggerating, let me share with you some findings from a survey of UK tourists done by one of the premier tour companies in Britain. Food emerges as an uncontested winner, being the single most frequent cause of complaints. In the words of one tourist, “On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don't like spicy food at all” ?!

One is tempted to suggest that he should have just stayed home if he wanted bland food, but the truth is that for several years, curry (or some version of it!) has been on the top of the “favorite meal” list in Britain anyway. And to further illustrate that the first world isn't safe from such idiotic complaints either, a guest at a Novotel in Australia went to great lengths to complain that his soup was too thick and strong. The restaurant authorities were puzzled about this until it emerged that he was, oddly enough, slurping the gravy served to another guest at the table. His soup had not yet been served at that point...

While tour companies receive any number of complaints about virtually every destination, Spain is singled out for immense criticism in this particular survey. For example, one customer has the audacity to comment, "It's lazy of the local shopkeepers to close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during 'siesta' time - this should be banned." Indeed. Of course, anyone can see that it's perfectly reasonable to expect the Spanish to change a cultural tradition of hundreds of years for the benefit of a few idiotic British tourists.

Meanwhile, another insisted, even more absurdly, "There are too many Spanish people. The receptionist speaks Spanish. The food is Spanish. Too many foreigners"!! It was probably the same person who complained that "I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts." I have to admit that I also love biscuits, but this kind of obsession about "proper biscuits" is surely more about being kooky than buying cookies.

If food is one bone of contention for xenophobic travellers, potential conflicts frequently tend to arise over the treatment of animals, as well. A classic example of cultural differences is provided by how various societies treat animals in general, and pets in particular. For example, the British (even, or perhaps especially, tourists like those mentioned earlier who love to complain about Spanish cuisine and culture) also tend to become very indignant over how donkeys are treated in Spain. Don't ask me what is behind the preoccupation with donkeys, but it might have something to do with the fact that these animals are a common sight on the beaches of Spain; donkey rides tend to be popular with tourists and their children.

Anyway, British tabloids have gone as far as to actually run fund-raising campaigns to save particular donkeys from the "barbaric" Spaniards, once the animals have outlived their usefulness. Their compassion and generosity is of course praiseworthy, but perhaps it would be better to see it extended towards their fellow human beings first? Even, dare we suggest it, towards the Spaniards whose country they are invading (oops, sorry, I meant visiting...)

(….to be continued)


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