Taboos can be individual, family or societal. They can arise from religion, superstition or folklore. Socioeconomics, class, gender and other world views can conceal landmines.
Our topic this month invites us to consider taboos and the implications of writing about them.
Because I I encountered cultural taboos while teaching English as a Second Language, I have focused my writing in this area.
Innocent in One Culture, Taboo in Another
Why is this student so hostile? I wondered. He kept his eyes focused on his notebook. When he spoke to me, he furtively glanced over his glasses, and then quickly lowered his eyes. I thought he had a gruff appearance, with his scraggy beard and hair awry. I was distinctly uncomfortable.
Later he told me that in his country, making eye contact with people of superiority was a sign of immodesty and rudeness. As a newcomer to Canada, however, he was trying to adjust to our direct communication, but was finding it difficult.
What I had interpreted as hostility was a man struggling to overcome a cultural taboo, yet open enough to discuss his intentions. I had responded by judging him from my own cultural perspective.
This was only one cross-cultural landmine I experienced in teaching ESL, and I knew I would step on others. Like blowing my nose in front of the class when I had a cold, a taboo to my Korean students. Or demonstrating how we show strength as I grabbed the crook of my elbow, raised my fist and flexed my biceps, very vulgar in Afghanistan.
Students also stepped on landmines. A new Costa Rican male student, accustomed to hugging friends, greeted a Muslim woman classmate with a hug. She was absolutely horrified, as Muslim women and men acquaintances do not touch in public.
My Chinese students had difficulty when they tried pronouncing our “th” sounds—sounds which require us to stick out our tongues—rude, they said, in their culture.
Students were shocked to learn that burping after a meal in some cultures is a sign of satisfaction, and the louder the belch, the more they enjoyed the meal.
My Koreans would leave any uneaten food when eating in a restaurant. When they discovered Canadians could take home the leftovers, they quickly adapted and asked for a “doggie bag” (after I explained what a “doggie bag” was).
Some students said that showing the bottoms of your feet is an outright insult, because the foot is the dirtiest part of the body. Sitting sit cross-legged or tucking your legs underneath you is appropriate.
To Understand Each Other
Through these experiences, God was calling called me to understand and respect my students and their world views.
But more, my students themselves were gaining a larger framework to understand both Canadians and immigrants of other countries as we discussed different perspectives and world views.
We cannot know all the cultural landmines on our pathway or on the pathways of our immigrant friends. But if we have an open mind, a compassionate attitude and a prayerful heart, God will provide opportunities for us to understand each other.
We will begin to love cross-culturally if we cross cultures in a meaningful way.