There are many challenges to working in a foreign, and many opportunities to unwittingly violate cultural norms. While in Nyabigena, a small village in rural Kenya, we stayed with our business partners. Our accommodations were modest, but adequate. We spent our time working with our business partners on basic accounting and computer skills.
Theresa, a local of the village, was paid to cook our meals. She cooked over a wood fire, in a small shed. The nearest water tap was about a mile walk. One afternoon Theresa was making us lunch, and one of the men asked her to fetch some salt. They argued for a moment, and then Theresa went to get salt. Little did we know it was a fifteen minute walk for her, each way.
Upon her arrival back she sat down to eat, and I poured her a cup of tea. The men stopped eating and stared at us. I could tell that Theresa was quite uncomfortable with this situation, as you could imagine.
Unwittingly, I had broken a social norm. But once I realized what I had done, I made a conscious effort to pour tea for every woman at the table (one Kenyan and several Americans). To be a woman in Africa is to live a life of innumerable hardship. I could talk to the men all I wanted about gender equality, and the role of women in the developed world. Those words were lost in translation, or willfully ignored. The rules which governed interactions between the genders in America had little utility in a rural Kenyan village. The simple act of pouring a cup of tea was drastically different. It was a physical act which challenged the cultural norms.
The simple act of pouring a cup of tea forced a conversation.
I have no way of knowing if this made a lasting impact, but I really hope it did. Being abroad is an interesting thing, as you’re not quite bound by the social rules of either your home or host country. It is a liberating thing, but it comes with its own set of responsibilities. One of which is to challenge discrimination. I realized in Kenya that as a white male born in America my actions were closely watched, and influential.
It’s something that I will have to be very cognizant of while in Sri Lanka.