While browsing Facebook recently, I came across a video of a ‘mind-blowing new device’ that will ‘change travel forever’. The video shows two young American women in Japan, speaking into a handheld translator and holding it out to locals to ask for help, to the hotel receptionist to make a room request, and to a sushi chef to make a custom order (that he refuses). The video is quite obviously scripted, but it caused a bit of a stir, leading to arguments in the comments about the need for the device. Some people herald the translator as really useful and super cool, whereas many others doubt its capabilities, considering direct translation is not always correct, and local dialects and slang terms are often not compatible with these types of things.
My issue with the device, and video in general, is much more simple. The women in the clip are not shown to speak a single word of Japanese, relying entirely on the translator. While I understand that they are speaking clearly for the translator, their tone is condescending and babyish, not to mention the volume of speech is almost deafening. While it may be ‘just acting’, the characters clearly have no respect for the people, the language or the culture, which is essentially what prompted me to write this.
Travelling the world is great, as is immersing yourself in new and foreign cultures that may be worlds away from your own. But we owe it to the people of these other cultures and countries to show some respect while we are in their space, so I’ve created a little list of things that you can do to make sure that you’re travelling respectfully.
English is truly a global language. While it may only be number 3 on the list of most spoken languages in the world, it is undoubtedly the language of travel and tourism, among many other sectors. If you’re a native English speaker, you are insanely lucky to never have had to actually study English, or at least not in the way that foreign speakers do, but I believe we also have a responsibility to make an effort to learn, at the very least, the basics of a language (or a few essential phrases and niceties) before we visit the country where it is spoken. I’m talking “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me/sorry” “how much?”, “where is [the bathroom]?” and some numbers. Also knowing the phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak [foreign language]. Do you speak English?” is a really handy one, and if you want to go further, knowing how to say “delicious!” is a nice bit of knowledge, and can make people smile! Learning these few phrases will make your life easier, and garner you so much more respect while travelling. The locals will appreciate it immensely (even if they reply to you in English) and you will feel more comfortable. Of course, using a translator for something a little more complicated is not frowned upon, but making sure you know the simple stuff will make a world of difference.
If you haven’t experienced some measure of culture shock while travelling, have you even travelled? I’m kidding, of course, but the different cultures across the world, while sometimes difficult to get used to, are probably the most fun part of it all. Discovering and immersing yourself in the customs and ways of other people is fascinating and extremely educating, but if you don’t know anything about the culture beforehand you could find yourself in over your head, or even putting a foot wrong. If you have the time, it’s recommendable to learn a little bit about the societal rules of the place you’re going to visit. For example, in lots of Asian countries you should never stick your chopsticks upright in your bowl, but lay them across it instead. It’s frowned upon to be loud in public spaces in Japan and Korea, as well as offensive to tip with money in restaurants. In India it’s rude to use your left hand as it’s seen as unclean, and in countries across the world it’s impolite to blow your nose in public. Learning a little bit about the customs of the place you’re going to (as well as the local laws, how you should dress and, if you’re travelling with a partner, whether or not you can show affection in public) will make your trip a lot easier, and keep you out of hot water. (Food and dining customs vary greatly, so look those up especially!)
While certain (questionable) world leaders are leading many to believe otherwise, foreigners are humans just like you. They have their own lives, languages, religions, beliefs and customs just like you do. This does not make them any better or worse than you, simply different. Do not look down upon them for doing something in a way that you may not do it, or may not agree with, for they probably look upon you the same way. A tribesman in the Amazon is not stupid for not knowing how to send a Tweet in the same way that you are not stupid for not knowing how to slaughter an animal for consumption. Our differences are what make the world beautiful, and acknowledging these differences and applying that knowledge to your encounters with foreigners is the only acceptable way to engage with them. You do not have to agree with them, but respect that the way they live their lives may be different to the way you live yours. You are in their space, after all. (Also, if you must speak English, for love of all that is right, please don’t speak like a numpty. Speak clearly and correctly; they are foreign, not deaf or stupid, and they do not need your condescendence.)
Side note: Know when it is OK to take photos. You might want to get that amazing shot for Instagram, but if it’s disturbing someone else or the environment, or disregarding rules set out for your safety, forget it. Rules are there for a reason, and an invasion of privacy is rude wherever you are in the world.
To sum it all up, to make sure you have respect when travelling simply behave like a decent human being. Remember that they are not the foreigner when you are in their country – you are! Learn a little about the culture, speak a little bit of the language and always ask if you’re not sure. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t know something, and asking for help will be much more appreciated than acting blindly and offending people. Do not treat foreigners as sub-humans, do not assume they speak your language, do not make fun of their culture and do not litter – respect extends to the environment too.