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#11 Explaining local culture to locals

December 31, 2010

This guest post was written by T.A.P. and submitted by David Fox. Mr. Fox has not provided us with any twitter or blog links.

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It only takes one or two international postings before the Expat Aid Worker becomes an expert on cultural acquisition.

Once expert status has been attained, the Expat Aid Worker, upon arriving at a new posting, even in a country or continent they have never visited, can typically master the local culture within five to ten days. The process is accelerated by their voracious pre-deployment reading of numerous books about the local culture written by other Expat Aid Workers.

Initially their expert cultural understanding is tested in Socratic-style gatherings composed exclusively of other expat aid workers. Here these scholarly nomads will struggle to demonstrate the depths and superiority of their nuanced understanding of local customs. All such discussions take place at a high-end café where a cup of coffee costs roughly the average local’s daily salary.

In the first weeks, their expert understanding is supplemented by attending a traditional wedding, eating street food, taking their picture with a street child who they wish they could adopt (but can’t because of their nomadic lifestyle), an inappropriate sexual relationship with a local (“Going Native” coming soon…), and making a few local friends, usually part of the wealthy elite.

Once armed with both book and street smarts, less than a month after arriving the Expat Aid Worker is competent to provide what is perhaps the most under-appreciated service in the entire Expat Aid Worker toolkit: Explaining the layered and intricate nuances of local culture to local people.

Expat aid workers will tell locals that because they live in the capital city of Bubashastan, they don’t actually live in or know the real Bubashastan, which the expat aid worker does because of a recent 3-day trip to a small village in a remote province. The Expat Aid Worker will then relish explaining a practice that is as irrelevant as it is obscure, such as how villagers slaughter goats with a curved knife instead of a straight knife because of the influence of the northern herdsmen of the Zozambakzai tribe, a mortal enemy of the Totsemenzai tribe.

For Expat Aid Workers it is an honor and a privilege to share their extensive learning and knowledge about local customs with the local people. It makes them feel one with the people to understand the local culture better than the locals do themselves.

See also Blending In.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2011 4:48 am

    Durians are delicious! Only once you can enjoy this fruit can you truly be local.
    EAW tip: Pour water into the skin and drink from it after eating to cool your body down.

  2. Expat worker2 permalink
    January 1, 2011 7:51 am

    This is awesome. More! More!

  3. Chris D permalink
    January 5, 2011 11:16 am

    Truly brilliant! Sadly, I felt like he was talking about me at certain points in my life and many people I know or have known. Hopefully, I can still change…

    Mr. Fox should keep the commentary coming!!

  4. January 11, 2011 1:56 pm

    This blog is wonderful, great work.

    I have to say, even as a non-aid worker (but former expat), I’m guilty of many of the things on this page. I too find myself ‘teaching’ locals about local culture, but generally only correct overbroad or incorrect statements.

    One example I remember is a cab driver who insisted that his dialect was superior to my local friend’s dialect because he, unlike my friend, pronounced the entire Arabic alphabet correctly. Well, this was true as far as my friend’s dialect was concerned, but I knew enough to know that the cab driver’s dialect also didn’t pronounce the entire alphabet correctly, so I had him say a word that began with a certain letter. Sure enough, he mispronounced it, and my point was proved.

    • January 14, 2012 6:24 am

      You’re the exact reason why this blog was created. Congrats on being…YOU!

  5. Rach permalink
    January 15, 2011 4:32 pm

    I love this page because, as everyone has mentioned, its all so true, and contains so many points us EAW are guilty of! Some self-criticism is always healthy. This one particularly interested me as it reminds me particularly of what short-term volunteers will do. One week makes you an expert on culture (or did you not know that?!). I love the brief allusion to the ‘volunteer teams in matching t-shirts’ in the ‘going native’ post. Maybe you can write something on ‘The Mortal Enemy of the EAW: The short-term volunteer.’

    It makes me annoyed just thinking about the faux pas they commit in the field, whilst concurrently realising that starting as a short-term volunteer was the way I got into this! You’ve got to love the irony…

  6. February 24, 2011 9:31 pm

    Some locals are characterized by their lack of culture or intellectual curiosity, as in some cases they are not able to read or write or even speak properly their national language, not mentioning the history of their country…

    • biblo permalink
      May 22, 2011 12:54 pm

      how blessed and saved those poor locals must feel then when you come and save them from their ignorance of their own mother language, a language which you obviously speak múch better then them. :-s

      • Jon permalink
        July 23, 2012 8:27 am

        Well, actually, having lived for two years in Southeastern Mexico, close to Guatemala, I could teach a couple of lessons on indigenous Mexico to higher-class suhi-eating Hummer-driving white Mexicans living in Mexico City, who would rather go shopping to Houston for the weekend rather than explore the Mayan ruins in Chiapas ;-)

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