Friday, April 4, 2008

The White People's Guide to Field Work: #2

Part two of guest blogger Victoria's post.


#2 Discern what [behaviors, superstitions, objects] hold special significance and is sacred to the locals, and act accordingly. Discriminate more, be discerning.

I don't restrict this to a religious sense. Beyond shamans and village sorcery, for many traditional cultures there is honor, love and communion attached to mealtimes, to beverages, to wearing clothes, to household cleaning, to certain days of the week, and seating order that the average white do-gooder doesn't appreciate or cannot instinctively feel.

This is because these social rules are observed and learned through socialization over years and since childhood, and in essence forms part of the common language within a society. Take for instance, the social significance and rules for photography, modesty, or whether shoes are allowed indoors. An accumulated amount of these faux pas will force the local to become defensive and angry and reject all things "tainted" by the white foreigner. The white person, if s/he tries earnestly, usually manages to learn a pidgin version of what is sacred, but even to an amateur his/her actions are normally fraught with embarrassing mishaps and sometimes serious offenses. The worst part is that because the white person is trying to help and unable to instinctively feel the guilt and shame of his/her blunder, s/he usually will not apologize to assuage the dishonor. As a result, a lot of developing regions will say: "We want American/European money, but we don't want their representatives," and it isn't to be curt. Truth is, fewer and fewer institutions (brotherly bonds, honoring a marriage for a lifetime, guarding one's reputation) are be-all sacred for modern Western society, particularly the ones where philanthropy is coming from.

This is me again (not Victoria). I have a great story to further illustrate this point. I remember after a particularly grueling field assignment, we had invited our local partners out to dinner with us at one of the expensive restaurants in town. It was to be a celebratory dinner for a job well-done. We were therefore very surprised when only one of the 20 people, the most senior of them all, showed up. When probed, she didn't say much except that they would all join us later for drinks. It was only at the end of dinner, when the bill came out that we learned the truth. Christine (name changed) had ordered the cheapest thing on the menu (again baffling) and had placed a set of bills that covered her meal neatly on the table. It was the first time I had seen this in a developing country (generally in these countries, when you invite someone, you pay for everything)! I asked her to put the money back and explain to us what was going on. It turned out that the NGO had been partnering with U.S organizations for some time and everytime the group went out, they only paid for themselves (a common American custom). The poor NGO workers would often shell out upto a month's salary on a single meal! This was why none of them had shown up; Christine had shown up out of politeness. Since then I've always carried extra money with me to cover for situations like this.

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