We love our boxes. They are handy compartments for our ideas and thoughts. They keep life simpler when we can put people into tidy categories that make sense to us. I traveled to half a dozen countries and lived in three outside my own before I really began to see just how impossible it is to contain people of one culture in our labels and conceptions of them.
After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms, and so I looked to her for guidance. She had an employee that she built trust with and thus could speak freely to her about family life. Knowing she had been taken from school and married as a young girl, my friend encouraged her to seek something different for her own daughter who lived with relatives back in their home village.
Shocked when she was told they were going back to their village to arrange their young teenage daughter’s marriage, my friend urged her not to do it. The woman told her about the vulnerabilities the girl faced living in the village. Without the protection of a husband, she was susceptible to harm and could be abused. Left without a protector, she was seen as easy prey. In a segment of the culture where young marriage was expected, every year she waited decreased her chances of a good marriage and future, and instead, increased her chances of sexual violence. Marriage was a kindness—the best chance at a safe life for her.
My friend was shocked at the layers she hadn’t known about even after a decade of working among women from similar situations. She hadn’t seen. Or hadn’t looked. Nothing is as black and white as we believe it is initially. There are layers we can’t know from the outside. If culture is the social behavior and norms found in our societies, there are just as many deviants from those norms and untold reasons behind those behaviors. We could spend a lifetime studying a culture that isn’t our own and never fully understand it.
So what have I learned? If you want to know someone that is different from yourself, go ahead and break down your boxes right now. Set them aside and be willing to learn and make mistakes. Be willing to admit you know nothing. Be willing to ask forgiveness for your failings and misconceptions — again and again. What I’ve gained most from living in another culture is the knowledge that we are all so much more than what is seen, so much more alike than different, and so complex that it takes a lifetime to really know someone. People are worth knowing. Make the effort.