Cultural Clashes, Dramas and Dilemmas (pt 1)

Like to travel off the beaten path? Enjoy hanging out with the locals? If so, then perhaps–like me–you find yourself having some truly amazing experiences. Rewarding moments you wouldn’t trade for anything.

Of course, immersing yourself this way doesn’t always go smoothly. There are sometimes cultural clashes, dilemmas and even dramas. And they can be awkward, confusing and challenging.

I’ve found myself in some awkward/challenging cultural situations over recent years and of course, know how I handled them. In this two-part series, I’ll share 6 tricky situations I found myself in and ask what you would do in each case.

Note: Five of them are real and happened as described (names, countries, cultures changed to protect the innocent and guilty). One is a hybrid of sorts with a few modifications.

(PS: Later, I might tell you how I handled myself in each situation. When you see what happened, I think you’ll understand why I’m not sure I want to. Some of those involved could read this someday.)

1. Money Matters

You’re in a developing country where the majority of people are poor. You befriend your tour guide and are invited by his mom for dinner. You can tell it’s a special event by the way she dressed and made herself up. You learn, over the course of the meal, that she and her family are poor and struggling to survive.

You’re supposed to take a 2-hour bus to another city later that night (and fly home first thing in the morning), but you’re having so much fun being part of the family that you stay a bit too late. The mom invites you to spend the night and suggests taking a taxi to the airport early in the morning. And you agree to it.

At a certain point, it occurs to you that you and the friend you’re traveling with that you’ve saved approximately $50 or $60 and a lot of hassles involved with the bus and room search. You want to give the mom the money to help her out. It seems right.

She insists that you don’t. She seems adamant about it. Also, she also insists on giving you her bedroom.. She even says, “If you don’t sleep in my room, I’ll be angry.”

What would you do?

Would you take the woman’s bedroom for the night? And then, in the morning, would you leave the money hidden somewhere in the house (or maybe on the bed) so that later, when she discovers it, she won’t be able to hand it back to you? Or do you simply respect her wishes?

Mao's bedphoto © 2010 Stephen Politzer-Ahles | more info (via: Wylio)

What Did I Do?

I think I may have done the wrong thing. I left money behind. Now I think a gift of something useful to the family would have been a better option.

In this type of situation

2. Icky Meal

You make friends with some locals in an Asian country and are invited into their home. You’re not vegetarian and are generally open-minded, so it doesn’t occur to you ask what they’re making. Also, it might seem rude to do so. And, you’ve eaten out with them before and seen their choices. There’s no reason to be concerned about what they might serve you.

When you arrive at their house, you see that they’re cooked all day for you and realize they spent a lot of money on the food, which includes something considered a delicacy (think dog, snake, etc.) . Unfortunately, the smell is highly unpleasant and visually, it’s unappealing. As open-minded as you are, you’re not feeling about to do it. It’s just way too….Fear Factor…for you.

Turns out there’s soup as a starter. Perhaps you could eat just that. When you reach in with your spoon, you pick up something that appears to be an intestine. Just seeing it makes the puke juice rise up in your throat.

What Would You Do?

Do you eat the main course that repulses you…just to be nice? Do you just have soup and ignore the intestine? Do you tell a white lie about being a vegetarian? Or do you speak the truth…this isn’t the kind of food I’m used to–sorry?

sheep headphoto © 2007 Paul Keller | more info (via: Wylio

What Did I Do?

In this type of situation, I’ve eaten the OK parts of the meal while the family was looking and when they weren’t, put the unappealing food into my napkin to hide it.

3. Too-Friendly Father

You’re in Latin America staying with a family, learning Spanish. The family is Catholic and they attend church several times a week. The mom, is a wonderful woman who treats you like her daughter. Her children, a little younger than you, love you. Dad’s really nice, too.

The problem? Dad’s a bit too nice.

One day, he drives you to the bus station (you’re going away for the weekend) and initiates a unexpected and awkward conversation. He begins asking about North American women (and Europeans) and how they view and approach sex outside of marriage. As hard as you try to change the conversation, you can’t.

At a certain point, he asks you–hypothetically–what you (it’s not clear if he means the definite or indefinite ‘you’) would do if you met an attractive man while on a trip. Would you ‘sleep with him’? Then, when he doesn’t get his answer, he becomes more direct. “If you were, for example, attracted to someone like me–or me–would you consider a sexual encounter?”

First of all, you’re not attracted to him and you would never have an affair anyway. Second of all, your relationships with men while abroad or otherwise are none of his business. Third, well…I could go on all day about this one. But that’s not the point. The point is–you’re sort of stuck in this conversation you don’t want to be having. And now that you’ve had it, things are, frankly, awkward.

What Would You Do?

Three days later, after your weekend trip, you’re back in this man’s home, being fed wonderful food by his wife and playing with his kids. Do you tell the wife what happened? Do you avoid the husband? Do you pretend you have an emergency so you can move to another home for the remainder of your homestay?


man on benchphoto © 2006 daniel weaver | more info (via: Wylio)

What Did I Do?

Fortunately, the situation I was in was slightly different. I was staying with neighbors. I did not tell the wife because I knew it would destroy the family and I wanted no part of it. I did, however, set some boundaries with the man the moment the conversation became inappropriate. Not only did I let him know that I wasn’t interested, I made it clear that what he was discussing was not appropriate. Also, I  was not alone with him again. This seemed to work well. 

Your Thoughts/Experiences?

So…what would you do in each of the situations listed above?  Also, what sort of tricky cultural situations and/or dramas/dilemmas have you been in?

More Dilemmas and Drama in Part 2

Imagine a teaching colleague who’s been beating his wife, a woman you’ve gotten friendly with. That’s one of three situations in the conclusion to this series. Click here for more clashes, dilemmas and yes, dramas.

23 Responses to Cultural Clashes, Dramas and Dilemmas (pt 1)
  1. Nicolas De Corte
    April 29, 2011 | 5:25 am

    The first two are familiar to me…
    One time in Albania, I’ve been hanging out with two guys I’d met through Couchsurfing. We have spent the whole night eating and drinking, and every time I tried to pay a bill they refused my money. I was the guest, I should not pay. Even though at a certain point we compared wages and they know they only earn a fraction of what I earn.
    Where I come from, you’re considered cheap when you don’t pay your share. In Albania, you’re considered inhospitable if you let your guests pay. This is their culture and I think you should not try to ommit that. Leaving money before you leave might make the people feel bad. So the next year I went back to Albania, and I took 2 big bottles of Belgian beer for those guys as a gift.

    About the food, I’m not really a huge fan of meat. Not that I’m a vegetarian, but I think it’s gross to put bones or intestines in my mounth.
    But it happened to me in Romania that I had lunch with a local girl who wanted me to eat some local things in a very nice local restaurant. Everything I got looked really disgusting, but she was so proud about her local food that I didn’t have the guts to tell her I did not like it. I ate everything, constantly thinking about candy and trying not to chew very much.
    Again, I think that as a guest you need to adjust to local habits, this brings you loads of good experiences, and now and then an icky meal.
    By the way, if something tastes really bad, try to put something in your nose like paper towels or ear plugs. Then you can’t taste anything 😉

    About the friendly father, this is something that has not happened to me, but I think I would try to be clear to the guy that certainly nothing is going to happen. I would not tell the family. You don’t want to cause trouble in another household. If he keeps doing this, I would make up a reason to leave and go.
    If you’re living in a family you don’t know well in another part of the world, often “our rules” of relationships don’t count. For example in countries where men are still the centre of the family, where men earn the money, women can’t divorce or even be mad at their husband. So if you’d tell them that he tried to hit on you, she’d probably just feel bad.
    Nicolas De Corte recently posted..Which type of traveler should you not becomeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 29, 2011 | 11:30 am

      Hi, Nicolas. Thanks for sharing….great stuff!

      I love how you handled the situation in Albania. I feel the same way, coming from the U.S. If you don’t pay or chip in, it’s not right. And often, abroad, the people pay for you and are offended. It sounds like you did the right thing–letting them pay and then bringing them a gift. I’m sure that made them very happy and that’s really what’s it all about when it comes to these cultural interactions.

      I really admire you for eating the Romanian meal and think you took a creative approach to it. You probably made her really happy by sharing the food. Good idea to block your nose somehow. I’ve done that when in stinky bathrooms. With foods you don’t like, it can work well, too. Just make sure you’ve got a good chaser!

      Re: the ‘friendly father’…great points you made. If you think about it, telling the wife about the husband could destroy an entire family.

      I will most likely reveal, in a few days, exactly what I did in these situations. Will tweet at that time. Also, I decided to post Pt 2 of this with a few more situations, dramas, today. One involves a teaching colleague who was beating up his wife in the room next to me. If interested, here’s the link.

      Thanks so much for your in-depth comment. Really enjoyed reading it!

  2. […] (pt 2) Written on April 29, 2011 by CB Driver in Miscellaneous, Travel tips/advice Liked part 1 of this series? Here’s the exciting conclusion, this one focusing on dilemmas and […]

  3. Gray
    April 29, 2011 | 4:31 pm

    #1: I would respect their culture and their wishes and not leave money behind, because that would offend them. I love the idea of sending them a gift later on, though. There has to be a way to reciprocate.
    #2: Thank God I haven’t been in that extreme a situation before. Normally, if I go to someone’s house to eat, I eat what’s put in front of me, even if I don’t like it, because that’s how I was raised. But man….intestines??? I think I might have to lie and say I was a vegetarian for that one.
    #3: I think you can see where he’s going with it as soon as he asks if you’d sleep with someone you found attractive while traveling. Even if I would, I would tell him “No I wouldn’t” and I might even add “And I would certainly never sleep with a married man” just to really get the point across. Also, at that point, I would be too uncomfortable to stay in the house any more. I’d either contact the organization I’d booked the homestay with to ask them to find me other accommodations, or I’d come up with an excuse why I had to leave their home early–a family emergency at home, whatever. But I wouldn’t stay.
    Gray recently posted..More Single Supplements Waived by Abercrombie &amp KentMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 30, 2011 | 9:31 am

      Hi, Gray. Thanks for sharing would you would do. I think you’re probably right re: #1….and I may have blown that one (confession coming in a few days). Re: #2….it’s tricky. Some people serve things that we just can’t deal with (perhaps that’s true in reverse?). But I think that one must really have a good plan in mind in the even this happens. The ideal, of course, is if there’s a wide variety of food and you can focus on just one or two plates and leave the others behind.

      Re: #3…I like your very no-nonsense approach. Very direct and time-efficient.

      Re: what I did in these situations…confessions coming soon! :)

  4. Gillian @OneGiantStep
    April 29, 2011 | 6:42 pm

    #1. Respect the culture, accept the hospitality and try to ‘pay it forward’ at some point.
    #2. Respect the culture – eat what you can and be honest about what you can’t.
    #3. Ick! I wouldn’t tell the wife but I would probably try to get out of or stay out of the house.

    I can’t WAIT to hear the next part!! Cheers!

    • CB Driver
      April 30, 2011 | 9:40 am

      Hi, Gillian. Thanks for joining the discussion! I think you’re probably right re: #1….and I think I may have blown that one. (Confessions re: how I handled things coming soon!) As for #2 and 3…great advice for anyone in those situations.

      I do find myself in these types of situations at least 1x per trip. As challenging as it can be, it’s still worth it because of the rewards of hanging out with the locals.

      PS: Here’s a link to Pt. 2 if you’d like to check it out. Thanks!

    • CB Driver
      April 30, 2011 | 9:43 am

      Oops…forgot the link to Pt. 2. Here it is: Cultural Clashes, Dramas and Dilemmas (pt 2). Enjoy!

  5. ayngelina
    May 1, 2011 | 6:56 pm

    I’ve been in similar situations:
    1) Don’t offend the woman by giving her money if you have the time go buy something nice for her and as a gift she cannot refuse it.
    2) Of course you eat it, refusing food is offensive in many cultures. If they cooked all day you can suck it up and eat it. I’ve eaten a lot of disgusting things with a smile on my face.
    3) You can be honest with the father and say you don’t want to discuss it. Latino men are aggressive and it’s perfectly fine to draw the line. You do not tell the wife, what would that do?
    ayngelina recently posted..Am I happier after a year of travelMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 2, 2011 | 7:39 pm

      Hy, Ayngelina. Thanks for sharing what you would do in the various situations. Great answers!

  6. Jonathan (@retrotraveller)
    May 2, 2011 | 9:06 am

    1) I seem to have a knack of finding myself having dinner with the locals… I’ve also had awkward moments where I’ve wanted to give something back – sometimes these situations happen unexpectedly and the only thing you have on you is money.

    It never feels right though to give money… a simple thank you should be enough perhaps.

    One of the best parts of travelling is being invited into a locals home, but you have to be careful accepting offers to visit families in some countries… I’ve been in situations where the family has ‘expected’ me to pay (though I didn’t realise until time to leave), and they even got disappointed with the amount I gave them!

    What ever the circumstances it is better to give a gift – maybe indirectly, like giving something to the children. If you know you’re staying with a family get something before the visit. I once gave a silk headscarf to the lady of the house where I stayed in Kyrgyzstan… she was over the moon!

    If you do have time to get a gift I guess you could try for something that has significance in that culture.

    Don’t some cultures have a tradition when it comes to giving? Something like; you’re supposed to offer something once, they say no its fine, you offer again, then they can accept (or something like that)?

    2) Eating things you don’t fancy or like… I guess you need to be polite and try it – if you don’t like it say so. Refusing to eat it doesn’t go down well (I know)… and definately don’t spit it out…

    Oh, trying it and pulling a face can sometimes be a good thing – they’ll all laugh at you! I think sometimes people want to see the foreigner out of their comfort zone.

    You could pack a jar of Marmite and see how they react to that 😉

    3) Thankfully I’ve never been propositioned by a husband, so I’m not sure what to say about scenario three!
    Jonathan (@retrotraveller) recently posted..Tashkurgan’s stone fortressMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      May 2, 2011 | 7:43 pm

      Hi, Jonathan. Thanks for the detailed response. Great stuff there! Very interesting that you’ve been expected to pay when staying with people. I’m sure that was awkward since it’s usually not the case. Sweet re: the head scarf!

      LOL re: Marmite. That’s British, right? I think I’ve had it on bread before.

      Hilarious re: being propositioned by someone’s husband. Glad you haven’t been in that situation!

      PS: Here’s a link to Pt 2 of the series–in case you’d like to check out the ‘dramas.’ I’ve got a disabled tour guide who didn’t do a very good job and a teaching colleague beating up his wife. Challenging to deal with, for sure…

  7. Randy
    May 2, 2011 | 3:33 pm

    Great post! These are some interesting situations.

    1. Like Ayngelina said, I would try to buy a gift, or if I didn’t have time to do that, then write a very nice thank you letter and leave that for her.

    2. I would eat the food. You never know, you might be surprised.

    3. If I were propositioned by a wife, I’d channel my inner George George Costanza (Seinfeld) and ask if she’s heard of a menage-a-trois to freak her out and hopefully terminate the conversation. Though, this probably wouldn’t work as well on a man. :)

    • CB Driver
      May 2, 2011 | 7:45 pm

      Hi, Randy. Thanks for joining us here! A thank you letter is a great idea. And true–one might find that intestines are tasty. It could happen! :) Love your response to #3..that’s great. Could you imagine? LOL

      PS: Here’s a link to some more ‘situations,’ including dramas (teaching colleague who beat his wife in the room next to mine and being in a situation where I wasn’t sure if I should tip a tour guide who did a poor job and happened to be disabled). I think you may find them interesting, too… Enjoy!

  8. […] Cultural Clashes, Dramas & Dilemmas […]

  9. Erin
    August 11, 2011 | 11:56 pm

    1. Been there. Buy food and stock their kitchen.
    2. Been there. Ugh. I eat it and pretend it’s delicious, but I only take a small serving with the explanation that my stomach is very small. lol This always seems like BS at first, but it’s the truth. I have to eat at least 5 times a day.
    3. Have not been there, but have a friend who has. I hate this trend. She told him NO, then told the wife. The wife apologized for the husband, but told her it was OK to go forward with it if she desired! My friend moved out immediately.
    I would say no and leave, but not sure how I would handle the wife. I think I’d tell her.
    Erin recently posted..Photo: The OMFG SunsetMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 13, 2011 | 11:32 am

      Hi, Erin. Thanks for sharing what you would do in the various situations. I like that option in #1….great idea! Wish I’d done that. And also smart to say you have a “small stomach”–good one. : #3 is crazy….jeez. Can’t believe what your friend’s wife said to her. Crazy!

  10. Liv
    October 11, 2011 | 8:54 am

    Nice piece Lisa!

    Fortunately I’ve only really experienced scenario 1 and I’ve always gone for getting a gift as soon as it looks like I’m being offered hospitality! Gifts seem internationally less offensive somehow than offering money.
    Liv recently posted..Guide to Expat Living in TurkeyMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 11, 2011 | 7:47 pm

      Hi, Liv. Glad you liked it! I think you’re right re: the gift giving option. I must admit that in the particular case that I mentioned, I did leave some money behind. I hope the person was not offended and that the money helped her in some way.

  11. Valerie Hamer
    October 19, 2011 | 8:39 am

    Ummm, I think for one I would try to post a present, or give money to the kiddies if they had any.

    #2 – Never happened to me but I’m glad I read this as it has made me think of an out. My response would be that in northern England we have a strict rule that only the hosts can enjoy the best part of the meal!!!

    #3 – Fraid I would probably have got into a fight on this one.

    • CB Driver
      October 19, 2011 | 11:13 am

      Valerie–Your idea re: a gift is good–or something for the kids. Love your answer to #2–clever and hilarious! As for 3, well–yeah, I can understand that. And now, if you’re curious, I just posted “what I did.” Glad you asked since I’d been meaning to for a while! I also did it in Part 2. Thanks!

  12. Aurora
    June 17, 2012 | 2:38 pm

    I think I would have done pretty much the same to be honest.

    Some money in an envelop is fine. I mean that’s what family members normally do when they come and visit anyway so why not.

    For the food I would have definitely eaten a little of everything. I probably wouldn’t have done the napkin trick in case they had a dog 😉

    • CB Driver
      June 18, 2012 | 7:42 am

      Hi, Aurora. Thanks for sharing what you would have done!

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