Imagine you are in a small Indonesian village with no refrigeration. The butcher stands on the side of a dusty road with a large cage containing seven live chickens. A customer approaches, dialogue unfolds and before you know it the butcher has beheaded the chook in front of everyone, spraying far more blood than you expected all over the dirt road and nobody bats an eyelid except for you. Your instinctual reaction is to freak out, scream, turn away, cry, maybe even berate the man. But he is merely making a public display of an action that he and many others who live in this village regularly practice. This is not what you are accustomed to but as a traveller it’s not your place to go and tell them to stop. Hopefully your shock is superseded by your curiosity and you try to understand why the butcher-shop is so different here. It’s probably impossible to think or act with pure objectivity, to make judgment without drawing comparisons to your own culture. But things make better sense in context. This is cultural relativity: an inquest into the local events, practices and rituals of a culture and acceptance of them in their context.
Is this a religious ritual or a solution to the lack of refrigeration? It is unpleasant for you to watch the chicken die on the street by the knife most likely because in your country this happens on a much larger scale behind the walls of a factory and the majority of people never have to witness it. Whether the action offends you is not the point.
The point is to understand why it occurs and how it is justified. This is the interesting shit, the perplexing and often brutal questions that surface through curiosity and adventure.
The best way to get an insight into this is to be a cultural relativist. Accept each situation for what it is and enquire about it with patience and humour. Once you realise that you are the outsider, the foreigner, the weirdo, and that in this new place there is a different version of normality, the more enriching your travel experiences will become.
When you encounter unfamiliarity, which you inevitably will, you must choose whether you want embrace and learn from that unfamiliarity or to hide from it. You must choose between cultural relativity and ethnocentrism. Don’t feel intimidated by the anthropological jargon, this is basic stuff, you’ve most likely come across it and considered it before.
Wikipedia can tell you that ethnocentrism is to judge another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture. This has been well exemplified by Australians in Bali, by Americans in Cancun, by Brits in Magalluf and by hundreds of other fools on holiday. It’s when people go travelling only to realise that everything is weird, disgusting and incurably, frustratingly different. The people who make these considerations tend to cling to the first skerrick of familiarity they can grip their sweaty little hands around. Granted, ethnocentrism may be a natural reaction to culture shock—it’s pretty natural to note differences and similarities between the local culture and your own—but hiding in your hotel room watching HBO and eating every meal at the same burger joint does not count as embracing the local culture (except maybe if you are in the States).
It’s cringe-worthy to go to a restaurant overseas and watch somebody complain about the service just because the experience was incongruent with what they learned as wait-staff in their home country. I want to slap the ignorant, picky traveller for being so ethnocentric. I want to tell that fool to cheer up and make do. They embarrass me as well as themselves. I say they are unconsciously enacting cultural imperialism.
A highly revealing aspect of travelling is that it requires you to exercise your freedom and responsibility through the choices you make. Whether you decide to marinate in your own hedonism or volunteer; hitch-hike with a tent on your back or be chauffeured between soulless rooms with fine linen; eat street food or at five star restaurants—in every instance you are making a choice. These choices are important to your experience, to your enjoyment, your satisfaction and they make up the details of the stories you will later self indulgently recount to your grounded, working-professional friends and family. But these choices are just details. The real core of every choice you make is between ethnocentrism and cultural relativity.
Next time you get out of your comfort zone—regardless of where you go, your budget or how much time you have—be aware of ethnocentrism and cultural relativity, in yourself and those around you. This awareness will lead to choices that provide far more freedom and understanding than the choice between luxury or ruggedness, beer or wine, walk or run. This is the choice between do/learn/experience or don’t.