Mental adjustments in crossing cultures

We’ll be heading around the world again soon, and I often think back to this moment of mental readjustment on a previous trip.  Surely there will be more, and I am ever grateful to these opportunities to reset my Western mind of abundance and consumption to a global reality.  

Four a.m. on an empty street in Sri Lanka. A man rides his bike. The shops wear their night dress of metal doors and barred windows. A few stray dogs catch a nap on the curb before the noise of the day begins. I am arriving in an air-conditioned taxi, complete with red velvet seats and Buddha figurine dangling from the rear view mirror.

We’ve just arrived from the States for a holiday with my husband’s family, and my cultural adaptation gears are shifting a bit too slowly. Somebody at the airport broke a piece off my fancy new stroller, and I, in my Western expect-efficiency-now-mindset foolishly tried to get a responsible looking employee to find it. He smiled at me, nodded his head agreeably, and walked away. I never saw him again.

Working out of my bad mood over the stroller incident, I stare out my window at the barefoot, lone man pedaling a bike. His feet are dusty, his shirt worn. Stick thin legs extend from the sarong wrapped around his waist. I wonder about his life. Does he have a family? How many children? Does his roof leak in the rain? How many people sleep in his bed? Does he have enough food to eat?

“What is he doing out so early?” I finally ask my mother-in-law. Inside, I really wonder what he thinks of me, the rich Suddha in the luxury taxi.

“Probably going to work.”

I feel ignorant and privileged. Where I’m coming from, no one commutes to the office barefoot on a bike. I can’t reconcile this, however, and feign understanding with a nod, “Oh.”

I wonder more. Is he Tamil? Sinhalese? How has the war affected him? Who is his God?

“Work?” I respond after a few moments. “Why so early?”

“He probably sells fish. Has to be at the market early.”

I gulp. The priority of the missing stroller piece plummets in importance. A man on an empty street riding a bike at four in the morning to sell fish – rancid, slippery fish – to eke out a living that might not even put food in his children’s mouths (if he has any). Yet he doesn’t seem to notice.

He also doesn’t even seem to notice me or the privilege of the nine suitcases piled high behind my seat. While the weight of abundance descends heavily upon my shoulders, he is simply riding his bike to work, at four in the morning, to sell fish at the market.

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2 thoughts on “Mental adjustments in crossing cultures”

  1. Great post – a wonderful reminder about perspective and gratitude. I think that many would consider the man riding the bicycle to be unhappy and in need of help. However, it is dangerous to assume that man feels underprivileged. Perhaps he is happier not having to worry about his nine suitcases and expensive stroller. Until we have these conversations, we are still caught in our own cultural assumptions about the intersection of ‘wealth’ and ‘happiness’. All is relative 🙂


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