“Never step over people or tables. Don’t put books on the floor. Never point your feet at someone.” While we sat on cushions around the edges of the room, our Tibetan instructors listed for us the dos and don’ts of their culture. “Don’t kill bugs; in Buddhism, you should show respect for all sentient beings.” Girls should never reveal shoulders, knees or cleavage. Men and women shouldn’t touch. Never wear clothing inside out. Presentation and cleanliness are very important to Tibetans. If you don’t follow these cultural guidelines, “you might make your families feel uncomfortable or offended.”
My first night with my Tibetan homestay family, my homestay father zealously attacked several bu, bugs, crawling along the wall. My second night, my homestay sister entered the room wearing pajama shorts and an inside-out T-shirt. Day three, my homestay father wandered around with no shirt on, and day four my homestay mother wore her chuba (traditional Tibetan dress) with no shirt underneath it, revealing both cleavage and shoulders. Their attitude, casual at all times, did not indicate any concern for the aforementioned cultural norms.
I observed these incongruities with amusement. My family’s behavior, so perfectly opposite from what my teachers had led me to expect, illustrates the limitations of cultural sensitivity. In the documentary film, “Dalai Lama Renaissance,” the Dalai Lama said, “Sometimes I really find difficult dialogue with mosquito and my pain. First mosquito come, sometimes I give blood, the second come, then the third, then difficult.” If even the Dalai Lama feels the urge to kill mosquitoes, then we should hardly be surprised that my homestay father, an average lay Buddhist, might do the same. The tendency to show an exaggerated amount of respect towards cultural practices not our own, to bow and scrape, even, to what wedon’t understand is in my opinion a little bit silly.
Undoubtedly, our teachers’ advice proved relevant for many of my peers, but I wonder if the flood of instructions ultimately serves anyone well. “You will make mistakes,” they concluded, “but don’t worry—Tibetans love to laugh, and they don’t hold grudges!” If breaking the rules will result in laughter, are we better off forgetting them? No; they still teach us a lot about another culture. Nonetheless, as we worry about political correctness, cultural sensitivity and respect, I think we would be well served to not take any of it too seriously.