Cultural Challenges


Being an outsider is often challenging. You may enter a world with an unfamiliar language, and there may be profound differences that go beyond language. As eluded to in the Iceberg Exercise, culture exists on a variety of levels many of which are invisible at first glance.

Language, dress, greetings, family relationships, power structures, gender roles, and many other things may be very different in this new place. Students who have gone before you have shared some of their experiences with us, and their experiences illustrate some of the challenges you may face. Please take the time to read some of their unusual encounters and think about how you would react. Then see what they did or what they recommend in hindsight.


An Act of Kindness

I hadn't timed it right. The village I had to get to was still an hour away when night fell. Walking in the dark was a nuisance; also, it had been raining since early afternoon. Worst of all, as I leaned against the wall of the chautara and felt the blessed release from the weight of my backpack, I discovered my flashlight batteries were dead. The hour ahead was shaping up poorly. As I stood there in the rain, my glasses fogged, drinking from my water bottle, an old woman came around the bend, bent over under a stack of firewood. She headed for the chautara, her eyes down, and nearly walked into me, looking up suddenly when she saw my feet.

"Namaste," she said, shifting her load onto the wall. "Kaha jaane?"

"To the village," I said.

"Tonight? It's dark and your shirt is wet." Then, more urgently, "You're the American, aren't you?"

"My son is in America," she said. She didn't look like the type whose son would be in America. "He joined the army, the Gurkhas, and they sent him there for training. Three months ago. He's a country boy. I worry. You need some tea before you go on."

After ten minutes, we were at her small house beside the trail. She doffed the firewood and turned to me.

"Take off your shirt."

I gave her a look of surprise.

She said, "I'll dry it by the fire in the kitchen. Put on this blanket."

A few minutes later she came out of the kitchen with two mugs of tea, swept a hapless chicken off the table, and pulled up a bench for me. The tea worked wonders, bringing back my courage for the walk ahead. She offered me food, too, but I declined, explaining that I didn't want to be on the trail too late at night.

"It's OK," she said. "You have a flashlight."

She fetched my shirt. I put it on, revived by the warmth against my skin, and went outside to hoist my pack. I turned to thank her.

"Switch on your flashlight," she told me.

"The batteries are dead."

She went inside and came back with two batteries, a considerable gift for someone of her means.

"I couldn't," I said. "Besides, I know the trail."

"Take them." She smiled, showing great gaps where teeth had once been.

"You've been very kind to me," I said.

"My son is in America," she said. "Some day, on the trail, he will be cold and wet. Maybe a mother in your land will help him."