One often comes across this topic that is almost universal in nature and exists everywhere yet seldom discussed to find ways to overcome. Most people do not realize that this barrier exists and can be fun to overcome and is true even for those who travel to various countries and shy away from local culture,food or fashion.
I have often wondered why and after some reflection come to the conclusion that most people are afraid to try something new in another culture or even new to them in their own country. The automatic defense mechanism kicks in when they come across something they are not used to seeing or doing in their own comfort zones and look down on anything strange.
I can understand when it comes to food, most people will not eat what they are not used to eating everyday so brave is the person who tries something new . An American woman asked why Indians do not eat beef which is so delicious . I answered that food is what people eat. If something is not considered food , they will not eat it even if it is considered delicious by others. The Cambodians chew fried spiders and say it is wonderful but others may not agree. Tibetans consider very old eggs buried in snow a delicacy but others will not touch it.
So food is a sensitive subject on which everyone has their own opinion and no two will agree on what is food and what is delicious and what is not.
An American who never had a crab in his life was given one to eat so he chewed on it shell and all and tried to swallow it wondering why people eat it. So it helps to learn from others how to eat a certain food and enjoy it too. The simple solution is to ask or imitate others.It is foolish to look for pork in moslem countries or beef in a Hindu country because these foods are taboo there.
In Africa If you go to remote rural villages, you will notice that they eat only what they grow and will not eat something new.
I brought some potatoes to such a village in Mali where they do not grow potatoes so no one would eat it. Once I fried some shrimp chips in California that a Vietnamese friend had given me and eagerly I offered to my housemates who were all Americans. No one touched it because they had never eaten shrimp chips and were suspicious.
Once in Vietnam I was offered some fried rat meat by the farmers in the delta who were surprised that I could not eat it when to them it was so delicious. So the definition of delicious varies from country to country and even within a country that is as large as India.
But the cultural barrier is not just about food. It is a mindset that finds it hard to accept anything new to them . One girl in India laughed at the rectangular Japanese footwear because she was not used to it therefore it was not right and laughable.
Similarly some Asians will whistle and make cat calls if they see a person wearing a sari or kurta pyjama walking down the street but a woman wearing very tight shorts cut to the crotch will not get a second look. Such a woman will get cat calls or worse in India where women must not show their legs. In Mali a woman may be bare breasted but the legs must be covered.
I have met a lot of people from different countries who are so ill at ease to overcome the cultural barrier and will not even try. A friend of mine visiting us in the Philippines asked if I knew any Indian here and was very surprised that I did not know anyone.To him it was natural to seek out other Indians from his region in other countries so that he could speak his language . So some people no matter how much they travel abroad , can not overcome the barrier that separates them from the locals. Again it is the mindset more than anything else.
People from the developed world are always told that under developed countries are not clean, not hygienic and the water must not be trusted .While this is true in some countries, it is not universally true. I have seen people urinating in metro stations in New York or sleeping on card boards there while the metro stations in Mexico city is sparkling clean and the cars are new and shiny yet Americans are told that Mexico is an under developed country and Tijuana dogs have more fleas than thieves in Los Angeles .
This comes from prejudice that almost everybody has. It is fashionable to think that they are the best so look down on others as a consequence. But the prejudice comes from ignorance and it is a learned experience. Parents, neighbors, school mates, classmates, teachers, media , they all participate in perpetuating prejudices that children learn at an early age and in turn they teach it to the next generation.
The prejudice against other people, other races of different skin color , who eat different food, speak different languages, wear different clothes and have different body languages all are subject to prejudice that often leads to tragic consequences.
The Sikhs in the US are often mistaken for Moslems and beaten up just because they wear turban and look different but it all comes from prejudice that comes from ignorance. It is not hard to find any information about Sikhs or anyone in the internet but often the prejudice is practiced by the uneducated grassroots people in most countries although not limited to the grass roots by any means.
I have often noticed a lack of curiosity or interest about other countries, their culture or people in the so called educated class. They were not interested in my slide show about other countries and often laughed at the bare breasted Malian women derisively because to them the women must not be so.
They could not or would not see beyond the breasts what was beautiful about Malians or Haitians and said that it did not matter to them because they could not relate to the subject as it was beyond their comprehension or outside their comfort zone. While it is surprising that people can be so ignorant in this day and age of internet, it is not surprising if you understand the mind set of people that develops over a life time and constantly fortified by others who have similar views.
The teacher of our son ridiculed him in the class when he said that he lived in Haiti and the people are called Haitians. She said it should be Ha tee an . This was pure ignorance and arrogance because she could not accept that she as a teacher did not know how to pronounce Haitian and could not believe that a five year old did.
I think all the human problems come from this lack of interest coupled with ignorance that is the root cause of prejudice. The racism is rooted in it and continues unabated in spite of people living in a connected world. By racism I do not only mean racism as practiced by the whites but also as practiced by non whites towards others whom they consider inferior to them. Thus racism exists everywhere in one form or other.
There is a story about a Filipino woman who brought her African American friend or boy friend to her village where they all were shocked until a small boy fell into a well and the American without the slightest hesitation jumped into the well and saved the little boy from drowning. After that people formed a very different opinion of the visitor .
A teenage girl was raped and brutally beaten by a gang of people in a bus late at night in India .She later died of her injuries causing a national uproar but the question to ask was why she was raped and beaten. Such acts of horrible crime is a manifestation of something else. It is a manifestation of a deep rooted belief that a young girl should not be out with her boy friend late at night therefore she must be bad, immoral and should be punished .
People always act according to their beliefs right or wrong. Women were hung from lamp posts in Iran just for wearing lipstick and high heels therefore must be immoral and thus punished. A young girl was beaten to death in Pakistan per order of the village council because she helped her friend elope with her loved one.
Talibans routinely kill girls for going to school because they were taught by mollahs that girls should not be educated. It took a very brave girl like Malala to bring this sort of prejudice to the notice of the world almost at the cost of her own life. If parents teach their children such prejudices then who is to teach the parents and the mollahs?
Such people create their own barriers and justify them by citing obsolete edicts and prehistoric laws that are still practiced by people who have not been able to adjust to the modern world. The consequences are tragic. Anyone who does not agree with them is killed.
In some parts of the world, people have come a long way since the days of lynching the black person just because he looked at a white person. President Obama is a good example of that change but it does not mean the hate and racism is dead.
As long as people fail to overcome their own fears , hate and prejudices will continue because they fail to understand that the world can be better place when people overcome their own barriers be they cultural, emotional, religious or any other self created wall.
A person who does not want to be taught can not be taught. You can drag a mule to water but can not make him drink if he does not want to. It is the same with people.