Life among the pagodas
Earlier this month, Amazon and the nation of India had a small debacle. The first offense on Amazon’s part was to sell doormats emblazoned with the Indian flag. This product was met with much consternation and anger in India. Shortly after, Amazon found themselves in hot water again, this time with a third party vendor selling Gandhi flip-flops on their site.
One thing frustrated me about these news stories: none of the western outlets reporting this story gave any reason for the outrage of the Indian people. The story was reported without any explanation for the offense; I fear such minimalist reportage risks making other cultures—Indians in this case—look to the western reader like a bunch of hotheads, when, in fact, there is good reason for their outrage.
In many cultures around the world, feet are considered the filthiest part of the body. This is true in India, as it is in Myanmar and many other countries. If you want to insult someone, you would point at them with your foot, or slap them with your sandal. Keeping feet and floors clean is very important to people in Myanmar, and if you are sitting in a group, you are to sit cross-legged, so as not to have your feet pointing toward anyone else.
At the root of matters like the conflict between Amazon and its Indian affiliates is a differing view of what constitutes patriotism and honor to a cultural icon or symbol. If you are from the U.S.A., you have probably eaten off a paper plate adorned with the stars and stripes, or you have wiped your face with an American flag napkin; in fact, you have probably done this many times without a second thought. You have probably eaten a dessert resembling a flag at some point in your life. You may think patriotic garb like socks, swimsuits, shorts or underwear are a show of affection for your country, or at least, you wouldn’t give it a second thought if you saw someone else wearing that sort of apparel.
But for much of the world, such displays are horrifying, unthinkable, and in some cases, can result in punitive action against the oblivious patriotic offender. My Myanmar friends shake their heads laughingly when I tell them my child’s American flag flip-flops or her Canadian flag socks are a show of patriotism. (I haven’t broached the subject of eating the likeness of a flag, but I imagine that would not go over well, either.) Here, and in much of the world, that sort of expression could land a person in jail, or with a hefty fine.
There is the case of the Australian Budgie Nine, who were detained and fined after wearing speedos sporting the Malaysian flag at a Malaysian sporting event. Here in Myanmar, more than one tourist has been escorted out of the country after being discovered with leg or ankle tattoos of the Buddha. In Rakhine state, mobs gathered and rioted after a rumor spread through town that a foreign NGO worker had wrapped a Buddhist flag around her waist; people we know personally had to flee for their lives because of this riot.
To the Western mind, it may seem maddening to demand this kind of respect for a religious or national symbol. But imagine going to use a bathroom where the urinal cakes were emblazoned with the American flag, or the inside of the toilet bowl was painted with George Washington’s face; you would have to be rather callous not to see these as messages conveying disrespect for the nation. So it is in cultures such as Myanmar, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so on; patriotism “below-the belt” (i.e. sporting any religious or national symbol below the waist or on one’s feet) is taken on the same level as unceremoniously burning a flag, or urinating on a gravestone.
In Eastern cultures such as these, one’s physical attitude toward tangible things is seen as an indication of a person’s respect for the nation’s people, culture and identity. Their patriotic values are not black and white moral issues; just as it is neither right nor wrong to eat a cake resembling a flag. However, these matters can become moral issues when we as guests chose to disregard the cultural values of our hosts. (When I moved here, some of the cultural requirements I encountered seemed obnoxious and offensive to my desire to do things in my own way. As I have learned more, I realized that some of what I first claimed as my individualism was just sin, and a selfish desire to disregard the hospitality and values of those around me.)
As Christians, whether we be guests or hosts, ultimately, we need to understand that we are guests of God in this world; as his children, we show him honor when we strive to understand and live at peace with the different needs and values of his people in other parts of the globe.