Expats and Ethnocentrism

We’re all ethnocentric. We can’t help it since much of who we are (or think we are) is a product of our upbringing. If we remain in our home countries our entire lives, our ethnocentricity doesn’t really affect our daily lives too much. It does limit our perspective, though, often in more profound ways than we imagine.


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I ran across an article on the Expat Everyday Support Center the other day that addressed the issue of ethnocentrism. The subtitle of Another Take on Cultural Differences was “how we tricked ourselves into thinking our brains are the center of the universe.” As soon as I read those words, I knew I was on to something good. The subject of expats and ethnocentrism is one I think about frequently.

The opening sentence got to the specifics:

Sometimes we westerners think we are the standard by which the rest of the world should be measured and evaluated.

Similar words have been going through my mind like a mantra since the day I arrived in Cambodia. It seemed like every traveller and expat I met had come to snap conclusions about this country. That included those who were here with the best of intentions as well as those who were here to take advantage of the country in one way or the other. Worse, most of those who had been here a long time still clung to their cultural belief systems like life rafts.

Some of those I met were laughable, others annoying. Still others were infuriating because they did a lot of damage with their assumption that they knew what was best for Cambodians. Then there are those who can’t open their mouths without comparing Cambodia unfavourably to their country. Americans are particularly prone to do this.

Picking on others, though, has done me no good. Taking a look at my own cultural prejudices has. I can think of a dozen examples off the top of my head, but let me share just one of the less embarrassing or controversial ones with you.

We started building our house just a couple of months after I moved to Cambodia. While I tried to listen to my wife’s input, there were some things I was “sure” about. One of them was the kitchen. Since it was my money paying for the house, nobody protested very loudly about my kitchen design. For six years, Mama and others who worked in my kitchen stood on a stool Papa made so they could work comfortably. For six years, Mama did most of the cooking outside in the front of the house, where she had set up a little charcoal stove.

Sopheak started making good money a few months ago. One of the first things she did with it was build a new outdoor kitchen. It has a roof and two walls to keep out the rain, but is wide open in the back. The kitchen bench is much lower than mine was and alongside my gas cooktop, they have installed two charcoal pots. The ceiling is very high, so what little smoke that comes from the charcoal dissipates quickly.


Our new kitchen

Mama is afraid of gas. It can explode and a gas fire is an open flame. She’s been cooking with charcoal her entire life and is very adept at it. She uses just as much charcoal as she needs for any particular dish and she times her cooking so that the embers die down at just the time she wants a dish to simmer.

Not long ago, I read an article about some NGO’s initiative to teach rural Cambodians to switch from charcoal to gas. Why? To reduce greenhouse emissions. That made me laugh out loud. Here was some earnest journalist, typing away in a well-lighted room somewhere in England. She was using electricity made at a coal burning power plant spilling out tons of greenhouse emissions and complaining that a relative handful of Cambodians using charcoal once or twice a day were a cause of global warming. That’s ethnocentrism for you.

It runs even deeper than that, though. Take a look at this infographic I pinched from Norman’s article cited above. Pay special attention to the information at the bottom of the infographic where it says, “Perception Shaped by Culture.” Literally, the way we perceive the world is shaped by our culture. Just think how much we could learn from each other if we bridged the vast cultural divide.

Infographic Source: Best College Degrees

By the way, I love our new kitchen, too.

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About Rob Schneider

Rob Schneider is a writer based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he has lived since 2006.

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