I’ll never forget being corrected 12 years ago while dining at a Japanese restaurant, I was rubbing my chopsticks together. My date told me “You know that is highly offensive”! I had no idea and took to google to confirm his judgment. Sure enough, I was dead wrong. The problem was I learned the improper practice from my mom, and unknowingly passed the same faux pas onto my daughter.
I have found, most cultural insensitivities are learned behaviors. We have information at our fingertips in a second’s notice, so we no longer have the excuse of ignorance especially concerning cultural norms. While there can be forgiveness in dining etiquette, it is imperative for you to be aware of what is culturally acceptable while serving a medical mission.
Medical missions have afforded incredible opportunities for both medical providers giving care and those who are receiving it. No matter who you are there is great preparation necessary when embarking on a mission. This includes, taking time off work, preparing your family, registering with foreign governments, vaccinations, packing, and the list goes on and on. While you are preparing for your mission it will be important to consider where you are going, and to be conscience of what is acceptable within your host country.
When treating patients, it may be easy to assume someone who has never seen a doctor will be willing to see anyone, under any circumstance. We have found this may not always be the case. You be may be refused by a patient of the opposite sex, as in some countries, it may be unacceptable to be touched by the opposite sex except for one’s spouse or family member.
While here in the US we click our cameras all day, every day, you may be refused by locals of your host country. We have also found that taking out your camera can stop any meaningful exchange of connection in areas where technology is rare.
At the Making a Difference Foundation we work with our partners to ensure the medical providers we send out to the field are aware of cultural sensitivities, but it will not hurt for you to do some of your own research. For instance, there are some parts of Africa where it is offensive for a women’s knees to show, and in India, feet are viewed as dirty, so when entering a someone’s home, you will be required to take off your shoes. Some customs find it rude to look one in the eye, while others may interpret avoiding eye contact as a sign of low self esteem or a person is hiding something.
Researching the areas you will be visiting, and a little bit of self-awareness, will go a long way. Observe what the locals around you are doing, and when in doubt ask someone! Medical missions are proving to be as beneficial for the giver as much as the reciever. When offering care lets do our best to show respect and sensitivity as we continue to make a difference.