Adjusting to Norms in a Public Space

When preparing to move to Yangon, I knew there would be many cultural differences between Myanmar and the United States.  Since I had studied abroad in Myanmar, I felt that I was somewhat aware of these differences and knew how to adjust and prepare for them.  One thing, though, has really proven challenging for me: adjusting to how people treat common or public spaces in Myanmar, and Southeast Asia more generally.

Culturally in the United States and Western Europe, people behave quietly and respectfully in public spaces adhering to “proper etiquette.”  This typically means using an “indoor voice” and essentially not disturbing, annoying, or offending anyone around you.  People should use headphones when listening to music or watching videos, avoid eating in public places outside of restaurants, mitigate pungent body odors (both body odor and perfume), avoid staring at people, etc.

All of these ways of behaving in public, which have been ingrained in me since birth, don’t exist in Southeast Asia.  I’ve found it very common for people in public spaces to blast noise from their phones, spit, vomit, and blow their nose whenever they please, radiate very pungent body odors, stare blatantly, cut in front of people in queues, yell….the list could go on and on.  Usually, I am able to recognize this as a cultural difference and can accept that I am the only person in the space that finds these actions unacceptable, and so I attempt to ignore it.

My ability to ignore my cultural biases is tested when I’m tired, hungry, and thirsty, which I often am when traveling.  For instance, I visited Mawlamyine a few weekends ago.  It’s a 7 hour bus ride from Yangon.  On the entire bus ride, someone was vomiting every 20 minutes into a plastic bag.  This was not because of motion sickness because the girl had been vomiting before the bus had even started moving.  She was already incredibly sick and decided to ride a public bus for 7 hours.  Then when I finally arrived in Yangon, I took a shared taxi (that’s pretty much all that’s available at that bus station).  In the taxi, the girl next to me was playing a music video on her phone and loudly singing along.  The man in the front seat was yelling on the phone and spitting into a plastic bag (I experienced a lot of bodily liquid ejected into plastic bags during that trip).  By this moment, I had had enough with what I viewed as a lack of respect for people in a shared space.

I powered through the moment.  When I got home, I had some food and water and quickly fell asleep.  Feeling refreshed the next morning, I was able to reflect on my experiences in the public spaces and how quickly my emotions took control of my rationality.  I guess that’s why adjusting to cultural norms is difficult.

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