In our culture, I mean the Western or American culture, some things look really black and white until you leave the law abiding world behind and enter the gray zone called the Third World. In America, it’s straight forward- a bribe is illegal and will get you in a big ‘ole pile of doo-doo. Keeping your word is the equivalent of building a solid reputation for trustworthiness. “Honesty is the best policy” and “cleanliness is next to Godliness” are more than just manipulative sayings used by your grandma. We really believe these things!
But overseas, the virtues that you hold so precious look foolish and impractical to others. In some countries, these concepts that are so ingrained in us don’t even cross people’s minds! It can be quite shocking how easily people in other countries “lie” or “cheat” or “steal” or “give a bribe.” But is it really that cut and dry? Can we really brand the actions of another culture with our American labels?
I admit that this is one of the areas of cultural adjustment that I have struggled with the most. When I was a college student, I had my first taste of cultural misunderstandings when I worked for a short time with high school students in a Cambodian youth group. One of the principal values of Asian cultures is not to cause someone to “lose face” or be embarrassed publicly. I didn’t understand this.
So when I would ask my girls, “Are you coming to the event on Saturday?” and they all enthusiastically replied with the affirmative, I was confused and angry when no one showed up. But they SAID they would be there! Why would they LIE?! Turns out they didn’t see it as lying. They saw it as a gentler, kinder way of saying, “no.” Rather than saying no directly to my face, they took the indirect approach and just didn’t show up on Saturday. I still don’t like this even though I understand it now.
Sometimes the problem isn’t so much with personal morality as it is an issue of how things get done in a Third World country. For example, we have friends in Asia who were having trouble getting their visa renewal paperwork to move through a particular office. The office staff drug their feet until the visas were only a week away from expiration.
In frustration, my friend tried to think about how he had seen his local friends pull strings. He leaned forward at the desk and asked the clerk, “How can I help you get this work done?”
“Well,” the clerk thought, “we like Durian fruit here.” Without saying a word, my friend nodded, turned on his heels and walked out the door. The next morning he didn’t even bother to stand in line. With two armfuls of Durian fruit, he walked right to the front of the line, opened the door and heard the clerk happily announce to the entire office, “The Durian is here!” Mission accomplished, the visas were renewed by the end of the week.
So was it a bribe? Or was it just greasing the wheels of commerce? The world will never know. But I do know for a fact you can’t report that on your IRS forms.