3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD POST 9: 19th November 2016, Luang Prabang, Laos.
There is a reason that the areas and things we are used to are referred to as our ‘comfort zone’. When we know our way around, when we are familiar with the types of people who surround us and with their role in our lives, when we can pre-empt people’s attitudes or ways of doing things, life becomes both comfortable and comforting. Which can be lovely - I’m actually missing it a bit right now - but it also breeds a kind of apathy.
Which is why travelling can be so exciting. It breaks that mold of control and convenience and allows you to experience things afresh, as though for the first time. Nothing is taken for granted, you have no expectations and as a result you are constantly required to think on your feet.
The primary reason we chose South East Asia as this year’s travel exploration ground, was for the degree to which it would challenge us: its climate, topography, politics, language, development, food and customs could not be more different to ours. We were drawn to the sheer scale of its Otherness.
And we were enjoying this hugely until yesterday, when the challenge with which we were suddenly faced seemed to stray disturbingly into the moral/immoral category: we found out (the hard way) that in many parts of Asia, children are not seen as having any personal or physical boundaries; that those parts of our body that we, in the West, would consider private and off-limits, are simply not viewed as such here. Across India, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (which is, apparently, the very worst offender), children’s bodies are considered totally accessible to all those who are curious, affectionate or just having a laugh at their expense: pants are lowered to have a look and crotches are pulled or grabbed to check gender. Very young boys are the most common targets.
At first, I thought it was just us. I freaked out. We very nearly left the region in a knee-jerk state of shock (having experienced an even more unsettling episode in Thailand). And two episodes in six weeks is enough for me to consider that as a sign to leave. But after doing some research I found out that not only are these acts very common – there is much anecdotal grumbling about it online – but here they are seen as totally acceptable. Indeed, children's bodies are poked, prodded, pulled and squeezed without shame, in full view of anyone who happens to be around.
The crucial difference behind our varying perspectives on the matter seems to be underpinned by what we assume is the intent behind the act: in the West, where touching another person without their consent can be and usually is, an illegal act, only those that cannot help themselves fall prey to the ‘crime’. In South East Asia however, (I am assured) there is no element of sexuality present at all. Which (kind of) makes sense since the perpetrators are usually from a much older generation and of the same sex as the object of curiosity.
This made me feel a little better. But it certainly didn’t help me get my head round it being ok. And it definitely made explaining to the kids what is ok and what is not ok, what is 'good' touch and what is 'bad' touch, a whole lot more complicated.
I have now come to very weird, resigned state of mind that is not exactly accepting in terms of condoning, but accepting in that there is nothing else I can do to change things. It is futile for me to demand respect for physical boundaries when that notion does not even exist here. (Interestingly, in Laos, there is no concept of possession: the word for ‘mine’ is the same as that for ‘yours’. I wonder if this has anything to do with it?)
So we wanted a challenge and by God, we got one. (Note to self: be way more careful what I manifest!) It would be an understatement to say that my cultural boundaries have been stretched. But they remain intact and in place. I am newly aware of just how different we can be beneath the veneer of sameness. I’m taking nothing for granted. Once again, I have no expectations. Our Thai and Laotian episodes have served as a cultural awakening that has made me grateful for, and slightly crave, my personal ‘comfort zone’. But we are not quite ready to return yet...
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