Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring Break 2009: Culture Shock

I have never been to the zoo in a developing country before. I didn’t think it would get to me. I’m admittedly not a huge animal lover. I think people are a lot more important than animals, and it sometimes upsets me to see more resources spent taking care of animals than my fellow man. I wasn’t expected habitats like in America. I was expecting the cages. I was expecting poor conditions. But expectations didn’t prepare me for what I felt.

The animals were in cages. Small cages with concrete slabs. The bears had one fallen tree to play on and spent a lot of their time clawing at the fence. The old corn puffs people had try to throw into the cages littered the ground in front of the bars. The wolves were in a cage smaller than my bedroom. There was a large, beautiful pelican with clipped wings in a cage it didn’t belong in. The number of animals they had was also surprising. There were tigers, lions, bears, wolves, crocodiles, emus, camels, baboons, monkeys, hawks, ducks, seagulls, even llamas. (Seeing the llamas did cheer me up some. I am very found of camelids.) The conditions were shocking. All around these small living spaces were lush green spaces filled with trees and grass. Why weren’t the animals occupying more of the wide open spaces? But then again, why would they be? Rule number one here, is that things don’t make sense like you think they should.

But it wasn’t even the animals that got to me. It was the people. Because I think Ken and I were the only ones that were feeling any sort of sympathy for the animals and their conditions. (Admittedly, the people who go to the zoo are of course the people the enjoy the zoo. Anyone with animal rights qualms probably doesn’t go.) But there were a lot of people there. Families, couples, large groups. And they were all having a great time. Look at the bears, look at the tigers. Laughing and truly enjoying themselves. And I was miserable.

And I came to a culture shock epiphany. In Peace Corps, you hear a lot about culture shock. And everyday you experience a little bit, but this was like an atomic bomb of culture shock, right in my face. I felt bad for the animals because I think they deserve at least some level of regular life. But for the people there, they were just animals there for show. They didn’t really deserve much. After seeing how people here treat their dogs (barely feeding them sometimes, on a short chain outside a lot of the time), it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But rather than feeling anger, I asked myself why I think one way and they think another.

I was raised in America that animals in zoos should have habitats. They weren’t. I don’t know what exactly locals believe about animal rights, but it’s obvious my upbringing has shaped my life in ways that they haven’t experienced. Of course, I think I’m right. But am I? The zoo really challenged by feelings of cultural superiority. It’s hard for me to really describe, but the zoo provided such a shock that I really started to think about cultural differences in a new way. Maybe cheating in school is okay because you should help out your friends? Maybe sitting on people is okay on the train because..okay, I don’t know how they justify that one. Maybe its okay if women are the only ones who clean the house because they claim they enjoy it. Maybe not. Probably not. But where do my values come from other? My culture, my family, my upbringing, my religion. And when these all vary in a culture, how should I expect them to share my values.

Anyway, I went to the zoo. It was awful. It made me think a lot more about cultural relativism in the context of Kazakhstan.

Next up “Bus”ties and Gosting…

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