Published on September 13th, 2015


“Are They Clean People in [fill in the blank]?”

Bath time for a wee lass in a floating village in Thailand

Bath time in a floating village (from my early travels in Thailand). Let’s see – soap, water, bucket – yup, I’d say the wee lass was plenty “clean”.

A Facebook chum (likewise from my native land but now living in Ecuador for the past several years) recently posted an experience she had whilst visiting family in the U.S. Apparently, while out and about there, “…an educated, affluent, nice lady…” asked her if Ecuadorians “…are clean people?” Needless to say, she was more than a little taken aback by this naive outburst, and lamented that she was too stunned to offer a pithy comeback.

As an expat and traveler in many “developing” countries” myself, I can well relate that folks from more fully developed lands (like Australia, the U.S. the U.K. etc.) that travel little outside their comfy domestic borders (or visit lands like Haiti, etc. via brief cruise ship shore excursions), often hold some very naive and stereotyped notions of what people are like in less developed countries. Indeed, I too have had many such “Do they have paved roads?”, and even “Do they wear clothes?” questions, and am ever amazed and stunned when I’m suddenly confronted with such ignorance and bigotry.

My response to my Facebook pal’s query as to just how best to reply to such naive (at best) comments was thus:

My own immediate reaction would have been dumbfounded silence. And actually I think a nice long silent pause can be very effective in passively discouraging the nonsense that spills out of some folks’ mouths.

But ideally, it would be best to use that moment (following the pause) to educate rather than alienate with a snarky remark. Often it’s enough to simply respond with a simple question to prompt the speaker to think a bit harder about what they so thoughtlessly said. Perhaps something like… “……[extended pause]… Why do you ask that?”.

Such might then open a dialog whereby you could gently explain that while millions of folks ’round the world may not enjoy the convenience/luxury of the lass’ spiffy private shower, nonetheless, even the most rural folks in Ecuador (et al) manage to keep themselves clean and fragrant daily – if only by a simple splash in the nearby river. So yes, my dear, they are “clean people”.

And then – it got me to thinking… Just what IS the best way to deal with such ignorance? So I did a little Googling, and found this most interesting survey on the (insidiously subtle and prevalent) subject:

Speak up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

In short, I was amazed at the many, many ways that tiny bits of bigotry pervade our lives daily. And though I find haughty judging of my fellow man exceedingly arrogant and annoying (be it as the grammar police, a religious/political evangelist, or simply derisively judging variant ways to live one’s life), I must say, maybe we DO need to confront such ignorance when we have the chance.  I mean, how else can we ever hope to raise awareness and uproot such (often innocently ignorant) bigotry from the Planet?

What do you think? How would YOU have responded to the lass’ question of “Are they clean in…?


About the Author

Off-the-beaten-path travel is my passion,and I’ve always lived life “like-a-kid-in-a-candy-store” – eager to sample as many flavors as I can. Indeed, my life motto has long been: This ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!

6 Responses to “Are They Clean People in [fill in the blank]?”

  1. Ted says:

    I find that most of the people I meet who are out there travelling, tend to be fairly well educated. Because of their journeys, they’ve learned something on top of that.

    The first thing (traveling or not) that usually hits is fear. Then a person can respond with some thought or just react, in which case it’s usually negative.

    We can, you said, ask a them a question and put the ball in their park – which normally works best. Not be “judgmental”, but still be able to judge without being obnoxious. Like, “maybe there is a different way that we don’t know yet”.

    Thinking about the subject, I reckon it comes down to three things (may be wrong):
    They honestly do not know and will react in some way out of fear or ignorance.

    That’s down to education, some of it out of their hands. But then where is the question, “Is that true?”

    Just plain stupid
    They know the right thing to do but won’t, and the wrong thing yet do it anyways. In which case you, normally, can’t help them and just walk away.
    Ted kindly contributed to world literature by posting…Narrow streets and ancient churchesMy Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      Education helps of course Ted, but my post originated from a remark made by a well-educated U.S. lass that likely had little experience traveling among the backroads of less developed nations.

      So I don’t think it’s so much stupidity, as simply lack of perspective/experience. But then yes – as you say, in this day and age, it’s difficult to understand how/why someone wouldn’t question/could be so uninformed about what other countries are like, and worse – that the reaction should be so often tilted towards the negative.

      And yes too, it seems that (sadly) the uninformed reaction to anything “foreign” is fear and/or a “we” vs. “them” attitude. I guess that’s just human nature and/or it’s a product of some deeply ingrained survival mechanism in our Neanderthal gene pool. 😉

      But even more disturbing, is that I do believe that many such remarks, stem from an especially onerous (imho) bias towards condescending arrogance of those living in less developed lands. That’s why I found the linked article on Everyday Bigotry so fascinating and helpful.

  2. Everyone is ignorant of 99.99%+ of human knowledge so I usually tolerate others and expect them to tolerate mine. However aggressively attacking from their ignorance is met with an, uh .. , education that often bounces off their ego defenses.

    We all carry a self constructed internal map of how the world works. For most people, accepting the need to redraw that man is one of the most difficult life tasks. Combine that with ignorance and way too many having little interest outside their sphere of day to day life or learning anything they don’t have to and, well, people quite innocently say the darnedest things.

    ‘Clean’ issues are not the best for examining ignorance, IMHO, because there are so many irrational deeply implanted core values. Examples from the US of A include, I know brothers who are appalled that I drink out of a bathroom tap because it’s “bathroom water”. I’ve lost count of co-workers who wouldn’t return to a restaurant because a single cracked plate or spots on flatware meant the place was ‘unclean’. Don’t we all know people who would never shop for a Halloween costume at Goodwill because wearing a stranger’s clothes was too icky?

    • Dyanne says:

      Indeed FLN – and imo, it is precisely those “…many irrational deeply implanted core values” that are the problem. I think the linked article both illustrates how very insidious and prevalent such stubbornly held values are, but offers some very thoughtful ways to chip away at them.

  3. Burt says:

    I must travel in different circles when in the States. I can certainly remember my parents having that kind of “everyday bigotry,” but I can’t imagine any of my current friends or family (both our parents have passed) thinking that way.

    Of course, I come from the San Francisco Bay Area in Calif, and tend to travel among friends that are both well educated and well traveled. Additionally, Evelyn spent most of the last 20 years of her career working among Hispanics, helping to develop their commercial centers.

    OTOH, I _have_ heard comments of that ilk right here in Cuenca — by gringos whom I then distance myself quickly enough that I do not even bother with responding to…
    Burt kindly contributed to world literature by posting…Turn Left At The Cow (Puyo)My Profile

    • Dyanne says:

      Yes, as I said Burt, such biases come generally from folks that have rarely traveled outside the confines of their comfy native land. And yes too, it is tempting to not bother to call out such ignorant remarks even from fellow expats here in our adopted home in Ecuador. But I still think we need to at least make an effort to respond with a gentle dose of education to those that seem oblivious to their folly. For otherwise, they will likely never learn.

Back to Top ↑

Show Buttons
Hide me