Every time I land in a foreign country, I automatically receive several text messages reminding me that I need to “observe public order, respect local customs, cultural traditions and religious beliefs and abide by the norms of civilized tourist behaviors.”
Reports about two Chinese tourists arrested for making Nazi gestures outside the Reichstag building in Berlin and released on €500 ($590) bail came as no surprise. Chinese tourism, which has skyrocketed in recent years, is perhaps the biggest phenomenon to hit the international travel industry.
The UN World Tourism Organization predicted that Chinese will take more than 200 million trips by 2020. With more direct flights, relaxed restrictions and disposable income, this German incident is not the first time that Chinese have made headlines for acting wrongly when traveling. Whether it was the graffiti at a Luxor temple or brawls on international flights, the image of Chinese tourists has not been a positive one.
Thus, in response to media attention, guidelines on civilized travel have been released, campaigns for being a smart traveler have been launched and a blacklist system as well as laws relating to tourism have all been established by respective governmental bodies.
Traveling is a fun art form primarily because you are out of your normal comfort zone. It often leaves a wonderful and memorable impression on all of us since traveling is about being in the midst of an exciting clash of cultures, language and manners. Communication here is the key – nonverbal cues, which we often use to interact with locals, can easily become an unintentional cultural insult.
Even as a seasoned traveller, I have found myself on more than one occasion having to deal with misunderstandings because meaning was lost in translation and a simple gesture or action might be seen as offensive. After finishing dinner in Tehran, I gave the local restaurant owner and his family the thumbs up to express how delicious the meal was. Then, came an awkward pause. I remembered what I read earlier on, that the thumbs up gesture is extremely offensive in Iran. Instead, the OK sign is used. However, when I used the OK sign once in Spain, I was told that it is actually an offensive gesture.
Sometimes, out of fatigue, I also no longer act like myself and make very stupid obvious mistakes such as the time when at a hotel in Lahore, I took out the prayer mat, thinking that it was just an average mat. You see, we all make mistakes.
This particular sentence in Berlin is in no way targeting Chinese travelers since this is not the first time that the Hitler salute has landed people in trouble. In fact, exactly six years ago, outside the same historical Reichstag Building, a Canadian tourist was taken away by the police for doing the same thing. In November 2007, a German native was imprisoned for six months after performing the Hitler salute in response to an earlier sentencing. A month after that, a pensioner was sentenced to five months in prison after trying to train his dog Adolf to raise his right paw in a Nazi salute every time the phrase “Heil Hitler” was uttered. In 2009 and 2013 respectively, German artists Ottmar Hörl and Jonathan Meese got into trouble after their works at art shows featured the Nazi salute.
Although such displays would be protected under “the freedom of speech” in some countries, in Germany, this is a criminal offense which carries fines and/or imprisonment of up to three years.
For those who assume that all Chinese travelers are rude, noisy and lack common sense, this is a wrong and unfair generalization. One local tourism and research foundation in Berlin estimated that Germany could expect to host 2.2 million Chinese visitors a year. Two tourists who weren’t themselves and caused offense should not be the catalyst for launching any wrong assumptions about China or give rise to any racist attacks.
Regardless of our nationality, we need to act as a local and be respectful since we are all ambassadors for our countries when we travel abroad.
Source: Global Times