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Deciding what to wear in another culture August 27, 2016

Posted by Bettina Hansel in burkini, Culture and Place.
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PURPLE_BOOKOver the years I have sometimes wondered: Sneakers or leather walking shoes for my European travels? Maybe I don’t want my shoes to announce that I’m from the USA. Locally purchased salwar kameez suit or American skirt and blouse in New Delhi? No one will mistake me for an Indian either way, but looking at the salwar kameez suits available on line, I see that the average kameez is now longer than those I bought so long ago in India. Back home in New York, feeling that I couldn’t comfortably wear the salwar kameez as an outfit, but loving the look, I took to wearing a very lovely knee-length kameez alone as a dress until an Indian colleague recognized the origin and asked me teasingly, “Where are your pants?” He was startled to see me half-dressed. It isn’t always easy to feel that you are appropriately or adequately dressed, especially when trying the fashion of another culture.

The “burkini” debate in France reminds me of the time when my two-piece bathing suit was seen by my Brazilian friends as somewhat inappropriate for the bikini beaches of Bombinhas in Brazil. It seemed I was wearing too much suit. I was younger and slim enough then to consider their views as the bikini vendor passed us on the beach and my friends encouraged me to buy something “more attractive.” They helped assess the amount of coverage in the seat that would be modest. I can’t say I felt 100% comfortable wearing the bikini. I did feel somewhat daring and experimental. And quite a bit exposed.


Clothing decisions are not trivial. The choices you make are statements about your identity, the culture you belong to, and how you feel about your body. But your choices usually change over time as you find new styles created for different activities and your changing identity. Clothing for sports has changed over time, and swim wear is no exception. Yet many women find themselves unhappy with the available choices that leave one feeling too vulnerable and uncomfortable. Many women in the USA throw a T-shirt over their swim suit, even in the water, and on the beach they have a cover-up or a beach towel covering them as protection from sun and stares.

It was disheartening to read of the ruckus in France over the burkini, which will perhaps stop with the new court ruling. I no longer have the courage to stand on even a Brazilian beach in a bikini suit, but the burkini looks like a comfortable and worry-free option that is sure to appeal to more than just Muslim women.

Issue 83. Respect August 14, 2016

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Uncategorized.
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I remembered this post when I was reading a New York Times editorial this morning from Nicholas Kristof. “Hate speech from the campaign is poisoning schools and communities.” Maybe some new emphasis on respect could help.

Intercultural Eyes

ORANGE_BOOKOne of my current projects involves looking at language use in the context of describing a school’s goals related to intercultural education. This started with a small case study I was inventing for a workshop, but blossomed into a fledgling research project. “Respect” is a word that comes up frequently as a value to cultivate in the students in both the US and French cases I selected, and it becomes particularly relevant in dealing with differences: cultural, social, economic, intellectual, or physical. Some type of respect can be commanded through fear, and we also say that someone “earns” respect. If we want to improve the way we deal with differences, we are talking more about giving respect, about respecting as an action. It’s absolutely necessary and sometimes surprisingly difficult.

I recently received a message from someone in reaction to a comment I made on another blog. It was a breezy comment, not terribly…

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Dolls, Mascots, and Human Touch January 9, 2016

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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pink_bookThe woman in the physical therapy center came in with a life-sized baby doll that she carried everywhere. She was not the only woman in the continuing care center to have a baby doll. The center apparently provided baby dolls for the residents who wanted to hold them, or perhaps they were shared. While she worked with her therapist, the doll, “George” sat on a chair to the side. Another woman wheeled herself into the room. She seemed to move up and down the corridors constantly, never speaking to anyone as far as I could tell. But now she made a beeline for “George” picked him up and said “Hi. How’re ya doing?”

I thought of this episode when I read an article this morning’s New York Times on the ubiquitous use of mascots in Japan and the industry that makes them. One of the theories for the popularity of mascots in Japan was that they provided an outlet for affection: A way to hug a human-like thing that is culturally acceptable in a low touch society.

I wonder if the same is true for the dolls given to the residents in the care center. Last month AARP The Magazine featured an article on “The Power of Touch” that suggested a therapeutic value of touch, particularly for older people who may be “touch-deprived” in the US. Are the dolls a substitute for real human touch?

hands touching

One of the first things one learns in studying other cultures is that the social rules for touching another person vary widely from one place to another. We sometimes talk about a personal space bubble that may have different dimensions depending on your cultural history and experience. Sometimes there are very strict prohibitions against touching another person or a person of the opposite sex. This can create some awkwardness in ordinary social greetings in other countries. An Indonesian exchange student I met here in New York immediately explained: “I can’t shake hands because I’m not allowed to touch women.” This is not an unusual situation. When making friends across cultures, it can help to speak directly when you recognize that the rules for touching are different. But what of those from high-touch cultures who are missing their hugs and kisses in a low-touch society? The good news is that people can be flexible and adapt to each other’s needs and concerns when they start to understand each other.