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Pt. 1, Culture—The Vital Differences That Color Life

Intro by Chad Nielsen, journalist and KC alumnus, international relations/1995

It was still dark when Antonio sat bolt upright in his bed, eyes bulging like boiled eggs. “Did you hear that?” he asked.

On cue, the Muezzin’s second call to prayer filtered through the dusty slit in the wall, our room’s only window in the misnamed Hotel Palace. I made a groggy attempt at sarcasm, rolled over, and went back to sleep. Only weeks later did I realize that his fear—though irrational and tinged with xenophobia—would make the next day’s events practically inevitable.

We set out from Barcelona two days prior, in a borrowed Citroen sedan. Antonio was a convenient travel companion, an easy-going Spaniard without a job to get in the way. We made good time down Spain’s eastern coast, until a donkey cart slowed our descent into Granada. Across the valley, the setting sun shone red against the Alhambra, a fourteenth-century Moorish fortress that fell to Christian forces in 1492, ending eight centuries of Berber rule in the Iberian Peninsula and almost as many years of war.

Raised in a country with only a brief history, it is difficult for me to comprehend the cultural impact of eight centuries of anything, much less a protracted war with religious undertones and the associated propaganda. Yet many Spaniards still see Moroccan travelers and immigrants through fifteenth-century glasses. From the time we boarded the ferry to Morocco, Antonio couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder as though he wore a target on his back.

At the Port of Tangier, we were greeted by a throng of young men hawking their services as tour guides. One of them, a lanky, Borat look-alike, hopped into the front seat of our taxi. Had I understood local economics, I might have realized that Mustafa’s jeans and leather jacket blew his cover as an unemployed student and the driver’s friend. He was, in fact, a fairly sophisticated criminal who had zeroed in on Antonio’s fear

In a city rife with unemployment and drug traffic, enterprising young talents run world-class con jobs on unsuspecting tourists, dizzied by the harsh transition from west to east and from industrialized modernity to poverty-stricken traditionalism. With similar architecture and genetics, Tangier feels more like being in an alternate reality than being on a separate continent, and smart con artists understand how disorienting this can be. They boost the effect with offers of hashish and roundabout hikes through tiny, twisted streets to some isolated corner of the Kasbah—that’s when they take your money

Essentially, these criminals use culture as a weapon—and they understand it better than many of us who work internationally. Webster’s dictionary offers various definitions of culture, but the most salient sounds like a social petri dish, where natural elements and organic materials grow together over time. Shared beliefs, attitudes, values, and history form the context in which new generations develop. Each generation adds ingredients, which soon become inseparable from those already in place. In order to understand individuals—their words, actions, and motives—we must understand the context in which they acts. That context is their culture.

Mustafa understood that Antonio felt like a lone soldier behind enemy lines. It was clear that neither of us trusted the gaunt Moroccan, especially after he offered to sell us hashish during a midnight search for a pay phone. Every time we left the hotel, at any hour of the day or night, he was there waiting for us. The whole situation made me nervous, but Antonio reasoned that it was easier to watch Mustafa than to keep our eyes on every man in the street. Each time I tried to send Mustafa away, Antonio found a reason to keep him around.

We finally left Mustafa the next afternoon, at a taxi stand near the medina. With high hopes for Rabat—and a short-lived sense of relief—we took a taxi to the bus station. It wasn’t long before a rough-bearded young man in a tattered gray suit approached our table at a café inside the station. “My cousin Mustafa has been arrested for selling you hashish,” he said, jittery. “Come, you can help him.

Refusing the obvious blackmail attempt, I went to ask the café owner to send the man away. That’s when the man looked Antonio in the eyes, sneering a warning, “Have a nice trip.” We took his advice, in a way, and caught the first ferry back to Spain.

There is not much room for culture study in fields that pride themselves on rigor; the vast number of variables are simply too elusive to quantify. Those who work internationally have experienced the impact of culture. In the following collection of writings, BYU faculty and associates share personal experiences, filtered through the light of their various disciplines. Together, they demonstrate that culture matters.


Allen Palmer, International Media Studies director, BYU

As a specialist in international communication, one of the perplexing questions I have struggled to understand involves the challenge of introducing new information technologies to less-developed nations. During a Fulbright assignment in southern Africa in 2004, there were several occasions when I encountered examples of the digital divide, the gulf separating the information “haves” from the “have nots.”

I was particularly interested in weighing the merit of several proposals served up by international agencies to provide cheap laptop computers to schoolchildren in Africa. Fewer than 2 percent of African students have touched a computer keyboard, and it seemed to me there were many unanticipated problems on the horizon that would be confronted if laptop computers were introduced.

One day, in my office at the university in Windoek, Namibia, I was reviewing a video documentary about a researcher in the border desert regions of the Kalihari, near Botswana. A brief encounter between the researcher and a San nomad involved a pencil. The San tribesman said he was not familiar with pencils. He had never before touched a pencil. It seemed to me this example of the technology gap between cultures increased the potential distance between us even more. Should we make pencils and paper available to people before we consider introducing laptop computers?

My wife, a specialist in distance education, undertook a tour of satellite classrooms in northern Namibia. These outposts served as education centers and rudimentary libraries for hundreds of distance education students scattered throughout the vast region. One of the outreach staff members described to us how a student who lived in a remote village confronted obstacles to gain an education. He did not have electricity in his village and could not depend on the rural mail system to deliver his completed lessons to the education center to be forwarded to the university. So the student worked by the light of a campfire to read books borrowed from the university, and then traveled by foot for two to three days, carrying the necessary kitchen utensils to cook meals by the side of the road, hoping to hitchhike a ride to the distance education office, just to deliver his completed lessons to be forwarded to the university.

Not long afterward, I was approached by a university student who asked for some suggestions on a village development project he was organizing. He was hoping to introduce a few desktop computers and the Internet to his traditional village in northern Namibia. The problem he worried about was how he would change the mindset of the school children, who scarcely had access to a simple school library.

“The Internet just doesn’t make sense, if you are not curious and asking questions,” he told me. “How do I teach children to ask questions, to be information seekers?”

It became clearer than ever to me that we were just scratching the surface of the deeper issues of bringing the information society to these people. If we could find a way to provide electricity, it would be inevitable that computers—as well as radios, TVs, and cell phones—would flood into the lives of people in these less-developed nations, reconfiguring the relations of the people with each other, and the outside world. These changes would challenge centuries of cultural practices and traditions that their lives revolved around. Yes, these changes may be unavoidable, but the outcome is more than ever unpredictable.


Earl H. Fry, professor of political science and Endowed Professor of Canadian Studies, BYU

Significant differences in culture exist between the U.S. on the one hand and Mexico and Canada on the other, but all three have achieved notable economic gains since 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. Trade and investment activity have risen dramatically in all three countries, with three-way merchandise trade up from less than 300 billion dollars in 1993 to over 800 billion dollars in 2005.

However, economic issues alone do not determine how people perceive trade agreements. Many Mexicans lament the exodus of farmers who have left the countryside because they cannot compete against more efficient U.S. and Canadian farming operations, and they worry that the rural lifestyle of their citizens may be threatened further by closer economic integration with the world’s largest and ninth largest economies. And though there has certainly been job creation in Mexico during this period, not at the pace nor at wage levels that would slow the influx of Mexicans across the U.S. border, with up to 14 percent of Mexico’s adult workforce now employed within the U.S.

Moreover, Mexico, in contrast to Canada and the U.S., has had a culturally tepid respect for the rule of law, and their judicial system is far from impartial. Corruption and graft are also much more prevalent, at times making it difficult for U.S. and Canadian companies to operate there. These factors are explained in part by Mexico’s colonial legacy, which was quite different from that of its two North American partners.

Another issue is Mexico’s deep-seated historical distrust of the U.S. From the mid-1840s through the early 1850s, half of what was once Mexico became part of the U.S., largely by force of arms. This distrust dissipated somewhat in the 1980s as Mexico began to open its economy to the rest of the world. As NAFTA was being negotiated, Mexican President Carlos Salinas asked his compatriots, “Do we want to be the richest of the poor or the poorest of the rich?” He said that Mexicans should prefer to become the poorest of the rich but then add prosperity as a functioning part of the richest tier of nations in the world.

As for Canadians, there are far more differences than most Americans ever recognize and understand. We are fond of saying that Canadians are just like us, and we mean it as a compliment, but for many of them it is a slap in the face. We come to this conclusion about Canadians because we share a common border, they speak English (except for Quebec) so we understand them, we visit Alberta and notice this has much in common with the western U.S., including cowboys, and we know that Canada has long been an ally in so many areas. However, Canadians believe that they are very distinctive from Americans and desire above all to safeguard their sovereignty and national identity.

When we started off in 1989 with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Canada and the U.S., the precursor to NAFTA, there was widespread skepticism expressed in Canada, and the political opposition even forced a “free-trade” election in 1988. Some of this suspicion and skepticism is still apparent. With the U.S. having almost ten times the population and an economy twelve times larger, there is a fear among Canadians of their eventual absorption by the U.S. Nevertheless, I cannot remember a time in modern Canadian history when the nation has done so well economically. Ottawa has had nine straight years of budget surpluses, and the employment picture is the best in at least three decades. Both FTA and NAFTA have paid significant economic dividends for Canadians, and some of the fear of continental integration has subsided.

Culturally, many Canadians continue to feel Americans are more chauvinistic and materialistic and that quite a few U.S. foreign policy goals are not compatible with Canadian goals. They think that they have a kinder, gentler society that treats their people from all walks of life and income levels far better than the U.S. does. They basically think that they have a much wider and deeper safety net for their citizens, such as universal healthcare coverage. The British connection is still quite noticeable in Canada, Queen Elizabeth II remains Canada’s official head of state, and Canadian positions on health care, pensions, taxation, and some international issues are generally closer to countries across the Atlantic than to the country with which Canada shares a common border.

Both U.S. neighbors to the north and south want to take full advantage of unimpaired access to the world’s largest national market, but at the same time they desire to maintain their own cultural values and distinctive sense of national identity. Hopefully, all three will prosper from NAFTA’s full implementation in 2008 but still retain their strong sense of national identity and love for their respective countries and cultures.


Jini L. Roby, associate professor of social work, BYU

Generally, trafficked victims are brought into the illegal labor market through force, fraud, or coercion. It is believed that several million people are engaged in trafficked labor globally, and the profit from trafficking is the fastest growing international crime, at an annual profit of $32 billion US. These victims provide cheap manual labor and sexual services. They work in sweat shops, farms and orchards, restaurants, race tracks, brothels, and bars under difficult conditions that result in physical and psychological injury.

One of the strongest forces behind human trafficking is embedded in culture. Culture can impact both the supply and demand side of human trafficking.

On the supply side, cultural attitudes about gender roles can play a major role pushing people into human trafficking. Due to the lower status of women in many cultures, girls and women often do not have access to gainful employment. Typically, they are kept out of the education and skills building that they need in the first place.

This cultural attitude, coupled with extreme poverty can encourage trafficking into very cheap and exploitative labor including commercial sexual exploitation. In some cultures children—especially girls—are expected to care for their parents, and selling a child into debt bondage—where the child works for a time period until the debt is paid off—is viewed as a method of keeping the rest of the family intact.

In other cultures, boys are expected to grow up fast and become the provider of the family, pushing them into whatever means might bring a job. There is also cultural tolerance for corruption or a lax enforcement of laws, even if laws are in place.

In some countries, the police and border patrol have been known to conspire with traffickers to pass them through for shared profits or bribes. In many cases, parents and victims are aware of what will happen, but in some cases, due to lack of education, the victims fall prey to manipulative traffickers.

On the demand side (the side that purchases services being provided by those who have been trafficked), there may be a cultural belief that some people are born to do the manual labor that is deserving of the class into which they are born. In some cultures, the attitude is still prevalent that children born into certain social classes do not need to be educated since their future only holds “dirty” and loathsome tasks that befit their station in life. This cultural attitude perpetuates the lack of access to opportunities, often giving way to viewing children as commodities, and many are sold as camel jockeys to the Middle East and as household servants.

There are some societies in which cultural practices tolerate using domestic servants who have very little voice and are treated unfairly, including children who are often abused at the hands of their employers. In many countries, there is a cultural attitude that men should be allowed to visit prostitutes without legal or moral recrimination, in order to “preserve” their marriages (prevent having mistresses). This attitude encourages prostitution, including by victims of human trafficking.

See Pt 2 and Pt 3 for more cultural insights from this issue.