To do sustainable humanitarian work in Myanmar, as Shanta does, requires learning to respect cultural norms and acceptable behavior. This effort can make or break a relationship built on trust and respect. Although Muditar, our on-the-ground partners in Myanmar made up of local Burmese professionals, does most of the village outreach, occasionally a Westerner will visit as a donor or a staff representative. Disrespecting cultural traditions can create barriers that make our partnerships more tenuous.
For example, pointing a foot or toe at an elder is a sign of disrespect in rural villages. For villagers, who are primarily Buddhist, the upper part of the body is considered more sacred, with energy coming into the body through the head. So, patting a child on the head is considered potentially dangerous for a child’s well-being. If the upper part of the body is most sacred, the lower part is deemed inferior or even dirty. To point a foot at an elder, a picture of an elder, or a statue of the Buddha is a grave error and a sign of disrespect.
By sitting on the ground with our toes pointing out or putting one’s feet on a table, Westerners signal to village leaders and elders that we do not respect them. Even if we say we do, we need to ensure we don’t contradict our statements with actions that culturally say otherwise. By learning and following cultural rules, our work to alleviate extreme poverty can go forward with fewer obstacles or misunderstandings.