As travelers, we have all visited post offices abroad.
We rarely relish these visits and often avoid them until the last possible moment. However, the post office provides an unusual opportunity for cultural observation and comparison.
From almost being arrested in Kazakhstan to almost being trampled in India, I’ve had my share of post office adventures (usually mailing DVD backups of photos and videos) over the last 18 months on the road.
Twenty-five countries and countless postal queues later, here are five cultural characteristics I’ve observed during all that waiting.
1. Spirit of Entrepreneurship
Culture, education, society, economy, and government all play a role in shaping the entrepreneurial spirit of its populace.
Ironically, some of the most entrepreneurial places I have visited are communist (Vietnam and Cuba come to mind).
In Hoi An, Vietnam, tourists flock to the tailor shops. After their shopping sprees, dazed tourists lugging large bags of custom-tailored clothes are greeted by poised post office employees who, for a small fee, craft the perfect packaging from tape and makeshift boxes.
Compare this with Tashkent, Uzbekistan where our friend emptied the contents of his bag on the counter in order to have it packed and shipped. To each of his “Eto mozno?” (Is it possible?) queries, he received a defiant “Nyet” (No).
Are postal employees creative in solving unusual requests? Is there a resourcefulness in getting things done? If so, that’s a sure sign the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.
2. Rules: Meant to be Broken?
How do people view rules? Are they meant to be broken, or at least bent? Or are they blindly adhered to? The answers will tell you how society views government and authority.
Chinese society believes in the value of rules and authority to maintain order and harmony. For example, at a post office in Kunming, China, I noticed all the indicators of an international postal service, including a box and a sign that read “International Service.”
It turned out, however, that this location wasn’t the official international post office for foreigners. The postal employees reacted indignantly as I pleaded to mail my package anyway…against the rules.
In contrast, a postal employee in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan actually enlisted our help to break the rules.
She explained that since it is illegal to mail cigarettes, the customer next to us needed something inconspicuous in English to complete her customs slip. Wouldn’t we help her?
During the era of the Soviet Union, people survived by using rules to their advantage and circumventing them when they found them inconvenient. Much of this attitude towards authority and rules survives today in the newly independent states.
3. Relationship with Technology
Like entrepreneurship, some cultures embrace technology and change. Others avoid it in favour of using the past to guide their future. A quick look around a post office will tell you about the country’s relationship with technology.
Singapore’s endless delivery options and extensive computerization exhibits one side of the spectrum, while Uzbekistan’s use of the abacus marks the other.
While Tashkent’s post office did have computers (with some even turned on), the abacus was still king. Additionally, our Uzbek package was wrapped in a hand-sewn burlap bag and secured with dark red wax seals that nostalgically recalled another age.
4. Personal Space
Each culture has its unspoken rules about personal space. Nowhere is this clearer than in a post office queue.
Having spent over one year in Asia, I thought I had adjusted to the Asian sense of personal space. Still, my visits to post offices in India felt like endurance sport: people stood so close to me I could barely breathe.
Meanwhile, oodles of empty space behind them remained unoccupied. In contrast, the Austrian’s queue in spatious rows that can scarcely be called lines.
5. Paranoia and Big Brother
Wonder whether Big Brother is watching? Having a gut feeling of unease?
Here’s a paranoia litmus test: take a photograph inside the post office. (Note: Do not try this when a “no photos” sign is clearly posted. I don’t want any arrests on my head.)
When my husband photographed a series of elementary-school drawings at the main post office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, several plain-clothed policemen approached and questioned him in Russian: “Are you a journalist? Why are you doing this? You know, we don’t take photos here in our country…in Kazakhstan.”
He was eventually released without a fine, but we were cautious each time we brought out our camera afterwards.
A week later in Bishkek, Krygyzstan, postal workers laughed when we asked permission to photograph the mosaic hanging above their heads. “Of course, why wouldn’t it be allowed?”
Post offices are an unusual study in sociology and culture. Next time you happen to be waiting in line to mail that postcard, keep your eyes open and you’ll be surprised how effectively your postal experience illuminates the place you’re visiting.
Have you had any culturally memorable experiences in a foreign post office? Share in the comments!