In the good old days, white colonial powers went to poor foreign countries asking themselves, "What do these people have for us to steal?"
Nowadays, enlightened white people go to poor foreign countries and ask, "What do these noble people have to teach us?" The results are less murderous but more annoying.
Don't get me wrong, it is great that Westerners are now trying to understand foreign cultures and not murder them, but a lot of what's going around these days is less an attempt to understand foreigners as other human beings and more about trying to mine them for whatever mystical foreigner powers they possess. So try to avoid...
Everyone knows superstitions are dumb, like throwing salt over your shoulder if you spill some, never opening an umbrella indoors or wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle. If you tried to start a business teaching people how to hang horseshoes over their doors and avoid black cats, you would be on welfare pretty soon.
See, I tried this and nothing happened.
But bring the superstition from a foreign culture, and suddenly you are in business. You can apparently still convince a shockingly large portion of the population that you can see the future if you're doing it with Tarot cards. They come from the gypsies after all. Of course, these same people would slap you if you offered to tell their fortune from a standard card deck.
"Okay, so I guess three guys are going to ... beat you to death with a club?"
Wear a turban and call yourself Madame Zarisha, and a client will get a chill up their spine when you tell them they are going to die. If you took off the turban and admitted your name is Nancy, you'd get hit with a restraining order.
Applying the transitive property to the movie Drag Me to Hell, this Sikh cabdriver knows how you're going to die.
But now in this global era, Americans are increasingly lumpimg gypsies in with Europeans, and Europeans aren't exotic. People who really want to believe in stupid superstitions have to look to places like China, which has feng shui (sounds more like "phone shway" than "fang shooey"). Feng shui is a really really complex bunch of rules for organizing your house or business or sex dungeon or whatever.
Step 1: Build your house in the shape of an octagon.
Some of those rules are practical but blindingly obvious, like, "Put some thought into your house and don't fling your crap all over the place," and, "Don't block your door," but most are about how facing your front door east or painting it certain colors will increase the flow of "chi". Or if your house is getting too much "chi," you can put a mirror outside to reflect it away. Really.
Apparently chi works like lasers.
Despite being pretty stupid, feng shui got particularly hot in the 90's, with Donald Trump, Oprah, and firms like Salomon Smith Barney hiring feng shui consultants to maximize their chi. Of course, this is the equivalent of a Chinese Executive pinning 4-leaf clovers all over his office.
Hypothetical question. Suppose that someone handed you a jar of moldy tea and told you to drink it. How fast would you run away?
What if instead of asking you to have some moldy tea, they said it was "kombucha," an ancient Chinese remedy that could cure cancer and cleanse you of toxins? If you are one of millions of American health food nuts, apparently you will chug it, nevermind that it probably doesn't come from China and it's given people food poisoning.
It's actually from Russia, which is well known for its healthy products.
Likewise, because you just can't trust boring American doctors, but can trust rainforest fruits that Amazon tribesmen have been eating for centuries, you have the latest craze: acai.
Before acai, this woman was an overweight man.
Although most research seems to indicate that acai is about as healthy as non-exotic berries, Oprah and health fad opportunists are jumping all over it because Brazil. Tribesmen.
If this guy isn't a health authority, I don't know who is.
Imaginations ran wild and soon it was marketed for weight-loss, and anti-aging, and penis enlargement, because why not. This would be a harmless, stupid fad, if it hadn't driven acai to 60 times its normal price so that those traditional Brazilians can barely afford their own staple food anymore.
Another thing people are (literally) swallowing wholesale is hoodia, a plant product that the San (or Bushmen) of the Kalahari use to suppress hunger on long trips and Americans use to try and stop being fat.
"The Americans need it for WHAT?"
Tell American customers it's "natural" and chewed by a tribe that talks in clicks, and people are so completely hooked they won't even bother to pay attention to quality of the hoodia pills you hand them, many of which are apparently just made from whatever random crap the manufacturer could find lying around the factory.
Honestly, I suspect they're just grinding up things confiscated by the TSA at airports.
But peddle the same customers an American weight loss pill and they'll start clucking about their distrust of "drugs" and "Western medicine."
Anyway, if you really want to put your faith in ancient exotic medicine, you know what ancient Chinese emperors actually did drink for longevity? Mercury! Try that!
The recent movie Eat, Pray, Love was about a lady that lost her passion for life or something, and went on some vacations all over the world until she found it again. It's based on a real story which hopefully is not that stupid and oversimplified, but some of its audience will definitely be people who believe meditating with a random nonwhite person in a foreign country will solve all your spiritual ills.
As Salon.com's Sandip Roy puts it, "I couldn't help wondering, where do those people in Indonesia and India go away to when they lose their passion, spark and faith? I don't think they come to Manhattan. I wonder if there could be an exchange program for the passion-deprived, a sort of global spark-swap." Imagine it ...
"So it turns out I had to go to Fargo to really discover what was wrong inside."
At first glance, this might look similar to people who go volunteering overseas with the Peace Corps or a church or whatever, and come back gushing about how much they learned, but there's a not-so-subtle difference between learning what life is like for other people in the world by actually working with them, and acting like those people were placed there like stations in a bird watching obstacle course designed to restore your Western pluck.
If it actually sounds appealing to have your spiritual enlightenment mapped out for you, you can book a number of different meditation tours to Thailand or Peru (or for the budget conscious, the "there are lots of non-white people there so it's sort of exotic, right?" Arizona tour).
Sedona, Arizona: The hippies' retirement home.
What it's hard for some people to grasp is that in any culture, there are wise people and stupid people, positive lessons and negative lessons, tacos and Montezuma's revenge.
...or Captain Kirk and Celine Dion.
Some random tai chi instructor might really be a Mr. Miyagi type who has a lot to teach you about how to not let your possessions possess you, or he might have flunked tai chi instructor training and moved to Kansas City, where people wouldn't ask to check his license. Chinese culture has a lot to teach us about respecting the elderly, but could learn a lot from America about how to not turn gift-giving into a grueling test of character.
If picking and choosing sounds too complicated, there's an ancient Chinese proverb my grandmother passed down to me that should do the trick: Don't believe someone has something deep to say just because they have a funny accent.