5 Ideas That Westerners Are Stealing

Nepal Outhouse

Westerners are slowly but surely stealing ideas from the developing world on how to live.

I’ve been noticing it since my first trip to the developing world (in 2000).

Why is it happening? 

That’s a whole different article. But the short version’s gotta be something like:

We as humans are copycats. We see others doing something we like it; we adopt it; and then usually try to make it even better (and make money off it).

And the copycatting is only going to grow. The influences of the Internet, TV, and global travel on cross-cultural awareness are a seemingly unstoppable force.

So, what ideas are we westerners stealing?

Cuisine is an obvious one. Cinema too.

Our bathroom business? Yep — We’re starting to crap like Indians too.

Yuck. But, let’s set aside the left-hand swipe until the end of this post.

Here are 5 ideas that Westerners are stealing from developing countries:

1. Cuisine

As kids in the 1970’s we rode rode our bicycles on the empty lanes of Main Street in Manayunk on Saturday evenings, cruising past factories and churches and rowhomes.

Who could have imagined that decades later that same street would become one of the trendiest streets on the East Coast, with upscale boutiques and world-class restaurants of Korean, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Jamaican, and Greek food.

Back then, “thai” in Manayunk was something dad wore around his neck to the office; now it means yummy flat noodles, peanut sauces and curries.

Chabaa Thai Manayunk

Even just 5 years ago perhaps, you probably never had Vietnamese food. If you wanted it in the Philadelphia area, you had to go to either Chinatown or the Washington Avenue area.

Now, Vietnamese “Pho” noodle shops are in most city neighborhoods and even suburban strip malls. Some even think pho may compete someday with pizza in terms of popularity.

It’s the same for African, Indian, and Indonesian food in the States.

We Americans still like our Big Macs and pizza. But sales at McDonald’s continue to decline.

Where are fast-food chain sales growing? Developing countries. Of course.

2. Mobile Banking

Still not setup to wave your smart phone at the store register to pay your bill?

How about using your mobile to send money to your friend?

Pew Trusts says 46% of Americans already use some form of mobile banking.

Chase Bank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other banks operating in America recently announced their new mobile payment app called Zelle.  

That’s progress in America in money management for sure.

But it’s light years behind Kenya.

In Kenya, mobile banking is close to 100%. Kenyans started mobile banking even before the iPhone was introduced. Not with smart phones neither.

Kenyans started mobile money management with the legendary Nokie 3310. And while smart phones are getting more popular in Africa, brick phones are still common there.

(Nokia has just released an updated version of the 3310. We’re copycatting those Kenyans again! It seems simplicity, reliability and nostalgia are still big factors for some consumers here.)

Check out CNN’s story on the  10-year anniversary of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile banking system:

3. Yoga

How about the small armies of incredibly fit young women walking the streets these days with yoga mats on their backs?

I know it’s my imagination, but they seem so smug and superior. Maybe I’m just jealous of their suppleness.

And I do yoga too! I’m on their side. So are a lot of others:

There are now over 36 million Americans doing yoga, up from 20 million in 2012. Annual spending on yoga classes and clothing / equipment is over $16 billion, up from $10 billion over the past four years. That’s astonishing growth.

I’m very committed to my own yoga practice. My back and my mental health cannot imagine a life without the yoga.

But even after doing Ashtanga Yoga 3-4 times a week for 5 years now — I occasionally glance in the mirror and see a guy with the flexibility of someone who just spent a month locked in a suitcase.

(Speaking of foods from other cultures: How did I reach my 40’s without ever hearing of turmeric. Now, at age 48, I take organic turmeric powder daily with black pepper and hot water. Turmeric is anti-inflammatory — among other things — which helps my hips, lower joints and back feel good after 30+ years of jogging and basketball.)

I had a couple of free Hot Yoga sessions about 15 years ago. Felt great, loose as heck walking out of the studio. But now, the 100+ F temperatures of the Hot Yoga rooms scare me a bit in terms of heart stress.

For now, I’ll continue revealing the ugliness of my yoga poses only to my personal yoga instructor Kino, in the safety of my living room:

4. Plastic Bags

Banning plastic bags is another idea we’re adopting from the developing world. It’s happening a lot slower than the other ideas, but I think it’s coming.

Last month, Kenya decided to ban plastic bags. Manufacturers and importers of plastic bags there now face fines of $19,000 to $38,000 or four-year-jail terms. Retailers can no longer sell plastic garbage bags.

Kenya is following a bunch of its African neighbors who have already banned plastic bags — Eritrea, Mauritania, Morocco, Rwanda and Tanzania.

These countries all know what scientists have been reporting for years now:

Plastic waste is causing catastrophic problems in the environment. It’s everywhere too: Plastic bags, Styrofoam, synthetic textiles, paints and tires, you name it. 

Scientists just reported that micro-plastics are finding their way into our drinking water. I’ve been drinking unfiltered tap water here in Philadelphia all my life; brutal.

It’s been known for years that plastic bags kill marine life like turtles, dolphins, whales.

Plastic grocery bags in America were introduced in America in 1979. Grocery chains Kroger and Safeway then picked them up in 1982. By the 1990’s they were ubiquitous; they still are in most stores.

The good news — the West is getting better with the plastic bag crisis: 

The first town in America to ban plastic bags was Nantucket (in 1990).

Hawaii has effectively banned plastic bags statewide.

Toronto did the same a few years ago. Montreal too.

The pace seems glacial though. Why? We’re so used to the darn things. And lobbyists of course.

It took until 2014 for the first state to ban plastic bags — California.

In 2016 Minnesota passed an ordinance banning plastic bags. But the day before the ban start, Governor Dayton signed a budget bill with a provision prohibiting cities from banning *any* type of bag

New York’s best effort so far to ban plastic bags has resulted only in a new task force to come up with legislation. They better hurry. New Yorkers use 23 billion plastic bags annually.

Still, I bet that a total ban on plastic bags will happen someday in the US.

5. Toilets

I thought Al Bundy was really onto something in the late 1980’s with his Ferguson, the “Stradivarius of Toilets”:

But many doctors are saying these days that squatting is better than sitting for doing number 2:

Squatting widens the anorectal angle even more to allow a clearer and straighter passage for stools to pass through the anal canal.

Most of the Western world still sits like Al to defecate, but squatting is favored in the developing world. 

Squatting means less abdominal straining and faster bowel movements — both of which can prevent bleeding from anal fissures. (Uncle John and Mom won’t be happy about less bathroom time but the Squatty Potty company will). 

Don’t forget that toilet tissue is bad for the environment AND it’s not the best way to clean yourself. It’s only been around a little over 100 years, so we’ll be able to give it up someday.

The pipes and sewage systems in most developing countries cannot process toilet tissue. So in Guatemala, with its western toilets, people place used toilet tissue in trash cans — not in the toilet. 

In countries like India and Nepal, the squat toilet rules — with no pipes OR toilet tissue. Here’s my toilet from my rural homestay in Nepal in 2000:

Nepal Toilet

So how do Indians and other countries clean up without toilet paper?

The left-hand swipe.

After eliminating, they spray or splash water at the dirty areas, while using the left hand to help clean the area. Gross to most Westerners. But it cleans much better than toilet paper. Just wash those hands thoroughly!

I clean up Indian style as much as possible even in the US, and always so when in a developing country. In Guatemala in June 2017, I carried a small cup into my host family’s bathroom each morning; sat on the western toilet to do number 2; then cleaned my bottom with the water method above.

(How about for emergencies away from my host family’s place? I’m as regular as a Swiss watch, so on that trip it wasn’t a problem!)

So, there you have it, full circle. From cuisine to its eventual journey into the toilet. Five ideas we westerners are stealing from the developing world.