Foreign Customs Can Be More Than A Little Confusing


Last week, when I started talking about how I screwed up on some of the customs in other countries I thought I would run out of things to say in a few words. I guess I forgot what an ignorant sucker I was. Anyway, there’s a lot more to tell.

Take, for instance, a nice friendly wave of the hand.

You know how we wave a friendly hand over here when we’re driving and somebody does something nice? Take some advice. If you ever happen to be driving in Okinawa, drop the habit. Over there, it’s the same thing the one finger salute is over here.

And yes, I learned it the hard way.

And if you happen to teach classes in Japan, never ask a question and then do what we do over here, casually point to a student and expect him or her to answer it. If he or she can’t come up with the answer it is a considerable loss of face, meaning you will never see that student again. So just ask the question and suggest — politely — that maybe someone would like to answer it.

And never — and I mean never! — offer a lift home to an adult female student who finds that her ride has not come and she is going to be stranded all alone on a dark road after you lock up the building. It’s tantamount to a proposal, either the wedding bell type or the other kind. Learned that one the hard way too.

And if you think that oriental customs are the only confusing ones, think again. I mentioned last week that my first overseas tour was in Iceland, a European nation, with customs that are not too different from ours.

“Not too different” does not mean “the same.”

I was just 20 years old one evening when I took a bus to the house of one very nice looking Icelandic cutie down in Reykjavik, the capital city. There was a 10 o’clock curfew for American GIs, but if you were inside, or in a vehicle, either a bus or car, you would not be arrested. Quite often when we visited a local family and the curfew hour was coming up, they told us not to worry about it because they would drive us back to the base.

Anyway, the cutie and I talked at length. Then Mama served supper — quite late, after eight as is traditional in many European countries. So when 10 o’clock rolled around and no one said anything I assumed they intended to drive me to the base.

But ...

Hey! This is one big doodoo of a but, Johnny!

Around midnight everyone went off to bed. Mom. Dad. Auntie something or other. Cutie’s big brother. Her little sister ...

And there I was, left alone with one sweet little Icelandic cutie, who thereupon took my hand and led me off to bed.

Seems their customs are not as puritanical as ours. In fact, it’s quite customary up there in the land of fire and ice to get engaged and have two or three kids.

What can I say? I guess they have to keep warm somehow up there. You know?

And in case you’re wondering whether ...

Just go right on wondering.

Another custom that kinda sorta threw me was one I ran across in Pakistan.

It wasn’t a Muslim custom. It was an Arab custom, but it was Arabs who moved into Northwest India, spread across the land, and brought Islam with them.

So several Arab customs have found their way into both India and Pakistan.

The custom I’m talking about is based on the realities of living in a desert. I’ve read a great deal about desert customs. A lot of them have to do with the scarcity of water. And food. And shelter. And just about anything else ...

Except maybe for sand and sun.

Hm-m-m. How should I tell you which custom I’m talking about?

Oh, yes. You know how they’re always talking about us becoming a “paperless society” one of these days? Well, that may or may not be so, but I’ll guarantee you that there is one use of paper which is not going away.

Know what I mean?

The deserts of Arabia, however, like deserts everywhere, are naturally paperless, and if they weren’t, no one out there would be wasting a valuable item like a roll of paper the way we do.

So-o-o-o ...

It all comes down to this. The tradition — a very strong one, by the way — is that you use your left hand for ... uh ... well, you know. And your right hand for everything else, especially eating.

So when you are in a country where Arab customs prevail, let me give you a little free advice. Do not hand somebody something edible with your left hand. And do not — and I mean do not! — ever eat anything with your left hand.

Here’s a practical example of why not: One day I drove a load of my workers out into the country around Karachi. The job we did took most of the day.

Naturally we got hungry, so the men showed me a little place they knew, a small outdoor eatery with a beehive oven, a big steaming pot of stuff, and a few tables. They served just one thing, chupattis and dal — thick flour tortillas and a sort of split pea soup — a favorite meal over there.

The “chef,” an old woman, took some dried cow patties and tossed them into the bottom of the oven. Then she — same woman, same hands, remember — then reached over and took some uncooked chupattis, moistened them slightly, reached into the oven, and slapped them against the inside wall, where they stuck and baked.

Ten minutes later we were all eating chupattis and dal. We tore off thick bits of chupatti, dipped them into a communal bowl of dal, and ate. Now I had watched that woman as she worked, and I’ll just bet you can imagine how much of that stuff I would have been eating if it hadn’t been for the left hand/right hand custom.

Oh, yeah! Good custom! I can just see how it got started.

Hassan offers a friend some grapes he just picked. His friend, knowing what Hassan was doing just before he picked the grapes, says, “Listen. You know what? We need to make a rule ...”


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