Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cross-cultural faux pas

At the Taj
I'm a traveler.  I love traveling.  Travel teaches you things about yourself, about humanity, about the world and your role within it.  You learn about your own limits; you stretch your perspective.  As Mark Twain put it:  "Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness.  Broad, wholesome, and charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one tiny corner of the globe."

Travel, of course, is more than booking an ocean-view cabin on a cruise line.  If you want to reap all the benefits of travel, you have to invest money and time.  And, most importantly, you have to be willing to put yourself into situations where you are not entirely comfortable.  You have to take chances.  The rewards, as I've said, are well worth the investment. 

Front row:  Martín
Second row:  Nelson, myself, Jason
Back row:  Cannabis sativa
Brazilian boys in Copenhagen

In 1999, while undertaking my Grand European Tour, I found myself in Copenhagen with another US citizen, Jason, and two Brazilians, Nelson and Martín.  It was early September and the weather was fantastic.  The Danes were out and about in the city, riding bicycles, sitting at tables along the waterfront, crowding the streets.

Danes, like most northern Europeans, are more reserved and stand-offish than are Americans.  More so than North Americans, like Jason and me, and certainly more than our two South American companions.  Danish people wear stern expressions, generally.  Their high cheek bones and square jaws, and their tall, broad-shouldered stature give them a chic and intimidating appearance.  Especially, the beautiful Danish women.

Well, Jason and I found the Danish women intimidating, anyway.  Not so, our Brazilian companions.  In fact, they were far from intimidated.  Nelson and Martín overtly admired the tall, flaxen-haired beauties.  "Hey, baby!" they would call, or putting two fingers to their lips, they'd emit shrill, piercing whistles.  They blew kisses; they winked; they leered.  "Mashe, mama, mashe!"  ("Move it, baby, move it!)

"You wanna get us run out of town?" I asked after the first few instances.

"What do you mean?" Nelson asked.  He and Martín did not comprehend.

"You don't do that!" Jason said.

"Do what?" asked Martín.

"Don't whistle like that," I said.  "They don't like it."

Martín and Nelson exchanged glances and shrugged.  "In our country," Nelson said, "the women like that."

"Is true!" Martín confirmed.  "Brazilian women expect us to whistle."

Jason and I shrugged, then.  There was nothing to be done for it.  We got into the habit of ducking away quickly whenever the whistle went up.

And, truth be told, the Danish women didn't seem to mind two Brazilian men whistling at them.  If they had been Danish men, however...

Sikhs in Delhi
Sri Gupta's lovely daughter

In 2001, I was in Delhi, India.  While there, I was honored to be invited to a traditional Indian wedding.  Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.  Indian weddings occur after nightfall and run well into the wee hours of the morning. 

This wedding occurred at an outdoor pavilion somewhere in the hopelessly labyrinthine streets of the city.  Before the ceremony, guests gathered to eat hors d'oeuvres, and socialize.  I was by myself and feeling a bit uncomfortable.  I made a few attempts at conversation, but didn't have much luck. 

Then, I espied a beautiful young Indian woman, perhaps 18 years of age, standing with her family.  She was a vision of Hindu mystique, with her veils and jewelry.  I caught her eye from across the courtyard and approached her.

"May I take your picture?" I asked, brandishing my camera.

Her father asserted himself abruptly.  He stepped between us.  "No!" he said.  He wore an expression of outrage.  Startled, I looked to the young woman for appeal.

"Sorry," she said.  She shrugged.  The family --father, mother, beautiful young woman, and siblings --turned away from me as a single unit.

I was left standing by myself in the courtyard.  I sensed that I had transgressed some boundary but I wasn't sure how.  Later, I asked an Indian friend about it and he told me:  "You spoke to the daughter without speaking to her father first.  You insulted him."

I was abashed, let me tell you.  And, of course, I didn't get a picture of that beautiful Indian girl.  But she looked something like this:


When you travel, it is best to assume that at some point, you're going to unintentionally step on some toes.  These cross-cultural faux pas --believe it or not -- are great learning lessons.

Admittedly, awkwardness can be painful.  My advice?  Have a laugh about it later.

1 comment:

Dan Binmore said...

Oh yes, wisdom.  On the other hand don't risk the driver of your vehicle getting put in jail for 5-10.  He may become deeply peeved.