One day, several years ago, my husband Paul and I were in northern Thailand, and our local guide answered a call on his cellphone. While we waited for him, we saw a musician playing an unusual, stringed, traditional instrument on the street. Using sign language, smiles, and a word or two in Thai, we communicated that we were very interested in both the instrument and the musician. With a wide grin, the latter invited my husband, Paul, to play.
Paul picked up the instrument, and produced a sound that was more screech than music. We all laughed, and then the open-hearted musician started giving Paul a lesson. There was a patch of grass nearby, and I saw down, watching, listening, fascinated. My legs were tired from having walked about six hours that day, so I stretched my feet out in front of me, in the direction of Paul and his instructor. To my complete shock, our guide arrived and slapped me on the face.
Rather than jump up and slap him back, which is not my style, I stood up and faced him down. My eyes narrowed and my jaw was set like a bulldog. Before I had a chance to speak, he admonished me, “Never ever point the bottom of your feet at anyone. It is a sign of total disrespect.”
I can guarantee you that I have never made that faux pas again in Asia, or anywhere else.
A few years ago, Paul and I were invited on a very moving, beautiful trip to Lapland in Finland, and spent some time with a Sami reindeer herder. The Sami are the only indigenous people in Europe. They are light-skinned, and the reindeer we saw were white. We were captivated by the herder, his story, intelligence, sense of humor, generosity…and his reindeer.
“They are so beautiful!” I exclaimed, as the herder scooped up a baby reindeer in his arms and walked towards us. “How many reindeer do you have?”
The genial herder had an unexpected flare of temper. “Do I ask you how much money you have in the bank?” he snapped.
I didn’t know what to say. “Our reindeer are our wealth. It is impolite to ask us how many we have,” the herder chided me.
When I was visiting the ancient Israelite Samaritans, who live on Mount Gerizim, near Nablus, I felt I was the luckiest human alive to be granted a private audience with the High Priest. The Samaritans trace their priestly tradition back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. I was stepping into the Hebrew Bible, into the mists of time in the desert.
I expected a formal, starched experience, but it was the opposite. The High Priest, who was accompanied by the Assistant High Priest, was funny and warm and welcoming. We laughed, exchanged stories. I asked some esoteric Biblical questions, and we were like old friends. Until I told him that I had eaten camel. The High Priest threw eye daggers at me. He summarily ended our interview.
“What did I do wrong?” I said, horrified, to our host Benny.
"You made a bad mistake,” he said frankly. “To a Samaritan, eating camel is as bad as….eating pork!”
“I didn’t know. I had no idea. Oh, slap my camel-eating tongue!”
Benny laughed. “We love you guys anyway, but never ever say you ate camel again.”
When you travel, especially to exotic cultures, you will undoubtedly make faux pas, as I did. You will be mortified, as I was. And you will recover, and be forgiven, and learn something about other cultures, as I did. But now there is a way to find out in advance about what you should and shouldn’t do, and how your perceptions when crossing cultures can be very deceptive. Joe Lurie, UC Berkeley’s International House Executive Director Emeritus, has written a new book called Perception and Deception: A Mind Opening Journey Across Cultures (www.PerceptionAndDeception.com). On the cover of the book is a photo of a cow with the superimposed words: What am I? Divine? Dowry? Dinner?
A major theme of the book is that we see the world through the prism of our limited experiences and cultural upbringing.
Joe, now a cross-cultural communications trainer, shares a lifetime of his own experiences with perceptions and misperceptions, stereotypes and beliefs across cultures. Sometimes, the misunderstandings are linguistic. Here is one example Joe gives:
“Japan’s second-largest tourist agency, Kinki Nippon Tourism, is named after the Kinki region in western Japan. When English-speakers began requesting unusual sex tours, the company changed its name from Kinki (pronounced kinky) to KNT Tourism. And in May 2014, Japan’s Kinki University announced it would change its name to Kindai University, to stop laughter, and to attract more English-speaking exchange students….”
In the book, Joe explains that contrasting perceptions of what “respect” means created conflict between inner-city African Americans and local, mom-and-pop Korean immigrant store owners in the 1980s and '90s in Los Angeles. The shopkeepers, annoyed by African American customers who talked in loud voices, ignored them when they entered the store. The African Americans customers didn’t understand that smiling and making eye contact and small talk with strangers is considered impolite and strange by many Koreans. These kinds of cultural conflicts helped fuel riots where African Americans targeted Korean stores in Los Angeles. Ultimately, the awful riots became a catalyst for the two communities to realize they needed each other, and they began to work through their cultural differences.
What cultural encounters of the embarrassing kind have you had on your travels, or even in your hometown? I’d love to hear about them, and sure other readers would too. We are all guilty, until educated out of our well-meaning innocence.
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Judith Fein is the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel, which is about l4 cultural experiences that changed her life. She is also an award-winning travel journalist and speaker, and the author of THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ, about the importance of the ancestors. She and her husband sometimes take people on exotic tours with them. For more information: www.GlobalAdventure.us