Kajalie Shehreen Islam
REMEMBER that scene towards the end of "Notting Hill" where Hugh Grant, overjoyed at being able to divulge info on Julia Roberts from the hotel receptionist, kisses him, followed by his friend? And how the (possibly) Japanese man, thinking this was the norm in Britain, follows suit? While it was a scene I laughed out loud at upon first seeing it, the more I think about it, the more I realise the seriousness of the situation; and the more I live in this globalised day and age and must travel to and interact with people the world over, the more I find myself in the shoes of the foreign man, not always quite knowing just what is expected of me.
It's amazing how different people and cultures are the world over. And it's not only customs and rituals related to special events like births and deaths and marriages. From small, inconspicuous talking, walking, dressing and eating habits to more established and serious norms and values, people everywhere are drastically different, depending on the culture they belong to.
For example, while most Westerners greet people, even friends, with nothing more than a handshake (though in some European countries, men kiss women's hands) many Arab people greet even strangers with kisses (women on both cheeks four times, men their respected elders on the shoulders). In some Arab countries, complete strangers share one large platter of food, while people in some communities eat from banana leaves and, in the West, even families hardly have time to sit together for meals.
While this may seem strange to those of us belonging to a different culture, so must our habits to foreigners. We Bangladeshis are louder and more talkative than Westerners, but probably less hearty and boisterous than Arabs. We eat with our fingers, eat many things others wouldn't, and we wonder at many things that they do eat, including dogs and donkeys, cockroaches and people. We are very, often over-hospitable, wanting to feed our guests (along with ourselves) almost until they fall sick. (We don't, however, expect them to belch loudly after meals, re Ben Huhr.) It is common for our men to use the roadside, even busy city streets, as their toilets and to spit and cough up phlegm all over the place. We don't, at least publicly, accept kissing as a natural expression of affection between romantic couples as do people in the West. (I remember being caught in a surreal situation when I travelled from Saudi Arabia to Switzerland in a span of a few days. In the first country, women were covered in black burkhas and could not be seen anywhere in public, not to mention with men. In Switzerland, couples in bare minimum clothing were kissing on the streets.)
Things we accept as completely natural may seem very funny to foreigners. On a hot, sunny day in Libya, a Korean woman came to our school carrying an umbrella. My good friend from Palestine, Bouthaina, watched the woman with curiosity for a while before bursting out laughing, thinking she was crazy carrying an umbrella when there was no sign of rain. I ended up trying to tell her about the many people in our country, especially in the villages, who carry their long black umbrellas to protect themselves from the gruelling sun, but it was difficult for her to fathom.
I guess it's okay to be caught in a bit of a culture trap when you're visiting a different country or culture, but sometimes, you're caught in between even in your own. Even for me, being a Bangladeshi, the habit of friends (of the same sex) holding each other's hands or shoulders or waists while walking, was rather uncomfortable when I first started university here after living abroad for many years. Today, I have become more touchy-feely myself, hugging friends not seen for many days, giving them a small push on the shoulder while talking! (Not as much, however, as strangers on the street or some burkha-clad Arab women in airplanes, I remember, who will practically shove you aside to get ahead in the crowds.)
In some cultures, though, it's not only physical space that is so often infringed upon. I remember a complete stranger we met at a shop in Tunisia who got to talking to my father and, after asking him what he did and how many children he had and whether or not he had a son, the man actually asked my father whether he was planning to! Of course, Bangladeshis are not far behind when they begin worrying about couples who have not had children in their first two years of marriage, start coaxing them to have a second one soon after the first, and if, a couple of years later, either of the two situations have not been remedied, will ask, "Do you not WANT to have one or can you not conceive?" Westerners are usually not as inquisitive about others' personal affairs.
And then of course there are the more serious issues, like attitudes on love and relationships, family and respect for elders, and so on. I remember learning in sociology class how, while adultery is a crime punishable by death in some societies, among the Eskimos, a host must actually offer his guest his wife to have sexual relations with. That class also taught me to be less ethnocentric, i.e., to not judge other cultures by the standards of one's own.
This, however, also sometimes puts me in a bit of a spot when, being the "open-minded", "liberal" that I am, I tend not to judge people for behaving in their own ways. Thus, I don't really give looks to couples holding hands on an university campus here -- just as I didn't in Canada. But then I supposedly have Western values and ideals, for such things aren't as easily accepted here. On the other hand, when I travel to countries like the US or the UK, I again don't quite fit in because, though I may not judge other people, I may not be as personally inclined to do many things that Westerners would very naturally. So, while at home I may be a little too Western for the tastes of many, abroad I may not be Western enough. Thus the dilemma of having to adjust to many different cultures but not fitting into any just quite perfectly.
In today's globalised world, with exposure to the media and so many things foreign, many young people must face this tricky situation. It's a different world everywhere -- at home, at school, with friends, on television, abroad. We pick up a little from everywhere and, naturally, become a mishmash product of a truly "global village".
We may not always know just how softly we should speak, how aggressive we should be, whether we should kiss, hug or shake hands, or whether we should give the hitchhiker a lift; but a little patience and empathy and respect for others will teach us soon enough. At the end of the day, we don't have to side with whether thin or fat, fair or dark is beautiful. We don't have to internalise others' values on love, relationships and marriage as our own. As long as we know where to take our shoes off before entering the house, where to call our friends' parents "Uncle and Auntie" and where by their names, where it's okay to drink in front of our in-laws and where to stand up when an elderly person walks into the room -- basically, how to show respect to people no matter who and where they are -- we can stick to our own set of thoughts, ideas and values, as long as it's with an open mind and we're not doing anyone any harm. We each have our own worlds, and it doesn't have to be either mosaic or a melting pot -- it can be a bit of both!
(R) thedailystar.net 2005