The Shock of Lip Lock
If you ask a fish what water is like (assuming you could find a talking fish), then it'd probably be unable to say much. Water is all it knows. Put the same fish in a frying pan and it'd tell you pretty articulately what was different about its new environment, at the same time understanding more clearly, and not without a hint of regret, the nature of its old watery life. We grow up in a certain context, and are often, just like our fish, unaware of the cultural realities and values which underpin our daily lives. When we encounter a foreign culture, we enter an unfamiliar world: one which can suddenly bring our value systems to the surface.
Our moral views are often among the first to be tested in a new environment. A colleague of mine, a venerable white-bearded man with laughing brown eyes and a voice loud enough to clear the cobwebs from a dusty classroom, tells of his trip to study in Japan a few decades back. It was his first overseas journey and he was curious to find out all about his new home. Being a gregarious type he soon made friends with his male fellow-students and one night allowed himself to be taken dancing with them. There amongst the dancers in the middle of the club (I struggle to imagine what kind of dance he would have been performing: the image of him getting down with 70s-style moves is hard to conjure up), he suddenly found himself surrounded by attractive young women all making various offers to him, some with a financial element to them. He certainly learned something that day about the limits of his own sense of propriety and escaped pretty sharply from the dance floor.
Later in the same year his friends took him to a bath-house. Now there are many cultures in the world where communal bathing is a key to male bonding. The hamams of Turkey for example are a great place to go with your friends after a game of football. But the dress etiquette naturally differs from country to country. My colleague walked in happily enough, along with another Bangladeshi student, but they froze when they saw no-one was wearing a stitch of clothing. They both turned round and fled, only returning in the small hours after observing the bath-house would be empty. Evidently he'd never had to formulate an opinion before that day on the acceptability or otherwise of nudity in public, but by the end of the evening he had a fairly clear take on the matter. I found myself in the same situation a few years ago in Germany, when invited after a game of tennis into a sauna where both men and women sat: conversing, relaxed and totally naked. I didn't flee, but it took some getting used to… At least in a sauna everyone goes red so it's ok to blush.
We all have this in-built sense of what is acceptable, influenced by culture, family and schooling, as well as our friends and life experience, but it's often dormant and unexplored within us, only coming into sharp focus when it meets new realities.
What travel can teach you above all is who you are. But you have to want to learn.
Of course it's not always necessary to travel abroad to discover the values you have buried inside you. Within your own context you can be struck and shocked by what you come across, especially at changes in social behaviour which challenge your attitudes.
For instance, here is a wonderful paragraph from a letter sent in by a student recently to a magazine, which caught my eye. It read: “One day I went to the volleyball field of my school at recess to play. But upon entering I found out that a girl and a boy were embracing one another and sharing a lip lock in the middle of the field. They did not even stop upon seeing me! In fact I knew them, both were students of class eleven! It was really surprising to find out how Bangladeshi teenagers had so immaculately copied Hollywood films and Western society to express love to their lovers physically”.
I'm fascinated by the shocked reaction. First of all, the way such loose morals are attributed to the insidious effect of foreign influences, as represented by Hollywood. Clearly no-one ever kissed, let alone went further, in Bangladesh before these evil forces took hold, (although this does leave one slightly at a loss to explain the very healthily robust size of the Bangladeshi population…) Doubtless, the media do play a part, and even I am occasionally struck by the the difference between the innocent Bollywood videos I saw when I first arrived here, full of naive dance routines in Swiss meadows, and the much more suggestive choreography in today's clips. But the media's role, you might argue, is only to give expression to what is already there, not to create it. Take the famous image shown here of the kiss by Robert D'Oisneau, taken in 1950. A masterpiece certainly, and provocative in its time, but responsible for a decline in social morality? I don't think so.
Besides, even if this behaviour could be fully ascribed to such external causes, what to do? Trying to stem the slow tide of cultural change is like the blustery efforts of some back home attempting to preserve a pure form of English free of Americanisms a losing battle, no matter how loudly they rant. Ultimately it's a waste of time.
While on the subject of language, I am, incidentally, grateful to our young correspondent for the glorious term “lip lock”. At first I thought this was his invention, a rather clunky and mechanical coinage, but I was much mistaken. A quick search through www.urbandictionary.com informs me that it is a trendy usage, which does in fact mean “the pressing of the lips tightly to something”. So it seems I have been engaging in lip lock with a saxophone for years without even knowing it, But then it goes on to elaborate in more detail, suggesting “a kiss on the mouth” as a more refined definition. So I stand corrected, although I'm not sure the verb “sharing” is the best one to use with lip lock, unless there were more than two people involved. But let's not go there…
Also striking is the assumption that these lip-locked eleventh-graders should immediately spring apart as our young moralist approaches. Personally, I think “good for them”. Similarly, a small part of me always rejoices when I see young couples holding hands or hugging here. It's a statement that they will no longer be dictated to by others, and seems to me a very positive expression of affection, both for the couple and to the world. Holding hands with someone you love is a perfectly pleasant pastime after all. But of course it's not without risks here: the force of censure from others is very strong. Families, friends and neighbours all work together here to make sure you never stray from the straight and narrow path. In the UK, the term “neighbourhood watch” refers to a scheme to prevent crime on the streets of your local area. Here it seems to mean everyone is looking at your every move, just in case you step out of line.
The social uses of such collective control are obvious, and no doubt have many positive aspects, but the rebel in me wants to stick up also for individual freedom. I can't help thinking that our lives are our own to lead. It's all about live and let live. If you want to live someone else's life for them, it suggests you haven't got a proper one for yourself.
So if our daring eleventh-graders want to hug or kiss, then why shouldn't they? Every society needs its pioneers: those who are willing to push the boundaries a little. Although they could perhaps find a different place, as being hit by a volleyball while kissing is probably not a great deal of fun. And if our angry young letter-writer finds it offensive, he could always look away. Or take up table-tennis.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007