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Social Chameleon

As a person leaps around the world, one can’t help but encounter other world travelers.  Quickly, one notices that there are many genii and species in the international vagabond family.  For example, every traveler has their own particular skill at integrating themselves into a new culture; some people can blend in the moment they walk off the plane, whereas others (by choice or chance) stumble through their host country in an alien haze for the duration of their stay.

Since I was six, my father conditioned me to adapt to foreign cultures, and despite my personal shortcomings in this regard, I am eternally grateful for the training.  From Tokyo to Hong Kong to Korea, to New Zealand and even to Hawaii, my father would point out tourists behaving like “Ugly Americans” and whisper to me that I must never exhibit such tendencies.

To be fair, one does not have to be American to exhibit traits like speaking loudly in your mother tongue in hopes that it will help the desk clerk understand that you don’t consider fish and rice a “continental breakfast.”

I have seen rowdy Japanese tourists in Taiwan announcing to their tour group that certain Taiwanese cultural treasures could be improved “if only that lady’s tits were hanging out!”  The tour group roared with laughter.  The Taiwanese tour guide smiled wanly.  I left the room.

I have unwittingly been an “Ugly American” on many, many occasions.  I remember that on my first visited to the Netherlands, I was so concerned about making a good impression on The Clown’s family that I grilled him mercilessly about Dutch etiquette and manners.

“Should I take off my shoes at your house?”

“That would be a little strange.  To come to someones house and walk around in bare feet is not too normal in the Netherlands.”

And so on and so on.  But it is impossible to think of every situation, and even the most obvious ones sometimes escape me.  For example, I had never eaten a fancy meal in Continental Europe, and was unaware that American table manners (chew with your mouth closed, don’t burp, keep you elbows off the table, try a bit of everything, and offer to clear the table after the meal, don’t reach for food, pass the serving dishes, etc) weren’t going to be sufficient.

I went out with his sister and parents to a particularly important family reunion, and proceeded to embarrass them by eating like a pig: I did not keep both wrists on the table while chewing, I did not know the proper signals to tell the waiter that I was done with my course and ready for the next one, I did not keep my fork at the right angle, I brought my head down too far to the soup bowl, and all while remaining blissfully ignorant of my behavior.

Luckily, The Clown’s family is a particularly forgiving and worldly sort who were able to see the humor in the situation, but I became a fanatic about international table manners after that.

And it was a nice little exchange, too, because I was able to teach them the intricacies of table manners in Japan, some of which were as subtle and counter-intuitive to them as the Dutch customs were to me.

In Japan, chopsticks must be set on the table behind the main dish and parallel to the edge of the table, not pointing at anyone.  If you are not sitting in classic ‘legs folded position,’ you must verify that you are not pointing your feet at anyone.  Slurping of the soup is permissible, and in fact, expected, as is lifting bowls to your mouth to eat.  It is more acceptable to bow your head slightly while eating to hide the act of opening your mouth and revealing your teeth.  You must never pour your own drinks, and insure that no one else ins placed in the awkward position of having to ask someone else to pour their drink for them (especially if you are a woman; yes even in modern Japan).  Chopsticks must never be left sticking into food, especially bowls of rice.  When passing food, you must never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks.  Contrary to the popular (and personally unverified) Western notion that burping in China is considered a compliment to the chef (is this true?) it is not so interpreted in Japan.  If you want service in a restaurant, you must call loudly over the din to your server who will otherwise ignore your table so as not to disturb your dining (it is funny to watch first-time diners at fancy Japanese restaurants sitting anxiously, tables empty and menus closed, wondering why they are not being served.  Angrier visitors might attribute this to xenophobic refusal of service to foreigners, but in this case, at least, they are just being paranoid.)

These experiences made me wonder if an antithesis to these “Ugly Americans” or “Baj Ganjos” (any Bulgarians in the house tonight?) might exist: An individual so skilled as to be able to blend in perfectly from culture to culture as he traveled.  What would such a person be like?

Personally, I think that even if I had such a mutant super power, I wouldn’t be willing to use it at all times.

When I first started travelling, I believed that a visitor to another country has the responsability to learn as much as possible about local customs and to act like a good visitor.  I still believe that this is true, but I no longer go so far as to believe that the perfect traveller assumes the identity of the country he visits.  An attempt to do so is a vast, presumptuous, oversimplification at best, and is actually another form of closed-mindedness at worst.  A visitor is an outsider, and must assume this role while remaining pathologically open-minded to his environment.

Open-mindedness speaks to our ability to accept, but does not imply that we must adapt.  Sure, for the most part it is a good idea to adapt to your host country, but I think it is unreasonable to force yourself to wear a costume 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I know that in Japan, absolute silence in residential areas is mandatory after 10 o’clock, and almost every day of the year, I try to comply with this (strangulating, oppressive, depressing, bleak, antisocial, boring) neighborly and considerate custom, but sometimes, when there is that certain smell in the summer air, and just the right music is playing, and the company is perfect, we can let ourselves live life like we are on an Arnhem terrace with our best friends for just one night, can’t we?

Is it really so ugly?

Is it really?

Is it?

It is.

But that’s the problem.  I can chameleon myself as much as I want in residential Japan, but I can’t permanently hide my identity inside myself.

Most grumbling locals have the benefit of having known only one cultural reality.

I think that in order to be a perfect cultural chameleon one must first master cultural amnesia.  As I would consider such a gift a curse, I remain a twisted, ugly little chameleon happily scarred by a  fortunate life amongst eternally foreign cultures.

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