Cultural norms

How to make an exhibition of yourself

My dad is in Mauritius for work at the moment (a pretty jammy gig for someone who’s supposedly retired), and he sent me an email last night asking how to cope with being the token foreigner on display. He’s being chaperoned by an overly-enthusiastic former colleague, who has apparently brought my dad over as the centrepiece to his autism conference (not in that way, although you might be forgiven for the confusion on meeting my dad). He is proceeding to wheel my unwitting father  out before former ministers of state, top dogs in the education sector and other bigwigs. My dad doesn’t love social situations that are outside his control, and that he can’t duck out of when he’s had too much, and he loathes the concept of hobnobbing. So it sounds like his Mauritian dream – a bit of work and a great free holiday – is turning to dust.

Luckily, after 2 years working in darkest Bangladesh, three years of being a foreign girlfriend and countless work trips, I’ve become something of an expert on these situations. Wheel me out in front of a distant cousin, a local governor or a tribal chief, and I can charm the socks of them, even if we don’t share a language. I think I’ve finally cracked the delicate balance between being politely enthusiastic about meeting said random, demonstrating cultural sensitivity and not being driven up the wall by interminable interactions where you don’t have a clue what’s going on. Here are my top tips on how to behave when you’re the token foreigner on display:

  1. Do your research. Find out a bit about cultural norms for meeting and greeting in advance. I’ve never cringed lower in my life than after watching fellow volunteers (boys) in Bangladesh grasping the hands of quaking village women, for whom physical contact with a man is a Big No No. Find out where the boundaries are so you’re not constantly panicking that you’re offending everyone.
  2. Get some basic greetings down. At least find out how to say hello and ask someone how they are. This information might not stay in your head forever, but generally, a little effort goes a really long way. I think learning how to introduce myself in Bengali has earned me more applause (and I mean literal clapping) than anything else I’ve ever done in my life.
  3. Fake it. Sometimes I take this one too far, and people begin to assume I understand Arabic/Tagalog/Hindi, when I definitely don’t. But attempting to follow the conversation – watching the person who’s speaking for non-verbal cues, reacting when others react, smiling when others smile etc – means you’ll pick a lot more than if you just practice your 1000 yard stare across the nearest paddy field. And I’m a language geek so I like trying to pick up on frequent words and try to guess what they mean. You don’t need to go that far, of course, but it helps keep the mind busy.
  4. Always accept the refreshments. The custom around accepting, refusing or pretending to refuse and then later accepting proffered tea/coffee/palm wine etc obviously depends on which country you’re in. I, however, love to eat, and after 2 years in Bangladesh and 3 years in Turkey, where the need to feed is great, my approach is generally to say yes. Obviously, it’s a little different if you’re visiting the home of someone very poor, but that doesn’t mean you should point-blank refuse. A case in point: a couple of weeks ago, I was visiting Za’atari refugee camp, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the Middle East, and every refugee we visited – regardless of whether they had running water or enough to feed their own children – insisted on giving us at least a cup of coffee. Even if you think they shouldn’t be spending their precious resources on feeding you, if your host insists then just say yes. Pride is also a thing of value in such situations.
  5. Learn to love foreign TV. In Turkey, TV is on just about everywhere you go. I hate this – I’m a total TV snob – but when it’s on and everyone’s watching it, you can’t always go and sit in another room with a book (I’ve tried it and it does not go down well, trust me). Instead, I’ve cultivated a deep passion for Turkish soaps (Karagül is my absolutely fav) and Karadeniz TV (TV from the Black Sea region of Turkey, where they appear to show folk dancing and wood chopping contests 24/7. It’s heaven).
  6. Know how to say thank you and goodbye. Again, basic courtesies go a long way. Leaving a particularly long and dull interaction, you can remind everyone how enthusiastic and polite  and culturally sensitive you are by a chirpy thanks and bye speech. It works like a charm every time.



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