Monday, September 01, 2014

crossing the cultures

Sunday was supposed to be a mixed travel day. 

You know the type.  You need to get from one place to another, but you want to spend as much time with your friends as you can before boarding your choice of transportation to a new chapter of your life.

Well, it was that.  But it was much more.

I have already told you my friend Dr. Bob is married to Fon, a Thai citizen.  As you probably suspected, there is much more to the relationship than that declarative sentence allows.

Bob and Fon spend half of their year in England and half of it in Thailand -- with a large dose of world travel whipped into the mix.  (It was his retirement in Thailand where he met her.)  

Their life model may sound a bit familiar to Mexpatriate readers.  I was not going to pass up the opportunity to talk about the similarities and differences of our respective situations.

Bob has retained a bit more northern personality than I have when it comes to planning.  He spent some time yesterday morning planning on where we would go.  A castle.  A forest.  A Roman camp.

But he shares my sense of flexibility when plans crumble at their first application.  As they did.  We made it to the Roman camp.  And we had a pleasant drive near one of England’s most scenic little corners -- the Trough of Bowland.

The sights and history were very interesting.  However, the best part of the trip was swapping tales with Bob and Fon.  I was not the least bit surprised that the aspects of Thailand he finds invigorating and frustrating mirror almost exactly my own.  Both of us are the products of our cultures.  Rather regimented cultures.

We expect life to be orderly, logical, and efficient (at least, by our definitions).  Apparently, Thailand falls short of those northern standards in almost the same ways that Mexico does.

In turn, the cultures of both Thailand and Mexico are based far more on relationships with people.  Often to the extreme -- making situations seem inherently unfair or corrupt to we northerners.  And often they are.

Both Bob and I have learned to live with our golden nuggets and to, at least, start moving away from our anal responses.  Fon, of course, just as my neighbors, was more than willing to share how often she finds us outsiders to be almost unfathomably silly.  I rather enjoy the idea my antics can bring a smile to the faces of other people.

(Just before I left Melaque, I had a conversation with a northern expatriate.  When I told her how often I had heard from Mexicans that they think we are silly people, she became indignant.  While she was venting steam, I realized she was doing exactly what my neighbors find so humorous.)

I thought of my conversation with Bob and Fon while riding the rails from Preston to Oxford.  Sundays are always busy train days.  Even though I had a first class ticket, there were no seats available.

That is not quite true.  There were seats, but they were not going to be given up by a large family from Doha who had occupied about a third of the carriage.

A rather short-tempered Englishman tried to sit down on the seats occupied by the feet of two of the women.  Their husband jumped up and announced, in a voice as if he were auditioning for the role of Tevye: “It is forbidden for you to sit with my wives.”

The usual cross-cultural exchange ensued with the Englishman retreating to the authority of the conductor, who told him: “I am not getting involved in any religious dispute.  I have a job to protect.”  The Englishman wandered off muttering about writing a letter to The Times.

The whole thing could have been written during the “Writing in C
lichés” class in screenwriting school.  That is, until wisdom appeared in the persona of a soft-spoken man with skin the color of a fine latte.  He was looking for a seat for himself and his wife.

It took him no time to sum up the situation.  He walked over to the husband of the lounging ladies.  “Is this beautiful family yours?  Have you traveled far?”  That is how I knew they were from Doha.  The Arab husband was smiling.

The latte man also smiled.  “My wife and I have been traveling all day, and we are tired.  Would it be possible for you and your handsome son to sit with your wives and allow my wife and me to share in your comfort?”

It was like watching an intricate social ballet.  Both men knew they were manipulating one another, but both were receiving the benefits of the first rule of etiquette from each other -- respect.

The family re-arranged itself upon the husband’s barked commands.  When everyone was seated, the mood in the carriage changed.  One of the wives saw that I was still standing.  She ordered a daughter to move over with the rest of the children, and invited me to sit.  If she had had a bowl of figs, I am certain she would have offered me one.

For some reason, I thought about my neighbor Lupe.  She would have shared the same wisdom as the soft-spoken man -- as would have Fon.  Respect and formality would have trumped confrontation.  I know what the Englishman thought; I could hear his mutters. 

He considered the family from Doha to be rude and illogical.  And he was correct by English standards.  What he did not understand, or, at least, show, is that a bit of respect could (and did) resolve the issue.

Now, I am not naive.  There are evil and thoughtless people in the world.  Showing them the same respect will not budge the mountain to Mohammed.  Usually.  But they are not the norm.  Most people, when approached with respect within the context of their culture, will react positively.

It is a lesson I need to re-learn often.  I am glad Fon and Bob shared their experiences with me.  It was a perfect fit for my role as an audience member in the train-board passion play.

Even on a travel day, life continues to teach.

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