The Barbarians

There is etiquette and the rules. There is also non-verbal communication, the cues that are below conscious interpretation most of the time. If you find yourself studying someone’s posture, expression, hand motions for meaning, for clues about the meaning behind their words, you are looking for the non-verbal communication. For many people, reading these cues is automatic and happens unaware. This happened to you when you realized that your cousin wished you would leave though she invited you to stay for dinner. This happened to you when you said no to a second cup of tea when your hostess offered one, though you didn’t realize that she was actually out of milk.

As we have met more and more people here, I’ve been more and more conscious of my illiteracy. I wander around this country unable to read many of the signs and advertisements. Some of them are in English, but many are in the language of the state. Similarly, I have been more conscious of my non-verbal illiteracy. I am not sure of my reading of people’s cues, the things they say without saying them, the delicate and important business of being honest while protecting their images of themselves as good hosts and nice people. I have had so many things pushed on me with great force: food, drinks, chairs, extra servings. And I’m not fluent enough to know when I please the host by acquiescing and when I displease them. Even more difficult, when I persist in declining the offers (too full for more, tired of sitting, etc), am I making things difficult or easy? I worry about putting people out. When I’m offered chai and I say yes, someone has to go make it. It’s not the fastest process on earth, either…

Imagine a woman in a room of old-fashioned men, who would not dream of sitting while she stands. She walks in, makes everyone’s acquaintance, wanders to stand by the mantelpieces, declines a chair. She doesn’t know that she’s forcing all of these tired men to stand or that she could ask them to please sit. Their corns are hurting, their hips are aching. She will come to recognize that she is making them uncomfortable.

I don’t want to be that person. I wish there was a way to step outside the social faces and get across to someone in all honesty – you will have to tell me exactly what you mean. You will have to say that I can have tea but that you don’t really feel like making it. You will have to tell me that if I continue to sit and chat, that you will ask me to stay to dinner, but that you don’t have enough food for an extra mouth. Or contrariwise that you wish I would take more food because it is a great pleasure to you to feed people until they can hardly roll away from the table. That you want some chai and if I refuse, you will feel rude in leaving me to go make some.

And then there’s the mirror image of that problem. I am, of course, communicating the whole time as well. I have become nervous also about inadvertently insulting someone or otherwise coming across wrong. It has made me think about how careful I am to communicate to my own purposes – verbally and non-verbally. Shaping my behavior to…not to expectations, but to communication. The smiles that mean so much more than “I’m happy”, saying also I feel that you have welcomed me properly, that I am happy to be in your home, that I like your furniture/clothing/hairstyle. The tilting headshake that means no, but also it’s not that I didn’t like it I just don’t want more and don’t put yourself to any bother.

This sojourn among body-languages foreign might help me learn to “be myself” in a way, figuring out which behaviors are mine and which are for expediency’s sake. There is performance of self always, but it is so transparent in these foreign situations that it accidentally becomes an exploration of who I believe myself to be and how I want to relate to people.

  • I am a person who smiles a lot.
  • I am a person who enjoys food and drink.
  • I am a person who loves music.
  • I am a person who likes you.

But what if I don’t like you. Hmm. I haven’t practiced that one much.

As a teenager, I made a list once. It was a list of what I was and what I wasn’t. It was the first time I tried to categorize myself so determinedly. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started using the phrase “I am the kind of person who…” with any degree of assurance and ease. But I was also in the culture I’d been trained to. I didn’t need to say these things aloud – I could usually express them another way.

Here, I feel like I’m the same person, but I get to reevaluate my behavior to find out how I can express that person best. For example, I will wear clothes that are considered relatively modest. That means something different here than in the US, but I have usually dressed fairly modestly for my surroundings. Another example. I am open to trying new things. In the US, it was pretty easy to be that person – I was rarely left behind by others forging ahead into the unknown. Here I have a different challenge. I am perceived to be foreign. That means that people will assume that everything is new to me. Even if I’ve tried something before and know how I feel about it, I think people will judge my willingness rather than my taste if I refuse something. It is one of the big reasons I want to learn Malayalam. I want to be able to communicate (semi-nonverbally…grin) that I am familiar with this place.

Another example, the barbell in my tongue is quite the rockstar. The tattoo on the back of my neck is also. These are signs to people, signs of who I am, the choices I’ve made. For me, it is accurate communication. It tells a truth. What does it tell people here? It seems to be a part of my foreignness. When I want greater privacy, when I choose non-verbal silence, I can leave my hair down and laugh less boisterously, with my mouth less open.

Yesterday, a man invited us to his house for lunch. James accepted conditionally, explaining that we do not eat meat, so we could eat before we came and just visit. He insisted that it was not a problem, that his wife would cook vegetables for us. When we arrived, we found a Muslim household where the wife who cooked such wonderful food for us did not eat with us. We were served at the dining table by the husband and the two children. She did not want to show her face. Even to me.

I can’t claim to know anything beyond the most basic of things about Muslim beliefs, but I thought that a woman could show herself to other women. In this visit, I was more foreigner than I was female. I had no idea how to make her more comfortable or if I should even try. Did I set myself apart by coming to her house with my head uncovered and eating with her husband along with my own? If I had moved straight into the kitchen and stayed there, would we have had a nice visit of our own? I cannot know. If I knew some Malayalam, I might have tried to spend time with her. Tried to figure out how to make her comfortable, how to give her what she wanted from a guest.

But I might not have. I have never been fond of the social dynamic that splits a group by gender. I feel that there is something expected of me in those situations that I cannot give. Even more with this situation, I don’t think I could have made her comfortable. I would have joined my husband for lunch and she might have felt even more pressure to be immodest, to show herself to him and eat in front of him. Or not. I just don’t know…

We finished everything we were served, though it was more food than I wanted. I think it was the right thing to do. It was the impression I got – that it was my job to eat until it was gone.

Bah, etiquette. I will learn Malayalam. I will tell people, though it may strain their comfort, that I am stupid in their ways and that they must guide me. And I will continue to be myself. I will be myself to myself first. I will communicate myself to other people second. And yes, sometimes I will eat that pickle again, though I know I didn’t like it much the first time. Because of all the things I want people to see are true of me, a desire to be flexible and learn the Keralan ways is the most important.


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