Thursday, September 12, 2013

Extreme Rulebreaking: On Sneezing, Kissing, and Talking with my Eyebrows

It’s easy to forget about the rules that govern everyday life. Oh sure, people like to complain about the rules for traffic flow or the safety regulations at their workplace or the laws that Congress recently passed, but in truth, those are just superficial frosting that covers a delicious chocolate cake. Whether or not the frosting is buttercream or cream cheese or pink or covered in sparkles, the cake still remains in all its fudgey gloriousness.

If you had some pork, would you cook it like this?
No, I’m talking about the other rules—the deep ones of your culture. The ones that mean we’re not dealing with a cake at all, but, in fact a pie.

...which means, no matter how mouthwatering that fruit might be, if you bite into your piece thinking it’s going to be a cake, your system is going to have a bit of a shock.

The rules have changed...and that includes when a traveler, like myself, shifts from living in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to the United States.

For example, in the US, sneeze etiquette consists of hand motions (covering my mouth) and stock phrases (“excuse me” and “bless you”). PNG does not—you simply sneeze and life goes on. But, when I am sitting among my American fellows and forget to switch to US rules when I sneeze, I’m apt to get more than a few nasty looks and an extra vehement “bless YOU!”

Then there are the rules for greetings. In PNG, a proper greeting for both men and women is a handshake. In fact, it’s extremely important to shake everyone’s hand when you enter a room or a gathering. However, that’s it. If it’s an emotional greeting, hugs and hand-holding may occur—but always within the same gender; other than a handshake, men and women rarely have any other physical contact. They often sit separately, eat separately, talk separately...even married PNG couples will often barely acknowledge each other outside their own home. (In fact, I can’t even remember the last time in PNG that I saw a missionary couple offer a public display of affection—it’s rather unheard of!)

So, after living for years within this very segregated set of rules, can you imagine my absolute shock and dismay when four days after I leave PNG, I’m greeted with a very traditional Hawaiian HUG AND KISS ON THE CHEEK by a completely unknown young man of a similar age!!? I think a diamond statue would have been more responsive than I was! (At least, thank heavens, I managed to replace my shriek of horror with a stuttered “nice to meet you too!”)

Oh yes. PNG and the US live by some very different rules, my friend.

How about rules for getting drinking water?
Of course there are the rules for walking on sidewalks...which means that I end up doing some strange polka two-step (stay left? or is it right?, right, right, right!!!). And then there are the rules about staring at people—not acceptable in the US (perfectly fine in PNG). Actually, eye-contact is a tricky rule. I’ve held many conversations in PNG staring off into the trees rather than at my partner’s face...eye contact is not particularly necessary, and in some cases (between men and women), strong eye contact is more than a little provocative. (But, not looking at your conversation partner in the US implies rudeness and disinterest. Sigh. Maybe I’ll just wear sunglasses.) The rules are endless... rules for talking (which language? how do you use said language? with whom? when? where?), rules for when it’s appropriate to talk about personal diseases (TMI doesn’t really apply in PNG), rules for clothes that you wear to church (or swimming!), rules for how you pay for purchases (cash? credit? trade? talking self-checkout machine at Walmart?).

There are even rules for eyebrows! In PNG, an upward flick of the eyebrows is a greeting, an acknowledgement, and even an affirmative answer—perfect for talking with your mouth full. In the US, you simply look confused.

I could go on, of course. Do this. Don’t do this. Up and down, back and forth...with all the minute variations that come from generations and upbringings and big city and rural farms and jobs and education and cat people versus dog people. But a missionary adapts, and so I sally forth, with my notes and my observations and my conversations with fellow margin-dwellers who know the craziness of transition between worlds...and not without a little bit of laughter as I watch the sacrosanct be broken...

and watch a game of football chase after a pigskin instead of a black-and-white checkered ball.