Dealing with people from other cultures is not always easy. Language presents itself as the initial barrier that you need to cross in order to be able to navigate through the unfamiliar place that you’ve ended up in.
Wherever you are, whatever your mission is and however many people you need to deal with to get “there” will (undoubtedly) eventually lead to cultural confusion and challenges…and become a funny story or memory. Cultures clash all the time in this constantly shrinking world where “abroad” may be reached within just a day.
In the novel I am (still) currently reading called Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais, the main character (the Buddhist Reverend Oda) has now moved from rural Japan to Brooklyn, New York, and is trying hard to immerse himself in the American culture and to understand the American people – a task that is proving not to be so easy.
You immediately see the differences in Japanese and American cultures when he arrives at JFK airport and is picked up by a young American woman:
The woman waiting for me in the crowd was wearing a black T-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. She was in her late thirties, I guessed, with frost-tipped hair that stood up spiky and ragged. This could not possibly be my official greeting party, I thought, for her attire was entirely inappropriate for formally welcoming a Priest.
And then there’s the very interesting cultural way of greeting each other and of greeting someone for the very first time. Should you shake hands, give a hug or perhaps a kiss on the cheek … or on both? This is something that seems to be always evolving. I think more cultures are moving towards being more and more informal and constantly crossing personal space and boundaries. Personally, I find this a particularly difficult area to navigate, and I never really know what to do whenever I meet someone for the first time.
A handshake, a smile and eye contact always seem to go a long (and proper) way when greeting someone initially. Here in the Dominican Republic (where I live), though, it’s custom to greet everyone (whether you know them or not) with 1, 2 or 3 kisses on the cheeks…something that I often find too personal, too much of an invasion of my personal space. Sometimes, I don’t mind too much, but most of the time I honestly don’t always want to be kissing everyone, and especially when I don’t know them.
In Buddhaland Brooklyn, the first meeting between Reverend Oda and the American woman becomes a hilarious scene as their greeting habits clash big time:
I panicked, not sure if I should bow a Japanese greeting or shake hands Western-style. The woman did neither. She threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly to her bosom.
I stood stiff as a winter cherry tree holding out frozen limbs, as the woman grappled me like a sumo wrestler. It took what seemed like an eternity before she was satisfied I was of flesh and bone, but she finally released me, stood back, and stammered she was the Believer Jennifer Meli.
… To be continued!