16 June 2011

The Emily Post

June 15
Robert Louis Stevenson's text The South Seas, or at least the portion I read, focuses on the twin experiences of foreign hospitality and breaches of etiquette on the part of the traveler. Certainly, when all social cues are removed by immersion in an unfamiliar culture, the traveler is bound to make some blunders! My worst so far was asking, in my first few days, to have the table so I could lay my sweater out to dry (I am one of those people who obeys the care instructions on the tags of my clothing, and that sweater insists that it cannot be hung on a clothesline with everything else). The table was the best available surface, and I thought it a bad idea to risk dampness on the couch-beds where we sleep. Unfortunately, I was not thinking right. The table is the only table in the house. We use it to dine, do homework, place mugs and papers, and generally fulfill the table purposes for which American homes have 20 table surfaces of varying sizes. And it was this table, the table in the center of the house, the table around which life revolves, that I selected to house my wet sweater and thereby took out of action for the day.

Fortunately, my ridiculous request was only partially honored, and the sweater was moved to a better location outside. The lesson to me, to learn and respect the way my host family lives, was stamped on my brain in permanent ink. I've read Emily Post's giant book on etiquette, but it didn't go as far as tell me how to behave in a Tibetan home in India.

The narrator in Stevenson's South Seas evaluates the Marquesan people in terms of the manners in his own culture. To some degree this is unavoidable. Some things have been so thoroughly ingrained in our minds as socially unacceptable that we don't recognize them as unique to our own culture. When I sit in the kora and write my reading journal for my literature class, my writing seems to fascinate the people sitting around me. Bound by Emily Post's laws, I can't shut my notebook from prying eyes for fear of being rude myself, yet I can't stop myself from thinking it impolite for a stranger to lean over and read my journal.

But that's just the thing--different cultures have different rules of etiquette that Emily Post doesn't know. The waiter in Delhi, who stared brazenly at the four of us eating, even taking a video recording on his cell phone, was acting in accordance with the restrictions and allowances of his own culture. Likewise I, when eating chow mein noodles twisted around my fork in small bites so that I take twice as long as everyone else to finish dinner, act in accordance with the Emily Post bible. The point is to learn the rules of the foreign society--don't walk counter-clockwise on the kora, clasp hands and nod to greet, refer to the Dalai Lama as His Holiness, don't ever come late for dinner--and then to treat them with the respect that you know Emily Post would.

1 comment:

  1. I laughed when I read this because I have had a few similar experiences down here in Delhi with ettiquette blunders. I was observing an infertility procedure the other day and was chewing some gum. One of the doctors informed me that chewing gum in front of my elders is incredibly rude and they do not like it. I promptly threw the gum away and profusely appologized for my ignorance. I swore to myself that I would never be caught doing that again. I find that it is so interesting living with a host family because that way you understand such a deeper understanding of what's acceptable. Hope everything else is going well up there for you with the project.