I have traveled and lived in quite a few places and endured numerous cultural shocks. Looking back, I understand better why we humans from different places do not always understand each other and get annoyed with each others behavior. Living and traveling in other countries offers you a different perspective on life and is certainly enriching, but it is not always easy to absorb. Below follows an abridged list of my cultural shocks, but it is by no means exhaustive.
If you have your own list, please let me know, and I will publish them! It’s fun to know how we look at each other.
THE “WEST” AND SORT OF WEST
- USA: Americans think only they are sane. The rest of the world thinks they are insane. Depending on which side of the Ocean, the rest is right.And everything looks and tastes the same and their girls are xenophobic.
- Russia: Taking a bath is against the rules, unless you do it in vodka.
- Holland: Bikers don’t look right or left and run you over yelling YOU are stupid. Plus ample dog poop and the only place where I got robbed three times over the years by the same people. Guess once. Starts with an “M”, Holland’s most popular ethnic invaders.
- Belgium: Toilet paper cut from old newspapers and no sinks to wash your hands. Language either Flemish or Walloon, either way unintelligible. French fries, mussels and beer for breakfast (or “rouge”, red wine). Lots of smokers.
- France: Toilets with black holes, no seats and pissed-over footsteps and no sinks to wash your hands. Plus subway stink is the world’s worst. And heaps of dog and pigeon poop. Food is way too expensive and waiters are rude. And French love is a myth. Americans in Paris made that up because they don’t know what love is either, only in the movies. But I made some very good friends.
- Spain: Males can’t leave a girl alone. Females are locked up 24/7. And I can’t sing serenades in Spanish.
- Portugal: As many windmills as in Holland. They look spooky. Don Quixote traveled to Portugal to fight them.
- Italy: Males can’t leave a girl alone. But females eat too much pasta. And there’s too much pigeon poop, too.
- Germany: One menu only: bier, wurst und sauerkraut. And too much hoompa poompa.
- England: no menu at all, only rain, and after joining the EU they still drive on the wrong side of the road.
- Ireland: All Irish gone to New York to join the Democratic Party. Only Poles and Romanian pick pockets left.
- Scotland: Rain, cold weather, smoking chimneys and nobody speaks English.
- Switzerland: Swiss French unintelligible; Swiss German unintelligible, Swiss Italian, well, who knows; I don’t speak Italian. Traffic priority signs for frogs, cows and turtles. Puts holes in its cheese to attract Americans. Raclette sits in your stomach for two weeks and cheese fondue a bit longer causing an outbreak of fumes not liked by others, especially not your co-worker.
- Rwanda: Twice destroyed in thirty years with old colonial help.
- Burundi: Twice destroyed in twenty years with old colonial help.
- Central African Republic: snakes in and/or under your bed, wasps in your toilet, and pygmies running between your legs.
- Cameroon: The food looks great but you can’t eat it.
- Congo-Kinshasa: Everybody cheats.
- Congo-Brazaville: Nobody cheats. It’s forbidden by the law.
- South-Africa: Visit a shopping mall to get shot at and run for your life.
- Tanzania: Dar es Salaam has too many SUVs and nobody knows how they were paid for.
- Kenya: Wildlife is for tourists and the airport road is to kill them.
- Ethiopia: The table cloth is edible but you wouldn’t think that when you go to bed.
- Mali: That’s where Timbuktu is and when I got there I finally understood why.
- Guinea: Why for heaven’s sake did the colonialists put that country on the map?
- Ivory Coast: Must be called Côte d’Ivoire to show it was once French and because of that it has been good at destroying all it had been given.
- Ghana: The only place in Africa on the West Coast that seems to work because it has a direct KLM flight from Amsterdam.
- Nigeria: The one place in Africa that should work but doesn’t. Night flight out to safety.
- Bangladesh: Delicacy: cockroached curry. Eating with your fingers; spit reservoirs in every corner of every corridor; toilets are bastions of urine, providing the main perfume in office buildings; and getting the Dhaka run if you don’t survive it (most of the time).
- India: more of the same, but a little bit more sophisticated. And heavenly Kashmir should be declared neutral territory for everyone to enjoy, not just Islamists, not just Hindus, not just Pakistanis, or whatever. Just let it be.
- Malaysia: A mushroom garden with millions of multicolored edible mushrooms and a McDonald’s in Kuala Lumpur. What a place to live.
- Singapore: The country that everyone wants to ape but only Singaporeans know how to run.
- Taiwan: The only place where China is not China but everyone speaks Chinese, and a tree you can slide through to become rich if you don’t fear getting stuck in the middle.
- Philippines: Manila TV is like American TV – just as awful. Only in the countryside you find its beauty, but you may get struck by a typhoon.
- Indonesia and Bali: Djakarta is like Lagos, but outside the city Java is a jewel. And on Bali they serve the best suckling pig on earth. Driving off the main roads you see the real Indonesia and its terraced rice fields. Heaven on earth. But paying the hotel bills was like hell.
- Hong Kong: British geniality mixed with Chinese Confucianism. Foremost a good cuisine, especially on the street, but everyone wonders how long the good will last.
- China: More bikers than in Holland, and I never had real Chinese food before, not even in Amsterdam or NY China Town.
- Macao: Beware! Bought my wife a sapphire ring that turned out a piece of colored glass.
- Japan: Plastic food in the window is for show but not for eating. You must bow when meeting people in the elevator. And even a GPS can’t find where you’re going
- Hawaii: advertised as little Asia but no, it’s pure America. So good to be back, or is it?
- Saudi-Arabia: The place where beautiful women are kept in hiding and your head gets cut off for saying something about it.
- Lebanon: A Falafel tastes as good as a bomb.
- Jordan: An oasis in the desert and the only place in the Middle-East where I could ride a horse, have dinner in the open with a lovely woman, and feel at home.
- Guyana: Loud. Loud dogs, loud crickets, loud vehicles, loud music, loud people but great curry and the best rum in the world. Drives on the wrong side of the road because the British stole Guyana from the Dutch in the 100 year European wars and when it changed hands from England to Holland, the Dutch Governor did not know what left or right was because he drank too much rum. Since Independence everybody drives in the middle of the road, so I stay inside or take a cab. Beautiful and savvy women, always showing a pleasant smile; and everything stays the same.
- Surinam: Awfully isolated but Surinamers don’t mind. Fluent Dutch speaking Guyana (the only country outside Holland – apart from Flemish Belgium – that does): the greatest shock was that they are not Dutch at all, actually quite the opposite, and although pretty, women bite.
- Aruba: Nice but too much beach.
- Curacao: The place to live but too expensive to retire.
- Bonaire: For scuba divers only and iguana lovers.
- Jamaica: The place where I lost my Millennials and my tendons tore when climbing back into my capsized sailing boat, leaving me burdened with Jamaicanitis.
What’s that noise? A shrieking crank of a rusty water-pump perhaps? But why would somebody continuously pump water in the night? Or was somebody practicing the violin for a Schoenberg concert? No, not in Georgetown Guyana. A loud record of the Lady and the Tramp in the Disney movie howling at each other? The One Hundred Dalmatians let loose in town? Delirious. What’s the first plane out? Those were the thoughts of a displaced modern “Saïdjah” transplanted from his comfy habitat into a totally unknown world.
Both protected by a romantic mosquito net, his “Adinda” was sleeping peacefully beside him, unaware of the rambling thoughts of her recently acquired hubby, who was knocking on his compass to find out where he was. After a six-hour journey, the plane had landed at a slightly lit airport on a late evening in April 1974. Hit by a fire wall of steamy air, accompanied by some 24 suitcases with stuff needed for the Blessing of the Marriage – including champagne – we were whisked along immigration and customs agents as if we were a royal couple, into the arms of enthusiastic family members, waving wildly at “Adinda” and looking curiously at that white fellow from Amsterdam. Did he look like the former Dutch colonial masters? Or a bit like those British imposters who followed later?
Packed in various cars, we trucked in pitch dark over a potholed old airport road. The airport was built during World War II by the American Army Engineers to protect their access to Guyana’s rich bauxite mines for their fighter planes and to protect them against German attacks that were after these resources as well. (Since then, this road has been substantially improved.) We traveled 45 minutes through sparsely lit villages with Dutch names (such as Soestdijk), along sugar fields and sweet-smelling rum factories, into Georgetown. Under Dutch colonial regime, it was called Stabroek, after a gentleman who was the Governor of the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) in the 18th Century. When the British took over Guyana after one of the many European wars in the 19th century, Stabroek became Georgetown, named after the British King George III. But many of the old Dutch names were kept, like “New Amsterdam”, and so were the colonial administrative structures in Demerara and the Berbize. Stabroek market is still Georgetown’s main market.
Somewhere around mid-night, “Saïdjah” entered the home of his “Adinda”. Definitely a much better situation than in Multatuli’s bitter story. Houses in Georgetown, some still dating from the Dutch colonial period, are built on stilts because of the often high waters (torrential rains and rising mighty rivers coming from Brazil’s Amazon forest.) Even though the Dutch built many dykes and sluices, ground floors get often flooded. At the top of the stairs stood a fierce mother-in-law, staring at him, piercing eyes like laser beams. “Now we finely meet,”she said, offering a suspicious smile after our phone-calls from Washington D.C. (Who was this guy? What the heck did her daughter fall in love with?) “Yes we do,” he said, standing half-way on the stairs on shaking knees, looking up, feeling naked.The great father, an exemplary gentleman, smiled encouragingly. That helped. One sister, a “late-comer” who still lived in the house, talked in Guyanese that he could not comprehend. What would the morning bring?
Exhausted from the flight and the long homecoming, we went to bed almost immediately. Houses in Guyana are self-air-conditioned. Walls reach two-thirds to the high ceiling, leaving the top open, and air circulates around, pushed by the outside breeze. Much like the chambrettes in the dorms of my boarding school, though much larger. Very ingenious, but what if I let a fart? Or snored? Or what if you made love and they heard the stumbling on the bed and sexy screams and squeaks?
Thank God that in the tropics light starts at 5 a.m. Saïdjah’s curiosity to see where he had landed became untenable. First, to the bathroom. This is part of the community-architecture: open at the top, for everyone to hear. Again, what if I let a fart? They would know it was me! Only Dutch people fart like that. I just put my fingers in my ear, as if it did not happen. Best in multiculturalism is to fool yourself you’re in your own place. Then I trotted to the front of the house. It looked out on a T-crossing with a narrow street ahead, lined with green patches of grass and colorful homes along it.
Small cars and green buses wriggled through, as well as wagons pulled by horses and sometimes donkeys, transporting wood and bags of cement.
Dogs (must’ve been the ones that barked all night) crossed the street in suicidal mode but they were doing that all the time, as they smartly avoided getting run over by traffic. Kids dressed in green, blue and yellow uniforms walked to school, chatting, with broad smiles. Women walked to the market, men drove to work. People on bikes peddled along, as if they had all the time.
A most peaceful view of a most peaceful town, so to see, with flamboyant trees in full bloom.
I relaxed. My Adinda, dressed in a white shirt and tiny shorts, brought me a cup of coffee. Soon I smelled toast, bacon and eggs. The radio brought the local news and happy Caribbean calypsos. The mother and father came to chat. Did I sleep well despite Georgetown’s nightly noises?
The most interesting experience was my immediate conclusion: “First” and “Third World” differed only in the Third World’s warm climate. I would reach a similar conclusion in my World Bank work. There was no difference in terms of intellectual capacity. Application of that capacity perhaps, and the critical mass of that capacity, but that was very dependent on the political environment. The mother was head of a Home Economics School and had been to the USA on scholarly visits and to Europe with her daughter, now married away, to places I had never been. The father was a business man. “Adinda” had two brothers, one a high-level attorney in the British Government (the highest “non-white”), another an engineer finishing studies in New York. Another sister was a nurse, certified in London, living and working in New York. Her mother said: “it does not matter where you come from, but where you are going.”
The rusty pump during the night turned out the sound of tropical crickets. Also, in Georgetown the night belongs to the dogs and the happy Caribbean music wafting out of bars. You get soon accustomed to that.
I remembered the fortune-teller, whom I met when I started work in Holland, as part of an agreement with a lovely young lady who had a room for rent in her large apartment. The reason I wanted that room was that she had a grand piano, and I could use it to practice on. To my regret, the young lady refused. So I went back to the fortune-teller and asked her why. “First,”she said, “your stars paint you as a Don Juan and that frightened the landlord. Secondly, I also discovered that your lifelong task is one of constant adjustment. Your stars are not stable but in perpetual flux. That frightened her too. While this may hurt you on the way, if you don’t reject your destiny, it will also be your savior.” Meaning what destiny? I sat stunned. Fortune tellers only interpret the stars and do not give clear recommendations.
Horishi Teshigahara’s wonderful Japanese film “Woman in the Dunes”, based on Kobe Abe’s novel, came back to mind. A man is captured by unknown individuals and thrown into a deep pit. The pit holds a house with a beautiful woman. How did she get there? They bring them food everyday. He tries to flee to his previous imagined freedom but cannot climb the loose sand. Eventually he succumbs, falls in love with the beautiful woman and relaxes. When his jailers extend a ladder to him, he does not want to leave the pit anymore. “It does not matter where you come from, but where you are going.” That was it. Destiny reached. The road was clear.
Next – The festivities and country visit.