Interesting cross-cultural social mores

The Australia that I came into was obviously a great place, if one were white, male, and relatively unskilled or uneducated. The poor Aborigine was not counted in the population census, and he had no citizenship. The few Aussies of Asian origin kept their place and did not embarrass anyone. And we came and “buggered it all up,” as an Aussie friend said to me. And I replied that I had only come to lend a little colour to the place!

Anyway, culture shock ought to be a two-way process. For many of us, the important thing was that we remained untouched by ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. Our cultural heritage sustained most of us admirably. We were unimpregnable. “A man who prides himself on his ancestry is like the potato plant, the best part of which is underground,” says a Spanish proverb. Sadly, a few of the Asians were affected, in different ways – some were a little bitter, some a little angry, and some did lose their confidence. I suspected that the last group were those who had already been undermined by the colonisers’ claimed superiority.

We believed, too, not unreasonably, that being unimpregnable should also be a two-way thing; we were therefore equally successful in ensuring that our lady friends remained unimpregnated. For our families, nothing was feared more than their offspring marrying a foreigner, especially a white one. Was this racist prejudice? Yes and no. If my mother cannot speak with my wife because of a language barrier, the marriage cannot succeed – certainly in eastern societies. If, in addition, there are vast cultural differences, there will always be, at minimum, the potential for conflict.

Yet, such chasms have been bridged by foreign spouses (both male and female) learning the mother-in-law’s (and the host country’s) language and adapting to their ways. But, as many Asian men have learned, it was a rare white woman (with her colonial heritage) who was willing and able to accept and adapt to Asian mores; it is indeed a big step to get off one’s pedestal. And there are quite a few Asians who can testify to how a white wife and her mum tried to remove all vestiges of Asian thinking, values and practices (these being obviously inferior) from his psyche.

On the positive side, there were pleasant, if not some curious, interchanges between the Asians and the Aussies. For example, walking through a park one fine afternoon, we passed a man raking leaves. He stopped, smiled at us, and, with an inclined head movement, winked. We were flummoxed; what did that gesture mean? We felt intuitively that it was an attempted pick-up. But in the middle of the afternoon? In the middle of the park and while he was at work? Why did we think this? Well, we had seen how men back home, trying to pick up women, would wink at them and turn their heads at the same time.

Our initial reaction was to smile vaguely and move on with a little more speed. How naïve we were. We soon learnt that this was a traditional greeting. And it also showed how relaxed, comfortable, and friendly the lowest worker was. “I am okay, Jack,” was what he was saying, “and how are you?”

In reverse, applying an Asian (and continental European) tradition almost caused trouble for a Malayan friend of mine. He used the “thumbs up” sign as a greeting, often at some distance and hence visible to other people. But he used to move his forearm up and down too at the same time – and that meant something nasty to the Aussie. My friend learnt to desist.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ identify some confusing intercultural differences between East and West. With multiculturalism and its consequent introverted perspectives, however, do cultural differences have any social impact?)