Lame title, I know, but I couldn’t think of a better one and now it’s too late.
One of the things I like about living in Cyprus is that I can meet with people of different cultures. Cypriots, Greeks, British, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Indians, Phillipinos, Pakistanis, Chinese, Lebanese – these are just a subset of people living in Cyprus. Additionally, there are a couple of millions of tourists travelling in and out of country every year.
Meeting these people and talking to them, even if briefly, greatly expands the horizons of cultural understanding. Even just watching them – how they behave on their own or in the group of their countrymen or mixed with others – triggers a lot of thinking.
Olga and I had a discussion today about one of the issues that we both noticed with Asian people that live here. We were talking about the personal distance (as in the physical distance that person keeps when talking to another person).
Back in my college days, several business courses were touching this subject when covering cultural differences in the corporate environment. One of the most frequent examples given was a fast forwarded tape recording of a Japanese guy talking to an American guy, if I remember correctly, in a large room. Americans tend to keep more distance than Japanese when talking to other people. So, when two of them were confronted, taped, and fast forwarded, it looked like they were dancing around the room. The Japanese guy would come closer to the American. The American would feel (unconcienciously) the discomfort of a penetrated personal safety zone and step back. The Japanese guy would try to stay close, stepping closer. And so on.
One of the explanations, that I liked, of such behaviour was linked to the population density in the area where each of the involved people grew up or lives currently. According to this, Japan has a higher population density than United States of America, with more people living on less square meters. Japanese, thus, are used to smaller personal area than Americans.
Anyway, both Olga and I noticed similar behaviour in real life. We both noticed that many Asian people that live here in Cyprus maintain a very close distance when communicating. Not only that, but they very often touch each other, hug, walk hand-in-hand, and kiss each other in cheeks.
When I saw people behave like this on the street for the first time, I thought they were just gay. Not more, not less. But then, I started to notice that a lot of people are doing so. And I mean a lot. Like practically all of them. I started to have doubts. It can’t be that all of them are gay. Impossible.
Than I thought more about it and I started to realize that its just the way things are back there where they come from. And it’s not so much an Asian thing at all. Many “Southern” countries have similar traditions. I remembered that I’ve seen some Georgian and Armenian people being closer than what I thought normal was. Than Italians came to mind. Than Spanish. Than I started to rethink my “Asian grouping” and realized that I was wrong there too. I couldn’t remember seeing Chinese men holding hands in the streets. Libanese also weren’t doing it. But they were kissing each other on the cheeks often.
All these makes me wonder about different cultures. What is considered a norm? What is acceptable? What is not?
I know that if I will go back to the city where I was born and hug someone, I’ll probably get punched in the face. Until he is a really really really close friend who I haven’t seen for ten years or so. But, on the other hand, a handshake is very important. Everyone shakes hands with everyone several times a day. The correct way is to firmly shake the right hand of a person with your right hand. If you won’t shake hands it can be interpretted as anything from impolite to assaultive. Here in Cyprus, handshakes are completely optional. Even when done, there is no strict way of doing it. Some people shake your right hand with their left hand and so on.
While thinking about all of these, I realized that I never did so before I came to Cyprus. That could have been because I was too young, of course. But I think that was because I wasn’t exposed to such rich multicultural environment. I knew only one way of doing things and anyway not following that way was wierd and wrong in my eyes.
After almost 10 years living in Cyprus I am different. I realize that these things don’t matter to me much anymore. I am interested in learning different ways of different cultures, but I don’t expect others to know or follow. I don’t expect a handshake every time I meet a person. When I get one, I notice it. And I don’t when I don’t.
I changed a lot myself. I no longer follow many behavioral stamps that I considered important some time ago. I also see how I become different when I meet someone who shares my cultural backgrounds. Like my mother. I notice her doing things that I would never notice before. They were considered a norm and I couldn’t imagine another way. Now I can and I notice. Same goes for my brother. He has been only a few years in Cyprus, so he still carries many behavioral stamps that he picked up back in Russia. I also notice differences when I talk to my father who is living in Russia and practically never left the place.
I think that such an exposure to multicultural environment is a good thing. Learning other people’s cultures makes me understand more. It makes me into a better man. Considering this, I realized that the good of such an exposure has been known to men for many centures. I hear that it’s been a common practice to send children to study to other countires. Cypriots these days send their kids to study in Greece, UK, or States. Asian people used to send their children to Europe. Europeans travelled to Asia often for the same reasons. I used to think that was because of a better education programs (better universities, better libraries, etc). I don’t think so anymore. Better education programs could have been a good reason, but not the only. It was the exposure to other cultures that they were seeking.
Now with all of these out of my head, I have to think about risks involved in sending my own kid across The Seven Seas. The biggest one, of course, being a total love for the other culture that would stop the child from coming back. Somehow I feel that’s a huge topic on its own, so I’ll just stop here.