Nonverbal Communication

I have previously said on the blog that you can get by nearly anywhere in the world using just English, but of course that’s not wholly accurate–yes, you can get by, but you’ll still find yourself in situations where you or a local will want to say something that the other will not be able to understand. Fortunately, for those instances, there are unlimited possibilities in circumlocution and pantomime, in order to communicate. I thought that it might be fun to note some of the more amusing examples of nonverbal communication that we have encountered on our travels–if you have any you’ve enjoyed, be sure to add them as comments.

The Moose Call. Traveling in Muslim countries, one often (but perhaps not as often as one might think) runs into people’s prayer schedules. Our passenger train, in Iran, stopped for the evening prayer so that people could alight, properly orient themselves, and pray. We have had buses and share taxis do the same, although not as often as we might have thought. Or, a shop may be unattended for a few minutes, while the proprietor or employee is praying. In order to convey to us, the foreign infidels, what exactly is going on–why the bus is stopping or why the counter is empty–locals will raise two hands, palms open, to the sides of their heads, sometimes with their thumbs in or very near their ears, and make a small bowing gesture. Of course, this is intended to mimic the act of bowing for prayer, but to us it looks like a moose imitation, which is why we call it the moose call. It can also be used to find a nearby mosque.

Anticlerical Gestures of Iran. Discontent with Iran’s government, or more generally Iran’s system of government, is rife in Iran, and we encountered several different gestures used to mock or criticize the religious hierarchy used by Iranians eager to communicate their grievances to us. The most common was a hand tracing an imaginary turban on one’s head, a symbol for the theocratic elite of the country. Repeatedly, people would make the gesture, sometimes accompanied by the other hand stroking an imaginary beard, when trying to signify that it is the mullahs who have control and are mismanaging the country and restricting freedoms. The second was the throat-cutting gesture, hand across the neck, which was used surprisingly often not only to describe what would happen to you if you tried to exercise a freedom that was not provided under local law, but also as a general symbol for the government–nowhere else have we seen people associate their government so closely and so repeatedly with execution/murder. One person told us that the only thing stopping the Islamic government from restoring stoning as a form of punishment is international pressure. (We were also once given the throat-cutting gesture as a sort of threat in Nizwa, Oman–surprising given the highly respectful and hospitable treatment we otherwise got from the Omanis.)

Cluck of Approval. We first noticed this from our hoteliers in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, who would click their tongue against the roof of their mouth to signify approval, in our case appreciation of our photographs. Once we noticed it there, we heard it over and over again, particularly in Turkic regions from Turkey to Xinjiang, China.

Picture Please. People around the world vary an incredible amount from wanting their pictures taken to not wanting their pictures taken. In parts of West and North Africa, people can act like you’re trying to steal their soul; in Turkic countries and India, people will chase you for a photo. Especially in the Subcontinent, but elsewhere too, we frequently saw an odd gesture for “Take a picture of me, please”–something like a person looking through an imaginary pair of binoculars formed by their thumbs and pointer fingers.

Mixing Tea. Mauritania and Morocco (and the Tuareg parts of Mali) have a tea tradition that is somewhat peculiar, especially in the way that it is prepared. The tea leaves are boiled on a fire for a very long time, and then sugar is mixed in by pouring the tea back and forth from the pot to a glass, until long after the tea is blended, frothy and ready to drink. In those countries, this mixing gesture–that of pouring a liquid between two vessels repeatedly–was used to indicate tea (whether we would like to drink tea, that someone is about to make tea, etc.).

Sex. There is of course no shortage of hand and other gestures that one can use to mean having sex, but we find that the most common one–used all around the world from an Uzbek explaining Ramadan’s many restrictions to a Moroccan boy apparently selling sex services (!)–is a closed fist pounding the air, with the thumb toward the body (so that it’s somewhat different from the usual masturbation gesture).

Diving Gestures. We learned to dive a couple of years ago before a trip to the island republic of Palau, and now occasionally use diving gestures–a standardized system of underwater and surface communication for when words are not an option–to communicate with each other nonverbally. We find the “surface” versions of the “ok” and “not ok” gestures (arms forming a large circle or a large “X,” respectively, above the head) quite handy when we are distant from each other, because they are highly visible from far away. Diving gestures also constitute a nonverbal language that people around us are not likely to understand.

Wind-Induced Headache. This is a rather odd one that we encountered in Ethiopia. Although it can get quite warm in parts of Ethiopia, locals do not like to open windows on buses because they seem to believe that the wind pressure on their ears causes some sort of pain or headache. If you try to open a window, they will ask you to close it by placing the palms of their hands a couple of inches from each ear and shaking them a bit.

Hunger. Now, you’d think that putting your hands on your stomach or putting imaginary food into your mouth would be a pretty simple and effective way to demonstrate hunger, right? It’s certainly worked for us in the past, but when we were in Khiva, Uzbekistan in 2008, a cab driver took us not to a restaurant but to a clinic, thinking that we had gotten some sort of food poisoning! Imagine our confusion and then amuseument when we pulled up to an unmarked building we thought would be a restaurant and all of the servers were wearing white hopsital coats.

Drug Use around the World

There are certain human phenomena that are often described as unhealthy or unnatural yet are so universal as to be undeniably a part of the human experience, within the set of behaviors that describes us as homo sapiens, at a naturalistic level. As much as some anthropologists may have tried in the last century to find counterexamples, to prove things an aspect of particular cultures rather than of us as a species, traveling far and wide identifies many things that are indeed universal, are patterns that arise over and over again, across cultures thousands of miles apart, of vastly different traditions. One example of such a human phenomenon is drug use.

We have encountered drugs of one kind or another in almost all the countries we have visited–even in the relatively abstemious Muslim world–and it is fascinating to see how cultures have incorporated or tamed the human impulse to chemically alter our consciousness. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the substances we have come across, along with some thoughts on each.

Tea

Pouring tea, Mauritania

Tea is what triggered the idea for this particular post. While East Asians may now drink tea largely as a water substitute, and many in the West as a sort of warm, calming drink, tea still features prominently in Chinese medicine and the pharmaceutical properties of tea were promoted heavily when tea was first imported into the West at great cost. The caffeine content of tea is, of course, relatively modest, especially compared to coffee (see below), but that tea is still used for its caffeine content–to keep us alert and social–is undeniable. The most street drug-like use of tea we have encountered was in Mauritania. The tea culture of Mauritania (similar to that of northern Mali and Morocco) is one of the most unusual we have seen. Mauritanians take huge amounts of Chinese green tea (“the vert de chine,” as it is called) and boil it down over a fire, to produce a highly concentrated form of tea sweetened with a great deal of sugar. Given that it is customary to drink at least three (albeit small) glasses at each sitting, the caffeine and sugar jolt is no less than jarring; a few days into Mauritania we realized that it was the bumps of tea that were preventing us from having solid nights of sleep. While waiting for our Iron Ore Train (see post of 12.31.08), one youth stayed up almost the whole night boiling tea, and trying to nudge his friends awake to join him for more hits. Tea drinking is so essential, so ubiquitous to Mauritanian culture that men will often travel with the essential equipment to make tea, including a fuel canister in the case of the Iron Ore Train. (Men also often travel with a whisk, for mixing milk with water, see post of 08.12.21.)

Qat

An addict on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia

Generally speaking, most of the “traditional” drugs we have seen around the world seem to cause few apparent significant social disruptions, of the kind that we associate with street drugs in the western world such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is qat. Chewed from Yemen to Kenya, and in some expatriate communities elsewhere, the stimulant and hallucinogen is famously harvested around the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The ladies selling the leaves in the market may seem jolly and friendly, not like the deadly drug pushers of Hollywood movies, but the ill effects of the drug can be readily seen in the numerous men who lay in the gutters in and around Harar, teeth rotten or missing and mouths foaming with green leaf, unable to control their addiction to the drug. We saw one man using a mortar and pestle to ground the drug, because his teeth had all rotted away, and another fighting with a goat for scraps of leaves on the ground of the local market. Seeing the addicts of Harar certainly made me think through the possibly horrible outcomes of greater drug legalization, at least in a society without proper education, addiction prevention and rehabilitation of addicts.

Coca

Nearly every traveler to the Andes chews a few coca leaves or sips some mate de coca, not only for the novelty and the experience of traditional culture, but also to combat altitude sickness. And, perhaps disappointingly, the tourist discovers that a small quantity of coca leaves seems to have little effect at all, on altitude sickness or anything else. To a liberal South American, coca is also a battle cry, an example of modern first world cultures misusing a traditional product (by chemically creating a deadly concentrate from a relatively harmless plant) and then imposing their own resulting social problems on third world economies (or so the coca growers, perhaps in part dependent on first world addicts for income, may argue). Of all the drugs on this list, coca is perhaps the most controversial, a drug whose social and political profiles vary extremely widely with geography and whose economic profile has the power to move nations. (Opium/Heroin has a similar geopolitical dimension.)

Betel nut

For sale at a convenience store, Yap, Federal States of Micronesia

Traveling in Micronesia, or the coastal edges of Asia (particularly Taiwan and India), one encounters betel nut all the time; locals’ mouths seem to be constantly stuffed with one and the streets red with dried spit. Like many other “traditional” drugs, it all seems harmless enough, but the lime with which the active substance is released from the nut does substantial harm to the user’s teeth, which alone seems objectionable. Betel nut does serve to demonstrate the social nature of drug use. Just like the elaborate ritual of making Mauritanian tea, betel nut chewing requires a certain set of ingredients and tools (lime, a leaf, the nut itself, something to crack the nut with and often tobacco), of which at a given point in time a person may lack one or two elements. By getting together to prepare the drug, people bond–much like the occasionally flirty act of asking for or offering a light for a cigarette. One long-time expat in Yap told us that preparing a fix of betel nut together can act as the equivalent of breaking bread, a joint activity that tells its participants (and those witnessing) that all is well and square between them.

Kola nuts

When we first saw kola nuts in Mali, we couldn’t even recognize them. Only later did we learn that this was the kola of Coca-Cola fame, and similar to cacao, tea and coffee in its pharmacological properties. For the tourist in West Africa, especially the Dogon Country (see posts of 08.12.16), kola nuts serve as a sort of alternative currency, a way of currying favor with at-times grumpy locals without outright cash bribery. We were amazed at how responsive people were to the simple gift–which probably reveals not avarice on the part of the old men but the symbolic significance of the gift, perhaps not dissimilar from the act of sharing a betel nut.

And, finally, the big three, which I will touch on only briefly, since you, dear reader, are no doubt extremely familiar with them:

Tobacco

Lighting up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China

Smoking the sheesha, Buraimi, Oman

Cigarettes may be dying out in America, with the imposition of high taxes and laws eradicating them from nearly all public places, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world. But, perhaps more interesting than cigarettes are the various more exotic forms of tobacco consumption, including beautiful tiny pipes found in the deserts of Mauritania, the sheesha or hookah found all over the Muslim world, the Chinese pipes featured above and fragrant clove kretek in the Indonesian isles. The sheesha is not only “traditional,” but a very popular and trendy social activity among the young in the more fashionable parts of the Levant (such as hip cafes in Beirut, Damascus and Amman) as well as New York’s Lower East Side (where a hookah can cost upwards of USD 30). If it tastes like apple, how could it possibly be bad for you?

Coffee

Coffee-husk tea, served to us by the Hamer tribe of the Omo, Ethiopia

Coffee Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Coffee has perhaps the largest number of addicts in the world, if alcohol is more often used to disastrous effect. And traveling with something of an addict myself (Derek always travels with packets of 3-in-1, dissolvable in room temperature water), I’m well aware of individuals’ need for a coffee fix. Morocco, where we are now, has perhaps the highest public coffee consumption we’ve seen outside of the American workplace (where, in a most sinister fashion, coffee is the only beverage offered to employees for free). Ethiopia, the home of coffee, fittingly has the most developed brewing ritual. One legend apparently has it that coffee was first brewed by an Ethiopian monk, who had met a goatherd that followed his goats in trying the berries, and came to discover their energy-giving power. The monk, believing the fruit to be evil, threw the fruit in the fire. Upon smelling the delicious roast, he was tempted to try it himself, and eventually grew to appreciate the drink’s ability to focus and prolong his prayers!

Alcohol

British woman enjoying a cocktail

An ever-common site–drunk Asian businessmen, Hong Kong

A very wise Touareg explained to us in Timbuktu that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol was something for man’s own good. “It doesn’t affect or harm God if you drink–it isn’t personally important to him–he just says you shouldn’t drink for your own benefit.” Indeed, many of the rules of Islam and other religions can be explained this way, that they are designed to create a harmonious and peaceful society, rather than to delineate what constitutes a sort of cosmic evil, or sin.

The absence of alcohol is perhaps one of the greatest easily noticeable differences between the Muslim world and the West or Far East. By avoiding alcohol, the Muslim world certainly avoids some of the greatest social ills of other, alcohol-laden parts of the world. Almost all cities in the Muslim world feel incredibly safe, especially at night, relative to American or European cities, largely because they are free of drunks whose erratic behavior can result in conflict and violence. In the major East Asian cities after sundown, drunken office workers are a common sight; in the West, so much of adult social life revolves around bars and inebriation. I will never forget the first “festival” we attended in the Arab world, and how family-friendly it was, largely due to the absence of alcohol. On the other hand, I also understand the role of alcohol as social lubrication, in places such as East Asia where workplace relations can otherwise be very hierarchical and tense, or in the promotion of the mixing of genders (or single-sex pairings, in the case of homosexuals), that most natural human activity. Is trying to ban alcohol from adult social life perhaps as futile and senseless as banning other natural behaviors, such as sexuality? But, of course, many parts of the Muslim world also attempt this, to greater or lesser success.

Police!

We’re not proud of this, and it is really with some shame that I admit it, but we have had more than our share of run-ins with police around the world. To wit, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Bahrain, Madagascar, Korea, . . . , and most recently China. Given this wealth of experience, I thought that it would be fun to do a post relating our experience, with perhaps stories of one or two of the most interesting incidents.

We usually bring in the police because we have a dispute with some local person. Sometimes we feel that we’ve been overcharged and seek to explain to an official why we are withholding payment, or we otherwise feel that we’ve been wronged and the police are called in to intermediate. Since we only let it escalate to that level when we are clearly in the right, the resolution is usually in our favor, but at any rate it can be helpful to have official mediation. (Contrary to what you may suspect, local police generally do not immediately take the side of the local and assume that the foreigners are in the wrong.)

My favorite story, the one I most often tell, takes place in the foreigner ghetto of Itaewon in Seoul. Derek and I were out late one night near some gay bars in Itaewon, and were walking down a small street in order to catch a cab back home, when I suddenly heard, in English, “Check that one in the black t-shirt.” Now, I was wearing a black shirt at the time, but I did not think that anyone could be referring to me. A few steps later, I was stopped by a group of four U.S. MPs and two Korean police. The MPs asked me for my identification. Now, it was around midnight, and I knew that at the time (a sort of peak in anti-American/anti-military sentiment in Korea due to a recent accident involving the deaths of two young Korean girls) the U.S. armed forces in Korea were subject to an 11 p.m. curfew, and so I figured that the solders thought that I might be a U.S. soldier violating my curfew. After a slight pause I decided that I would on absolutely no account show them any identification. There were so many things wrong with the situation. First, and foremost, why were the U.S. MPs patrolling the streets of Seoul, asking anyone for their identification? Second, why would they pick me, an Asian person, to check? Shouldn’t they at least focus on people who look typically American rather than someone who is just as or more likely to be Korean? Third, why were they set up right next to the gay bars? I thought to myself, even if these MPs were in the U.S., there is no way that I would do their bidding, why the hell should I be doing it here? If I, a lawyer, do not stand up for my rights, who will?

I told the MPs that I was in fact a U.S. citizen but that I was not a soldier and that they had no business asking me for identification. They suggested that they had the authority to check me because I am a U.S. citizen–I told them that that was nonsense. The Korean police officers who were patrolling with them asked me to cooperate. I explained politely but firmly that I understood exactly why the MPs were doing what they were doing, but that I found their methods objectionable and misguided. The dispute went on and a crowd started to gather. For the most part, people were cheering us on–bystanders (mostly gay westerners) taunted the MPs with their own IDs. Eventually, they gave up and the MPs stormed off with the Korean police in tow.

Satisfied, we started walking back toward the main road when a young Korean man who identified himself as the owner of one of the bars stopped us to congratulate us on our victory. He himself (despite his clearly non-native English) had been ID’d the week before, and was relieved that somebody had finally said “no”. He said that we must come back to his bar for a drink on the house. Not wanting to be unappreciative, we went back and were enjoying a glass of wine when the Korean police came back.

The police explained that the U.S. MPs were making a big deal of this situation and simply would not let the matter drop–they demanded my identification. I assured the Korean police that I was not U.S. military, and appealed to their sense of justice and national pride that foreign armed forces were ordering them around. They remained firm, and I said that I would just go home, as originally planned–they could either arrest me or let me leave. I started walking away, but the police followed, eventually to a street with prostitution. A working woman stationed obviously outside her place of business was curious at our late night dispute and got involved, asking what the matter was. “If you’re not a soldier, just show them your identification,” she said. Derek pointed out that there was an outright violation of law in front of the officers (prostitution), but that instead they were wasting their time with me. The police at one point suggested that I get in their car, to which Derek protested by saying that he would then be stranded and lost and in danger (though really what kind of danger would an English-speaking foreigner be in “lost” in Seoul), persuading them not to take me.

Finally, the police argued that they had a right to check my papers for my immigration status, given that I had acknowledged that I was not a Korean citizen. I was annoyed by this, given that U.S. citizens do not even require a visa to visit Korea, but could not dispute the legitimacy of the request. Even in the U.S., I thought, this request would likely be within the law. I said that I would allow them a glance at my passport picture and entry stamp, just to verify that I was in the country legally. I made them promise not record my name in order to pass it along to the MPs. I showed them my passport–I had to sort of yank it back in order for them not to retain it–and they were satisfied, although not looking forward to returning to the MPs empty-handed. From our taxi on our way back home we saw the MPs leaving the Korean police station, where they had apparently been waiting for me.

This was perhaps the police incident that took the largest amount of time to resolve, but there was at least no chance of physical or legal danger. That prize would go to Ethiopia, generally a very safe country, where the police offered to extricate us from a somewhat angry mob by essentially arresting us. Thankfully, we were able to avoid both the mob and the police with the assistance of an armed and sympathetic guide.