By Mary J. Breen
From 1966-68, I taught English and science at a little secondary school in Sarawak, Malaysia as a CUSO volunteer; in 1999, I made a trip back. One of the first things I noticed in our hotel room was a five‑inch black arrow on the ceiling. I immediately concluded that it was the direction of the nearest fire exit. The fact that it pointed to the corner of the room and didn’t glow in the dark didn’t deter me one bit; I figured it must indicate which way to go after reaching the hall. Each time I saw one of those arrows, I was rather proud of myself for being so clever and well-prepared in case of fire.
Lucky for us we never had to test the fire‑escape theory because it was all wrong. The arrows have nothing to do with fire; they’re about religion. Islam has become more prominent in Sarawak, and Muslims need to know which direction to face when saying their prayers. The arrows point toward Mecca.
As days went by, cultural miscues like these became the rule. In fact, nearly every time I applied my North American eyes and logic to some new circumstance, whether it was what someone was doing, why they were doing it, or what something was used for, I was wrong.
For example, in a national park in Sarawak, I was impressed with the camouflaged metal buttresses that supported some of the tallest trees. When I saw meter maids wearing white masks and big white hats tied on with scarves, I assumed they were working incognito. They appeared to be giving a ticket to every single car, so I thought they needed to protect themselves from possible retaliation. On a side-trip to Bali, I was quick to point out how the farmers had put coconut shells in the ditches so the nutrients could leach back into the soil. (Finally, all those botany classes paying off.) And, in Penang, when a new friend set aside our gift to him, unopened and barely glanced at, I was sure we had caused him some offense.
I was wrong in each and every case.
I asked a lot of questions, and I learned a few things. I discovered that the buttresses were the ficus trees’ own extraordinary silvery roots that start four or five feet above the ground. The meter maids were merely avoiding pollution and sunburn. The coconut shells in the rice fields were used to divert water from one level to another. And as for our friend, he didn’t open our gift so that he wouldn’t appear greedy. I remember how often he had said, “The most important gift of all is your friendship.”
These mistakes of mine illustrate the pressing need we have to make sense of the world around us. Whether at home or on vacation, we seek out patterns that help us put an order to things. When we see ten cars parked outside the neighbours’ house in the evening, for example, we assume they’re having a party; if it’s in the morning, we assume they’re selling the house, or there’s been a death or a wedding or a baby’s arrival. Just like when we read a mystery story with a corpse in a sealed room, we sift through the clues around us trying to make things make sense. In our own culture, where we understand things quite well, we’re often right; when we’re away from home and have no Mommy to ask, “Why is that man bringing a rooster on the bus?”, we can only guess.
And guess we did throughout our trip, and sometimes we got things right. I managed to remember that what looked like “bye‑bye” waves were really requests to “come here,” and I remembered that our palm-up style of calling someone to us is considered very rude. In a music store in Singapore, we broke the code revealing how tapes and CDs were arranged when we discovered that Nat King Cole was shelved near Neil Young and Nirvana because the selections were sorted alphabetically by first name. I should have figured this out sooner, because I knew that Chinese surnames come first, but that’s my point. As Westerners, we unconsciously filtered everything through a Western perspective.
Even so, we were often baffled. We never understood why there was a sign in a public toilet in Kuala Lumpur stating, “No rug beating” or why, in a shopping mall, shotgun‑wielding security guards were dressed in ordinary clothes, scaring us into thinking they were bad guys about to hold up the place. Nor did we understand why in Singapore some men bring their little birds in lovely, covered cages to meet outside a coffee shop with lots of other men with little birds in lovely, covered cages. Since then I’ve been told various theories: these are competitions or they are concerts or they provide fresh air and social times for the birds. Maybe it’s all three.
Although it’s unsettling never really knowing what’s really going on, this state of confusion may be the benefit of immersing oneself in an unfamiliar culture. Venturing beyond the familiar forces us to think more creatively. It also makes us rely on our instincts much more than we usually do.
Teaching in new cultures is like being a child again—one who has no idea why grown‑ups are behaving as they are. Travelling or teaching abroad lets us confront new and mysterious challenges every day, where, like children, we have to trust that we’re on the right bus and the strange food won’t hurt us. It teaches us to bungle along and notice all that is new and inexplicable and wonderful. It also teaches us that most people, wherever we go, will gladly point us in the right direction and help us find our way home.
Published Muhibah, Royal Brunei Airlines, Mar/Apr 2007
Reprinted: Shalla Magazine Winter 2008