Thursday, April 22, 2010

Know Your Gestures

Our van twisted up the mountain through tea plantations on the road to Tanah Rata. It was gray and drizzly, and in the dry warmth of the van I felt sorry for the two soggy backpackers we passed trying to hitch a ride in the opposite direction. They were obviously Westerners: ginormous backpacks, shorts, bandanas, thumbs up in the air trying to flag down a ride as cars hurtled by.

Tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands

Warm and dry in the van, I didn't envy their situation, but I couldn't help laughing a little at their predicament when I thought back to the passage I had read in the guidebook on the long flight to Kuala Lumpur. The thumbs-up, unlike in the US where it means "good" or "way to go," in many parts of the world including Malaysia, can look like you're telling someone to go stick a thumb up their ass.

Needless to say, telling someone to stick a thumb up their ass is not the best way to get a ride from a stranger.

The following day, I was on my own in Tanah Rata taking a day to rest and do some laundry. I had passed a laundry service the previous day, and I walked there in the morning with a big bag of jungle-dirtied and leech-wound-stained clothes. The door was closed and locked when I got there, and I hunted around unable to find any posted hours.

A local man was passing by and noticed my confusion. "They're closed now," he said, guessing that I spoke English.

"Do you know what time they open?" I asked him.

"They open at 10," he said.

And then it happened. In a completely involuntary motion, I gave him a beaming smile, thanked him, and laid a big fat thumbs-up on him.

He froze and his face fell as I walked away. I spun around and was half a block away happily staring at a cart piled high with durian before I realized what I had done.

"Oh no," I thought, looking back to see if he was still there. He had disappeared. "Did he think what I think he thinks? I hope he just took me for an idiot tourist and wasn't offended. Aw hell, he looked pretty offended. Do I actually use the thumbs-up? If so, what a choice time to use it. I really don't think of myself as a thumbs-upper."

It's as if conversation had gone like this:

Helpful man: "They're closed now."

Me: "Do you know what time they open?"

Helpful man: "They open at 10."

Me: "Great, thanks. Oh, by the way... up yours old man!"

That was it — no more. That was absolutely the last time I would use a thumbs-up on this trip. I would not offend another person with my reckless digit. That was the plan, but to my horror, the involuntary thumbs-upping continued over the next few weeks, making it all too apparent that I use the gesture far more frequently than I ever would have guessed.

To the woman serving me noodles at a floating restaurant in Kuala Tahan, "These noodles are delicious! Screw you, you old bag!"

Floating restaurants at Kuala Tahan

At the Muzium Perhutanan, a museum at the remote hill station of Gunung Jerai in northern Malaysia most famous for a large fossilized elephant turd, "Thanks for letting us in to look even though you were closed! Stick a thumb where that turd came from!"

It got so bad that I was fighting my own hand like a parody of Dr. Strangelove by the end of the trip and watching it out of the corner of my eye for any suspicious activity. It's one thing to know about gestures and their meanings in other cultures, but breaking an unconscious habit is another matter entirely.

Now that I'm safely ensconced in a thumbs-up-friendly society, I couldn't even tell you if I've kicked the habit. So if I ever unconsciously give you a thumbs up, feel free to flip me the bird — even if I don't understand, I'll deserve it.


Dan Bach said...

hey andy, i enjoyed the article. up yours for a good read!

AndysBro said...

I'll give you a Malay-style thumbs-up if you use the word "ginormous" ever again. I'd guestimate your usage of thumbs-up to be about once per conversation. Sometimes I sense you are doing it while I talk to you on the phone. Then I hear you flush.

takyar said...

Cultures can be amazingly different. What we may consider as freedom other cultures may see as exploitation. Or, as in this case the 'thumbs-up' has a totally different meaning! Let's learn to respect this for the sake of humanity and if we do wish to change something it has to be done thoughtfully.

helena said...

Great entry! I'm now sitting here wondering how often I use the thumbs up. I don't think that I use it that often in normal discussion, but I definitly use it a lot when in 'silent' conversations.

This caused me a lot of problems when I started to learn how to dive a couple of weeks ago, as thumbs up when diving means 'i want to go up NOW'.

So instead of answering that all was cool and I was having a good time, I was basically gesturing 'take me out of here' while keeping a big smile on my face... ooops.