Half-a-lifetime ago I boarded a Delta flight to Tokyo with an official passport as a U.S. government employee and a pamphlet titled “Good American, Ugly American” that I’d been instructed to read during the fourteen-hour journey.
I hadn’t even left U.S airspace yet when I had my first strange cultural encounter: footprints on the toilet seat. My pamphlet had a section on squat pots, but it never occurred to me that someone might not know what to do with a western toilet.
Since then I have visited schools in more than twenty countries and four continents, and along the way I’ve had more than a few strange cultural encounters. Here are ten things I learned on the other side of the world.
- “New York City taxi drivers are the best.” You might disagree, but consider: I fell asleep in a taxi in Seoul and woke up at the morning fish market as my driver was loading the trunk with the morning catch … and my luggage was in the trunk. In Jakarta, my taxi driver stopped at a mosque for evening prayer … and left the meter running. In Tashkent, my driver picked up multiple passengers, ran a few unrelated errands … and then delivered everyone in random order.
- “Ants cost extra.” In any American restaurant, if you find ants in your soup you’ll get a sincere apology and a free meal. In Laos, you have to pay extra if you want ants in your soup. Seriously.
- “Please do not stand on the toilet.” If you see this sign, then you’re probably in Central Asia. I think most travelers know it’s a good idea to carry a tissue supply and multiple bottles of hand sanitizer … but you might be surprised to learn that as tourism has opened up in Central Asia the number of western toilets in hotels and restaurants has also increased. Thus necessitating this sign for locals.
- “You need a passport for everything.” And I don’t mean the tourists. In many former Soviet republics the citizens are still unable to travel freely and they literally need a passport for even the mundane and routine: take a train? stay in a hotel? legally exchange money? visit the hospital? You need a passport. Many of these same countries also have “disputed” territories where citizens can’t go regardless of their travel documents—Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to name a few.
- “Run from the police.” I was taught to trust teachers and cops to help me if I was in trouble, and to be afraid of them only if I’d done something terribly wrong … but in many countries the only reason people strive to become police officers is so they can extort money from impoverished citizens.
- “Motorbikes are not allowed.” I think the word “ubiquitous” was formed just so we’d have a fancy way to talk about motorbikes in Southeast Asia where they are a necessary part of everyday life. But it’s a different story in Central Asia, where many cities have banned motorbikes because they’re too dangerous. Maybe that sounds reasonable, but instead of a cheap and convenient form of transportation the people are forced to flag down strangers in passing cars. These unlicensed cabs usually have unlicensed and unskilled drivers, who navigate haphazardly on poorly maintained roads with little or no regard for pedestrians, traffic laws or other vehicles. That’s much safer.
- “Welcome to the Land of the Not Quite Right.” King’s Burgers. Old Army. Veronica’s Secret. Lucci. CFC (Colonel’s Fried Chicken). Five-dollar Polo shirts. Three-dollar RayBans. There’s a reason the DVD you bought from the guy on the corner only cost thirty-five cents. It’s because every time someone stood up to get popcorn the guy filming with his Sony Handycam couldn’t see the screen.
- “Let’s grab lunch sometime.” I was visiting an orphan school in rural Vietnam and the teacher said “okay everyone let’s grab some lunch.” Some students ran into the fields, while others went to a nearby pond. They came back with potatoes and turtles, and the teacher made everyone soup. I think I learned to appreciate American schools a bit more than I used to.
- “Customer service hasn’t quite caught on yet.” In the heyday of the Soviet Union, people stood in long lines at the market to buy even the most basic items. Somehow the command economy mindset hasn’t completely let go in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Fun fact: some stores in Armenia still reserve prime parking spots for employees. In many former Soviet republics the currencies are so weak that coins are non-existent, bill denominations start at a thousand, and workers have little or no incentive to be customer-centric. A cashier who rings up your groceries and takes your money is doing you a favor. Would it surprise you to learn that some of the governments in these same countries use Gmail for their official e-mail accounts? I didn’t think so.
- “You can buy hepatitis-on-a-stick.” Seoul, Jakarta, Bangkok … find a market, and then find a street corner. Someone will be selling mystery meat. Maybe it’s chicken or beef. Maybe they just call it chicken or beef. But regardless they’ll cook it over hot coals on wooden skewers, and then sell it very cheaply to passersby. The people will eat it, and then very naturally they’ll drop the skewer sticks on the ground … so why do you suppose you never see skewer sticks on the otherwise rubbish-filled streets? But hey, you recycle at home, right?