Physical Souvenirs

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

Welcome back for another four-way guest post of our virtual blog NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches!

 We are four bloggers who have joined together to rotate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other’s blogs: Yours Truly here at www.adventuresinexpatland.com (North, Netherlands), Russell at www.insearchofalifelessordinary.com (South, Australia), Erica at www.expatriababy.com (East, Japan) and Maria at www.iwasanexpatwife.com (West, Canada).

Some months we write on a theme, other months we just write about whatever strikes our fancy. This month the theme is How Different Cultures Physically Interact. 

I hope you’ll enjoy Erica’s post below entitled ‘Physical Souvenirs,’ and that you’ll catch my post ‘A Silent Movie’ over at her site. Even better, please check out all four!

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As we move move through countries and pass in and out of years, we
expats acquire souvenirs, tangible memories our host countries. A kilim from Dubai, perhaps. An antique bench that tells a story of dusty Spanish roads and orange blossoms. Or a stone Buddha that takes up a not insignificant portion of your freight allowance but gets carted to the next destination, regardless.

There is one category of souvenirs, however, whose weight may not compare to that of a stone Buddha, yet whose presence is no less significant.

As we leave our host countries, we take with us pieces of our host culture, often in the form of newly acquired body language. The
physicality of a culture imparts itself on our person and we incorporate new movements and gestures into our own multi-lingual body language. As expats we are collectors of objects yes, but also of customs, and with that comes modes of physical expression.

As an Anglo-Saxon Canadian growing up in small town Ontario, I started
with a baseline physicality of friendly reserve. It is a trait common to the northerly countries, I believe. The cold climate engenders physical conservatism; energy is not wasted in exuberant gestures and wide open vowels. Gestures are kind, but small and quiet. A hand raises partway off the steering wheel as you drive down the street, a greeting to everyone you pass. Hugs are for family members. Otherwise, hands stayed in pockets.

Then slowly, with the internet, and American cable TV, the hug started
creeping in. The hug was new. And everywhere. Friends, relatives, parents, parents’ friends, friends of friends, random people who happen to be introduced to at a party were all greeted (and bid farewell) with a quick hug. A fleeting touching of breasts, a lose wrap of arms. Not lingering, yet more than my poor northern heart could take. (I must admit that this is one physical expression that I have never really been able to adopt. One souvenir that I’ve left behind.)

As a young adult and aspiring francophone, I moved to France and set
about improving my French. While I didn’t make much progress in the
linguistic department, my repertoire of physical expression was greatly enriched. I mastered the simultaneous shoulder shrug and loose-lip raspberry that is the perfect expression for almost any frustrating situation. I admired the easy elegance with which the women moved through the city. I tried (rather clumsily, I might add) to tuck a baguette under my arm and stroll down the street. (I still do this, although with considerably less nonchalance than a native French person.)

I also became an air kisser. Touching someone cheek to cheek, even an
almost-stranger somehow seems more genteel and less of an enforced
intimacy than the American hug. After a few bumbling nose knocking
missteps, I developed the sixth sense that is required to determine which side to start on. With a marriage to a Swiss and time spent in Switzerland the double air kiss expanded to the triple kiss. And still, to this day, I feel incomplete concluding a friendly visit with a wave and a goodbye. I miss the ritual coda of the air kiss.

We moved to Asia, and I had my first ride on the Shanghai Metro. A wave of people going down the stairs carried me to the platform. Train doors opened, and a crush of bodies enveloped me, and then left me behind, alone as the beep beep beep announced closing train doors. Slowly, the art of surviving a crowd became apparent. The anxious,  small movements one makes while waiting bunched up in group keep you
light on your feet, ready to spring. And then, as soon as the train arrives,  you leap into action, dodging bodies, pushing past grannies, (or, more likely being shoved aside by them) to be the first to enter the train. China taught me physical assertiveness, sharpened my elbows, so much that today, as I walk down a street I do so with a quickness, weaving through people like flags on a ski hill wanting to be FIRST! to get to the exact same stoplight as my fellow pedestrians.

Erica and Stella

And what souvenirs will I take with me from Japan?

The most obvious
souvenir, of course is my daughter, who was born here.

So I’ll take with me the physicalities of Japanese baby care: the subtle difference in Japanese peek-a-boo (inai, inai, ba!), and the way that you look at a baby and quickly bob your head down and then up, in a mini-bow (this always makes my girl smile), and the pats on a baby’s back, light, quick, rhythmic taps in Japan rather than the slow, circular pats of the west. 

What souvenirs of physical interaction do you carry with you from country to country?


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