I’ve been travelling the world since 2003, but even forgetting the time involved, I have lived in twenty three countries (and counting); that’s lived as in, spent at least a month (usually three, and over a year in some) in the country where I invested serious time into speaking its language (or already spoke its language on arrival) and tried to investigate its culture and made local friends.
In that, I have acquired a lot of personal habits which to some might seem weird, annoying or strange.
This post summarizes them all.
Countries I’ve lived in: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Belgium, Colombia, the US, Canada, Ireland, UK, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Egypt, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, India, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Australia (I’ve also visited Poland, Uruguay, Singapore, Austria, Slovakia, Norway, and Mexico for a few days or weeks, but definitely wouldn’t consider myself to have lived in any of these and was more of a tourist, and I’ve had a flight transfer through a bunch other countries for a few hours, which I wouldn’t count at all).
I can point you to travelers who have been to many more countries than I have (most of whom have been travelling way less than I have, so it really shows the different speeds we travel at), but my style of travel and theirs is very different and I feel like I have gotten to know the modern cultures of each of these countries much more than the majority of passers-through ever do.
The thing about living in a country and truly attempting to understand its culture and language, is that you have to pick up a lot of their customs to stand out less and make them feel more comfortable. Some of these I have done only in passing and stopped almost immediately after leaving the country, but quite a few (as you’ll see here) have stuck with me for life.
1. Ask people if they want to have a shower way too often
This strange custom is one that I picked up from spending an entire year in Brazil.
I travelled a lot in the country, and had my own home some of the time, but the rest of the time would stay with friends. It struck me as incredibly odd, but the first question Brazilians would ask me whenever I arrived at their home was always if I wanted to have a shower!
This wasn’t saying anything about my B.O., but something that is customary to offer any guest who is visiting you in Brazil, including if they are not staying over. Brazil can be a hot country depending on the city and time of year, and Brazilians are among the most hygienic people I’ve ever come across, generally taking at least two and sometimes three showers a day, especially if they are physically active (gym, sports etc.)
Because of this, Brazilians generally want to have a shower as soon as they arrive at someone’s house, to freshen up. The problem is that I’m so used to asking this that any time I have a Couchsurfer over at my place, or if it’s a somewhat hot day anywhere in the world and someone pops by my house, I just automatically ask the question of if they want to hop in the shower as soon as they enter.
You can imagine the looks I’ve gotten from asking this when people think I’m somehow implying they are smelly, or a girl who may be just a friend or a very different age to me thinking I have an ulterior motive! I’m just trying to be nice, as any Brazilian would, I swear!
2. Examine a business card or hand over money as if it were about to explode
This time, a habit I picked up in Taiwan, which stood out for me immediately after I arrived there, was that you treat anything that you can hand over to another person as sacred.
So if I meet you at a conference for instance, and you give me your business card, rather than glance at it and stuff it into my pocket, I will delicately accept it using both of my hands as if I’m holding a fragile piece of crystal and examine it closely for the incredible design, as if I was looking through a window into a wonderful parallel universe.
Only then can I put it into my left pocket, which is my “throw-into-the-bin-as-soon-as-they’re-gone” pocket.
And with money, the same rules apply. You don’t hand over any note with one hand, but with two, as if it will explode if handled incorrectly. I have shaken off this second habit due to spending long enough outside of Asia by now, but I have to admit that I still feel quite insulted whenever someone hands me money with one hand without forcefully putting their whole body into the delicate transfer. I definitely still take business cards with both hands though.
3. Pointing with your mouth
Flickr / PrincessAshley
In the Philippines, and strangely enough also in Colombia and other countries, they almost never point with their index finger (thus immediately nullifying the very title of index finger). This is considered quite rude in many cultures.
So what do you do if you genuinely need to point to something? Why, you use your lips of course! You need to pout them as if you are making a kissy-face and do so in the direction of the thing that requires the attention of the conversation. It’s not a long “point”, but more a quick pucker-up for a half a second.
I got so used to this, that I do it unconsciously now, even when I’m also pointing with my fingers too. So I look weird to pretty much everyone now!