Culture And Society: Customs Around The World

Culture and society: Have you ever considered that what may be commonplace and normal to you and to me may be strange or peculiar to others?

Have you ever considered that what may be commonplace and normal to you and to me may be strange or peculiar to others? Why is that so? Not all changes can be attributed to tradition or custom. And what causes these differences in the first place? How did some of them become "˜traditional'?

Let us take common ablutions as an example. Australians, like the Americans, prefer a shower every day. The English on the other hand prefer a bath. Why? Has it something to do with the different climates? As in America, a daily shower in Australia must be piping hot or the user feels unclean.

In Indonesia the traditional bath is called a "˜mandi'. A mandi is a trough about three feet or one metre square and is approximately the same measurement deep. No, the Indonesian does not get in the trough - he/she stands beside the trough and uses what is called in Australia a "˜dipper'. A dipper is a tin not unlike a large preserved fruit tin with a handle on one side. The user takes a dipper full of COLD water and pours it over himself. He then soaps up and continues to wash using the dipper to douse himself with water. Cold water, even in the hottest tropical day, is always extremely cold when left to stand for some time and, as a result, most mandis are very quick and lively affairs.

Take the ordinary toilet bowl. Ordinary? No, not by any means. The Australian toilet bowl has the water some nine to ten inches down from the top of the bowl. The American toilet bowl has the water no more than three to four inches from the top of the bowl. Very disconcerting for somebody accustomed to the Australian version. How did the Australian toilet bowls come to be designed differently to the American bowl? Could it be that Australia is a nation with a desperate and constant shortage of water - the dry continent? If that is so, it is an illusion and only a perception of saving water for the American cistern holds the same amount of water as its Australian counterpart. The difference is in the design of the outlet bend. In America it is higher than the Australian.

In Papua New Guinea and other Asian countries the "˜bowl' is an elongated, porcelain hole set flush with the floor with two foot holds - one on either side. The user squats to use the facility. They do not have a cistern of water and the user is obliged to use a utensil similar to the Australian dipper to flush the unit. Those toilets, for Europeans, are extremely uncomfortable. Yet they do have their advantages. Most Asians have no trouble with their knees and even in old age have no difficulty squatting. Maybe the daily exercise keeps the knees agile? They have the added advantage in that the only part of the anatomy which touches the bowl are the feet thus avoiding unhealthy bodily contact with others.

Why is electricity so different throughout the world? In Australia and most countries which were former British colonies the system is the 240 volt power system. In the United States the power supply is 110 volts. In some Asian countries you have a choice of either, and even 32 volt systems, making the purchase of electrical goods somewhat hazardous. The 240 volt systems are extremely dangerous making house and industrial wiring a specialist's job reserved for certified operators

In Australia the light switch is turned down to switch on the light or utility. In the United States the switch is turned up. The latter makes sense. If the switch becomes worn then, when it fails, the power is turned off. In Australia the power would be turned on when a switch fails.

In Indonesia it is considered extremely rude to point with the forefinger. It is especially rude if the pointing is towards a person. When pointing the Indonesian uses his thumb.

It is a common sight in Indonesian to see people with a very long fingernail on one or the other finger of the left hand. The purpose of this is related to the fact that public toilets are extremely rare and often non-existent making it necessary to use whatever facility is available. As a consequence toilet paper is equally rare - thus the long fingernail.

An Indonesian will never hand you an object with his left hand. For obvious reasons the left hand is considered unclean. An Indonesian passes an object to another person using the right hand palm up with the left hand always supporting the right hand at the wrist. This has a twofold traditional meaning. One is for the reason stated above but it harks back to the times when two enemies met. With the left hand supporting the right wrist it is clear there is no concealed weapon.

In Thailand it is a grave insult to walk into a person's house with shoes on. Shoes are discarded at the front door. Not a silly idea really for one leaves all the litter of the streets outside where it belongs.

Also in Thailand it is considered rude to cross your legs in company and to point your toes at another person. The feet, as the lowest part of the body, are given the lowest esteem and pointing a toe is demeaning to the person at whom the foot is pointed.

Equally, the head is the most important part of the body and should never be touched by another. Children in most Western countries are familiar with being patted on the head and consider it a compliment. In Thailand it is an insult of the highest order.

In Thailand and some other Asian countries, when two people meet it is the practice to hold the two hands together in a prayer position. It is called a whai (pro: why) in Thailand and takes the place of the Western handshake. Once again this is a much more hygienic greeting as there is no body contact. How high the hands are raised is an indication of the importance of the person to whom the whai is made. The most common whai between two equals is with the tip of the fingers at nose level. When a person of a lower status meets a person of a higher status the former raises the hands to forehead height and the latter to chest height. A whai is a very convenient way of acknowledging a friend in a crowded room where personal contact is difficult. It seems so much more dignified and sincere to greet with a whai rather than a wave.

The Royal family of Thailand is held in extreme awe by the Thais and nothing disrespectful is ever heard about them. The film "˜The King and I' has never been shown in Thailand because it is considered disrespectful to the tradition of the Royal Family. Any person of other than Royal blood must crawl along the floor when in the presence of Royalty. Another person's head must never be higher than the King's or any other member of the family.

A distinctive and personal language is spoken by the Royal family at official functions and only members of the Royal Household and privileged attendants are permitted to use the language. The language dates back into antiquity.

In Burma, a Buddhist country where temples are common, there is one which is most amusing. It is the custom for men, when attending services at the temples, to sit in the front of the congregation. The women sit at the rear. At one temple where a golden statue of Buddha dominates the building the men, when they look up into the face of the Buddha see a benign look on the face. As one moves back towards the back of the temple the statue's look gradually changes from the benign and compassionate to a leer with intense sexual connotations. A tribute to the extraordinary skills to the sculptors of that long gone eras and an equal tribute to the memory of Buddha.

It is those customs which some consider "˜odd' that make travel worthwhile.

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