Men in Botswana holds hands to display their purely platonic friendship. In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, cars drive on the left side of the road. In Nicaragua adios ("to God," literally) means hello and goodbye. In Louisiana, the southern gentry stand by their chairs whenever a lady arrives at or departs from a table. Travelers both seasoned and novice note these sorts of cultural quirks. Sometimes they are just that – quirks. Often, they point to deeper cultural currents.
In my travels, these quirks have always been amusing, and at times thought-provoking to me. While in Nashville last week, for example, my sister would physically push me away for walking too close to her on the sidewalk; an amusing notion, and one which in more thoughtful moments could lead to a discussion of the quintessentially North American need for personal space.
This trip back to the US, which I spent at a conference in DC and in MPI's first organization-wide conference in Nashville, was the first time I have paid more heed to those quirks in myself than in my surroundings. When in an uncomfortable formal situation, I used to find myself reverting unconsciously to my training as a southern gentleman; now, however, I find myself acting more like a polite Ecuadorian country boy. When I walk into a room it feels more natural to greet evry last person – the men with a not-too-firm handshake, the women with a single fake kiss on the cheek – than to slip in quietly, shake hands with those in close proximity, and nod in recognition to those who make eye contact from across the room. When I make physical contact with someone on the metro (a grave offense in the US, apparently) my immediate reaction is to say perdoname rather than excuse me. And man, driving in the US is boring.
I am back in Quito now, interviewing an excitingly strong group of applicants for next year's E-team. And instead of coming back with open questions about the differences between Ecuador and the US, I come wondering about how I fit into both – or neither. So Mom, if I stand up at the table whenever you do, but then attempt awkwardly to kiss you on the cheek, you'll know why.