I don’t know if it’s because I grew up way out in the Australian sticks, or if it’s just because I’m a little weird; but I often feel uncomfortable when close to other – especially little known – humans’ bodies. It’s not that I don’t like people: I think they’re alright – most of the time – but there’s something about my little bubble of personal space that can get me a little funny if someone encroaches upon it. I’ve always done a little weird dance when faced with the prospect of greeting a member of the opposite sex that I know. In Sydney and many other English-speaking cities, I feel one is supposed to engage in a little peck on the cheek in such circumstances, but it always makes me feel a little…funny. Instead, I usually end up ducking back and forth, waving my hands in the air, bobbing from one foot to the other while laughing self-consciously. It’s not the only weird thing about me, by any means. I also can’t bear to witness somebody lick the foil off the top of a yoghurt tub. Eeeeeeew.
Let me illustrate this cultural difference by way of an embarrassing example. When I was quite young, my first bar job was at this bizarre little jazz bar in Sydney; where, for reasons I won’t go into here, a staggering proportion of the staff was of Polish – and blonde – origin. So, of course (?), these guys loved to go salsa dancing at the nearby “Spanish Quarter” (Spanish one two-hundred-and-eightieth might be a more accurate description of this laneway, but, let that be). On one of these nights, we were at one of these several (5?) clubs, and a rather attractive woman approached me, saying she wanted to teach me to dance. She mentioned she was Colombian. Little would I understand the future significance of such information.
Well, to cut a mortifying story short; after a brief shuffle, I had to excuse myself and limp off, awkwardly hunched over, and spend the rest of the evening sitting down with my jacket over my lap. For me, the music; the gyrations of the hips; and particularly what I felt to be a very sensual, close contact with a strange, sultry woman, was just too much for me to handle. It’s a cultural thing, alright?
So, imagine the squirms I am subjected to now that I actually live in my would-be dance teacher’s country. Here is a nation of people who don’t raise an eyebrow – let alone any other anatomical feature – when invited to gyrate their practised hips up against any number of strangers while at a club – where by contrast, back home, I’d like to know exactly what was going on with my girlfriend that made her want to go throw herself into the arms of a complete stranger. A country where Public Displays of Affection is a national sport. Where near-strangers embrace and kiss with boundless, unselfconscious enthusiasm. Where people – for all I know – lick each other’s yoghurt foil tops with reckless abandon. I’m not a hipster, but…totes awks, babez.
It may not help that the only other country I’ve lived in with a significantly different culture from mine (sorry, New Zealand, but you don’t really count, bro) is South Korea; where it’s considered a scandal if a couple dare to kiss in public. This may account for the slight palpitations and sense of foreboding I feel when my innocent gaze happens to fall on a couple of amorous students doing their best mime performance of the act of coitus right in the middle of a packed plaza. It’s a cultural thing, I suppose.
I am trying to learn. I think I’ve – finally – got the basic cumbia step down, and will even subject myself to the once-excruciating practice of trying to salsa with strangers. I still do my little greeting-shuffle (and often try to cut the tension by busting out a “wacky” high-five); but that’s still a work in progress. I have kissed a girl in front of no less forbidding a presence than her parents; and after not receiving a sock to the ears, have slowly become more comfortable with such once-unthinkable acts. I still don’t lick my yoghurt tops, though. Don’t ask me to: it’s a cultural thing, after all