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Cross - cultural comparisons

Sep 12, 2010 10:23:43 AM- transcurrents.com

by Chandra Arulpragasam

The Vedda and the Sociology Professor

In 1950, I undertook a sociological survey of the veddas of Wellassa-Bintenne. This involved a trek of around 250 miles in the jungles of the Uva and Eastern Provinces where few had ventured before. My Professor of Sociology at the University of Ceylon, Dr. Bryce Ryan came to the beginning of the jungle trail (near Bulupitiya in the Badulla District) to see me off. Just as we were sitting down to lunch, a vedda happened to pass on the trail. I engaged him in conversation while Professor Ryan started eating at his picnic table, just six feet away.

The vedda with long matted and unkempt hair was naked except for a skimpy loin-cloth and an axe on his shoulder. When he saw the Professor eating with his fork and knife, he shook his head disapprovingly and spat disgustedly on the ground saying: "Look at that white man. See how he eats!" The Professor knowing that something disparaging was being said about him, asked with curiosity: "What’s he saying"? " So I imitated the vedda’s reply, translating literally and spitting appropriately. The Professor, now agog, asked excitedly: "Why does he say that? Why does he say that?" To which the vedda replied: "See how this man eats: with some kind of instrument! How does he know how many other people have eaten with that same thing"- and spat again with disgust.

The professor rejoined excitedly: "So what does he do? What does he do instead?" To which the vedda proudly replied: "I eat with my right hand, which nobody else can use. I don’t use my left had because I know what it does"! What really surprised me later was the fervour with which the professor defended his culinary habits – as fervently as the vedda did his!

Informed by this insight, during my travel abroad for FAO (for whom I worked for 25 years) my eyes were always open to the eating habits of different peoples. For instance in Japan, when a bowl of rice is served, a pair of chopsticks is included. The two chopsticks are cut out of pine wood but joined at one end like Siamese twins. This is to ensure that no one else had used the chopsticks before – thereby guaranteeing that they are clean. It struck me however, that these chopsticks having been cut out of a pine tree, then dragged through the forest floor, then cut by a machine and falling on the factory floor, could not be all that clean! But I then realized that I was just trying to justify my eating with my right hand (because I know what my left hand does!) as being "superior" to eating with chopsticks! And so it goes, with each culture doing its own thing – but insisting always that it is the "best"!

Sri Lankan Mannerism in Ischia

Strangely, I became aware of a Sri Lankan mannerism on a two-hour ferry-boat to Ischia in 1967. My wife and I were on this ferry on our way from Naples to Ischia, an Italian island off Capri. We were on one side of the boat while the bar was at the other end, about 20 yards away. Since I was going to get myself a beer, I asked my wife whether she wanted a drink and she indicated "Yes" with her head. So I crossed the boat to the bar and ordered the two drinks. The barman, hardly looking up from washing his glasses, stated to me briskly: "You are from Ceylon, Sir?" I almost dropped with astonishment.

First, hardly anyone in Italy knew at that time where Ceylon was or even that it existed. But secondly, how could he have guessed my nationality just by looking at me? Surprised, I asked him how he could have guessed this so quickly. Smilingly he replied: "I saw you asking your wife if she would have a drink, and she shook her head from side to side, signifying ‘No’. But you came across and ordered a drink for her – which means that she said "Yes". And the only place where shaking your head to indicate "No"means "Yes" is in Ceylon!"

First, I was surprised because I had not noticed this seeming "contradiction" myself. But secondly, I could not resist asking him how he could possibly have known this. He replied smiling that he had been prisoner of war in Ceylon during World War II in the 1940s - and remembered this Ceylonese trait even 25 years later, in 1967! So Sri Lanka remains the country, where when we shake our heads, understood elsewhere as "No", we actually mean "Yes"!

As a matter of interest, the barman also told me that the happiest years of his life were spent "in prison" in Ceylon, roaming the hills of Diyatalawa where the Italian prisoners were supposed to be confined!

The British must have been confident that their prisoners would not escape from their haven (heaven) to go back to war-torn Europe!

"Madame, your Midriff is Showing"

In Italy today, women at the age of 50 are usually slim, elegant, well-groomed and sexy. This was not the case in Italy in the 1960's when women over 50 (especially in the south) often had "pasta rolls" around their waist, usually dressed in black, with black stockings, as a sign of mourning for some long departed member of the family. My wife, on the other hand, usually dressed in her full sari with a choli blouse, showing a bit of midriff. This was the cause of some consternation among two elderly Italian ladies, modestly dressed in black. Talking agitatedly among themselves, one of the ladies, not able to contain herself any more, came across to my wife and said "Pardon me, Signora, but your midriff is showing." (in Italian: "nuda", meaning "nude").

My wife, somewhat taken aback and non-plussed, looked down at her midriff and asked in surprise: "What's wrong with my midriff?".The old lady, even more agitated, replied that it was "nuda". At this point my wife looked at the old lady's legs and said "Signora, but your legs are showing". The old lady, equally taken aback, looked down at her legs and said: "What's wrong with my legs?" And my wife replied "they are nuda". The old lady, puzzled, not knowing what to make of this, walked back to her friend for more agitated exchanges. We were amused at this cross-cultural exchange - of two cultures speaking across each other, but not to each other, in terms that neither could understand.

It is equally interesting to note the changes within a particular culture over time. On a typical Italian or western street today, girls walk around with whole midriffs exposed, showing also their belly buttons (suitably embellished with rings), while their "hipsters" are worn so low that they are in danger of falling off altogether! I wonder what the Italian old ladies would say to this now!

Along the same lines, the exposure of female legs is either a matter of good taste, sexiness or shame, depending on the culture or country concerned. In the Indian sub-continent (including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) it is not decent for women to expose their legs (least of all above the knee) although it is customary, fashionable and sometimes sexy in the western world to do so. Going farther afield, in China, one notices that legs are not considered sexy at all: not a matter of pride, shame or sexiness.

Traditionally in China (not in Mao’s time) women wore the cheongsam, a long dress with a slit all the way up the thigh. I have seen women in Taiwan in the 1960s, sitting at their sewing machines on the sides of the street, with their legs apart and their inner thighs showing - which in India would have been considered outrageous and indecent in America – but not at all indecent in Taiwan at that time. For legs were not sexy at all. On the other hand, these same Chinese women were embarrassed to show their necks, favoring high collars so that their necks would not be exposed! This is in contrast to women in the Indian sub-continent who have no problem in showing their necks but do have problems in showing their legs!

Sex in Samoa

Growing up in Ceylon (I was probably in my last year at Royal College), reading Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa" (published in 1928) came as a shock to me. I know that her findings have subsequently been challenged by Dr. Derek Freeman. But since the final verdict is not in, I shall treat her observations as valid for purposes of this article. I myself was personally able to visit the Pacific islands in the 1980s: but found that everything has changed with colonization and christianization. The girls now wear grass skirts over tight jeans and sing hymns to hula music!

According to Mead, young boys and girls in Samoa in the 1920s, ranged around in groups, swimming together and having fun and sex together. Teenage girls slept with many boys and even had children together. More interesting to me (later) was how the social, moral and family organization accepted these activities and absorbed their consequences. First, in the Samoan context at that time, it was not shameful or sinful for boys and girls to have sex before marriage, even at the age of thirteen or fourteen.

Secondly, if a girl of that age were to give birth to a child, this was quite normal and not a matter of shame. Hence, thirdly, this was not a bar to future marriage of the girl, since a man would marry her especially because she had proved that she could bear a child, which was important for his future family. Fourthly, there was no question of the child being ostracized or abandoned, because it would be gladly taken into the extended family or kin group, where an extra pair of working hands was an asset rather than a liability. When I read Margaret Mead in later years, what impressed me most was how arrangements relating to sex, and the family had been so rationally organized (internally consistent) within the Polynesian society from a biological, social and economic point of view.

When Margaret Mead wrote of teenage sex in Samoa in the 1920s, the western world reacted with moral outrage at the immorality, licentiousness and sinfulness of it all. This was a time in the west when sex before marriage was a sin and children born out of wedlock were marginalized by law and by custom. However, in the west today, teenage sex seems to be more the norm than the exception. A survey in America recently showed that more than 50% of teenagers have had sex before they leave high school. Although this now seems socially and morally acceptable, amusingly, the possible result in terms of unwanted pregnancy (due to failed technology) is not - since teenage pregnancy out of wedlock is still considered socially and morally reprehensible.

In America today, there is sex among teens, sex before marriage, couples living together without marriage and multiple divorces. Sounds familiar? Exactly! In less than 70 years, western society (the dominant culture today) has gone back to (regressed?) or advanced (progressed?) to equate the sexual practices of Samoa in the 1930s! Thereby hangs a cautionary tale!

It is of course well understood that these changes in sexual norms, in marriage and the family in America have been brought about by the forces of individualization, women working, commercialization, social/physical mobility and technology (internet, TV, etc). It will take time, however, to bring about an equation between what American society says it believes (its moral code) and the actual reality relating to sex, marriage and the family and to develop institutions and arrangements to cope with this changed reality.