Posted by: B Gourley | July 21, 2011

On Being a Stranger in a Strange Land

A nice vantage point for people-watching

I’ve been traveling recently, and it has given me an opportunity to observe people from locales quite different from my home. One may wonder why I would write about this in my martial arts blog rather than in spaces in which it might seem more pertinent. It seems to me that being a student of human nature is a critical asset for a martial artist, and observing people on travel lends insight into both the similarities and differences between people from different parts of the world.
People are subtle in public, and it takes experience and/or knowledge to learn how to differentiate threats or malicious behaviour from typical behavior. For example, in China if you leave the same amount of space between individuals in a line as one would in the US, someone will cut in front of you thinking you are not part of the same line. If one is not aware of this proclivity, one may take offense at the presumed rudeness, or be uneasy about someone standing “too close” behind one in line. I learned of this trait in an ironic way. I was at the English language bookstore on Wanfujing Street in Beijing buying a book on Chinese cultural peculiarities when a man cut in front of me to the counter. I took a deep breath to calm myself about the behavior of this arrogant prick. On the subway ride back to the hotel, as I read the book, I discovered that this is a widespread cultural trait and not the solitary rudeness of one individual.  
One also wants to be able to recognize behaviors of one’s own that might seem rude. Does one touch another or not? Should one leave food on one’s plate or not? Should one tip or not? [On the subject of food, one should not be too quick to turn down foods. A default answer of “no” is not very warrior-like. Live boldly. Try the insects or the tripe.]  As I’ve said before, not being an ass is at least as important as being able to fight well to staying safe.   
While there is great value in getting outside the touristy areas in order to see how the rank-and-file live, there is also something to be said for spending time in the dens of tourism. Why? First, such places display a mix of locals, people from many other countries, as well as people who might live down the street from one. Can you tell locals from tourists at first sight? Big cameras around the neck notwithstanding, this is getting more difficult because people from Bangkok, Budapest, Buta, Belize City, and Birmingham all wear clothing made in China or Vietnam and are exposed to the same global pop culture. On which hand does he or she wear their wedding band, if any? How do they use their eating utensils? (As an aside, I eat differently in Europe than in the US. Not to mention with the fingers of my right hand in some countries and chopsticks in others.) What draws the person’s eye? Is there a logical explanation for loitering behavior?
Second, touristy areas draw out petty criminals, at least in less developed areas. This gives one an opportunity to look for these types – who may be exceedingly skilled at what they do. Of course, like looking for wildlife, the harder one looks, the less likely one may be to see. One also has to keep in mind what one looks like to an astute observer. All this people-watching can make one appear nefarious oneself if one doesn’t avoid projecting intensity in the process. Looking alert may keep criminals away, but it may also come across as being anxious.

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