That Time I Was Horribly Offensive
I committed a cross-cultural faux pas the other day. If you’d like to know more about what that means, read this. If you want to find out what I did, keep reading.
I was in Noh Bo walking back from lunch with friends. I noticed two people playing some sort of gong-like instrument out on the porch (it turns out that it is a Thai instrument called a Khong Wong Yai, in the gong chime family). This was a Karen village, but the musicians happened to be Thai. The older of the two men–the teacher–asked if I wanted to play. I did.
From the teacher’s face, I could instantly tell I made a mistake.
It was all going fine… I played a few melodies, tried to figure out the intervals between gongs, and was getting ready to leave. The instrument was on the ground, arranged in a “C” shape with the musician sitting in the middle. In my mind, the most direct way to get out was by stepping over the “C,” so I did that.
From the teacher’s face, I could instantly tell I made a mistake. His demeanor instantly shifted from excited to horrified. The language barrier made it difficult to learn how exactly I had offended him, but I immediately apologized and in his best English he made it clear that he forgave me.
Afterwards, I learned the source of offense. I knew that pointing my feet towards someone is viewed as disrespectful in Thai culture. What I didn’t know was that animists believe that “every entity in nature, living or inanimate, has a soul. Spirits inhabits things and places in nature.” By stepping over the instrument I pointed my feet towards it, which the teacher viewed as deeply disrespectful; just as disrespectful as pointing my foot towards a person.
No wonder he was offended.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have stepped over the instrument. Even in a non-animist culture that could be viewed as careless. But I didn’t realize how offensive my actions were because I didn’t know all the customs of the culture I was in. That’s what makes my action a cross-cultural faux pas.
Check out what Josh has to say for some more in-depth thoughts on this topic.
Vorreiter, Victoria. Songs of Memory: Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle: Essays and Images. 1st ed. Resonance, 2009.