Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Random cultural observations

So, where does the word 'gringo' come from? Originally meant to define US Americans, but sometimes expanded to include all Caucasians, more than a few folks find it a bit offensive. I have to confess to clarifying (quite strenuously) that I am not a gringo, on occasion.

The origin is a subject of some debate, many people believing it derives from the Spanish 'griego' (meaning Greek), which even pre-Mexican conquest was used to denote any foreigner. However our good friend Monica, anthropologist and tour guide extraordinaire, assures us it comes from the misinterpretation of US soldiers singing 'Green grows the grass....' during some important war or something.

Africa, South East Asia and Latin America all have their words for the white man. In Africa, from Kenya through to Mozambique, we heard 'mzungu' a lot, although not exactly to our faces. In South Africa, the word becomes 'mlungu'. In Thailand, it's 'farang', although you generally hear it is as 'falang'. Some people think this derives from the Arabic 'faranji', others from the Thai word for a Frenchman - 'farangset'. Farang is also the word for guava fruit in Thai. Tania reckons she heard a similar word used in Vietnam on her first trip years ago, and was told it means 'big nose', but they might have been talking about Star Trek.

Here in Mexico, we hear 'guero' (or 'guera' for a female) a lot, but it is said to your face and seems to be very well intentioned. It actually means 'blond'. Our jovial morning juice seller uses it with gay abandon, even though we have told him our names. Several times.

At this point, I feel compelled to make some comparisons between the continents we have visited. Cultural differences often form the subject matter of my English classes, for lack of more adventurous material (or preparation - unlike Tania). One observation I have made here is that Mexicans will tend to do anything to avoid sitting next to a potential 'gringo' on a bus. Or is that just me? It is possible (nay likely?) that I smell a bit - and after all, to Oriental Asians for example, we are supposed to smell quite rancid, as our diet includes milk which theirs doesn't - but I think rather than being outright xenophobia, it is more a fear of the unknown and, similarly to the Asians, a desire to 'save face', to not make a mistake. The saving face thing is not so unusual when you think about it, I mean no one exactly enjoys making a fool of themselves do they?

One thing I loved about travelling in Africa is that on the smaller buses, it is most common for money to be handed to the driver via the hands of the other passengers. Even if a fair bit of change is coming your way, it always gets back to you - there is never any question of there being a risk. What I love about Mexico is that everyone always says 'provecho', or more fully 'buen provecho' to anyone who is eating in the vicinity. Essentially 'bon appetit', but literally meaning 'good profit', I understand that it is said pretty much without fail, regardless of locale, or the nationality or class of the beneficiary.

The ubiquitous (in Thailand at least) Thai 'wai' greeting (hands together in prayer at the chest, the higher the fingers reach the more respect you are showing) is used more reservedly in Laos. Called the 'nop', here it retains the more original significance of respectful greeting between unequals. Generally initiated by the lower status, the respondent would normally offer a lower one in return. A book I read on Lao culture suggested that you should always offer a high one to a monk, and keep the rest for courteous responses. The same book told about a fascinating spontaneous occurrence among groups of Lao, what the author termed the 'whoop'. At an unspecified point during group conversations, everyone will simultaneously ejaculate a sound like a whoop, I guess. Even if you have been a part of the culture for a very long time, it is apparently nigh on impossible to predict when it will occur. The intention, if I remember correctly, is to express togetherness.

to be continued......