10 Reasons Why You Should Learning About the Customs of the Country You're Visiting

To kiss or not to kiss, that is the question.

Beautiful Korean dancers at the Opening of our World Championship in Changwon

Beautiful Korean dancers at the Opening of our World Championship in Changwon

I am the product of two VERY different cultures: Korean and Mexican. Throw into the mix that I grew up in the USA and that 4 of those years I lived in Hawaii, and you’ve got yourself quite a combo.

When I was about to start junior high school, my father decided we should go back to Mexico and stop living the nomadic life (insert sad face).

Culture Shock

I was enrolled in school, even though my Spanish was iffy, so I was confused on every possible front: culturally, linguistically, to say nothing of academically, where I was a mess for a year or two.

The first thing that struck me as odd and, quite frankly, at that time, unpleasant, was that strangers you had just met greeted you with a “pleased to meet you” and a kiss on the cheek. Everyone kissed you: strangers, family, classmates. It took me about a year to get used to it.

This is Rosita from Wales. She was one of the volunteers at our Olympic venue during the London 2012 Olympic Games. She didn’t have to get used to me touching her…maybe the Welsh are warm like that because she would come a hug me every morning when I arrived at the office.

This is Rosita from Wales. She was one of the volunteers at our Olympic venue during the London 2012 Olympic Games. She didn’t have to get used to me touching her…maybe the Welsh are warm like that because she would come a hug me every morning when I arrived at the office.

Many years later, when I started working in the Olympic Movement, I started traveling often to Lausanne, Switzerland (the Olympic Capital) and to Munich, Germany (headquarters of our sport). From my very first trip, I started this weird awkward dance of the faces: I would lean in to kiss someone on the right cheek and start to pull back, only to realize they were leaning back in for a second kiss on the left cheek. I would quickly try to correct course, but by then it had become awkward because I had left the person hanging, cheek in the air, for a few seconds. It took me months to re-learn this ritual that had become so ingrained in me during my years in Mexico.

Dinner on a boat on the Moskva River. Cruise is a little long for my taste, but definitely nice for a change.

Dinner on a boat on the Moskva River. Cruise is a little long for my taste, but definitely nice for a change.

Then came my first trip to Russia. I immediately noticed that strangers reacted almost with annoyance when I smiled at them. I couldn’t really help it because I was so used to that simple act we perform several times a day in the USA (especially in Hawaii, the Aloha State!) and in Mexico.

In Russia, the choreography of the dance of the faces became even more awkward than in the rest of Europe, as acquaintances would kiss my right cheek, my left cheek…so far, so good…I would pull back, only to find they were leaning in for a third kiss on the right cheek again. I’m not going to lie, to this day I haven’t mastered to Russian kiss and I’ve been there several times.

In China for Olympic meetings in preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

In China for Olympic meetings in preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

No kissing, please

Being half Korean, you’d think I would have noticed that my grandmother, aunts, and uncles didn’t kiss. Nope, it never crossed my mind. Maybe because I was a kid.

My first trip to Asia was to China for meetings in preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Two young interpreters were assigned to our group. They were so helpful, so ready to solve any problem, even to the point of translating an entire restaurant menu for us. After a couple of days, we were so used to having them in our group, that I automatically greeted them with a Mexican kiss (right cheek only!). They both looked startled and embarrassed. Damn. That was the last time I kissed anyone in China.

First names or last names?

I also learned that, as in Korea, people are addressed by their last name. Even if they’re your closest friend. So our entire group spent several days calling people by their first name (Latinos are friendly, what are you going to do?), only to be ignored because they didn’t know we were speaking to them.

That’s me on a camel, at a desert safari in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

That’s me on a camel, at a desert safari in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

When I’ve been to Muslim countries, like the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait, I learned that, out of respect, I had to address men of a certain social stature as Your Excellency and shake hands, however, unless the women I was greeting made a move to shake hands, I never touched them, even if they were very friendly towards me.

In the USA, when you’re born, you are usually given a first and sometimes middle name and then your father’s last name. In Mexico, you are given a first and sometimes middle name and then your father’s last name and then your mother’s last name. So, someone’s name might be Maria Concepcion Hernandez Gonzalez. In fact, name protocol is often so confusing that in the Olympic Movement, all correspondence and place cards at dinners are typed with first names in lower case letters and last names in upper case: Maria Concepcion HERNANDEZ GONZALEZ, so people have at least some clue of the proper way they should address you.

Traditional Mexican wedding where the Bridge walks to the church accompanied by music and her family.

Traditional Mexican wedding where the Bridge walks to the church accompanied by music and her family.

Now let’s get this already complicated mess a little messier: in the USA when a woman marries, she usually takes her husband’s last name. In Mexico, if Maria, as in my example above, were to marry Jose MARTINEZ PEREZ, she would become Maria Concepcion HERNANDEZ DE MARTINEZ, taking her husband’s paternal last name prefaced by the word “de”, meaning “of”. Not very emancipated, but a tradition that came to Latin American from Spain. Filling in customs forms when you travel is a pain because your name never fits.

In Asia, I use Mr. or Mrs. and their FIRST name. If you were addressing me in Korea, you would say: pleased to meet you, Mrs. Grace. In Mexico, as in the USA, you would say, Mrs. Hahn, using my last name. In Muslim countries it gets so complicated that I always use Your Excellency or Madam, to avoid a social faux pas.

In Japan, women usually take their husband’s last name, but in Korea and China, they keep their maiden name. So if Mr. Lee Kun-hee (Wang being list last name) were to marry Ms. Hong Ra-hee (Hong being her last name), she would not take his last name.

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Table manners

At our very first dinner, several people in our group would stick their chopsticks into their rice bowl (photo above) and our interpreters looked uncomfortable but didn’t say anything. That was ONE thing I knew very well from my childhood, so I whispered to the people close to me that in Korea, China, Japan and most of Asia, it is considered rude and/or unlucky to do that because it reminds them of a funeral, where rice is left with two chopsticks stuck vertically in the center.

A man in our group unknowingly made another mistake when a cute little toddler walked towards our table and our colleague rubbed his little head. The parents came and took him away and one of our interpreters informed us that it is very rude to touch a person’s head. In the USA and Mexico, one often touches someone’s head as a loving or friendly gesture.

We also noticed that the Chinese people in our group slurped their soup and noodles. I looked that up after dinner and it turns out it is considered rude in many Asian countries NOT to slurp your soup because it is thought you are not enjoying it.

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Gifts and business cards: giving and receiving

Inevitably, on work and pleasure trips you will at some point present someone with a gift or your business card and this too is a ritual performed in very different ways around the world.

In Korea, you both present and receive business cards and gifts with both hands and a bow. However, in the case of gifts, don’t open them in public. When I am in Korea, we exchanged gifts, these are taken to the waiting car and we say goodbye as the gifts are taken away.

Gorgeous gift box of little sweet cakes in Korea

Gorgeous gift box of little sweet cakes in Korea

In the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, gifts are presented in public, at a dinner or any other special event, and it is rude not to open them in front of everyone and express awe and appreciation for them. The same is generally true in Mexico, where people at a party will insist you open every single gift for everyone to admire.

In India, our hosts were so generous and gracious and on every trip back, I have experienced the same warmth for the people I’ve met. Prior to one particular trip (photo below), our hostess emailed me asking for the clothing sizes of the ladies in the group. When we arrived for dinner at her house, she presented us with salwar khameez outfits and insisted we step into another room to put them on. As you can see, we not only put them on but LOVED them!

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Mexican time

Punctuality is not our strong cultural feature in Mexico. A few minutes (or very) late is normal and, in general, no one takes offense.

In Asia, punctuality is of the utmost importance as my anecdote will illustrate. We were at the London 2012 Olympic Games and my boss invited the Korean Member of the International Olympic Committee to dinner. Traffic during the Games was BRUTAL (it’s no excuse, but still bears mentioning) and at 8:00 pm, the time set for dinner, we were still in traffic. I received a polite phone call from the gentleman’s executive assistant asking if everything was alright. I explained the situation and calculated we would be about 15 minutes late. He very pointedly insisted that when we were a block away, I should call him. I soon realized, from our exchanges, that the cars in this gentleman’s group had been driving around the block where the restaurant is located, because in Asia it is the person hosting the event who should arrive first, never the guest. My boss was surprised when both gentlemen arrived at the same time and met at the restaurant entrance. I explained why later and he said: “This is why I admire Koreans! We should learn from them.”

I took this photo in a mall in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi because I found it interesting that members of each gender, in general, tend to practice gender segregation in public places.

I took this photo in a mall in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi because I found it interesting that members of each gender, in general, tend to practice gender segregation in public places.

Gender roles

In Asia and the Middle East, I’ve found that no matter how prominent a woman is in business, she is expected to walk behind or separate from the men. In Korea, a high executive from one of the most important electronics companies in the world, always walked behind the men, even though some of them were at her level professionally.

In the United Arab Emirates and in Kuwait, the ladies sat on one side of the room and chatted among themselves, while the men sat on the other side. I always felt a little awkward because I had to sit with the men, as I was there as my boss’ interpreter.

In Mexico, as in most western countries, women mingle with men at social events.

Jama Masjid Mosque, Old Delhi, India

Jama Masjid Mosque, Old Delhi, India

Dress code

It goes without saying that it is very offensive to enter a church, mosque or temple wearing flip flops, shorts and a tank top. Some people seem to think that since it’s not their religion, the rules don’t apply to them. That may be, but respect should always be paid if you visit a holy place.

Of course, I have always followed this rule, however, I didn’t think a short-sleeved Tee would cause offense when I bought my ticket to the Vatican museum and was stopped by the Swiss Guard at the entrance. He pointed at my short sleeves and then pointed at a street stall where they sold long-sleeved t-shirts.

In Mexico, nowadays, things have become rather lax in this sense and people go to church in jeans. However, I would never do this in any other country without asking first. I have been to many mosques, and I have always had to cover my head, hair, and shoulders. So just carry a pashmina with you, it’ll do the trick when you need to enters a religious site, sit on a dirty bench or cover your head if you’re caught in the rain.

I took this photo of this group of ladies in these wonderful saris with their permission

I took this photo of this group of ladies in these wonderful saris with their permission

Taking photos where it may cause offense

I know it’s very tempting to take photos not only of places but of people and their local customs and culture. However, sometimes tourists treat them as if they were animals in a zoo. For example, if you walk into a mosque and you pass someone praying, don’t snap a photo, no matter how interesting it may seem.

The same applies to Mexico and all over the world, humans should be respected! In Mexico you’ll find many people selling their handmade crafts on the streets, carrying their babies on their backs, wrapped in a shawl (the original kangaroo baby sling), and they look so beautiful and foreign and you can’t wait to share it with your friends. STOP! Approach the person, tell her you think her dress is beautiful and would she allow you to take a photo. She won’t be mad if after the photo you buy something from her!

In conclusion

Let’s go forth into the world and absorb every experience to the max! But remember every human being deserves respect. And just because the customs of the country at not your own, you are on THEIR SOIL and it won’t kill you to learn how they do it and follow their example.