Land of the Bobble Head People

I’ve traveled to a lot of places.  Most of them, due to my being an American, were places that I certainly didn’t speak the language.  I’ve gotten by with the help of hand gestures and pantomime skills.  I don’t want to brag here, but I’m good.  Very good.  I’ve taught class to group of Russian children.  I’ve explained my family dynamics to a ninety-year-old Japanese woman.  I’ve done this without the help of a translator.  My greatest performance, though, was the afternoon I actually explained to a police officer in Rome the events that lead up to a car wreck I had witnessed.

All of these things were possible through the use of certain universal social gestures that have evolved since the dawn of man.  They are pretty basic.  Smile and people will know you are happy.  Frown to show you’re sad.  Rub your stomach if you are sick.  Scoop your hand to your mouth if you are hungry.  The most common of these are, of course, shaking your head up and down to indicated “yes” and back and forth for “no.”  It all works – for the most part.  Until it doesn’t.  There are always exceptions.  In Russia, a smile is seen as a sexual come on, indicating attraction; and invitation for attention.  In Bulgaria, the head movements are actually reversed.  Back and forth means “yes” and up and down means “no.”

In Southeast Asia, though, I experienced a problem that I had never come across before.  While in Sri Lanka, I was told about a peculiar cultural trait, whereby the people seemed to have difficulty answering “yes or no” questions definitively.  There was no vocalization for one or the other, and corresponding head gestures were rare.  This isn’t to say, that neither of these existed.  They did.  They simply are not used in the same way in the rest of the world, especially with someone who they do not wish to disappoint with an incorrect answer.  Instead, they perform an alternate move.  When people are asked a simple, direct “yes or no” question, they tend to respond by wobbling their head side to side, as though they are trying to touch each ear to each shoulder, while saying, “Ahhhhhhhhh.”  The movement stops after a beat of this, with an abrupt, “Okay.”  There is no “yes” given and no “no” provided.  Simply, “Okay.”

I was told about this over dinner on my first night in Colombo, but I didn’t think much of it.  A few days later while in an office building I saw such an interaction play out between an American manager, and local regional director, and the American took it to mean “yes.” So I assumed that it must somehow mean an affirmative response.

Once I was India, though, all bets were off.  I was traveling with a friend and this whole head-wobbling thing soon turned into a point of contention for us.  Our driver was named Gopal, and his English skills were limited.  I must be honest here and admit, though, that his English skills were far superior to my non-existent Hindi language skills.  I am an American, after all.  We would try to make conversation with Gopal, and it usually got a response of “Ahhhhh, okay” with the accompanying head bobble.  We would ask him to take us somewhere.  Head shake “Ahhhhhh, okay.”  We would ask him if we had time to go somewhere.  “Ahhhhhh, okay.”    What is this monument?  What time is it?  How long will it take to get there?  Where is the toilet?  “Ahhhhh, okay.”

If he was asked a question, the head shake and “Ahhhh, ok” would be included in the response at some point.  If he was not answering, and simply speaking on his own, he never did this.  It wasn’t just Gopal.  Hotel desk clerks, employees at monuments, and even waiters did this.  When the realization first set in that this is the standard response we were  going to get, it was hilarious.  Then after a day or two, it started to wear me down.  The uncertainty of it all was just a bit too much.  I never really knew where I was going, when I was going to get there, or what it was I was looking at.  The next two or three days were frustrating.  Then something began to change.  I quickly learned to live with the uncertainty.  My questions never really got answered, and that was fine.  I got there when I got there.  I should appreciate what I was seeing and not be concerned with checking it off of my list.  I accepted it.  I was forced to live in the moment.  I realized that certainty in life is something that we like to tell ourselves because it makes life easier, and because we can.  We function better when we believe that things operate in a certain way.  We operate in the “supposed to” mindset.  The train is supposed to be here at seven.  We are supposed to get married.  We are supposed to be happy all the time.  The reality in life is that it isn’t supposed to be anything.  It’s what you make it, and we feel more comfortable following all of the “supposed to’s” and the schedules, and the rules because it provides us with a road map for life and it makes life easier.  However, in places like India and Sri Lanka, none of that works.  Traffic and crowds and even plumbing and electricity are wildly unpredictable.  If a person can’t count on the lights coming on when they flip the switch nearly 100% of the time, how can they definitively say “yes” or “no” to anything else?  I realized while I was there that H.H. Munro’s famous line, “A little inaccuracy can sometimes save a ton of explanation,” is not only true, but insightful. In fact, by the time I left India after a week, I began to wobble my head as well, because I had finally figured out that it was essentially, “Ahhhh, okay.”


Categories: Asia, Stories, Thoughts


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