30Jun2010

"Mum! FEET!!!"

It is amazing how fast children adapt to and internalise the conventions, taboos, the social norms and etiquette of another culture.

And not just by eating crickets, as the nine year old is doing in his charming self-portrait below.

We are in Thailand right now. An etiquette minefield. One moment one is torn between sheer admiration for the enviable phsyique of the hot young thing who has popped into chat to the novice monks of Wat Suan Dok wearing tight white spaghetti vest top, denim hotpants and no bra (honestly, none required), and a sense of unappealing smugness at having remembered to cover one’s own, perhaps rather less, erm, enlightening, shoulders, legs, et al.

The next, one is innocuously sat in a tuk-tuk, those cutesy petrol-powered three-wheelers that are so emblematic of swathes of Asia that miniature versions sell in night markets from Chiang Mai to Kandy, when one’s spawn taps one irritably on the thigh and adjures, sternly, “Mum!!!! FEET!!!”

It’s not the first time Z has had to say this to me in South-East Asia. And I fear it may not be the last.

On chunks of the South-East Asian mainland, most especially Thailand, feet are, well, for want of a better word, rude.

It is rude to point your feet at someone. (Sir spotted a particularly egregious use of this as a sort of upside down, full-body “up yours” between some lads mucking about in a Cambodian pool.)

It is rude to step over someone. It is unforgivable to point with your feet, pick something up with your feet, have your feet higher than someone’s head or generally elevate them beyond their function of walking. (It’s also rude to touch someone’s head, but that’s a whole other story.)

And, yep, it is rude to put your feet up, no matter how limited the legroom.

I had, of course, forgotten this entirely. “What?” I ask irritably.

“FEET!” he says. “We’re in Thailand. You have your feet up. And one of them’s pointing at the driver.”

“Oh god,” I say, looking hopefully at the guy’s not obviously offended back and hoping he was concentrating more on traffic than on badly pedicured appendages. “Sorry. I don’t think he noticed.”

The feet thing is a veritable minefield. In many homes, some restaurants, some guesthouses and even stores – and there is a complicated scale of traditional/modern/posh/informal/Western which defines which ones – you leave your shoes at the door and go barefoot.

You take your shoes off at sacred places, palaces and the odd museum. (And, yes, he does remind me.)

Some loos have rows of sandals waiting outside into which you change before abluting.

Take your shoes off in the wrong place, of course, and you look like a total rube.

On our last Thai night train, I spent some time debating with a fellow passenger whether it would be ruder to publicly rinse my (filthy) feet in a basin where others might wish to wash their hands than to dangle said grimy body parts too close to people’s heads while scrambling up to pollute the pristine sheets of my top bunk.

(Our solution? She had an empty water bottle. I filled it with tap water, retreated to the “lavatory” with soap, and balanced, storkwise, over the steel squat toilet, scrubbing vigorously, as the track rattled past below me through the hole in the floor.)

Sir? Well, he, was throwing his racing car underpants at a friendly Australian chap. I’m not quite sure where Thai etiquette stands on that one. But it’s certainly not in the tourist rulebook.

On a Vietnamese train, weirdly, a country where most bathrooms come equipped with shower sandals (in contrast to those surprisingly dainty yet unabashedly plastic low mule sandals the majority of the female population wear, often with — eek! — pop socks), the women in our cabin kept absent-mindedly slipping on my flip-flops. I guess they looked like shower shoes.

Other things it is rude to do in Thailand? Lick your fingers. Lick a stamp with the king’s head on.

Any sort of disrespect to the king is taken extremely seriously, which is why, even prior to the state of emergency and media clampdown, Thai newspapers managed to cover the entire red shirt-yellow shirt riot thing without even hinting that the 80-something king is, well, not a well chap, let alone that there’s a query over who succeeds him.

To be honest, I’m really pleased with how well junior adapts to where he is. Whether it’s switching from steamed rice you eat with chopsticks to sticky rice you eat with fingers on arrival in Laos, doing his damnedest to eat chops, steak and the rest with spoon and fork in the Philippines, or functioning as my personal shoe police in Thailand.

But… This adaptability and acceptance does have a downside. At least, I think it does.

We have been in Asia now for over five months. He has been genuinely shocked by the poverty and desperation of child beggars in Cambodia. (And very disapproving of adults using their babies as a tool.)

But when we volunteered at the orphanage, he seemed remarkably accepting of the fact that the little kids we were helping had no parents.

He thought they were basically happy and well cared for. He’d seen sadder children begging on street corners in Manila and Phnom Penh.

And, yes, it’s sad for them to grow up without their parents, he felt.

But, he seemed to think, that’s life. Which it is, I guess.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s emotionally the right place to be. Thanks to Josie at Sleep is for the Weak for the writing prompt, emotions.

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7 Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    It is fascinating to learn about all of the different customs in different parts of the world. Z is getting quite an education in experiencing everything first-hand!

    I continue to enjoy all of your postings–they are very inspirational for our own family journeys.

  2. New Mummy says:

    I love how he remembers and you forget!! Great post

  3. Sandrine says:

    What a hilarious custom! Feet aren’t much loved in Turkey either, but shoes are probably worse. You can’t go in a house and not take them off. Except if it’s a house of well off, European Turks. Then you should keep them on. How are you supposed to work that out if you only staying a short time and don’t speak the language? Only thing you can do is try your best, and laugh!

    • MummyT says:

      I did it again in a tuk-tuk on the way to the train station. i will never, ever learn… It’s weird, isn’t it, the social stratifiers around these customs?!

  4. Reminds me of that public toilet at the bus station in Vietnam, we were traveling to Nha Trang [from HCM] then. I was really having second thoughts about wearing those “toilet slippers”. I was like…. how many people have worn them? :)

    • MummyT says:

      I see your point. On the other hand, there’s braving one’s own footwear in the average Vietnamese public lavatory (there was one at the Lao border near Dien Bien Phu, which made both me and Z first gag then retreat to the bushes)… Swings and roundabouts. Or, maybe, squats and roundabouts.

  5. Oh yes children really do have a thing or two to teach us, don’t they?

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