First questions in different countries
While traveling you make dozens of dozens of new encounters. And every time you have to answer the same questions again. Or is it so ?
Actually it’s quite interesting to see how those “first questions” differ from one county to the other.
If you meet travelers, then you’re rarely asked your name first. The classics are : Where are you from ? How long have you been here ? How long are you staying ? Where are you going to next ? For how long have you been traveling ?
And the usual suspects of mundane conversation back at home, like “What’s your name ? What’s your profession ? Do you have a boyfriend ?” all seem suddenly secondary and/or irrelevant.
“What is your personality”
The first one to ask me that was my Spanish teacher in Guatemala, so I assumed it was just a common exercise to practice my language skills.
“_ Er … what do you mean ?
_ Well, do you consider you know yourself well ?
_ So what is your personality ? How would you describe yourself in a few words ?”
Wow, I was speechless. Indeed I’m all about introspection, and traveling did put a stress on that too, so I consider I know myself well, but summing it up in a few adjectives seems like the hardest task. I’m not talking about the job interview situation when you’re like “well my qualities are hard-working and result-oriented ; my defaults are perfectionist and gourmand”, but finding the real honest adjectives which best describe you.
Plus it’s kind of private. This sounds stupid, but I mean you’d rather have the person get to know you and make their own opinion rather than say straight away “I’m social, with a bit of a control-freak disorder and an over-active brain”. Or “I’m a pain in the ass but I’m very lovable”.
Anyways : it turned out it wasn’t a language exercise : I’ve been asked the exact same question many times while traveling in Guatemala.
Every time I was puzzled about what to answer. In the end I went for “I’m shy but curious, I’m a little adventurous, and I smile a lot”. Not sure how accurate is that, and if it’s really what describes me best though.
“Let’s get acquainted”
It’s the kind of sentence you see in a Russian language textbook and which makes you think “yeah right, as if anyone would say that in real life …”
Then you land in Moscow, meet with a local, and after you’ve been chatting for five minutes he says “Let’s get acquainted”. Confusing : er … isn’t it what we’ve been doing for the last five minutes ?! And the funny part is that they do expect an answer. Every time I was asked this, I had a hard time refraining a burst of laugh and transforming it into a wide smile, saying “Davaï”.
Yet if you think about it it’s quite a polite way to interact. Any girl has been in a situation when someone in the street or the metro or a party asks you many questions. You want to be polite so you answer unenthusiastically, yet what you’d like is to actually get rid of him. Well, would he ask “let’s get acquainted” you could say “no thanks” and thus find a graceful way out, no feelings hurt.
“Where you go” and “How much your …”
If you’ve been to Bali long enough (like one day) you get really tired of this question. Every person at every street corner “where you go ?” “where you go?!”. First you think it’s just another touts’ technique to get your attention and see how they could make some money out of the situation.
But then, if you stay longer and get to live a bit in a place, you’ll notice that it’s actually the most common question, even amongst Balinese. It’s part of an unavoidable trio : Where you go ? Where you stay ? Where you from ? And it seems really important to have an answer to provide for each of these. Not that they really care about the answer, by the way, but you HAVE to have an answer and give it. It’s as if they were helping you to not loose track of yourself and where you stand in life.
So needless to stay that the concept of wandering in the street aimlessly is kind of frowned upon. Don’t you dare answer “I don’t know” “I don’t care” “I’m just walking”, because you’ll leave that person puzzled and almost worried. I understood that and got used to answer “North” “South” or whatever my direction roughly was at that moment, and I could see their reassured look.
The other thing they constantly ask is “How much your bag” “How much your t-shirt” or whatever. First I was incredulous (what, he wants to buy it ?!), but then I understood it’s not impolite at all to ask anyone, no matter if you know him or not, for the price of whatever he owns. Once I got to know a local a bit better is asked him “But why do they ask ? Do they want to know how rich you are ? Or how easy to scam you are ?”. He laughed and said : “They just want to know. It’s information. They store it, they spread it. Anything is good to know, including how much you t-shirt costs. Just to know.”
“How old are you”
In Kyrgyzstan, quite soon after your name and country, what they want to know is how old you are. Forget about your prudishness and the consideration it’s rude to ask a woman her age. In Kyrgyzstan everyone wants to know it, from the bus driver to the sheep’s’ herdsman.
Only later did I understand why. Social interactions are coded based on the age of a person. Age is everything, and it determines your status compared to someone else, and thus how you should behave towards him. An American volunteer confessed “It’s quite exhilarating : in my host family I have a “little brother” and I can tell him anything “do this, do that”. He’ll do it. Just because I’m older and I told him so. Aaah, if only my little brother back home was the same !”
The other question is “Are you married”. Needless to say a 26y.o. woman not married is very disturbing, and I could see they were genuinely concerned about my “case”, and they’d often proceed to find someone good to marry for me. They’d go and get their neighbor, brother, cousin, whoever, who is healthy and doesn’t drink too much, and offer him to me to lift my spirits up and not make me feel like I’m such a failure to be single. When they didn’t know about my age yet, some people told me “Get married quick, because after 25 a woman is no good anymore” “Er, actually I’m 26″ “Oh …” (surprise, awkwardness and worry)
Eventually I ended up saying I was married, to stop worrying everyone around, and to get less wedding proposals, and also because I had been warned with some serious looks about “bride kidnapping” (I may write a post about that later). But then they’d put pressure on me anyway : and you don’t have kids yet? Hurry hurry ! What’s wrong with your husband ?!
“Do you live here ?”
You’re strolling around Singapore, delighting at being able to be somewhere exotic yet understand and be understood everywhere by speaking English. You chat with people and amongst the first thing they ask is “Do you live here”. Wow it doesn’t happen so often when abroad that someone well aware that you’re a foreigner also considers there are good chances you’re a local anyway. It’s kind of thrilling, and makes you think “wow, actually I could totally live here”. Singapore is a place where every local is from somewhere else at some point. So it seems you’re free to join the ride, and you’ll be welcomed as one of theirs.
What about you ? What are the first questions you usually ask ? Have you been asked unusual questions abroad ?
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