What's in a Name?
As cliché as it sounds, travel broadens your horizons and forces you to reconsider preconceived notions by exposing you to new cultures and perspectives. You will invariably commit faux pas. For instance, in parts of Asia and the Middle East, never use your left hand for anything, except ‘that’ (for those not in the know, toilet paper is not ubiquitous). Although a little research ahead of time might help, just embrace now that it will happen. Most people will politely ignore it or kindly correct you, and perhaps you will get a good story out of it like I did on my first big trip abroad.
As a junior in college, I took a trip down to Brazil during Christmas break. The only travel I had done was with my family around the United States and up to Canada and the one time I had been on a commercial plane was a trip to Colorado for skiing with my father and a friend. There I was on an overnight flight to a developing country, not knowing a lick of Portuguese. I was a typical college kid wearing a CU (Clarkson University) shirt, khakis, and sandals (sans socks, I am not that stereotypical…yet), bright eyed and clueless. Fortunately, my girlfriend (now wife) accompanied me, and we were going to visit her family.
When we landed in Sao Paulo, our transfer city, I started getting looks from the locals. Most were curious about the white guy, but some gave me the stink eye and grumbled as they hurriedly walked past. On a local plane from Sao Paulo to our final destination, Recife, it got worse. I sat in the middle seat between two old people. They both glared at me until I hid behind a facemask and pretended to sleep. When I asked my girlfriend about it, she suggested I was making it up. Perhaps I was anxious because everything was so foreign.
Finally, with a sore back, fuzzy teeth, and in much need of sleep, we were greeted by very friendly and happy relatives. They gave a whirlwind tour of the city and deposited us at Aunt Lavana’s. We stumbled into the elevator, yearning for a horizontal surface to pass out on. Opening the door, we were surprised to find the apartment filled with people, including relatives from other cities, who had all come to meet us. The next part is a blur, but, apparently, I made a decent impression. One uncle even discussed buying a research patent I was working on.
A few hours later everyone was gone and I thought finally, FINALLY, I could sleep. It was then that my mistake was revealed. My girlfriend came over to me and said, “Don’t freak out, but…” Many of her relatives had come to her asking why I was wearing such an inappropriate shirt. The same shirt I had worn on the plane and likely the reason I had received such nasty looks from people. The shirt I wore was from the Clarkson University Biomolecular Science and Chemistry Department, which I used during open houses when I was showing prospective students around. It is maroon with the university initials ‘CU’ in white lettering. Turns out, ‘cu’ is a word in Portuguese that refers to a body part that in some areas of the world you clean with your left hand. With this new word added to my Portuguese vocabulary, I spent more sleepless hours reevaluating the first impression I had made with my future in-laws. Sometimes you just can’t win.
"Traveling makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."
"The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate."