A CANADIAN SIKH
HARSHBIR SINGH KANG
“How are you?” was a preposterous thing to ask. I had only been in their apartment for two minutes and asking how they were––especially when saying it in Serbian––was an outlandish way to make a first impression on the family I would be staying with in Belgrade for nearly two months. I would learn of their amusement after the fact, hearing my homestay mother tell guests inquiring about my rather limited proficiency in Serbian that I first greeted them with “Kako Si?” She also mentioned that the housekeeper would always tell her about how I began our exchanges with “Kako Si?” The cachinnation accompanying these anecdotes taught me very quickly that the complexities behind such a question were commonly overlooked by North Americans.
After my first night staying with the family, I went for a jog in the first greyish-yellow light of the day, returning around 6 a.m. to find an older woman, whom I would come to identify as the family housekeeper, lying on the couch in the living room, emitting a series of muted snores. A few light wrinkles folded into her face, framed by blonde locks that fell to her jawline, streaked with hints of a greyish silver. She was between my mother and grandmother’s age. I had managed to open the door and step in silently enough so as not to disturb the soundscape of ticking clocks and dormant air. I slipped off my sneakers, starting to tiptoe to my bedroom until a floorboard decided to let off a creak. She sprung up. A painfully protracted moment followed in which the pair of us stood only a meter apart, staring mindlessly at one another.
“Good morning!” I smiled with a slight bow. She continued staring, her eyebrows a manifestation of some combination of bewilderment and amusement at the six-foot-four bearded and turbaned Sikh specimen standing before her. I would learn rather quickly that she did not speak a word of English.
“Dobro Jutro!” I tried again, with the same smile and bow, questioning whether the family had actually notified her of my arrival as they said they had.
“Dobro Jutro,” she murmured, still petrified in perplexity. She began pointing at her sternum with her right index finger. “Zaritsa,” she said, “Te?” she asked, her finger now directed at my own sternum.
“Harshbir,” I replied, assuming that Zaritsa wished to become acquainted. We shook hands as she worked out the phonetics of my name in a series of subtle mutterings. “Kako Si?” I asked foolishly. The face that–-to my relief––had finally shown comfort costively contorted into a subtly startled swirl.
“Dobro,” she said in an unsure tone, as if asking rather than answering.
Westerners revere the handshake: cordial, callous, dominant, diminutive, flippant, funereal, but markedly masculine and steadily self-righteously scrutinized. We scoffed at the hubris of Gordon Brown for ignoring the handshake of the guard outside 10 Downing Street while lauding the humility of Barack Obama for shaking his hand. We squirmed while watching the awkward three-way between Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Peña Nieto at the North American Leaders’ summit in Ottawa. And we all applauded Emmanuel Macron for crushing Donald Trump in their battle of the grips during the recent NATO summit in Brussels.
It is the most elementary demonstration of bona fides––submitting an entire limb to another for a thorough tactile threat assessment validating that one carries no weapons. Even in the absence of apparent armament, the inspection is meticulous with callouses, clamminess, and crushing capability scrupulously scanned and processed for profiling. The act defines our interactions, suffused with symbolism and illustrating intimacy and inclusion. The Dexiosis motif displaying a handshake between the right hands of two people exists on many inscriptions on tombs and contract agreements from Greco-Roman antiquity. Genghis Khan allegedly became the blood brother of his childhood friend Jamukha through the cutting of both their palms, followed by a handshake. As of 2016, Muslim men in Switzerland face a legal obligation to shake the hands of their female teachers. Despite its near-universal prevalence, the handshake is most highly prized and perpetuated by the West.
Handshakes, verbal greetings and other hand gestures fit into a group of social interactions called coordination games, exchanges with multiple possible outcomes where all parties work together to arrive at the same desired result. Our hand extends trusting that the other’s will do the same, culminating in a seamless collaboration between individuals. We initiate such games to enact some form of contact with the other, abandoning agonizing silence and piloting encounters away from conceivable confrontations. One asks a random person sharing an elevator how their day is going. Two people sharing a bus stop start discussing how late the bus is. My bank teller inevitably inquires about my weekend plans. Brimming with banality, these interactions provide a sense of situational security. We snatch solace knowing we’ve engaged the other and potentially avoided violence. In most of our encounters with compatriots, these acts are met with a recognition of the game’s requirement and the appropriate response, albeit with frequent faults vivaciously and viciously cherished and chastised.
Our handshake game is imposed on non-westerners, accompanied by expectations of calculated and conditioned conformity, with failure subject to ruthless ridicule. The media mocked the Cameroonian sports minister for bowing at a near-ninety degree angle when shaking hands with the country’s president. Onlookers marvelled at the painful imprint left on the back of Prince William’s hand by Narendra Modi. And we all cringed when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held Robert Mugabe’s hand between his thumb and forefinger.
Ignorance steers the westerner to project his culture upon the world, recklessly assuming that all will learn and respond accordingly. Prudently forgetful, he overlooks the blunders among his own kind, fiercely erupting upon the outsider’s oversight. Yet frequently he is the alien, a reality conveniently obliterated from the mind, for they must understand his way––the right way. The only way.
Our ignorance grows out of the social bubble that we construct, positioning ourselves at the centre of the universe. It is an ancient custom, a long line of succession with each scion taking the name of Westerner. The Greeks held those who did not speak their language––Barbarians––in bitter contempt. The Romans did the same with Latin, blissfully spreading their customs throughout the known world. In their place came the powers of Europe, with the marvels of Paris uplifted by Francophile and Frenchman alike and the Englishman enthralled in euphoric Pax Britannica. North Americans have joined their ranks, permeating globally, assuming our habits are the only habits and flirtatiously flaunting them anticipating fully formed fluency. Many travellers in some parts of India disgust locals by touching food with their left hands––usually reserved for personal cleaning. My music teacher once offended a man in Taiwan for pointing with one finger when asking for directions. Ted Bishop regretted giving a Navajo man a firm handshake with eye contact when he learned their sensibilities necessitated a soft shake with averted eyes. Despite our often innocent intentions, the bubble mentality remains engrained in our psyche.
My initial encounters with Serbians stupefied me. I tried speaking to everyone I met, offering up my own coordination game of “how are you?” and expecting a “good, how are you?” in return. The question was either ignored or treated with puzzled expressions. “People here are quite rude,” I mumbled to myself, “no manners.”
A server at a cafe I frequented showed me how foolish I was.
She was nearly middle aged, graceful and slender with a sternly welcoming complexion, her dark-golden hair always meticulously brushed back into a ponytail. She seemed quite comfortable with English and out of habit I greeted her with: “Hello, how are you?” Her face writhed in a marvellous display of discombobulation where her eyebrows arched in slightly and a few thin, nearly vertical wrinkles formed on the space directly between them above her nose bridge.
“Fine, thank you,” she responded with the same questioning tone as Zaritsa, her face maintaining its contortion.
I received an identical reaction the next few times I acknowledged her that way and began experimenting with various behaviours in a series of frantic attempts to eliminate the uneasiness. I heard that Belgraders had a reputation for drinking their coffee at an exceptionally slow, relaxed pace, so I began reclining further back in my seat and crossing my legs, restricting the volume of liquid I sipped from the espresso cup, and bringing the vessel to my lips at half my normal speed. I would mimic local patrons at the cafe, casually staring off into space while twirling the cup within its designated indentation in the saucer. I even occasionally switched to Serbian, greeting her with “Kako Si” in the same manner I hailed Zaritsa every morning. Despite my efforts, her answer was marked with the habitual anxiety I received from nearly everyone in the country. My frustration escalated. How could such an elementary question be so agonizing?
I would discover that the solution to the problem was not in how local I made myself look, or in how friendly and casual I tried to act, but rather in personal familiarity. Her replies to my daily harassment gradually lengthened. I began to hear stories from her day, or whether she was feeling tired or fresh. There would usually be a slight pause before the story, as if she was thinking seriously about what to tell me, a stark contrast to what most North Americans reply with when asked how they are: “Good, how are you?”
I observed a similar pattern when asking people at shops or kiosks how they were. As the discomfort began to fade, I would get a more detailed account of how the person was feeling if they felt comfortable conversing in English and familiar enough with me. My homestay parents also began to approach this question with an account of where they had been in the day or some stories from work. Despite our language barrier, Zaritsa would give me a very enthusiastic response of “Dobro” and a thumbs up.
On my fifth visit to the cafe, the server was the one who greeted me with “hi, how are you?” This would become a common occurrence. When I would mistakenly answer with “good,” she would follow up with more questions such as what I did that day or where I went, as if she had expected a complexity comparable to what she would give me when I asked how she was. I noticed a similar shift in my homestay parents after I had been staying with them for a couple of weeks. They were now the ones asking me how I was and expecting some stories from my day. Even Zaritsa would occasionally beat me to the question and say “Kako Si”.
I would learn that in Serbia, asking someone how they are is a question reserved for when one genuinely wishes to know the answer rather than a common greeting. The anxiety induced when asked by a stranger stems from social conditioning requiring a rigorous retelling of the state of one’s affairs in response. A mere “good, thank you,” is a lazy and lousy reaction. I had failed at the coordination game, attempting instead to impose my own attitudes to what seemed like a simple question from an absurd, ill-mannered Canadian Sikh in Belgrade.