Graceful gestures

5 Mar
I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘how do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you’.

I don’t suppose I’ll live to be a thousand but it’s scarcely less likely that, if I did, I’d see anything more beautiful than a pretty Thai girl performing a wei; wrists at right angles to palms pressed together; finger tips to forehead like the Hindu namaste, eyes demurely lowered as she folds an impossibly nubile waist – the deeper she goes, the greater the respect – before straightening to make full eye contact and blow you away with the invincible smile of Old Siam.

But while the wei is for me the Mahatma Ghandi, the Napoleon Brandy of respectful signals, other cultures come close. And guess what; they’re all in the ‘developing world’.

This should come as no surprise. Observe in our own cities how men of African or Asian descent – third and fourth generations not (entirely) excepted – greet one another in the street. It may ‘only’ be a handshake but see the warmth in their faces; the way palm contact is allowed to linger. No one doubts the universality of Satchmo’s anthem to humanity but do you suppose he saw white hands? OK, maybe his vision was colour blind – we all want to think so – but wouldn’t that be more hope than observation?

Ethiopians do the shoulder to shoulder thing, halfway between hand-shake and embrace, that always puts me in mind – you have to imagine yourself watching from above – of the yin-yang interlock. Here in Vietnam you’ll notice two things in any transaction. One is that when you hand over a currency note (there are no coins) the recipient – waiter, shop keeper etc – will accept it with both hands in a way clearly designed to convey the preciousness to her of your ‘gift’. The other is that, should change be called for, she’ll hand it to you with her right and, as she does so, her left palm will rest high up the right forearm. This respectful gesture also allows for calibration: palm on bicep for everyday use, on shoulder for extra emphasis.

If you detect in any of this a whiff of servility then I‘d suggest – respectfully – you change the company you’ve been keeping. This is no more about obsequy than humility is about humiliation. It’s a mark of the fine pass we in the west have come to that we could ever confuse the two.

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