I morph into an Asian tourist when I visit a country where I don’t speak the native language. I smile and bow incessantly, like an Adderall-popping wind-up toy. At the hint of eye contact and the beginning of a verbal greeting, I whip out my nervous smile, eyes darting wildly from lack of comprehension, and head instinctively starting the short journey down to my chest. I do this not out of deference, but apologetic embarrassment at the fact that I can barely string two words together in a simple greeting let alone a handful to form a cohesive sentence in response.
I used to look at Asian tourists with bemused condescension when I observed them bowing and smiling when abroad but now I stand with them in solidarity. When you don’t understand a thing, it makes sense to smile and bow. I have come to define smiles and bows as the universal non-verbal signs of greeting and gratitude. Exhibited in tandem, these gestures are your hello and thank you wrapped in one very friendly package of utter confusion.
The difference when I smile and bow in a foreign country is two-fold. First, the obvious – that as much as I may think I am Asian on the inside, I am very white and very tall and very Eastern European-looking and American-acting so the bowing completely does not make cultural sense to the perplexed observer of this action. And second, I commit to my smiling and bowing with such gusto that I communicate the very opposite of greeting and gratitude. I believe that if I smile just a little bigger and bow just a little harder, I will communicate not just “Hi” but “HELLO!!! I AM SO HAPPY TO MEET YOU!!!” and not just “Thanks” but “THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!! I LOVE YOUR COUNTRY AND THE FOOD!!!” And so naturally, my bared teeth and aggressive bowing make me seem deranged rather than immensely appreciative of the salutation.
You would think that after Argentina and Costa Rica, I would command some kind of basic Spanish. But just like Dory in Finding Nemo, my memory eludes me. And just like Dory, this is the frozen expression plastered on my face when I am approached by a kind, Spanish-speaking soul here in Bogota:
Every Spanish phrase that Michael had drilled into my head has flittered away, leaving random groupings of words that make little sense. This short-term memory loss makes me rely even more on my manic smiling and bowing. When I’m with Michael, this non-verbal lunacy is masked by his charming fluency. I may get a strange look here and there but mostly I am ignored. However, when I am left to my own devices, it’s a different story.
I decided to venture up to the roof-top pool deck of our hotel in Bogota because the 8th-floor, 360-degree views were bound to be quite lovely. And they most certainly were. I planned on reading in solitude as I looked over the cityscape. However, these quixotic plans were dashed by my exuberant Greeting and Gratitude. As I was making my way up the spiral staircase, I ran into the pool attendant. As we made eye contact and he started speaking to me in Spanish, I panicked and turned up my smiling and bowing to overdrive so what greeted this friendly attendant was not a nice and calm female tourist but this psychopath:
After this unsettling interaction, I was not surprised to see the cautious attendant follow me up to the deck, probably thinking that I could be capable of who knows what given my feral nature. Conscious of his eyes on me at all times as I made my way around the perimeter of the pool, I took a few photos of the vista and aborted my original plan of a leisurely reading session on one of the chaise lounges. His relief was palpable when I finally descended the stairs back to the hotel and was no longer his liability to deal with.