17 June 2009

Point Less

One of the greatest challenges I have faced while living in Singapore is breaking the habit of pointing. We all know that it is not nice to point, but in Southeast Asia, it is downright offensive and insulting. Even though I find it necessary at times, it never, ever is acceptable. Before I reach the point of no return, I am learning to keep my hands to myself.

I can be an expressive talker. Using my hands and face helps me to articulate a point, especially when I am taking aim at a political position or social situation. When listening to someone who says something interesting or funny, I tend to turn my hands into a couple of six-shooters and point them as a gesture of agreement. Not only must that action offend certain onlookers, but also a thumb pointing up offends others. In some countries, a thumbs-up sign is the same as giving the finger. I am not much for that hand signal, so keeping my thumbs down is not a challenge.

Using my index fingers while I am in conversation is just the tip of my pointing habit. Restaurant menus such as Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai list their traditional dishes by their customary names. No numbers printed next to foodstuffs for easy ordering and absolutely no pointing. It seems second nature to point to the dish on the menu while placing an order particularly when the words are difficult to say. Either I am doomed to eat what I can clearly pronounce (Pad Thai and General Tso’s Chicken) or I am doomed to eat intestines after butchering the name of a dish.

As I maneuver around Singapore, I am rarely without a map. When I am lost or confused in any city I whip out a map, stop a passerby, and point where I want to go. Language can be a barrier here so pointing on a map and asking directions seems logical, but it is unacceptable. Sometimes I am able to ask for assistance and a helpful person shows me the way by sweeping a flat hand in the general direction. However, that movement is not as specific as it is when using a finger and leaves me scratching my head in even deeper uncertainty.

Now I am at a turning point. In social situations, I make sure my hands are never empty by either holding a drink or my purse. When ordering in restaurants, I channel one of my mother’s screaming reprimands, "Sit on your hands!” I make my food selection by speaking slowly and clearly while keeping one hand on the menu and the other in my lap. Asking directions with a map is no longer an issue. Using my thumb in a Bill Clinton I-feel-your-pain style, I am able to pinpoint the exact location.

Beside the point, I am learning to live without a crook finger. That's a signal for postitutes.

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