"Excuse me, do you have a lighter?" I'm asked for the third time today.
"Of course not! I'm American -- we don't smoke!" I reply, hoping that whoever ends up lending this European backpacker a lighter is standing far, far away from me.
I love travel enough that I've basically designed my whole life around being able to spend a few months abroad each year. I consider myself open-minded (though, as I've said before, not every part of every culture deserves my respect), and ever since reading Kate Fox's masterpiece, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior, I've been just as interested in detecting minute cultural differences as major, obvious ones.
(As far as I'm concerned, anyone who thinks that England isn't just as foreign and different and exotic as Brazil or China must be looking with one eye closed.)
However, for the life of me, I cannot understand the rest of the world's obsession with smoking.
Even more, I can't wrap my mind around the near-universal tendency of non-American and non-Canadian people -- travelers and locals alike -- to light up a cigarette right next to me and just start blowing smoke in my face.
In the last two months, I don't think I've enjoyed a single meal without at least one bite tasting like someone's cigarette. I haven't made it through one jam session without my vocal cords being assaulted by secondhand smoke. And if you want to smell the fresh, salty air during a Lombok sunset? Forget it, and brace yourself for a zephyr of smoke. (Because another near-universal tendency of smokers is to always be upwind of you.)
Running away from the smoke. Image: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram.
It's one thing if you are already smoking and I decide to join your table...
But it's quite another to plop down, shoulder-to-shoulder with me, and start shortening my life by, like, a whole minute. Yet travelers from all over the world (except America and Canada) seem to think nothing it.
So I look at them and sincerely ask, "Is that normal in your culture? To just sit next to someone and blow smoke in their face? Do you do that at home, or only here?"
So far, I haven't gotten a straight answer. Whether they're from New Zealand, Indonesia, France, Germany, China, Malaysia, or somewhere else, everyone has been confused about what I'm even asking. A French girl insisted, "No, eet is not normal!"
But when I replied, "So why did you just do it?" she had no comment.
This post isn't meant to shed light on a mystery, as I'm no closer to closing the case now than I was at the beginning of my trip.
I've learned that if you leave your scooter at the beach, it will be fine, but if you leave it near the beach, someone will swipe it in minutes. I've learned that Indonesians eat rice with their hands, but noodles with a fork and spoon. I've learned that the reason restaurant owners shoo stray dogs out of their warungs but let hoards of bracelet-selling kids come in and harass diners is because it is, in fact, a bracelet mafia, and the restaurant owners face repercussions if they don't cooperate.
But I still have no idea whether travelers are inconsiderate jerks who have no problem blowing smoke in people's faces (which wouldn't explain why locals do it)... or if it's just a normal, accepted behavior in the rest of the world.
It's one thing to be the Malaysian local who is blasting music out of his bluetooth speaker on the bus instead of using his headphones -- it's inconsiderate, but at least it won't hurt me.
It's one thing to be the white guy who clips his toenails on the plane, then hurls the clippers at the wall when he's finished. It's gross... but I probably won't catch any diseases from it?
It's one thing to decide to make your body less healthy. It's another to make a decision that harms my body.
(That's why I'd be totally okay with you being an idiot who doesn't vaccinate -- go ahead and get measles and die! Your body, your choice! -- IF it didn't put vulnerable populations at risk. Or why I would be totally okay with you being an idiot who doesn't wear a seatbelt -- IF you were the only person who would die unnecessarily in an accident and there were no possibility of your body flying through the windshield and becoming a projectile that could harm innocent others.)
Me? I wear a helmet, long sleeves, long pants, and either closed-toe shoes or reef booties on the scooter. But you're free to do what you want. If we collide, it's probably safer for me if you're not wearing a helmet. Image: The Happy Talent on Facebook.
So... which is it? Self-selecting group of jerks? (Travelers can definitely be annoying, self-serving, and arrogant.) Or barbarians?
I'm eager to hear outside thoughts on this very sincere question.
For the sake of my own awareness, I'm also interested in hearing about other behaviors travelers and locals find barbaric in other cultures. I'm not talking about things like female genital mutilation or stoning your gays. That's obviously bad. I mean little things most of us do without even thinking about it that others experience as either totally inconsiderate or flat-out rude.
So please share in the comments, or on Facebook or Twitter.
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Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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