Noticing gestures

It may be because of the extreme winter cold in New England that has been keeping me inside. Or it may be the time spent unpacking our stuff in the new house we recently bought. Or it may be the long hours at the computer catching up after six weeks on the road. Whatever the reason, I keep thinking back to the warm days and interesting experiences I had in December and January while traveling in Asia. Gestures, of all strange things, keep coming to mind when I think about that trip.

I ended that trip in the city of Bijapur, in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka. Bijpaur has along and rich history, particularly in terms of Islamic architecture, which is what I was photographing there. The folks who helped me as I was photographing (and gave me all sorts of useful information) were mostly but not exclusively Muslims. When we would part I would of course thank them. The gesture they made in return really caught my attention. This involved placing the palm of their right hand on the chest, bowing their head a little, closing their eyes momentarily and moving their hand outward from their heart towards me. I am told they were saying both “Thank You (in the name of Allah)” and something like “I will keep our encounter close to me heart.”

It was a very touching gesture to me, once I understood it. At first glance it bore a slight resemblance to a military salute or worse, something related to a Nazi salute. I was completely wrong about that, doubly so once I watched closely as the gesture was made and I asked about its meaning. That led me to thinking about other gestures I had encountered during my travels.

All across India you will see the Hindu gesture of hands pressed together, held near the heart with the head bowed slightly. It serves as a greeting, a gesture of respect and a way of saying “thank you.” I have more than occasionally invoked that myself. Even when I use that with people in India who are not Hindus they always get it and are generally appreciative of the effort.

In Singapore, I would occasionally see what turned out to be a traditional Malay greeting between Muslims. It is similar to the western handshake without the intense grip. In it, Malays usually offer both hands to the person they are greeting, lightly touching the outstretched hand(s) of the other. Then either one or both hands are brought back to the heart to suggest “I will keep your greeting in my heart.”

In Vietnam, in a Catholic Church I was reminded of the Catholic gesture making a mini-cross on the forehead, then the lips and then the heart. As I transited through Tokyo, I was reminded how in Japanese (and apparently in Korean) culture a simple bow from the waist is used, occasionally with slight regional variations. Interestingly, the same bowing gesture is not found in daily life in Chinese societies, and a slight bow is used only as an act of paying respect to the dead.

I ended up thinking about Western gestures, at first comparing these kinds of greetings to the common American gesture of waving, which seems too casual. In the situations I was working in such a minimal gesture would probably have alienated the very people I was trying to make a connection with.

I also contrasted these greetings with the air kissing that I never successfully mastered when greeting my late French/Moroccan photo agent Jocelyn Benzakin. She was less than five feet tall so on top of the vertical challenges in aligning ourselves for our greeting I always seemed to be off by one beat on the timing. I never developed the fluidity required for the similar double kiss commonly used by Europeans and celebrities. I also suspected that those kissing gesture were easy ways to spread illnesses (or in J.B.’s case) smear lipstick on faces and clothes.

Finally, I came to that most American of gestures, shaking hands. For better or worse, that same act is spreading rapidly across the globe, one of the many unintended consequences of globalization. Though we accept and do it easily, looking at the gesture from the outside, it does seem rather odd. A handshake can (and regularly does) spread disease. It must be practiced to get the form just right. Using it must be done in the proper order when greeting a group of people. Hand shakes between people with different size hands, doubly so between smaller women and larger men, can be particularly awkward.

There are a number of different theories on the origin of the handshake. Arguably the most commonly used (and well established one) has the gesture serving as a way to show the person you are meeting that you have no weapon(s) in your hand.

If you look at that from an outsider’s perspective, it comes off as an awful greeting, bordering on militaristic or worse. In a first meeting situation, yes, I want to know that you have no weapons. But if you really want to connect with me, show me a bow of respect or a gesture suggesting how you will keep our meeting in your heart. I will reciprocate with a similar open-hearted gesture and then we can get a relationship started on a good footing.

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