One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.
Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.
In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand. A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.
If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”
In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.
It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.
It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.
It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.
Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.
As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.
Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.
Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!” If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.
There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.
If Walt Whitman was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.
I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.