Kowtow

As a language teacher to people of many, many countries (my latest acquisition is from Equatorial Guinea- the only country in Africa that speaks Spanish!), part of the wondrous world of intercultural communication are the mishaps. Like when I beckon to a student (the palm-up, curled finger “come here” gesture) and forget that in Asia it’s used to call dogs. Or like when I tell a Mexican that it’s OK (thumb and forefinger making an “O”, remaining fingers straight up), inadvertently calling him an a-hole.

But the greatest barrier isn’t the odd gestural mishap or the multiplicity of first languages in one class, it’s the bows.

And I’m not talking about used-for-the-hair, isn’t-she-cute bows.

To bow.

From Merriam-Webster “to bend the head, body, or knee in reverence, submission, or shame; to cause to incline; especially in respect or submission”.

Synonyms: curtsy, genuflection, kowtow, nod, obeisance.

I get bowed to on a regular basis.

No, I’m not the queen of my universe, but perhaps of my classroom (it’s the small things that count).

And for all the genuine respect and reverence (?) that I’m sure I elicit (snort), I am genuinely shamed every time it happens. It’s probably an Americanism- this freedom for all, none better than another, caste-less society we’ve formed is like few on earth (for better or worse). My reaction, even with an advanced degree in linguistics and cross-cultural communication, is one of great embarrassment. Invariably I either make an abortive gesture to stop the person or attempt to control the primitive yawlp of “DON’T” that surges from my insides.

How to deal with this? I usually incline my head in return, but then I feel like a beneficent monarch or self-satisfied bishop.

At least there’s no kow-towing going on. That would break me.

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9 Responses to Kowtow

  1. antropologa says:

    Huh, nobody ever bowed to ME.

  2. KathyB! says:

    Oh, evenshine… I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy… (it’s in the trailer for those that didn’t watch and think that I’m a losin’ it).

    Is it wrong that I’d feel a little tingle of happiness if someone bowed (even just a little nod of the head) to me?! I’m going to come to your class dressed as you someday just to get a little ego boost. I promise not to talk… I could come on test day and just sit stoically while they hand in their papers 🙂

  3. Ink says:

    Although I understand that it makes you uncomfortable, it seems cool that they are showing respect to you. 🙂

  4. insider53 says:

    I like being an American but sometimes I wish we had kept certain cultural traditions, like bowing, not scraping, just bowing.

  5. Adriana says:

    I haven’t had many Asian students, but I have to admit no one has “bowed” to me yet.

    Have no clue how I’d react though; with my sense of humor I might say something like “rise Lord Vader” .

  6. faemom says:

    @Adriana- That was hilarious.

    Evenshine, I would feel awkward too. I remember working on my lines for a play as a kid with my dad, and he casually mentioned that he never bowed when he was in drama because he was taught to bow to no man but God. It just kind of stuck with me.

  7. Wow. I really never thought about how everyday innocent gestures (like the OK sign) could mean something entirely different to someone else. Makes me nervous about ever traveling abroad.

  8. amy2boys says:

    This was a cute post. I can think of a lot of people I’d like to have bow to me. Heh.

    But I totally see how uncomfortable this would feel coming from your students. It’s great that they are so respectful. (I have no advice whatsoever, clearly.)

  9. Gibby says:

    I wish my kids would bow to me. Or at least my dog. But no.

    Seriously, though, I would be just as uncomfortable!

    And I didn’t know about the OK sign…that’s a definite “good to know” around here.

    (I haven’t thought about Wayne’s World in so long!)

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