“Me?” She pointed her perfectly painted nailed finger to her right cheek, poking her powdered face softly, making a small indent. Her nail was so close to her eye, I flinched, thinking she would poke her eye. Then I realized she was pointing to herself in question.
As I sat in that fancy café in Tokyo, my mind wandered away from whatever she was saying. I thought on the fact that I had seen this gesture in Taiwan as well. As an American, I was used to people placing their hands on their chests, pointing to their hearts to refer to themselves. I was terribly thrown off when I noticed Asians pointed to their eyes, their faces, seemingly their brains, to indicate their selves. It shocked me because consciously I had braced myself for the harsh wall of a different language to crash into my face. I had mentally prepared myself for the bizarre new culture to rush around me. Though I knew it would feel like a different planet, I reassured myself that it was still inhabited by my species. Though we are vastly different, I thought everyone throws up their hands in anger, everyone shrugs in indifference, everyone sighs longingly.
No. Body language is something learned. We chuckle at little children when they stomp off angrily, when they smile coyly, and when they cuddle lovingly. We muse at them but these are gestures of meaning they were shown. Body language is an unconscious language we all speak, one that speaks before and after our formal languages. I assumed that this was a universal language. Now I’ve learned just as all cultures have syntax, all cultures also have their own bodily of phrases, exclamations and statements.
Sri Lankans wobble their heads, it seems, in acquiescence – “OK I agree”, or “I will do what you ask” their heads seem to say. Italians put their fingers together at the tips and smack the air as a physical exclamation point. The Japanese bow deeply, the Koreans a little less deeply and it’s even less obvious in the Chinese and Taiwanese, but it is there. It seems to be a silent thank you, a wordless movement of appreciation.
As I sat in the cafe in Tokyo, watching the repetitive fluid bowing of the saleswomen in the mall corridors, my mind lulled to deeper thoughts. Do our worldviews inform our bodily movement? Or are these gestures simply a product of our tradition, unconscious, and meaningless, remnants of our heritages, similar to having the same laugh as our father or the same fidget as our mother? By placing my hand on my heart to say,” I”, do I show I believe my center and my soul is found in my feelings, my emotions and my heart? Do my Asian friends believe their being is in their brain, their intelligence and their thoughts? When we indicate “I” in different ways are we challenging each other as to where the soul is really found?
By bowing, do the Japanese show they believe it is more important to put themselves second, while the firm American handshake and look in the eye shows I think of myself on equal standing as any given person?
Whatever I believe I enjoy learning these new body languages. I like being startled into using my limbs in a different way to convey different meaning. When in Sri Lanka a woman holds my hand as we walk, when in Japan a person bows deeply to me, when in Taiwan a student points to his face to question if it’s his turn next. I like to think of the countless examples of this very gesture they themselves have seen over and over to make it a normal movement for them.
I like to learn how very important these movements are. I like to think of how essential it is to everyday living. I could learn every word in their language but until I move in their body language I will never communicate
with them fully.