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Should you eat everything on your plate? Should you take second helpings if offered to you? Do you wear shoes indoors?

If you are an expat in Asia the some of these will become so familiar to you that when you integrate back into your home country you will find yourself staring in shock at people who visit your home and don't remove their shoes at the front door.

Part of this is what travel is all about. As an expatriate for most of my life I find that I am continuously thinking about what I am supposed to do in a given social situation. Things that were once familiar I have now to think about. For example, after living in Hong Kong I became used to always carrying an assortment of business cards - a personal one and a professional one. These cards were handed out in social situations depending on who I was meeting. I would present them with both hands and a small bow and, when receiving one, I would also take the offered card with both hands I would then stop and read the card and acknowledge the person. Not to do this would have been incredibly rude and disrespectful. I need to show the person I am meeting, due respect and I need him to show me due respect. Now I am living in the UK though and I find myself handing over my business card to people who then barely glance at it as they tuck them unread into their back pockets (and then they sit on them!). If I did this in Asia I would have no friends and probably a lot of enemies.

These circumstances occur everywhere. In Hong Kong I would walk through doors without turning to see who was behind me. It is their responsibility to hold the door open for themselves, not mine. And this is really not a rude thing. It is just part of the culture. So what one does is walk through the door and continue. No stopping to see who is behind, who is following or who may be about to walk through the door.

I did this in the UK and almost got thumped. It wasn't an intentional rudeness, it was a cultural habit that I adopted. And these sorts of habits are hard to shake out of because they are unintentionally integrated.

Even now after a year in the UK, my children drop to their knees and remove their shoe as soon as they arrive at someone's house. The never wear shoes indoors and the idea (to us) of tramping mud and dirt indoors on carpet seems crazy. Shoes are neatly stacked up at the door and that is what they have been doing their entire lives. When people say that they don't need to remove their shoe they smile and tell them not to worry, it is no bother at all. And mostly I find that anyone who arrives afterwards, sees the shoes and does the same thing much to the hostesses bewilderment.

Internal culture things .. all part of the expatriate move.

Oh and by the way, refuse second helpings and don't eat everything on your plate. Eating everything may leave nothing for the amah to eat, and eating everything implies you are starving and can't afford to feed yourself.

HK harbour scene

Amanda O is an expatriate currently living in the UK.

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Posted 20Jun05