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06.11.08

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Phaedra

Going Dutch in Beijing

How to Behave Properly When Far Away From Home

Reviewed by Richard von Busack


The Zulu drinking toast is pronounced "Oogy wawa." Don't take a bottle of wine to a fancy French dinner party or marigolds to a Polish house. Give a citizen of Shanghai a clock, and you're hinting "I am counting the minutes until you die." Don't ever tell an Australian athlete you're rooting for him. Toasting "Chin-chin" in Tokyo makes the locals think you're saying, "Here's to little boy's weenies!" Oh God, let's just flip the rest of the world off and know what we're doing when we do it. Fortunately, the middle finger—known even to Julius Caesar's contemporaries as the "digit impudius"—is famous the world over. Globe-trotting author Mark McCrum displays good spirits about the multiplicity of customs on our planet. The adjectives "charming" and "delightful" recur throughout the book—never, as some of us might suggest, "risky" and "shame-inducing." This collection of anecdotes makes one contemplate how bad it is in America, even. The handshake: always a moment of anxiety. Should we do the dance of the Caucasian abrazo? Overseas, it's even more fraught; in Germany, you greet your host's wife first, and in Venezuela, it's the oldest man in the room. The Arabian man-smooch ("Don't initiate it, but if it happens you should reciprocate") is a matter too terrible to contemplate. This book reiterates that the key to good manners is watching your hosts and imitating them. But is it fair to rob foreigners—half the time stuffy, half the time over-familiar—of the pleasure of watching an outlandish Yank make some horrific social gaff? Isn't it your duty as a visitor to give them something to talk about? (By Mark McCrum; Henry Holt; 224 pages; $22 hardback)


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