Monday, March 9, 2009

Southpaw's Lament

From the time I was first able to pick up a crayon, I have always been left-handed. Unapologetically so. Lefties are a proud group who have bravely persevered in a decidedly right-handed world. Gear shifts taunt us. Scissors in our hands become instruments of havoc. Banks chain their pens in impossible locations. In my elementary school classrooms, the one desk designed for left-handers usually sat forlornly in the back row in the choice position next to the bathroom. In the unfortunate event that there were two lefties in the class, we were forced to battle it out each morning for occupancy rights, or worse, one of us would be assigned a neutral-hand desk, a nondescript table rescued from the teacher’s lounge that still retained the fragrant mélange of cigarettes and broken dreams. Much like Canadians have an obsession with trumpeting the achievements of their fellow citizens in Hollywood and Major League Baseball, left-handers also love to celebrate those of our own kind. Napoleon? Leftie. Kermit the Frog? Not easy being green or leftie. Joan of Arc? The very symbol of southpaw persecution. When Barack Obama took the oath of office, it continued the proud tradition of left-handers occupying the Oval Office over the past thirty years or so, with the notable exception of Dubya, and we all know how well that turned out.

But being left-handed is tolerated in Canadian society. People smile when they see me sign my name and invariably say, “Oh, you’re a leftie, eh?” as if giving me one last chance to deny my status and blame it on a mental lapse or an injury to my right arm from a vaccination mishap or bear attack. These same people then feel the need to go on to mention a relative or someone they know who’s similarly afflicted to let me know that I’m not alone. And if it turns out that by chance they themselves are lefties, we give each other the secret lefthandshake and confirm our plans for world domination. In Bangladesh, being left-handed is a more serious issue, as people can take offence at one’s use of the left hand. The cultural norm is that the right hand is used for greeting, eating and passing items, while the left is reserved for wiping one’s posterior and other acts unmentionable on a family blog such as this one. The notion that the left hand could be multi-purpose if properly cleansed is unacceptable here. As a bideshi, or foreigner, I could likely be excused for my mistaken use of the left hand, but I have been determined since my arrival to conform to the custom in an effort to fit in as much as possible. Or at least, to stand out less.

This has resulted in some interesting fumbling. In my usual course of buying anything, I would simply pull out my wallet and hand the bills to the salesclerk with my left hand. Since this would be considered an insult here, I often end up juggling my wallet and money like I’m performing a magic trick for the benefit of the bewildered vendor. Even better, there have been times when I’ve started to pass the money with my left hand, remembered the faux pas at the last minute and withdrawn the bills, leaving the clerk wondering whether I was having second thoughts about buying their Corn Flakes. After the seamless transfer of the cash to my right hand, we try the process again, and the vendor relaxes and calls off the security guard who had been on his way to assist me out of the store.

But by far, the most interesting aspect of having to adjust to using my right hand has been at mealtimes. Actually, eating a meal in Bangladesh has been an interesting adjustment generally. The custom here is to eat with one’s right hand and avoid using any utensils except for putting the food on one’s plate or for eating desserts that would be unmanageable otherwise. There is the sense that the tactile aspect of taking food in one’s hand adds to the enjoyment of the eating experience and heightens the pleasure one gets from the food. If it’s done properly, of course, which would be opposite to the way that I have been doing it. Though it sounds rather simple, eating directly with the hand is a skill that I clearly need to develop. Rice is a particular challenge, as the grains tend to go everywhere but in my mouth, prompting some sympathetic coworkers watching the meal massacre to lean in and confide that it’s really OK if I decide to use a fork or spoon. “Nebuh!”, I declare, as the food I did manage to get in my mouth threatens to fly out and blind someone. Adding to my embarrassment is the fact that Kristel has taken to the new technique without missing a beat and now eats as comfortably as those around her. I watch enviously as she expertly compacts the rice with her fingers and pops the newly formed morsel in her mouth without any collateral damage.

Deciding to eat strategically, I carefully ladle some dahl on to the rice, thinking that it will help to glue the rice together. Instead, the soupy mass that results would easier be taken up with a straw. I hope I can distract those around me from noticing the increasing flood on my plate by grabbing some of the more solid food on the table, but the boiled eggs placed next to me have been heated to the approximate temperature of the sun, so I’m reduced to blowing on my fingers and making odd whimpering sounds. All the while, my left hand dangles uselessly by my side and I begin to resent its presence at the table, thinking it could be making better use of its time somewhere else, maybe wiping someone’s bum. But with the meal completed and me somewhat sated, I decide to forgive my wayward appendage and give it another chance.

It seems that it is only on the roads that the left hand redeems itself. Having adopted the British style of driving on the left side of the road in vehicles that position the driver on the right, the left hand can finally assume some importance in manipulating the gearshift and making threatening gestures at those who are about to cut into one’s lane. Being on the receiving end of a Bangladeshi bird being flipped is probably made all the worse by it being the evil left hand doing the curse.

And so it seems that my favoured hand will continue to fall into disfavour for the two years that I’m here. But even if the left hand is at a decided disadvantage in Bangladesh, I will continue to proudly use it whenever possible in an effort to promote equality for left-handed people everywhere. Anything else would just not be…..right.


Ashley said...

Hi Glenn!
I hope everything is going well in Bangladesh! I have enjoyed your photos.
Karina is a lefty too... so I know your story all too well. Drop me a line sometime.. I'd like to hear more of your Bideshi tales!

Ashley Dawson

Anonymous said...

Tales of the Southpaw. We should keep this dialogue going. I'm sure we can collect an entire series specially devoted to the left hand and why it is or is not a good thing to have [well, or at least to use, since many of us already have one anyway].

Ned Flanders of "oakaley doakaley" fame on The Simpsons is a lefty, and even went so far as to open a store to sell left handed gadgets. For the life of me I cannot discern why one would need a left handed scissors, but then again, I'm just cold and insensitive to the needs of southpaws.

Two left hand stories, which have nothing to do with China where being left handed is neither here nor there -- at least in my estimation. As one colleague said to me, we don't care how you get the food to your mouth, just so long as you eat.

Of course, this is the kind of thing that drives the Japanese crazy with a sense of rampant uncouth behaviour, but then again, the Chinese are a whole lot more pragmatic than the Japanese about certain things, like eating with the right or the left hand.

But I promise not to tell Chinese toilet stories, which basically have nothing to do with right or left, but with squat vs sit. A world that takes on a whole new meaning when you are wearing a suit.....

The smelly left hand: the Latin for left hand is sinistra, from which the English, French, Italian, Spanish "sinister words" come. The right hand in Latin is recto, as in "right", as in "good" or righteous, and so on.

Yes, evil pure and simple, and good pure and simple. And while we may have analogical, metaphorical and symbolic understandings of sinester aka diabolical evil, in reality it is a very concrete reference: stink and shit - kaka in Greek and baby talk.

Not nice, not to be played with, having deep psychological overtones, and down right gag reflex in the stomach, throat and nose. Simple and direct: if it stinks, it's evil.

In a world without toilet paper, which indeed is most of the world, how do you handle the remains of the day aka your daily BM? If there is no stick or leaf, and you are in the desert with little or no water but lots of sand, what do you do without ushering in the effects of stick in the bum, poison ivy of the rectum, or sandpaper ass? So the origins of sinister are truly basic to the point of gag reflex...and insulting to the nth degree.

With all that preamble finished, let's deal with the first story: So what if the Koran decrees that a thief's right hand should be cut off both to show the world he is a thief and "to remove the offending limb" [if the eye offends, pluck it that simple justice of the desert]. The thief is left only with the left.

But this is more than being a social outcast or outlaw. It is tantamount to condemning the person to death by starvation.

In societies where everyone eats from the common plate by hand, and only the right hand can be used, the thief with no right hand can no longer eat from the common plate. Yes, this takes social ostracism to the extreme, but it could be even worse because the person may not have the opportunity to "eat alone" -- there are only socially acceptable forms of eating.

I hate to say it but forced to eat with the left hand, and refused food because of that, leads to death, and one that is probably not as nice as being crucified since it could drag on for weeks.

Take the lot of the southpaw very seriously. It ain't easy being green or a lefty. And it is not an act of independence, defying the norm, to be a lefty; it is the state of an outlaw, a miscreant, one condemned to live on the fringe of society, one even condemned to death.

Getting Schwartzkoff's Left: His Greatness was sitting in a bar basking in the glow of his own self esteem. A friend came up and introduced his friend to his Greatness, and the brief desultary chit chat was better characterized by his Greatness perusing the room to determine if there was someone else worthy of his company. As the "conversation" came to an end, without looking the person in the eye, his Greatness thrust out his left paw for the final handshake. This is called "getting the left from Schwartzkoff".

Interpretation: you are unworthy of my attention and there will be no further need to talk -- now or ever again.

When I was told this story, I was horrified by the utter rudeness of the gesture. When growing up as a youngster, we were always warned about how rude it is to shake someone's left hand. This story of the General left a visceral impression on me -- utterly repulsed.

It is a total insult that probably goes back to when "shaking someone's hand in greeting" first began. Grasping the hand sometimes went all the way up the wrist and even to the forearm. And it was a demonstration, proof, that one did not conceal a knife or other weapon. Since most people are right handed, which is also your sword or knife or weapon hand, to shake with your right hand is to show you could be trusted because you were not armed. The other person reciprocated.

To offer your left hand indicated you concealed a weapon and therefore could not be trusted. How insulting for two rivals to come together on common ground, or even more seriously to share hospitality in the house/fortress of one of the rivals, and to have someone [a host even] ignore neutrality and trust by thrusting out the left hand to be shaken!!!

And here is the warrior par excellence thrusting out his left hand to the innocent and naive admirer fully aware of just how insulting the gesture is -- while the unknown might be unworthy of the General's time, the General certainly showed he was untrustworthy at best.

Tales of the Southpaw....more than using left handed ball point pens.

Talk to you soon,

Anonymous said...

"the fragrant mélange of cigarettes and broken dreams"
Best quotation ever.
Excellent article and pics. It looks more poverty stricken than NIgeria, or is it just that the colours aren't as vibrant. I know so little about Bangladesh. It has been interesting - with you there and Lazena, my student, I have been enjoying a steep learning curve.
Be safe and have fun!
Jen MacLellan