Doing the Bird

17 January 2022

Enthusiastically, I extended my middle finger to the Greek Minister of Education. Well, not exactly “the bird,” but my thumb raised up as an “Okay” to his question, not realizing that, for the Greeks, this was an obscenity. This was the moment I realized that gestures have different meanings in different cultures.

Fortunately, as I have found in most places I’ve visited, people are forgiving. At least they were more forgiving than myself, who could not–for years–believe he had made such a mistake. It took me years to realize this simple idea, mostly because I thought I was a fast learner. Over and over again, I would screw up some basic communication, with a tour operator, with the VP of Toyota, with a monk in India, with a new friend in Costa Rica. And why? Because I could not comprehend this simple idea: not everybody makes meanings like Americans do. 

Of course they don’t. But why couldn’t I see that? I’ve always imagined myself a fast learner, someone who jumps from premise to three conclusions away. School came fairly easily to me: most of my friends called me “The Brain” (well, they called me “Froggy,” too, but that’s another issue). So of course when I moved into the larger world, I fully expected my framework of knowing to apply to whatever I met. It’s not that I arrogantly demanded and debated my rightness. That’s the worst of it: largely I unconsciously presumed that their experiences were my own. 


Minister Petros Efthymiou was too kind to the American.

Photograph by​ OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

The Brain’s Ignorance

So when Minister Petros Efthymiou did a double-take to my “tall man,” I could not understand what had happened. He explained it to me later, and I felt like an idiot. He had understood that I was an American and that I certainly had not intended to insult. This was a polite way of saying that he had grown used to American ignorance.  I wasn’t smart at all; I was ignorant.

This was a real identity-changer for me: how could “The Brain” be ignorant? It was a simple mistake, after all. And my refusal to address this question caused the problem to reassert itself time and time again. To put it another way, I was so convinced of my rightness that I somehow was reasoning that the rest of the world was wrong.

That’s the worst of it: largely I unconsciously presumed that their experiences were my own.

Inevitable Collisions

Now, as I study Critical Race Theory, postcolonial arguments by Said, and superhero shows from Turkey on Netflix, my understanding has grown. This brain has begun to realize that the collision of symbol and meaning is not the problem, but the attitude about what that collision represents is essential to our relationships. Disagreement and error are not bad; failing to seek the foundation for them is. 

I am learning to be okay with my obscene gestures if my examination of them leads to better understanding. Minister Efthymiou and that unnamed Buddhist monk in Dharamsala have become meaningful to me in this new way: their patience helped me recognize other kinds of knowing. 

If you’re not watching . . . 

Photograph by Netflix


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