Culture Guides

Another 101 World Culture Shocks

The world is still a very strange place.

When we published 101 world culture shocks last year the reaction was tremendous with lots of readers across the internet getting all puffed up about some of the entries.

So we thought we’d do it again.

When we could find further reading for the culture shocks in this article we listed it. Others were on personal experience or anecdote, however.

1. When tougher laws were passed in Napoli, Italy, to ensure drivers took the necessary safety measures, street vendors at once began selling t-shirts with seat belts on them so that the police wouldn’t be able to tell at a glance whether anyone was strapped in or not.

2. These days the same people make fake designer clothes as the real thing. A good part of the trade is run by the Camorra and they supply shops across the world so there’s a good chance that something in your wardrobe went to line the pockets of mafia bosses in Napoli. designer clothes so good they fool everyone.

3. There are Italian mobsters who style themselves after the mafia figures they’ve seen in American movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather. There are even hit men in Napoli who repeat the Italian version of Samuel L Jackson’s Brother’s Keeper speech before he iced his victims in Pulp Fiction.

4. The same hit men have taken to shooting sideways as well, just like their heroes in the movies. The results are painfully messy killings as it takes multiple shots to finish their targets off.

Learn more about the Camorra in Gomorrah from Roberto Saviano

5. Cutting off a segment of a finger once made a Japanese mobster more dependent on his boss as it weakened his grip on his sword. The tradition has prevailed and the missing fingers make it easy to recognize the yakuza when you see them on the street in Japan.

6. If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many Ecuadorian and Peruvian buskers on the street in Europe it’s because many of them play for the same boss who arranged their flight tickets and visas in exchange for a largish slice of their takings.

7. North Korea is one of the more tragic-comic regimes in the world and among the many absurd laws, rule and regulations are strict guidelines on the acceptable hairstyles that loyal, communist men may choose from. Long hair apparently has ‘negative effects on human intelligence.’

8. The Polynesian Islands ought to be a seafood paradise but Japanese trawlers have taken most of the larger fish and the local diet depends a lot on canned corn beef.

9. And while the ancient Polynesians were among the world’s most brilliant navigators, crossing thousands of miles of open ocean in canoes, these days the islanders frequently get seasick when they’re obliged to travel by boat.

10. The French Foreign Legion maintain a sizable presence in Tahiti and many take local girlfriends. Dental hygiene not being so good in those parts, it’s a common act of love to pay for a girl’s teeth to be extracted and given a shiny new false set. Neither is it uncommon for the legionaires to take the teeth with them when they go to render their girlfriends less attractive in their absence.

11. Cargo cults are among the more difficult to understand of cultural phenomenons. The legend is based around Jon Frum, a white man who walked into a Polynesian village in the 1940’s and promised them a life of plenty if they would only throw out the missionaries and go back to their traditional ways. Some villages even built air strips in the hope that one day planes full of consumer goods might cone down from the heavens. Oddly enough, globalisation is almost a fulfillment of the bizarre prophecy.

12. The Pacific Islands are full of Mormon missionaries. Rumours of cannibalism being like catnip to Christian evangelists with a streak of romance in their blood.

13.During the first Iraqi war, many Pacific Islands not only believed the conflict would soon be fought on their beaches (as in WWII) but also that the American army would do well to send Rambo to put a swift end to things.

14. There are chiefs on Pacific Islands who are held directly responsible for the weather. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone you could call up and bitch about the rain to?

More on Pacific Island culture in Paul Theroux’s book, The Happy Islands of Oceania

15. The Japanese are famously shy but it’s presumably the only country in the world where there exist separation agencies who take on the job of dumping your partner for you. And there are even agencies who will get your ex-lover back for you.

16. Of the many jails in the world where the average traveler would discover hell on earth, Russian jails aren’t much fun at all. Fail to stand up for yourself and you may get tattooed with tears which mark you out as fair game for all and sundry.

From Charlotte Hobson’s Black Earth City

17. At Tihar jail in Delhi, prisoners aren’t allowed access to plastic bags as someone once made a key from them and escaped.

18. And no bananas are allowed in to the women’s section for fear they’ll use them for immoral purposes.

19. Sorpresas are the traveler’s must-have souvenir in El Salvador. They’re essentially Kinder-style eggs that open up to reveal everyday scenes but la sorpresa especial has models engaged in sexual positions.

20. Japan maintains its pagan connections ancient fertility rites with a penis festival, phallic symbols of all shapes and sizes paraded around town in a day for all the family.

21. Stendhal syndrome is known to hit visitors in Florence and other beautiful cities of the world where travelers are overwhelmed with art and are subject to dizziness, increased heartbeat, even hallucinations.

22. Travelers arriving in Jerusalem often get swept away by the historical and religious significance of the city and come to the unoriginal conclusion that they are in fact the Messiah everyone has been waiting for. The local asylums are full of raving saviours. It’s called Jerusalem Syndrome

23. It took Indian officials 17 years to come up with a report saying the nationalist BJP were behind the tearing down of the Ayodhya mosque and the subsequent riots.

24. But that’s nothing. The Japanese government still refuses to compensate Asian women forced into prostitution in WWII and refuses to admit they were coerced.

25. The resurgence in fascist sympathies in Italy these days might be represented by the booming trade in Rome of boxer shorts with Mussolini’s face on the front. Whether Il Duce’s features enhance virility is still a matter of debate.

26. Changes in Italian law mean that you can be prosecuted for even renting a room to an illegal immigrant.

27. Italian law is actually so complicated with so many new laws coming in each year, that even with a dedicated accountant a company can’t be sure that they’re actually within the law. This essentially means that they could be prosecuted at any time if the political wind changed direction or if a government official wanted to squeeze them.

28. And if that seems a bit unlikely, consider that the president, Silvio Berlusconi, is actually wanted on a number of charges of corruption but his first act on regaining office was to pass a law granting immunity to the President. Although the courts are trying to overturn it.

29. Movies and the tourism business have a strange symbiotic relationship. Some films use celebrated landmarks to create an atmosphere for a story which in turn boosts tourism and real estate sales as audiences flock to visit in real life the places they’ve seen on the screen. Notting Hill in London, the Greek Island of Santorini (from Mama Mia) and the countryside of New Zealand (the Lord of the Rings) are a few examples.

30. Tourism is also maintaining certain local traditions beyond their cultural sell-by date as visitors with cameras want to see quaint cultural oddities – whether the hill tribes in Thailand really want to continue their elaborate piercings it’s only good business to do so.

31. Smugglers carrying drugs across the Black Sea often carry prostitutes with them to sell into slavery – if the customs patrols should catch them they throw the women overboard and their pursuers have to stop to rescue them.

Misha Glenny explains more

32. Flash mobs are all the rage these days and people doing anything together particularly worries the governments in dictatorships like Belarus. Even when the students do nothing other than protest by eating ice cream together in public

33. In developing countries one of the main jobs of people working in banks is to count money by hand. It’s a demanding job demanding steady focus, dexterity and above-average honesty.

34. It’s an old Chinese tradition to keep a cricket in the pocket after the weather turns cold. They keep it warm and feed it choice bits of grass to keep it alive and chirping.

35. The Chinese have also traditionally had a great passion for pigeons and sometimes attach whistles on a piece of string to the bird’s feet so that it produces a sound as it flies overhead. Vary the pitch of the whistles and you have an overhead orchestra.

36. Another fantastic Chinese tradition is that of water caligraphy. A large brush is dipped in the river and then letters are drawn on the paths, drying slowly through the morning.

37. The phrase for movies in Chinese translates as ‘electric shadows’.

38. And while many of us might remember the children’s game of passing on a phrase from ear to ear in a circle as Chinese Whispers, in Russia it’s known more ironically as Corrupt Telephone.

39. The British reputation for having lousy teeth actually has its basis in fact. Workers in the industrial revolution ate a lot of sugar imported from the colonies. Hence why an old lady told George Orwell when he was writing The Road to Wigan Pier, ‘Teeth is misery, you’re best off having them out as soon as you can.’

40. Although it might be the last place you’d expect to find neo-Nazis, there are some Nazis to be found in Israel. Mostly among Russian men who came on false papers certifying them as Jewish.

41. Beijing is in battle with the Gobi Desert that would like to swallow the city whole. As it is they suffer each year from days of dust storms where everything turns yellow.

42. As China embraces the West, some young people now opt to dye their hair blonde and get their eyes surgically opened wider.

43. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and is sometimes just a good way to make a buck. Here’s a restaurant in Serbia that just placed a big McDonald’s sign on their entrance to drive custom.

44. In Varanasi, India, when a guest house gets a glowing review from a guide book like the Lonely Planet, hotels sometimes change their name to suit. Which Ganges Inn, sir? There are 7 of them.

45. After the commercial success of American self-help book, Who Moved My Cheese? In China, there was a typical flood of books released with the titles Whose Cheese Can I Move?, No More Cheese, Can I Move Your Cheese?, and Who Dares to Move My Cheese?

46. When Albania’s regime crumbled at the end of the 80’s, they let all the criminals out of jail. Hence all the murderers, rapists, mafia and psychopaths flooded out and into the rest of Europe, earning the Albanians a really terrible and unrepresentative reputation.

47. The English are known for their quirky pub signs such as the Coach and Horses, the Bishop’s Finger or the Crown. Mostly they are a throwback from when most of the customers couldn’t read and so had to recognize the symbols.

48. Indian political parties do the same today. Witness the ads painted on walls in villages Vote Hand! Vote Cup!

49. When government review boards in the US suggested that more money should be made available to promote the learning of foreign languages, one senator went on record as complaining ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ then it’s good enough for me.’

50. America has some great names of places. Reading the map is a pleasure with locations like Dead Bastard’s Peak, Crazy Woman’s Creek, and Nipples, Wyoming.

51. Countries like China whose language uses pictograms rather than letters have a nightmare of a time when it come to filing – pictures just don’t line up like letters in the alphabet do. It’s getting easier with computers but still many companies depend on the good memory of the secretary.

(These last 3 from Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue))

52. Each country in the world has its own sign language, meaning that deaf people of different countries can have a hard time communicating with one another. If ever there was a wasted opportunity to create a world language, if only among a certain demographic…

53.Truck drivers in Europe were once referred to as the kings of the road. Now they’re mostly all Turkish and Arabic or from other developing countries and are often exploited mercilessly. Their wages are a pittance and they may have to drive while hungry with only coupons to buy more gas. The heads of some logistic companies in Europe are currently in jail for these kinds of exploitative practices.

54. England has long been a leader in ubiquitous CCTV, prompting activists to mutter darkly about Orwell. But with many modern cell phones having cameras installed, the public is now looking back. A case in point is the protests this year where the police killed a guy and blamed it on his heart troubles – footage shot on cell phones proved their brutal behaviour and was published on the website of The Guardian.

55. Animal rights activists have long deplored the bull fight in Spain. What’s less well known is that earlier in the 20th century the Spanish in Galicia used to kill dolphins in the same community orgy of violence. They were hemmed in to a bay with nets and then local matadors boarded boats with harpoons to demonstrate their virility by killing another animal slowly and bloodily.

From Silk Hats and No Breakfast by Honor Tracy

56. Among the traditions in England that have now all but died out are the days when a butler would iron the newspaper for the Master of the house in the mornings.

57. Public transport in many countries in Europe often relies on the honesty method where passengers are expected to buy tickets but aren’t checked when they board trams, buses or the Metro. Sporadic checks are made, however, and in Berlin the inspectors are sometimes dressed as punks or homeless to catch people unawares. If you can’t pay the fine, you could well end up in jail

58. A little known fact on the day of 9/11 is that many taxis in New York took advantage of the panic following the attacks to charge a flat $100 a ride as everyone wanted to get somewhere safe.

59. Diwali is the Indian festival of light where candles are lit everywhere and dangerous fireworks are hurled in all directions in the cities. When it was held just after 9/11 some places even made small models of planes sticking out of the Twin Towers.

60. In Thailand there were also rather confusingly T-shirts for sale with pictures of Osama bin Laden’s face imposed on top of the burning towers.

61. In India under Indira Ghandi, efforts were made to stem the rampant population boom with sterilisation programs. Participants were offered a transistor radio if they would undergo the operation.

62. In China there has been forced sterilisation for women who defied the law and had more than one child.

63. A common perception in China over pressure not to pollute the environment as it industrializes at a frantic rate is that they’re being asked to not to light up in room already full of smoke. But just take a look at these pictures of Chinese pollution.

64. Consider how Microsoft might get translated in other languages. In China is came out as ‘flacid and little’ and rather hurt the company’s arrival there.

65. Chevrolet is said to have had similar problems with the Nova which you could read to say ‘no va’ or ‘doesn’t go’ in Spanish. But they actually sold fine, so this is an urban myth.

66. In many poor countries like India or China, suffer a traffic accident and don’t expect the locals to take you to hospital – it’s common practice for either the blame of the expenses of medical treatment to be saddled on the person to bring the victim to the emergency ward.

67. As the Ukraine tries to open up to tourism, a leaflet called TIME to COME to CRIMEA! was printed in English and Russian and contained various amusing passages, the best of which was ‘The attitude of the population to lesbians is curious and benevolent; to gays it is hostile, except for the famous ones.

68. One of the more tragi-comic opinions the Catholic Church maintains in Africa is that condoms don’t actually stop the transmission on Aids. Technically tiny molecules can pass through latex but the pronouncement ensures that the 43 million death toll from Aids in Africa will only increase.

69. One of the more graphic barbarities of war and violence in Africa is the amputation of arms of opponents or simply civilians who happen to be in the way. They’re offered the choice of ‘short sleeve or long sleeve’, referring to how much they’ll lose which makes it no choice at all. This tradition is yet another colonial legacy, this one going back to King Leopold of Belgium who turned the Congo into his own private prison camp.

70. From these kinds of horrific roots it was hard for the Congo to ever really become a stable country. The war from 1998-2003 and it’s aftermath left an estimated 5.4 million people dead. So why has no one heard of it?

71. Russia is famous for its black humour . One of their lighter jokes concerns a babushka who’s selling mushrooms on the market with a sign saying they’ve been picked at Chernobyl. ‘Who’s going to buy those?’ someone laughs. ‘Lots of people,’ she replies, ‘Some buy them for their boss, their mother-in-law…’

72. Russian movies often have a tragic ending affirming the meaninglessness and ultimate hopelessness of life. But when the same movies are marketed abroad they usually give them a happy ending.

73. A favourite Russian political trick is to compromise key figures by filming them cavorting with prostitutes. It’s a good way to silence troublesome foreign diplomats and end the careers of those investigating corruption.

74. It’s widely known that after communism ended, most of the economic opportunities and national wealth was seized by the same people who were in power before. This also included celebrity figures like the weight lifters of Bulgaria. “Misha Glenny explains:

75. One unorthodox way to measure crime levels in Europe is by how many locks you need to apply to stop your bike from being stolen. One will do in Berlin, in Brussels, you need two, while in Paris, you’d better slap on three locks if you want your bike to be there when you come out of the patisserie.

76. In Napoli, however, people often lock the wheel of their cars to the gear sticks to make sure their cars are there when they come back from the pizzeria.

77. Pizza originates in Napoli and it’s the only place in Italy where you won’t see establishments advertising that their pizza ovens are heated with wood (essential for giving the right aroma to the dough) – it’s just assumed.

78. Witch hunts may well be another horrifying indictment of the Christian churches in Medieval times but in India old women in villages still risk their lives under the accusation of witchcraft

79. Even the Indian authorities keep alive astonishing prejudices from time to time. A sign put up on Indian trains warning passengers not to accept food from strangers in case it’s drugged featured a picture of an Orthodox Jew

80. Orthodox Jews have been very thin on the ground in India until Israeli travelers started coming in huge numbers to de-stress after the army. In the main backpacker ghettos in Delhi, Manali and Goa, the Bait Khabad sets up outreach posts for Israeli travelers to come and celebrate the holidays, Friday night meals and generally get help and advice when they need it.

81. Berlin is famous as a city for cheap beer and boozing with the cheapest brew costing 45 cents in the stores. 8 cents are given for each returned bottle and it’s a way for homeless people to make enough cash to buy themselves a kebab. Accordingly many people just leave their empty bottles on the street next to the bins and other drunk people knock them over, providing interesting hazards for bicyclists and small children.

82. Taiwan, on the other hand, gives cash to people who bring in dog shit. Presumably if it’s by the weight then the fresh the better.

83. Around 40% of Japanese men polled said they considered falling in love with a character in a computer game to be a viable consideration, with almost 20% expressing an active interest.

84. For the time being though those poor souls will have to make do with customised sex dolls– which are a lucrative industry in Japan.

85. Japan has always been a few steps ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to technology. Now they’re making great strides in the service industry, too, as they have computers that decide whether employees are smiling enough at their customers. They undergo practice sessions in front of the detector

86. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001 and by any measure it was a convincing success with HIV rates from infected needles dropping along with overall use of most drugs.

87. Koreans are crazy about kimchi – spicy, pickled cabbage – and folklore says it can cure just about everything from homosexuality to AIDS.

88. Many thought it would also protect them from Swine Flu, which they blamed on foreigners, just like they did with AIDS, come to think of it.

89. The Dutch are famous for traveling around Europe in caravans. When they visit Morocco, they’re favourite targets for the scam where a kilo of hashish is strapped to the undercarriage – when they return home they’re followed by Moroccan dealers in Spain who remove it once the owners park up.

90. When you’re disallowed entry into the UK by immigration, you’re put in a detainment room which is not the chilling, sterile waiting room you might imagine. There’s a refrigerator with sandwiches, a book shelf and even DVD’s to watch.

91. Many Asians often don’t have much in the way of eyelashes. Does that mean there’s a market for LED lights to attach to the few they have?

92. Can a man move a mountain? In India, everything is possible. “One villager moved a mountain by himself”:—alone/
to connect his village to the outside world.

93. The melting Arctic means lots more potential for international conflict as the US, Russia, Canada and Scandinavian countries scramble for the freed-up energy reserves.

94. There’s a strong case that piracy in Somalia is a response to other countries emptying the seas of fish and the dumping of toxic waste from Europe as there’s no effective government to protest.

95. What’s the biggest international film center after Hollywood and Bollywood? It’s Nollywood, Nigeria’s home-grown movie industry with stories that actually have something to do with the daily lives of Africans.

96. Cell phones are one of the big success stories in Africa as they don’t depend on government infrastructure to work. Companies are now trying to outsource tedious data entry jobs to Africans with cell phones so they can make a buck.

97. Japan beats the USA for daily television watching with an average of 4 hours and 29 minutes, 4 minutes more than the average American couch potato.

98. Some 10% of American men are estimated to be addicted to porn but at least they’re buying American.

99. In Japan there are agencies where you can ‘rent a friend’. Maybe you need someone to pretend to be your best man at a wedding or to be your favourite uncle on sports day. rent a friend agencies are there to help.

100. Millions are lost to mail order bride scams each year as emails arrive with pictures of Russian girls looking for serious life partner who can making me so happy for love is most mportant thing in life. It’s only after a couple of racy photos later that you’re asked to send money via Western Union for her visa application…

101. One of the most popular TV shows in Japan in recent years was that of a comedian kept naked for a year in a small room while he entered competitions on the internet. Sounds almost like Old Boy? He’s agreed to repeat the experience in Korea…