A smile can bridge any difference

By Dr. Shen Goh

There are many differences between Malaysia and Canada: driving on the left instead of the right side of the road; circling roundabouts instead of zipping straight through traffic lights; putting up windshield wipers to prevent them from melting in the sun instead of freezing in the snow; and having your glasses fog up when exiting cars and buildings instead of when entering them. Even the UV Index differs between the two countries: Malaysia’s can go as high as 13 or 15, whereas Canada’s usually peaks at 7 or 9. This would explain my getting repeatedly sunburnt despite being covered in sunscreen, hat and umbrella!

The differences also extend beyond the physical to a difference in mentality: the foreigner in Malaysia is the person lining up at elevators without any success of getting on; sauntering outside to photograph nature and architecture without realising that the neighbourhood dogs would object; tipping service staff without any clue as to the embarrassment that would result; and, trying to gas up the car without paying first. Nowhere was the difference in mentality more evident than the time I discovered that managers could be colleagues for years with cleaners without ever learning their names.

The most interesting differences reveal themselves linguistically: Malaysians end sentences with “Lah!” in a final tone with great gusto, whereas Canadians use an “Eh?” in a suggestive tone in order to find agreement amongst their listeners. Compare the affirmative-sounding “Malaysia is great, lah!” with the affirmation-seeking “Malaysia is great, eh?” My Canadian pronunciation of Malaysian words have caused many locals not to recognise “Bin-Tan” as “Bintang Mall” or “Per-mee” as “Permy Mall”. And just imagine the indignities that my beloved students must suffer every time I mispronounce or misspell their names. Half the time, I must confess ignorance as to whether something is their personal name or their surname!

All of the above would be one miserable lesson on why one should never travel or work abroad, if it were not for the happy truth that there is more to unite us than to divide us.

A smile can bridge physical differences. Many locals have stopped their cars to offer rides when they see me strolling about on morning walks. These kind offers are often accompanied with the caring suggestions not to underestimate the adorable-looking dogs guarding their neighbourhoods. While these locals are clearly befuddled by my strange contradiction of being outside and being covered, their sweet smiles reveal an acceptance of other people.

A smile can also bridge differences in mentality. My confusion as to why my colleagues would choose to block out the sunlight and fresh air from their offices is probably matched only by their bewilderment as to why I would choose to soak in UV rays and humidity. They may still be scratching their heads over why my office is filled with plants despite the shrieks elicited by every little bug that crawls out. Nevertheless, our mutual smiles reveal a respect for other philosophies.

A smile can even bridge linguistic differences. One of my many wonderful colleagues invited me to the local Ramadan markets and several iftar meals during the fasting month. In return, I kept asking her when she would be celebrating Eid – which is what my Muslim friends celebrate in Canada – without realising that “Eid” was the Arabic equivalent of the Malay term “Raya”. She showed the same patience with my linguistic puzzlement as she had shown with my cultural ignorance in stepping repeatedly on her prayer mat. Her forgiving smiles reveal a tolerance of other practises.

So, the next time you find yourself in a foreign country – clueless as to its characteristics, culture, and communication – please remember that a smile is enough to show that you understand the other person’s goodwill.

Dr. Shen Goh is a Canadian lawyer lecturing on business law at Curtin Malaysia. Prior to Curtin Malaysia, she was a lecturer in the Faculty of Law of York University, Canada. Her research interests include intellectual property, branding and international trade.