Saturday, November 22, 2008

Chess and personal space

Today as strolled around Baku, I came upon a chess game, and while I watched, I thought how it exemplified a cultural aspect that troubled me when I first came here. I don't mean that this cultural characteristic troubled me in any sort of existential or political sense - I just wasn't used to the different standards of personal space. When I go to the bank here, I am likely to have someone crowding in at my elbow when I talk to the teller. If I use an ATM, it is common to have one or two people looking on. I've more or less gotten used to it. More or less. I realize that the people at my elbow aren't thieves. (This was my first reaction.) They just have different standards of personal space.

When I play chess, for example, I am used to making my own moves. But chess, as I observed it today and on other occasions in Baku, is not a game played between two people. It is a group enterprise. In this case, men were literally reaching in and making the moves that they thought were warranted.

It could be interpreted as friendly. Or intrusive.

The most important thing in living in a foreign environment is accepting that the cultural rules are different - and even the rules you thought were immutable, aren't.