A foreigner's lot is often not a happy one, as even the most earnest do-gooders learn to their mortification (if not execution). The price of an innocent faux pas can be your head.
Gillian Gibbons, the English schoolteacher in Sudan who allowed her pupils to call the class teddy bear "Muhammad," is the latest example. She was pardoned by the Sudanese president yesterday and flew home to Liverpool, where she will be safe if she watches her back. You can name a terrorist Muhammad, but not a teddy bear.
Not everybody is as devout as the pious radicals of "the religion of peace," but an account of all the things you ought not to do when you go overseas could fill a book. Which, in fact, it has, the work of British author Mark McCrum, and called "Going Dutch in Beijing."
Shariah law can be lethal to both devout believer and unwary infidel, but customs of other cultures can be enforced by the lash and sword, too. Death and doom lurk for the unwary in many neighborhoods of the global village. Liz Hurley, the Hollywood actress, married her beloved in his native Rajasthan, and her bridal enthusiasm for a champagne toast and a chaste kiss for her new husband led to her father-in-law disowning his son and threatening to have the bride thrown in jail for "breaching Hindu customs."
Cameron Diaz was so pleased with her new handbag, emblazoned with what she thought was a mindless slogan, "Serve the People," that she took it with her to the ruins of Peru's Machu Picchu. Alas, that's the slogan of the "Shining Path" guerrillas, and Mzz Diaz had to apologize profusely to avoid the pokey.
Big corporations make expensive mistakes, too. "When Pepsico launched in China with the cheery slogan, 'Come alive with Pepsi,' " Mr. McCrum writes in the London Daily Telegraph, "it little realized it would come out in Chinese as 'Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.' " Fiat, the Italian carmaker, introduced "the stylish Pinto" in Argentina without first asking around, where almost anybody could have told Fiat that "pinto" is the local slang for a man's most precious possession.
Gestures are easily misunderstood. Asians regard bowing as an art form; in some countries, the closer a man can get his head to the floor the better. Since Americans bow only to G-d, failure to return a bow can wound. Even presenting a business card in Japan is a solemn ritual. "The card must be studied for several seconds before being put carefully in a wallet or card-folder," Mr. McCrum writes. "Just smiling or stuffing it into your back pocket is a mark of disrespect."
Never give a bottle of Scotch, no matter how much you know he's addicted to Glenfiddich, to a Muslim friend if anyone is watching. Muslims, like Baptists, Pentecostals and sometimes even Methodists, never drink, at least in front of one another. (But they rarely carry beheading knives.) Never look at your feet when you lift a glass to an incandescent blonde in Copenhagen, and make sure you down the drink in one gulp in Germany lest you be cursed with seven years of bad luck (or no luck at all) in the bedroom.
You can sometimes offend foreigners even when they're here among us. George W. Bush shocked visiting Italians at his second inaugural parade when he saluted a brass band from Texas with his right fist, forefinger and little finger extended, in the gesture of "hook 'em, Horns." This honors the University of Texas Longhorns, but it's recognition of a cuckold in Rome, where you shouldn't necessarily do as the Romans do. When The Washington Times saluted Bill Clinton at his first inaugural with the playful headline, "Wooooooo, pig! Sooooie!" the newspaper was swamped with telephone calls accusing us of disrespect to the president. The new president, having "called the hogs" himself to rally the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, was pleased. The moral here is that you can call pigs and steers anything you like as loud as you like, but Gillian Gibbons should beware of bears, anyone named Muhammad, and stay out of Khartoum.