Friday, August 08, 2014

If looks could kill

Anyway you look at it, I was a bad student; my commitment was atrocious, my marks terrible, my conduct inappropriate and my attendance either tardy or non-existent.  By the time final year had rolled around, there was little to save me from the end of a dole queue.  But after a stern chat from one of my more conscientious lecturers (at the pub, as I recall) I was left with no allusions about my future, “Lift my game, step-up my commitment, or I was out”.

The message must have been delivered with considerable fire and brimstone as it cut through my inebriation sufficiently that upon sobering up, I tidied-up my act and set about trying to catch-up on years of missed learning.  At about the time my commitment started to kick-in, I recall having to work with a group of my fellow students to research and deliver an instructive presentation on the role of body language in practitioner-patient communication. 

I remember finding it surprising at the time that this concept of non-verbal communication embodied a significant breadth of scientific sociological and anthropological research, and some kind of academic curiosity deep within my semi-functioning brain was momentarily tweaked.  Still, old habits die hard, and I took to the assignment with the derision deserved of any un-graded elective.  Together with my fellow indifferents, I delivered a puerile, immature but amusing role play about young, drunken students trying to pick-up in a bar (fertile ground for yer old mate, Donkey, as you can imagine … aside from the picking-up part). 

Perhaps you’re thinking that this was yet another squandered opportunity for me to learn something new and to get serious about my studies.  But let’s face it, it wasn’t as though being able to read and understand body language was ever going to save my life, right?

True enough, I’d say … that is if I had knuckled-down and studied my nuts off, in which case I would have been making mega-squillions right now cutting the toenails of bored millionairesses like all my former peers, and would never have needed to understand body language to make my way in the world.  Given the choice, I would happily succumb to deafness induced by the substantially more boisterous language of money, rather than having to strain every fibre of my impoverished being to catch the allusive whisper of the body. 

The bitter irony is that because of my academic laxity, I was denied the moneyed path, and instead ‘chose’ the more modest pursuit of saving the world, within which one’s success, and indeed one’s very survival can at times rely on one’s ability to recognise and respond appropriately to people’s non-verbal communication.  If only I’d studied!

Anyone who’s ever travelled to a new country will know how it feels to have accidentally committed some cultural faux pas such as shaking hands, walking through the wrong doorway, helping oneself to a meal reserved for someone more important, grabbing your host’s wife on the arse and so-on.  More often than not, these innocent mistakes are taken for what they are, and usually the most adverse outcome is simply a sense of shared embarrassment amongst all parties.

But here in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, I’m discovering that recognising and responding appropriately to the signs and signals of people’s bodies, facial expressions and actions is my only defence against finding myself as the main ingredient in a pot of Highlands Donkey Stew.  In particular, one thing I have learned pretty quickly, and which is a significant departure from other Melanesian cultures, is that looking a stranger directly in the eye is not a chance to exchange a friendly smile, but rather a challenge which can generate an extreme response.

Jared Diamond, in his laborious Guns, germs and steel, explains that when highlander strangers meet, a lengthy discussion ensues, sometimes lasting many hours, during which the strangers attempt to identify whether they are related to, or know anyone in common, simply in an effort to avoid having to try to murder each other.  So ingrained in their culture is the mistrust of strangers and non-kin, that they will kill out of obligation, rather than to simply pass each other by.

What Diamond failed to cite is that their patience and ability to engage in such detailed and lengthy familial exploration are significantly diminished by the presence of two unrelated factors, both of which are found commonly in the highlands these days.

The first is rugby league.  Papua New Guineans are mad for it.  During the recent State of Origin match between Queensland and New South Wales, every woman, man and child in the country did whatever they could to get to watch the game on TV.  In the villages of the eastern highlands, satellite TVs aren’t that easy to come by, so that means getting to the nearest big town before the game.  Goroka is one such town, but as the transports only come to town in the morning, literally hundreds of thousands of highlanders had descended upon the two-block municipality by mid-morning, to watch a game that was not due to start until 6pm.

All day long, scores of people thronged the pavements in large, protective family groups.  Many of the men and women had painted their faces, admittedly in either NSW-blue or QLD-maroon, but utilising traditional, highlands war-paint designs which further increased their menace.

The other factor set to strain inter-clan tolerance in modern-day Papua New Guinea highlands is alcohol, and with nothing better to do for eight hours in the lead-up to the game, SP beer was flowing out of the bars and bottle shops of Goroka like a monolithic highlands god suffering from chronic, supernatural incontinence.

As I wandered through town on my way home that afternoon, I glanced at the menacing, slurring, war-painted faces of the highlands warriors crowding around me, and despite my incomprehension, I felt both fear, and the stirring of something unfamiliar in the pit of my brain.  I meandered cautiously through the crowds and noticed that groups of angry men were moving towards me.  Suddenly, as if a chamber opened in my mind to release latent information from the distant past, I became acutely aware that these hard stares and menacing faces were telling me something.  They were telling me that there was no need to sit and work out who we both might know, because clearly I wasn’t related to any of them … and they were telling me without words, but in no uncertain terms, to get the hell out of there.

I hurried through the crowd and made it home just before the sun went down … just before the game started … and just before the highlanders started burning everything in town. 

So to my stuck-up alma mater I say, “Screw you and your exams, your supplementary exams and your withdrawal of enrolment notices”, it looks like ol’ Donkey learned a thing or two after all.  It just goes to show that there is no need to concentrate all the time at school, and that you really can learn more in two hours at the pub than you can in a whole life time in the classroom.

Picture this, in a hue of blue or maroon, and fueled by alcohol and boredom … and then run!  

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