Right Hand = Spoon. Left Hand = Toilet Paper. Don’t Mess It Up.

[pullquote align=”left”]I live a double life. I have my normal life, where I eat, sleep, work, and clean house.[/pullquote] When I’m living my normal life, I’m doing my best to act Senegalese. In my book, integration is key to successful work in a foreign community. I wear brightly colored wax fabrics. I speak Pulaar. I spend five minutes greeting everyone I see, as the norm for greeting friends and neighbors is a long list of questions. Did you wake up? How is your family? Your goats? Your chickens? Your children? Your onions? Your house? And the response, always: Mawdum. It’s fine. All’s well. Also, I eat Senegalese style—with my hands. The norm is to eat just about everything except for soupy porridge with one’s right hand, but even then, depending on the social setting, my hand becomes a soup spoon and a milk dipper. I learned to pick meat from bones and break apart vegetables with my thumb. I discovered the magical art of squeezing the perfect amount of oil from a ball of rice so that it fits just in my mouth, not a single grain of rice escaping. I learned to lick my hand clean when finished. The locals are both shocked and impressed when I eat well with my hands, cruel and condescending when I make mistakes. Eating with one’s hands is a skill that children master early. It’s quite the sight to see a full grown adult, a foreigner at that, eat in a manner only slightly less rude than the youngest of children of the household.

Enter Ivy the Expat. Sometimes, I need to escape my little abode. I head towards a regional house or a city, both hubs for fellow expats escaping the pressures of living in a foreign culture. We talk about our food dreams, share coveted packages of Bacon Bits (this is a Muslim country, after all), watch American movies, joke, drink beer, and sometimes, even use toilet paper.

From a nice little roll that hangs on the wall.

Next to a toilet with a seat.

Nice bathrooms encountered in restaurants are immediately discussed upon returning to a table. Exceptionally clean squat-style toilets get mentions, too. Beautiful, sanitary toilets are a rare thing around here.

[heading style=”1″]So is toilet paper. This fact often leads to another topic of discussion: have we become lifelong converts to the water method?[/heading]
Now, what’s the water method? It’s simple. Your left hand, supplemented by water poured from a plastic tea kettle over you-know-where, is your toilet paper. Some people vow never to leave the water method. Others can’t wait to turn their backs on it. A few sneak toilet paper back to their tiny villages where toilet paper is completely unheard of. After all, who needs toilet paper, or spoons for that matter, when you’ve got hands?

This matter made me realize something about myself that I had never in my entire life thought twice about. In the States, I ate with my left hand. Often. My fork was in my left hand.

Often. My fork was in my left hand. All finger foods visited my left hand. You’d think that if you ever used your left hand even once as toilet paper, you wouldn’t make the mistake of eating with it later, but no, old habits die hard. Real hard. In my village here in Senegal, I would catch myself mid-bite with a piece of bread in my left hand, shocking everyone around me. It’s a huge cultural no-no to eat with your left hand, and rightfully so. It’s a sanitation disaster waiting to happen, especially considering the fact that in the village, hardly anyone washes their hands at all, and rarely with soap. 

When I’m in my village, I eat with my right hand exclusively. It’d be disgusting not to. Yet, I can’t deny that when I’m visiting hubs of expats, one of my greatest indulgences is eating happily with my left hand, sterilized with tons of bubbly scented liquid soap, without fear of condemnation or contamination. I’ll even use forks, spoons, and knives. Comfort comes in strange forms these days. I treasure these breaks from the Senegalese cultural norms, because I know that in a few days, it’s right back to “Right hand=spoon. Left hand=toilet paper. Don’t mess it up.” 

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  • Very sound advice, that translates across to India as well. Sometimes the biggest cultural adjustments can seem so small from the outside 🙂

  • Very cool story!