This is an in-world story I wrote a while ago, a coming of age travelouge culture shock story that I got kind of stuck on. I posted some feedback on some of things on CBB, and thought I should x-post here too to see if I can get some other thoughts.
Boy of Two homes
A memoir of Zachary Talyorson
I thought it would be good to write down my memories of growing up, since so many people are interested in hearing about them. I hope they will excuse my problems with memory with some details, since they happened so long ago, but I will tell as close as I can what happened.
As people who already know somewhat my story, they would know my childhood was a pretty unusual one. I was born the son of a historical writer, Marcus John Taylorson. The war had just ended, and my father was commissioned, by our government, to visit the nation of Saltha, our former enemies and now surrendered, and to record as much as possible the customs of the people. Likewise, we were told visitors from Saltha would be coming here and doing the same.
Many probably already know that Saltha was an unusual case among defeated belligerent enemies. Amidst the war, the people, so against the war their king started and oppressed by him overthrew him and immediately surrendered. This did not save the nation from being occupied, but offering the generals and those of the old regime who did not surrender did soften the blows of reparations that would have been made.
And so now, a boy of only eight at the time was going to go to a far-away land called Saltha, to a group of people that to my great grandfather was a boy my age would have never believed even existed.
I had only seen pictures of them, and didn't believe they were real at first. Salthans are lizard-like people, with green or red scaly skin and are completely hairless. Their noses are long snout. They have a tail that drags behind them on the ground. The males have a row of spikes on their heads that go back to the back of their heads. Females do not have breasts, and are as flat-chested as males, even as adults. I giggled a bit, seeing as the pictures of the Salthans were nude, their privates very similar to humans.
I had mixed feelings about this journey. I knew that because of the distance I wouldn't be able to return for a long time, meaning I would not see my friends, and I had the vague notion of life there being different and uncomfortable. On the other hand, as a adventurous boy I had a strong desire for adventure, having grown up reading both stories of great explorers of the land and sea, and fantasy adventure stories. Here was my chance to live my dream of being in a fantasy story, to go live in a land of other-worldly creatures!
My father had considered leaving me with my aunt and uncle, fearing it might be dangerous, but I insisted on going. Actually, I cried and begged, even after my father's insistence that the journey would be hard and that I would have to abide by the rules of this new world, that neither of us really knew too well.
So we set out in a wagon. The journey was a long, hot and bumpy through the desert until we finally I saw the walled city in the distance. This was the city of Ten Terak, a few miles over the eastern border of Saltha. The date was April 15th, the 19th year of king Braderford of Braydon. Of course, then I didn't know the historical significance of what was happening, until much later. I was merely a young boy swept into the adventure I had read of in books.
We stopped in a square. The buildings were flat, squarish and made of brick, all nearly identical. They were incredibly simple, showing little or no adornments. None of them were more than two stories high.
It was evening, and the sun was just going down. There were still a good sized crowd of the strangest people I had ever seen. As I said, I saw the pictures, but there was just something that hit me seeing one in person, the final real confirmation hitting me of what I accepted by trust what was real, I was seeing with my eyes.
I noticed, with some embarrassment that children, boys and girls, some who looked older than me wore absolutely nothing at all, and didn't seem at all embarrassed of people seeing their privates. Many of the people kept on their business, but also stared at us as they went, whispering. They had probably never seen many humans before. Also, as a boy who was an only child and had no sisters. this was the first time I'd seen a female nude, so I had almost as much curiosity of the opposite sex of any race as that of Salthans.
"There's a difference between looking and staring." my father said. I hadn't even realized I was staring. "But their staring at us" I said.
"That's no excuse" he said.
At that moment a man approached us, followed by a woman and a boy. All three wore the clothing of the adults wore, a long short-sleeved robe with a long sleeved robe underneath. "Beeka esha" the man said, holding his arms out palm upward, and giving a short sharp bob of his head. My father did his best to imitate this movement. "I am Elsal. He said. "You are gitaylorson?" My father told him he was. "This is Zack."
Elsal gave a sort of bob of his head in my direction. "Gizak, it is good to meet you." he said.
"It is a great honor to have you here." The man indicated the woman. "This is my wife Sadakari," and then indicating the boy "and this son, Lail." With the introductions done, the man took my father's suitcase and Lail carried mine and he lead the way to their home.
The home was like the others I had seen in the square. We were stopped at the door and asked to wait as Sadakari went into the house and came out with a chunk of bread. She broke it in half, and gave a piece to my dad and me, telling us to please eat it. After we at it, we followed our hosts inside.
The first floor was a single room with a short table and a cooking area. On the left I could see stairs, and a curtained off area on the left side. "A room for you has been prepared." Elsail said. "Then you can be cleaned up for dinner." The man led the way upstairs. The upstairs had no walls, except for curtains hanging from hooks on the ceiling. The man came to one part of the curtain and unhooked one end. "This is your room." he said, and set my father's case down. The room was bare of any furniture except a mat on the floor. And then he went a little further and unhooked another end of a curtain "And this is the boy's room. He will be with Lail." It was much the same as the other, with nothing but two mats. Lail put my case down there. "Now" the man said. "You shall be cleaned up, and we will have dinner, I want to hear much of your country."
We were lead back downstairs and to the curtained room. It was a small tiled room with a tub on one end. Sadakari sat on a stool. She explained that here they wash up first, and then get in the tub to soak, and then me and Lail could talk (Lail had also been learning the common human trade language). She also said that it was the host's duty to do the cleaning. I was more than a little shy taking of my clothes and having the woman wash me. Once this was done she doused me with a bucket of water. It was cold, but felt refreshing, since it was still warm even though it was still evening. Once this was done I thought I could get in the tub, but as I turned the woman grabbed my arm and I saw her reach for a wooden rod that was laying on a shelf. I turned, looking over my shoulder to my father who looked as surprised as I must have looked. My father called for her to stop, and asked her something, which I didn't understand in Salthan.
She replied, in Salthan. This went back and forth, and I stood there, naked, afraid and confused. Had I unknowingly done something wrong, and the woman wanted to beat me for it? My father and the woman talked back and forth, and it seemed like from his tone he was trying to haggle. After a few minutes of this my father called me aside.
"Son" he said. "You remember that I said some parts of this would be difficult. I'm afraid I'm going to have to let her spank you." I was shocked at what I was hearing. "Why? What did I do-" "No, no, you didn't do anything wrong." He said. "But it is something they do, as part of what they believe is cleaning. They do this once at the end of each month in their calendar, which happens to be today. She told me that if she is not allowed you are unclean. We are supposed to live here, the same as they do, so we have to respect their customs. I hope you understand." I did and I didn't really. "There's no way?" I asked. "No" my father said, and I knew that there was going to be no escaping it.
At that moment I turned and saw Lail who had already been cleaned was already laying across his mother's lap, his tail raised in her left hand, and receiving his punishment: five sharp swats across his bared bottom with the switch. Then he stood, rubbed his bottom and went into the tub and it was my turn. I was bent over her lap and received the five quick swats which stung, and I admit, I cried out a little bit. But it was over quickly and then I joined Lail in the tub. Later my father told me I had been brave that I he was proud of how I had hardly objected and just did as I was told.
I had no idea of what to say. "Hello" I said. "Hello." He said back, with an accent. It suddenly occurred to me that he was thinking the same thing as me, that we had no idea of what to talk about. "It's hot here." I said, turning to the obvious choice of weather to start a conversation. "Seth" (yes) he said. "Is it not like this in your country?"
"Sometimes, but only during the summer time, so about a quarter of the year."
"And what is it like the other times?"
"Sometimes it's very cold, and it snows sometimes."
"Snow?" he asked.
"You don't know what snow is?". I was genuinely surprised he had never heard of it.
"No." He said. "What is it?"
"Well, it's white stuff that's soft and is very cold that falls from the sky."
"Ah." He said, "I have heard of it, we have it in the mountains, but we never go there. There is snow all over your country?"
"I had wondered what your country was like, but I don't think I'd like to go there, at least not during the snow time."
He asked me about my hair, how often I had to cut it, if it was hard to wash. Obviously It was something that fascinated him. He asked if he could run his fingers through it, and I bent my head forward and he ran his fingers over it. "soft." he said. We talked about a few other things like sports and school, and too soon Lail’s mother came in to tell us it was time for dinner. I could already smell the food from the next room, we got out, dried and dressed. There was robes set aside for me, similar to what Laila wore. Apparently I was to dress as a Salthan as well.
We all sat cross-legged on the floor on mats on the ground around the table. They served vegetables, a cooked grain cereal and bread that had cooked fish meat inside. No one used any utensils but used their hands.
All three of the Salthans asked a lot of questions about our home country, what the buildings were like, what we liked to do.
"Zack told me they have snow a lot where he's from!" he said, excitedly. We also talked about plans to go to Lail's school tomorrow. After dinner was done Elsal said "Well, you're probably tired from your journey and wish to sleep. Tomorrow is a big day so we all should turn in. Good night."
We went upstairs and I went to the room I was assigned and laid down on the mat. Though it was harder than the bed I was used to at home, it less uncomfortable then I had expected. I was tired from the long journey, though I was also excited about where I was and my new friend. It was hard to believe how far away from home I was, or that I was in such a strange place with non-human people! Finally tiredness won and I fell asleep.
Two - School
The next day we ate breakfast (some fruit and a sweet bread) and I was going to go with Laila to school. Since I didn't speak Salthan well yet, I was going to be tutored from home, but it was thought I should see what the school is like. The school was a one story building, a little wider than the others. Inside was a empty floor space with cushions laid out. At the front was a des, a low table like the ones we ate our meals at. Children arrived and sat down on the mats, crosslegged. I was brought up to the front. She said something in Salthan, I recognized the salthan version of my name at the beginning. and that I was a "hunan" (their way of saying human with their accents). Then in common, she said "This is Zackary Taylorson, a hunan. He is visiting with his father, to learn about our people and customs, just as ukesha is visiting their lands to learn about them. Our peoples are to be friends." I was then motioned to sit down. I was told that Laila was permitted to whisper to me about what is being taught. They taught history, Salthan language, math and some about plants and animals. Each child had a clay tablet and pen to write with.
After school Laila all of the students came and crowded around me. They asked Laila a bunch of questions in Salthan, and he either asked me in common and relayed it, or answered if he knew and told me in common what he was saying. Sometimes they'd look at me, open their mouths like they wanted to say something, but then glance down at me and say nothing, or tell them through Laila, even if it was in common.
Laila called me over to a corner of the room where there were a few other Salthans. boys and girls. He introduced them by name. There was Kykathea,
He told me that we were invited to play a ball game called Nenksadache at Kykathea's house. I went with them. The house was a large one, about twice the size of Laila's. It had a walled yard in front that was by itself the same size as his house! Houses all in this neighborhood, in the richer part of the city near the oasis pools had big yards. Laia's house had no courtyard, the front of the door was right at the street.
Kykathea made a mark, a square on one part of the wall, opposite the front door. We split up teams. The goal of the game was for the "attacking" team to strike the ball against the goal line. If they missed, or the other team got the ball and carried it to the other wall we would trade off. with the defending team getting a chance to be the attacker. Players are not allowed to use their hands. We played for a bit, but it seemed only Laila was willing to pass to me. All of the others ignored me, even when I waved my arms and shouted. I didn't understand it. They were all crowding around us, and had so many questions, but now they ignored me.
Walking with Laila back home I told him "I don't think they like me." I was surprised to see astonishment on his face. He hadn't noticed? " He then looked really thoughtful, walking in silence.
"It's not you, it's because you're clothed." he said.
"Those who are clothed are busy. So, to them you look like you're busy, doing chores."
I felt discouraged. How was I ever going to fit in?
Three - A visit to the temple
The next day Laila suggested we visit the temple. It was in the center of town, a mile or so from the house. The temple walls were tall, about ten feet high and had large square blocks like the battlements on the castles I had seen in my own country. I almost expected to see soldiers with spears patrolling on a walkway. but when we entered the courtyard, I saw no soldiers and no walkway even to walk on. The square bumps were there only for decoration. The courtyard was about twenty steps across. and then through another doorway directly across I could see another courtyard and the temple itself. The courtyard had two one story buildings on opposite sides of the courtyard on either side of the doorway that stretched from one wall to the other. Lail pointed to the building on the right. "Heal sick, hurt." he said. Lail reached out an arm to the building to the left then lead me inside.
The building I realized was much larger than it appeared form the outside, as it stretched into the next courtyard. The building inside had a small pool of water, and some buckets one one. On the other was a stone block, and hanging on the wall whips and switches. Loitering around was a priest dressed in a fancy looking robe. There were a few people here washing themselves at the pool. "This room for purifying" Lail explained. I remembered the switching I got when I arrived, and how physical punishment was part of the process of being clean in Saltha. I was afraid he might think I wanted to be purified. "Do I need to be purified to enter the temple?" I asked. He looked at me. "No" he said. "If you're here to look, no need.". I was relieved.
"Us kids usually don't come here to be purified, mostly just the adults, unless a kid is trying to show off."
Lail however took off his loin cloth, and went to the pool and dumped a bucket of water on himself. He shook himself to take the excess water off, then put his clothes back on. "I'll dry off quick" he said with a smile.
We continued on to the next courtyard. This courtyard was a little larger than the other one. In different places around the courtyard were various idols, symbols of the deities of the Santhan religion.
Above the door hung a star with twenty-five points. Lail told me this represented the chief God, Santh. Lail explained what each of the others represented. The next one clockwise was a stone image of a nearly naked Salthan woman with a long cloth that draped across her groin, trailing behind her. This was Laike, a deity of wind. Next in the order was a male Salthan named Rela who wore a long robe engulfed in flames and carrying Sword. After that was Kai, a female Salthan in long robe and carrying a scroll and a scale. Then there was Kakela, a Salthan who was nothing more than a head and stubby feet, carrying a large shield and a hammer. Finally there was two Salthans, a male and a female. Lail told me this was actually one Salthan called Gikari, who was also known as Gikaria, This Salthan was both male and female (or could change it at will, Lail wasn't really clear on which it was).
Lail told me only priests and workers go into the temple itself. Lail went to the center of the room and kneeled on a mat, bowing foreword, pointing himself towards the star. He said something in Saltha I didn't understand. Then he rose up. He told me this was a traditional Salthan prayer. the translation was "Great in strength is Santh, Great in power is Santh. Great in Knowledge is Santh. Please be a light before us. Please protect us. May it be so.".
After that we went home.
Four- Bath house
One day Lail and I went to a local bath house. The front room was a small room with a Salthan man behind a desk. There were too doorways, covered by fabric like a Salthan inner door. One was blue, the other light red, and each had a symbol on it. Laila explained the symbol on the blue one meant "males" and the light red one "females". Laila gave the man two coins and then lead me to the blue curtained door. Inside was a wall covered in small cubby holes. There were a few other men and boys here undressing to go to the bath or dressing to go home. Laila began to undress and put his clothes in a cubby. "You can put your clothes in here" he said. Because the bath house was built on a hill I had to go up some stairs to the next room which had around the edges faucets with pump handles I saw some people pumping the handles up and down to get water. "We wash here first." he said, and he gave me a bar of soap. So We went each to a faucet and soaped up and rinsed off. Next we went through another curtain to the room with the main bath.
I undressed, and followed Lail through another blue curtained door into the main bathroom. The room was pretty large with a big tub of hot water in the center. A cloud of heat and moisture hovered in the air. People sat along the edges, soaking, and some children swam around in the center. A boy near us about our age looked to us, stood up and greeted Lail. I happened to glance down and I realized that he wasn't a boy, but she was a girl! I covered myself with my hands and I could feel my face burn hot. This was the first time I'd been naked in front of a girl that I could remember. Laila and the girl didn't seem at all embarrassed, they kept their hands at their sides. "Are you hurt?" Laila asked. I shook my head.
He motioned towards me and said something in Salthan. She made a sort of coughing noise and I looked at her, meeting her eyes. The girl smiled and raised her arms so they were flat at her elbow, putting her hands stretched upward, the greeting I’d seen when I first arrived and now a few times after. "Dika esha" she said, bobbing her head. I bobbed my head, but kept my hands where they were "dika esha." I said, and feeling self conscious, broke my gaze again. The girl's smile faded a little for a moment. "good to meet you" she said in my language. She stuck her hand out. "Good to meet you" I said, but again kept my hands were they were. She turned towards Lail, frowning. “|aka” she growled. "Tas tosa" he said to her. She quickly turned and walked away.
"I think I better go." I said and ran back through the sheet door, and down the stairs back to the dressing room area. Laila followed me.
“Why are you being rude?” he asked in what I'm sure thought was a whisper, but was more a half-whisper and the others in the room were looking at us.
"When you didn't greet back, she tried to greet you your own way."
“I did greet her back.” I said.
“No, you only mouthed it.” He said.
Mouthed it? I realized, they were upset because I didn’t raise my hands in the Salthan greeting, and then she was trying to shake my hand, but I didn’t do that either.
"You didn't tell me there would be girls."
"It's just something I'm not used to."
"But you can get used to it."
"No I can't. It's a human thing. You wouldn't understand."
"I wouldn't understand? But you can understand our ways? That's why you came here. We're too dumb to understand but you can?"
"No. I didn't mean it like that."
"I just wanted to have you on equal ground." he said.
Five - Humans and some dead bones
One day my father and I went shopping in the market, and since we were hungry stopped at a inn for lunch. We were surprised to see another human there. I hadn't seen another human for the last few years. It had been so long, and when I saw them, I couldn't help but feel they looked strange. It was a man. He was slightly on the heavy set side with a handlebar mustache that dropped down on the sides. He came up to our table and introduced hum self as Arthur Tibb. He said he was a part of a Braydonian mining company who was sent to make a deal to open a mine in the desert.
"This place is fantastic" the man said. "But too hot." The man took a swallow of whatever he was drinking. "The people here are very nice. It took me a while; you know to get over their appearance. I mean, I knew what they looked like but still a shock, you know? I'm glad they don't shake hands, I don't think I could bring myself to do it." he shook his head, as if to shake it from his head. "Anyway, I met some nice chaps here in town, Tour guides. They showed me the bones of one of their great prophets. Showed me his bones in a cave, not far from here.”
I found this funny and couldn’t help laughing. The man flushed with anger. "You should teach your child manners, or I shall myself." he said, as he rose his hand up, palm out as if to hit me. I could see my father was too holding back laughter. "Zackey! don't be rude." he said.
The man blew out his mustache. "I don't see what's so funny." My father explained, Salthans cremate their dead.
All the culture stuff I had written before hand, and then wrote this story, thinking about what sorts of things would be conflicts. For clarity on the custom, this aspect of clothed/unclothed only really applys to those under 10, since they are seen as too innocent to know any better. After that they wear at least a waist covering.
One of the big things I'm having trouble with is coming up with interesting conflicts of culture. A big conflict obviously in the story is attitudes on clothing and nudity. Because of the cultural norms of separation of working (clothed) and "free" (naked) with Salthans not wanting to interact with Zack, there's pressure for him to disrobe to fit in. Someone at the CBB said it was inevitable, and this might be true, but I find it hard to imagine someone from a couture like mine would do it (even in the relative privacy of the walled-in yard), or at least they'd find it very hard to do.
Also, I'm not sure if the Salthan kids would necessarily apply this cultural trait to an outsider anyway, seeing he is human I feel like maybe they'd just accept the difference, but I also feel like that just ignores the conflict completely. I want some sort of conflict with social norms, and I don't want it to be too easy for Zack to fit in.
On the other hand, I want the issue resolved in some way, with them accepting his norms, or him accepting theirs (stripping down), or some compromise that makes sense. Maybe it makes the most sense he has to stick out being somewhat ignored and eventually they do accept him, and pass he ball to him in his clothes.
If he do it, I'm not sure how his father would react. I imagine negatively. The father wants them to fit in with the culture of this place (accepting of the punishment in chapter 1). There is a sort of hypocracy from Zack's POV, where his dad wants him to live in this culture, but gets upset when he does.
The dad would probably see this as much too far and tell him that while they respect the difference in culture he'd want him to be modest and keep with their own culture in this case and tell him not to do it again, and that if he gives it time things will work out.
I tried to find some examples of this, a non-fictional account of a person from a clothed culture moving to a naked culture and learning to adapt, stripping off their clothes and "going native" but I'm having a hard time finding any. Generally this never happens with missionaries or anthropologists, since they are expected to stay, somewhat as cultural outsiders.
TLDR; summery: The three possible resolutions to this cultural conflict of pressure to be unclothed I see are:
(0.This is too weird a conflict, and I abandon it completely, find another kind of conflict)
1.Given time, the Salthans accept the human as an exception wearing clothes
2.Some sort of compromise (just shorts, no shirt), though I need a clear reason why this is accepted.
3. Zack "goes native" and strips. I need to figure out how he comes to this, as this shouldn't be easy to do this since he's been living a few years with the expectation of being clothed.
(Or 4: something else)