What is the biggest cultural mistake you’ve made in your international career?
“To err is human.” As a member in good standing of species homo sapiens I’ve certainly made my share of errors. One I remember well happened during our first assignment in New Delhi. In early January the nighttime temperature dropped to about 5 degrees centigrade, provoking a swarm of cute little rodents to join us indoors and scamper gaily around our bedroom. My wife, who for some reason didn’t like our new pets, called it The Invasion of Rats.
Hopi didn’t like any of them: George with his missing left ear, Suzie with her crooked tail, Alphonse with his extra-long whiskers…even lovely little Lulabelle. After complaining loudly for three days Hopi finally issued an ultimatum: “Richard, that’s enough. Either those rats go or I go.”
So the next morning I instructed our inside sweeper Sita Ram to get rid of the furry critters. But to my surprise and Hopi’s disgust, that evening the whole rat pack was back again. Asked why he hadn’t done as he was told, Sita Ram explained that he had caught each animal in his hands and tossed them gently out the back door.
That’s when I realized my mistake: I had forgotten that as a good Hindu Sita Ram considered it morally wrong to take the life of any living creature, even a rat. But Hopi was not a Hindu, so I sent our driver Suraj Pal to the local market to buy six small box traps. We baited each trap with bits of chappati (India flat bread) and I stayed up until the traps snapped shut, one by one. We carried all six out to the front gate where our tough Gurkha night watchman stood guard.
I expected Gopal Singh to use his long, curved kukri knife to eliminate our pet rats. Second mistake! Pulling the rodents out of their boxes one by one, the watchman neatly wrenched off their heads with his bare heads. Later I asked Suraj Pal, a retired sergeant major in the elite Rajput Rifles, why Gopal Singh had used his bare hands instead of his long knife. “Oh Sahib,” replied the driver, “Gurkha soldier use kukri only to kill men, not rats.”
So I had in fact made two mistakes. But at least we never saw rats near our house again!