Tag Archives: left hand

Use And Misuse Of The Left Hand In India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant, SV, is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me. NOTE: For this dialogue, I am AT.

Performance:

SV: “So… In India there’s a tradition of eating with your hands, and-which is quite common, and one of the, I guess, major rules or things that may offend someone is if you use your left hand to eat or grab things or get things. And the primary reason for this is it is considered unclean, because in older generations in India, uhm, when you’re cleaning yourself, uhm, after taking a shit… It’s usually using water and your hands, and most people are sort of taught to use their left hand, so that’s one of the reasons why your left hand is unclean, even though obviously you’re going to wash it with soap or gonna wash your hands. So that’s one of the kind of traditions there is that’s kind of prevalent in India.” 

AT: “What if you’re left handed?”

SV: “So that’s sort of a weird, uhm… So the way it started was even if you’re left handed you use sort of- you use your right hand to eat or like you use your right hand to for example, if you’re in a shop or in someone’s house and you’re giving something or taking something from them you’re always taught to use your right hand, or maybe if it’s heavy both hands, but never your left hand. But uhm… Like, I don’t know, I think that maybe in slightly older time they didn’t want people to be left handed for this reason, but I think nowadays less emphasis is placed on this thing.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “Overall I think like… There’s sort of like some reason-like some reasoning behind it that is sort of valid to some extent. But like I guess like with modern like, uhm, advancements and like stuff like washing your hands with soap and I think now in most urban settings people have a bidet they use to wash their like, bodies once they’re taking a shit. So I don’t think it’s as big an issue, using your left hand, and now being left-handed or using your left handed doesn’t make you any worse than any other person. I think maybe if you were in some more rural areas and you used your left hand I think maybe some people might like be offended. But in general I think this is not very common a lot now.

Thoughts:

I had never really heard of anything like this until now, but I think SV is right in that it maybe seems like fairly sound reasoning in times before advancements in modern day sanitation and cleanliness. Upon some further research, it appears that the left hand is not only used for wiping one’s rear but also for other “unclean” actions as well, such as the removal of shoes, and cleaning your feet. Apparently left-handed activists in India today are attempting to fight prejudice against left-handed people, in schools some left-handed kids are taught to only use their right hand and are beaten for using their left. However overall, as SV said, it seems these practices and prejudices are fading in modern India.

Hand Gestures for Learning Left and Right

Informant: “To figure out right and left as a kid I was taught by my mom that if I hold up both my hands in the shape of an “L” with your palms faced downward, the hand that makes the actual “L” is the left one and the one that makes the backwards “L” is the right hand.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 2.17.46 PM

Context: The informant is the partner of the collector and was discussed when they were speaking about how they both know or learned right from left as children.

Informant Analysis: As a child, the informant said that they had difficulty in learning the right from left, so as a measure to help teach them, their mother taught them the trick. The informant noted that the hand gesture did help them learn it and even today, while he doesn’t make the hand signs, they determine right from left through identification with the sides of their body in their head.

Collector Analysis: For people who have mild dyslexia, certain tricks are preformed that sometimes are utilized to help. In particular, this trick is common for people who have difficulties in determining right from left. This piece is intrinsically English oriented since it only works due to the fast that left starts with an “L”. It also shows the necessity of being able to distinguish right from left in everyday life, for example, giving directions being a great example. There is of course arbitrariness to right and left since the actual location is dependent on the perspective of the individual. In this regard, the hand signs mimic the individual perspective of determining right from left.

We can also note that these sorts of gestures are intended to teach children. It has been studied that different people respond to certain learning techniques like visual, auditory, or tactile. Children in particular are sometimes able to memorize things when they are done kinesthetically. Therefore, the motion of making “L’s” with ones hands for children may be the best way to teach children. Another interesting idea that should be explored is the realization that, since many people have difficulty in determining right from left even as adults, the whole concept may be something humans are not innately born with. Or, it could be said that the addition of abstract words to describe a location in respect to the individual is perhaps where the confusion occurs.

Superstition – South Korean

When Andrew was a young child he was left handed. He would use his left hand to do everything from eat to draw and write. His mother frowned on him using his left hand every single time she observed it. When he would try to hold his fork with his left hand she would slap him on the back of the hand and scold him. When she caught him holding crayons in his left hand she would slap them out of his hand and tell him to pick them up again using his right hand. This continued all the way to kindergarten. Once Andrew began writing frequently he was caught holding his pencil in his left hand frequently. He was scolded and punished for this behavior every time he was caught.

Over time Andrew had to slowly learn how to use his right hand because of getting hit every time he got caught using his left hand. He eventually became proficient in writing with his right hand and subsequently lost the ability to use his left hand very well. He is now completely right handed and it is all because his mother did not want him to grow up using his left hand.

Andrew told me that being punished for using his left hand was one of his earliest childhood memories. His mother believed that being left handed was connected with evil. The left hand taboo can also be seen in Middle Eastern societies. In Iraq, I learned that the left hand is used in place of toilet paper when going to the facilities. In Iraqi culture it is an insult to wave at someone with your left hand or even shake hands with the left instead of the right. This notion of the left hand being bad is prevalent in Korean culture.

Andrew says that he does not have a single relative, living or dead, who is left handed. Whether or not some of them may have been converted, like he was, is a fairly strong possibility, according to Andrew. Andrew’s mother projected her cultural beliefs about what is “normal” onto Andrew.  Even in American society the left hand is still considered “different.” It is not discriminated against the way it is in Korea, but it is still viewed in a somewhat suspicious light. I believe that the belief that the left hand is connected with evil or at least some negative connotation still exists today and although it is not often discussed it still remains a belief that many people hold in the back of their heads.