No one understands me, in 100 languages

It's a world of problems for agony aunts. Germans worry about the neighbour's shower; Indians whether one kiss goes too far
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ONE OF THE best ways to learn what a country is like is to look at its advice columns. Both the problems brought to the world's agony aunts and the advice they give are an excellent guide to national character.

Take Kurt of Kaiserslautern's solemn query to Bild am Sonntag in Germany: "We live in an apartment block with poor sound insulation. The person who lives above us frequently takes a shower after 2200 hours. The terrible noise is disrupting our sleep. Is he allowed to do this?"

Instead of telling Kurt to get a life, the columnist treats his problem with equal seriousness. This being Germany, there is naturally a law stating that showers, washing machines, toilets and other noisy household appliances are verboten in the wee hours, just as there are precise rules about leaves on balconies, the frequency of permissible barbecues, unseemly cars and unruly children.

But in this case, as the newspaper explains, the law is ambiguous. "Some courts forbid nightly showers between 2200 and 0600 hours. But the majority of court decisions make their ruling dependent upon the question of whether night-time showers between 2200 and 0600 hours are `professionally' warranted - as in the case of shift workers. Apart from this, the judges also take into consideration how long the person showers. Most courts consider night- time showers or baths permissible, provided they do not last longer than 30 minutes."

Social constraints are very different in India, producing dilemmas such as the following, from Anurag of Naini Tal: "I am in love with a girl who also likes me. I have kissed her hand and touched her face and hair many times, but when I once kissed her on the lips, she became very angry and has not spoken to me even after I apologised. What should I do?"

No Western columnist would be likely to give the same reply as the Indian Express's agony uncle, Patanjali Dev Nayar: "If you really care for your girlfriend, ask her how you can make amends ... This just goes to remind us that people have the right to set their own limits - this much and no more."

Contrast this with avowedly gay columnist Dan Savage - "Savage Love" - at the Seattle-based alternative weekly The Stranger, who does not shrink from describing sexual experiences (his own or anyone else's) in graphic detail if he thinks it will be enlightening or entertaining for his readers. One asked him about the pros and cons of circumcision, to which he responded: "Circumcision builds character: if you survive getting the end of your dick chopped off, you can survive almost anything ... I say a little prayer of thanks to all the mums who've had their sons' genitals mutilated ..."

In Spain the complaints from women tend to be about the old-fashioned attitudes of their menfolk. "I married young to an older man," one tells Dunia magazine, "and, although we had to overcome many difficulties, we have two lovely daughters. But now my husband values me only as a housewife. He constantly complains that this or that isn't done, he always dominates the conversation and thinks he's always right."

She gets a sympathetic hearing: "It is unfair that he doesn't help you to grow and become independent, and unpardonable that he doesn't respect your opinion. He wants to shut you in a box - because of his own insecurity ... Build your own life with or without him. Make him understand before you feel so bad that your love dies."

Japanese columnists put the emphasis on making the best of a bad situation. A woman struggling to get over a love affair with her married boss receives advice from Yomiuri Shimbun's "Troubleshooter" column which is worthy of a kabuki tragedy. It will be hard to forget him, she is told, but "you can continue to love him in secret for the rest of your life".

Mrs S, a housewife in her thirties, discovers that her husband once had bad debts. But, in a society where reputation and saving face is all-important, her keenest concern is for his reputation. "I wonder if my husband has been labelled a sucker or social failure?" she laments. Troubleshooter responds with a sage oriental proverb: "A tree that has withstood a rough blast grows more secure roots."

The problems put to Argumenti i Fakti in Russia reflect the strains of life in a country struggling to avoid political and economic collapse. "My daughter fainted in the metro," says one correspondent. "Is it dangerous for health to be underground?" Answer: "The population of Moscow is growing. The [metro] ventilation system was not meant for that number of people. This can lead to problems with blood pressure, especially in bad weather. Also, the metro can cause psychological and emotional stresses."

Another reader complains: "The tap water stinks. Is it dangerous for your health to drink it?" He is told: "The Moscow authorities say the smell can come from substances used to disinfect the water. Also, if the pipes are old."

But the prize for ruthless pragmatism must go to China's agony columnists, whether the problem concerns romance or life's more materialistic challenges. Zhang Yong, from Henan province, writes to Girl Friend magazine: "My girlfriend asked me to offer her 999 roses and said that if I did not, it proved my love for her was not sincere enough. What do I do?" The answer from the anonymous agony aunt: "Negotiate with her to complete offering all the roses during your lifetime."

Li Yueying, from Hebei province, wants to know: "How do I choose between a challenging job and a high-salary job?" The response: "You'd best choose the former and then take the latter as a part-time job."

The Chinese tendency to bitterness is given short shrift. Zhou Xiangkai writes: "My girlfriend is not serious about my love. After my money and youth was spent, she said goodbye to me on the excuse of `incompatible personalities'. Should I take revenge?"

The response whips back: "Falling in love is the beginning of love. Spent youth and money is the process of love. And the farewell because of `incompatible personalities' is one of the results of love. It is the whole process of love. Why would you take revenge, since this is natural? Be more open- hearted."

In other words, stop complaining.

Reported by Imre Karacs in Bonn, Peter Popham in Delhi, Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Nash in Madrid, Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo, Phil Reeves in Moscow and Teresa Poole in Peking.