Saturday, April 4, 2009

Elaborate Street Theatre


Much to the dismay of all respectable foreigners in Vietnam, there is a very small yet highly visible (or audible) contingent of travelers who are neither nice nor unobtrusive. They typify everything that the idea of the “ugly American” (or Australian, or Dutchman) describes. They’re loud, obnoxious, and often drunk. They patronize the locals at the best of times, and vilify them at the worst, viewing them as an impedimence between their tour bus and Vietnam.

On more than one occasion, I have been near these winners in action. Every time I do, I wish I had a sign or a shirt that had printed on it, in a variety of local languages and dialects (for clarity) "I do not know this man."

I found myself sitting at a table with a member of the Vocal Minority during my first week in Ho Chi Minh City. We were at an outdoor table in the heart of the tourist area, eating our meals and watching the world - mostly composed of salespeople -  go by. 

These salespeople deserve explanation.

A number of enterprising Vietnamese have taken advantage of the fact that the city’s tourists are concentrated in a small area, and have set themselves up as (very) small businessmen-and-women. Shoe shines, pirated DVDs and books, knockoff watches, sunglasses, sex – it's all on offer in the course of a five-minute stroll.

One strategy is to approach tourists dining in restaurants. Good thinking – a pedestrian is on his way  somewhere, and it is not very difficult to simply sidestep a salesperson. But in the restaurant, he’s a captive, bound by his meal.

Predictably, the stranger and I were approached by a number  of hawkers, all of whom we politely declined. Eventually, a woman came to us. She wasn't selling anything, but merely asking for money. Again, we declined, and it was here that he decided to strike up a conversation with me.

“They make a good living, you know.”

I spluttered a little on my beer and asked him to come again.

“Begging – it’s a damn good living.” 

This wasn't a whisper, either. The Vocal Minority thinks that nobody in Vietnam can understand English, so he was, for maximum attention, using his stage voice, projecting so that the entire restaurant could hear. Reluctant to converse with someone so insightful for fear of being put to shame, I pretended I hadn’t heard, and focused on a lizard on the wall and its efforts in flycatching. Thankfully, he let me off easy, and took the social cue.

I had to wonder, as I ate, what he meant. Was he under the impression that beggars started out as surgeons and hedge fund managers, but decided to turn to the equally lucrative industry of asking people for money because the hours were so much better? Did he know something I didn’t? Call me na├»ve, but I don’t think begging, in any context, can ever be referred to as “a damn good living.”

But he wasn’t done yet. A few minutes later, a watch salesman approached us. The Vocal Minority looked at me, winked conspiratorially, and then beckoned the man over to his table. He then spent the next several minutes asking pointed questions about one watch: where was it made, how much was it, would it last, was it waterproof? Ten minutes were spent with the VM turning it over and over in his hands, giving all appearances of being on the brink of a sale. Then, without any warning, he said “nah, not for me,” returned the watch, and sent the salesman on his way. It had all been a game, a deliberate waste of the man’s time when a simple “no thank you” would have sufficed. 

He really showed that guy.

I should mention that this man did give money to one hawker. It was difficult for me to believe, too, after I saw his displays with the other two, but once I put it together it all became clear. For a guy as special as my dinner companion deserves a very, very special kind of hawker.

These women are my favourite, because they are experts in the psychology of the Vocal Minority. They recognize that these types are notoriously tight-fisted, and they will never give money to beggars, so they disguise themselves. A woman, usually with a child in tow, will walk the streets armed with a few packs of Kleenex and gum, ostensibly trying to sell them. When she approaches  middle-aged, balding tourist , he will make a big show of patting the child and giving some money. However, when the woman goes to give him his Kleenex, he puts both hands up in a show of faux generosity. “No, you take that,” he says, and the woman puts on a show of absolute gratitude and leaves, walking backwards so as not to turn her back on such a gentleman.

That’s the genius of these hawkers – they’re not selling Kleenex, they’re not selling gum, and they’re not begging. Rather, they’re selling feelings. Through this elaborate street theater production, where everyone knows their role, the hawkers are successfully selling self-worth, importance, and magnanimity. 

It’s simple business. Supply and demand. Recognise these loud, brash tourists’ underlying sense of inadequacy and offer to fill it for a couple bucks. I, for one, admire these hawkers’ acumen – and if someone told me they make a good living, I just might believe it. 

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