Monday, June 29, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
“Cultural differences?” I grandly asked myself as I boarded the plane three months ago, “what a load of baloney! People are people the world over! There’s nothing different about us, that’s all just colonial-era claptrap!”
We can learn from this internal exchange that I (thankfully) speak very differently to myself than I do to others. This is lucky because I’m not sure if my grandparents’ generation even uses words like “baloney” and “claptrap.”
More revealing, however, is the level of naivete I displayed. I was a Man of the World when I boarded that plane! I’d lived in the US, New Zealand, and Canada; I’d spent a week in Fiji and three in Scandinavia! I’d even spent five days in Hong Kong. If anyone was qualified to make such grand observations, it was me.
Incorrect. Vietnam is so foreign from anything I’m used to that at times I feel like I may as well be on a different planet. Minh, a guy who, had he been in an American or Kiwi alleyway, would be, aside from the occasional bit of spare change or bag of canned goods, completely ignored, is just the beginning.
I’m not going to wax on about how Vietnamese culture is so superior to ours, either. There’s a real tendency for people (usually college girls), to go on and on about how terrible their home country is and how perfect foreign - particularly third world - countries are.. That’s always kind of annoyed me, because it seems to me that someone pregnant with their fifth kid when the first four are malnourished or dead probably wouldn’t mind a little materialism if itt came with a a life expectancy past 55.
But I digress.
Rather than being superior or inferior, it’s just astoundingly different. For one, it’s not at all uncommon for people to live with their parents, grandparents, or other extended family until an advanced age. My most loyal readers will recall my man Quy , who lives with his parents at 31.
Not that this is uncommon in New Zealand. I’m a bit of a boomerang kid myself, using my parents’ attic as a sort of halfway house between one lifestage and another, a place to sleep and eat for free while I put together the funds to do whatever I’ve decided to do that year.
It's not just common here, though. It's expected. I asked a 26-year old reporter I met once whether he’d ever think about moving out of his parents’ house, and he turned ashen, turning to me and saying “they would be so angry.”
That’s the biggest difference, though. The ex-colonial countries I’ve spent time in are fixated on the individual; it’s every man (or woman) for his (or her) self out there. Not so in Vietnam, where the collective and the family are of paramount importance. Generations live under the same roof, with grandparents, aunts, and uncles everywhere.
It’s not just families, either. It’s groups in general. I went away for a weekend with four local women once, and on the odd occasion that I was not right next to them, I would hear my name screamed three times in quick succession in an anxious plea. Once this happened on a ferry, and I rran over, thinking the boat was sinking or I had strayed into a restricted area, or something similar. Luckily this was not the case. They just couldn’t bear for me to not be part of the group.
Needless to say, this can become absolutely infuriating.
Along with the collective mindset comes a very different concept of personal space. Whenever I try to pay for something and struggle (I’m really not used to cash, and with $1US being worth over 17,000 Vietnamese Dong, my wallet is often overflowing with bills, none of them worth more than 5 or 10 cents), the clerk will helpfully reach into my wallet and pull out the money for me. To him, it’s not big deal – he can see the amount of money he needs, and why should I care if he speeds the whole process up? Just like I can’t imagine why anyone would find this acceptable, he can’t imagine why anyone should think it isn’t.
Thanks to these differences, living in Vietnam has taught me an almost zen-like ability to control my emotions and reactions. I fear, however, that once I get back to an ex-colony, this new positive aspect of my character will be completely negated by the fact that my sense of personal space is beginning to adapt to my new country's norms.
We keep to ourselves in the ex-colonies. Striking up a conversation with a stranger, asking personal questions, and touching him or her is almost invariably construed as sleazy or salesman-like; the instant we encounter it, our guard goes up. It’s precisely the opposite here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with touching someone’s arm as you ask them whether they have a girlfriend and how much money they make;
indeed, to do otherwise would be cold and standoffish.
Touching is very much an intramural gender sport, too. In the Ex-colonies, men touch each other on very special occasions. They hug their best friends and shake everyone else’s hand. That’s it. Anything more and you’re in dangerous sexual territory.
Of course, sporting events, drunkenness, and combinations thereof are a completely different story.
Vietnamese men, however, walk around with their arms around each other, jovially jump on one another, and lay all over one another. When I got a haircut not long ago, the barber asked me something in Vietnamese, and then proceeded to massage my whole body with a vibrating machine – and I do mean my whole body. He gave my calves, stomach, shoulders, and back, a good working over.. Nervously, I wondered if I had inadvertently hired someone who offers more than just haircuts, but when he moved onto my inner thighs and simply grabbed my extraneous bits and moved them aside in a businesslike fashion, I relaxed a little.
Everything is close, in your face, packed together. It can be absolutely excruciating at times, such as when my shoes broke and I had to walk a mile in barefeet, a bad situation that was made worse by the fact that literally every local I passed pointed out that I had no shoes on. But so can theWestern tendency to constantly be aloof and too cool for school, to never tell anyone anything about yourself and never talk to someone to whom you haven’t been properly introduced.
That's Vietnam. Better in some ways, worse in others, but one hundred percent, absolutely, entirely different.
Monday, June 8, 2009
"SAM SAM SAM could I talk to you?”
I cringed. The last time Ms Thao, my boss, had taken me aside for a little chat had been so that she could tell me to put my tie in my bag when I walked out at the end of the day, rather than hold it in my hand. The time before, it had been to tell me to stop sitting down while I teach, as students had told their parents that I occasionally sit down, and the parents had gone on to complain.
I’d gotten a little miffed at that one. There is patently no way that a child goes home from English school, is asked how his day was, and by way of response says “it was great! The teacher sat down for a few minutes!” So it was with some trepidation that I went into a side room to hear my boss’s latest request.
“Can you wear a jacket tomorrow?”
“Sorry, I don’t own one.”
“Well can you buy one?”
Her forehead wrinkled, giving away incredible amounts of anxiety that she tried to hide with a not-very-genuine-smile. “Do you have a white shirt?”
“Sure.” I put out a feeler. “Why?”
“We are taping an ad that will go to all of Vietnam tomorrow and we want you to look very handsome.”
This was interesting. I couldn’t really say that I expected this exact situation to arise, but its strangeness was definitely par for the course. This is a school that regularly tops itself in terms of the bizarre.
For example. Part of my job is testing new students, which I already don’t entirely understand. I sit with a small, terrified child and have him or her repeat words after me. Since the child tends to be new to English, he or she will always have no vocabulary and atrocious pronunciation; hardly unexpected. But still, I’m consistently pulled out of my classes to go through this charade.
So I carry the whole process out, and after I’m done (this is determined by when my boredom reaches its apex), a local teacher will ask me how the child’s English pronunciation was. I’ll give an answer, and be on my way.
Then, a few weeks ago, they started asking me a new question. I answered the usual pronunciation question and made to leave, when the woman said “wait.” I obliged, and she asked me another question: “how is his psychology?”
“Psychologically? You know, his brain, his mind?” This shattered the impression I had of her misunderstanding the word “psychology.”
“I’m not sure…I’m not a psychologist,” I tried to be tactful as I gave this what I thought to be rather obvious fact.
“Hmm, yes.” She smiled and nodded. “But is his brain okay?”
“Well, I guess, but like I said, I’m not a….”
She cut me off and bustled me out of the room. “Thank you see you again.”
So I wasn’t caught completely off-guard when my boss told me why I was to dress nicely the following day, as the abnormal had long ago replaced the normal at Super Youth. On the contrary, I was flattered. Just a few short months ago, I was an embittered civil servant living in his parents’ attic; now I’m well on my way to becoming a Vietnamese TV star.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Make the children very happy,” she said as she shoved something into my face. It was all in Vietnamese, but I recognized it as a script. I was literally going to be running a scripted lesson.
Actually, I kind of liked it, as it had a song to teach the kids and a couple of games that looked fun. It was kind of amusing that from my first day on I’d just been thrown into a classroom with vague instructions to “teach these pages” for 45 minutes, and it was only now, in the presence of cameras, that I was being given any meaningful tips, but I’m familiar with the adage about gift horses and their mouths.
The next day came, and when I arrived at work the first thing the boss told me was to come down to a classroom where she had my six-year-olds ready. We were going to practice. “Great,” I thought. Even though I’d nodded and said yes, mostly because I didn’t want to be in a conversation with my anxiety-ridden boss anymore, I wasn’t entirely clear on the details of how the class was to run. So a run-through would be great. Iron out the kinks, et cetera et cetera.
The kids were sitting there, excited that their routine was being broken. I opened my mouth to begin the lesson (the first scene on the script was to introduce myself to the children, which was odd seeing how they’d had me as their teacher for months), but I was interrupted by Ms Thao shrieking. The children, it turned out, had not been sitting with their arms crossed on their desks, and today that was an inexcusable offence.
It’s not like sitting with crossed arms is a rule that just isn’t enforced. It really was completely new to everyone involved – me, the children, and the Vietnamese teacher.
We started again, with 16 little arms obediently crossed. I made it through the introduction, and moved onto the first game. This one was easy – I was to pantomime different vocabulary words, and the students would raise their hands and answer as to what it was. No problem; I’d done it a million times before.
I pantomimed my first word (apple, by the way) and eight hands shot up. They went right back into their arms-folded position, though, when Ms Thao shrieked again, possibly louder than the first time.
The problem? Today, the six-year-olds weren’t going to simply raise their hands. They were going to shout “ding-dong!” as well.
It was about here that I couldn’t stop myself from breaking out in peals of laughter every few minutes. We only had a couple hours until the cameras came, she was stressed to the max that it go perfectly, and she was calling audibles?
Luckily, that was the last time she changed the play during the rehearsal, and it proceeded without a hitch. Then she had us do it again. And again. And again. Three times we did that twenty-minute lesson, and by the third time she was shrieking that the kids’ “ding-dongs” weren’t loud enough.
Finally, she told me not to call on one girl because “she is too slow, she will make school look bad.” I asked if that wasn’t more than a little harsh, especially seeing how the girl in question was six, but Ms Thao gave a weird smile and walked away.
We had a quick break, and then our moment arrived. The cameras were here, and the children, exhausted by now, were led through their “lesson” for the fourth time. Ms Thao stood nervously outside the open door, a regular bundle of nerves.
I went through the lesson, with the children giving half-hearted “ding-dongs,” constantly looking to Ms Thao in fear and trepidation. After the introduction, it was time for a song.
The song was simple, but I messed it up. Oops. It was supposed to go “up down, turn around, up up up, down down down down, turn around and JUMP!”
I only said “down” three times. I know. Unforgivable. Ms Thao came blustering in, shrieking and flailing her arms, screaming instructions in her shrill voice to the cameraman, trying to get him to stop recording so we could start the lesson over. He snapped back, also in Vietnamese, and judging by the fact that she faded into the corner, it was probably something along the lines of “are you insane? We’re not starting over.”
But she was on edge. She hovered around for the rest of the lesson, interjecting not-very-quietly over and over again. She looked like she was about to explode.
I was getting a little frustrated. Not that I overly cared how the commercial went. I was just a little annoyed that she was such a pile of stress over the kids being happy and everything being perfect, but at the same time she was singlehandedly ruining it.
It was time for the game. And an inspiration dawned on me. I would call on the slow girl.
I did it, and it was great. The colour drained out of Ms Thao’s face as she tried to signal to me what a mistake I was making through hand gesture and facial expressions, as the cameraman had by this stage insisted on silence from her. I pretended not to understand, and called on the little girl again. And again. And again.
It was like the climatic point in a children’s movie; just as I had expected, she wasn’t slow at all. She answered the questions at the same speed or faster than anyone else. In my brain, the violins swelled, as the underdog and I stuck it to the (wo)man, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
And then it was over. Ms Thao approached me. “Are you stress?”
“Oh I think maybe you are because forget not to call on slow girl.”
“I didn’t forget.”
Then I walked away, smug smile on my face, having successfully, once again, stuck it to a figure of authority, and on television to boot.
It was a good day at Super Youth.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
The first topic Will discussed when we walked home from our shared workplace was how difficult it is to get a “good English breakfast, with proper sausages” in Vietnam. Since it was our first conversation, I declined to mention that, in my experience, the best place to get an English breakfast is England.
Now that he was on the topic of England (his home country, I need not mention), he expanded, going on to tell me about how fantastic it is – but only his county, called Shropwood or Devonrockham or some other absurdity; either way, he was aghast that I was unfamiliar with it. The rest of Britain, according to him, was “a bunch of lower-class football-playing louts with horrendous accents and names like Wayne.” His county was a magical place, where one could enjoy “cheese, wine, and the BBC.”
As he said this, I glanced at him and noticed that he talks with his hands perpetually raised to chest level, with his palms out. I guess it’s an upper class thing that I don’t understand, but as a firm citizen of the upper middle class, it just seemed wanky and pretentious to me.
As we crossed the street, he leaned his face towards a motorbike that had slighted him in some way, and screamed “FUCK OFF”. Looking back up to my rather embarrassed face, he jumped into topic number three and said “yes, anyway I’ve only fucked two whores since I’ve been here.”
Startled, I shuffled and mumbled, unsure as to what to say. Why would he tell me that with no conversational segue whatsoever? What’s more, it’s more than a small contradiction to wax lyrical on class and taste, and then go on to speak so coarsely.
But that’s the typical customer. I’ve never met someone who frequents this service industry and thought to myself “that’s interesting, he doesn’t seem at all like the type to pay for sex.” Rather, every time someone has mentioned their predilection for prostitutes, my first thought has been “well, that figures.”
I’ve never met anyone like these guys in the Western countries I’ve lived in. I’m not sure if the reason for this is because such men spend their lives flitting about the third world, or because they act completely differently when they’re at home.
Either way, there is a definite stereotype of the expat prostitute connoisseur. He’s usually in his forties, and has a tremendous inferiority complex. His favourite discussion topics are friends who did him wrong, how fantastic his home country is, and how terrible Vietnam is. Prostitutes are not often discussed, but they are not hidden either. They’re just a normal part of life for these guys; discussing them is like discussing my breakfast cereal. So commonplace that there’s no reason to talk about it.
But, if someone displays an interest in my breakfast choices, I’ll happily tell them (toast or cereal with yogurt; I don’t like milk. I should have more fruit but I always forget to buy it). So too with these guys and their prostitutes, and thanks to my remarkable penchant for getting people to tell me excruciating details of their lives by merely sitting there, I now know a great deal about what makes these guys tick.
They divide into two groups, and I became reasonably close with representatives from both of them. The first is the merely pathetic. Frank fell into this group. He’s a self-described hopeless romantic, who, in his mid-40s, has never married or had children, but not by choice. Rather, he is just unable to convince a woman that he is worth talking to. I’m going to try and avoid making fun of him too much, because really he’s just sad. He doesn’t sleep with prostitutes out of any kind of hate for women, or superficiality. Rather, he’s genuinely looking for love – but as the song goes, in all the wrong places.
The second type is the type Will fell into. Will is also pathetic, but he’s also an asshole. I hate to be so inarticulate, but it’s literally the only way to describe him and his ilk. As his behaviour with the passing motorbike indicates, he has zero respect for anyone who isn’t white. Actually, it even extends past that – he hates the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh as well.
He’s a relic from another era, behaving as if the empire is still at its peak, when in reality it’s nonexistent. If he wasn’t completely unemployable in his home country, I have no doubt that he’d be back there, but as it is he’s stuck in Vietnam, making far more than the average university graduate while doing far less work. It’s quite the hand he’s been dealt.
It’s quite clear why he frequents the street walkers. He doesn’t want to spend time with them; even looking at them is a bit of an effort for such a wine-drinking, cheese-eating cultured Englishman like him. He picks up women in motorbikes, does his business, and tells me about it later on.
Frank likes the whole experience. When Frank told me that he used to be a hooker patron before he gave it up, I naturally asked him which ones he preferred. It was just sad when he said he likes to pick up the women who frequent bars and sell their company and a night in your bed in addition to sex because “I need the chemistry.”
He then insisted we go to one of Ho Chi Minh City’s many bars packed with women whose job is to sit and talk to patrons and get them to spend more money on drinks. When I asked him what the point was – as it is quite obvious that these women aren’t going to be leaving the bar with anyone – he told me “maybe not tonight, but if I keep on coming back…” he trailed off knowingly, and my heart broke.
But that’s the thread that rings true for both types of men. A profound ability for self-deception. Will told me one day that prostitutes prefer him. “Really?” I said, trying (and, again, failing) to arch one eyebrow.
“Oh yes. They like me the best because I go out of my way to make sure they enjoy themselves.”
Dumbstruck, I merely nodded.
“And Sam, you won’t believe this, but one time in Bangkok, I hired a hooker who I’d walked past several times in the weeks previous, and she said ‘ooh, lucky me!’”
I groaned inwardly for the millionth time. Will’s type tend to be pretty stupid, but deep down he must know that there’s no way these prostitutes are enjoying themselves as much as he imagines them to be. Even if their sexual desires are bordering on nymphomaniacal, after eight, ten, or twelve hours of men climbing on top of them, the moans simply have to be acting. Nobody has that kind of stamina. And even if that tidbit passed him by, surely he can put together that his Thai contractor probably spoke half of her English vocabulary when she congratulated herself on landing such a handsome (and doubtless well-endowed) client.
That’s the nature of the industry. Self-deception. It’s about far more than sex; these women sell, in addition to their bodies, the idea to these sad, lonely, pathetic men that they are handsome, virile, attentive lovers, capable of driving these women to distraction. Like the tissue saleswomen, they’re selling dreams – with a side of sex.