Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Things I Don't Understand

There’s a lot I don’t understand. In fact, the amount of things I don’t understand outweighs the
amount of things I do by an enormous factor. When something is marked down 30 percent, why
do people buy three of them? Why do people drive to the gym? Why do people stretch their seatbelt over one shoulder so that passing police think it’s on but don’t go all the way and click it in properly?

This last one, which I witnessed in the USA, was a particular mindblower. While I support fighting the man as much as possible, this is a situation when the man’s going to have the last laugh – especially when you’re in an unsocialised, second-rate hospital with your credit being destroyed by the minute after you fly through your windshield.

Moving to Vietnam has done precisely nothing to improve this foible of mine. Indeed, it has compounded it. Where my own culture confounded me enough, a foreign one is, as I’ve said a million times before, a whole new world of weird happenings. So here is a summation of the irritating, the infuriating, and the inexplicable.

Fruit Prices
I know by now that a smoothie from a streetside vendor costs 7,000 dong (about $NZ0.70). I also know that if I go to a vendor I’m not a regular at that I will be charged 10 or even 15 thousand dong for the same smoothie. This used to put me into a rage at the principle of being overcharged based on my white skin, large body, and pointy nose, but I’ve become much more complacent about it. After all, it’s really only a token amount more, especially when the same smoothie would cost $5 in NZ.

But I draw the line at fruit. Rather than charge slightly more than or even double the going rate, fruitsellers love to try to charge me three to five times as much. And I just don’t understand it. Not only will they quote me a price that is at times higher than expensive, non-tropical New Zealand, they will also often refuse to budge from that price.

It’s not very logical, really. Rather than sell me fruit at a slightly-higher-than-average rate, the extortionate rate assures that they make precisely zero dong in profit as I walk away in a huff.

Of course, when I go to the next stand my energy is so sapped from the first one that I accept, with no argument whatsoever, a price that is only marginally lower (to the tune of three or four cents). Maybe it’s an elaborate scheme run by all the fruitsellers, or maybe I’m just paranoid.

Motorbike Parking

This makes sense in theory. You park your motorbike, a guy hands you a ticket, watches it while you’re shopping, working out, or drinking, and then when you’re done you give your ticket to the man, who gets your motorbike and sends you on your way.

They probably do this in the West too, but I’ve never been swanky enough to go to a place with valet parking; I’ve barely even owned a car.

At any rate, the parking guys are devoted to their jobs. If you’ve lost your ticket, it’s a big deal.

I was reminded of this at my gym a few days ago. Every day, I go there, exercise, and then as I leave the parking man sees me and gets my bike ready as I walk out. He knows it’s my bike, I know it’s my bike, and, as if to underscore the fact that the ticket’s a formality, he tears it up without looking at it when I give it to him.

So when my ticket either got dissolved by sweat or, more likely, fell out one of the several holes in my back pocket, I thought it would be no big deal. After all, the parking guy and I – we had a relationship.

No dice. Even though he knew exactly which motorbike was mine, he wasn’t having a bar of it. No ticket, no bike. So I stood there for ten minutes or so, looking distressed until, tired of hearing me talk to him in a foreign language, he relented.

As I mounted my bike, I apologized to him and tried to show him that I had a hole in my shorts by making a hole with my thumb and forefinger and pointing to it with the forefinger of another hand. It wasn’t until he recoiled in disgust that I realised that my gesture could be construed very differently.

Needless to say, I’ve been swimming for the past week or so.

But this is what I don’t understand: aren’t keys sufficient indicator of ownership? What’s more, if a thief were to go to the effort to steal your keys, wouldn’t he or she go ahead and steal your ticket as well? Simply locking your bike seems way more effective than participating in this weird charade.

Weird Lies
The most baffling thing I’ve encountered here, however, is a tendency of employers, landlords, and the like to tell me things that are not only untrue, they lack any grounding in reality.

For example. For my first six weeks here I lived in a hotel. It was a nice place, but a tad lonely. It also didn’t have a kitchen, which is a convenience I surprisingly missed, even though I literally never cook. So when I found a room in a house with some similar-aged teachers for $100 less per month, I jumped at the opportunity.

The conversation with my landlady then went like this. “Hi, I’ve found a new place, so I’m going to move out at the end of the week.”

“New place? How much?”

“$200 a month.”

“Oh, that very cheap.” (it isn’t really)

“Yes, that’s part of why I’m moving there”

“Does it have air conditioning?”


“I don’t think it does.”

I furrowed my brow. “Yes, it does, I looked at it yesterday.”

“No, there is no air conditioning.”

And this didn’t happen in isolation. It’s happened on loads of other less-noteworthy occasions, but one is forever seared in my memory.

The school I work for grew tired of paying me in envelopes of cash, so they opened a bank account for me. As part of the process, I brought in a photocopy of my passport and visa (the latter of which the woman looked at and said “ooh, single!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it meant single entry, but I had to wonder what she would have thought if I’d had a multiple-entry visa).

Two weeks later, I got a phone call saying my debit card for my new bank account was ready. I went in, and was handed a shiny, new card: with the name Sram Bartob Grnovern. I pointed out that, while I was sorry to cause trouble, that is not my name, and consequently it would probably be unwise to use a bank account opened in this near substitute.

“Oh, no!” the woman nearly had an anxiety attack, “but that is your name!”

Furrowing again. “I’m sorry, but it really isn’t.”

“No! That was the name on your passport!”

Again, I said, kindly I think, that no, it wasn’t the name on my passport, as it wasn’t my name. She argued for a few minutes, but I felt fairly confident on this point so I stood my ground.

I guess it would have been easier for them if I’d just admitted that no, I wasn’t Sam Barton Grover. But ever since then I’ve wondered what social protocol I’d (so clearly) violated. Was I supposed to simply say “oh, right, that is my name. Silly me,” and go on my way?
Like I said. Bewildering.


  1. haha, even funner reading them than hearing them daily.. ill get all my mates to read this if they ask me why i bitch alot about our adopted country

  2. Yeah, basically this entire entry was based on conversations with you.