Monday, September 21, 2009


In New Zealand, I’m an American with an obnoxious, obtrusive accent (that's me on the left). In America, my voice blends but my inability to drive on the right side of the road and painfully inept grasp of pop culture sets me apart as a New Zealander. In Vietnam, of course, I’m white.

Not that I’m complaining. I like to think of myself as some kind of latter-day Han Solo, albeit lacking in furry friends and a modified spaceship. I’m young yet, though.

More relevantly, I feel like my Global Citizen status has given me carte blanche to criticize and mock all of these cultures I’ve lived in and around as combined insider and outsider. So without further ado, here are some generalizations I’ve formed over the past several years.

New Zealand
The prevailing conception of New Zealand is that it is filled with laid-back, relaxed, unflappable people, incapable of getting even a little bit bent out of shape because they’re so chill.

I’m here to tell you that this is a myth. It’s an understandable myth, at least (in contrast to “swine flu is dangerous” or “public money was intended for private interests”), but a myth nonetheless. New Zealanders aren’t laid-back and relaxed. They’re just too meek to say what’s on their mind.

Examples abound. Going out for a coffee is always a surprise because quality is so inconsistent. Not that New Zealanders prefer bad coffee; they just don’t ever complain, so baristas have no idea if they’re doing a good job or not.

More startling, though, is attending university in this country.

In New Zealand, a lecturer (always a foreigner, who doesn’t understand that he’s in a nation of extreme social anxiety) will occasionally put forth a question to his class. “What do you think of this?” he’ll say, all bright smiles and naivete.

Nothing. It’s a sea of silence as everyone – save the adult students sitting in the front row who are, for some reason, on the other end of the spectrum – look to their left, to their right, but
never directly at the lecturer for fear he’ll spot-call on them.

“Tough crowd,” I imagine him thinking, “I’ll give them an easy question to warm them up.” So he does that – asks for some information the class (should have) read about the night previous,
or even something he just said. And this is where it gets really painful. Even though everybody in the class knows the answer to what he asked, and everyone knows that everyone knows the answer the eye-shifting and seat-squirming persistes, with nary a hand in the air. Time after time, I saw this single thread run through a variety of classes in a variety of subjects at a variety of levels. In New Zealand, nobody wants to stand out.

I can’t help but notice that this nation of meek, awkward people also has a rambunctious, sometimes destructive drinking culture. I’ll leave the connections up to you.

Americans don’t to have any emotional middle ground. They’re either ecstatic with joy, black with rage, laughing loudly and obnoxiously, or crying their eyes out. I’m kind of glad my
upbringing has been a mix of this and New Zealand’s stark contrast because I’m not sure my delicate system could handle this constant fifth-to-reverse shifting before dropping my emotional transmission all over the road.

Americans don’t keep anything in, either. If an American likes you, you know it. If an American hates you, you’ll hear about it. If an American just took a shit and it was a abnormal consistency combined with a worse-than-usual smell, you will hear about it, in far more detail than you ever could have imagined or would have asked for.

Americans are also phenomenally ethnocentric. This isn’t really their fault; not only do they live in a nation whose population is in the hundreds of millions, it’s also the heart of the world’s cultural output. When you’re from the same country as the soda people everyone’s drinking, TV they’re watching, and music they’re listening to, there’s really not a huge impetus to learn about the outside world.

What’s more, they don’t really understand that the rest of the world isn’t as the same way. I plan on going to Colorado in December to work in whatever capacity they’ll give me in order to enjoy the fringe benefits of an apartment on the mountain and a free lift pass. I know. It’s going to be awesome.

On more than one occasion, I’ve told an American this plan and been asked, with wide-eyed incredulity, “how do you know about Colorado? You didn’t grow up in America!”

It’s so bizarre. They simply cannot understand how someone whose entire life wasn’t spent in the USA can know that this 100,000 square mile state exists. I’ll gently point out that not only did I live in the USA for my first fifteen years, I also have a host of extended family in – you guessed it – Colorado. Even after being given this information, heads are shaken and I can tell that they don’t quite accept it yet.

American waiters and waitresses, however, do their jobs incredibly well. They chat with you just enough that you feel welcomed but not too much that you feel like they’re intruding on your conversation. Your drink order is taken immediately, they check up on you just enough. Also, when the food gets to you, it’s generally pretty good. Americans know their hospitality.

The Vietnamese
The Vietnamese aren’t casually inefficient, nor are they inefficient enough that I could cleverly suggest that they may be allergic to efficiency. No, it’s worse than that. Efficiency is the Vietnamese Peoples’ Kryptonite.

Here’s a Western cultural practice that does not have its praises sung nearly enough: the line. There’s not much to it, just a bunch of people standing in a row and patiently waiting their turn.

It’s this simplicity that makes it so perfect, though. You might have to wait, but you can very
quickly and easily judge how long you’ll have to do so for. And if you’re not at the front of this line, maybe you’ll be in the front of the next one. Everyone gets served as fast as possible.

I never noticed how great this is when I lived in Western countries because the poor, unheralded line is in the same unfortunate situation as Jodi Mitchell’s paradise (you know, the one they replaced with a parking lot). You just don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

It’s gone now. Oh, is it ever gone. It just doesn’t exist here, in any capacity. No matter the situation, be it at the post office, supermarket, or anywhere else where the number of people to be served is greater than the number of people doing the serving, there will be an unruly mob, all pushing and shoving to get in.

At the kindergarten I currently teach at, I’m trying my best
to instill this Western value in their impressionable brains, but I fear that it is an uphill battle that will eventually be lost.

If the inability to line up was the only inefficiency in Vietnam, I would be hesitant to generalize the whole country as such. But no. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

On the theme of hospitality, eating out in Vietnam is always a mixed bag. If you’re with one or more other person, getting eighty percent of your order is doing well. And this isn’t a language thing – I’ve been out to dinner with Vietnamese people who (i assume, at least) ordered in perfect Vietnamese only to have great swathes of the meal never arrive. The novel concept of writing down orders has yet to arrive here; most places just have the waiter relay the order to the kitchen by shouting across the restaurant. Like I said, inefficient.

But the most maddening was when I was asked by my employer, in all seriousness, to take a CD
home and write down the lyrics to “wheels on the bus,” that popular children’s song we all know and some of us love.

The reasons behind it made sense. They wanted to be able to sing the song when a foreign teacher wasn’t around, and they had a hard time understanding the words, as speakers of English as a 2nd language. But the internet is available in Vietnam. Call me insensitive and precious (you wouldn’t be the first), but it strikes me as far easier (on everyone) to just plug “wheels on the bus” and “lyrics” into Google than the option they took.

And maybe they didn’t think of it. Lapse in judgement or something. So I told them! I explained how much easier it would be (especially on me, because man do I hate that song), but they would not hear a word of reason.

So the CD sits in my bag, untouched, until they figure out that Google isn’t just a more efficient option, it’s their only option.

Just doing my part, one frustrated employer at a time.

No comments:

Post a Comment