Sunday, December 31, 2006

Culture Shock

This week I made my first excursion out to observe activities at our most distant field site. It was in Khunh Thang district, which shares a border with the most southern province in China. We had planned to take a couple of hours during the day to drive to the border itself where there is a historically significant and beautiful (I’ve seen pictures) waterfall – but unfortunately we didn’t manage to make it quite that far this trip – I was too interested in the field activities to take the time to drive out there. There will be other times – and other blogs.

But I had plenty to be excited about on this trip as it was – first, it was my first long-distance motorbike ride (60 km and 2 hours each way). Don’t worry – I’m still riding tandem with one of our other staff until I get my motorbike lessons and permit. Second, it was my first excursion out of the city into the “real” Vietnam – my first chance to see the mountainous terrain up close by daylight too. Cao Bang is ethnic-minority center of Vietnam, and people at this training would be speaking the ethnic dialect (or language) of Tây (not that I would necessarily know the difference what with my 10 words of Vietnamese at this point). So I was excited to see some of the peculiarities of Vietnamese ethnic life up closer. Finally, it was my first chance to spend the entire with my staff away from Ali’s benign but constant presence – a chance for me to begin to feel what I am getting myself into for real.

So at 6:30 am we climbed onto the project motorbikes, donned the requisite helmets, and set off into the morning damp chill and fog to seek out mountain highways.

And yet, as we zoomed through the winding mountains all that came as a shock to me was how familiar it all was. I had been here before. Everything was the same – from rice paddies divided into manageable portions by earth barriers, to the herds of livestock (cattle, goats, chickens) that blocked the entire road around blind corners, the burdened villager balancing a load front and back on a stick resting on the shoulder, the snaking winding switchbacks of the mountain byways that rose up to reveal impossible valley views, the sudden potholes nearly jarring you out of your seat on the frighteningly narrow pavement to the village market, empty and forlorn on a cold damp morning that was patently not market day and the ever-busy breakfast shop which always finds customers even on the slowest of days. Even the government buildings were shockingly identifiable – mayor’s offices, schools and village health clinics all jumped out from the grey backdrop with their traffic-sign bright coats of yellow paint with red trim.

Perhaps it has been because of this unexpected familiarity that the things that are different are so much more jarring to me. I came here fully expecting a certain amount of culture shock and I had a mental list of those things that would be relatively easy for me versus those that would be very difficult. And sure enough, the things I expected to be difficult have been. Number one on that list is, of course, language. It’s frustrating for me to not be able to converse with people AT ALL, much less with the familiarity that I managed in Madagascar. But I knew coming in here that that would be painful. Too bad knowing and expecting difficulty doesn’t actually make that difficulty and easier. But add to that frustration the fact that I am continuously lulled by my surroundings – only to be jerked out when once again, I can’t even tell a vendor that “I’m just looking.” Or properly greet an authority that I am being introduced to.

Some other things that have, if not surprised me, then gotten my notice since arriving:

  • Good rice: after 4 years of suffering and even learning to like Malagasy rice – eating rice in Vietnam is like eating candy! I don’t even need to put anything on top of it. I never guessed that plain-old, everyday rice could be so different and so good elsewhere!
  • Motorcycles – everywhere! Everybody has a motorbike…or two, or three. The best picture is the “minivan” – little baby up front, dad driving, older sibling standing on seat hanging onto dad’s shoulders and mom hanging onto all of them in the back. Our projects alone have 7 motorbikes (with more on the way), and not a single car. Cars are by far the minority on the streets here.
  • The poor quality of the products available in the market. And I thought Made in China in Madagascar was bad. At least in Madagascar it was high-quality plastic crap that made it to their shores. Here it’s plastic and it is guaranteed to fall apart before arriving home. They’ve learned to cut corners on absolutely everything.
  • And the fact that the poor quality Made-in-China goods are more expensive here than in Madagascar. Go figure that – especially when we share a border town 90 km away. A lot of prices are right in line with what I was used to in Madagascar, but I keep getting shocked by what things are more expensive – a LOT more expensive – here and the things that are much, MUCH cheaper than over there. A sweater that I wouldn’t have paid more than $7 in Madagascar for was going for $15 here – and no less. Yet, fruit, vegetables and basic market goods are so, so, so much cheaper. But there’s really no rhyme or reason to expensive/inexpensive – but I have a lot of relearning of prices to do.
  • One fun difference, for the time being, is their use of Christmas lights. It’s fun for now, but apparently this is a year-round thing. I don’t know if I’m going to get sick of it, or if I’m going to enjoy the holiday spirit year round.
  • Yet, for all the “holiday spirit” there may seem to be, after being in Madagascar, religious center of the Indian Ocean (or so it seemed some days), it’s downright stupefying to realize that there is essentially NO religion here. After living in a place where a religious calendar ruled and organized everybody’s life from school children to postal workers, and religious music blasted from stereos in the same house that played hip-hop, and prayers before public ceremonies sometimes took longer than the entire ceremony itself, religion became such a culturally infused notion for me when thinking about life in a foreign country. Yet here, that whole section of what “culture” is to me is missing. Simply non-existent. Sunday is just a day off because the rest of the world has decided such – mostly activities simply continue on as usual. And I’ve gotten used to the idea of whole cities shutting down for that day. I guess there’s a good reason the Malagasy could have never really succeeded in real communism.
  • Number of children. It took me a while to figure this one out. Why do the streets seem so empty? And church (because I did go to church in Hanoi my first week) – what was missing? The kids. Vietnam had a very strict 2-child policy for many years. The policy has relaxed a little now, but apparently if you want to go very far in a government career, you should still be very careful about your number of children. But in any case, the result is stores, streets, church, meetings and other public places are amazingly empty of children. At least for one who has lived in a country with half the population under the age of 15, and probably ¾ of that under the age of 5. The cultural impact has been enormous. First children are greatly valued and have every advantage that comes from a population that is earning a lot of money and has lots of selection of cheap Chinese goods to spend it on. Second – and this is amazing to me – education is extremely valued and it is almost expected that young women will delay marriage and having kids so she can complete an education to as far as her intelligence and dedication will allow, and then begin working and essentially live a life first before having children. Not to say there isn’t teenage pregnancy and whatnot here, but geez, talk about flipside of the coin.
  • Then there’s a real cultural thing that has surprised me. I knew that Vietnamese and most Asians are reputed for their general reserve in relationships and getting to know people. But as I’ve been introduced to a many people that I will be working directly and indirectly lately, what I have been really shocked by is their seeming disinterest in meeting a new person at all. There’s a small inclination of the head, maybe repeating of the name and maybe, just maybe, a question or two, and then they turn to each other and begin a new topic of conversation. A little disconcerting when the meeting was planned just so you could get to know somebody. At first I chalked this up to a language barrier. But it kept happening. But then I began meeting people for the second time, or in social rather than formal work situations, and the change was so immense I began to wonder if I was meeting an identical, but opposite, twin. As soon as you’re past that introduction stage, the Vietnamese are affectionate almost to the point of embarrassment (at least woman to woman). They are extremely enthusiastic and fun-loving friends and once you’re in, you’re in. And this seems to go for just about everybody.

In general, after these few differences, Vietnam seems simply like a more-developed and advanced Madagascar with a better work ethic. The roads are better, there’s electricity even in the most remote areas that I’ve driven through, and there are very few vehicles on the roads that seem more than 10 years old. Taxis are almost brand new, and even few of the motorbikes are the noisy rattle-trap types. The streets are clean! One of the happiest things about where I live is the big green community garbage cans which are not only conveniently located, but are emptied on such a regular basis that I never have a problem getting my trash to go in. But the surroundings feel so much like where I’ve been before that I wonder if it would have been better/easier for me to go somewhere further away culturally and environmentally. Like Niger or Indonesia or Afghanistan. There I would have KNOWN I was in a new place – and maybe the double shocks wouldn’t have been so bad.

Still, for all the shocks that have been, I can’t at all complain. Things are very nice here – and with time, the language too will come and I will truly begin to feel at home again.

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