Thursday, November 20, 2008

Today I had to wade through (pleasantly lukewarm but suspiciously opaque) water to get to my usual café. The bank of the river have overflowed and half the town is flooded.

In these trying circumstances the locals remain enterprising. Instead of being hassled by people wanting to sell me a ride on the back of their cyclos or motorbikes ("you want motorbike ride?") I was sidled up to by people in row boats ("you want boat ride?").

Hoi An is a very small town. One can walk (or wade) anywhere in less than fifteen minutes. And yet hurtling around everywhere are those blasted motorbikes - the Vespass of Death that I mentioned when I was in Hanoi.
This is because, as I was surprised to learn when I had dinner with some people from an NGO that runs an orphanage here, walking is seen as a low class thing to do.
"Think about it: have you ever seen a local walking on the street? They'll take a motorbike, even if it's only a few metres away. It's a status things. Only poor people walk, because they have to."

No wonder people think us Westerners are strange for wanting to walk intead of riding a motorbike for 100m back to our hotels, seeing as we can afford to ride.

When I was in Thailand several years ago my friend and I hitched a ride with some locals to a national park. We spent half a day talking with them in their car. When they asked us what we did for a living they were taken aback by our answers (me: a post-grad music student; my friend: a medical student).

"We don't mean to cause you any offence, it's just that we are very surprised because you are not dressed well enough to look like people with a university education."

Even on holiday, casual clothes like shorts, t-shirts and sandals - though comfortable and convenient - are only for "low class" people. Heaven forbid that "high class" people like us be mistaken for "low class" people! Our local friends, of course, were dressed in semi-formal western style suit jackets, despite being on holiday in the scorching heat like us. We found their outfits as strange as they found ours.

It's interesting how these ideas about what signals status is almost completely opposed to way the signs of privilege and affluence for my generation are defined in my own culture:

Cycling and walking walking... (you can afford to live close by to where you work and play)

Wearing casual clothes... (you're not just any old wage slave who's forced to dress formally, or perhaps because you don't need to work at all).

Eating brown rice... (you're educated about nutrition and you have the extra time to cook it)


At 11:20 pm, Blogger The Rantolotl said...

How/where are you? Back in Thailand, perhaps assisting the PAD?

At 11:05 am, Anonymous John Rocket said...

Yeah, I had a similar reflection a number of years ago in Macedonia. The one McDonalds - in the centre of Skopje - was always having birthday parties for kids on Saturday afternoons - when I'd tend to go in... (Okay, I once liked McDonalds... so shoot me!) These birthdays were almost identical to the birthdays in Australia, harried underpaid, teenage girl 'organising' the hyper-kids, junior burgers, ice-cream cake, t-shirt, frisbee and cap - all identical. Identical but not quite... the mothers were very different. The mothers would be dressed up to the nines, it was winter and they wore furs, jewellery and so many gold rings. At the end of the party, I'd see a procession of expensive cars picking up the children. Only the rich in Macedonia could afford a McDonalds birthday for their little ones. That peculiar inversion.


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