Our family moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in early July 2013, and in that time, we have learned a variety of lessons about what it means to live in another culture.
1. Just because it doesn’t make sense doesn’t mean that it won’t make sense.
One of our students said, “If it fully starts to make sense, you have been here (in Vietnam) too long.”
There are plenty of things that still leave us puzzled. Many times workers prefer not to wear shoes when completing tasks on a ladder, or balancing on wires. This preference can be rationalized, but it is still odd to see.
After touching down in HCMC in July 2013, we were driven by the school van to our temporary home in an apartment facing the river near the school. The traffic on the way to the apartment was traveling every which way, with motorbikes going against the flow, vehicles ignoring signals and what seemed to be an overall disregard for “sensible” traffic flow.
Soon after our arrival, we decided to take a boat into downtown with the boys at rush hour. We disembarked from the boat and walked down the sidewalk, but as it got darker, more and more motorbikes were driving toward us. We huddled together in the corner of a bend in the road, and formulated our plan to escape back to the boat. Looking back on our rush hour sidewalk stroll, it was a giant culture shock moment, but we now know that the traffic has a flow of it’s own.
Traffic moves well for the most part. There is a hierarchy of vehicles: trucks heed way to no one, busses do whatever they want, followed by vans and cars that move over the trucks or busses. Motor bikes are expected to get out of the way of all other vehicles, and have the flexibility to do so. Sidewalks become roadways, if they are not already shops or restaurants.
Attached to some of the shops and restaurants, we noticed tons of large banners with lots of information, but of particular interest was many of the banners have specific dates attached to them. Getting a banner printed in the US is something that is generally price prohibitive for a single, one off event, but in HCMC, after a while we found that printing materials is really relatively inexpensive, which permits banners to be printed every couple of weeks by businesses to commemorate holidays, one day sales, or “Hey look, its Tuesday November 5, 2013”. Why print it? Because they can.
Labor is inexpensive, which explains many of the things that we have seen. There will be workers in orange suits sweeping the highway with brooms, or ice cream shop will have 7 employees on a slow Wednesday.
Between the traffic, banners, and occasional lack of footwear, we have had a lot of things start to make sense. The transition to another culture is difficult, and it all takes time. We have become desensitized to many of the things around us that we couldn’t figure out, and have flat out accepted them as they are.
Changing the world around you to fit your perceived “right way of doing things” does not always make sense. Your solutions to problems could be remedied in a far different way than you would have ever considered. Make yourself open to the idea that things that you perceive as nonsensical can have sense to them. Of course, having a five year old in the house helps with the generation of nonsense… :-)
2. Finding out the price does not mean that’s how much you will pay, in many places.
Early in our life in Saigon, we were taken by our nanny to the Bin Thanh Market. We found items that we purchased, and had no idea that we were paying in some cases four times as much as we would eventually pay. The best piece of advice that we were given is: “The merchants will not sell merchandise to you if they aren’t going to make at least some profit.” As a family, Becca will begin negotiations, then call me over. I will say that the price is too much, and walk away. As I am away, Becca will continue to haggle the price down, and I will come check in several minutes into the conversation, to find out the price. At the point, I say that it is time to go, and we begin to walk away. The question of what our highest price that we can offer is asked, which we always leave some wiggle room from, and a little up from there. Quickly, the price that we offered becomes the price of the good. It’s amazing how just a little time investment equates to a financial savings.
There are again places that, because labor is so inexpensive, will charge what seems to be far too little for their good or service. Today, we went and had the boys hair cut, as well as my beard shaved. All told, it came to 140.000 VND (about $7 USD), which is about a third of what it would have been for one hair cut. We tipped the barber 50.000 VND (about $2.50), and he was thrilled. Another occurrence of where I felt that I was paying far too little for a job done is when my tire went flat on the motorbike. I stopped off at a mechanic shop on the side road, and the man put the bike up on a lift. After examining the back tire, he was able to pull it off the rim, repair the tube, reassemble the wheel, and inflate the tire, all within about 20 minutes. His price was 10.000 VND($.50USD), and I paid him 30.000VND (about a $1.50USD).
3. Learning to let it go.
Trusting that it will eventually all work out is tough. Every once in a while, we will start off in a taxi, and think to ourselves, “Where is this cab going?” Many times, the driver knows where he is going, but decides to go a way that we had never been, but other times, we end up a ways from where we intended. If there is a time factor, we watch the route on Google Maps, but many times, we see where the ride takes us.
Another time where we were anxious about a situation where we had little control was when we moved from our apartment on the other side of the district, to our current apartment. We paid a moving company to move us, but included in the price was the packing and unpacking of all of our items. Many of the breakable or valuable items we packed ourselves, but for the most part, a crew of movers came to our apartment, packed everything, and hauled it down to the waiting van. The morning of the move passed quickly as the workers are very experienced in their trade; however, it was then lunch time. Although we understood that the crew needed to eat, we were a bit uneasy about many of the boxes that the crew had packed remained sitting on the sidewalk near the truck as the crew went off to eat. Although there were guards, Rebecca and I were not around to watch our stuff, as we had to get to our new apartment to start getting situated, as well as close out the old place. All of our items arrived in good order, but we had to trust in the situation, and hope for the best.
4. “Same, same, but different”
In the markets and shops, you hear the phrase “Same, same” tossed around, and on occasion, you will hear the completion of the sentence of “but different”. There will be shirts that are of the exact same design, but one will be printed on a much lighter fabric. It is the same, but different.
At a market, I was looking to purchase bananas, and there were large bananas, as well as smaller bananas. I was hoping to purchase 4-5 large (standard sized) bananas, but instead, I was convinced by the shopkeeper to purchase the smaller bananas, because of the “same, same” reason. Before I knew, I had 4-5 kilograms of small bananas in my arms, which I am not sure how that transpired. After arriving home with overwhelming number of bananas, our cook came back to the house the retrieve them in order to make a large banana cake, which she delivered back to us that night.
At the haircutting session today, I attempted to explain how I would like to have Owen’s hair cut, with the sides shorter, and the top a bit longer. The barber listened to my speal, looked at Owen’s hair, then to mine, and said the “Same, same” phrase. I thought for a second, and then knew that it was the easiest way to convey what I intended for Owen’s haircut, boiled down to the same word, repeated twice.
5. Expats are tough.
We have had friends/colleagues that have gone through all sorts of medical ailments: tropical diseases, have had their have been injured on or by all sorts of vehicles, had to have unexpected surgeries. Additionally, there are people that have had their possessions taken, either from them directly, from their houses, or errantly. Many of the people that live here are expats from far distant countries, and there is only limited exposure to close family members, so there is a mental strain, on top of the cultural factors that take time to settle into. It’s amazing how friends all come together to make the whole experience a bit easier. Being so close with so many people makes the daily adventure more stable. Its great that expats are so tough, but it is also great that we don’t have to be as tough as we could have to be.