HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Obligatory Culture Shock Post

Now that I've been in Southeast Asia for seven weeks - wow that's hard to believe - I figured it was time to take care of the "culture shock" post, since I've mostly been raving about life here and many of you are probably wondering if there are any negatives. There are, and I'll get to them shortly.

Culture shock has 4 stages: the first is the Honeymoon Stage, when a newcomer to a nation sees the differences between his new home and his old home in a romantic light. Everything new and strange is amazing and fascinating. I clearly experienced this stage. For the first few days in Saigon I was awed by the traffic; I couldn't figure out how the barely organized chaos worked so well. The overall hustle and bustle of nearly every street and sidewalk amazed me; certain parts of the city can make Manhattan look sleepy in comparison. I enjoyed seeing all of the new sights here: babies riding with their parents on motos, goods spilling out of storefronts and onto sidewalks, food carts everywhere, etc.

The second stage is Negotiation, when the individual becomes less awed and more annoyed by differences in cultures. Unexpected encounters are now seen as uncomfortable instead of exciting, and differences in hygiene, driving practices, etc. aren't seen in such a favorable way anymore.

The Adjustment stage follows, supposedly after 6-12 months in a new country, although I feel that I am partially entering this stage already. In this stage the individual comes to know what to expect in a given situation, and his new home nation doesn't seem all that strange. Concerns of mundane day-to-day living begin to regain importance. These concerns have definitely become important for me, as I've already been in a house for almost a month and have to worry about rent, groceries, bills and all of the other things that come with not living in a hotel. I start working on Thursday, so that will surely make me feel even more comfortable.

Although I am adjusting rather well and settling down to a daily routine, I am still negotiating certain aspects of culture here. I discussed the mayhem that is the grocery store in a previous post, and that can still be a frustrating experience. The language barrier can be difficult, since my Vietnamese is still very basic and English is far from widely known here. It does make me a little nervous that, if I get terribly lost on my moto, there is no guarantee that I will be able to find someone that speaks English to help me out. I also have no idea how the police or other emergency services work here, except to know that I should always carry some extra cash in case I get pulled over and need to, how to put this delicately, grease some wheels. However, the most annoying thing is the difficulties pedestrians face in moving about the city.

In Pittsburgh I walked (or biked) almost everywhere, and since riding a bike is out of the question, at least for now, I prefer to walk to many places. Unfortunately, except for certain areas of District 1, many parts of Saigon are a pedestrian's nightmare. During rush hour motos hop onto the sidewalk to get around red lights and act like walkers are in the wrong for being there. There are many one-way streets here, so if someone wants to get to a store that is down the block but opposite the flow of traffic, many will simply drive down the sidewalk to get there, instead of going around the block. In case you haven't been able to tell, the motorbike is king here, and everything is designed to make life easier for moto drivers. Case in point: parking. There is very little parking available on the streets, so motos simply park in front of where they want to go. I've accepted it as normal to walk in the street because the sidewalk is full of parked motos.

It is also common to come across food carts or other stalls that completely block the sidewalk, forcing you, once again, into the street, and putting you at the mercy of passing motos, cars and buses.In some areas, the sidewalks are actually quite nice, but are completely ruined by poor urban planning. This one in District 3, for example, is lovely, except for the utility poles running right down the middle of it.
So, in the end, issues of mobility and crowds are the main differences that regularly annoy me. I'm a pretty easy-going guy, so I've taken most of the differences in stride, espcially things like the abundance of street food that put basically every city in the U.S. to shame. The people have treated me well, so I have no reason not to treat them well in return. It is also interesting to see what people here know about U.S. culture. After telling them I'm from America, many people simply say "Ah, California New York," and I have to explain that well, yes, those are places in the U.S., but not everyone lives there. Also, if people have heard of New Orleans, they usually know it by one of two things: music, or "the big flood," as many people call Katrina. I always make sure to tell them that food is also a big part of the city.
The final stage of culture shock is Mastery, when the person becomes totally comfortable in his new home. I may achieve mastery in being able to get places within a few months, since my sense of direction is amazing (not to brag), but my language skills are awful so I don't know how far I'll get in the language. I'm sure I'll find out as I continue to experience Vietnamese culture over the next 10 months.

1 comment:

  1. When I lived in VN I never made it past the "Negotiation" stage at least not near the city. ITIS a different story at my house in the country. Good luck.