HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, March 23, 2012

Role Reversal

One of the most interesting aspects of living in a developing country is the opportunity to see what a population that had very little in the way of material goods a decade ago desires to own now that they actually have some spending power. Weirdly, what people here want are things that many people in the developed West now shun. Westerners have recently adopted a new worldview, one where austerity is preferred over opulence, and where environmental concerns often trump old spending habits. The East, however, is just hitting its stride in terms of affluence, and people are eager to show off their newly-acquired wealth. The below picture, part of a series by a Chinese artist named Yang Liu meant to illustrate the differences between East and West, is a perfect example of what I'm getting at. The blue half represents the West's preferred mode of transport in 1970, and then in 2006. The red half represents the East. (The rest of his exhibit can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/dawpa2000/d/14276662-Liu-Yang-East-vs-West-Ost-Trifft-West. It's worth checking out.)
Many Western countries have moved beyond the obsession with cars, and today the 'in' thing to do is ride a bicycle everywhere. Formerly looked down upon in highway-laden America, it's now the hottest way to get around. It's great for the environment, keeps you fit, and is good fun. No hipster worth his cardigan would be caught dead driving a car, and countries like the Netherlands base their reputation on being bike-friendly. College campuses and urban downtowns throughout Canada, the U.S., and Europe teem with cyclists.

In the East on the other hand, bicycles were seen as an indispensable part of life up until a decade or so ago. Once the economies of Asia started roaring in the 1990's and millions of people were afforded the chance to buy a car (or motorbike) for the first time, bikes became a thing of the past. Today, they are largely used by young students and people who are too poor to afford a motor vehicle. Everyone wants a car, even if traffic is horrific and import taxes make them hideously expensive. This is somewhat understandable though: during the 20th century, as the West urbanized and became wealthy, the freedom of private car ownership became normal. Here in the East though, most countries languished through colonial repression, grinding poverty, or some combination of the two. Transportation options were limited, and usually state-run. Now those problems are a thing of the past, and people are flocking to cars.

This reversal in demand is not limited to vehicles. Take food, for example. In the U.S. free-range, locally-sourced, organic goods are all the rage. Grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are extremely popular, and farmer's markets are popping up all over the place. Most consumers want to know where their food comes from, and want to be sure that as little harm as possible is done to animals and the planet in the process. Westerners worry about eating certain kinds of animals, tuna for example, because natural stocks are running dangerously low.

For the nouveau riche of the East though, little concern is paid to where food comes from or what kind of animals are eaten. Actually, people do care where their meal comes from: the more exotic and expensive the source, the better. American and Australian beef. Japanese seafood, etc. And extinction? Who cares. Parts of rare animals like tigers and elephants are prized, usually for food but sometimes for long-held medicinal beliefs. (The last Javan rhino in Vietnam was killed last year.) Example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/23/vietnam-iguana-pangolin-carcasses_n_1374772.html?ref=world

Fashion is another area where tastes in the East and the West have completely diverged. Second-hand stores and vintage clothing abound back home. It's actually become rather fashionable to look like you just walked out of a 1930's movie set: tweed and knee socks and berets, etc. Here in Asia though, if your clothes don't have a designer label on them you might as well just throw them out. Flashy jewelry is a must, and even your motorbike helmet should be glitzy. Women wear ridiculously high heels at 9am, and it's perfectly normal to see people dressed as if they're going to a nightclub at lunch.

Now, to be sure there is a lot of generalizing going on here. Liu, the Chinese artist, has been criticized for simply stereotyping massive sections of humanity, but there is a lot of truth in what he did. Yes, not everyone in the East (even the meaning of that term can be debated) openly flaunts their wealth, and obviously not everyone has any wealth. There are also still plenty of die-hard red-meat nature-be-damned gearheads in the West, but large segments of Western society live lives that are radically different from even just a generation ago. Needless consumption is going the way of the dinosaurs, while in the East people making their first million are racing to buy Ferraris and massive villas. Just like we did in the 80's. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 


  1. I think people ride bikes more because it's easier to get around. I recently got a folding bike, and even with a car, it's still the fastest way to get around. And if I catch a ride with someone, I can put it in their trunk really easily. Can't even do that with a regular bike.

  2. That's true, but I think it's easier to get around on a bike because over the past 10 years or so more and more people have demanded bike lanes and paths, making bike travel much more convenient. That wouldn't have happened if people hadn't started moving away from cars - obviously high gas prices have something to do with that too.

  3. "No hipster worth his cardigan would be caught dead driving a car"

    Maybe the best quote you've.ever written. I literally laughed out loud