Since I’ve been travelling around South-East Asia I’ve started to notice a thing or two about the locals that other Westerners may have missed. I can delve deep into the psyche of a Vietnamese or Cambodian or Thai local and understand why they do certain things that we don’t. I can’t explain it, it’s a gift, like one of those incredible psychics on day time cable TV. So I’ve compiled a list of 10 South-East Asian habits I may (or may not) employ either now or when I return to Australia some time down the track (likelihood in brackets at the end of each habit). Here’s what I’ve discovered so far…
Shirts lifted up around the nipples
It was a shock when I first laid eyes on this phenomenon. I was riding my pushbike when I saw a group of four men sitting around chatting with their shirts lifted up around their nipples. For a moment there I thought I’d been teleported back to Oxford Street in Sydney. I almost crashed my pushbike into a prestige roadside watch stand in down town Saigon. Imagine all those Rolex’s and Tag Heuers scattered across the footpath all scratched and broken. I would have had to fork out a good $15-$20 to replace them all! After some careful consideration I came to the conclusion they were trying to get some relief from the heat. So I tried it when I got back to my hotel. I stepped out onto the balcony and lifted my shirt, expecting to experience the heavenly feel of mother nature’s refreshing fingertips. I waited. I waited some more. I waited a good 60 seconds, my nipples standing there just begging for something to happen. Anything. But nothing happened. The truth is even when I lift my shirt up the sun is still hot, blisteringly hot in these parts on occasion. I think I learnt that one in Grade 2 science class.
People smiling at each other and saying hello
WTF? Why are these people still acting all friendly and caring. Don’t they know taking an interest in the wellbeing of their fellow man died a quick and painless death when they started injection chickens with steroids back in the late 80’s? At first I just stared at them with a quizzical look on my face, failing to fully comprehend what was happening. Then, slowly but surely, a strange thing started to happen. I started saying hello back. I even started to ask them how they were. At first I didn’t mean it of course, I was just being polite like all Westerners are when they ask this question. But then I started to mean it, which felt really weird. I thought I was turning into one of those new age dreadlocked tie dye wearing hippies who actually cared about the world and everyone in it. Jesus, am I going to have to start dressing like those guys now too?
(I’ll give it a go and see what happens – hopefully I don’t get my head punched in)
No road rage
That’s right my Western comrades, you heard me. I have not seen one instance of road rage on South-East Asian roads. Don’t they know what their missing! There’s no better way to start the day than by unleashing a tirade of expletive-laden bile at an unsuspecting (and probably innocent) motorist on your way to work. You’re there behind your steering wheel, screaming every four-letter word you can think of from the safety of your car, even making a few new words up as you go. It’s making me feel alive just thinking about it. Surely the juices are starting to flow in your body as you read this. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you went for a drive right now just so you can yell at someone. It feels good right? In fact, I’ve just thought of a brilliant business idea. I’m going to open South-East Asia’s first ‘Travelling Apples Road Rage Academy’ right here in Chiang Mai, the most chilled out place on Earth. It will be my gift to the beautiful, peaceful people of this region. Everyone else is doing it, why should these guys miss out on all the fun. Just like George Costanza from Seinfeld introduced eating chocolate bars with a knife and fork to his fellow New Yorkers, I’ll introduce road rage here. It was George’s ‘thing’, and this will be my ‘thing’. So next time your minding your own business on a South-East Asian road, and a local starts frothing at the mouth, screaming uncontrollably in your direction, you’ll know who to thank…and you’re welcome.
(I will try to be calmer on the roads when I get home)
Shoes off everywhere
I’ve already got enough to think about in the morning when I wake up. Where am I teaching today? How am I going to get there? What am I going to teach them? Now I’ve got to add “Do I have any clean socks without any holes in them?” to the mix. The answer is bound to be “no”, which will make me super anxious when I arrive at the classroom and remove my shoes at the door. I’m a Westerner, I’m not supposed to have holes in my socks. Sure some of the kids have socks that are hanging in there by the barest of threads, socks that are more ‘hole’ than cotton. But I’m a Westerner, I can afford socks without holes! When we’re out and about, and we pop into a shop or two, sometimes not only am I made to remove my shoes, but I’m then asked to put on a pair of the shop’s slippers. Picture it, I slip off my size 10’s, then shoehorn my feet into a pair of size 6 slippers, the standard size in this part of the world. The balls of my feet padded ok enough so as not to cause any permanent damage, but my heels just flapping in the breeze out back, crashing into the floor with every step. Where’s their protection?
People not locking things up, or taking things with them
This one is just plain weird to me. Can you imagine stopping at the local Broadmeadows or Mount Druitt 7-Eleven, getting out of your car filled with the latest JB Hi-Fi equipment, and wandering off leaving the windows down, door unlocked and keys in the ignition? Me either. That would be insane right? Little Johnny would have the flat screen TV and surround sound system rigged up at home, and the car repainted and sold before you returned with your milk, break and mega-sized Honey Dew Melon Slurpee. It’s a bit different here in Chiang Mai. Go to any shopping centre and there will be row after row of scooters sitting there with helmets hanging from the handlebars, belongings within easy reach of light fingers in the front basket, and keys dangling in the breeze from their ‘diamond’ encrusted key chains. Apart from the Rubik’s Cube I stole as an eight-year old from the House of Bottles on the Sunshine Coast, and the three red frog lollies I stole from Chris’ Fish and Chip Shop in my old home town of George Town as a 13 year old, I haven’t stolen anything in my life. But even I get this compulsion to nonchalantly reach into a front basket and swipe whatever I can get my hands on. Who cares what it is, I just have to have it. But petty crime seems to be the furthest thing from the minds of the locals here. Saints the lot of them I tell you.
Surgical masks in public
How my friends and I used shake our heads at the Asian tourists getting around the streets of Melbourne with their surgical masks covering their mouths and noses, as though it would add years to their lives by preventing exhaust fumes from entering their lungs. Well as my cigarette smoking friends will tell you, you’ve got to die of something right? It might as well be carbon monoxide poisoning or whatever other toxic gases spew out the backend of our cars. “What about old age?” I hear some of you say. But that would require living healthily and with caution (like my surgical mask wearing Asian friends), and where’s the fun in that! But since I’ve been riding a scooter to and from work here in Chiang Mai, I’ve realised something. Those masked Asians are on to something. Sure it looks stupid, but they’re going to live a good few years longer than us ‘cool’ looking Westerners.
(I’ll do it here, but not back home)
Umbrellas in hot weather
It’s 40 degrees in the shade most of the time here and hardly a cloud in the sky. But the locals still cover up head to toe in long pants, long sleeved top (most likely a jumper), gloves and a hat (and probably the above mentioned surgical mask). Then for some reason when they venture outside, up pops the umbrella! What next, a suit of armour? Come on my South-East Asian friends, enough’s enough. I’m sweating bullets wondering if it’s ok to nude up around here, and you’re covering up. Do yourselves a favour and strip down to a tank top and a pair of shorts and enjoy the suns lovely UV rays. They’re good for you…I promise!
These things are just plain stupid. Sure a few thousand years ago when other options hadn’t been invented yet chopsticks were probably a great idea, revolutionary even. But not today. Now we have knives, forks and spoons to make the whole ‘getting food from the plate into our mouths’ process much easier. Trying chopping up a medium-rare steak with nothing more than a pair of blunt plastic chopsticks for assistance. Or lapping up the delicious soup left over from you pork Khao Soi. You just can’t do it. So to all of my Asian friends, and the rest of you who I haven’t met yet, do yourself a favour and choose another eating utensil. You can thank me later, or at the very least teach me how to use the bloody things!
Eating out for every meal
When Sarah and I arrived in Chiang Mai, we dumped our things in the apartment we’d rented for a month and hot footed it to the supermarket. We thought we were being smart. We thought now we’ve got an apartment with a kitchenette, we’d cook at home and save ourselves a fortune. So we packed our trolley sky high and headed for the checkout. Little did we know the cost of groceries here is pretty much the same as back in Australia, astronomically ridiculous. While the clever locals are dining out at the nearest street vendor on world class Thai food for $1 a pop, we’re preparing $10 meals at home that taste like rubbish. And they don’t have to do any washing up! While we still buy a few things for the cupboard and fridge (Jack needs at least four breakfast options otherwise he throws a hissy fit to rival a 12-year-old Linda Blair from The Exorcist), almost all of our meals are now take away…and we couldn’t be happier.
(wherever there’s world-class meals for $1 we’ll get take-away, otherwise it’s back to the supermarket in Australia to be robbed blind again)
The ‘no-look merge’
Throughout the 80’s Magic Johnson ‘no-look passed’ his way to five NBA titles with his beloved LA Lakers. It was breathtaking, mesmerising and genius in its execution. The latest ‘no-look’ manoeuvre hails from South-East Asia, and it is none of these things. It’s the ‘no-look merge’ and it’s absolute insanity. In a nutshell, when turning left onto a different street to the one you’re already on, the crazy locals here simply make the turn and merge without looking. Turning left from a quiet street onto another quiet street? No problem, just ’no-look merge’. Turning left from a quiet street onto a six lane highway? Go right ahead, ’no-look merge’. The problem is sometimes there’s a one-tonne Chevy hurtling down the freeway at 100km/h in the left lane, and because someone on a 100kg scooter has ‘no-look merged’ into his lane, the Chevy has to quickly ‘no-look merge’ into the next lane. If anyone happens to be in that lane, they have to ‘no-look merge’ into the next lane across. You see what’s happening here? Eventually there aren’t any more lanes to ‘no-look merge’ into! I haven’t seen any crashes yet, but I’ve seen a lot of close calls. I have driven past a couple of ambulances stopped on the side of the road attending to an injured bike rider or two, and if I were betting on the cause, I’d be putting my house on one idiotic manoeuvre…the ‘no-look merge’.
So there you have it, my observations of South-East Asian habits and what I think of them. What do you think? Have I missed any? I’ve got a few others so I might have to put a Part 2 together in the not too distant future.