Saturday, April 30, 2011

Notes From the Road - Culture as an Excuse

I have been overseas for twelve months and twenty one days and the longer I have been extant from my home country the more I come to believe that culture is an excuse and language a commodity. For the last three days I have been staying at the Hue backpacker's hostel on Pham Ngu Lao – on this street a pack of cigarettes costs 20 000 dong (US $1), a meal costs 60 000 dong (US $3) and an overnight bus ticket to Hanoi 360 000 dong (US $18). Walk for ten minutes in any direction and the costs halve – which is when the excuses begin. They have less than us/more than us so it's only fair they/we pay a little more. Centuries of culture in service to the cost of a pack of smokes.

Let me be clearer than this than I was last night, sitting with two brilliant young Brits on the balcony of the hostel. As we sat slapping at our feet in the balmy night, cyclos prowling the strip of streetlights like pedalling sharks, I realised that I came to foreign countries like Vietnam and Korea with this idea that I have been missing out on something – that my mind will open like a delicate rosebud when I experience the distinctness and peculiarities of a foreign culture. I believe many people buy into this ideology but what I see in the tourists and travellers around me are apologetic wallflowers looking from one side of an empty room to another.

We shared insights, my friends and I, talking into the a.m. and smoking cheap cigarettes.

I hate the way English is over here.” I said, perched on a bar stool overlooking the construction opposite. “All you hear going down the road is people shouting 'Hallo! Hallo!' as if it were 'Buy this! Buy this!'”

A lot of these people don't have much of an education though. They probably don't even know what it means.” O----, the shorn-headed Brit said.

Fuck that. I don't expect them to be fluent, just to not shout at me as if I'm a walking wallet.”

A cash cow.” M---, the other Brit interjected.

Right. Like, culture's got nothing to do with it. They shout the word to get my attention and if I turn my head to acknowledge them they don't leave me alone. It's stressful. It's gotten so I avoid looking at people on the street and ignore someone even if they're fluent.”

Especially if they're fluent.” M--- again.

I don't know if I agree.” O---- replied. “I agree we all sort of know not to kill someone, but if you're saying that culture doesn't excuse any of this behaviour you're not really seeing it then. You're just getting tired of being somewhere different.”

Who can blame me for being annoyed? When my language makes me a target for high-pressure salesmanship? That it gives anyone the right to hassle me?”

I blame you for being annoyed.” M---- said.

Fair enough.” I said and flicked my cigarette butt at him.

The Cop and The License

Hue has been a magical place for Lara and I. For $4 a day we wound round the city on an automatic scooter, skirting the citadel walls, following the overgrown canals into lazy suburbs where men lounged on worksites shovelling sand and waving their scarred hands; out past dogs sleeping in gutters to where brilliant painted Buddist pagodas lifted ornate cornices into the white haze of the sky. Churches too would appear as if from nowhere, their courtyards empty in the midday, as schoolchildren left their grounds to sleep and play until the afternoon.

Coming back from an attempt to find the unsignposted tombs of ancient kings, we were waved over by a Vietnamese cop. His uniform was a dark khaki colour, more reminiscent of an army regular than a traffic warden, and his face young and square and relaxed. He asked for my license and my first thoughts were of the money in my wallet and how much this would cost. When he began asking me for my 'papers', my fear deepened.

No papers.” Lara said. “We rented. Rented for a day. The bike.”

He turned my license over once or twice, Lara and I exchanged an anxious look, then he said in perfect English:

This street is one way. Please go back and around.” Gesturing with his own hand to make a left and then another left.

I saw a Vietnamese cop, not a cop. If I'd looked around I would have seen the street full of traffic all going one way. I assumed because he was Vietnamese that he was about to rip me off. So how open to another culture am I if I'm thinking that everyone is going to take me for a walking ATM?

The truth is I cannot generalise very well, and I am even worse at experiencing the present without misconceptions. So when I hear a bloated, sunburnt Australian talking about “wanting to see the real Vietnam”, I wonder if it is not just next door, completely inaccessible yet remarkably similar to patterns of behaviour I know all too well.

And your language too

Having taught English in Korea for a year, I am almost hard-wired to slip into shorthand English when I am speaking with a non-native speaker. And I hate it. It is like talking through a chain link fence. I love my loopy, batshit magpie tongue – I love inflecting, I love blank sarcasm and ornate exaggeration, I love just saying something slightly off to see what effect it makes on someone who listens. It is probably my only true talent. But I must be a sensible reporter with non-native speakers and while I love their insights and histories, I always feel handcuffed (as I'm sure they must too).

I did a lot of study on linguistics and English at university, and never once did these theories really appreciate what I now do – that language is a commodity. That it is used to acquire goods and services. The amount of time spent gesturing and miming and laughing at my own ignorance has proven this a hundred times over. The academic side of my mind wonders why we spend so much time studying the rarefied 3% of what language is and ignore how many people are communicating with limited tools and how they manage to achieve so much clarity. More is spoken with the hands than with the tongue yet to my knowledge there are no studies into the linguistics of the body.

I suppose though I am contradicting myself – for I admit to my love of that tiny 3% and then go on to wonder why we do not analyse the other drab 90% (the assignation of the extra 7% I will leave to those with more knowledge on semiotics than myself).

Culture as an excuse

Sitting in a French boulangerie writing this today, I began to think back on my time in Korea, and how the cultural knowledge I have of that place was of an order that would be almost impossible to access within a short timespan. Outside of the few cultural customs I was shown, I could have learnt a good portion of what I know about the place and the people just by researching it. Which makes me think that this whole 'cultural experience' part of travelling is often way, way overhyped.

Every time I look at some eight hundred year old temple or site of historical importance I'm left with this feeling of, “Oh, okay. Well that's good that I saw that then.”Wonders of natural beauty or mankind's progress aside, you just don't process it on a cultural level. How can you? You look out a window at it or walk around the grounds and read a plaque then go back to your hotel room and drink yourself stupid.

The more I think about it, the more culture has to do with culinary novelty than gathering insights. You gain appreciation for a culture when you have to work with it, to co-operate with its inhabitants – and as Mike, one of my dear friends from Korea said when asked if he thought he was missing out on 'Korean culture': “You know, the only time I hear about Korean culture is when I'm being clubbed over the head with it.”

So maybe it's just a misconception on my part. I was na├»ve to think that going to another land and eating its food and seeing its wonders would offer a cultural experience. But I have had cultural experiences – except I'm sick of treating these events as my admission to an endless parade of assholes. Excusing the street vendor means assuming the cop will rob me – and is this really the impression of the Vietnamese people I want to be left with?

In the words of Ho Chi Minh: “Don't piss in my cup and tell me it's iced tea.”

Forgive the crassness – it loses something in translation.

Shortly before this article was written, East tracked down Ho Chi Minh and collected his urine. Just for this picture.


  1. Interesting article here East. You may have heard of Kinesthetics? It's the study of body language, used particularly by criminologists I believe. You might find it interesting

  2. I think the last post is referring to Kinesics, the study of body language. Cheers on your article.

  3. Sounding a bit over Asia...?