This is not a rant. This is an open question/discussion prompt.
A week or two ago, one of my former students (now grown up, married and somehow happily living in Saskatoon, Canada) from my previous existence teaching high school English in the middle of Turkey drew me into a rather intriguing and thoughtful conversation about the current political and cultural state of Turkey and its effect on how people are behaving, how they are treating each other and how they are treating themselves. Things have changed a lot in the decade since I left Istanbul. A more insular vibe. Less trust. More fear and intolerance cloaked in the guise of religion. That sort of thing.
Then he asked me about Asia. How are things in Asia? Is religion a factor? How do people treat each other in Asia?
It’s a really big place.
I could only comment on the big cities of China and Vietnam, I said, and even then, my shitty language skills and general linguistic tone-deafness have rendered my perceptions filtered through an outsider’s lens.
I can really only say what I have seen and what people have told me or what has been written about in English.
People in Asia are so meditative, he mused. So Buddhist…
Again, Asia is a big place. Let’s focus more on the outside perceptions of the region. That was intriguing.
Meditative is not a word I would have used to describe anything I have seen over the past 8 years living in three of the most wildly-expanding, mad, crowded, increasingly polluted, ambitious, money-focused, materialistic, biped-hostile, forward-pushing-at-all-costs cities of East Asia.
Buddhist can be so loosely and broadly applied to a range of characteristics so I can’t comfortably or confidently confirm its influence.
About 70% or so of Vietnamese are nominally Buddhist, and it seems to inform a lot of what people do or how things are approached. There are temples and monks and nuns, just as there were in China.
However, I don’t think Buddhism has anything to do with what is going on in the big, booming cities around here, so I’m not going to even try to draw it into the equation. It can’t be equated with the influence of Islam in modern Turkish culture or politics.
Can we talk about that other topic he broached, about how people treat each other, how people treat people they don’t know, how people behave in public, how public spaces are viewed or valued?
Quick- for those of you who have never been here, what do you think of when I say Saigon or Hanoi?
Conical hats? Ladies in ao dai on 1 speed bicycles? Fruit? Palm trees? Lots of bicycles? Motorbikes flowing like a river? Street vendors selling healthy, clean, local specialties? Pho eaten on tiny stools by the roadside? Densely packed but still historically intriguing narrow streets, achingly rich with character? Boats and fishermen on the commercially thriving river and estuaries? Colonial architecture, fading but sweetly so?
It’s there, but increasingly less so, even during the few years we have lived here.
Here are some questions that have been on my mind over the past few years:
- How about noisy, dusty construction sites working 24/7, everywhere, and much of the old being demolished to make way for the shiny and new and expensive and unaffordable for the majority of residents?
- How about an increasingly futuristic, skyscraping skyline towering over corrugated metal shanties where the workers still live, and are still paid shit for their labour and offered little to no protection (no hard hats or safety ropes or steel toed boots)?
- How about oddly-placed roaring, honking, belching 15 lane new-build highways full of transport trucks cutting through local neighbourhoods, with toddlers being raised in crumbling concrete box houses at the side of the road, breathing in exhaust as if it was an acceptable thing to do?
- How about 8000 new bikes and 750 new cars hitting the ill-equipped roads (and sidewalks) every day?
- How about all of those cars and bikes driving on the sidewalks, parking on the sidewalks, honking at the increasingly few bipeds who are trying to exist on the sidewalks?
- How about the growing hordes of unnecessarily large SUVs driven by solitary guys with new money who assume that their greater mass (representing their fabulous financial stature) entitles them to push motorbikes, bikes and bipeds from their path, honking and swerving and tailgating their way forward at any cost?
- How about 45 million vehicles in a country with an infrastructure that is prepared for a maximum of 36 million vehicles (by 2020!)?
- How about seriously dangerous levels of air pollution from the growing number of vehicles that have only become worse in the two and a half years since we moved to Vietnam?
- How about kids who are taught in schools to pay lip service to environmental issues (pollution is bad! we must plant more trees! China sends us contaminated food and bad air!) but who are also taught that good businessmen (men!) must make money at any cost (environmental regulations are bad for profits), and who are taught that buying a coffee that comes in a non-recyclable plastic cup with plastic lid and plastic spoon or straw, in a plastic bag with lots of paper napkins and sugar packets, is hygienic and modern and desirable?
- How about cities with public transport infrastructures that are completely ill equipped to cope with the numbers they are needed to serve? And people who would rather get a car or bike instead of a bus anyway, because they are associated with progress, wealth, status, comfort, convenience?
- How about the dying rivers, lakes, beaches ? How about the poor who still try to live on them, depend on them, eat the fish from them? Our flat overlooks one of the tributaries and we see kids swimming in the murk, people fishing, and foam and detritus and dead fish floating by. Hanoi’s lakes reeked, fizzed, pushed up regular dead fish.
When my former student asked me about how people treated each other over here, I didn’t know how to reply.
It’s not really about how people treat each other.
People aren’t suspicious. People aren’t judgy. People aren’t intolerant. People aren’t unkind.
Individuals are awesome, generally speaking.
My students here are thoughtful, kind, a bit dozy (they are 18), generally courteous and respectful and as worldly as you’d expect an 18 year old to be.
Likewise, the majority of people I have met over the past few years have been kind and generous and open minded.
On a personal level, face to face, person to person, things are easy and gentle and human. Very low stress. Very non-confrontational. Kind.
It’s the impersonal, macro level where things get a bit more fuzzy and disrespectful and thoughtless. It has nothing to do with religion (his question’s focus, as it has influenced Turkey so much) and has much to do with what we have come to believe is how a nation develops, modernizes and grows wealthy.
It involves a lot of unvoiced excuses and omissions and rationalizations.
- Hiding behind bike helmets or shaded and mirrored car windows and ramming your way forward, thinking you are invisible and can’t be held accountable.
- Hiding behind the excuse of making a profit at any cost.
- Hiding behind the excuse of progress and modernization and development.
- Hiding behind the unwritten rules that those who aren’t in your immediate circle of friends, family and business clients are peripheral and ultimately disposable.
- Hiding behind the unwritten belief that money makes you more valuable and that those who don’t have money don’t deserve comfort, safety, equal care or consideration.
- Hiding behind the assumption that the bigger you are, the more you can plow through those smaller than you (I’m looking at you, dickheads in SUVs and buses).
- Hiding behind the assumption that shaving two minutes off your commute is more important than not driving through pedestrians on sidewalks or through red lights or going full tilt down the wrong way on a road, making others swerve to avoid you.
- Hiding behind the belief that it’s others who are wrecking everything, polluting everything, contaminating everything, not you. It’s China, it’s Taiwan, it’s America, it’s northerners or southerners or the poor.
And the thing is, it isn’t just here. It’s just bigger and noisier and more in your face about it here because the leap is so new, so vast, so noticeable.
I’m seeing all of this shit everywhere I go these days, all over the world.
Trump’s version of America is just this same shit but on a huger scale. Cutting the EPA. Empowering the dickheads. Validating the mindless and emotionless pursuit of wealth at any cost.
This is not a travel blog post about a place.
This is me trying to figure out what the fuck is going on around me.