One of the most intriguing things about living abroad, is the learning experience of returning to your native country and seeing norms, institutions, daily life with fresh eyes, almost comparable to that of a foreigner.
In some ways, I feel as though I have more control over my own life now that I have lived abroad and can look at things in my native country more critically now that I have a basis for comparison. Instead of simply saying “Well, that’s just the way it is” or “It’s what everybody does” I understand that what is “the norm” here in the USA may be the complete opposite in another country.
The ability to think through and rationalize problems, policies, ideas etcetera often follows a rather similar form of thought of any given country. If we break the country down into cities, towns, villages, we can more clearly understand that most people believe in the same things and have the same ideas as their neighbors. Yet, when we examine a nation as a whole, we have the tendency to believe (wrongly) that there is a large amount of diversity concerning opinions, beliefs and ideas.
Only after traveling large distances do opinions, ideas and beliefs drastically change. It is after experiencing these different forms of thought can we re-enter our own country with the confidence to challenge accepted norms that we perhaps simply accepted before as “the way things are.”
One extreme annoyance that is accepted as “the way it is” in America is that one must endure around at least 25 sales pitches for services every single day. Almost none of these services are needed for survival and it seems like due to this constant, mind-numbing, barrage of solicitations it has turned the population into mindless zombies constantly craving more merchandise to sustain them or they will keel over and die.
The advertisements themselves don’t even really need to make sense anymore as exemplified by the internet/communications companies whose services will allow you to “yap, zap, intertube” your way through the day all for the low low price of $60 a month.
This constant noise allows no room for any meaningful thought about what is actually important in life.
The purpose of life and society in America is to consume.
However, in S.E. Asia and especially Vietnam, there is time to think. They too will eventually become like the West in terms of sophistication in stealing, but at the moment, the companies are not clever enough to figure out how to shake every last cent out of their customers. There are times there unlike in America when someone or something is not trying to sell you a service and you can be alone with your thoughts.
Thus we come to my Coconut example which describes the anxiety I feel being back in the USA after living in Vietnam for two years. It also is a decent stab at an explanation of why I clearly prefer life in SE Asia over life here.
In America, like in Vietnam I am a consumer of basic services. In America one service I consume weekly is that of going to the bank to deposit my paycheck and take out some cash to sustain me until my next trip to the bank.
In Vietnam, one service I took advantage of on a regular basis was that of purchasing a coconut from the street vendor on my block. It quenched my thirst and was delicious.
The first time I purchased the coconut, he tried to overcharge me by 20 cents. However I knew the real price, told him I knew the price and he then charged me an honest price from then on. Every day from then on, I walk to his stand, hand him 80 cents and he gives me the coconut, end of transaction, and we are both happy.
Now let’s pretend that coconut vendor had an MBA from a prestigious American University like those who run the bank I patronize here in the states and imagine what would happen.
I go to purchase the coconut from our recently educated friend and he greets me with a smile and asks “How are you?” like a robot would and not listening to my response. I hand him my money for the coconut to which he replies.
“Keep your money, you don’t need to pay today for this coconut!”
He then proceeds to explain to me how I can pay him instead 5 cents a day for 25 days. However, I’m pretty sure I would be paying more for the same thing if I paid over time than right now to which he hands me a ten page explanation of the benefits of paying over time and how I could accumulate points on the “Thank You Network*” which points I could trade in for prizes by using this wonderful scheme.
I tell him, no thank you, I would rather pay right now, to which he replies, “Do you have our CoconutPlus* Membership Account card?” “It will save you 10% on your coconut purchase.”
I start to get a little annoyed but politely decline the card.
“So you’re sure you don’t want to save 10% on your coconut purchase today? You could also accumulate frequent flier miles for use on coconut express airways for ever dollar you spend on our membership card.”
He then proceeds to explain how he can deliver 10 coconuts a week directly to my house for the low low price of $30 a month plus tax, fees etc.
I’m a little interested in this as I love coconuts, and it seems like a deal. So I take a look at his flier which shows in a very large text the “Bargain price of $30.” However, as I take out my glasses to read the small print I see there is a “Convenience fee” of $10 per month as well as a “Service charge” of another $10 per month plus a “Delivery Charge” of $12 per month.
I start to get angry and tell him I just want a damn coconut and to take my ^%$damn cash.
To which he replies, “Oh, Congratulations Matthew, It shows me here on my coco computer that due to your excellent patronage of our store “Coconuts” and affiliates “Coconuts Plus” and “Coconuts Super Value” we can offer you our Coconut Visa with an introductory 0.0%APR a ten coconut line of credit and free balance transfers should you have coconut debt!
Me: “For the love of God, I just want one coconut, and want to give you this crummy 10,000VND bill for it. “
Vendor: Ok ok, would you like the Extra Value Coconut meal then? It’s only 50 cents more and you get so much more Coconut!!”
He takes my bill, looks at me with his soulless eyes and big smile and tells me to “Have a Great Day!”
Unfortunately, I cannot have a great day as I’m now exhausted from what feels like a 10 hour long battle of defending my finances from a giant, yet suspiciously pleasant green dragon.
For those who don’t see the metaphor, at Bank of America, every single time I go to deposit a check, they tell me “Congratulations” and that I’m eligible for a Bank of America credit card. If I get “Congratulated” one more time I’m going to rip out my eyeballs. And today the teller actually did ask me if I already had another card, how much the APR was, and how much of a line of credit I had her. When I tried to politely insinuate it was none of her damn business it was as effective explaining Bio-Chemistry to the family dog.
I must go back to the world where people still smile with no hidden agenda. I must go back to a world of simplicity.
I must go back to Asia.