Not same, same but completely different

I’ve lived in a couple of countries so far, and I’m plenty comfortable with things around me being a bit different to what I grew up with. I actually like that element of living somewhere new. Except for the ‘no flushing the toilet after 10pm’ rule in Geneva – I’m not an animal, Switzerland!

All this being said, it is still somewhat startling when you come across cultural quirks that are the exact and complete opposite to your own, some example I’ve found in Viet Nam include;

Nose picking

I tend to think picking your nose is a bit like masturbating or singing along to a Taylor Swift song; people do it more than they admit, but they do it in private (not me though – I never have and I never would sing along to a Taylor Swift song; I mean, how embarrassing!)

Picking one’s nose here seems to be as public and open an activity as brushing sleep from your eyes. There appears to be little cultural stigma attached to it; people do it everywhere and often. It’s no big deal, just a finger moving around in a nostril. It seems to be done quite absentmindedly; while standing around; waiting somewhere; doing any somewhat boring activity that doesn’t require two hands. At this point I’m very used to seeing people doing this but it is still a little disconcerting to hold unblinking eye contact with a 60 year old man sitting next to me at the traffic lights, while he languidly picks his nose.

I truly envy other people’s freedom to publically feel around up there if they feel something is amiss, but a childhood steeped in the rigors of western social etiquette means that I am unable to join in. I foreswore public, digital nasal investigation decades ago and I’m too inhibited to start now. Maybe one day.

Flashing headlights

In my countries of origin (and many western countries), if there are two cars travelling in opposite directions and the road reduces to a single lane because of a parked car for example, both drivers would slow down and if one drivers flashes their headlights they are indicating that the other car should go ahead. The flashing lights are a kind of imitation Morse Code for “Please, sir, after you.” In the same situation in Viet Nam, the person that flashes their lights is basically saying, ‘I don’t care what you’re going to do, but I’m driving through,’ and will proceed to gun their engine and swerve out, flashing their lights and beeping the whole time.

Cold foods and sore throats

When I had a sore throat as a kiddie, my mother’s remedies were as follows;

  • Salt water gargle (tasted like the worst thing about swimming in the Ocean without any of the fun)
  • Lemon juice and honey in warm water (the delicious burn of the citric acid followed by the balm of gentle honey)
  • Icy cold water or partially frozen orange or pineapple juice (so cold, so numbing, so good)

The last one was my favourite remedy and seems to me like perfectly normal and natural ways to calm an angry throat; so imagine my surprise that in my first month in Sai Gon I was warned by four different people that cold drinks actually cause sore throats. I don’t mean that cold things are bad for an already swollen throat but that it will actually cause one. I’ve spoken to parents that ration the number of cold food and icy drinks they give their children for fear it will hurt their little throats. I’m almost hoping that this one is an elaborate fib that society tells its children (like that Santa Claus exists, participation trophies mean something and it’s the thought that counts) so kids don’t eat too much ice cream.

Lining up

I was raised with the idea that the best way to pass the time waiting for something is staring at the back of someone else’s head. Damn soothing, is what it is. I’d make a line with just myself if I could.

Lining up in Sai Gon seems to be mere suggestion most of the time; huddling around where you want to go or what you want, seems de rigueur. Walking in a line involves being pushed from behind and pushing the person in front of you. It certainly makes going to the supermarket more interesting.

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16 thoughts on “Not same, same but completely different

  1. I am currently enjoying a hot lemon and honey and I think I will buy a pop-sickle later for my cold 😉 also, I don’t know about Vietnam, but in Cambodia it’s quite common for men to have a long fingernail on their little digit. I have been told that this is specifically for picking their nose and ears, but I don’t know…

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    1. The long pinky nail is common in Viet Nam too.
      While they would probably be good for picking at things, I’ve been told that having a long fingernail represents you aren’t a manual labourer, because if you had to work in the fields, or on a construction site, that fingernail would break. I see it on a lot of taxi drivers, café workers, etc.

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  2. Must admit, the nose picking thing really unsettled us as well. It started at the airport when we arrived, we thought it was just a one-off, but then the taxi driver did it the whole way to the hotel.

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    1. The nose picking is just one of those cultural differences you have to wrap your head around. It isn’t a big deal really.
      I’m guilty of habits that other cultures find unpleasant. For example, in Japan blowing your nose into a handkerchief or tissue is considered to be a disgusting, so people just sniff and swallow. I have allergies and I blow my running nose all the time. Japanese people would probably think I have no manners at all.

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  3. These are so true!! I have experienced all of these in the last month. The headlights one was quite a shock! I’m yet to experience the cold drinks rumour though, looking forward to hearing it soon.

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    1. The difference in the interpretation of flashing headlights one is a bit dangerous for foreign pedestrians because they think that cars are letting them walk first and confusion abounds.

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      1. Exactly! I’ve tried to squeeze through gaps a couple of times after getting the ‘go ahead’ sign, and immediately regretted it!

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    1. I hadn’t really noticed; people seem to put their hazard lights on for lots of reasons – none of them are particularly good reasons in my mind, but there you go.

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