Puzzlement Abroad: the Mysteries of Expat Life, Like Garbage and Monkeys

Garbage piled in the middle of the street in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam.One of the interesting and fun things about traveling abroad or living as an expat is that one sees things for which one has no cultural context; things that are mystifying and therefore fascinating. Beyond the initial shock, it is always an interesting puzzle to figure out the local context in which the seeming anomalies should be placed – the so-called “ah ha!” moment.

It’s gratifying and enlightening when one solves the puzzle. It opens up new perspectives – new ways of looking at the world, and consequently a better understanding of the culture  you find yourself in.

But it can be frustrating when you can’t find the missing puzzle pieces, particularly when what mystifies you is a frequent occurrence; it adds to one’s sense of alienation. I think I’ve become inured to those sorts of things though; it’s best to just accept it and accept the fact that you don’t understand it, and be content with that, as many others before me have said.

Nevertheless, even after a year of living in Thailand and Viet Nam, I sometimes still see things that cause my jaw to drop, sometimes literally. Take for instance, the picture above, taken with my craptacular phone camera (in the dark, with no flash, in the rain: it’s a miracle there is an image at all, praise be to the levels adjustment in Photoshop).

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Garbage in the Street

Here in Biên Hòa, Saigon and I assume every city in Viet Nam big enough to have municipal garbage collection, people place their garbage in the street, next to the curb. That makes sense the world around, I think.

But then the other evening I was walking home from the coffee shop, and I see all of this garbage piled in the middle of the road – literally, smack-dab in the middle. As you can see judging by the size of the bicycle and the man scavenging said pile, it was of considerable size; certainly a traffic hazard in the dark, to be sure.

And it wasn’t scattered haphazardly, as if it fell off a truck or something. It was stacked up with neat precision. Some one piled it there deliberately.

Why? Why would you do this?

I’m not passing judgment and I’m not putting down my neighbors; I’m sure in their cultural context there is a rational justification for this. I just can’t figure out what that is (but then there are things about my own culture I’ve never been able to fathom adequately).

One could argue that they didn’t want to block the drainage culvert on the corner curb, which you can (barely) make out in the right of the photo; just prior to this it had been raining rather heavily. But then there is a sidewalk area at least 10-feet wide here – wide enough to park motorbikes two deep and then some. So why not pile it on the sidewalk if you don’t want to block the drain? Why pile it in the middle of the street?

I’ve been here long enough that not much catches me by surprise anymore, but this was one of those times. Right after I took the picture some kid came cruising along on his moto with his poncho draped over his headlight; he swerved at the last second to avoid it, wobbled on the wet pavement, and regained his balance at the last moment.

You might chalk this up to the fact that people tend, as a culture, to live in the moment here – at least much more than we do in the West. It’s a Buddhist influence, I suppose. It’s one of the things that many foreigners, myself included, find attractive about the cultures of Southeast Asia. But it also has it’s downside, I’ve noticed: people tend not to think about potential consequences of actions as much as they could and perhaps should.

Again, I’m not trying to judge – simply trying to understand why someone would pile a mound of garbage in the street.

Granted, I’ve been here two months now in this particular neighborhood, and this was the first time I’d seen such a thing. Perhaps there was some sort of extenuating circumstance that I’m not privy too that would explain why someone’s garbage was piled in the middle of the street.

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear, Oh My!

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear Oh My! Bien Hoa, Viet Nam street scene.Then there are times when you see things that don’t necessarily mystify you from a cultural anthropology standpoint but are nevertheless stunning because it’s something you just wouldn’t see back home. Case in point are these pickup trucks bearing loudspeakers, monkeys and a bear.

I was sitting at the aforementioned coffee shop working one afternoon when I started hearing a loudspeaker above the usual traffic din; someone was doing their best carny tout routine in Vietnamese. It got louder and louder until the trucks you see here stopped and parked across the street while the loudspeaker guy – by this time it was nearly deafening – continued to prattle on. He seemed to go on for 15 minutes, but I’m sure that is only my perception; in reality it was probably more like five.

This kind of loudspeaker-atop-a-vehicle advertising is not uncommon here, though. What was amazing was the small captive bear and the captive monkeys.

Why are there monkeys held captive with ankle chains in the back of this pickup? Why is there a small, tired looking bear being agitated by a teenage boy? Is the circus in town? A traveling miniature menagerie? And what is this guy prattling on about, seemingly forever?

I’m sure if I could speak Vietnamese beyond being able to order food and tell a cab driver which way to go, I would know and it would all make sense. I tried to ask the girl who works at the coffee shop, but she speaks no English at all.

Thus, it remains a mystery.