I’ve lived in Asian for most of the last twenty years in both Vietnam and Malaysia. And while their cultures and histories are varied to say the least, there are some common themes which are obvious to me in many ways. One of these cultural themes which I have experienced on countless occasions in both countries is something I call symbolism over substance.
I ran into it again today as I was taking my son to register for his motorbike license.
Now before I give away the clear example, let me clarify what I mean by symbolism over substance. There are times (many in fact) when an outward gesture or a symbolic overture or a acknowledgement of a procedure is much more important than the actual substance of what we we are talking about. One has to show deference to authority. You don’t have to believe it in your heart. One has to put on an outward show regardless of what you might really think. One has to make symbolic attempts to make it look like something is actually getting done, when it actually isn’t. (Such as the 100 meter bike line symbolically put outside our school which will never be extended, is not used, and regularly used for parking spots for cars. There was a great ceremony when it was put in, however.)
Symbolic gestures is simply more important than having a substantive, and quantitative measurement behind it. And please, don’t get me wrong. This is not a judgment against Asian culture. Not at all. It’s an acknowledgment that east-west have very different cultural orientations. I’ve had to learn how to live with these differences as I’m sure an Asian living in America will have to learn the flip side of the coin.
In today’s episode, we learned that my son will need to attend a lecture on driving theory. It’s six hours long, and it covers all the basics he’ll need to know. Sounds fine and logical. Kind of like a driver’s ed course. Makes sense. Except for one thing: it’s in Bahasa Malaya and not English. My son doesn’t speak Bahasa. They don’t translate. They don’t provide English material. He just has to sit there. The lady at the driver’s school said, “Yes, these six hours mean nothing. You just have to do it to get the certificate.” Others have told me to “make sure your son bring’s his phone or ipad. He’ll get very bored.” It doesn’t matter what he does during that time. He doesn’t have to pay attention, nor is he expected to. He just has to be there to get the certificate.
It reminds me of my friend in Vietnam and one day I asked what she was doing this weekend. She said that she had to take an English test. I said, “What test?”
“Oh,” she replied. “It’s not my test. I need to take it for my cousin. Her English is terrible, but she needs the certificate so she can get a better job. So I’m taking the test for her.”
All right then. Symbolism over substance strikes again.