Twenty Years Can’t Shake the American Out of Me

I’ve in Asia for most of the last 20+ years. But an incident last week made me realize that I am still very much an American.

It has to do with space. Not outer space. Personal space. I like it. Don’t encroach on me or I might act rudely.

Here’s what happened:

I was at my normal beach-side resort, doing my normal afternoon writing. There was a row of empty beach lounge chairs at one location, and I took up residence under an umbrella, punching out amazing prose on my computer. (OK, it may not have been amazing, but let me believe it to be so.)

As I mentioned, there were many open lounge chairs, lots of them, tons of them, loads of them, but one of the guests decided to sit in one of the chairs just two doors down – with only one empty lounge chair between us.

Okay, I thought. I can deal with this.

But the Indian gentleman had different ideas. He sat on one side of the chair, leaning towards me with his cell phone in his hand. I could have reached over and touched him if I wanted to. (I didn’t.) I felt encroached upon, like a little bird was sitting on my shoulder watching every move. I tried to ignore him. But he seemed to be staring (although he wasn’t.)  I went and dipped in the pool, hoping additional time would send him to another location. (It didn’t.) I felt rude and unwelcoming, but I had writing to do, and I don’t like an peeping-Tom stalking me from mere inches away. (It felt that way, anyways.)

When I came back from the pool, I slide over one seat so that there were now two lounge chairs between us. Surely this would be enough space for me.

And then he started talking on his phone. Loudly. It sounded like he was yelling at the top of his lungs. (He wasn’t.) And he talked and he talked in Tamil. I couldn’t understand a word, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t type a word either. I tried to concentrate, but I felt the cavalry closing in on all sides, completely trapped.

I went for another dip in the pool, cooling me off, giving me space, hoping that I wouldn’t be surrounded when I returned.

I sat down again and then he did it. He turned on the music on his phone. The best of Bollywood. How can I write with Bollywood music blaring from mere three feet away? I wanted to get up and do my best moves. (I didn’t.) The beat and the sound overwhelmed all my senses.

I looked down the row of empty chairs. Lots of empty chairs. Tons of empty chairs. Look, buddy, they are all for you. So many open chairs. But he wanted to be near me.

Eventually, I gave up, picking up all of my towels and belongings and heading to a table at the outdoor restaurant.

It was at that point when I realized how American I still am. Americans love our space. We hate crowds and closeness. Many times, Asian personal space is only within a person’s mind because there’s simply too many people to have actual space which you can call your own. India has over a billion people. China 1.2 billion.

It reminds me when I heard a Vietnamese speak of their first trip to America. They were in the suburbs and went for the walk. When they came home, they said “Where are all the people?”

Indeed. You can take a walk in an American suburb in the middle of the day and hardly see a soul.

You can’t take a walk in the Vietnamese countryside in the mid day without running into twenty people working in a rice field.

I guess I still like my space. I hope that fine Indian gentleman didn’t think I was being rude the other day. I wasn’t trying to be. I was just being American.

I still can’t help it, even after all these years.

My Story: I Stand Out in an Asian Crowd

I wrote this for another website a while back. It sums me up well, though, so I thought I’d post it here.

I stand out in a crowd in Asia.

That may seem like a strange place to start in telling my story, but it has been the one constant truth in my life for the better part of 20 years.  I’m a strange site, indeed.

I’ve gotten used to the stares and comments, but at first, it was quite a change for a shy, country boy from Western Pennsylvania.

That’s where I grew up, playing baseball, following my beloved Pirates, and knowing near nothing of Asia. Strangely enough, one of the very few novels I read during my high school years was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.  I also remember loving the children’s book we had at our house about a boy in China and the flock of ducks that followed him around. But that was about it, for me. I didn’t even like rice.

I went to college and majored in English, because I didn’t know what else to do. I married my lovely wife a week after college graduation and settled into normal American life. But it was not to be. I spent the summer of 1992 in China teaching English, and that experience changed everything for me. I couldn’t wait to get back to Asia. I didn’t have to wait long.

In 1994, my wife and I moved to Vietnam with our 15-month-old daughter. We stayed for ten years. Then in 2006 we moved to Malaysia, where we currently reside.

What does all of this have to do with my writing? Everything.

My overseas experiences have become the fodder for all of my stories. I am inspired by diverse cultures, and I have become a completely different person – and a completely different writer.

My first novel, Beauty Rising, rose out of my experiences in Vietnam. My second novel, The Recluse Storyteller, is also partially set in Vietnam. My third, yet to be published novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree, is my epic story about my love for Vietnam, set in two different time periods; it’s a story I can’t wait to publish. (It’s coming in July 2014!)

My time in Malaysia, living on the beautiful, tropical island of Penang, has been my muse. Since I moved here nearly 8 years ago, I’ve rekindled my love for writing. I’ve written and produced 11 full-length stage plays, and I’m working on my fourth novel.

And more importantly, I get to daily eat some of the best food in the world. Trust me, Penang is a food paradise.

I’m a lucky man; I know that. I have a wonderful family, and I love to tell stories about the human experience from my uniquely formed Asian worldview.

I’m also tall and white and stand out in an Asian crowd, yet I fit right at home at a roadside stall or a small dive-of-a-cafe.

I hope you’ll give one of my stories a try.

 

 

Sit down, drink some tea.

“Sit down, drink some tea.”

Never was there such a dreaded phrase if I had a list of tasks to complete, and it’s a phrase I never encounter any more.

When I lived in Vietnam, completing ordinary, everyday tasks was sometimes a huge challenge. Getting something fixed or trying to find the right item to purchase took an extraordinary amount of time, but that dreaded phrase, “Sit down, drink some tea” compounded the issue on a daily basis.

For example, I would pull up to an open-air shop on my motorbike, get off, remove my helmet and sunglasses, and walk towards the shop owner. I could always see the apprehension in her eyes as this tall, big, lumbering, over-sized, freak-of-nature person came at her with all the white skin and brown hair he could muster. But I had the proverbial ace up my sleeve, and I would look at her, smile, and inquire in perfect Vietnamese, “Hello ma’am, do you have any _______ (insert item here).” Her face would light up, and she would start talking a mile a minute, and we would have a polite and friendly conversation about anything and everything except for the item that I wanted to purchase. And then she would pull out her trump card:

“Sit down, drink some tea.”

I would oblige. She would pull out a small teapot, fill the bottom with the world famous Thai Nguyen “che bup” loose green tea leaves and then pour in some steaming hot water from her red thermal water container. She would dump out the first batch of water immediately, then pour in a second, allowing the tea to blend slowly into the hot water. I would sit patiently on the six-inch-high plastic stools, knees almost at my chin, waiting for the tea ritual to end.

After several thimble-sized cup fulls, I would thank her, stand and inquire once again about the item that I needed. She would oblige and after twenty minutes, I was allowed to make the purchase.

When I first came to Vietnam, those rituals caused nothing but frustration. But I learned, eventually, that the best way to accomplish anything in Vietnam (and oftentimes Asia in general) is to sit down, chat, and have tea before doing anything else.

At the university I used to work at in Thai Nguyen, I learned how to play the system. If I had an issue that needed dealt with, I would slyly walk into the Foreign Affairs Office, seemingly with no agenda at all. I always met Ms. Lien (a wonderful woman, who has since passed on), and we would immediately sit down for some tea, chatting for 30 minutes or so until I would then stand up and tell her I had to go. But before I left, I would turn around and say, “By the way, I have a small problem with ….(insert problem).” She gladly would say that she’ll take care of it for me. I would leave. Case closed. Relationship built. Problem solved.

What’s going on here? It’s all about value orientations: Task Orientation vs. Person Orientation.  Westerners are typically taught that tasks, goals, and, achievements are the most important things in life and so we tend not to like it when people get in the way, taking us off task. Asians traditionally come from the mindset that people and relationships should take precedence over tasks. When a westerner charges in and wants immediate action, it must feel like an impersonal cowboy invasion. It can be seen as rude and uncaring. The westerner doesn’t view it that way. He or she just wants to get the task done, then it will be talk time. But for the easterner, the relationship must take precedence over the task.

If a westerner can learn to build relationships and connect with people, they’ll find their time in Asia will go much smoother.

But times are changing in many parts of Asia. I live in Penang now – a very westernized place in many ways – and many of the personal connections are not so easily established as they were in Vietnam. That is probably the one thing I miss the most about living there. I wish I could sit down and drink tea more often.