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.

Another Example of Symbolism Over Substance

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.

East -West Culture: Skin Color & Beauty

Perhaps you’ve seen this graphic spreading around the Internet recently.

Having lived nearly the last twenty years in Asia, I enjoyed seeing these depictions and understanding clearly the different world views, or better yet, value orientations which these graphics represent.

A westerner moving to Asia could learn a lot just by studying and understanding expectations and priorities, and how different they will be when arriving in, especially, East and Southeast Asia.

There was one graphic in particular that I wanted to comment on today: the “Ideal of Beauty.”

The west: darker skin is more beautiful.  The east: lighter skin is more beautiful.

True. I witnessed it in many different situations.

White westerners on the beach strip down to the bare minimum of clothing – wanting the sun, the tan, the darker skin, which makes them look “alive” or “traveled” – especially in the summer months. Tanning booths? Darkening creams? They use them all. Working outside in the sun? No problem. If mowing grass, take off your shirt. If weeding, get your shorts on. Use the opportunity to bring some life back to your skin.

Easterners – I’ve seen it in both Vietnam and Malaysia – avoid the sun at all cost. If on a motorbike, waiting for the traffic light to turn, they will huddle under the shade of a tree a hundred yards from the intersection rather than wait at the line in the sun. And they will wear long sleeves, often shirts or coats put on backwards to make sure their arms are not exposed to the sun when driving. Whitening creams? Oh yes. Many young girls will use them to try to get the bronzish look out of their skin – that same color that westerners will pay money to get. Working in the field, large conical hats are worn to protect as much skin as possible from the sun. I had more than one friend in Vietnam who lamented how they were the “dark” one in their family. Their sister was the fair-skinned beauty – having the lighter town which was basically indistinguishable from the underside of a white westerner’s arm. Dark was undesirable, and white was beautiful. In Malaysia, I have not found this to be the case – at least not in the same way as in Vietnam – and it must be because of the great diverse cultures, including the Indian culture, which has spread its influence into Malaysia.

Do the Dirty Deed, Just Don’t Look Them in the Face

Even after living in Asia for the better part of twenty years, there are certain cultural instincts built into me from my American upbringing that have a hard time adjusting to my Asian surroundings, but I am adapting. Let’s talk about concealing vulnerability. Today, I’ll put it in the context of traffic.

Traffic in Penang can be a little hectic. Traffic rules tend to be followed more like suggestions. Anyone can spend a few minutes at any intersection on any corner of the island and count so many traffic infractions that they cannot be counted on one hand.   Perhaps not even one pair of hands. Illegal u-turns, going through red lights, using a turning lane to go straight, not using a turn signal, not stopping at the white line, etc… it’s endless, really. But every single time that I am inconvenienced or even threatened by a bad or careless driver, the perpetrator will do the dirty deed and never look at me in the face. It’s fascinating, really. They completely pretend that nothing at all has happened.

Eastern and western cultures clash on this point. Western culture typically espouses exposing vulnerability while eastern culture values the concealment of vulnerability. Bringing people to “justice” and “exposing the fraudulent” are well practiced themes in the west. Traditional Asian culture sees no virtue in causing waves in the community. Harmony is of utmost importance. Problems simply disrupt the harmony, so ignoring the mistakes of others is oftentimes the easiest way to move on.

The traffic violators know what they did, but if they looked over at me, the person they cut-off, and looked me in the eye, they would be admitting that there was a problem and they would be admitting that they did something wrong.

So when you are cutting someone off, just keep you eyes straight ahead on the car in front of you. Never look at the person you are cutting off. Never mouth “sorry” to that person. Do not wave your hand. Just ignore.

Why did I think of this issue this evening?  Well, I was on my motorbike, leaving the big box store, and, of course, I was complaining in my head again about the ‘idiotic’ way they arranged the exit lane. (You can drive to within 20 feet of the exit but then suddenly there is a “Do Not Enter” sign and you have to turn left and drive the whole way to the other side of the parking garage in order to wind yourself back around to the exit. But that’s another story.)

Anyways, I went through the “Do not enter sign”, tucked my head down a little, made no eye contact with the two motorbikes and two cars that I butted in front of, and exited the store without incident. Such a pro!

Cross-Cultural Storytelling

(I just did a guest blog for, called “Cross-Cultural Storytelling.”  It gives some insight into how I used the cultural contexts of Vietnam in my novel “Beauty Rising.” I’ll give you a teaser here and you can read the rest on her site.  I hope you enjoy.)

I’ve been fascinated for years with cultural differences and the differing worldviews of the many people I’ve had the privilege of getting to know in Asia.  When I first came to Asia as an inexperienced, meat and potatoes, rice-hating American (if you can believe that, how did I even survive those years?), I was thrown headlong, full force into mind-boggling circumstances I knew nothing about. What I thought I understood, I didn’t  When I thought I was doing the right thing, I wasn’t  After living in Asia for a couple of years, someone introduced me to the idea of value orientations – how different cultures have belief systems and values which orient their point of view from completely different starting points.