Welcome to Asia
The sun beats down on your shoulders like dead weight and the air is so thick with humidity and pollution that you’re struggling to breathe. Dirt has built up in your sinuses and under your fingernails. Your clothing is wet with sweat – yours and other people’s – and nothing ever seems to dry around here. Drivers keep yelling, “TUK TUK!” or, “MOTOBAIKE!” but you want neither. They look at you blankly and point to their vehicles. Young men holding menus attempt to shepherd you inside restaurants. Young women in polo shirts point to massage parlours and salons while orphans and amputees try to flog newspapers and handmade bracelets. You walk through the hot streets, slow and cautious, like a kid on the way to the first day of school. You enter the lobby of a cheap looking guesthouse and ask to use the toilet. The man behind the counter asks, “Where you sleep?” You tell him. He advises you to use the toilet there.
You find the closest body of water, a river lined with concrete and hedges, and sit down with your bottled water and escape in your book. Gregory David Roberts or Sarah Mcdonald is expounding the glory of India in all its unpredictability, grit and wonder, and all you can feel is that you’re doing something wrong. You close the book, look around and realise that your bag has been stolen right out from under you. Necessity breeds pragmatism; welcome to Asia.
It can be overwhelming and harsh at times, but I feel a connection with this part of the world that keeps me coming back. I’m talking about South and Southeast Asia – the area between India and Vietnam, from Indonesia to Pakistan. I’ve spent almost a year here, on various trips, and I wish to impart some things I’ve learned along the way. It’s such a colourful mess of beauty and chaos, providing so much and asking for so little in return.
Learn some words: “thank you”, “hello” and “cheers” are necessities that should be learned by every visitor. Unlike the French, Asian people are hugely appreciative when foreigners attempt to speak their language, no matter how bad your pronunciation. The gesture alone can serve to make you friends, get you out of trouble and save you money.
2. Cultural Relativism
Although it may be rude where you come from to hold a bowl up to your chin and noisily suck noodles from it, or to hock a big loogie and spit it on the footpath, this simply isn’t the case in much of Asia. Rudeness is a cultural construction and hence it differs from culture to culture. If you go to another country and measure a person’s decency by the cultural expectations of your country, then you are the rude fuckwit, not the other way around. This is especially important to remember while haggling: it’s not that the salesperson is “ripping you off” because they hate you for being foreign; it’s that haggling is a ritual part of shopping around here.
This is a difficult one for many tourists, but it’s a skill you’ll have to cultivate sooner or later. Most people begin their trip getting heavily “ripped off” and then harden, to the point where they don’t agree to any transaction unless/until the vendor looks plainly upset by the price. I’ve fallen into this trap, but since resolved that each transaction must be good for both parties. I take my time and ask others how much they paid. I make a concerted effort to combine getting a good deal with having a good laugh. I’m sure to smile, crack lame jokes and use some words in the local language (this helps to display that I’ve been in the country for more than five minutes and I somewhat know how much things are worth). If the vendor is unresponsive to my lame jokes and cheesy grin, I’ll do my business elsewhere. At the end of the day, if there is no fixed price, the only measure of value is what you are willing to pay.
4. Verbal Agreements
In my culture, when people say, “Oh yeah maybe, we’ll see how we go. I’ll give you a call a bit later…” they mean, “No.” In Asia it’s simpler. No means no. Similarly, yes very much means yes. So when you’re haggling at the market for a sarong and you say, for example, 10 000 Riel, you cannot then decline and walk away. When you offer a price, you’ve got to mean it and honour it. This goes for any verbal agreement. When I go to Asia I adapt my speech to a manner that is firm and decisive while maintaining politeness. It’s simply the best way to be understood. Verbal agreements are king here and a handshake probably holds more weight than a legal contract. And wouldn’t it be nice if that kind of integrity were universal?
It’s obvious, rather vague and totally cliché, but trust your instincts. If a person seems untrustworthy or a situation feels wrong, get the fuck out of it. Choose very carefully which hands you shake and which hospitality you receive and return. There are plenty of dodgy fuckers that are out for your money in the world but I believe they are outnumbered by honest types with good heads and hearts. Save your money and time for the latter – they’re all over the place.