Friday, November 16, 2007

Ugly American

National Blog Posting Month Day 16

Pictures for this post were taken by me in 2005 and can be found in my Vietnam Flickr set or you can click on individual pictures for larger images.

Don’t ask me how (but blame this site), but I ended reading the blog of Megan McArdle, a writer for Atlantic Monthly specializing in economics. She is on a busman’s holiday in Vietnam and blogging about what she finds.

Since I had been to Vietnam with my family a few years ago (chronicled in this blog), I was interested in what insights an economics writer might have. Boy was I disappointed. For the most part she has made the most banal, naïve, and borderline offensive observations I have ever read. Let’s take a look at some of her insights.

Vietnamese people are short.
People back home stare occasionally, but here a near-majority point and chatter. Their eyes, meltingly, ask a question they have neither the courage, nor the English, to speak out loud. I cannot bear to deny them.

"188 centimeters," I say. It took me ten minutes to work out the first time, but now I'm practiced. Their eyes widen, as if I had suddenly gotten even taller. Smiles. Giggles.
Yes, people in Vietnam are petite. Not having grain self-sufficiency until a decade ago will do that to a country. But McArdle is an Amazon. For the metric impaired, 188 cm is 6’-2” without heels. She should be used to having people looking up at her by now. She could walk through the lobby of my office and draw stares. And trust me, the Vietnamese have no social taboo against staring and pointing at strangers.

Really short.
The effect of all those high-octane Western diets is very obvious in one way: I am a giant among women here. I presume that all tourists who walk into the stores here are followed by one or more of the multitude of store clerks who seem to sit there waiting for the sporadic traffic. But I suspect that they aren't usually the object of regard by all the other giggling, pointing attendants.

In a triumph of optimism, none of them can quite bring themselves to believe that no, their clothes really won't fit me. I inevitably find that the waist is eight inches too high, and my not-terribly-broad shoulders strain the seams. The unoccupied clerks giggle harder as two or three now very worried shopworkers delicately peel the clothes back over my head, holding their breath as they wait for the terrible ripping sound. So far, luckily, it hasn't come, but I've largely given up shopping for apparel.
DSC02901At over six foot tall, how many stores in the States have clothes that fit you off the rack? And you expect Vietnam to be better? If you had bought a guide book before you left, you would know that there are plenty of tailors and dressmakers that will custom sew anything you want to your exact size. And it would still cost a fraction of what you would pay in America. It's almost cheaper to buy the fabric and have clothes made for you than to buy the same items in a store.

They have dark skin.
This is weird, and not terribly uncommon, as far as I can tell: Caucasian mannequins. They seem to be prevalent even in stores that look like they cater to the Vietnamese. I have no idea what this means, but I'm sure someone must know.
I'm perplexed about where to begin with this bit of misplaced hyper-political correctness. They’re mannequins. And not very good looking ones at that. Who cares if they don’t mirror the local skin tone? The ones I saw at Macy’s last week were spray painted gold. Spin all the theories you want about cultural imperialism and implicit racism, I bet the real reason is that white mannequins are cheap. And furthermore, when was the last time the word “Caucasian” was used outside a Klan flyer?

They work too hard.
I saw a farmer today peddling a cow to market in a trailer attached to his bicycle. This engendered considerable confusion--on my family's farms, the principle has always been that the animals expend energy to move you around, not vice versa.
DSC02687aMcArdle’s bio says she was born and raised on the upper west side of Manhattan, so I’m not sure just how extensive her farm experience is, but maybe grammy and pop-pop let her summer on the ranch. That’s not quite the same thing as subsistence farming in a third world tropical country.

For one thing, I doubt that was a cow she saw. Dairy cattle like we think of them are a relatively new form of livestock to Vietnam and are mostly in the south. The ubiquitous beast of burden in rice paddies is the water buffalo, a creature not known for its speed. It’s also a poorly suited form of transportation. You try to ride one. If you have to get it to market, you are going to have to pull it with whatever you have. If that’s a bicycle, so be it.

Scooters are quickly replacing bicycles as the universal form of transportation among the Vietnamese and I saw everything from pigs to twenty foot long pieces of rebar to entire families being transported on scooters. Shame on them for not having king cab pick-up trucks to haul their animals around. That’s why it’s called a developing country.

Or not hard enough.
The streets are also filled with women carrying baskets suspended on the ends of traditional yokes. The cognitive dissonance inspired by watching these women weave in and out of the motorbike traffic offers a slight thrill to camera-happy tourists like me.

But that thrill really isn't very thrilling when I stop to think about it. The labor productivity implied by all that basket-carrying is bleak in the extreme. For the last twenty-four hours, I've found it hard to venture outside of my (extremely overpriced, thoroughly Westernized, lovely and modern) hotel without mentally calculating the average hourly wage implied by a three-dollar, ten minute cab ride, or a woman hauling two meager baskets of cucumbers to a bustling street corner where she can squat and sell them for hours.
Dsc02545If you are a street vendor, you need some way to get your wares too and from your market stall or patch of sidewalk. The bamboo pole with balanced baskets is a clever centuries old method. And street vending isn’t a very lucrative trade anywhere in the world, but anything you sell is more money than you would have had hanging around the house.

If you want to see the real economic engine in Vietnam, ignore the old ladies selling vegetables and go hang around a factory with the big “ISO 9001 Compliant” banner on it and wait for shift change. You will get run over by the scooter traffic jam as their daughters come home for the evening and ask granny how many cucumbers she sold.

They wear funny clothes.
This is a really common pattern in almost every non-western country; the girls wear traditional clothes, while the men wear western suits and ties. It is not universal, but it is nearly universal enough to make me ask what integral part of the human psyche this stands in for, the men wearing the garb of the economically successful, while the women remain mannequins for the past.

I think the ao dais are much more attractive than western school uniforms (and don't get me started on the dress policies of the Riverdale Country School. But surely the men would look equally fetching in whatever the Vietnamese elite males wore 200 years ago?
DSC02681As far as formal native dress goes, the áo dài is actually pretty practical. It’s a pair of silk slack with a long tunic in contrasting colors. According to Wikipedia, the modern version dates back to the 1930s and has had a recent resurgence in popularity. And if a school requires girls to wear one once a week, where’s the sexist oppression? And like most native dress, among adults you really only see it worn in restaurants and other places that cater to tourists.

As for the guys getting off easy, I can only imagine her umbrage if she saw a group of men in mandarin jackets and top knots. Besides, what American male would wear something that was the height of fashion in 1807? Imagine someone showing up to work in a morning coat and ascot. Why should Asians wear styles 200 years out of date?

News flash: Pants and tee shirts are the world-wide universal uniform. In many ways Vietnamese men dress way better than their Western counterparts. Twill pants and golf shirts or dress shirts are worn everywhere. Despite the climate, no self respecting Vietnamese guy would run around in baggy cargo shorts looking like Kevin Smith at a red carpet event.

And funny hats.
Vietnam is unbelievably picturesque. At least here in Hanoi, there are loads of women still wearing those pointy straw hats, and presumably not just because they know how much the Western tourists enjoy all this authenticity.
DSC02552Guess why women (and men) in Vietnam wear pointed hats? Because it’s hot and sunny there and they work outdoors. The round brim shades the head and the pointed top provides ventilation. They’re also made of bamboo because it’s cheap. A more interesting observation that McArdle didn't make is that women wear long sleeves or elbow length gloves outdoors no matter what the temperature to avoid getting that peasant farmer’s tan.

For a lifelong New Yorker, she sure isn’t very worldly. I can’t wait for more cringe inducing posts about how things are so different outside our benighted states. Why can't these foreigners be more like Ivy League educated dilettantes?


Anonymous said...

Talk about paternalistic. I'm not familiar with Ms. McArdle, but I'd be willing to bet that she self-identifies as a liberal. There is a flavor of liberalism, typified by northeastern Ivy League intellectuals, that is incredibly paternalistic. The contradictions are astounding. She seems to go from "They're still living like they used to hundreds of years ago; how terrible" to "Why don't they still live like they used to; how terrible" in the space of a paragraph. Let's freeze every culture in amber (except our own, of course!) and then tut-tut condescendingly about it while simultaneously demonstrating our complete ignorance of its most basic details. Your title hit the nail on the head.

2fs said...

McArdle's post is pretty dire - and astoundingly ill-informed for a journalist. I do wonder if she got her (metric) height right, though: maybe she's really only 168 cm (5'6" - if I did my math correctly) - which would, I'm guessing, still be tall for a woman in Vietnam.

DemetriosX: I'm pretty sure conservatives are quite capable of paternalism as well. Or at least condescension. Hell, I think condescension (toward foreigners especially) is their national sport. Gotta say I've never met an actual human who oversimplifies to the level of contradiction you describe, though (not even McArdle does). I think you're describing a certain cartoon liberal in your head.

Anyway: I've never quite understood the resentment engendered by so-called "limousine liberals" - at least not if they're aware of their own privilege. What, you have money so you're supposed to not give a damn about anyone else? I'd relate it to the phenomenon whereby people proposing new ideas are judged according to saintlier standards than those holding old ones. Al Gore's home isn't energy-efficient? For shame! That clearly means everything he says is a lie! George W. Bush's home isn't energy-efficient? At least he's not a hypocrite! So let's all follow W. and his ilk and drive our SUVs half a block to pick up a stick of gum - at least we're not hypocrites like Al Gore...

yellojkt said...

Believe it or not, George Bush's home is very energy efficient. I've seen pictures of the ground source heat pumps. Laura talked him into them.

Mooselet said...

Living in a foreign country - and yes, you'd be surprised at the number of Americans who don't consider Australia a "real" foreign country - I sometimes have to restrain myself from bitch-slapping fellow Americans when I have the misfortune to encounter them in tourist-y types of places. This nitwit sounds like one of them.