Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Things that are Sad.


Tonight is my last night in Hanoi and of course, I'm feeling attached and weird, and like maybe I could get along better with Hanoi if I tried. Maybe if I had a bit more patience, and if I walked around more at night when there's no one else and I could just look at the falling-apart French balconies, and the dimly-lit shuttered streets, without distraction.

I like how people put everything on their motorbikes, including: a TALL potted palm tree (this looked incredibly dangerous), 7 huge boxes of vitamin C and lately: lots of mandarin trees, in their pots. You know how we have Christmas trees in the West? Well, it turns out that totally sucks because here in Vietnam for New Years people get MANDARIN trees, with real mandarins on them, in a pot.
I feel really like crying when I think about these last seven months in Asia. I don't know. I feel like I understand a lot less than I (thought) I did before I left Dunedin.

Here's something I've been thinking anyway: Westerners (myself included) get really pissed off about constantly being ripped off by the Vietnamese - especially motorbike drivers, guest house owners and tour guides. In the case of the Xe Om (motorbike), often the amount isn't much - like maybe an extra $2 or so and the Westerner, myself included, will say: "But it's about the principle."

But then I've been thinking, that actually it's a huge luxury to think of money in terms of principle and not in terms of necessity - not in terms of providing something you physically need, like food. So, then if you had a case where one person was annoyed at getting ripped off on principle and the other gained something they needed, then you could maybe argue that the action was justified.

The difficulty in Hanoi is that poverty isn't at the base need level - we're not talking about food, clean water or education, at least not in most cases. Hanoi is quite rich. But: in the case of Xe Om drivers, and other 'working class' people, we are talking about: topping up cellphones, paying bills, getting a beer with your friends, providing guests with special treats, presents for your family for Tet, mandarin trees ...

All of these things can seem quite frivolous, and luxurious, when compared to the basic physical needs, but in a sense they are social needs, which is much more murky ground. In Vietnam, the ability to lavish gifts and treats on guests is highly important if you want to have friends and a social life of any kind. You need to buy presents for your family at Tet - just like it would be humiliating and awful for a family in New Zealand to not buy anything for their children at Christmas. So basically what we're dealing with is good old-fashioned 'lower-class', 'working class' poverty, which doesn't have the pornographic poverty appeal of a World Vision ad, but it's still important.

But then the question is: does this Xe Om driver's need to buy his little girl a Barbie for Tet justify him ripping me off?

Most days I would still say no, but tonight is my last night in Hanoi and I'm feeling especially generous...

1 comment:

Anthonie said...

You could also look at it as a form of scaled pricing- In NZ someone earning 100 grand a year will pay more for things like movies and th pool than someone with a community services card because the amount they can afford is more. And I have no problem with the idea of westerners paying a little more for things in a poor country, but i guess it's the sense that you are being insulted when someone rips you off.

Have a great time in Berlin! And I hope you post lots more, I really enjoy them!