Observations from living in Southeast Asia for two and a half years

11 minute read

At the beginning of 2013 I left South Africa and set out on a grand adventure to travel the world and become a digital nomad. About 5 months into my trip I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I liked it so much that I have lived there ever since (I say “there” because right now I am in Vietnam for a month, but still consider Chiang Mai my “home” for now). I have done various trips throughout the region in that time and have been to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Macau and Hong Kong.

I thought I would write a bit about some of my observations from having lived in Southeast Asia for the past 30 months. This is about things I find strange, and when I say “strange” it is purely because it is different from my frame of reference.

As for my frame of reference, I am a South African. There are however many different cultural groups in South Africa, so more specifically I am an Afrikaner. I come from a quite conservative, Calvinistic Christian upbringing.

Oh, and I understand that most of the stuff I will talk about is generalisations, so please don’t crucify me for it. For everything I mention you will probably be able to point to the opposite, but these things are the norm as I experience them.

So let’s get into it…

Being a white man from Africa boggles the mind.

As you travel throughout the region you always get questions from the locals about where you are from. A typical conversation may go something like this:

Local: Where are you from?

Me: South Africa

Local: (looks a bit confused..) Where?

Me: South Africa

Local: Oh, South America!

Me: No, South Africa

Local: But… you’re white…?

Yeah. About 80% of the locals usually comment about the fact I have a white skin, but yet I am from Africa. In their frame of reference, people from Africa have dark skins.

Interestingly you would expect that when people think of South Africa, they may think of Nelson Mandela or Apartheid, but here they don’t know either. The single reason they know South Africa is because of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I never realised how much exposure it gave us until I arrived in Asia.

White skin

While I am on the subject of white skin… In Asia they are absolutely obsessed with white skin and there are many articles and blog posts which have been written by other people about this. It is almost impossible to find any skin care products which does not contain whitening. For me as a man who don’t use skin creams and stuff this is not so much of a problem, but for many western girls who like their tanned look this is an issue.

People are also covering up their skin from the sun the whole time and it is not unusual to see people in Vietnam where I am now who is covered from head to toe in 36 degree celcius heat. All just so that they don’t get a tan.

I have asked some locals about this and besides the fact that they find the white skin attractive, it also seem to be some sort of “status symbol”. As they explain it, if you have a white skin it is a sign that you have a nice office job with good pay, but when you are tanned you are probably doing some sort of hard labour job outside.

I chuckle a bit about this because back home it is almost the exact opposite. If someone has a nice tan they must be rich because they obviously have time to lie around the pool the whole day :)

Thai girls wearing braces

So while I am on the subject of physical appearance and status, let’s talk about the Thai girls’ seeming obsession with braces. I am used to people being very opposed to wearing braces (especially teenagers) because they will most probably get mocked about it. In Thailand however the girls are obsessed with braces and it is a fashion statement as well as a sign of wealth, i.e. if you have money for braces you got to be rich.

Wearing braces is also not just limited to just teenagers and students. I have seen even older Thai women in their 30’s and 40’s wearing braces, but it is certainly more common among the students.

Being a status symbol, this unfortunately opens the door for some really bad (cheap) products to come on the market, and there have been cases where Thais have actually been killed by these bad products. You can read more about this over here and here.

Along with the braces, the girls also seem to be quite obsessed with wearing colored contact lenses. So don’t be surprised when you see a Thai girl with bright blue eyes. It is actually a bit disconcerting the first time you see it.

English is not that widely spoken

English isn’t my mother tongue (it is Afrikaans), but I have always thought that most of the world can at least speak or understand English. Well, that is definitely not the case. It can sometimes be quite difficult to get along with just English. If you are just a normal tourist, this is not much of a problem, but when you live and integrate with the locals, it can become quite challenging.

Not being able to speak you own mother tongue for extended periods can also be quite challenging, and it is often the thing I find most depressing. Luckily I meet lots of tourists and many times I meet Dutch tourists, so with Afrikaans and Dutch being so closely related I usually take opportunity to talk with them in Afrikaans, as we can understand each other.

Gender roles

I am used to certain careers being performed mostly by specific genders. As an example I am used to hard labour jobs being performed mostly by men. Over here it is not strange to see women working on construction crews. And I am not just talking about one or two women - it is usually quite evenly balanced between the genders and at times I have noticed entire construction crews consisting of women.

As a side note, I am actually not quite certain whether many of these labourers are in fact Thai. I suspect a large portion is made up of Myanma (Burmese) migrant workers, especially in Chiang Mai which is fairly close to the Myanmar border.

Of course in Thailand gender in general seems to be quite a more “flexible”. Thailand is very well known for its Ladyboy, but what is lesser known is that there are also many Tomboy - girls who dress and (sort of) look like men. Somehow the Thai Tomboys also seem to get the most beautiful girlfriends :)

You can go read this Wikipedia entry on Gender identities in Thailand.

Space

Ok, go ask Google how many people live in Asia:

And then ask her about the land area of Asia:

You do the math. Take 62% of the world’s population and fit them into 30% of the land area and things are bound to get a bit tight.

OK, I suppose theoretically there is more than enough land that people do not quite have to live on top of each other, but for whatever reason the cities are quite densely populated. And actually, even though according to this article none of the places I have lived even feature on the list of most densely populated cities, it is still much more densely populated than what I am used to.

In South Africa we have plenty of space, and I lived a good life in the suburbs for all my adult life, and actually grew up on a small holding, so I am not used to having so many people all around me. Back in South Africa when I went to bed at night it would be deadly quiet. Over here it never is quiet. I find it terribly difficult at times.

Life on the streets

So because there are so many people living in a fairly small amount of space, apartments tend to be quite small. Because of this, in Vietnam for example, it is quite common for people to be sort of “living on the streets”. What I mean is that you will find lot of people sitting outside their apartments on the pavements, having a beer, eating food and socialising. It is not uncommon for people to put a chair, television and a fan outside on the pavement and just sit there watching television.

No sidewalks

I suppose technically there are sidewalks, but they are usually occupied with people (sitting and eating, watching television or doing whatever else), motorcycles or goods on display from shops, that it is very rare to be able to actually walk on the sidewalk. Most of the time walking from one place to the next is spent in the road dodging motorcycles. And in Vietnam you’ll be dodging motorcycles on the sidewalks as well because they drive anywhere.

Hazards in the sidewalks

One more thing about the sidewalks is that it can be quite hazardous to walk there. Just last week I read about Shawn Wildermuth having to cut short his world trip and return home, because he fell through a footbridge in Bangkok. Another friend of mine broke a foot stepping into a hole in a sidewalk.

It is not uncommon to come across holes in sidewalks. Another hazard is loose cables dangling from the air which can eaily poke your eyes out. Botton line is you need to keep your eyes open and watch where you’re going.

Lack of knifes when eating

When eating it is fairly uncommon to be given a knife. The standard cutlery over here is either chopsticks or a fork and a spoon. If you’re just touristing through these countries and eating at nice restaurants you maybe won’t notice this as much, but if you eat where the locals eat I can assure you that finding and using a knife is quite unusual - I cannot remember having ever seen a knife at a Thai or Vietnamese kitchen. If there’s something to be cut they will usually give the food to you already cut, or otherwise you can use your spoon.

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship and self-reliance seems to be much more alive over here. In Thailand for example I would be walking my usual route down to the market to get food every day and on about a weekly basis I would see a new booth popping up selling something. Someone would score a pig somewhere and for the next 3 days they would be selling pork BBQ sticks next to the road. Or during lychee season a table would randomly pop up in front of someone’s house and they would make a few extra bucks selling lychees.

In Hanoi where I am now there still seems to be a lack of the big national chain stores. Instead people seems to be operating their own small businesses selling goods. You will get certain “districts” which sells certain type of goods, so instead of heading to the big multi-national hardware chain store you just head to the hardware district, and there you will find many small stores selling various hardware products.

Or maybe you’re looking for some stationary? Just head to the stationary district where you will find streets lined with many stores selling stationary goods. The stores will typically be 3 storey buildings with the store being run out of the ground floor, and the family running the stored living in the floors above.

I personally like this model much better as people are reliant on themselves for their income, rather than having to depend on some big corporation for and income where they will be only a number.

Sadly as things progress this will change. In Thailand you can already see that the big brand stores are much more prevalent. I find this quite sad, because to them people are just a number…

Edit 28 June 2015: Came across an article from Business Insider which confirms the high rates of Entrepreneurship in both Vietnam and Thailand.

Expressions from back home

The last thing I want to mention is not so much about Asia as it is about South Africa. We have many words and expressions back home which everyone use and is borrowed from the various cultures and languages (see some South African regionalisms and slang words).

You tend to consider the use of these as normal, but once you leave your county you will find that you use these and other people will frown at you not understanding what the hell you are going on about.

In South Africa for example when we talk about a Robot, we are talking about this:

It tripped me up initially when I would talk about a robot and everyone looked at me thinking I was nuts. Turns out that we are the only country in the world talking about a robot. The rest of the world refer to them as traffic lights :)

Conclusion

That is it. Just a few random observations from my time so far in Southeast Asia. The place gets a bit crazy at time, but I love it. It has certainly expanded my horizons and it is one of the greatest things I have done. For now it is my home, but hopefully I can start nomad-ing again sometime in the future. South America has always fascinated me and I still want to go check it out at some stage as well :)

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