While traveling, we’re drawn to the differences in culture. The way French girls smoke like chimneys and laugh after rapidly firing off the equivalent number of words in War and Peace, all in less than 20 seconds. The way English guys give a hearty laugh about something “lad-tastic” (Lad being English for “Bro”) and then cast their eyes about to make sure no one else heard.
How Germans walk around the bus they are about to travel in 3 times, before announcing in their sharply pronounced English, “Yes dis vill do.” And how a Brazilian girl, laughing throatily at something, will catch your eye just as her face finds the pose of maximum exuberant beauty.
The Brazilian eye thing really is like the shocking thrill of jumping into cold water…every single time she laughs.
You notice how Cambodians are never all working at the same time, and a few are inevitably hanging from a hammock taking a midday snooze. How the Vietnamese girls working at the hotel in Nha Trang can remember the name of every person under their roof within 2 hours of checking and Vietnamese men can whisk in and out of a room without anyone noticing their presence. You meet the legion of Laotian 12 year old girls who inevitably run the business end of so many guest houses.
The little things that you notice while traveling are endless. I could spend days talking about the little odds and ends that people do over here that are different from how we do them back home. Construction is done with scaffolding made of stripped tree limbs. Guesthouses are opened after the first floor is completed, and additional floors will be added ad-hoc as money allows. There isn’t a single place I’ve eaten over here that would come close to passing a US Food and Health inspection (but we all seem to survive.)
The last few days I’ve been spending time with a German couple from Cologne. They are 31 and highly experienced travelers, but are great fun and love to interact. Fabio, a second generation German of Sicilian extraction, and I have had a blast comparing things in Germany and the US. His girlfriend is Maleen, who is German of…German extraction. We’ve really come to understand some things about the other’s country. We’ve talked about national pride, welfare, family size, school size, divorce, travel plans, iPhones, tax codes, history, and of course the Autobahn. The also taught me a fantastic card game called Ralf-runta. (I’m sure that isn’t even close to spelled correctly.)
Fabio is teaching me German, (Maleen offers sporadic advice as well, “you sound as if you haff a mouthful of potatoes, TAKE DEM OUT!) and they are gleaning small bits of English off of me, words like “industrious” and “loophole.” He’s also getting a few “Moormanism’s” like, “many ways to skin a cat,” “hotter’n hellfire,” “neater’n socks on a rooster,” “hell in a handbasket,” and other, Gene Moorman-esque, less family friendly phrases. The kinds of language skills you can’t possibly get from a book, only real conversation.
The more we talk, the more I notice both differences and similarities between our cultures. The one thing that I always find interesting is when we either interact with or see small children. We always find common ground on how kids act.
Kids are kids the world over. I grew up with a school teacher for a mother, and working at the Boys Club with 150 kids a night running amok, so I’ve had a fair few dealings with kids and I find them fantastic to be around. Given the choice between frowning and smiling, they always choose the smile. Small things, sometimes as simple as a big refrigerator box can make them extraordinarily happy and when cranky a sandwich or a nap will nearly always fix the problem. Kids are simple because they only worry about things that actually matter.
Am I safe?
Am I hungry?
Does someone love me enough to help me if I’m in trouble?
You give a kid those 3 things, and you’ll have a well-adjusted kid. No book purchase necessary.
Kids in war zones don’t have it because they can’t feel safe.
Kids in Africa are just hungry.
American kids lose it because they don’t have enough positive daily interactions to actually feel loved.
In SE Asia, the family unit is omnipresent. Most guesthouses/restaurants/businesses of any kind are run by a multi-generational family. Side by side down so many streets the scene is exactly the same. Grandma is sitting with the baby, anyone from 12 to 50 is jumping up to do whatever needs done, and anyone under 12 is running around in a pack of 10-25 neighborhood kids.
At meal time, the whole family sits around a big pot of broth with vegetables, noodles and rice of some sort, and usually a skewer or two of meat. Everyone is laughing, interacting, talking about (well God knows what they’re talking about actually) and everyone is smiling. No one fidgets with a cellphone, the TV isn’t on, and no one is at all concerned about a phone ringing. If a customer needs someone, there is a quick circular wave of eyes around the table until someone throws their head back in a feigned pout and jumps up to take care of it.
Pardon me for thinking that they don’t have it wrong.
Children in SE Asia are remarkably bold. These kids fear absolutely nothing, whether climbing a tree so high that I’m getting nervous, or the 10 year old firebreather in Saigon. I joked above about the 12 year old Laotian girl running the guesthouse, but anyone who stayed at Mr. Mo’s dealt with her.
I think they get this confidence from a couple different factors. The free play of the peer group in every possible situation imaginable and the fact that every adult in sight cares about their well-being.
American kids today are over sheltered to the point of comedy. Every activity is run by an adult, school, extra curricular activities, sports, play dates, you name it. Pickup baseball games are a bygone pastime, both because of liability to let unsupervised kids on a field and simply a lack of kids with the freedom to get on a bike and come play ball. Urban and suburban kids don’t have any open nature spaces to interact with, where they could push down dead trees or throw rocks or build dams across creeks or just get muddy.
Even if more American kids did have access to a natural landscape, how many would shut off the XBox to actually interact with it?
They have activities and homework. Scheduled play dates and clarinet lessons. Volleyball practice and youth group. They play video games for hours, against people they can’t actually see. A roaming group of teenaged kids is just an invitation to get harassed by police in many places, so interactions take place indoors, where activities are typically limited to drugs, sex and video games.
Seeing these people live, and how much they smile, I really wonder who has things closer to right. We’ve got a lot of things, but how many of us live close enough to have dinner with a family member even 1 night a week? Let alone being able to see your grandmother and every niece and nephew at every meal.
Kids are kids the world over. Needs are simple and happiness obtained with only the barest of requirements.
God bless them for that.