December 8, 2013

Questions from around the world

I split my time between a couple of different cities in SE Asia. One is a major metropolis where no English is spoken, but I get to sleep in an incredibly comfortable bed. I have access to one of the best Crossfit gyms I've ever been to. I can fulfill any desire I can think of. Though the last American I spoke with wouldn't agree with me, I call it the first world due to availability of creature comforts and 50' x 50' TV screens on the sides of buildings selling whatever the advertisers pay for. Oh yeah, and the mass transit elevated train system is awesome.

The other favorite place that I spend my time is a rural area which my local friends call the third world. It took me some time to accept this fact but I now understand it to be true. Salaries of $100-$300/mo are normal. Often 5-10 people live in a 250 sq ft house. There are no hot showers, and the thing that is toughest for me, no furniture. With 25-50 sq ft per person, there's no space for a sofa or bed. Everyone sleeps on the floor which can be hell on the back over time. Concrete or tile floors are unforgiving.

Pollution can cause massive respiratory problems for anyone accustomed to first world air quality. The second time I came here, I stayed for six weeks and breathing problems forced me to leave the country. I had the cough of an emphysema patient and realized that I would die if I didn't escape to clean air.

Despite these challenges, I keep coming back. I am in love with the people, the easiest people on the planet. It's seemingly impossible not to get along with them. They treat me well and appreciate my presence since no foreigners ever come to their town. Their English is excellent, though I speak as much of their language as possible. Every day, I'm learning new words and phrases. I love making jokes in their language and feel comfortable enough to be playful. My friends and I always make fun of each other. I had some free time and went out to spend time with the kids on my street.

In homogeneous cultures, locals always ask the foreigners lots of questions. I have lived outside of America for many years and have dealt with more cultures than I can count, so I can handle whatever questions come my way. A few that were asked today:

Do you take showers?
What's your religion?
Are you married?
Are you rich?

The shower question isn't too personal, but I thought it was funny. The religion question is one that I've learned to be quite controversial. I was talking with a potential business partner in another country and after 20 minutes of a great conversation, I was asked my religion. I told him and he quickly became short and our potential business relationship was clearly over, "Oh, I thought you were such and such religion." He was done with me.

In the country where I am now, 95% of the country is of just one religion. When I share my religion, I get a puzzled look. I've learned to just tell them that I am the same religion as the majority to simply avoid confusion since it doesn't make much sense to them that a second religion exists. It would be like telling Americans that I am follower of Jainism. They wouldn't have a clue what I was talking about.

"Are you married" is a common question. After age 20 or so, if you're not married in many countries, you are in the very small minority. It doesn't make sense why you wouldn't be married. Marriage is like death or taxes, it is inevitable. When I tell people I'm not married, they ask why not. When marriage is default, people won't understand when you claim freedom and happiness as reasons not to be married. Such explanations would result in sad, confused, he-must-be-crazy looks. For this reason, I sometimes just say yes.

"Are you rich" can be a dangerous question. In communal societies, money is to be shared with the community. Due to my skin color, everyone here already assumes I'm rich. It's almost unnecessary to ask. This time, the girl who asked was ten years old. Her name is Jelina and she is incredibly mature, polite, and slightly shy. I decided to answer the question honestly. I told her that in my country I'm not rich, but here I am because the currency in my country is stronger than it is here. She asked me the exchange rate and understood my explanation of being rich in one place and not in another. From her expression, she seemed satisfied with my answer.

These questions are ones you will come across constantly and over time, you learn how to respond depending on the culture and economic placement of the society you happen to be in. With Western Europeans, questions are often about politics or how I start my businesses. With Africans, discussions lead to how to sustain a nomadic lifestyle financially. With Asians, questions are normally about family. Sharing myself with others is one of the best parts of culture hopping. My favorite thing is testing out new identities and trying to guess the resulting reactions.


  1. It's odd that business people would ask your religion and odder that it would matter to them. In the west, commerce is separate from religion. If you want to buy what I want to sell and the price is right, we make a deal. I don't care about your religion, and you don't care about mine. On the other hand, if I'm single and attracted to you, and we're of different religions, then, to some (but not most) in the west, religion matters. Why the difference? Because in the first case, I am only selling my wares, and religion doesn't affect the transaction. In the second case, I am choosing the identity of my home. In that case, religion should matter, but in most of the West, it doesn't. You see, for most people in the West, identity is just a commodity like any other. So the East irrationally allows religion into matters of commerce, and the West irrationally excludes religion from identity. People are irrational, in the East and in the West, just differently.

  2. You wrote about Western business: "If you want to buy what I want to sell and the price is right, we make a deal."

    This is definitely not the case in Asia. Business transactions in Asia are based on relationships. Connections are the true currency of Asia.

    I remember negotiating with a potential partner in Burma, and while I wanted numbers and details, he kept showing me business cards of people in high places he said he knows to show me that he was important.

    In China, I would describe business culture as, "You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." In practice, it is an exchange of favors between people. Contracts and invoices for delivered work are often meaningless. Everything is a continued negotiation.

  3. Whenever I talk to foreign friends visiting the Philippines, I would always warn them about this. It's not just the kids who ask these questions; adults, too. They're naturally very curious, and they don't see why they have to hold back on asking where you get your traveling money from or whether you're married or not. A tip: say you're attached, even if you may not be. If you say you're single, you can easily be fixed up with their daughter, or their friend's daughter or granddaughter :D

  4. Sounds dangerous! I wouldn't want to get fixed up with someone's granddaughter now would I?