Thursday, May 21, 2015

When Traveling in Asia, Don't Order Meatballs

I was born, raised and lived most of my life in the United States of America. The US like many other prosperous and influential countries such as Canada; Australia; Singapore; New Zealand; Hong Kong and others, are former British colonies. Our language is basically the same, and many of our customs similar. British culture has influenced the world. I discovered it is easy these days for me to travel globally and really not truly experience foreign cultures. Observe and appreciate yes; but truly experience?

Not so much!

I have now travelled a little in this part of the world. Australia felt a little like my hometown Brooklyn: tough but good natured with an incomprehensible accent. In Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines I was a tourist staying in places that catered to English speaking customers. Not much in the way of assimilation challenges happening there.

My home for much of the past five year was Singapore. I once heard Singapore described as “Asia Lite’ because it is prosperous, English speaking and has many Western amenities.  However, when I first arrived in Singapore it took time to adjust. Climate, food and etiquette were Singaporean. In addition to English, most Singaporeans spoke Chinese as well. So it felt new and different to me. But I could always find a familiar restaurant and everybody spoke English. It was not until I moved to Vietnam did I start to really learn how to be part of foreign land.

Well-known Western business are present and growing in Ho Chi Minh City. But Vietnam has its own distinct way of being, a challenging language for an English speaker to learn, and a lot of pride in its national identity. I arrived here two months ago with an idea and a business plan. Putting the plan into action required me to let go of my ingrained ideas about how people think and act. I’ve learned to eat “local”. Truth is the coffee at the little mom and pop stall near my home is superior to the Western franchises. And the local shop is one-tenth the price. 

Really, one-tenth!

I am using the coffee shop as an example of the many learning experiences I have had recently as I seek out contractors, merchants, graphic artists, web site designers and all the folks needed to get a small business up and running. I have to communicate and negotiate with them in their language. And I must learn and respect their customs and etiquette. And the only way to do that is be part of it, not an observer. It is the only way to really lean the details. 

BTW: the title?  The thing about the meatballs?

 Ah yeah, I’m not kidding:)