I started my morning screaming at people today. Granted I’m not a morning person, that’s no secret, but I don’t normally scream at people. Sure, I think it – but it seldom comes out.
“Get off the f’ing sidewalk!!” I believe is what escaped my lips with some really pissed-off arm gestures accompanying the words. This performance was directed at the 15 motorbikes barreling down the sidewalk towards me swerving as they were surprised to find someone actually WALKING, let along RUNNING, on the sidewalk. The traffic was so packed that everyone just thinks the sidewalks are meant as an overflow ‘lane’ for the congested streets. Absolutely nothing is sacred in this place.
This is just one of the many frustrations I experience daily. However, lately I’ve been trying to overcome another frustration; discrimination.
I try my best to do the impossible here in HCMC, go running outdoors. If any of you have been here, then you may know what a insane activity this is. I would be much safer skydiving or motorcycle jumping 10 beat up cars…while engulfed in flames. However I’m a runner, and I won’t give up that persona without a fight. Since moving to Asia, I’ve given up the persona of ‘corporate executive’, ‘fashionable’, ‘sex in the city character’, and ‘good party host’; but I won’t give up ‘runner’. No matter how hot and sticky it gets, no matter how bad the pollution is, no matter how dangerous the sidewalks are; I have to keep running, even if it is only 3 miles 3 times a week.
I go to the zoo to run in the mornings as long as it’s before 8AM. After 8AM furgetaboutit, too hot. I go to the zoo because it is the only place I can run where it’s safe outdoors. There are no cars or motorbikes, and there are actual trees offering a bit of relief from the scorching sun. The only problem is that it’s small – really small – so I have to run the same boring loop every 7 minutes. Describing it as ‘boring’ may be a little rough, after all I do get to see elephants, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, lions, and buffalo (the Asian kind) every loop.
When I first found the zoo, I was excited because I learned that if you arrived before 7AM when they open, you could simply go in and exercise. There were tons of local Vietnamese people playing badminton, doing Tai Chi, stretching, doing arm circles, and walking in the park. It was full of life! However as I entered the park surrounded by the Vietnamese people pouring in the front gate, I was stopped.
“What Mr. Officer? What did I do wrong? I’m just going running.”
After much broken English conversation I realized that I couldn’t go in because I was white. Holy shit, this was a switch-a-roo; I was being discriminated against. Sure, I was used to salary discrimination, making less than men; but I was certainly not used to being discriminated against for the color of my skin and more specifically, my culture.
They refused to let me in without a ticket. After much argument that went nowhere besides the guy still saying to me ‘have ticket!” I finally decided – fine, I will buy the damn ticket. I walk back out parting the sea of locals walking into the park and I go to the ticket booth.
It’s not open.
It’s impossible for me to buy a ticket because they don’t open until 7AM. I go back to the guard. He once again says “have ticket!”, I try to say to him “ticket no open!” This goes nowhere…I leave in a giant huff and go risk my life running on the sidewalks around the motorbikes and people eating soup (breakfast) on the sidewalk.
As I ran that morning, I was furious. I started to wonder why I was so mad about the episode. Honestly it shouldn’t be surprising that I was being discriminated against. After all, the market charges me 15,000 dong for a mango, while I watch the local ladies pay 10,000 Dong. This is a fact of life in Asia. People see your skin and immediately rip you off.
Motorbike taxis look at me and start at 40,000 dong for a ride to work. I look at them in disgust and say slowly in hopes they will understand me “I live here.” Pause for an effect and then say “I pay 15,000 Dong”. They look at me, see I’m very serious and then give me a ride to work for 15,000 Dong. The locals pay about 5000 Dong for motorbike taxis for the same distance. There’s a tourist price, a white price, and a local price. It never fails – I always have to go through the tourist price first, then I have to be ok with the white price.
Now – back to why is this so infuriating to me? Some days I can brush it off, but many days the blatancy of the discrimination eats through my soul like acid through metal. I have come to realize that this action of discrimination is really a major cultural divide among Americans and the Eastern world. I think (hope) that most Americans believe in equal rights. Not just believe, but it’s deeply woven into our psyche and culture. This is what my generation and generations before have spent their lives fighting for. Equality is core value for us. Since I was born in 1970, most of the civil rights movement had worked itself out by then, so the concept of equality was a foundation in which other values were built for me.
Having to accept discrimination is a chore every day. But I do accept it. I am a visitor in this country and I have to remember that. I have to take off my American ‘hat’ and just try to accept. (I’m gritting my teeth as I write this!). So now I go running at the zoo at 7AM and pay my 8000 Dong (50 cents) to get in to the empty zoo and run multiple loops melting in sweat as if I were the Wicked Witch of the West.
Sometimes I do try to outsmart the system and send a Vietnamese friend out to do the market shopping. She pays at least half of what I would have to pay for the exact same stuff. I give her a bit of a tip, and we all win. Ah…the little victories.
Now if I could just get the people to not drive on the sidewalks!
By Kim March 3, 2009 - 10:53 pm
Wow! I had no idea what you have been dealing with. Murph said it was an adjustment and a non-stop city but all I can say is WOW. Hang in there, because with the bad and the frustrations come the experiences and beauty. XO
By Lynn March 13, 2009 - 5:02 am
I’m just catching up on some of your posts. This is an interesting one because what you describe is a fact of life for expats all over Asia. I never thought about it as discrimination though. Maybe its because the discrepancy in income between us and most of the Asians around us made the difference in prices seem fair in a way. Maybe its because I always felt like I was a guest in their culture and it was just the Chinese (and I guess Vietnamese) way to turn as much a profit as possible given the chance.
The discrimination that really bothered me was the sexist kind. I got SO tired of being denied access to our accounts because I was not the “primary account holder”! I actually took to impersonating Lee on the phone at times, just so I could conduct business with our bank!
Ah well…just do the conversion to US dollars and you won’t feel so bad….:)
By admin March 14, 2009 - 2:32 am
@Lynn – I certainly understand that the Asians are just trying to make a buck – but turn it around and imagine if we were charging the Asians more in America to buy water and food. Lord – what an uproar that would be! For some reason we accept it on foreign ground – probably becauase we have to. But – it doesn’t change the fact that it still really bugs me!
By Marci March 24, 2009 - 11:47 am
Yes, I’d heard this from other friends who’ve lived in Asia. Friends in Manila have their local housekeeper do all the shopping so they can get the “real” prices. Hang in there! It would boil my blood, too.
By charvey April 30, 2009 - 1:58 am
Hey Sherry – Just found your blog, awesome!
Re: The price discrimination, yeah it’s there. But if it’s any comfort to you, it’s not racial discrimination. Vietnamese discriminate pricing in every way they can get away with against anyone they can, foreign or not. As you point out, it’s woven in the fabric of the culture here.
Blatant price discrimination like you describe at the zoo does annoy me though. Another way to have handled that would have been to tell the guard “The other people didn’t pay. I’m not paying either. It’s not right.” Although they do practice discrimination they also have a sense of fair play that this isn’t right. When you expose and challenge it sometimes it goes away.
It would be especially effective if you could challenge the guard in Vietnamese. My Vietnamese language ability has gotten to the point where I’ve noticed that people treat me differently in these situations when I speak Viet to them. I think the Viet ability signals that I know the score and won’t accept unequal treatment. Keep up with your Viet lessons!! It’s very learnable and not at all as hard as people would have you believe.
By admin April 30, 2009 - 2:30 am
Chris – great hearing from you! Love your advice, I have learned that remaining calm and patient is the best way – but sometimes you just have bad days. The language barrier is really the issue though, as if I could speak to them in VN it would really make a difference. Actually simply driving a motorbike around here has provided me a bit more respect; so I can imagine how it would be if I could grasp the language. However I have a long way to go on the language…but I’m trying!
Hope to run into you in town! Not literally of course…but with my motorbike driving that could be a possibility!
By livinginSGVN April 30, 2009 - 7:31 am
I agree with Charvey, some Vietnamese language helps a lot. Also never ever lose your cool; always always smile even as you are fighting to gain advantage. When you act perturbed, VN people just dig in their heels and you’ll never win.
I kinda think that if you hadn’t given in and paid that first time, and made it clear that you know what the rules are, and maybe gotten some support in talking with the ticket people from a local, maybe even from a policeman or the ticket guard’s superior, and got really friendly and smiled a lot with the ticket people like they were going to become your best friends MAYBE you could have gotten in. But now it’s too late if they know they’ll get money from you a few times a week.
Do you get a paper ticket each time, that they rip in half and keep a stub?
It took me years, and learning a fair amount of the language, before I pretty much shook that ‘everyone wants to rip me off’ feeling. They do, but charvey’s also right: they want to rip everyone else off too.
Re. Lynn’s comment: on one hand if Americans always charged Asians more it wouldn’t fly BUT if purple-skinned people came to America who could easily earn 50 or 100 times the average income of an American, based solely on their native language and the color of their skin, you can bet that Americans would try to over-charge them in any way they could!
By mongolnomad July 4, 2009 - 10:05 pm
i stumbled upon your blog yesterday and i have been browsing your posts and photos. wonderful! thanks a bunch.
now on to discrimination: i think i understand how you feel. it is sad because discrimination/racism exists in all the asian countries that i have been to. i dont think the argument that they are trying to make a buck cuts it, because when they dont want your money the discrimination is still there.
if you have ever lived in japan, you will know it. dont get me wrong the japanese as a people are very polite and kind, and there are much from their culture that i love, but boy, are they just ever xenophobic! i dont know about in vietnam, but in japan there is a hierachy in terms of discrimination: discriminated by revered are white westerners, feared are blacks, looked down upon are “koreans” (incl. japanese of korean descent), and loathed are the chinese.
there were many things that i could cope with relatively well when i lived in japan (mind you, i speak japanese and was a translator so there was no language problem), but racism was something i could not and eventually i moved on after 3 years.
i hope you fare well there and if you find a secret to overcome this issue then please do share.
in the meantime, keep blogging, both positive and negative – that makes things a lot more authentic.
By Marie December 11, 2015 - 6:58 am
I’m going to HCMC this Sunday with my son who has moderate Autism I have prepared him for the traffic mainly because I don’t want him to get jumpy with the motorcycles .
Is discrict 1 caotic?
By Sherry December 11, 2015 - 11:52 am
Hi Marie – honestly every part of HCMC is chaotic. District 1 is the main business distric so it is very crowded and can be full of traffic. But it is something that you get used to. Just follow the locals as they cross the street…they know what they are doing! In District 1 there are more traffic police though to help tourists as that’s where most of the tourists stay – so you have that in your favor! Good luck and enjoy the food!