Saturday, May 28, 2011

Don't Stand So Close to Me

How many times have you waited in line, in a hurry, stressed out, and just wanted to run to the front and get whatever it is done? Turns out, you can. Just move to Vietnam.

I think it's pretty safe to say that once you've hit the six month mark in Hanoi, things change. You stop being amazed and shocked by things on the street, by helmetless infants or a steel cage of chickens strapped onto the back of a motorbike. When you find a hair in your food, you don't send it back, you simply pick it out. Or when someone vomits on your food after a train or bus ride, you just quickly scan your brain to see if you have time to change your pants before you go to work or if you'll just have to scrub it off.

There are some things, that while I've accepted as part of the culture, still make me say, "WHAT? SERIOUSLY?" One of them is waiting in line, or the inability to do so, and pushing.

Due to bring completely broke(I am living off of my parents until I get paid and borrowed from friends for rent) I am taking the public bus to work. I have a motorbike but it's broken and I can't afford the $15 to fix it so I've been taking the 32 each morning and walking back. It's not bad, I actually find it kind of relaxing (call me crazy) haha but the point is foreigners don't usually take the bus here. So each day, I am a bit of a novelty, getting stared at. This I am completely used to however I find the the bus situation one quite knows what to do with me. Sometimes I get tapped on the shoulder and ushered to an empty seat as though I am pregnant or elderly. Sometimes I get the person wanting to practice English, but one thing that always happens is pushing.

While I have a lot of respect for the mentality of having a goal and going for what you want, I am not sure it necessary to physically knock someone down to do it. During my travels in Southeast Asia (excluding Singapore) I've found that the concept of waiting in line is not even a concept, it doesn't happen. Instead, whatever target is being sought out, it is done in a full on way. People behind you will PUSH you aboard the bus. To be fair...the bus doesn't even stop. It slows down to a rolling pace and you have to kind of jog and jump. Handicap? Forget it. And it is a daily occurrence for me to be shoved or or pushed aside clearly indicating that I was in someones way. This actually doesn't really faze me. While, at first, I found it a bit of an adjustment, it never made me angry or shocked. Just different.

When it gets interesting for me though is while traveling. On a plane, instead of disembarking by's a free for all. The lady in 24c will push her way through the tiny crowd to get off. It never gets old actually. And rather than get annoyed I find it fascinating. The logic or, lack there of, of pushing through a crowd of people in a narrow alley rather than just wait for the people in front to move. You know they will, it's just a matter of a few minutes more.

Another thing is like the bank, buying tickets at the train station or anywhere where one would typically wait their turn. I tried when I first moved here to do that. Especially since some places have a "take your ticket" feature. I realized that is purely for show. Or for the benefit or tourists. Because it again is a free for all. The only waiy to get served is to cut. You must run up to the counter as soon as it's become free. Or just stand there, staking out.It reminds me of a more cutthroat intense version of getting a prime table at Hillside, a cafe at my university which was the seen and be seen lunchtime hotspot.

The only time I get annoyed is at the grocery store, when I am in line and someone pushes me aside and cuts in front of me. I am still not clear as to whether this happens to everyone, or whether it is just because I am a foreigner and it's assumed (correctly) that I won't fight back. I, unfortunately, believe it's the latter. I have decided that next time it happens I am going to make a mini scene and regain my rightful place in line. I've said this for the past year and a half, and haven't done it yet. But the more time I spend here, the more I believe I can.

An amusing game I like to play in my head is imagining what the reaction would be if someone of these things occurred in New York or London. If while standing in line at the post office, i just cut in front of everyone and threw my mail on the counter. Or if I deemed the man in front of me had a lot more groceries than i did so i just stepped in front of him and plopped mine down. It's so tempting. Can you imagine the OUTRAGE that the people around you would express? It's so comical to think about that I'm considering doing it just for laughs next time I visit home. It will be my social experiment...I can't wait. I'll commence when I touch down at JFK...charging my way through the sea of people trying to retrieve their overhead luggage and continue until I get beaten up or arrested for public disturbance. (ok not really, but we all know that would be the result of such antics)

Guess I'll just get it out of my system here...


  1. Quite sure that would not make much of an experiment. Pretty girls get it easy with everything. sigh.

  2. I went to the British Council the other day and imagine my surprise to see a REAL ticketing system. The most hilarious thing was watching people rush in to the front only to be directed to the machine.

    I say go for the tanty (in Vietnam at least). What the hell, everyone stares anyway!

  3. I had a good experience in L's Xuan Dieu today. The checkout chick was ringing up my goodies and a woman (possibly a maid or Ba as the child with her looked semi VN) pushed in thrusting her 50 000 vnd in the sales girls face saying 'blah blah 35 thousand" and gesturing to outside . She stood her ground and did not withdraw her hand for quite a few minutes while the girl attended to me and IGNORED HER ! Holy cow!!!
    Also in FIVI mart about 2 weeks ago an old Ba tried to push in and they told her to queue. Yey ! We will overcome !!!!
    I think people especially push in because we generally don't fight back (don't we always assume, incorrectly, that they must have some prior arrangement or ongoing business with the cashier?)

  4. Be weary of pickpockets and keep an eye out for the occasional free on-board entertainment when you ride the buses in HN.

  5. Pip-that's great. I have been hearing more and more stories about this. I hope it becomes standard however it probably won't, and personally i'd like to feel the sense of accomplishment for standing up for myself when I get cut (I'm a bit of a wimp)

    robert-I guard my bag with my life. to an almost insulting degree to those around me

    jodeska-yes when i went there I was the only one who felt comfortable with the system. yes! it's only natural that the Brits would require a sense of order :)

    Viet-I love when you're nice.

  6. Haha.. Even though I am moving to Hanoi my self soon, and therefore have to deal with this phenomenon and some of the other less fun stuff you write about, it all made for entertaining reading. The whole way through I was thinking,"Hahaha, super funny.. But hey why am I laughing? Thats going to be me in the queue soon soon" :)

    Nice blog and entertaining style of writing in general. Keep it up.

  7. I'm local man but I have been cut in front several time when I was in super market, except the first time, all other time when someone tried to cut me, I told them to step back and respect those people waiting in line, believe me when someone cut you and you tell them to go back in line, other people in line would express the same anger and that person would get really embarrassed. But it's noticable that women tend to break line more than men. All people who cut in front of me and I've seen cut line are women, especially middle-aged women.

  8. I've have the same experience in the supermarket. What I do is that I tell the local to get in line. Sometimes, there are nice ones who'd tell me in Vietnamese that they want to get ahead because they are only buying 1 or 2 pieces of goods --- I just tell them, "Sorry, but I don't understand you."

    But sometimes, I just don't want the trouble of explaining so I just let them go ahead. And silently cast a spell on them---- just kidding.