Joko MacKenna

Five things I've learned in SE Asia

From smiling to haggling and crossing the road

I've learned so much in the last 3+ years I've been living in Southeast Asia.

Very little of this earned knowledge will do me any good if or when I go back home to Amerika. These skills are rather region specific. They don't translate well to fully developed world cultures. Irrespectively, here's a list of five things I've learned in SE Asia that won't do me much good back home.

#1: How to Cross the Street. Here in Yangon, knowing how to cross the street is an essential skill that all Yangonites do eventually pick up over time (or they die).

Zebra crossings be damned. Yangoners go from curb to curb whenever they damn well feel like it. As the traffic here is horrible, cars traveling no faster the waves rolling in upon a shore, crossing the street in Yangon is like gauging the surf as it rolls into shore. In Yangon, we traffic surf.

#2: Smiling: I suppose this is the least of my regionally specific points. Wherever you go, smiling at people you don't know puts them at ease. They're more likely to be friendly back at you.

That said, in places where they rarely ever meet a foreigner and therefore are a bit scared and intimidated by the whole experience, simply smiling makes a world of difference. When you smile at people, they smile back.

#3: Realizing When People are Just Trying to Take Advantage of You. In both positive and negative ways, farangs get treated differently by the locals. One could write a whole book on this topic, but figuring out when someone else's interest in you is solely based on them seeing you as a walking ATM as opposed to being a real person with genuine qualities and characteristics. Yeah, recognizing that differing interest can mean so much to the expat overseas.

#4: How to Haggle. Everyday, I get a taxi from one place to another. In a country where your transportation costs largely depend on your ability to get the fare you're supposed to pay, as opposed to the fare the taxi drivers want to charge based on the color of your skin. Knowing how to haggle is a key skill.

#5: Not Letting the Little Things Bother You: Things work differently here. Things happen at a different pace. The worst thing a foreigner living in SE Asia can do is to carry their First World expectations as to how things should proceed, how efficient or competent the people you deal with should be, and how how things that are broken should be fixed.

Just drop any thought of how you think things should be. They do things differently here, and it often bares no resemblance to how we think things should be taken care of.

Of these five realizations, I understand that perhaps none of them will do me any good back home, but I don't see myself going home any time soon.

I also have a YouTube page with lots more stuff about the teaching lifestyle in Myanmar


Te last point. Don't sweat the little things is one of the key reasons foreigners get upset with Thailand. Nothing is as it seems and there's nothing you can do about it. Accept it or go home, else you turn bitter or jump off a balcony.

By Steve, Abu Dhabi (20th July 2016)

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