Sunday, January 14, 2007

History Comes Alive

When we were on vacation in Vietnam last week, I realized something which I’ve had floating in the back of my head for a while. I shouldn’t have gone to Europe to find out about European history. I should have gone to Asia. Europe these days is just a normal modern place with some old buildings. Asia on the other hand has it all, and can be modern on one block and completely stone-age on the next. Here are some of the olde timey things I have seen here which I previously only knew from history books.

People here have servants. Mainly to raise their kids for them. The nannies here are a small and silent race of young women with short haircuts and sweatsuits, most, as I understand it, from the Philippines. Strangely, most of the mothers don’t work and are usually standing right frigging there and could easily do exactly what the servants are doing. I didn’t understand the need for nannies in Olde Europe when the women didn’t work, and I don’t understand the need for nannies here in the condos in KL where the women don’t work, but at least I’ve seen the system in action.

Similarly, people here have human beings who sit dozing in their cars all day for them and, when required, turn the steering wheel and work the pedals to make the car go somewhere. I think this is imbecilic. People here apparently think it’s a great idea. So did people back in the days when being a driver probably involved a lot more horse grooming, etc. and was actually a full-time job. So when I read a novel where someone has a family coachman, I have some reference points now.

Indentured servitude/ slavery
I don’t know how much they’re paying the Indonesian, Vietnamese, etc. construction workers here, or how long their contracts are. Maybe they’re all perfectly happy. But any industry where you import impoverished people from other countries to do the work, and where they live in all-male barracks for years at a time, seems to me to be on about the same moral level as running a cotton plantation with African slaves. I would much rather live in an apartment building that had been constructed by people who could visit their families whenever they wanted.

Families sleeping in one room
In Vietnam, the beds seem to often be in the main room of the house, and in full view of the street. I can’t count how many times I saw entire families curled up for a snooze as I walked down the street. I used to wonder how the medieval Europeans had time for makin’ sweet love with this setup, and I still wonder how the Vietnamese do it, but either way it seems to work for them.

Rats in the street
I mean, in broad daylight. Bold and sassy. I don’t think I ever saw that in Europe, but I know it used to be an issue.

Gutters as bathrooms
I had a Choose Your Own Adventure book set in medieval France where the characters have to watch out for the waste being flung from upstairs windows into the street. The woman yelled out “Gardyloo”! as she was dumping the pisspot. I’m not sure what that word means but I will certainly never forget it. Vietnam was a lot like that, except that most people keep everything at ground level and simply squat over the gutter, which is less dangerous but more visually stimulating for passersby. I haven’t been to India but I assume similar shenanigans are constantly underway there, which goes for a lot of these points.

Sentries/ watchmen
Bernardo: “Who’s there?” Francisco: “Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.”
Where I come from, there’s no need or desire for every neighborhood, building or place of business to have a full-time staff of armed guards somnolently prowling the perimeter. Here, there apparently is.

Racial specialization
Just as the olde-timey Jews had the moneylending biz locked down, and just as the dwarves pretty much have a monopoly on mining in the Misty Mountains, and as exiled Huegenots made the best lace doilies, so too was it until very recently an impossible feat in Asia for anyone who isn’t Chinese to sit behind a counter and sell things to other people. Why and how the Chinese were so fantastically, unbeatably advanced in shopkeeping technology puzzles me, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Specialized districts and markets
Old London used to have a street of fishmongers, a street of glove-makers, a street of furriers, etc., and the workshops were all right there out the street. Hanoi’s old quarter is the best example of this old philosophy I’ve seen. Our hotel was on tombstone carving street, as seen at the top of this post.

Dogs as useful tools, not members of the family
I think that our forefathers probably kept a much wider emotional distance from their dogs, and you can definitely see that in Asia, where they are used as watchdogs but more or less left to fend for their own food and water.

Nightfall is terror time
Whatever you do don’t get caught in the Monkey Forest outside of Ubud, Bali, when the sun goes down. The monkeys are hungry and pitch black doesn’t begin to describe it. Lights out. In a lot of places when it gets dark if you’re not at home around the fireplace or whatever, you’re in trouble. It’s bedtime. This is a feeling I don’t think I ever experienced before, except for maybe when camping, but that’s different.

Hospitality to strangers
In America I don’t think we ever had anyone over to our house, and if we did maybe they got offered a pop-tart if they were lucky. Last week in Vietnam we were given tea, bananas, pomelos, and all sorts of friendliness by people who didn’t know us at all and could clearly barely afford the bananas, and it was very nice.

I could go on forever but I’ll stop there. Sorry for the sparsity of links and pictures on this one... I will try to add more later.

The end result of all this is, I’m pretty sure if I were to read a book like “Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne” now, I would have a much better idea about what it was talking about than I would have a few years ago. And I would also mentally picture Dark Ages Europe as being filled with Asians.

1 comment:

Jinna said...

The hospitality bit is interesting, isn't it? The other things kind of make sense in the "Europe used to be less developed economically/technologically, now Vietnam is" but the "people are more welcoming" seems different. I'm curious about that because oddly enough, it seems to be a pattern. The least developed place I've visited is Egypt, which was also the most hospitable. Do you think there's a connection between development and how welcoming people are?