‘You know where you are, you’re in the jungle baby!’ – Axl Rose
I would like to think that we are in the ‘mastery phase’ of culture shock by now. Every oddity has become relatively ordinary. Squat toilets and butt hoses? Not a problem. A plethora of strange meats? Tried them all. Being jumped in line while trying to order dinner from a street vendor? Just another Tuesday evening.
Cultural norms throughout Southeast Asia make sense now. But there are still times when the veil is lifted and we can see clearly that we are far from home. Strange as it may sound, we live for these moments—it feels refreshing to be out of your element.
We got to talking about it one night while we were in KL.
‘Remember the first time we went to Chinatown? What about the deep-fried tarantulas in Phnom Penh? Or the night when the ladyboy accosted us? Oh, I know! The cat-sized rats.’
We recalled plenty of memorable ‘culture shock’ moments, but 5 stood out more than the rest. Not because they were the most ridiculous, but rather, they were our favorite moments; the ones that would always make us laugh.
The Minibus to Vietnam
Most bus rides through Vietnam can be classified as, um, jarring. But the ride from Kep, Cambodia, to Saigon was the most entertaining, nauseating, and claustrophobic ride of our lives. The bus—first-class—was little more than a minivan. As soon as we crossed the border into Ha Tien, the ticket collector started to place tiny plastic stools in the aisle. ‘What could those be for?’ We wondered. The driver began to stop to pick up passengers every few minutes. People came on, usually with luggage, but no one got off. A bus meant to ferry 18 was soon brimming with boxes of fruit, packaged dried fish, and the dozens of people who were transporting them to Saigon. A couple of young men hung out the door as the bus sped down the highway. A woman in the aisle sat on my shoulder for about an hour. At red lights and train stops, hawkers approached, banging ears of corn against the windows. There was no air-conditioning. They weren’t the most comfortable 10 hours of my life, but they were highly entertaining.
Elephants on the Highway
Our first apartment in Thailand was in Nonthaburi, a rural province known for durian farms, rice paddies, and sweeping panoramas of dusty, empty space. One day when Megan was on her way home from work, she saw a couple of men riding elephants along the side of the highway. She told me about it at dinner, but, at the time, I couldn’t really comprehend the ridiculousness of what she saw. A few evenings later, I went running through the neighborhood and came across the same two men, leading their elephants down the road. It was a busy evening. Lots of kids were playing outside and families were hanging out on porches. The elephants just rumbled on by, though. No one else batted an eyelash.
Little Birds at the Breakfast Table
Next to our newly built high-rise condominium sat an open-air ‘restaurant.’ It was covered with corrugated metal panels, rarely hosed down, and home to numerous feral animals. A certain street dog liked to sprint between our legs, under the metal folding table where we sat waiting for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This was our go-to spot. The times that most often reminded us, ‘Hey guys, you’re living in Thailand,’ were at this restaurant, when dirty, disheveled birds (pigeons or otherwise) would perch on our table and peck at leftover rice. They wouldn’t be shooed away. It was as if they were domesticated. I could never imagine eating with pigeons in South Bend. Only in Thailand.
The Horse Drawn Taxi
In Bagan, Myanmar, the taxis were nothing like the pink, yellow, and green ones that we were familiar with: they were horse drawn carriages. It came as quite a shock to be ushered to a horse drawn ‘taxi’ when we arrived, after a brutal ride on an overnight bus, half-awake at 3 in the morning. But, hey—roll with the punches, you know? To tell the truth, I enjoyed the novelty of the experience (that is, I think I enjoyed it… it was really early). I mean, we’ve definitely had worse taxi rides. At least this guy couldn’t doctor the meter.
Washing My Hands… And Realizing That the Water Is Draining onto My Feet
This has nothing to do with water dripping onto feet, but, hey – it’s a bathroom!
Outside of the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur there stood a small public toilet. It was a ramshackle hut, the kind that you go into with your nose plugged and fingers crossed, praying that nothing unfortunate happens while you are inside. Megan had to go, so she paid the 10 cents, said a Hail Mary or two, and went for it. She came out with a look of bemusement on her face. ‘There wasn’t a drainpipe. I was washing my hands and the water was falling right onto my feet. Ahhh,’ she said with a smile, ‘Gets me every time.’ We’ve stayed countless guesthouses in Southeast Asia whose sinks didn’t have drainpipes—it does, indeed, get you every time.
And, sometimes, this happens. I realize that it hardly qualifies as culture shock in the truest sense, but I wanted to share it because it’s hilarious and at least a little shocking.