Skills The Western World Has Lost: A List of Stereotypes

On the S. East Asian road for five months now, I’ve noticed a number of skills and talents that we – the so-called “Western World” – are greatly, sadly, lacking; these are things I’d gladly trade my extra bathroom and a few pairs of unworn shoes for…

1.  Napping.  On cement sidewalks.  On cardboard slabs.  On wooden table tops.  Sitting  on a bus, one hand clinging to the overhead strap.  I don’t know about you, but when I sleep upright, my neck muscles release themselves into a contortionist’s dream dance.  There is no way my head would survive half the sleeping positions I have seen.  And we’re not talking dark, quiet back rooms: we’re talking middle of the intersection-grass-berms.  Halfway down a row of busy market stalls.  In a sinking ferry during a monsoon.


Malay native, Danny Voon, squats while cooking chicken in a bamboo sheath.

2.   Squatting.  I’ve tried this, and, much to my Malaysian friends’ amusement, can only lean on my  ankles for about 4 minutes without feeling pain.  No wonder their hole-in-the-ground toilets work so well: Euros and North Americans can’t squat!  Try it.  Seriously.  Go sit outside, resting back but staying on the balls of your feet, for at least half an hour (the minimal wait of normal public transport), and see how you get on.  Cramping into place does notcount.

3.  Waiting.  On that subject, when was the last time you waited half an hour for a bus?  Oh, I’ve lived in cities and vocalized annoyance that my 11:00 am bus was running late, at 11:05.  Last week, we sat (not squatted) 2.5 hours for a bus, and no one could even communicate in English that it was – or why – delayed.  “No miss,” was all they told us.  Waiting is life.  On time is a miracle.  Why worry about it?

4.  Carrying things on our heads.  The trick, I think, is in the scarf or other fabric support your place between your head and the basket of fruit.  Or the platter of lobsters and dangerously sharp kebab skewers.  The youngest girls in Cambodia can sit, bend over, dance, and even laugh with a disc the size of a table on their skulls.  Shit, is about all I can say…

5.  Balancing.  Not just stuff on heads, but physically balancing: on rickety, barely-there stick bridges.  On the tightropes of a wobbling bangka bamboo boat.  Along the window ledge of a moving bus.  We could staff a million circuses with the balancing acts of so many S. East Asians.  Applause, applause, for the feats of feet I have witnessed!  If my toes could do the same, I would be a prima ballerina!

Balancing Act

Balancing my way across a waterfall, Lombok, Indonesia

6.  Living without privacy.  I still double take when I walk past a row of clothing on hangers,  assuming there’s a fashion sale, of what turns out to be someone’s Sunday washing.  But there it is, draped along the fence for all to see.  If you looked over the fence, straight into the open windows and doors of the house, you could find the folks who wear it, in any manner of activity.  Privacy?  What’s that?  Why would anyone need to isolate themselves in an air conditioned box?  We all own underwear, don’t we?  So what are you staring at?

7.  Getting dirty.  I mean, literally, dirty- in the dirt.  Not to be instantly doused in hand sanitizers and bathtubs (what are those, again?)  But to play in the dirt, work in the dirt; those tell-tale marks under the fingernails that indicate an acceptance of the earth around us.  Who said there was shame in a worker’s hands?  Who decided kids were safe indoors?  If I ever have children, I will let them run with the chickens and mangy dogs and throw mud at each other until their skin turns into the parchment of a desert.  Dirt is unavoidable, not frightening.  Embrace it.  Physically.

They say long-term travel “opens your eyes”, and I now see it has.  This list is getting longer and longer, making it harder to understand the purpose of chairs, or washing machines…

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