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The Coconut Example – Services in America

One of the most intriguing things about living abroad, is the learning experience of returning to your native country and seeing norms, institutions, daily life with fresh eyes, almost comparable to that of a foreigner.

In some ways, I feel as though I have more control over my own life now that I have lived abroad and can look at things in my native country more critically now that I have a basis for comparison. Instead of simply saying “Well, that’s just the way it is” or “It’s what everybody does” I understand that what is “the norm” here in the USA may be the complete opposite in another country.

The ability to think through and rationalize problems, policies, ideas etcetera often follows a rather similar form of thought of any given country. If we break the country down into cities, towns, villages, we can more clearly understand that most people believe in the same things and have the same ideas as their neighbors. Yet, when we examine a nation as a whole, we have the tendency to believe (wrongly) that there is a large amount of diversity concerning opinions, beliefs and ideas.

Only after traveling large distances do opinions, ideas and beliefs drastically change. It is after experiencing these different forms of thought can we re-enter our own country with the confidence to challenge accepted norms that we perhaps simply accepted before as “the way things are.”

One extreme annoyance that is accepted as “the way it is” in America is that one must endure around at least 25 sales pitches for services every single day. Almost none of these services are needed for survival and it seems like due to this constant, mind-numbing, barrage of solicitations it has turned the population into mindless zombies constantly craving more merchandise to sustain them or they will keel over and die.

The advertisements themselves don’t even really need to make sense anymore as exemplified by the internet/communications companies whose services will allow you to “yap, zap, intertube” your way through the day all for the low low price of $60 a month.
This constant noise allows no room for any meaningful thought about what is actually important in life.

The purpose of life and society in America is to consume.

However, in S.E. Asia and especially Vietnam, there is time to think. They too will eventually become like the West in terms of sophistication in stealing, but at the moment, the companies are not clever enough to figure out how to shake every last cent out of their customers. There are times there unlike in America when someone or something is not trying to sell you a service and you can be alone with your thoughts.

Thus we come to my Coconut example which describes the anxiety I feel being back in the USA after living in Vietnam for two years. It also is a decent stab at an explanation of why I clearly prefer life in SE Asia over life here.

In America, like in Vietnam I am a consumer of basic services. In America one service I consume weekly is that of going to the bank to deposit my paycheck and take out some cash to sustain me until my next trip to the bank.

In Vietnam, one service I took advantage of on a regular basis was that of purchasing a coconut from the street vendor on my block. It quenched my thirst and was delicious.
The first time I purchased the coconut, he tried to overcharge me by 20 cents. However I knew the real price, told him I knew the price and he then charged me an honest price from then on. Every day from then on, I walk to his stand, hand him 80 cents and he gives me the coconut, end of transaction, and we are both happy.

Now let’s pretend that coconut vendor had an MBA from a prestigious American University like those who run the bank I patronize here in the states and imagine what would happen.

I go to purchase the coconut from our recently educated friend and he greets me with a smile and asks “How are you?” like a robot would and not listening to my response. I hand him my money for the coconut to which he replies.

“Keep your money, you don’t need to pay today for this coconut!”

He then proceeds to explain to me how I can pay him instead 5 cents a day for 25 days. However, I’m pretty sure I would be paying more for the same thing if I paid over time than right now to which he hands me a ten page explanation of the benefits of paying over time and how I could accumulate points on the “Thank You Network*” which points I could trade in for prizes by using this wonderful scheme.

I tell him, no thank you, I would rather pay right now, to which he replies, “Do you have our CoconutPlus* Membership Account card?” “It will save you 10% on your coconut purchase.”

I start to get a little annoyed but politely decline the card.

“So you’re sure you don’t want to save 10% on your coconut purchase today? You could also accumulate frequent flier miles for use on coconut express airways for ever dollar you spend on our membership card.”

Me: “No.”

He then proceeds to explain how he can deliver 10 coconuts a week directly to my house for the low low price of $30 a month plus tax, fees etc.

I’m a little interested in this as I love coconuts, and it seems like a deal. So I take a look at his flier which shows in a very large text the “Bargain price of $30.” However, as I take out my glasses to read the small print I see there is a “Convenience fee” of $10 per month as well as a “Service charge” of another $10 per month plus a “Delivery Charge” of $12 per month.

I start to get angry and tell him I just want a damn coconut and to take my ^%$damn cash.
To which he replies, “Oh, Congratulations Matthew, It shows me here on my coco computer that due to your excellent patronage of our store “Coconuts” and affiliates “Coconuts Plus” and “Coconuts Super Value” we can offer you our Coconut Visa with an introductory 0.0%APR a ten coconut line of credit and free balance transfers should you have coconut debt!

Me: “For the love of God, I just want one coconut, and want to give you this crummy 10,000VND bill for it. “

Vendor: Ok ok, would you like the Extra Value Coconut meal then? It’s only 50 cents more and you get so much more Coconut!!”

Me: “NO!!!”

He takes my bill, looks at me with his soulless eyes and big smile and tells me to “Have a Great Day!”

Unfortunately, I cannot have a great day as I’m now exhausted from what feels like a 10 hour long battle of defending my finances from a giant, yet suspiciously pleasant green dragon.

For those who don’t see the metaphor, at Bank of America, every single time I go to deposit a check, they tell me “Congratulations” and that I’m eligible for a Bank of America credit card. If I get “Congratulated” one more time I’m going to rip out my eyeballs. And today the teller actually did ask me if I already had another card, how much the APR was, and how much of a line of credit I had her. When I tried to politely insinuate it was none of her damn business it was as effective explaining Bio-Chemistry to the family dog.
I must go back to the world where people still smile with no hidden agenda. I must go back to a world of simplicity.

I must go back to Asia.

Culture Journal


Just a few thoughts I’ve had while going through my Sunday morning routine.

1. I was at Starbucks and noticed two girls in heavy makeup and those big sunglasses that cover half of the face. First, wearing too much makeup conceals the actual facial aspects of the person. Wash all that junk off and it might actually be a dude type of heavy make up. Secondly, those glasses conceal half the face! Wouldn’t it save time and money if they just wore a full Muslim veil? In either case we don’t know what the person actually looks like.

2. Italy, Spain fight anorexia in fashion models by signing new regulations.

– I have never understood why being ultra thin is considered beautiful. For me, a full shapely body is beautiful and defines a woman. I did hear an interesting reason though recently as to why fashion models are so thin. The reason given is that most fashion designers are gay and prefer thin models because they are actually trying to capture the look of a teenage boy. Makes sense to me.

3. In the San Francisco Chronicle today the front page had an article about a new doll taking market share away from Barbie called “Bratz.” It’s basically a very slutty looking doll and sociologists are concerned about the message this sends to our young girls.
In our society which is based on Christian virtues, sex is considered bad, dirty and taboo. Yet, the marketers are creating dolls which look like prostitutes for the young to play with? Could the obsession with sex be because it is something that we are not supposed to be doing but gains an audience in movies, music and now dolls because it is taboo in society? In my opinion, many adults have a kind of sick complex about the whole thing because it has been repressed for so long.

If we look at Europe, nude beaches are not uncommon. In Africa, females going topless is nothing special. But in America we get all excited about such things precisely because it is something we have repressed, made to seem dirty and so on. I’m very much in favor of the whole womens liberation movement and that the body is beautiful, but perhaps we as a society are too immature to face this reality and it continues to be oppressed by the Religious Right which believes the body is a bad dirty thing. What a complex to have to be ashamed of one’s own body! It is as though they are self hating!

In S.E. Asia they are much more open about this sort of thing and thus do not have these complexes and sickness in society. In Japan, bathing is part of the culture and one must enter the hot spring “onsen” (natural volcanic water) naked. Yet, it would seem the westerners are very uncomfortable with this sort of thing. Sometimes I have to explain the onsen rules to travel agents here and when I say that a bathing suit, or any cloth what-so-ever is not allowed in the onsen they are completely shocked.

We have such a sick distortion of our own body in this country that it has created undesirable consequences such as slutty dolls which I believe would lose it’s appeal if we were much more open about our bodies and sexuality. However, religion has caused us to be so self hating that we seem mired in this complex with no way out.
These are the kind of things that run through ones mind when returning back home and thus could be categorized as reverse culture shock I suppose.

Culture Journal San Francisco

Culture shock in San Francisco

I had thought that the culture shock had subsided but I continue to be shocked, amazed, confounded by my surroundings here.

Before I describe these instances, I’d like to back up and explain a bit about why they “shock” a person returning from abroad. Living in another country, one is continually exposed to different behaviors and situations that they wouldn’t necessarily find in their home country. The instances that really stick out are the ones that frustrate and cause a person to think “This wouldn’t happen in my country.” Over time you develop an ideal image of your home country but upon returning, realize that this ideal is just plain fantasy.

This ideal is further shattered as I’m not returning to my home state but this strange land called California where I truly am a minority, surrounded by Asians, but by Asians who are American in every aspect (and often not in a good way.)

So without further delay, on to the examples:

1. Supermarket in Japan Town

The other day I was waiting in line to purchase my Japanese rice and soy sauce that can only be found in Japan town. Everyone working the cash register was Asian, but the majority did not speak Japanese. I realized this when a young Japanese male who had very limited English ability tried to use a bank card that was apparently not a debit or credit card. His card wouldn’t go through and a young Japanese/American male quite rudely told the customer his card didn’t work. The customer replied “What does that mean?” The cashier laughed at him and said in a mockingly American way “It means your card doesn’t work dude.” (All in English of course.)

I felt very bad for the customer as this would never happen in Japan and was in such contrast to the Japanese society to which I’m accustomed. As he continued to make the young Japanese customer uncomfortable and embarrassed I thought of speaking to the clerk in Japanese. His response would have been “I don’t speak Japanese” to which a good reply in English would have been, “Well you obviously don’t speak English either or you would know how to use “a” “the” and put a damn “s” on the end of your pluralsssssssssss.

Fortunately, another cashier opened up and I missed my chance to thrash him:

2. Sign in front of the mall

I went to a very large bay area mall the other day and was expected to be greeted by holiday festivities, Santas’ and a general feeling of cheer. I was extremely surprised however to see a large flashing sign which read “shoplift and go to JAIL!”

3. Dragon Ladies are everywhere!

In a previous post I wrote about a “Dragon Lady” (mean spirited rich Asian women) I encountered in Saigon. I have come to learn that they are here too and just as bad, if not worse. The Dragon Ladies here are about 40-50 years old, and probably have never worked a day in their lives. All they know how to do is shop, get pampered and are completely horrible people. Today, I saw one coming out of the shopping mall in her black Mercedes and when a car decided they would only let one other car out of the mall and not her she started bitching up a storm in her car.

Message to all guys. Never ever date an Asian woman who drives an expensive car but does not earn her own money. Life would quickly become a living hell. This is also true for women of other races but from experience, the Asian women from poor countries who marry rich men quickly become living, breathing demons of the apocalypse.

4. Driving in California

The speed limit says 60 miles an hour, but 8 cars in 10 do not follow this rule. The worst offenders here are the new rich in expensive cars (bald white guys). They do not like to wait their turn either and always look angry and though they are entitled to be first. The only thing worse than new rich here in California are Dragon Ladies.

Driving in the city, one must also be careful of the homeless and drug addicted who like to jump in the middle of the street. These guys are mostly in a daze and you can scare the bejesus out of them with a good horn blast. However, this doesn’t work so well for the “gangstas” who apparently think it’s cool to try to cross the street in heavy oncoming traffic without waiting for the light. Better not honk at these ghetto superstars as they will probably shoot at your car if you do.

5. At the mall

At the same mall that had a sign exclaiming “shoplift and go to JAIL!” I quickly realized I was indeed the minority. About 90% of the shoppers were Asian and spoke Asian languages. This made me feel quite at home, like I was back in my beloved Saigon.

6. Big city people

I was going to write a post about the coldness of people back here in America but realized that people in my home state of Ohio are not like this and quite friendly. I began to think about how people behave on my walk to work and began comparing the people in Saigon, Tokyo, San Francisco and Ohio. Here in San Francisco, people will rarely look you in the eye and a smile is as rare as an albino elephant turd. The only time people do smile here is when they are trying to sell you something and even that can be rare. However, in Ohio, people are generally friendly and their smiles sincere. The Vietnamese in Saigon however will look you in they eye for long periods and will return your smile 95% of the time.

In San Francisco however, if you smile at someone, they will quickly look away. The feeling I suppose is that of distrust and as though you are going to solicit them for something which is sad when you think about it. Only the older folks often return a smile. The young are too self centered and immersed in themselves to be bothered with a smile. However, there are still some old hipsters around who maintain the spirit of San Francisco long gone who will smile and flash a peace sign.

Culture Journal Politics


The second definition of “institutionalized” in the dictionary is, “Given the character of an institution or incorporated into a structured and usually well-established system.” The first definition as an adjective states “Officially placed in or committed to a specialized institution.”
Institution – “An organization founded and united for a specific purpose.”

Therefore could it not be said that our daily lives are immersed and utterly intertwined with various institutions which are officially sanctioned by the overriding institution which is the government of the land in which we live?

Thus are we not all to some degree institutionalized?

If we describe someone as “institutionalized,” in the common usage or parlance, it usually refers to an inmate or mental hospital patient who has become so accustomed to the environment that they will suffer acute mental distress should they be removed from their environment.

It is not absurd to say most people of any nation would feel distressed should they be forced from their home country and made to live somewhere else. I assume a very small percentage would be able to adapt, while others would seek out areas which replicate their former land to the highest degree.

Our daily lives are basically comprised of interacting with some sort of “institution” or another whether it be a job, a church, a society, etc. If any of these were to be suddenly removed from our lives, it is not a stretch to say that many might feel more than a modicum of stress. Is it not possible that we as humans prefer order in our lives than the chaos which would prevail without institutions to tell us what do do, how to behave and what to believe?

Institutions in my opinion are restrictive in that they limit our room for movement, in the sense they instruct us to act and think within limited parameters. As we have no basis for comparison we accept these parameters without hesitation.

The picture I am painting is that of “reverse culture shock,” after an extended period of stay abroad. When one lives in a foreign country, familiar institutions are often gone and we learn that another group has constructed their own institutions albeit with foreign influence, but that things are not necessarily done as they were back in our native lands. We learn to compare and contrast and that which was quickly accepted before are now questioned.

As we grow and develop from childhood we learn how institutions work and do not question “why” since it is the way it has always been. Even if we become educated, it is very difficult to break from that to which we are accustomed. However, I have come to believe that it is those who question “why,” as the two year old child does, understands the world better than most.
To grab this post out of the heights of theory and philosophy, I simply must provide a few examples in our daily lives from simple to the complex.

1. Banks – When we are in our teens, we feel as though we are reaching adulthood because we start to understand how a checking and savings account work. If there are fees associated with keeping your own money in an account we automatically accept it because we have known no other way. Should the bank decide to raise the fee we might make a protest because we now have a basis for comparison.

But how many of us have questioned the need for banks at all? No living human has been around before there were banks. Most of us have never even considered keeping our money at home under the mattress since it is not the way we were taught.
However, for those that have lived in a poor, unstable country we find that much of the population does in fact keep their money under the mattress. As our peers in the foreign land are doing it we might even consider doing it even though it seems absurd from the perspective of our native mentality.

How many people even know how banks came into existence in the first place? Perhaps it was safer than keeping it home under the mattress. Perhaps it was the convenience of being able to write a check or a note which would be safe carried even long distances and exchanged for money when the destination is reached. In modern times, perhaps it is just convenience. I myself feel that my apartment is pretty secure and I could even buy a safe which eliminates the need for a feeling of safety. However, it would be a pain to physically take my money to pay all my bills when it can be done over the internet. But it is possible to do so. Yet, how many people have considered this as a way to pay your bills? I’m guessing very few as most are “institutionalized” enough by the institutions called banks. Could it be that institutions limit our ability to think freely without being instructed or persuaded by societal norms?

Coming back to the USA I have become very shrewed and questioning of all these fees I am being charged for a bank to hold my money. I get strange looks when I ask if the teller can waive my monthly checking access fee since it is quite possible no one has ever asked her that question before.

A feeling of control comes from challenging the status-quo. However, this confidence to ask these questions is rare and usually only comes from those who have traveled, or inherently astute.

2. Work – The corporate (or not) culture is something discussed only in business schools to my knowledge. Professors try to teach us to question or in the cliche (think outside of the box) , but this does not come naturally and how much of the population actually does it? Shame of asking something stupid might be a reason or perhaps is it we want to appear as though we already understand everything.

For me, there is no greater sense of control in life than being able to unabashedly ask “why” until I understand the explanation. It is either the explanation is not good or my counterpart is trying to fool me. What gives me this confidence is that I have a basis for comparison due to my experience abroad. I am no longer afraid of ridicule from my peers (or a feeling of inadequacy) because due to my experiences can offer an example of why the thing in question just might not be true.

3. Authority – It would seem that only during our teenage years do we often question authority. However, I feel this is only a need to be disobedient for a short while but most come back into the fold. Is it not true that most people follow the law because it’s the law without questioning the reason for the law itself? Common sense dictates for example that murder is against the law for obvious reasons. But now we have various freedoms being taken away due to a terrible atrocity which happened to our country. Many accept it because the President and Congress made it a law. Others accept it (or not) because their peers do. But how many think of the ramifications “down the road” and sacrificing one benefit for another. How many consider that such atrocities wouldn’t have even occurred and put us in the situation if foreign policy had been different?

Most just understand the situation as it is, in the present, and not the events or policies which led up to the current situation, or the results of trying to quickly rectify the current situation.
The most interesting people I have met and the most stimulating discussions I have ever experienced have been with people who have escaped their native institutions which begat (past of beget?) their former mentalities. They are the ones who are not afraid to question “why” even when popular opinion is contrary.

Culture Journal San Francisco

Shakedown in America

Now that my Movabletype is back up and running, I can finally start posting with some regularity again.

As you may have already guessed, the main theme of my posts are simply the experiences, learning and how mentality and ideas evolve over time for someone who lives in different countries and is exposed to extremely different cultures.

Today is another post about re-adjusting to America and how it seems to me everyday seems like a shakedown of all my hard earned cash. But let me back up a bit…

In Vietnam, many foreigners become extremely angry if they think they are being overcharged a dollar or two when buying some trinket (especially the ones that live there). If you read my previous posts from my Saigon days, I was the same way. Sometimes I wished I was back in America where the “price is the price.”…… but how wrong I was and I’m learning this lesson the hard way in the form of a sort of “culture shock.”

1. Insurance

I needed car insurance. I learned from the agent that due to the way the percentages break down I could actually get both renters insurance and car insurance for around $900. This being so because car insurance in SF is hugely expensive due to the amount of accidents. So I asked quite a few times,,,, “so the total price is $900 RIGHT?”

Well, the insurance company shares your information with the entire world and I haven’t stopped receiving offers for ever type of insurance form the mundane: earthquake, fire, act of God etc. All of course come with exceptions which when the fine print is read probably do not cover anything at all.

Now, receiving offers is one thing, but the other day I received an invoice for $140 for fire insurance I did not ask for. An invoice means a bill and a bill means that if it’s not paid then my credit rating will suffer and the collectors could come after me. So now I have to call my agent and ask her “What the hell is this bull shit????” Given my experiences these last few months, there is probably a 50-50 chance they won’t make it easy to retract this bill.

2. Bank of America still sucks.

When I opened my Bank of America account, I was curious to learn that I could not withdraw cash from my deposited checks for a total of one month. The reason given was that I had to “form a relationship with my account.” I asked him if this meant I had to take my account out to dinner, call it once in a while and speak gently to it. This “forming a relationship” is the banks way of guarding against fraudulent checks which is understandable. But what pissed me off is that right after denying me my own money and almost in the same breath they looked at the computer and with a feigned expression of surprised he said “Oh, congratulations!!,,, you are eligible for a $7,500 credit limit with our Bank of America Credit Card!!!!”

Now stop the damn bus right there. The bank is not able to allow me to withdraw my own money but will give me $7,500 worth of credit with an extremely high interest rate??? Isn’t it the same damn thing except the money in the account is my own and the money on the credit card is the banks? If they are willing to extend that kind of credit, they should do the same with my own damn money!

And they don’t stop there…. They really push their credit card as I think the tellers get a commission for getting customers to accept the card. The next FOUR times I went, they tried to push their crappy card on me and it was hard for them to take NO for an answer.
The other service they push on you which was actually reported in the paper is for their “Identity protection service” which means extra income for them. When you call to activate your bank card, there is an automatic voice trying to sell this service. The say push no. 1 for yes, but do not give you an option to select no. So I pushed nothing and after a few seconds the voice came back and said, “We URGE you to take advantage of this “IMPORTANT” service! Dont’ let the CRIMINALS take everything you’ve worked so hard to get.” Then the voice goes silent again with no option to select no. Now to me, this is horrible and rightly so, the newspaper reported it.

3. The price is not the price

Why is it that the prices (especially for electronics) which are given in their advertisements never the actual price you pay? The advertisements will say something like a T.V. for $300 but when you get to the store, the actual price at the counter is $450!!! The reason being is that there are all sorts of “rebates,” which means they take your money and you have to mail receipts, parts of the box, birth certificate, dental records, and so on into them and then they will give you your money back. What this is is downright thievery.

4. SF shakedown

In SF it is truly a shakedown. You can’t walk one city block without being asked by some drug addict for some change. These people collect enough change so they can get high on crack, then run out into the street and shout profanities at everyone. So here, everyday is a “shakedown” in the more literal sense.

So, going back to my Vietnam example, yes sometimes they will often try to overcharge foreigners by a dollar or so but in America they are much more sophisticated and are not simply overcharging but downright stealing.

5. Lies

I bought a rather expensive piece of jewelery a month ago. I was told by the sales people that there was 12 months no interest, financing on the ring. To me, this means you have 12 months to pay with no charges (financing, interest whatever you want to call it) NO EXTRA CHARGES! Well, last week I got a bill with a financing charge of $55! I called them and they told me that I had to have a 10% down payment and should I opt for this plan I would have to pay $200 a month minimum.

Why is this the exact opposite of what the sales people said in the store? I guess it’s ok now to lie outright to make the sale.

Who can I blame for this? Capitalism? Baby-boomer, Gen-x’er greed? Bush?

Coming back to America, somehow I simply cannot shake the feeling that society has lost any depth and it’s become a culture of people whose sole purpose is to buy things. “I buy things, therefore I am,” seems to be the current state of mentality, especially here in California.
We now have the Christmas season coming up and for some reason it doesn’t seem as special as when I was a kid. When I was in grammer school Christmas ment being with family, Christmas pagents, snow sledding, and had a very heavy religious affiliation. Now it just seems that it’s reason for being is to BUY STUFF. This may come as a shock, but in Vietnam, Christmas is still much more affiliated with religion as much of the population is Catholic. Now I’m not so much in favor of religion either, but given religion vs. consumerism during Christmas, I’ll have to go with religion simply due to the meaning attached with the event. Weather it’s the Catholic religion, Kaawanza, winter solstice, I don’t care… I just enjoyed it when the season meant more than simply buying a bunch of crap.