The other day I met a couple of post-middle-aged social workers from California. The wife was half Vietnamese but looked somehow Peruvian. The husband was caucasian. One of the observations the husband made was that in Asia, life moved at a slower pace. Things are more relaxed, and people have more time to nurture family and community. Life in Asia, he said, is less hurried, less competitive.
Perhaps his observation is a testament to our capacity to see what we want to see, but my own observations have led me to a very different opinion. Of course I myself could be mistaken, but my impression is that the Vietnamese work incredibly hard just to get by. Out of financial necessity, they tend to eat breakfast and dinner at home with their families, which certainly can strengthen family bonds, but in general, they seem to work long hours with few days to rest. I’ve seen, for example, many many children working – riding alone on motorbikes or otherwise apparently fending for themselves.
As for the rest of Asia, my experience with Chinese, Koreans and Singaporeans has led me to believe they are extremely competitive – no less so than westerners anyway. All my Chinese and Korean friends have told me of parents who constantly compare themselves to their friends – always trying to buy better cars, clothes, schools, and constantly demanding that their children to out-achieve their peers.
I can’t say myself that this is typical of Singaporeans, because those that I’ve met don’t seem to be playing the same game. However, most of them have at some point expressed the opinion that Singaporeans in general are pretty competitive and materialistic.
Recently, the Straits Times ran an piece about latchkey children. The centerpiece of the article was an eight-year-old Singaporean-Chinese girl whose parents commuted out of town to work every week, leaving her completely alone from Monday to Friday. She prepared her own meals, washed her own clothes, made her own way to school and back each day. If that kind of parental behaviour is not driven and competitive, then I don’t know what is.
In the US, her parents would be arrested for this kind of neglect, but the Straits Times piece took a slightly softer position. While it didn’t condemn them, it viewed the situation as pretty unfortunate and focused on the kinds of institutional changes schools and the like were making to accommodate these kinds of latchkey children.
I’m not sure there’s a connection to squatting – the title of this post – but the squat position is part of daily life here more than I’ve seen anywhere else. As a result of so much practice, everyone here can squat flat-footed, rather than on their toes or the balls of their feet. I usually can’t.
Most “toilets” here consist of two foot pads and a hole, requiring users to squat. As I’ve wandered the streets of Hanoi, Sapa and Hoi An, I see people sqatting all the time – peeling sugarcane or selling baguettes, for example. Even restaurants – sidewalk “restaurants” anyway – provide tiny little plastic stools or kindergarten-sized chairs for their patrons, meaning people essentially squat while they eat. The first time I sat on one of these, its legs collapsed, and my ass landed on the pavement. If I’d been truly squatting, I wouldn’t have needed the stool to bear my full weight.
Squatting, to me, represents a working position. It means you’re ready to move at any moment – to stand, to shift, to grab another handful of sugarcane or pursue a potential customer.
Squatting is what they do in Southeast Asia, and squatting is the opposite of relaxing.