Same Same But Different

In Hanoi the tourist stalls in the old quarter are crammed with all manner of trinkets for tourists to buy. T-shirts are of course popular and there are many that contain that ubiquitous saying ‘same same but different’. Usually I ignore the persistent hawkers ( while fighting back the urge to proudly declare that I am more than a mere tourist ) but events over the past couple of weeks have made me actually stop and think a little more about ‘same same but different’.

I am first generation Australian of Greek heritage. I grew up very much in a Mediterranean household, where family and food is at the core of life. I vividly remember the sense of bewilderment I felt when I went to barbecue of a friend and was told to bring my own meat and drinks. What ? An invitation like that would cause confusion amongst my family, as for Greeks a hosts’ table is laden with food and people fight for the “honour” of paying a bill after a night out.   

Although you would not think it, the Vietnamese share quite a few similarities to their Mediterranean “cousins”, as family and food are also at the core of Vietnamese life. For the Vietnamese I would add a third pillar – business and the obtaining of money. This is decidedly lower down the list for Mediterraneans with their “live for today and tomorrow will take care of itself” attitude, although I imagine that if you live in a country where significant poverty is not an issue, you would have a more carefree attitude to money.

Another similarity is how loud the Vietnamese talk! I have a voice that is loud and rises further and quickens in direct proportion to my passion. My Mediterranean friends and I can all talk at the same time and what to others may appear as talking over the top of each other, to us is normal. You don’t stay quiet in a Mediterranean environment – you have your say and you do it emphatically. I sometimes struggle with this in the Australian business culture, but in Vietnam it’s not a problem. I often sit in on meetings where 3 conversations are happening at the same time and the voices get increasingly louder as a point is debated. Sometimes it sounds like they are angry with each other, but they are not – it’s just the very direct conversation style. If a phone rings while sitting in a bus, the phone call recipient will answer and their conversation will boom throughout the bus. This initially surprised me as I expected a more restrained conversational style, but my Mediterranean background helped me adapt very quickly.  

I love being Australian. I think that if you grow up in Australia you have truly won life’s lottery, as you do for the most part grow up in a land of tolerance, opportunity and fairness, not to mention outstanding climate and physical beauty. One of things I treasure most is Australia’s multi-cultural background. I love the fact that when you travel you always feel that things are a little bit familiar because you might have seen or tasted something similar as a result of the Italian, Chinese, Portugese, Vietnamese, Sudanese, Lebanese or South African family that lives down the road. Of course Australia is not perfect, but overwhelmingly you have fewer things to complain about as an Australian than you would as a Vietnamese or any of the other countries that Kiva is active in. For me however there is a ‘but’ and the ‘but’ comes in the form of Australia’s isolation. I have often thought that if we could take Australia and just move it further up, then it truly would be perfect. I know many of my countrymen revel in Australia’s relative isolation and would be horrified by this thought, but not me. I wish we were closer to the action. That we weren’t so comfortably complacent. And most of all I wish that Europe wasn’t a whole day away. But I guess you can’t have everything. And after extensive travel and if you consider that the Unites States has had 8 years of Bush and his cronies in charge, there still is no other place I would rather call home.     

One of the things I am enjoying however about my Kiva Fellowship is feeling like I am a global citizen. An Australian living in Hanoi, working for an American group with an Asian micro-finance organisation. I love hearing the multitude of backgrounds, perspectives and accents. Last week I attended a micro-finance forum at which over 500 delegates from all around the world were present.  I had dinner with Cambodians and Dutch, swapped ideas with a woman from Papua New Guinea and had a lively discussion with someone from Bangladesh.

The more you travel and live abroad, the more you realise that although cultures are different and should be celebrated as such, there are also lots of areas where we are the same. That to me is wonderfully reassuring. Maybe I will get myself one of those t-shirts after all.   


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