Flying into Kuala Lumpur, I sat next to a smug-looking Western tourist who had donned baggy trousers and a cone-shaped straw hat to blend in with the locals. I gently broke the news to him that everyone in KL wears Prada except for destitute homeless people, who wear Gucci.
“Oh,” he said, and then asked about Delhi, which was his following destination. I told him: “Men wear a special Indian line called Lungi by Marc Jacobs, set off by Ermenegildo Zegna turbans.”
It’s easy to torment Western tourists, since they often know nothing about Asia.
A reader from Indonesia said that she told her pen-pal in Britain that she lived in a high-rise block in a housing estate. The British girl assumed this meant she was extremely poor. “Then she visited me and was amazed that in Asia, high-rise apartments on housing estates are where rich people live,” she said.
East and West are so different. In the US, political correctness is taken so seriously that it is now illegal for males to greet female colleagues. Men have to drop to their knees and shuffle along with their eyes averted, as if in the presence of the King of Thailand. But in India, you still hear bosses saying, “Good morning, Ms. Rao, you are looking very sexual today in your tight blouse.”
The following day I received an email from reader Matt Cooper, a British guy living in Hong Kong. His children told him they had to bring a cake to school, so he headed for the kitchen and made one. The next day his scrumptious home-made cake languished neglected on the table at school while people ravenously wolfed down the mass-produced cakes local parents had brought. “Eww,” parents whispered to one another. “That poor man can’t afford to buy one.”
A few days earlier, Matt had gone to a party dominated by Westerners – and they had eagerly eaten all the homemade cakes but totally ignored the one shop-bought cake. “Eww,” parents whispered. “One poor parent is too lazy to make one.”
Why do Easterners and Westerners have different values? I immediately set out to solve this age-old mystery by the classic journalistic method of phoning experts to do the research for me.
The first spent half a day studying at a university but couldn’t find an answer other than the fact that it might be something to do with trousers. Historically, Western men have worn trousers and Asian men haven’t. “Western males’ overheated genitalia might make a difference,” she said.
A contact in Thailand pointed out that a typical Western proverb is this one, from Germany: “He who likes cherries soon learns to climb.” But a typical Asian proverb is this one, from Thailand: “One day, the orange will fall.”
I thought he was about to explain that it was all down to fruit choices, but no. “Most Westerners evolved in places with long winters, while most Asians evolved in places without no winters,” he said. So Westerners have a seize-the-day attitude while Asians have a softly-softly wait-and-see approach.
This also explains the evolution of trousers, and the warm genitalia issue. So there we have it, an ancient mystery solved: it’s all because of winter. You’re welcome.
(01.11.2013 – Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via www.mrjam.org)