16 September 2009

Wiener Blut or: Vindoborama (Homecoming)

Coming back to Europe after several months of urban Southeast Asia, one cannot but marvel amazedly at the novelty of sights "hidden in plain view". It is like walking around with a pair of 3D glasses or heat cameras - everything is the same but you are seeing "new" things about them. I can only imagine the stronger impact it must have if you were an ethnographer coming home after one year in "deep space". But I can at last imagine the beginning of how alienating and even disorienting it must be for some people of other non-Christian background who come to Europe. On the more cheerful side though, I enjoyed the viewing of the spectacle; more often than not with humour.

- It all started with arriving earlier than scheduled at around 10pm in Stansted and with no usable British phone to speak of, looking forward to getting picked up by a friend who had said she would help me with my luggage. I usually don't like a fuss on airports but this time was special, as I hadn't seen her in ages and I was coming home from a rite of passage (yet another one but a major one). So, looking forward to getting picked up at the airport for the first time ever by a friend, I dressed in the traditional Malay dress, the baju kurung, that I was given by some Malaysian friends. Well, suffice to say, my friend's head never popped out of the crowd and she never turned up at the airport. I didn't have any small change, so I asked a woman if I could use her phone for a minute. Luckily, she was really supportive. Turns out, that there seems to have been a misunderstanding in what I thought was a pretty clear arrangement. I might be mistaken but oh well... I've got a ton of luggage, two Vietnamese hats on a windy night tied around the trolley handles, a rolled up bamboo mat and not a very practical dress but I can manage. Unexpected though was that when I tried to communicate how much I had been looking forward to that moment, I was explained that, "Stansted is a bit far out, you know". And bang - Welcome home for me! I guess it's a really polite Southeast Asian thing to offer people to bring them to the airport or to pick them up from there on such occasions if they have the time. In the end, I took a coach and was slightly amused by the fact that I was standing in the middle of (predominantly Jewish) Golders Green, in a Muslim dress and a pashmina wrapped around head and shoulders as protection against the wind. And isn't it ironic?

- It continued with the lifelessness of the streets outside the buzz of Central London. In KL, there's usually always people on the street, open plan eateries on the side of the road, stalls, shacks, street noise... It's rather quiet back here.

- Also great is walking into a shop, swiftly heading for the item in question and proceeding to the cashier in less than a minute without the need to talk to anybody and totally independent of the "Asian shadow" - a shop attendant greeting you when you enter and waiting and sometimes also watching you across the shop. I heard the superior-ising "Hello, Miss" so many times it sometimes is a nuisance when all you want is to browse - for once - in peace in a large mall. You're ear will virtually fall off after the 25th shop! It's also great to know you're in warranty world again and therefore a relief not to have to examine the item you're buying extra closely.

- I went back to SOAS and let my gaze wonder across the learning spaces on one of the terraces in the library and thought to myself how hi-tech studying in the UK is. One cannot but marvel at the comparative technologies of education in different countries. At SOAS, you see people with laptops in class who while studying, are often plugged into their iPods to block out any disturbing noise while typing their essay, summarising or studying on the virtual learning environment. The School can communicate with you via an iPhone app. Libaries, schools and student services are tweeting or facebooking their events. Podcasts and live webcasts of some selected open talks by Professors, Research Centres available to download from a sophisticated and visually appealing website, around 10-20 emails a day which many students check regularly on their respective smart phones. WiFi access in all teaching rooms and communal areas. Students bringing recorders to lectures and typing (or skyping!) away on their laptops, taking notes. Crazy!

- English people queueing up again and arguing of who should let who go first out of politeness. Being this polite in this way will turn out a weakness in Malaysia. If you are not assertive, you will never make it to the front of a queue in Kuala Lumpur. I think that must be one of the most severe areas of culture shock for British expats.

- Luton: Apparently, regulations changed and a laptop bag counts as a separate handbag (!). Judging from the fact that a few confused people were shuffling stuff around backpacks once they reach the front of the check-in, I was not the only one who was surprised by this. I was furious for I had to pay extra and thought this was the next scam by low-fare airlines, to change the regulations in the middle of the summer (!) when nobody would be in the UK to follow the news!!! So I googled and found out that there was a whole community infuriated at this new "security alert". I bet turnover from airport storage lockers and laptop sleeves sold at the airport soared in September!


- Treed streets vs. "Seed trees!"
They say, the heart grows fonder with distance - add time and you can imagine how great it was to be back in Vienna. The streets are so green and summery and you suddenly physically understand why parks are called the green lungs of a city. Vienna has a lot of them and nobody would give them up for a condo or a car park like in KL where natural jungle had to give way to tall concrete blocks whose residents would contribute to increase traffic congestion. And the Viennese parks are groomed with such care! Gardeners and cleaners come by regularly to make sure everything grows the way it should and that it all looks neat. I once asked a person in KL, annoyed at the destitution of a green patch I would pass every day, if the council didn't send anybody to take care of it and the person just looked perplexed at the idea that the council would do such a thing... On the other hand, when the council does stuff, they do stupid stuff like put plants and trees right below an inaccessible highway ramp - See it this way: Who plants under a bridge?!

- Another of the first impressions is that Vienna is a clockwork and the people therein robots. The street system makes sense, there are no traffic jams, there are neatly kept pedestrian zones, car drivers generally adhere to traffic rules and stop lines on the road, everything on the street is labeled and (shop) services neatly advertised on the front. The trams & tubes all go their timed ways to provide one of the densest public transport systems in Europe! The bus stops are easy to recognise, have maps and timetables and nobody parks in front of them. While the Viennese cycle along a network of extensive, safely designed cycling lanes. Imagine that in KL!!! Or even the city council providing bicycles nearly free of use as long as you returned them to one of the stalls spread across the city! Also, there are traffic signs everywhere, usually highly visible and spaced in calculated timing (most of the time). The cherry on top is the ding-ding! of the tram - that when you know you're home.

- The urban architecture up to the last detail is so clear-cut and thoroughly planned! Sidewalks are mostly so even, you can press paper on them and your heels will last forever! People actually wait until the pedestrian light in an entirely empty street turns green!!! Even the dog shit has its own beautifully designed dedicated space in an urban park. There are trams, everything is in walking distance, there are maps in the tube stations, there are COFFEESHOPS in tube stations (however, seldom open after 6pm or on Sundays!), you can go grocery shopping on foot! The trees look so healthy and well-groomed compared to KL, that they nearly look surreal to me! The streets are so clean - you don't come home with black feet from all the cars like in KL - for the first time, I understand why my mother defends so vehemently that anything that touches the ground is instantly dirty.

Other great "novel" features of Vienna:
- People actually park where they are supposed to
- Italian ice-cream ready to eat every 200m!
- No need for a taxi
- Being somewhere in 20min without the use of a taxi!!!
- The smell of grass and trees in the city!
- Being told and shown in buses what the next stop is!
- Leaving the house and not having to look over my shoulder all the time and watch the corner of my eyes every time I take out my purse to pay for something.
- The sunflower fields when you drive towards Hungary. Utter beauty divine!

- Going to Schรถnbrunn (the royal summer residence of the emperors of Austria-Hungary) boggled my mind. I did a double-take as coming back from months in the patchworked "chaotic" streets of Asia, the groomed hedges look so sharp, it is a shock to the eye!

- Look of genuine surprise when you ask an Austrian taxi driver - by habit now - if he uses a meter before you even step in, like you offended his honour at the mere implied suggestion that he would not use a meter. It's good to be home!

On the other hand:
- Starbucks actually charges for internet anywhere outside Asia. I blissfully forgot. And I was so sure it used to be free in Vienna (even though I never had reason to use it in their Austrian coffeeshops)

- I miss the facility to add boiled water to your instant noodle soup in every supermarket!

- Shock at seeing a man fingering his mini skirt-wearing girlfriend while standing behind her in an ascending escalator and whispering murmuring intimate stuff into her ear with a leery grin and her grinning back just as wistfully, even if slightly embarrassed. Guess who was standing on the step below the guy (this is but one of the disadvantages of not being very tall - your field of vision can be at an inconvenient height). Imagine this happening in KL - haram to the third!!! Not even non-Malay couples would find it appropriate to do this in public!!! The closest I saw to "get a room" in KL was two Chinese people snogging inside a car in the middle of a pedestrian crossing (in Bangsar)! While I do generally promote couples showing signs of affection in public, my threshold of decency starts with keeping the touching of sexual organs to private, enclosed spaces of your own.

Nevertheless, apart from this rather extreme example (I saw a second couple doing that on another day in the underground! Makes me wonder if i just had never noticed...), it is quite interesting to be re-exposed to "Western dress", after months in a conservative country. The girls all dressed in spaghettis for summer with their (sometimes differently-coloured) bra straps openly visible, the hot pants (Chinese people wear them too though in Malaysia), the boobs bouncing and the upper part pushed up or nearly popping out of the top, the armpits clearly in your face when they hold on to a handrail above in public transport, the bigger personal space they occupy comfortably and confidently - if I had met any of them running around like that in Malaysia (even on a touristy beach), I would have been concerned for their dignity and/or safety. It's quite an interesting mind experiment, as it's like I am seeing for the first time with the eyes of an imagined outsider how shocking and disorienting it must be (for the more virtuous) or how arousing (for the less virtuous) to come to a "Western country" (with imagined shared values among its population). In London, it took me a while to get used to the scantily or ridiculously (bees, pink butterflies) or both clad hen night girls (Central London is haunted by) again who on top of it all, are usually heavily intoxicated and excessively disrupting. Then again, that particular group I will never get. I mean, if you drink that much, you might end up puking all over the altar! If that's not a bad omen, I don't know what is.

- As I was walking through a residential side street in my old school town, I saw an 10 or 11 year old kid closing the enforced mesh garden gate of his house, and rushing off to run down the road towards the next main street, the bus stop being around the corner. I peek a look at his house across the large neatly mowed grass of his yard, the "Chappi" signature dog watching me, alert as if watching me for any suspicious behaviour. A beautiful motorbike parked on the porch, in front of the garage. The fact that you feel perfectly safe for a 10 year old kid (or any from around 6 onwards) to let them go to school on their own without a school bus.

- And isn't it amazing that you go to an agreed place and you can rely on the fact that a bus is going to come by at a given time each day?? And that as a non-university student, you can use it for free by showing a non-electronic travelcard?

- Punity: One of the greatest things I find about Europe even if I tend not to capitalise on it so as not to feed into the already judging mindset of some xenophobic and narrow-minded Austrians, is being back somewhere where there is punity. If somebody (sexually) harasses you, you can call the police. If somebody cons you, cheats you over money, steals from you, you can tell the police and they will take care of it. If you get mobbed, you can sue somebody for it.
If living in Southeast Asia has taught me one thing, it is an understanding for why people would consider seeking "justice" by extrajudicial ways if law enforcement is not efficient or even corrupted or even overwhelmed. I am not condoning or promoting anything here but I believe that no legal body standing up for your rights creates societal frustration in society. The only thing you can do is taking measures not to become a victim. If you haven't been to Southeast Asia before, then I hope that this paragraph does not keep you from it for at least Malaysia is a relatively safe country and Kuala Lumpur a relatively safe city. The only thing that are likely to happen to you is being ripped off over money (which you will learn to manage) or if you are a woman, being eve-called by usually uneducated and/or rural South Asians (Indians, Bangladeshis...) - more on the latter soon.

To summarise...
I wouldn't say I was suffering from reverse culture shock, "shock" always implying negative experiences. Human is a species governed by the laws of inertia just as much as matter is. It's a way of getting used to different logics and grammars of culture.

While I was walking through the smog-free streets of Vienna with glee, I was thinking how great it is I did not have to think about what I was wearing, where I was going, how much something is supposed to cost. It is also great to be able to plan your day again while gazing at the pacifying urban Viennese landscape on public transport. What a breath of fresh air!

Tick Tock!

Oh and if you want to watch something funny if ear-shattering, then watch a (really bad!) performance of Wiener Blut, as composed by Johann Strauss II. The waltz with its instantly recognisable theme was so popular that an operetta emerged from it. It also has become Vienna's unofficial hymn.

If you prefer to watch a contemporary interpretation, check out Falco's pompous Wiener Blut music video where an Americanised police theme meets Hermann Nitsch.

2 courageous comments!:

kat said...

Great post, Heidi - it's fascinating to see a familiar city with completely new eyes!

Heidi said...


Looking forward to your own future entry! ;)