A Stranger’s Act of… Kindness?

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A few days ago, something interesting happened. I say interesting because it was untypical behavior from me and I still can’t quite understand why I did what I did. But I have a hum, an idea of what happened. Let me tell you.

I was in the city center at the shopping mall, when a young man with an immigrant background came to me and asked in English, if I could give him money for food. I didn’t have any cash with me so I said no (I also think it’s always problematic to give money to a stranger because you don’t really know what the money is used for and even if I had cash, I probably wouldn’t give it).

But then he pointed to Burger King next to us and asked if I could buy him and his girlfriend a meal. I said no as politely as I could and left the situation.

But then I watched them ask more and more people for the same thing and everyone kept saying no, and I noticed how this started nagging me. I had just spent fifty euros at a hairdresser and another fifty to buy myself new jeans – but I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, buy two people a meal? And in addition to this, I was also curious: were they here, every day, asking for money for food?

I twisted and turned for a couple of minutes thinking about it – but then walked back to the couple. 

The look on their faces was vague amazement, like they didn’t really dare to hope for what they thought was happening. 

“Don’t you have any money for food? Ever?” I asked them.

“Well, yes, when we are at home in Tampere”, the young man answered me, speaking with his accent. “But we are here to look for a job.”

And I nodded and said: “I can buy you a meal, this time.”

And so we walked to Burger King. 

Reasons For Taking Action

I asked how old they were. The man was 22, the girl 19. He was the one who spoke English quite well, the girl could only a few words. I watched them make their order and paid for their meal that was 17,95 euros in total.

The young man shook my hand (although it was a weak handshake, and I would have liked to tell him how important a good handshake is) and thanked me, but the real gratefulness was in the girl’s eyes.

“Thank you”, she said with her struggling English as she hugged me.

“Take care”, I answered and hugged back.

I think we shared a moment, then and there, me and that girl.

But then, afterwards, I started thinking why I had done it. Why did I help this immigrant couple? Why did I give them money when I’m trying to find a job for myself and don’t really have a regular income?

I can’t say it felt like I had done the good deed. I didn’t feel especially good about myself although one could categorize my action as charity and charity is supposed to give you a good feeling. I didn’t even know how to share what happened with anyone because I didn’t know what I thought about the whole thing. 

So what happened in my mind when I decided to go back to the young couple and offer them a meal?

After turning it for a few hours in my mind and finally sharing it with a friend, I came to one kind of conclusion: instead of being an act of kindness it was more like an act of rebellion. Rebellion against the stereotypes, the hate speech, the prejudice.

I believe it is so rare in our western society to help the less wealthy especially if we don’t share the same skin color and language. It’s easy to judge someone based on their appearance. 

And still, these two were clothed normally, they behaved well, they didn’t shout or curse or throw ugly glances at those who didn’t want to give them money.

I have seen many Finns who behave the exact opposite.

Somehow, it was seeing the reactions of other Finns when someone with an immigrant background asks for their money that made me turn back and do precisely the opposite most people I know would do. And I wanted to know – it was curiosity – why did they have to do this? Why was this happening?

The Future of Societies

The thing is, I can’t be sure they told me the truth. It can be that they live in this city rather than somewhere else, that they have money and they simply want other people’s money just because.

It can be that they spend their money on other things and that leaves them without food, and I can only hope it isn’t drugs, alcohol or any other addictive substances. There is still doubt in me: were they really as poor as they made it seem?

The only thing I could do, this one time, was to trust these people and give them what I could spare.

The world is changing – the immigrants are here to stay, the societies become more and more multicultural and we have to work hard to have a society where we can trust each other and believe in the good in strangers. 

Because how can we help if we don’t trust? And how can we trust if we don’t help?

I don’t know if I would do it again and that makes me wonder what it tells about me, about good deeds and the future of our societies. But may that be another thought process for another time.

Instead, after all this, taking action and wondering about it, my friend said it quite well: “It’s a good thing to do surprising things, every now and then, as long as it doesn’t throw you off your budget. And it’s good for the brain.”

And it’s good for the brain. That I can agree on – definitely.

 

Back To Where I Came From

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Most of my recent blog posts have been about writing. Writing, reading and everything around it have been recurring themes on this blog because much of December and January has focused around writing – lucky for me! 

At the same time, though, life keeps on happening and therefore this post is more about the other things that are going on around my writing: thoughts about my future, both the near and far ones.

When we began our travels in the end of July six months ago, we had been saving money for a few years to do this trip. That money allowed us a completely different kind of freedom and the opportunity to see what the rest of the world is up to. We got to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia and then to New Zealand. It has been a rollercoaster ride.

But now it’s time to give up that freedom. The money that was saved has been used well – and as we’re starting to run short on it, it’s time to find ways to make money again.

To find out that solution is far from easy.

It isn’t only about finding work but it’s also about where to find it and what it is I want to do. What happens after our trip comes to an end? What happens when you give up the kind of freedom we’ve grown used to during this past year?

Finding Meaningful Work Isn’t Easy

In June, I wrote about my thoughts on graduating. I wrote that there’s a harsher reality waiting for me when I give up the freedom of being a student, but that I’m ready for that.

When writing it, I felt it to be true. I guess I still do, but nevertheless, taking on another new chapter feels daunting. I’m doing it, for real this time: trying to find a job, an apartment, not rely on study subsidies or student discounts anymore. It’s real. But at times, finding a job feels overwhelming and causes feelings of anxiety.

I haven’t had too many good work experiences. Either it’s because I’m picky or because the working world as such isn’t, well, working. I’ve had my share of shitty shifts, bad bosses, ugly work atmospheres and unrealistic or unnecessary work assignments.

Time after time, I thought I’d like to work as this or that, only to realize it wasn’t for me. And now I’m supposed to be on the job market again, finding myself work that hopefully will be better than my previous experiences. But what kind of job? Is there someone out there looking for a fiction writer to their company? I could be that person!

What? No? Okay. I guess I have to find something else.

It’s a strange feeling to go through different work ads and realize that you don’t want to “build your career” in any of those companies. I’m not passionate about selling and making profit – but our society runs on consumerism. I’m not eager to deal with customer care unless I’m really passionate about what I’m doing. I want to work with something that feels meaningful, that truly matters to me – but the current working world doesn’t seem to offer too many solutions.

It feels like so much weight is put on the employee and how one fits in the company but not so much on the company itself and it’s way of doing thing.

It’s essential to me to feel that the people working in a place are aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it and are willing to give their best – just as I will if I work there. More often than not, however, it seems like the boss who is supposed to be there for us employees and help us do our job well doesn’t know what he or she is doing or isn’t motivated to do his or her job well.

There is no such thing as a perfect work environment, that I know – but there are good opportunities to create a great work environment. It simply requires conscious effort.

So, maybe I’m picky, maybe I know what I want. Fine. But where to find that right kind of job?

The Language I Speak

For now, I have found two work ads that resonated with me and sounded like worth giving an opportunity to. I’m hoping to hear from them in a month or so. And this brings me to the next thing on my mind – both jobs are situated in Finland.

So, partly this post is about finding a job – but it’s also about where that seeking seems to take me.

We left Finland to find something better abroad, a different and maybe a more suitable culture. We both honestly thought we would be better off somewhere else.

But lately, as I’ve been thinking about working over and over, my mind leads me back to the land of forests and a thousand lakes. It’s because of my writing.

Not including this blog, I write mostly in Finnish. My journal entries, my fan fiction and my novels are all written in Finnish, a language spoken by approximately five million people living in this world.

The thing is, reading and writing are my greatest strengths, and these strengths have the best opportunity to succeed in Finland. Therefore, it would be in my interest to live in Finland to make a career out of writing. Right?

But I’m not homesick.  I don’t, per se, miss my social life or the Finnish food and culture so much that I would love to be back. I can see myself finding a nice yoga studio, the perfect writing environment, an active lifestyle somewhere else. In another Nordic country, perhaps.

I have no officially serious reason to go back. But because of my strengths in my own language, I’m drawn to my home country. I’m most likely to succeed on my career – if I get back to Finland and stay there.

It bugs me because it feels like my freedom to choose is being cut. At the same time, I’m curious to see what can come out of it. I have these ideas about my own small company, focused on writing and reading, and all my hopes for my author career – and I know the best place to make them happen is in Finland.

Our time on this trip has given form to these thoughts and it feels like the right time to try finding the paths to realising them.

But just to get back to where we got started – if I’m in a country I really don’t have a need to be in and I’m starting out with work that I might not even want to do and that might end up in another disappointment, where will that lead me? Will I still be able to hold on to all my ideas about writing?

So many questions, so few answers.

So, to sum up this blog post: I’m thinking about a lot of things, mostly about the future of work and where it will take me. I’m optimistic about the fact that things have a tendency to find their way. Things will work out. And hopefully something good will come of it – if I get to choose, that good will have to do with writing.

The Trouble With Tourism

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For a developing country, dealing with increasing tourism can be an extreme challenge.

After exploring Southeast Asia for a few months, we’ve seen this with our own eyes and through our own experience. Already in Malaysia, but especially in Vietnam, we could see what kind of a weight tourism puts on a country’s infrastructure. And it’s not pretty.

During the past ten years, the tourism in Vietnam has grown from 4,25 million to 15,5 million tourists. Generally, increasing tourism is seen as something positive. When more people visit a country, they bring in more money – and they, with their money, create more opportunities.

The Vietnamese have taken advantage of these opportunities. However, from what we’ve seen, the opportunities come with a cost – especially if you don’t know how to benefit from the opportunities in the long run.

Easy Money

As the amount of tourists visiting a country increases, it becomes very attractive to take a job that has to do with tourism. Driving a taxi, running a homestay or other forms of accommodation, organizing trips and courses, running a restaurant… There’s a lot to choose from.

And those who don’t have the money needed for the investments to drive a taxi or run a homestay or a restaurant, can get money from the tourists by selling smaller items such as fans, scarfs or sunglasses; selling fruit or drinks; or posing for a photo together with a foreigner.

The possibilities seem endless and the money easy – and that makes business in tourism so attractive. However, as there are such easy money sources available, it can become too tempting to get a little bit of extra income while you’re already at it.

That’s what we call haggling (or scamming), something that characterizes many of the Southeast Asian countries.

It can be seen as an opportunity – but it really is not. Not, at least, in the long run.

Short-Term Success

Haggling and tricking tourists for money is so attractive because Vietnam as a country has been poor for a very long time. Many of the locals who haggle are living their life on a day-to-day basis because they don’t know what life brings them the next day, if they even live that long. Therefore, what they gain today, they spend today.

That’s why haggling seems like a good idea for the locals – it gives you the possibility to spend more money today than you did yesterday.

Seen that way, it makes sense. However, when you look at haggling from another perspective, you can see that it only brings you short-term success and is actually more harmful in the long run.

The benefit of having fixed prices with your products is that it allows you to take a peek into the future. If you sell ten t-shirts, all for the price of one dollar, you know you’ll have ten dollars when you’ve sold all ten shirts. And if you, in a month, sell one hundred shirts, you’ll have one hundred dollars. In a year, if you sell one hundred shirts every month, you make 1200 dollar – and that allows you to ask yourself the question:

What do you want to do with that money?

But if you have 100 shirts that you end up selling them for 100 different prices – how much money will you have? Can you do anything extra with it? Is is worth saving the money from todays sales if you don’t know how much you will get for your shirts tomorrow?

Haggling only brings you success in the near future. However, if you’re playing the long game, you are not doing a favor for yourself.

Developing Harmful Behavior

The Vietnamese are not in any way stupid – they know that Westerners have money and that for us, their products and services are cheap. We can afford the price they ask even if they’d ask us a bit more. But that’s where things start to go downhill.

In a taxi, the drivers have taxi meters that tick in an incredible speed and that mean you end up paying four or five times more than the actual cost would have been. In a restaurant, there is one menu for tourists with fixed prices and another for Vietnamese without prices. Somewhere else there are sudden extra costs for something or someone comes up claiming there is a parking fee for motorbikes. And if you need to haggle for the product you want, a tourist will certainly pay a higher price than a local.

It almost becomes worth it to play dirty – but how does that affect your personality, your ethics? In the long run, haggling doesn’t make you a good, trustworthy person. When you’ve lied once, it’s easier to lie again. When you’ve successfully tricked someone, your likely to trick again.

Haggling isn’t sustainable – but it’s too tempting to ignore.

The Bad Loop

Although haggling maybe gives the locals the thrill of debating and is part of their culture, it’s actually more harmful than beneficial for the locals.

It’s not a sustainable way of doing business because it doesn’t build for a better future – or for a better personality. However, that is the only way of business the locals know and because they know it, they can also use it to their benefit when it comes to tourists.

Tourism invites the locals to keep up their harmful behavior. It keeps them in the short-term loop instead of helping them to look longer into the future and help them develop better ways of securing their income.

If the locals would give up haggling and tricking and settle for fixed prices, they could end up with more time and energy – two of the resources needed for making more money. But they can’t see that because they’ve learned to see only the opportunities right in front of them – the opportunities growing tourism gives them.

Vietnam has developed into a lower-middle income country, which means that tricking for money shouldn’t be as necessary than it was before. As their GNP is growing and the average income is on the rise, there shouldn’t be a need for haggling and tricking.

However, it takes a long time to change behavior.

And tourism, for sure, is not helping with this.

 

Vietnam – A Tough Nut To Crack

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Tourist boats taking off in Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

During our two months of travel, I’ve written about many of the places we’ve visited, how I’ve felt and experienced the different cities, attractions and the traveling life in general. But writing about traveling in Vietnam has been tough and I’ve been avoiding writing this text for a couple of days now.

Why? Because I’m not having very warm feelings towards this country.

Two months ago, we started off in Thailand which, after leaving Bangkok, was a surprisingly friendly and gentle introduction to Southeast Asia. After Thailand, we travelled to Malaysia, where I experienced my first culture shock but as we got out from Kuala Lumpur, I had a great time exploring the country.

Vietnam, however, continues to be a struggle even after two and a half weeks. I’ll do my best to explain to you why.

Dread Behind Every Corner

We started in Hanoi which was a traffic hell and where we learned the hard way that in this city, the locals are after the tourist’s money.

(The money itself takes a while to get used to: the value of Vietnamese Dong has drastically reduced because of inflation and you end up with a lot of zeros. 25 000 dong equals one euro or one dollar. So, in Vietnam, you have the chance be a millionaire. Your million, however, isn’t very valuable.)

For instance, in a restaurant, there’s a separate menu for tourists with fixed prices and one for the Vietnamese locals without prices. And here, many of the taxis drive according to a taxi meter but some of the meters tick with hell of a speed – an 8-minute trip ends up costing 250 000 dong, more than 10 times we agreed upon with the taxi driver (yes, we got scammed).

We have learned that this hunger for money is the only reason many of the locals are friendly – they want you to buy something from them. Whether it’s tailored clothes, a trip to Halong Bay or just a photo with a Vietnamese fruit seller – they want your money. Or they try to sell you motorcycle parking, a fan or even a squirrel (or maybe it was a photo with the squirrel) – it’s about the money.

Behind every corner there is someone who wants something from you.

And the things is, when you politely say no thank you, their friendliness disappears. Suddenly, the smile fades away and the friendly words feel fake. We have met only a handful of genuinely nice locals – and that’s sad. This has led to the point where we, subconsciously, are taking distance from the Vietnamese people.

The Language Barrier

Another issue has definitely been the language. There are some in Vietnam that can speak good English but the majority in this country can only the basics of it: hello, thank you, one cold beer, bye bye. But that’s all – and that only gets you so far.

In Thailand and in Malaysia, things were very different. In both countries, it was easier to communicate with the locals and deal with unexpected situations such as problems with transportation or food orders. In Vietnam, however, it is almost impossible.

Because there’s a different price for tourists, and it is mostly higher, we would like to bargain or argument for our own benefit. In this country, it has proved to be difficult. For instance, with the taxi scam, the driver kept on yelling police! but didn’t understand (or listen to) a single word we were saying, therefore making it impossible to deal with the situation.

And, in a restaurant, when we tried to explain that we had the same day in that same place gotten a cold water for the price of 10 000 dong, and the lady was now asking for 12 000, and why aren’t we getting the same price again – she didn’t understand but thought we wanted a cold Coke instead (that would have been 15 000 dong).

This leads to the point where we try to avoid all sorts of communication with the Vietnamese people. We just end up loosing and it doesn’t get us anywhere – or we end up having to say no thank you to all their offers on “great” deals and prices and get the fading smiles and some Vietnamese words said in a sour tone.

How To Trust and Understand If…

The continuous trouble with money and the difficulties with communicating have led to the point where we have the feeling that we cannot trust these people.

This is a generalization, of course: some of the hostels and homestays we’ve stayed at have been wonderful and we’ve gotten very good and genuinely nice service.

But the common man we meet on the street, we cannot trust. For me, it’s very difficult to accept this because for the most part I like to give a chance to everyone. I like to give the benefit of the doubt – but here, I’ve been forced to change my attitude.

Trusting would be easier, if we could understand the locals (after all, feelings related to fear come from not understanding). If we could talk with the Vietnamese people, hear about their opinions and views on their country, about the heavy tourism, their view on their history and future, we would be able to understand these people better, meet them differently.

But we cannot. Issues with money and language aren’t solved overnight. Therefore, we are stuck in our situation, in feelings of discomfort and the need for distance from the locals and their culture. We have one week left before leaving this country and flying to the next and I’m happy for it.

Vietnam is a tough nut to crack – and I don’t know if I want to crack it at all.

The Paradise Island Controversy

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The past five days we’ve been on an island that at first glance felt like one of those paradise islands you see on TV or in travel magazines: coconut trees, bright blue ocean and drinks at the sand beach.

When we came here, I was ready to relax by the sea after exploring the north of Thailand.

So, we booked an Airbnb-apartment owned by a lovely retired French couple who fixed us up with a scooter and gave us recommendations on the best beaches and restaurants.

The first day, we took the scooter up the steep hills to a place called The Jungle Club and sat there for three hours just taking in the view. I even cried a little, to be honest, because the view over the sea was so beautiful and I felt so relaxed after the 28-hour-long bus journey from Chiang Rai to Koh Samui.

But after a day or so, the paradise island began to feel like there was something wrong. In a way, at first, we were seeing this one side of the island but then starting to realize the other side of it – like two sides of a coin. One side of it was the perfect beach days and drinks at sunset, while the other side of the coin was a modern colony.

It sounds harsh, I know, but I’ll try to explain why this feeling came to me.

The Expat and Tourist Island

Koh Samui is an island in Southern Thailand with a population of over 63,000. It’s one of the more popular tourist resorts of the country but in addition to a great amount of tourists even in the off-season (as the rainy months are rolling in), there are many expats who live on Koh Samui year-round.

The active expat life is clearly visible on the island.

While driving around the island with the scooter (I was the one sitting in the back and in charge of navigating so I had time to look around while my partner focused on driving alongside all the other vehicles), I could spot French boulangeries, English and Irish pubs, restaurants serving French food or the German currywurst.

The Thai culture, however, shined with its absence in many parts of the island – at least that’s what it felt like while we explored the island.

Of course, there are many local restaurants owned by Thai people and in many of the restaurants, hotels and spas the workers are Thai – but they are all there to serve the tourists, to make them feel comfortable. This is done by serving the food the tourists know and like, and by having the menus in foreign languages the westerners are familiar with.

Or if they are not the ones in charge of the usually small family businesses, they are the ones to do the service work for the westerners. They drive the car, clean the house and the pool, cook the food or provide other necessary services. The Thai people just as the rest of us need to make their living – and the rich westerners are there to give it to them.

In one way, there’s nothing wrong with this. But the thing is, it comes with a cost.

Oh, The Controversies

Koh Samui is a paradise – if you have the right kind of house, scooter and car for it. All around the island we could see new construction building up these houses that are advertised as luxury pool villas. The houses with many bedrooms are built out of concrete painted white, a terrace looking over the view and a pool to swim in.

But oh, the controversies in this perfect picture.

Water is regarded as something precious here and tourists are asked to save water whenever possible – but the villas need to have their pools to be attractive to those with the money to buy them.

Concrete is far from the more environment-friendly building materials – but it’s cheap to use for building and the demand for villas is growing.

The main source of income for the island is tourism and the streets are filled with small food stalls selling fresh fruit shakes, pork and chicken on a stick and coconut water – but there is nowhere else to put the plastic trash than on the ground. The amount of trash in this country is shocking.

It’s like the westerners have taken over the island and they do it at whatever cost on the environment and the local culture as long as they get their paradise.

Missing the Local Culture

The tourism and the expat life on this island are the ones that make it thrive, yes, but at the same time they are the ones killing the island, slowly but surely. During our first two weeks of travel, I had gotten used to the northern cities where it was often a struggle to find a way of communicating with the locals, where in many restaurants the menus were primarily in Thai and the city was about their own culture. I can’t say they have the same here – and it makes me sad.

It even feels a bit wrong to be here, to support the very western culture of this island and I can’t help but wonder how the local Thai people feel about the development. Are they truly okay with working for the westerners? Are they aware of the environmental damage this kind of tourism is doing to their beautiful island?

As we are leaving the country to the next (hello, Malaysia!), I’m left with mixed feelings about the South. I loved the Thai food here, the ocean and the amazing landscape, but the enjoyment comes with a cost – even I, a westerner, am adding to by being here.