Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

A Natural Organism

Written 18 November

So, what about the stock market? The universe of numbers that represents the global economy. Millions of hands at work, billions of minds. A vast network, screaming with life. An organism. A natural organism.  -Maximillian Cohen, Pi

There is comfort in routine. There is solace in the known quantities. And there is, conversely, fear in the next step into the void.

The process of getting out of Singapore was a stressful one. The four hours leading up to my departure probably aged me a few days. It honestly seems a bit incongruous. The theory of relativity tells us that if you are traveling faster, you age slower relative to stationary objects. It would seem reasonable, then, that when your body is amped up on natural stress like it just had coffee on an empty stomach and your brain and twitchy limbs are moving at triple time, you should be aging slower. The way I felt once I buckled in to my exit row seat gave me the impression this was not the case.

So what was all the stress about? There is a part of it inherent to travel for me. Hauling bags around. Dealing with transit. Making sure I’m at the airport in time, and through security, and all of the other fun things. But there was an element, a large portion, that was terrified of the unknown. I’d just spent four days in Singapore. It is a multi-cultural city for sure, made up of any number of different ethnic groups to which I don’t belong. But it is one that is centered around English. Or at least one in which English is a very useful language to know. And yet for four days most of the people I interacted with seemed to speak it in limited quantities, or with a very thick Singlish accent. Much of my time was spent speaking in single words or pantomiming. I didn’t have conversations with locals.

And now I was heading to Vietnam, a country based around a language that not only isn’t English, it isn’t remotely based in the same realm as English. And I was doing so after reading a few hours of material on the country, rife with excessive descriptions of lack of food preparation hygiene and explanations of the plethora of liars, cheats, and thieves. I was heading into a confusing other-world filled with trepidation.

My flight landing late, I took a deep breath. I had 45 minutes to get through immigration, collect my bags, get through customs, exchange money, and make it to the last bus into town. Once on the bus, having paid half of what I was expecting to pay, I breathed again, easier this time. It wasn’t the last bus. Everything bureaucratic had taken 25 minutes and didn’t involve any exchange of words or bribes. It was direct and simple.

As we took off from the airport I stared out the windows and forward to the dense sprawl that was to be my new home for a few days. And an unexpected thing happened.

Whether it was through over-stress burnout. Or due to fatigue from a lack of reasonable meal in the recent past. Or the pace of the place. I was smiling. Eager. Excited.

Every description of Ho Chi Minh City includes a part on the unique traffic system. For those unfamiliar, imagine that every red light looks like the starting line of the Tour de France, but with motorcycles. And for some reason, cars and buses haven’t been asked to leave the fray. There aren’t really hard set lanes, nor restrictions on turning, or crossing, or really moving in any direction at any time. (There is a great video of it here if you want to see the spectacle for yourself.)

From the variety of descriptions I’ve read, the general  Western consensus is that there is no law. Clearly something is working behind the scenes for it to not all result in a cataclysmic city-wide pile-up. But most people seem to view it as an exercise in psychotic recklessness, a system in which anyone can go anywhere at any time and everyone is going to kill you.

The natural flow of people on motorcycles interspersed with buses and cars seemed much cleaner than that to me. This isn’t a lawless city full of daredevils. The traffic flow made sense to me instantly, in the same way that watching a flow of ants across a field makes sense. The whole system may look disordered, but at an individual level each single interaction makes complete and total sense. Some people see the patterns and logic in the flow of water. Some in the stock market. For me, the city traffic is a living, breathing, reasonable organism.

I watched it as the bus moved along. Giddy. At peace. I tried to predict the next move. I wasn’t often right, but the move made always seemed just as reasonable.

The city … I can feel it in my veins already. The pace. The design. This is a city that at first glance, to most people, is an example of entropy. But for me, it is the opposite. In all of the seemingly random and arbitrary actions, all of the apparent chaos, there is an order and a logic. This city may not be moving towards a more ordered state. But that is precisely the beauty of it.

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This entry was posted on November 23, 2012 by in Vietnam and tagged , .

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