Expats in Southeast Asia love to moan about lots of things, mostly to do with their new country of residence and its local inhabitants. But this doesn’t stop them from moaning about “back home” too. On this front, one of their most moan-worthy subjects is “the nanny state”. It usually goes like this:
A middle-aged Australian man is sitting in a bar in, say, Saigon or Phnom Penh, drinking whiskey that may or may not be fake, smoking high tar 25-cent cigarettes, and bending the ear of anyone with no choice but to listen about how Australia’s been ruined by rules designed only to serve the interests of some elite wowser minority. He’ll then get on his polluting Minsk motorbike, for which he is unlicensed, and drive off drunk, without a helmet, plumes of exhaust trailing behind him.
One such guy in Phnom Penh told me he was “living the dream” in that city. He was also shirtless at the time, which added a special something. It may be your dream, big fella, but it’s my nightmare.
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Thanks to living in Vietnam, I love the nanny state more than ever. In fact, I look forward to rushing back into her protective arms and giving her a great big cuddle.
It’s not that Vietnam doesn’t want to be a nanny state; on the contrary, the Vietnamese government loves meddling in the lives of its citizens like the best nanny state should. But Vietnam is more like a nanny who’s become distracted by Wheel of Fortune on the telly and hasn’t noticed that the children are eating cat food.
What you get in Vietnam is expats eating all the cat food they want, seemingly just because they can, and no-one’s going to stop them, so there. What you also get is a huge swathe of the general population who are eating cat food because no-one’s ever told them it might not be a great idea.
In Vietnam, a country with around 11,000 deaths on the road every year, I get laughed at for cycling with a helmet. I get laughed at by taxi drivers when I put my seatbelt on. They lean around and wave their arms furiously, “Nononononono! You don’t have to do that!” I get laughed at for crossing the road to escape debris falling from a construction site, or to avoid a dangling power line. I get laughed at by my colleagues for steadfastly refusing to wade through flooded Hanoi streets, common in the rainy season, dark with sewerage and God-knows-what-else.
What the Vietnamese see as freaking hilarious, I see as common sense — which turns out not to be a universal, innate thing. It’s taught, or rather, not. Every single little thing we know about how to avoid dangers and keep ourselves safe, somebody told us. I think you know who. She gives great cuddles.
So even though I don’t have to take these precautions here in Vietnam, I do, because I’m grateful for the luxury of simply knowing about them, an opportunity that the thousands of victims of preventable death in this region will never get. Damn straight, I’m getting high and mighty; it comes naturally to those of us in the elite wowser minority.
It really steams my clams when I hear an Australian, like Mr Living-The-Dream, espousing the “freedoms” available to them in southeast Asia. Safety standards have to exist before you can choose to buck them, and without any education about personal safety, the residents of these countries are hardly making such a “choice”.
When I get back to Australia and I’m not allowed to throw a Frisbee at the beach and I have to get a special council permit just to mind my own business, I’m sure I’ll huff and puff and roll my eyes. But every time I walk down the street without fear of a poorly-constructed building falling on my head, or plug in my hairdryer without fear of giant blue lightning bolts striking the other side of the bathroom, I’ll say a prayer of thanks to Nanny, and enjoy the freedom — that’s right, haters, freedom — of feeling safe and protected.