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Cultural 'Norms'

It’s a tired old cliché that travel teaches you much about yourself and your cultural norms but it is an infallible truth. This is why I try and arrange to take time out with my family once a year and go somewhere that might take us out of our comfort ...


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Cultural 'Norms'

It’s a tired old cliché that travel teaches you much about yourself and your cultural norms but it is an infallible truth. This is why I try and arrange to take time out with my family once a year and go somewhere that might take us out of our comfort ...


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Cultural 'Norms'

Posted by Iain on July 12, 2012, 10:51 a.m. in Living

It’s a tired old cliché that travel teaches you much about yourself and your cultural norms but it is an infallible truth. This is why I try and arrange to take time out with my family once a year and go somewhere that might take us out of our comfort zone and to explore in part what it means to be a New Zealander.

This week we are in eastern peninsular Malaysia in an area called Terranganu. Having spent the bulk of last week in Georgetown, Penang this is a real culture shock for my family - 95% muslim after the very secular feeling Penang. If you ever come to these parts then add Georgetown to your list. And if you have no plans to travel here, change them!

The old part of Penang’s capital was designated as a UNESCO World heritage site in 2008 and remains, certainly in this part of the world, one of the largest remaining sites of its type anywhere in South East Asia. Block upon block of renovated and derelict Chinese shop houses make up this living, breathing, heaving part of Malaysia. It is a treat to wander the alleyways and markets for a few days.

Although it looks like a movie set, Disneyland it is not. This is living, breathing, working, worshipping Penang where tens of thousands of people live and work cheek by jowl and have their businesses and homes in buildings up to 300 years old.  There are mosques, temples and churches everywhere reflecting the Dutch, English, Chinese, Indian and Muslim migrants to the area over three centuries. 

It’s a place not yet overrun with tourists and where you will see wizened old Chinese faces peer from behind faded curtains or lurk in the shadows of a heavy wooden door craning to hear the neighbours chattering in the street outside. Where you can ride in a trishhaw by a man who would have remembered the Japanese occupation in WWII and a time when cars only went as fast as he could peddle.

It is Hawker (street food) paradise and a place where the Food Safety Inspectors of Auckland would have a massive coronary as soon as they stepped out into the streets. It isn’t the sweetest smelling place but the food is to die for (but is unlikely to kill you). I swear we ate five meals a day. My eldest son now loves curry for breakfast every morning…….

I have never seen such well fed and healthy looking rats that appeared to eat at the same places that we were. But they didn’t bother us. And they looked so healthy I decided that if the food wasn’t hurting them it wouldn’t hurt us.

We had laksa at a small shop that has sold nothing else, no other singe dish – since 1956 at RM3.50 a bowl. That’s about NZ$1.50. Char Kway Teow from a stall holder that has been selling it since 1968.

When you travel you learn so much about yourself and your own culture. Every food safety rule (paranoia?) we live with told us not to eat in these places – when you see the staff washing the dish you are about to eat off in a plastic bucket with some detergent on a footpath you are on guard. What may be normal for you is not necessarily so for the locals. I figure that if you have been in business selling one food product for 56 years then you can’t be responsible for too many deaths by food poisoning. I suspect word would get round… we were in boots and all and set aside our own ‘fears’ and ‘standards’.

I am a Pakeha – a New Zealander of European descent but a New Zealander, created and moulded by the unique norms of my society.

My ‘difference’ to people from most parts of the world is no better illustrated than in our tendency to greet everyone we meet in the street. As I did for five days in Georgetown.  

When passing someone in your street, or passing in a corridor in New Zealand it is generally accepted you will acknowledge, at the very least, the person coming towards you – a Good Morning, Good Afternoon, ‘Hi’ or at least raised eyebrows. You will hold doors for people to let them go first, you will hold an elevator door open and you will ask someone how they are today.

This I have realised over the years is a particularly a New Zealand thing. But it is travel which has made me appreciate that.

If you greet people on a footpath in South Africa, people who in every other respect appear just like us will look back at you suspiciously (probably expecting you to mug them or ask them for money).

In the resort where we are staying the guests appear to be a mix of Malaysians, Irish in great numbers, a few English, Japanese, the odd Australian and a stray New Zealander or two and the only ones that initiate the ‘passers by greeting’ with me are the Australians. The Irish and English will respond but the rest look slightly puzzled or even annoyed that this ‘weirdo’ wants to say hello.

Thing is it makes me feel a little stupid but it is a compulsive behaviour most New Zealanders have. Frankly I find it rude if people do not make eye contact with me when passing. I find that suspicious and unsettling.

Another behaviour of most New Zealanders is we are considerate when in confined or public spaces. We think of others. I don’t know if that’s because we have a society that is based on egalitarian principles or if it is because we are still just a big village, albeit of 4.5 million.

A good example of how to cause me offence was on our flight from Borneo to Penang. In a case of you get what you pay for the family was flying on Air Asia where the cheap seats are only cheap by being squashed in like battery hen cages and laid out for your typically ‘Asian’ length limb which is somewhat shorter than your average ‘pakeha’ length leg. We had four back row seats. Our seats couldn’t recline. The large, portly gentleman in the seat directly in front of me decided after take off to recline his seat for the two and half hour flight. This meant my initial 12 inches of leg room in which my knees were already touching his seat became about 7 inches.

In his doing so I literally had the width of my Macbook Air between me and his sweaty balding pate and I was so squashed I couldn’t open the screen up properly to see it. I asked him, politely at first, if he would mind not reclining the seat and he just grunted and smiled at me. I assumed he couldn’t speak English.

My next request was in less than polite English and suffice it to say it contained at least one word beginning with ‘f’ and I decided that even if he didn’t speak or understand English he would understand tone.

He appeared oblivious to both. 

He closed his eyes, dozed a while, later appeared to enjoy his in-flight meal and read his magazines merrily away.

I was therefore forced to spend much of the next two hours standing in the aisle of the plane. He knew I was standing there - It clearly bothered him not.

About ten minutes before landing I was still standing in the aisle talking to my eldest son and made some intentionally loud(ish) statement about overweight, selfish, inconsiderate and rude people. The balding head whirled around and he looked at me and then pulled his seat into the upright position.

It appears that the understood English perfectly well when it suited him to put his seat upright!

He probably thought that he had booked that set and that little parcel of aerial real estate and so he could do what he wanted even if it meant a less comfortable trip for the person behind him. Hell they all seem to think like that when they drive around these parts so thinking about others doesn’t appear high on their list of priorities.

I thought that I don’t know too many people where I come from that would act so selfishly. We were all in the cheap seats together – they were not designed for comfort so the NZ thing would be to make each other as comfortable as possible. 

My clients always seem to observe three things about we New Zealanders when they come to settle or visit – how clean we keep the country, how efficiently we run everything and how friendly New Zealanders are.

I know these things to be true.

What I don’t really understand is why we have ‘evolved’ in this way and why in most other countries these values have been lost.

It does, however, add to the experiences of travelling and learning so much about yourself, your culture, your norms and expectations.

Home next week, and until then

Iain MacLeod - Southern Man

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3 comments on this post
July 12, 2012, 7:38 p.m. by Mark

I'd say that Iain had not encountered the worse Malaysians have to offer. May I suggest that he (or any other New Zealander) try driving in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The road manners of KL people of shocking to say the least. Driving down the wrong way of 1 way roads, double parking at congested roads (and leaving their cars unattended) and queue jumping are just some of the common traits shared by most drivers in KL.

The worse part is that most of these don't even regard as what they've done is wrong in any way. They live by the maxim that "It's only wrong if I'm caught." Sadly, for the most part, they never were.

Replies to this comment

July 12, 2012, 7:57 p.m. by Mark
Typo, should be "are shocking" not of :)
July 20, 2012, 3:30 p.m. by Iain MacLeod
My wife has always accused me of driving like a maniac which is completely false. I tell her these things are all relative. She has never seen the taxi drivers of Kuala Lumpur but has been frightened witless by the drivers in South Africa. She has now seen the driving in Penang (woeful), Sabah (scary) and Terranganu (anarchists on 2 or 4 wheels). The classic moment last week was me driving the rental car to Dungjun over a two lane bridge when towards us at a great rate of knots came a car passing a car passing a car - three wide and we had no where to go! Wife assumed the 'brace brace brace' position and yelled something I cannot print here. There was no head on crash (how I do not know)and she just muttered 'get me outta here, I'm over this place......'. Bet she doesn't call me a maniac driver for a while.
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July 13, 2012, 12:03 a.m. by alvin

That's right Iain.
Malaysians are quite a selfish, arrogant, rude and inconsiderate bunch. Especially when they're behind the wheel as Mark mentioned in his comment.

Nothing we do is wrong until we're caught. For some,even being caught has no effect on them. The worse part is that parents today encourage their kids to behave like that.

I know you don't mean to generalize Malaysians with what you said about that man on that flight. Altho, I really wouldn't blame you if you did.

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July 13, 2012, 12:35 a.m. by Angeline Shannan

Glad you went to Malaysia Iain, so you can now understand why some of those migrants to NZ (particularly Malaysians) behave as they do. I think it'll make you a better New Zealander. Do keep it up. For your info, I've used one of your blog posts to talk about a parent's duty and the right to vote and democracy, as the NZ practice and outlook on these are admirable. Gave you a pseudonym, though. You can see it at under Thinking Allowed. Thanks for the compliment about Penang. Penang drivers are just as lunatic as KL drivers, or worse as the space on this island is very much less but people drive like they're in KL. where roads are far wider. We aren't very big on logic.

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