Why Living in the Developing World Makes You More Mindful

Why Living in the Developing World Makes You More Mindful

Having been born and brought up in a rich, developed country full of opportunity and structure, I never would have been able to imagine a life any different. That was, of course, until I stepped outside my comfort zone and backpacked in India, Nepal, and SE Asia for 8 months, and then moved to Vietnam to work as a teacher. By that time, I’d traveled around developing countries extensively, and spent at least one month in each country to gain a better understanding of the culture and way of life. But as well all know, visiting a country as a tourist and actually living and working in that country are two very different things.

 

I thought I’d already seen it all during my travels, and felt so confident that I could be totally happy living in a developing country in Asia. But then I started to slowly realize that it wasn’t as easy it appeared on the surface when I was just there as a tourist, and I quickly came to some serious realizations. I always thought life was easier on the other side, that life in the developing world was somehow better, people seemed more relaxed, stress-free, and communal, and life was much simpler. Overall I gained a much more realistic picture of what it’s like to live in the developing world, and the optimism I once had before I moved there started vanishing over time. There were so many valuable insights I gained while living in Vietnam, and I think anyone who’s crossed the threshold from developing to developed or vice versa would be able to relate.

 

Getting a Mahendi or henna tatoo on the streets of Delhi

Sometimes Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

 

 

Driving well doesn’t always require lines and paved roads and traffic lights. In the Western, developed world, we’re so used to having a rigid process and structure for everything. From the laws and rules of the road, where if you deviate even an inch off the line you could potentially get into an accident. Where if you run a red light you could get hit by another car and it would be your fault. Where if you cut someone in line you’ll get nasty stares and be told to get back and wait your turn. A world where no one will ever stop for you. A world with clear, defined boundaries and health and safety standards. Driving in the West can be incredibly boring after you’ve driven around Asia on a motorbike.

 

How many things can you fit on one bicycle? We don’t usually see things like this in the modern world, but lots of people have to hustle in Vietnam and often times this is their only means of transport

 

Just imagine a world where traffic runs according to its own rhythm, without any traffic lights or defined lanes on the road. A world where drivers just drive around you if you’re in the way, and who never get angry at you. These strict boundaries don’t exist in the developing world, so you’re allowed to create those rules and boundaries yourself. Living in a world like this without any set rules or standards helped expand my perspectives and think more outside the box. Living in Vietnam helped me think outside the rigid rules I grew up with.

 

 

Driving in Vietnam looks intimidating at first, but once you try it can be a lot of fun!

 

One example of this is when I first started driving a motorbike in SE Asia. At first, I was so nervous I was shaking, and thought I’d surely be killed in Indonesian traffic. The guy who rented me the bike looked terrified when I told him it was my first time driving a motorbike, let alone in SE Asia. The roads were full of motorbikes, all jam packed against one another on the roads like sardines, and people were driving in all different directions. There were no clearly defined lines in the road, and most of the times no traffic lights either. But as I got more used to driving in this organized chaos, I realized there was a certain unspoken rhythm to it.

 

Driving a motorbike around Asia was an unforgettable experience

 

The same happened when I started driving a bike in Vietnam. I remember driving every day to work at in Hanoi. At times the motorbike traffic was so congested that other peoples’ exhaust was always on my feet, and bikes and cars would be coming at me from all different directions, especially at the roundabouts. Driving in these conditions helped me pay much stricter attention to my driving than I would have ever in the West, where we often text on our phones or do other things while driving.

 

It sharpened my awareness of other drivers since at any moment they could be coming at me from any random direction, or cutting in front of me or behind, since there were no actual rules or structure on the roads. Now I know what is meant when people say Asian drivers are some of the best (or worst) in the world, especially coming from driving in conditions like these where if you take your eyes off the road even for less than a split second, you’re more likely to get into an accident than you would driving on roads with clearly defined rules and structure. Having driven a motorbike around Asia for over a year, I know it will be hard coming back to the West and adapting to the strict rules of the road. It’s amazing to see people creating their own rules on the road, rather than having everything laid out for them. It really creates a certain harmony and understanding between yourself and the other drivers, whereas in the West all we pay attention to are rules, rules, rules. I was recently riding a bicycle in England and when I crossed a busy intersection some man drove by yelling obscenities at me for apparently not following the rules of the road. All I could do was give a smile back, since, well, that’s what we do in Vietnam.

 

Babies and children often ride in front of their parents on a single motorbike in Vietnam, often not wearing a helmet

 

I’m not saying traffic rules are a bad thing, and I definitely appreciate having these safety measures in place. I’m only saying that it’s a lot more fun driving in Asia, since you can literally drive whichever way you want, and the only rule is that there are no rules.

 

 

Not Everything Has A Fixed Price

 

 

Living in the West always made me think there was a fixed price for everything. I’d never really bargained much in my life, except when making big purchases like for a used car. We don’t usually have to ever stop and rack our brains into thinking what the price of something is when it’s always laid out right before our eyes in big supermarkets and malls.

 

Street food in Myanmar – Always bargain so you can get the best deal

 

In places like Vietnam, almost anything is negotiable, and you should never pay the first price you’re quoted. Most of the time I’d go into shops and there were no prices on anything, and using my own judgment about what a fair price should be based on what locals told me and previous buying experiences, I’d have to negotiate a price with the shopkeeper. Most of the times since I had a general idea what the price was, so I never got ripped off, but a few times some street vendors tried charging me 10 times the locals price, which I refused to pay and just walked away from them. I found the further you go outside the touristy spots like the Old Quarter in Hanoi, the more likely the locals are to negotiate with you and give you a fair price.

 

Having to bargain for rickshaw rides wasn’t always the easiest and sometimes took up to half an hour to negotiate a fair price

  

 

When I was traveling in India, almost everything could be bargained and negotiated. I remember walking around in an enormous shopping mall, and being told by some locals that you could even bargain the price at big stores like Forever 21. As much as bargaining can sometimes score you a great price for something you’d have to pay a lot more for back home, it can be a real headache at times when you find yourself having to bargain for most things all the time, and most of the times I just wanted to be able to walk into a shop and pay a set price to make things easier. Luckily things are changing, and more fixed prices stores are popping up all over the place in Vietnam. Bargaining can be a lot of fun, but sometimes it can be inconvenient if you want to save time and don’t want to stand there for an hour negotiating the price of something.

 

There were no prices listed in this store for the sarees, and it took some negotiating to get the one I wanted

 

You can always bargain in the street markets in Vietnam

 

 

Going Out of Your Way For Shopping

 

Unlike in the West where we have huge supermarkets and mega malls where you can find just about everything you need in one place, this is still an emerging concept in most of developing Asia. A lot of times when I was living outside major cities, I found I had to figure out where the local street markets were to find specific things I was looking for like, say, potatoes. If there wasn’t a big supermarket in the city I was staying, I was stuck buying from local street vendors, and sometimes it could take all day just to get all the ingredients I needed.

 

Navigating my way around street markets in India

 

While it was an awesome experience to be able to find local farmers in the streets and buy fresh produce, it was also inconvenient since I couldn’t find everything I needed all in one spot like you can do at a major superstore.

 

Flower vendors in Vietnam

 

The up side to this way of shopping is that it’s much more social and there’s a lot more human interaction involved, versus in a large supermarket where you can check out at a machine. In Vietnam I could walk up to anyone on the street and ask them where something in particular was, such as where to find some eggs, and they’d always try and show me where the shop was, even if they didn’t know any English and my Vietnamese was weak. They would always take time out of their day to help me and I found the same applied to other foreigners. Now in the U.S. if you went up to someone on the streets and asked them where to find good watermelon, they’d look at you like you should be able to find it yourself and probably wouldn’t offer to help you out, since they’d see it as a waste of their time.

 

Banana seller in Mysore, India

 

 

Not Everything Is Going to Kill You

 

 

In the West, we grow up in a culture of fear. When we’re little our parents don’t let us wander too far from a sterile environment, and they especially wouldn’t have approved of us swimming in some lake if they thought it could be too dirty or contaminated with some disease. The same doesn’t apply for developing Asia. When I was traveling through villages and even the cities, I would always see kids going for a dip in the lakes, even if they looked slightly dirty. I think the over sensationalized media makes us scared into thinking we’ll get every possible disease if we go swimming in a lake that might not be so clean, whereas in the developing world people do this all the time and nothing happens to them. I think this in part is another reason why their immune systems seem to be better than ours, since they get more exposure as kids, and we’re kept locked away in some kind of sterile bubble. There was one instance when I was traveling in Bali and went to swim in the waterfall pool at Tegallalang falls. I overheard an Australian family talking at the ticket booth and saying that they wouldn’t go to the waterfall since they found out the locals bathed there..enough said.

 

The breathtaking Tegallalang waterfall in Bali, that some stuck up tourists refused to swim in since local Balinese bathed in it

 

Swimming in the hotsprings in Pai, Thailand

 

The West has a lot of fear driven culture that adheres to much stricter safety rules, even if some of these rules are totally illogical. In Asia, kids have a lot more freedom to go outside, roll around in however much mud they like without their parents worrying about them contracting some deadly disease. I became a lot less afraid of nature when living in Vietnam, and found the people there tend to live a bit closer to nature than we do. Even when we grow up in the modern Western world, we are constantly bombarded with messages in the media about other countries wanting to invade us in the U.S., and how much of a threat other countries are to us such as North Korea or Russia, but having traveled to many different countries I’ve learned no one outside the U.S. actually thinks this way, and in fact it’s the opposite perception, that the U.S. is considered to be the biggest threat to other countries.

 

Kids playing in an outdoors pool in India

 

Cambodian kids swimming in green waters

You Become Less Wasteful

 

One word: Toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper. The soft white sheets we gracefully wipe our bums with when we’re finished going to the bathroom. This stuff doesn’t exist in lots of developing Asia, and instead people use water or what I like to call the “bumhose” to clean themselves after using the toilet. This is actually a far more efficient way of doing our business, and there’s much less killing of trees involved. Imagine if you somehow got dog poo on your hand, would you just wipe it away with some tissue paper, or would you use water to clean it off? Exactly. Now I don’t think I could ever go back to just using toilet paper only, I have to use some water, too.

 

People in Vietnam try their best not to waste any food

 

In places like India, it’s considered a sin to waste food. This is partly because there are actually many people starving in the streets. In India, nothing goes to waste. They even reuse hospital supplies in India. Whenever I would have the tiniest amount of food left on my plate at my company’s cafeteria, the lunch ladies would always take it from me and save the leftovers, presumably for themselves or someone else to eat, and they wouldn’t let me throw anything away.

 

Introducing the famous “bumgun” or “bumhose”

 

In the U.S., HALF of all our food gets wasted each year, which is total bullshit, since there are people in our own country who could use this food. I’ve also learned having lived in Vietnam that the sell by date you see on food labels is actually BS, and it’s more of a way for corporations to sell you more products by you throwing them away and wasting them sooner than you actually need to. I learned how to sense the food’s freshness rather than going by some rigid, useless sell by dates.

 

Vibrant alley cafes in Myanmar

 

Most of the villages in Nepal don’t have hot water or electricity that runs all the time

 

I’ve learned to kick my old habits of being wasteful and unappreciative of things, especially food and other resources that are considered a luxury in the developing world. I started becoming conscious of the food I consumed and try not to waste it. I started becoming aware of the amount of electricity I was using, since where I was living in Vietnam there were frequent power outages, and sometimes electricity would be out for 12 hours or more at a time. When I was traveling in Nepal, there was a set schedule for electricity times, and sometimes you only had electricity for 3 hours a day. Yes, that meant you had 3 hours only to charge your phone and do all that other stuff before it would be turned off the rest of the day.

 

People get things around by any means possible in Vietnam, and that’s usually via motorbike

 

Beautiful village in Nepal – Not all the villages had working electricity or running water

 

This made me really appreciate having what we think are basics but which are actually luxuries in many other countries in the world, and now I don’t leave lights on or waste electricity unnecessarily. I’m also a lot more conscious of my water usage, especially having traveled in Cambodia and other countries where it was common to run out of water and not have any for days on end. I began to appreciate all the resources I had back in the West that so many take for granted, and almost expect as some kind of entitlement, when the vast majority of the world has to live in conditions where they don’t even have access to what we think are the basics but are really luxuries. I think at this point I’ve managed to purge all the wasteful American habits I used to have, and am now I’m fully conscientious about the resources I use and try not to take them for granted.

 

 

You Realize How Much You Actually Have

 

Even the poorest of the poor in our country can’t really compare to how the poor have it in the developing world. In some countries, especially India, there are many people literally starving and begging for food in the streets. I saw people with no arms and legs, or even clothes, begging in the middle of oncoming traffic. The poor in the U.S. can’t be compared to the poor living in India, especially if you’ve ever seen the slums in Indian cities. At least in the U.S. there’s some kind of social welfare system in place, which is non existent in most of developing Asia.

 

I saw a lot of people in Indonesia who had so little yet had the biggest smiles

 

I remember one man who had cerebral palsy walking into a restaurant I was at in Vietnam. He was walking around selling toothpicks and cotton swabs and asking for donations. I didn’t see anyone give him any change, and then the restaurant owner walked over and literally pushed him out of the restaurant. Yes, I saw a man with cerebral palsy get physically abused. These basic concepts of humanity and human rights just don’t exist in lots of the developing world, since it’s business first and everyone is just doing what they can to survive. I spoke to a lot of people in Vietnam who were earning under $150/month, which is definitely not enough to survive, even in a country with such a cheap cost of living. Then I began to appreciate the better wages in the West, even if a lot of things seem over-priced compared to Asia, at least the wages are higher there and most people have the opportunity to get an education and make a decent living.

 

A lot of the schools I taught at in Vietnam didn’t even have chalk in the classrooms

 

I learned to appreciate the systems we have in the West, even if some of the rules can get annoying at times, at least they’re there and in place and can protect me if I need it. I started to appreciate all the rights I have as a woman in the West, and found out these rights don’t exist in lots of developing Asia. I felt like I’d stepped back in time living in Vietnam and experienced serious discrimination just because I’m a female. Lots of the times I would face bullying and harassment by managers, and I always felt like my opinion never meant anything in Vietnam. I realize that something like this would not be tolerated in a country like the U.K., where there are laws in place to protect women against this kind of discrimination. I also came to appreciate having grown up in a diverse, multicultural society that’s generally accepting of all races, whereas in Asia it’s either you’re from that country or you’re automatically a “foreigner.”

 

Friendly locals in Ubud, Bali who shared their homemade liquor with me

 

Even if you lived in Asia all your life and spoke the language and knew the customs, you would still be labeled as a “foreigner.” In the West, something like this would never happen since you’d be able to integrate better as a foreigner and it would be easy for you to find your own niche, since there’d be a lot of your own kind in such a diverse, mixed society. The same can’t be applied to expats living in Asia, where there’s only a small community of other Westerners around. I appreciate being able to live in a diverse, multi cultural society that would never label me as an outsider because of my appearance.

 

Sometimes all you have is grain to feed the birds – Yangon, Myanmar

 

I totally changed while living in Vietnam, and came to appreciate all the opportunities I have in my own country. One thing I wish we had more of in the West is a sense of community and responsibility for our neighbors, which is something we’ve seemed to have lost in the name of progress but which still exists in Asia. Development can ruin the roots of a culture, but it also makes life much easier. I can’t wait to see what Vietnam will be like five years from now. Living outside your own country helps expand your awareness and forces you to step outside your comfort zone, and you learn how to compare vastly different worlds and see the good and bad of both. Ultimately, I learned that people are people and basically we all want the same things in life, no matter what part of the world you’re living in.

 

Sunsets aren’t the same everywhere, but people definitely are

 

Here are a few things I found to be super nifty and useful during my backpacking trip in SE Asia:

 

 

 

Your thoughts? I hope this article was helpful to you in some way! Let me know what you think in the comments section or by liking and sharing my article with the social media links. I’d love to keep giving you tips and advice so feel free to subscribe by email in the subscribe box below. And don’t forget you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

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10 thoughts on “Why Living in the Developing World Makes You More Mindful

  1. Awsome post here Blossom, though there’s one point I have to clarify for you that the old, the children and the disabled in Vietnam that go around and sell gum/ toothpicks/ q-tip are most being employed by a group of people that known to treat them really badly and make them go sell stuff constantly with little healthcare ( because begging and guilt-tripping people and foreigners is very profitable ).

    Most of the money they made are being taken away, and they have to follow some rule while working :
    -if being asked , you must say it’s for donation.
    -all the money have to return to the “manager” at the end of day.
    -you must refuse any extra money that was given, if the people in charge found out that you have extra money or hide money from them you will be beaten very awfully.

    The locals know this very well, that’s why they often refuse to buy anything from them in a vain hope that the system will fall down, saving those who doing this in a way. Sad fact , I know, but there’s nothing they can do, they ( the one who begging/selling stuff ) cannot get out from it too as it’s their only way to survire.

    1. Hi Lou,

      Thanks so much! 🙂 I really appreciate your support. Thanks a lot for sharing this with me! I did hear from a local how this money goes back to some bad people who are known as these peoples’ caretakers which is so sad.. I wonder why that is sometimes, what place do people like this (those with disabilities etc) have outside these roles in Vietnam? Just curious, I know in lots of Asia I’ve traveled it seems those with disabilities aren’t integrated so much into society outside these roles..Thanks again for your insights! Xxx

      1. While in my country, it’s known that there’re society organizations in every province, and city to help them with the goverment assistance, I’ve met some children from schools for the disabled who are really talented in specific types of work. Things are getting better but indeed, what the guy above said still happens. Sometimes I feel bad for them, however I’ve to confess that changing it takes time and effort, not everybody (includes me) has enough motivation. So we just say: “That’s life”, and do nothing.

        1. Hi Jack,

          It’s true, change happens slowly and I can’t wait to see how the country will grow in some years down the line. Things are definitely improving, people are becoming more aware. Thanks for your insights!

          Xxx

          Blossom

  2. Thanks a lot for a great post about SE life. I also appreciate your sharing about your feelings about the third world. I really like the way you describe about traffic in Vietnam. Not just a chaos but a chaos with its own order. Having this view can help people to take part in this traffic easier.

    As an expat in Australia, I can understand your comparison between the West and the SE. I think the twos can learn from each other and become better places. Hopefully, a country like Vietnam can develop faster so that Western people may want to have a settle life there rather than just come to experience the third world and recognize the qualities of their home countries.

    1. Hi Tuyen,

      Thanks a lot! I appreciate your support and am so glad you enjoyed my article 🙂 And yeah traffic in Vietnam definitely had it’s order and it’s own rhythm despite no clear rules. I think it’s growing so fast, I can’t wait to see how it’s changed even five years down the line. Thanks again and hope to see you back on my page! 🙂 Xxx

  3. This is honestly awful. I was reading the ruthless Expats comments you were getting and felt bad…then I read this and understood. I don’t even know where to start, but one part that really bugged me is how you think people who move to a western country would never be considered a “foreigner” if they adapted. Well I have some news, you’re white. Of course you’ll never be labeled a “foreigner”. Even though I was born and raised in the US, I still get labeled as a foreigner there. You’re white, you literally have no idea what you’re talking about. There is so much privlege still spilling out of you. Vietnam is far more welcoming for foreigners than any Western country I’ve visited. That’s the only point I care to comment on, the rest is utter shit as well but was mostly covered by others. You really must have not gotten anything valuable from living abroad, and you seem to have left with little insight.

    1. Just because I am white and a westerner I dont understand anything? Just because you were born and raised in the US you have all the expertise and understanding of the world? So much so for equality..and as far the points are concerned, they are not made up, they are real. So you mean to say I don’t understand these real things, I’m just dreaming…

  4. I am really glad you are travelling and jotting down your thoughts. Although most of this is common knowledge for most travellers, what is important is to keep recording it. The gap between western and developing countries is real, and nothing is going to change it unless the balance tilts in terms of productivity and economics. I do think the balance will tilt gradually. One of the most important factors is population. The developing countries are aping the rules and regulations mostly laid out by the first world nations. The rules and way of life that applies in the US may not apply for a populace that is 30 or 40 times more than a US or the UK. That may be one of the biggest flaws but that – population – could also become the clincher eventually. In any case, what i think is most important is people – ordinary people – like you and me from worlds apart must keep travelling and putting down what we see and what our thoughts are. These thoughts will eventually help in someone somewhere picking up things from these points and using it to tweak things that could eventually would impact lives of so many. The whole world should keep pushing boundaries and looking for uncharted territories where rules are not laid down and followed top down, but actions mounted on free will, needs and wants define processes and schools of thought. Change will come.

    Anyways, guess i am digressing. I also wanted to ask you something in connection with your post. How did you land a teaching job in vietnam? Is it easy for a foreign national on tourist visa to approach schools and ask them if they have a year-long or temp assignments to teach? i would be very interested in taking a sabbatical to do something like that. If you think you do not want to share specific details pertaining to this, on this public platform, please drop in a mail at vpremshanker at gmail.

    It was a pleasure reading your blog post.

    Cheers,
    Prem.

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