Friday, 7 October 2011

My slapdash people

This post first appeared as a column in AsiaLIFE Ho Chi Minh City magazine.
I am a naturally slapdash person. I believe if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing quickly and with as little effort as possible.

I apply my “that’ll do” philosophy to all areas of life, including cooking (“Sift the flour? Sounds like a waste of time to me!”), home cleanliness (“The vacuum cleaner sucks up dust and pushes things under the bed!”), and personal grooming (“So long as I don’t raise my arms, there’s no need to shave my armpits!”).

When I arrived in Vietnam I immediately recognised it as my spiritual home, populated with like-minded souls who truly were my people: my slapdash people. Because if there’s one thing the Vietnamese love to cut, it’s corners.

My delight soon turned to concern, however, when I realised that some problems do seem to arise if you have an entire nation of people who are just like me. It’s all very well for me to take a laissez-faire approach to life, because I don’t actually do anything important, but I can assure you that you don’t want me to build any load-bearing structures for you.

Vietnam is where the slapdash chickens have come home to roost. And that chicken house is a little bit shoddy. Like, maybe the door doesn’t quite close properly and the chickens get an electric shock whenever they turn on the light.

But this isn’t a column about Vietnam’s iffy wiring and laidback approach to pernickety details like construction standards. It’s not about living in a country where your landlord sends you a text message when you’re having a house party to warn you against your guests all dancing at the same time because it will cause your building to collapse. Would I besmirch the good name of my slapdash brethren at the first sign of my house collapsing? No!

This is a column about Vietnamese negligenius: that fine line between negligence and genius. And I think you know I’m going to err on the side of genius.

For example, our upstairs neighbour asked the aforementioned landlord to replace her mouldy, disintegrating shower curtain one day while she was out. When she came home, she found a brand spanking new shower curtain hanging up. Unfortunately this one was a good 20 centimetres too short to actually curtain the shower.

She mentioned this small, but fairly important, problem to the landlord and the next day she came home to find… what do you think? No, not a new, longer shower curtain, nor a strip of plastic stapled onto the bottom of the old one (this is what I, in all my slapdash glory would have done).

Instead, the shower rail had been wrenched out of its fittings, and, using a number of probably inappropriate tools, reaffixed into some holes that had been whacked into the tiles 20 centimetres lower down the wall.

Sure, her bathroom now looked like a construction site, but she had a functional shower. That, my friends, is negligenius.

The same landlord, who has now been mentioned so many times that he is basically the star of this column, also once tended to a problem we were having with the light in our bedroom.

He stood on a chair, which he put on top of a desk, played around with the light for a while (with the power on, obviously), declared it broken and then removed the entire fitting, holus bolus, from the ceiling.

I noted to him that when we lay in bed, we would now be gazing up at a gaping hole into our no doubt rat-infested roof. So he reached down to the desk - conveniently located under the chair he was standing on - picked up a document I had printed out for work and then slipped it inside the ceiling so that it lay flat against the hole.

Voila, negligenius: light problem fixed, hole problem totally fixed. Plus the rats now have some bedtime reading material if they want it.

And so Vietnam, I salute you. Your slogan should be “Vietnam: Experience the negligenius” and your logo should be that guy I once saw - negligenius incarnate - who had fashioned himself a motorbike helmet out of a polystyrene box. I realise now that you’re not my slapdash people at all: you are my masters, and I have much to learn.


  1. I'm 100 per cent with you in not sifting flour or shaving my armpits. And of course! The vacuum cleaner does perform two functions! I've been wasting my time over the years picking crap up first. What was I thinking?

    I've also gone so far as to tell my landlord, upon my moving-out-bond-inspection, that the glass in the shower had always been 'frosted'.

    Which is less about being slapdash and more about being filthy, now that I come to think about it...

  2. Oh Sam, we're not filthy, we're efficient! When it comes to cleaning or personal hygiene my approach is always Do Your Bare Minimum.

  3. Hello. My name is Chi and I'm a Vietnamese. Have to say your blog is full of sarcasm about Vietnamese lifestyle and personalities, which never ceases to amuse me. Don't get me wrong, I greatly LOVE it! I admire people like you who lay down judgement with an ease of humor and satire, thus making yourself hardly sound like a whiner. I used to bitch about my people and social issues a lot, but since I chanced into your blog and started devouring it, I have adopted a somewhat lesser extent pessimistic view. Hence, I would sometimes refer to the satirical tone in your blog to confront my problems with lesser criticism and more humor. And then I realized that way I will do myself a big favor by driving away the stress. Thank you very much for such an eye-opening lesson! I have been following your blog for quite a while but haven't commented, so I decided now it's time to delurk and say "hi". Plese keep up your good work and I look forward to your next posts.

  4. Hi Chi. Thanks so much for your comment - it really made me smile! I think it's very true that often in Vietnam if you didn't laugh, you'd cry, so I'll keep trying to make your life less stressful!

  5. I actually laughed out loud at this post. This might also be of interest to you, as a conissuer of negligenius

  6. Tabitha, I was bold enough to go along and just define it for you - unfortunately there is no way to give credit where it's due - and for that I apologise.

  7. Well, I never! That is only the most awesome thing that has ever happened to me! Now I can get a negligenius mousepad! Thanks datakid!!

  8. Hi Tabitha, My name is Mel and I am Vietnamese. I came across your blog not long ago and your slapdash column shows just how perceptive you are about my people :) I didn't know there was a terminology but I'm happy to adopt negligenius, I agree that it's all about quick, easy fixes with the least amount of effort. I live with one of those personalities - my dear old Vietnamese father :)

    In line with the subject of your column I will tell you a story.

    I had asked my partner M to enclose a pergola space by erecting an 11M side wall (fyi I live in Australia).

    In response to my request M (white guy and engineer), spent a grand total time of 5 months meticulously planning his construction and calculating raw material requirements, researching timber grades and the differences in chemical treatment, not to mention the tools required to get the job done. I think this is rather typical of an engineer.

    M ended up spending over two weeks building the timber frame using what might probably be an overkill combination of steel braces, screws, bolts, PVA glue and silicone. I think this is also typical of an engineer to remove as much risk as possible guessed it, engineering the risk out or until it is at an acceptable level of negligible tolerance.

    The funny part is, while M was carrying out the project, my dear old father was loitering around trying to be helpful.

    After finishing the project, M stood back back and casually commented "your dad would have finished building that in a couple of days. It would have been held together by a handful of nails". :)

  9. Hilarious story Mel! I wonder what your Dad thought of all the painstaking preparations? I know that as a slapdash person myself I find watching people being careful to be absolutely unbearably frustrating. I would have grabbed the hammer from M's hand! Thanks for posting, and I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. Would love to hear more from your perspective as a Vietnamese person in Australia.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.