Saturday, April 09, 2005

Straight Life

A friend of ours recently returned from a trip home to America. It's pretty common, so we hear, to go home and encounter some reverse culture shock. I know that for me it will be getting used to the consumerism, the prices and the portion sizes at restaurants. It will be hard to remember to say "Excuse me" and not to push my way through. Brian asked our friend what he noticed the most and he didn't even hesitate, "The rules", he said.

This surprised me, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. There are no rules here. You can eat, drink, spit and ride your bike wherever you want. You can smoke anywhere. You can choose to buckle up, or not. You can ride your moped on the street or on the sidewalk and whether you wear a helmet or not is entirely up to you. Most traffic rules are merely suggestions and there is really no police presence to enforce the few rules that do exist. Even tax laws, citizen registration and medical benefits appear to be flexible.

Sounds chaotic doesn't it? Like fires, mayhem and crime would run rampant? Nope. It's safe and overall, incredibly well-behaved. People don't vandalize. They don't really use illicit drugs. They do have a higher traffic accident rate but I'm not sure what the direct cause of that is. People don't really steal or murder (I mean, it happens but at a much lower rate than in Western countries) and kids ride their bikes all over the place and I haven't seen one killed yet.

There is the flip side of course. They are rigid and don't adapt well to change. They don't question authority. They are restricted by far weightier consequences than the law. They are deathly afraid of shaming the family. They cannot think or process anything as an individual and always consider the group first. There are no privacy laws and people share everything. Your employer knows all your banking and medical information and dictates what hours you will work. There is no room for you only for us. You, as a person, are insignificant.

When I first came here I liked having rules and I thought the Canadian way was the right way. Now, I'm not so sure. I have seen both sides of it and there is something liberating about knowing that you can do what you want. A sense of personal accountability that has been sanitized at home. The government takes care of us and I used to love it. Now I think it's all a little weird. Having said that, things over here are a little crazy too.

Like most things in life (not to make this sound like a plug for mediocrity) the best way probably lies somewhere in the middle.

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