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So, try to imagine a man driving a motorbike, a 5-year-old standing on the tiny platform between him and the handlebars, a tall toddler standing behind him on the seat, clinging round his neck, and a woman sitting side-saddle behind the baby. Both adults are bent over scrolling on the phone. In the middle of traffic. I see this every day, but a few days back, I saw a toddler playing peek-a-boo with his dad while he was driving. Interestingly, as he struggled to move the baby’s hands away, the man never shifted his eyes away from his phone.
Between the two adults described above, nobody had one good eye on the road. Said plainly, the man was impaired; he drove with one eye, one hand. Look around, so many are. All I could do was laugh. I didn’t find the spectacle funny. I chuckled to myself, mostly about my own helplessness. I feel like there’s nothing I can do about the risk they face, or the danger they place on others. Their kids are at a severe disadvantage, being precociously exposed to such mindlessness. Many of the motorists around here are similarly disabled. It’s a common affliction.
What if the baby decides it’s not time to stop peek-a-boo, as babies do, despite the man using his hand to wave him away in frustration? What if they hit a bump – because he wasn’t looking – and either child slipped? Or, what if some driver is speeds towards you in the exact same scenario? Or, what if either dropped their phone? We know that there is a strong impulse to reach for a falling object – even in traffic. Imagine dropping something that holds great value for you. Would instinct kick in? Could it be worse now since heavy social media usage paves neural pathways of impulsive behaviours?
As I move around on the streets, it’s as if most people have only one hand and one eye on the road. It’s nothing to see someone driving a motorcycle holding their phones to their ear, enthralled in conversation, just one hand guiding their vehicle through torrid traffic and very bumpy roads. Potholes and sewage covers, for example, are regularly too deep to tackle with two wheels, so drivers usually swiftly go around. A quick swerve. What’s more, it’s the normal thing to carry one’s entire family along on these adventure rides. Yet, even with two-to-three generations in tow, I’ve seen drivers driving around with their phone in one hand, dialing, texting or scrolling, lifted so they could see it.
I can count on one hand the number of moto-taxi drivers I’ve had with any hands-free brace to hold the phone as it displays our route. Some, at least, leave their devices in their pockets, and only check-in at stoplights. (I should start mentioning this in my ratings – not just stars.)
Devices? Mobile phones sold in this part of the world have two SIM card slots, but it’s also quite common to see people jostling two phones at a time. Perhaps one for private use, and the other professional, and so forth. It suggests a deeply entrenched mobile phone culture here, now.
In any public space, on any form of transportation, no matter what’s going on, you can look in any given direction and see most people glued to their phones. Alone, with friends, families, co-workers all are online. Face-to-face is never enough. The most distressing is seeing adults snub kids for their phones – or worse get them hooked early and stuff device in their hands, too. What’s a kid supposed to think if mommy and daddy drive while mobile impaired? Yes, kids, it’s not gone unnoticed that parents are spending more time with their phones than their own kids. Even during a commute. Ah, riding with my folks used to be such good quality time.
Smartphones are powerful. So, it comes to no surprise that folks would take to squeezing in every free moment to scroll through social media. If folks aren’t handling it directly, their phones are sitting right there in front of them, the perfect escape for even a moment’s silence, uncertainty, doubt, loneliness, longing, or even curiosity. The mobile provides it all. It has disabled our ability to focus, even when operating heavy machinery.
Why not take time during that long drive to pick and jive with friends on the net? What’s a matter with liking a few of my friends’ Facebook posts at the traffic light? It’s not like my kids have anything interesting to say. I can respond to a few work messages by the time I get to where I’m going; who cares if I slow-up traffic. Oh, let me stop right here, in the middle of the road, to finish this text. This has to be done now; I am unable to refuse. While cruising along, why not just let my friends know that I’m just a few minutes away (even if I’ve already shared my live locations and texted them just as I set off on my way).
Though cognitively we know that we tend to overestimate the things that we can divide our attention between. Vehicles are keenly designed to allow drivers to focus on the road ahead, having a forward-facing display and any needed amenity at one’s fingertips. On two wheels, acceleration and brakes, blinkers and even widely used horns are all there at drivers’ fingertips. Cars compete for the easiest to reach radio, seat, and climate controls. In my last car, I could even do all these things and more from my steering wheel. Yet here, I even seen the biggest, most fully equipped cars being driven around by mobile disabled drivers. These brand-spanking new vehicles come with hands-free technology, but it’s a miss to me as to why there’s no widespread usage of these. Plus, no moto-makers have designed these two-wheelers for one-handed, one-eyed driving.
I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.
The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?
In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.
Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.
In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status? Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!
I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.
In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.
Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.
A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.
Dr Diepiriye S. Kuku-Siemons earned his PhD in Sociology at Delhi University (2011). He joined the University of Northampton in 2012, where he is currently a Senior Lecturer in International Business, and is on sabbatical in Hanoi. He has also been a visiting lecturer in business ethics and cross-cultural management at FH-Aachen, Germany and ESDES Lyon, France (2015-17). Diepiriye is from Louisville, Kentucky and avidly follows American media and political history. His current research areas are popular culture; Artificial Intelligence in society; Engaged Pedagogy, Intersectionality; Sustainability.
Diepiriye previously worked in international development: In Delhi, he worked with several community-based and international development organisations (Oxfam, UNAIDS, USAID) organisations. While earning his MPH in International Heath and Development at Tulane University’s School Public Health and Tropical Medicine (2003), he interned at the Institute for Human Rights in Colombo and spent a semester studying health systems management at the ASEAN Institute for Health Development at Mahidol University in Bangkok. His first graduate posting was with the Peace Corps, where he worked with a local cooperative and taught ESL in rural Mali (1997-99). He earned a B.A. in Biochemistry and Africana studies from Oberlin College (1997). Diepiriye loves to dance.