We were enjoying the fire drill just fine until the maintenance men started screaming at us. Students and teachers alike had ambled down the stairway at a leisurely pace, but once we reached the ground floor of the ILA building, the blue-shirted Vietnamese jabbed their fingers violently towards the main entrance as a steady column made for the basement garage.
I was happy to escape an afternoon of English Language Acquisition methodology training, so when one of the men locked me in his frantic stare, I heeded his command. But as I rounded the glass-walled reception desk, I noticed that the massive, open frontage was draped in a curtain of water. Outside, there were no fewer than 3 high-powered hoses firing at the building. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to find everyone behind me staring ahead as well, clearly thinking the same thing: Do they expect us to run through that?
Out came the blue-shirted madmen, keeping up their ruckus. Question answered.
People emerged from the building, drenched to varying degrees, depending on their individual abilities to duck, weave, and keep their footing on the soaked marble steps. Almost everyone turned to stare up at the building. Had an actual fire broke out prior to the scheduled drill? Had they set fire to the building deliberately?
Neither was the case. Unless ILA is given special treatment as Saigon’s premier English-language school, fire drills in Vietnam are not solely staged for building occupants to practice evacuation, but for the fire department to get in some target practice.
Living in a culture far removed from one’s own, specifically one behind the curve on modernization, you quickly learn that while some things are lost in translation, others are lost in adaptation. This occurs in a number of realms.
Take the realm of staple cuisine. As the Vietnamese develop an appetite for American and European fare — the Italian coffee fad is gaining traction — its common for non-tourist restaurants to offer a few staples from Western menus. More than anything, it seems, the dishes are added for a stylish little touch. Sometimes, however, style doesn’t translate into substance, such as when I ordered fish ‘n chips at a nice, mid-range restaurant and received a plate of fish sans chips.
In the case of the fire drill, I don’t mean to suggest that the West is the fountain of all things rational and modern. Nor do I have any special insight into the origin and development of fire safety procedures or their history in Vietnam. But generally, it’s safe to assume that modern procedures travel from modernized spheres to modernizing ones.
And on that note, someone needs to have a sit down with Saigon’s top fire warden.