10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Singapore

Before I took my recent trip to Singapore, the only things I knew about it were:

  1. It is a modernized, international city-state (as in, both a city and a country), and
  2. Chewing gum there is illegal.

I wasn’t sure what there was to see and do there, but it is close to Hong Kong and cheap to fly to so I decided to give it a shot. Turns out Singapore is awesome! Here are ten things I learned about the country during my trip.

Country Background

  1. Singapore is a true mix of Asian cultures

According to demographic statistics, Singapore is about 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, and 9% Indian. The city’s museums do an excellent job of portraying the histories of these different groups, and visiting the neighborhoods of Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India is another great chance for tourists to witness Singapore’s diversity.

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  1. It has four official languages

Because of its ethnic diversity, Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil (which is spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka). The language of instruction in schools is English, but children are required to study another official language as a second language. English is therefore the lingua franca, though I found people’s accents tricky to understand at first!

Sultan Mosque

Sultan Mosque, located in Arab Street

3. Religious diversity is high

Singapore is about 33% Buddhist, 20% Christian, 14% Muslim, 11% Taoist, and 5% Hindu. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, that makes Singapore the world’s most religiously diverse nation. One cool experience I had was that my hostel was located in a very Muslim neighborhood where most women wore headscarves and long skirts, and I was able to visit a massive Ramadan night market along with a varied crowd of people (the one at Gerang Serai for those who know the city!) There are beautiful mosques, temples, and churches scattered throughout the city, and according to Singaporeans everyone celebrates everyone else’s holidays.

Statistics from: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/

  1. Before becoming independent, Singapore was occupied by Japan…

Singapore was a British colony from the 1800s up until World War 2, when Japan was able to take Singapore from the British. At the end of the war the territory was given back Britain, but soon Singaporeans began requesting independence.

  1. … And then it was part of Malaysia for two years

Ever wondered why Singapore exists as a tiny little dot at the end of Malaysia’s long tail? Well, after Singapore first gained its independence, it did try and join Malaysia, but the union didn’t work out. Malaysia overall hoped to form a society based on Malaysian culture, while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

To clarify that vision, when the government of Singapore decided to become independent, Prime Minister Lee Kuan-Yew told the new nation, “We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not as Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.” And that is the model which has ushered in modern Singapore.

Fun Facts!

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  1. Ice kasang is pretty cool

The coolest food (literally) I tried in Singapore is called ice kasang, and it is popular in both Malaysia and Singapore. I was wandering around a mall food court one day hoping to grab a snack (sometimes I’m so excited when I travel that I forget to eat proper meals) and I looked over at someone else’s table and spied a rainbow mountain of goodness. Immediately I rushed to the closest food stall, scanning menus until I figured out where I could have what she was having!

I got a mango ice kasang (pronounced ka-chang), and it is made through the following steps: 1) Dump some weird tasteless jelly things into a bowl 2) Dump in corn (yes, corn) and red beans 3) Shave a massive heap of ice over the top 4) Pour various sweet syrups and some condensed milk onto the ice, and 5) Crown the top with some tasty mangoes. Honestly I thought this thing was so good, though like I said the jellies at the bottom were a disappointing finish and my mouth was entirely numb after eating approximately three pounds of snow. It was really the perfect treat after wandering around in Singapore’s sweltering heat!

  1. More Food Facts: Kopi, Teh, or Milo?

Ordering a drink in Singapore was probably the most difficult experience of my trip. I know that the city has four official languages, but I think ordering coffee should be an official fifth!

Menus start with both regular coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), which is pretty easy to figure out, but there is also an entire shorthand language which can be added onto the ends of kopi and teh. Adding “Si” means you want both milk and sugar, “O” means sugar but no milk, and then you can even mix all of the flavors together if you want… I think what I ended up getting was the “Kopi C Halia Iced,” which was iced coffee with milk and sugar and also some ginger flavor (that was the “halia”). I felt very proud when I sort of knew what I was saying as I ordered.

On top of kopi and teh there is also Milo which is like a powdered hot chocolate type of thing that lots of people, especially kids, love to drink. One Milo drink is the Milo Dinosaur, which is iced Milo with condensed milk and sugar, and undissolved Milo powder piled on top in a little mound.

  1. Singapore has nature!

Despite Singapore being a modern city some of its major tourist attractions are all about nature. Like Gardens by the Bay, which you’ve probably seen tons of really cool photos of on Instagram. Apart from the classic Supertree Grove there are some lovely fields and flowers there too.

But the biggest and best Singaporean nature attraction is definitely the Botanical Gardens, and particularly the Orchid Garden section. While a large part of the Botanical Gardens is free, not much of it is very photo-worthy apart from the palm tree section. But the Orchid Garden had plenty of stunning plants, archways, gazebos, trees, and so on. It made me feel like I was in The Secret Garden, and is a lovely way to spend a morning.

  1. Singapore has beaches!

Again, since I always just perceived Singapore to be a big city it kind of slipped my mind that it is actually an island (confession: I actually didn’t even know that until after my trip…) and therefore there is lots of nice coastline. While most tourists head to a tiny island in the south of Singapore called Sentosa to get their beach fix, I decided to try one closer to my hostel, East Coast Park.

I would very highly recommend this beach. It was near-empty, the water was super warm, and almost everyone else there was a local. The beach also had a really excellent selection of oceanfront places to eat and drink, so after burning my skin in the sun for a few hours I was able to get a bacon burger and beer, and a Starbucks frappuchino for dessert. And before you lambast me for being a basic white girl tourist, don’t worry, I also crossed the street afterwards and tried some Indonesian ‘pulut hitam’ flavored ice cream. Pulut hitam is made from black glutinous rice porridge with coconut milk and palm or cane sugar, but all I knew at the time was that it was purple and delicious, and definitely worth eating two desserts in one day. (Second confession: I may have had even more desserts that evening…)

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The Merlion is Singapore’s mascot!

10. Singaporeans love their countrySingaporeans definitely really want travelers to see their country, probably because it is not exactly a #1 world tourism destination. I met some extremely helpful people who talked to me all about their country’s history, culture, and most interesting spots. For example, as I ate lunch in little India, a woman at the next table over randomly struck up a conversation with me, gave me several restaurant recommendations, and then pulled out a paper and pen and made a full list of other things I could go see during my trip!

I noticed a theme of the recommendations I got was that people really wanted you to see stuff other than the tourist locations. I feel like in some countries, when you get off the beaten path people look at you funny, like, “Why on Earth would a tourist be out here?” But in Singapore it seemed they were really appreciative of people who like to dig a little deeper. Since that is exactly how I like to travel, and since I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s perspectives on random things like the chewing gum policy, this made Singapore a great fit for me! (Did you know spitting is illegal too? Wow!)

After visiting, I can see why people are so proud—Singapore is diverse, safe, peaceful, and accomplished, which makes it a lovely place to spend some time. 

Does Reality Matter?

The National Palace Museum of Taipei holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. It is also one of the world’s five most visited museums. In its cool, quiet exhibition rooms one can wander alongside strangers, pondering the meanings of ancient shapes and inspirations. Visitors are Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, European, American, Indian… but in the hallways of the museum we are merely fellow humans enjoying the art.

The National Palace Museum of Taipei is either the result of a rogue looting of Communist Party property, or the result of a noble effort to protect and preserve China’s ancient artifacts. It depends on one’s reading of the history of China after the fall of the last dynasty, whether one sees Taiwan as a state in rebellion, or if the true state in rebellion is the People’s Republic of China governing the mainland. It is a situation where two places with the same origins have two totally different ideas about what the facts of their relationship are. Both truly and honestly believe that their position on the autonomy of Taiwan is the only one based on fact, and that any suggestion to the contrary is insane.

This should not be confused with a “difference of opinion,” by the way. This is an actual disagreement over what is factually true.

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Those not familiar with the conflict may think this disagreement over reality to be silly or strange, but they would be wrong. In almost every conflict situation on Earth, people are wrestling with this same struggle every day—a struggle of contesting narratives which do not add up to a coherent truth. In Israel and Palestine, in India and Pakistan, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, in Turkey and Armenia, narratives are split about what things really happened and what did not.

Yet another example is Chinese and Japanese narratives on what really happened during the Nanjing Massacre. “300,000 dead,” read the signs in the museum in Nanjing, China, whereas the Japanese claim it was closer to the 50,000-100,000 range. How can something as concrete as 200,000 human lives become a disputed fact? I’m not sure I understood until America spent a week arguing over what we could all plainly see with our own eyes: whether Obama’s or Trump’s inauguration photo showed more attendees.

For in the wake of the 2016 US election, it has become popular to talk about Americans’ “bubbles.” We grow up in certain neighborhoods, surround ourselves with similar friends, and only read newspapers that confirm our original beliefs, therefore we live in bubbles which need to be popped.

I agree to some extent, but “bubbles” is a bit of a weak word for something that is more like “alternate realities.” And it shouldn’t exactly be treated as something unprecedented. All it proves is that America has joined the “society-in-conflict” party, alongside places like Taiwan and China.

In other words we are not alone, but it is not exactly good company.

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Calligraphy art

Some people like to treat differences in interpretations of reality as though they are differences in interpretations of art. As a dreamer and idealist myself one might think I would count myself among their ranks. And believe me I have tried. During election season I lapped up every single article I saw about the perspectives and characteristics of Trump supporters, hoping to at last find the key that would unlock a comfortable understanding of them. As someone with a relentless desire to understand absolutely everything it filled me with so much frustration when every article seemed to fall just short of enlightening me as to what exactly their reality is constructed of.

Art can be so peaceful because of both its connection to, and separation from, genuine reality. With a friend, you can stand in front of an abstract painting and give your own opinions, considering each other’s viewpoints equally.

“I think it’s a horse,” your friend whispers.

“No, I think it’s a birthday cake,” you whisper back. But you still leave laughing and walking together, no matter how strong your disagreements on the painting.

Why can’t the real world just be like this? I suppose it’s because art may either inspire or depress, but rarely does one leave the halls of a museum totally changed. Rarely therefore does art affect one’s actions in real life… but a person’s view of reality does matter, and it deeply and severely affects real life, especially for those whom that worldview hurts.

Whether the police shot an innocent man or a dangerous criminal is of huge importance; whether a woman was saying yes or no is a matter of serious gravity; whether climate change is genuine or a big coordinated hoax is a matter of the actual survival of our planet.

In these types of situations, it is absolutely imperative that we know the real truth, and cannot leave room for “interpretation.”  So yes, reality matters, and reality is a matter of life and death.

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Palace Museum Interior

The real truth can be hard to come by. As humans with the capacity for logical thought, our instinct is strong to always use facts in our arguments, assuming they are more accurate than emotions. This can be a problem. While most humans agree that emotions are fallible and should always be taken with a grain of salt, we do not exercise the same amount of caution in trusting the facts we see on the Internet or even the ones we hold in our own heads. Facts are seen as iron-clad and argument-ending, while in reality, facts are just as slippery as emotions in that we need lots of context to fully understand where they’ve come from and why they exist. Our understanding of the world will never be objective and uncolored, because we all are susceptible to fallible emotions—and we all are susceptible to fallible logic, too.

I wish I could be more kind and forgiving towards alternative viewpoints on reality, recognizing that all of us struggle with finding the truth at some time or another. And yet reality deserves urgency. A potential genocide is going on in Syria. Am I supposed to nod and listen mildly when someone suggests with “purity of intent” that letting people die there is safer than letting them into the US as refugees?

Am I supposed to be cordial and accepting of the reality that my fellow citizens voted for a man who bragged about sexual assault? Am I supposed to accept that in their realities where the same words were said, somehow those words didn’t reek of the same grotesque meaning, the feeling of being grabbed in a dark bar or catcalled on an empty street? Am I supposed to pretend it’s okay and acceptable to me that so-called “alternate interpretations” exist where either I’m being silly, those words don’t mean what you think they mean, or the worst, the reality where all men just go around saying and doing those things? Is that really something I’m supposed to hear with an open mind, like Trump is not disgusting because all men are absolute pigs, and both men and women are allowed to live in a world where they believe this to be true and unchangeable?

Don’t people want something better?

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Me and Blurred Reality

In a way we all have the power to create the realities we want and then inhabit them. Social media makes it even easier. We can curate our experiences on Instagram and Facebook to make glorified lives for ourselves. In a more tangible sense, the way we act often dictates how others act to us. Those who believe no one can be trusted are generally not trustworthy themselves, and those who believe the world is beautiful seem to find the most beauty.

Those who don’t want to believe their own clothes are on fire can stand there grinning in denial until they die, if they so choose. Those who don’t want to believe Trump is a bad guy can create a reality where everyone else is somehow worse. But honestly, what good is that doing anyone? Shouldn’t the opposite also be true, that if we dream up a reality where the world is peaceful and loving we could live there too?

I still believe we can. I believe in a reality where people first and foremost respect other people. Where we all fight together to understand the absurd complexity of this world. Key emphasis on together, because some of the few things I know to be true are that human beings all want mostly the same things, life is kinda scary, and all of us are super confused.

Look, I wish we could live in a world where looking at reality was like looking at a painting, and we could all see something different and that would be okay. But in real life, if we build the wrong reality people get hurt.

At the very least, can we agree to show ourselves some respect by believing in a reality that’s better than this?

Putting the Tea in Taipei

Need to get away from the hectic streets of Taipei? A peaceful escape is closer than you think…

Taipei is a loud city. That was one of my thoughts as I finally got off the bus after a one hour flight and somehow about two more hours of trying to get out of the dang airport. Any place with as many motorbikes as Taipei is bound to be somewhat deafening, as well as stressful; I’m the type of person who is usually lost in a cloud of half-formed ideas and the narrow side streets built for whizzing motorbikes are not really an awesome place to get wrapped up in deep thought. After almost getting hit at least a dozen times I figured it’d be nice to take a day out of the action.

Luckily it is easy to make a day of an escape to Maokong, a village full of tea plantations located up in the hills surrounding Taipei. The characters for Maokong (猫空) literally mean “cat sky,” and as I found through research afterward it is because the place was at one time overrun with these cute little cat-like things called masked palm civets. Sadly I didn’t see any of those cuties, but I did see lots of tea, with plenty of green space and mountain views too.

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Where can I get one? (Photo: Wikipedia)

You can get up to Maokong by taking a gondola ride from the Taipei Zoo, which is at the end of one of the city’s MRT lines. The gondola is a bit expensive at NTD 120 / HKD 30 / USD $4… okay so it’s not that expensive, but keep in mind you can also just take the minibus up for NTD 15 / HKD 4 / USD $0.50! And saving one hundred Taiwan dollars means you’ll have room for an additional snack or two at a night market later on. (Of course, if you take the gondola up you can also get some cool videos and pictures, which I eagerly did—and took the minibus back down at the end)

Up at the top of the mountain you might wonder what exactly you’re supposed to do. At least, you will if you’re anything like me and only do vague research before jetting off on adventures. I saw a map of the layout of the area and decided I’d walk in one direction until I found something cool.

Maokong

The direction chosen turned out to be an excellent choice. There were some great views of the mountains and tea fields from over here, as well as a bunch of cute little cafes which I kept bookmarked in my brain in case I wanted to stop later. After maybe 15 or 20 minutes of walking (and like 30 minutes of stopping to take photos about every 10 feet) I came across the Tea Promotion Center, a small museum-like place with information about the tea-making process and some tables to take a rest at. My favorite part of the promotion center was the free tea on tap and big mugs given to drink it with, so I stopped for a big cup of some nice hot tea, even though the weather was beginning to be sweltering.

Kaylee in MaokongThe next part is where I made the inevitable huge mistake, something I am almost guaranteed to do every time I travel. I saw a place on the map that sounded pretty cool—though I had no justification for that impulse—called Caonan (草南) which was about another 20-30 minutes into the mountains. Yeah, I can go another twenty minutes, I thought with confidence, and headed off, as the sun hit midday and began boring down and burning my snow-white shoulders. As usual I’d brought no sunscreen, though I did have a hat this time—at least my face was spared from the sunburn!

Alas, after walking about twenty minutes downhill and seeing nothing interesting but some pretty grumpy chained-up dogs, I came to a lovely bridge at the bottom of the hill… and then an empty road. I kept going for a few minutes, but it looked like the road just led to a small local village, and I felt like it was the kind of place where it would be weird if I just turned up unannounced. Leaving Caonan, it looked like there was a minibus that could take me elsewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out if it was going uphill back to Maokong or downhill and back to Taipei. Besides, the buses only came like every 30 minutes and I didn’t want to be a lone white girl standing by herself on some empty backroad. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m cautious when it comes to travel, but I do have my limits, and I trust my gut when it tells me not to do something. So I sighed, resigned to my fate, and began trudging back up the mountain.

Caonan Bridge

To be fair it was a really nice bridge…

After edging my way past the dogs again (one of which was untied and running around all growly now, making me freak out a bit about the risk of rabies), I made it back to a more popular part of the hill and spotted a restaurant I’d seen on the way down that quite a few people seemed to be going into, located near the Tea Promotion Center. I figured here was as good as anywhere to eat, so I headed in.

Turns out that restaurant is called the Yao Yue Teahouse (邀月茶坊) and it’s one of the most famous in Maokong (who knew?) That meant unfortunately that it was pretty expensive, at least by my standards, though keep in mind I thought the $4 gondola was a rip-off… At the Yao Yue there were a large variety of classy-sounding teas for sale, but you couldn’t just buy a single cup—you had to buy a small canister. However you got to take the rest home if you couldn’t drink it all, and that soothed my financially anxious heart a little bit.

The teahouse also had both full meals and some dim sum available to eat, so I went with the dim sum and got soup dumplings with tea in them instead of soup, some radish cakes with a wonderful dipping sauce, and scallion pancakes. The food was all super delicious, and the tea was nice too. The waiter even took a few minutes to explain the traditional way in which to brew and pour the tea, so you got a bit of a cultural experience along with the food. In total I spent about NTD 600 / HKD 150 / USD $19, and more than half of that was spent on the classy tea. Considering I was spending about NTD 200 to eat at night markets it felt expensive to me, but also considering I got a very nice atmosphere, unlimited tea, tasty food, and a souvenir to take back with me it really wasn’t so bad.

Maokong Green Tea Ice Cream

After an hour or so of drinking tea and reading Outlander (so addictive!) I headed back to the gondola station, stopping for one last treat—green tea-flavored ice cream. The excursion took most of the day (though it would’ve been shorter if I hadn’t taken my pointless hour-long side trip…) but it was well worth it to get some nice green photos and tasty eats at the top of Taipei.

Taipei Night Market Review

Lehua, Shida, and Shilin: All different, all delicious

There are around a dozen or so high-quality night markets scattered around Taipei and if I’d had twelve days in the city, believe me, I would have visited them all. I love night markets because the food is local, cheap, and delicious. They pretty much ensure you’re going to encounter at least a few new things, and they keep your wallet nice and full for more important activities, like more travel and more cheap night markets.

Unfortunately I only had a few nights in Taipei so I managed to visit just three night markets, though they each turned out to have a totally different vibe. No matter what kind of traveler you are, there’s definitely a market for you in Taipei, so here are my reviews to help you out!

Night 1: Lehua (Yonghe District)

Crowd Density: Low                                                         English Level: Low

Vibe: Low-key and local                                                  Food Choices: Meat-heavy, but tasty

Additional Notes: I went on a rainy Thursday so it could’ve been less crowded than usual.

This was my first night market and the closest to my hostel, so once I’d dropped my backpack off after my flight I basically rushed right over. The internet had claimed that this was one of the “most Chinese” night markets in Taipei and I was ready to get a taste (literally) of the real deal.

The internet was dead on as usual; here, the vendors automatically addressed me in Mandarin and didn’t offer any special praise for me understanding them (it may sound arrogant for me to have expected that, but hey, that’s what you get in the PRC!) Instead I was given no special treatment—in fact I’m suspicious that the people hawking cheap handbags on the side may have actively avoided me thinking I wouldn’t understand them, and that was definitely a plus!

At this market I ate some meat on sticks (yummy), some spicy mixed meat in a bucket (yummy, though I’m not sure what it all was and I definitely ate something’s balls), some Taiwanese milk tea, and a famous street food called 甜不辣 / tian bu la / “sweet not spicy.” Except the lady also added spicy sauce effectively defeating the purpose, but whatever I guess. I wasn’t a huge fan of it anyways; tasted like a bunch of squishy stuff covered in a weird salad dressing but I have no idea whether it’s supposed to taste different or nah. Total price was about NTD 200 / or 50 HKD / or ~$6 USD.

This was by far the most casual night market in that it didn’t seem to be trying to look attractive or appealing; it was really just some food stalls on some back street. A good variety of food, sure, but nothing luxurious. And I didn’t feel like everyone there was a tourist, though I think a good amount of mainland Chinese travelers were hanging out. Don’t think I saw another white person and I stayed for a good hour plus.

Verdict: Check out Lehua if you want the “real deal” and are willing to try new foods, but if you don’t speak Mandarin you can expect to struggle.

Night 2: Shida (Da’an District)

Crowd Density: Medium                                                    English Level: Medium

Vibe: College kids                                                                Food Choices: Eastern and Western

Additional Notes: This one was my favorite!

I walked over to the Shida night market after catching the sunset at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (an activity I would highly recommend!) On my way there I caught a glimpse of the pleasant-looking National Taiwan Normal University, which, being right next to the night market, means the majority of people who hang out there are college students. Being just 23 myself I blended right in, and it was fun to be somewhere that local people my age would actually hang out.

The food was pretty great at Shida; I had 小笼包 / Xiao long bao / soup dumplings, followed by some nice curry and rice, and then the totally Chinese dessert of crème brûlée in a crêpe. For the last one it was sold at a stall which had an amazing variety of crêpe options, and the guy made it by putting whipped cream all over the dough, rolling it into an ice cream cone shape, sprinkling sugar on the top, and then shooting a blow torch at it for like five minutes. After that, they had to put it into a fridge to let it cool off for about five more minutes, until at last I was able to take the delicious concoction.

“明天见!” See you tomorrow, the woman joked as she handed it to me. I wish I’d had the time! Total cost of the food that night was probably around NTD 260 / HKD 65 / USD ~$8. The crêpe was comparatively expensive, but definitely worth it.

As I munched my crêpe I strolled around checking out the area’s clothing shops. One cool thing about Shida is that it is a hub for small boutiques run by local designers. While sizes made for Chinese bodies are generally not well-equipped for handling my American-size hips, it was fun to browse, and there were handbag shops and such as well. As for the level of English at the market, I was addressed in both English and Mandarin here. It seemed some vendors were bilingual (or at least comfortable enough in English) while others were not.

Verdict: If you’re a 20-something traveler who doesn’t want to go either full-local or full-tourist, Shida is a great balance.

Night 3: Shilin (Shilin District)

Crowd Density: Very high                                                 English Level: Unsure…

Vibe: Touristy                                                                      Food Choices: Huge variety

Additional Notes: I went on a Saturday evening which to be fair is probably peak timing

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There are a few big advantages of heading to the Shilin market as a tourist. For one it was the easiest night market to find and the only one I didn’t use Google Maps for, as there were signs pointing the way from the subway station all the way to the first food stall. Second, it definitely had the largest choice of food by far, and being catered to tourists the food was definitely more geared toward Western tastes than the stuff at either Lehua or Shida. I recall seeing some English translations on signs but I didn’t really talk to any of the vendors here and honestly can’t remember if I was speaking Chinese or English—but I’d assume that at a tourist-friendly place like this English would do just fine.

Still, I personally found Shilin to be pretty unpleasant. At its densest it was so packed I could barely move, let alone decide to turn back to grab that yummy-looking ice cream from a few seconds ago. It was by far the loudest market too, with more of the whole “shouting at tourists to buy stuff” strategy which unfortunately so many otherwise nice shopping spots seem to abuse. There were tons of stores in the area along with the food, including larger international brands, but I didn’t stay and check them out.

To get the food I wanted I actually had to cut out onto a side street and loop around to reenter the fray—the crowd was one-way only. I ate just one dish at Shilin, some admittedly very tasty 宫保鸡丁 / gong bao ji ding / “kung pao chicken.” Of course one dish meant this was my cheapest night market, at NTD 120 / 30 HKD / ~$4 USD. But I was still hungry afterwards so I went to MOS Burger (a Japanese burger chain) back near my hostel. They gave me chicken nuggets with the burger instead of fries!

Oh, and there was one last problem with Shilin: no idea where the public toilets were or where to even start looking for one, so don’t show up needing to pee like I did. I was quite happy to find squat toilets at the Shilin subway station afterward—and trust me I don’t say that often.

Verdict: If you’re in a state of paralyzed culture shock but don’t want to hit McDonald’s, then spend the evening at Shilin… otherwise go somewhere else!

As I said there are probably a dozen plus night markets in Taipei and these are only three of them, but I think I got a pretty representative sample of their variety! In conclusion, you should definitely take the chance to explore and eat cheap somewhere new every night… and one of those nights, if you can, should be spent at Shida!

Taiwan: A Tale of Two Narratives

Disclaimer: I realize the political history of China and Taiwan is controversial and emotional for those invested in the conflict, and so I want to be clear that none of my words should be interpreted as a political statement on who I believe is “right” or “wrong”… it is not my conflict, I’m not trying to make a personal statement, I just try and get the facts as straight as possible.

Taiwan is an island off the coast of southeastern China and its capital is Taipei. Taiwan is also called the Republic of China, but should not be confused with the People’s Republic of China, which is the official name of mainland China. The exact relationship between mainland China and Taiwan remains a matter of dispute.

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The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds thousands of ancient Chinese artifacts

A Brief History____________________               

The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, fell in 1912, an event which can be seen as the turning point between ancient and modern Chinese civilization. The Republic of China (ROC) was the first government which emerged from the chaos. Through the 1920s the ROC government (led by the Kuomintang Party, or KMT) worked to unify China and establish itself as a legitimate government. Specifically, the KMT claimed it would make China a modern democratic society.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, was also growing in popularity as an opposition party which craved a revolution. They attempted to fight back against the government in the 1920s, but were too weak to pose a serious threat at the time. While the two parties were able to cooperate in fighting the Japanese invasion of the mainland during the 1930s and WWII, this truce collapsed as the war ended and the two were once again on different sides.

The parties entered an all-out civil war in around 1946, but this time around the Communists were better prepared. By 1949 the CCP had emerged from the war victorious. As the KMT retreated to Taiwan (along with two million refugees) and declared Taipei the “temporary capital” of the ROC until they could return to the mainland, Chairman Mao stood in Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the formation of the CCP-led, Communist, People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Beijing as the capital. The PRC is now the state most closely associated with the name “China,” although as you can see from the above, Taiwan also emerged from the same civilization.

Taiwan Today                                                                    

There is a split narrative between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese views of the current situation. In the PRC, the government position is that when Mao and the CCP won control over the mainland they also gained jurisdiction over all territories which constituted the historical civilization of China—including Taiwan—and therefore believe Taiwan is under their control. However, in Taiwan the government claims that the PRC has never had jurisdiction over Taiwan, the CCP is an illegitimate government occupying China, and the ROC is the only legitimate representative of the nation of China.

In terms of international recognition, the majority of nations now recognize the PRC as the official representative of China. In the United Nations, the ROC represented China until 1971, when member states voted that the PRC should represent China instead, which basically cancelled Taiwan’s UN membership. Due to its contested status and a desire to preserve the relationship with China, few nations have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, a number of nations conduct unofficial relations with Taiwan (and China turns a blind eye, but still does not want to hear about it).

What do the people think?                                           

The KMT succeeded in leading Taiwan down the path to democracy, and so there is an active debate amongst the Taiwanese population over this issue. While the mainstream position in Taiwan is that it does not belong to China, the question is whether it should go on being the Republic of China and claiming the mainland as its own, or if it should relinquish the claim and officially become the independent Republic of Taiwan.

Meanwhile in the PRC, the mainstream position is most definitely that Taiwan does belong to China… and I personally have never met a mainland Chinese person who was in any way willing to question that position.

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Chinese map of China… that ocean boundary is also controversial

On Political Correctness                                                 

  • On my blog I may occasionally refer to Taiwanese people, culture, or food as being “Chinese” and I want to be clear that I mean this ethnically, not politically. In Mandarin there a useful distinction between the two concepts; if one is a 中国人 / Zhongguo ren one belongs to the country of 中国, or the PRC; if one is a 华人 / hua ren one belongs to the 中华民族 which is more like “Chinese ethnic group.” When I say Chinese in the context of Taiwan I mean the ethnic 华人 not the political 中国人.
  • There are three topics mainland Chinese hate talking about, called the three T’s: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. All of these topics make Chinese people visibly uncomfortable when brought up. If you try and talk politics on these themes you should expect either a fiercely political answer or a very Chinese-textbook sounding rehearsed answer and then closed lips. Talking about these topics in China feels as rude and uncomfortable as telling someone in America that they’re fat (something which is actually totally okay in China!) In short, every society has things which make people uncomfortable. Don’t make people uncomfortable.
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Don’t mention it…

Victoria Peak

It would be difficult to overstate the beauty of the view from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Of course I haven’t been everywhere in the world (not even close) and I’m still young, but I like to think I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China and seen the Eiffel Tower at dusk… but the reaction I had looking out at the city of Hong Kong from the top of the Peak was borderline spiritual, and probably the best place I’ve seen yet.

Travel is always made more meaningful based on the lens we are looking through. Even with no lens the Peak is phenomenal; one of the world’s most dazzling cities, surrounded by incredible mountains and a clear blue ocean… I truly believe that nowhere in the world is going to get much better than that. But I saw it all at a time when, after having moving to China just a few months before, I wasn’t totally positive that I had made the right choice. I was doubting myself, wondering if just staying in America like the rest of my friends would have provided me with better life opportunities. I never questioned that thought again after this day. No way would missing out on this have been the better choice!

It’s probably best to just show some pictures, and put down what I wrote about it in my journal that day…

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“I identify as being an idealist. This means I have an imagination from my childhood that never quite went away, and it also means that my standards tend to be very high. I can daydream up the perfect vacation spot in an instant. I can make up friends and boyfriends and travel buddies galore without ever having to meet real people or do anything genuine. It’s no wonder I spend so many hours in my room thinking—there’s a huge world going on inside my head, and it’s a shame no one else gets to live in it too.

My expectations for Hong Kong were quite high. Obviously it is a well-known and well-loved city, a place I’ve fantasized about visiting for years now. Everyone just kept telling me about how cool it was, how unique, how energetic. So I went into this place expecting to find an awesome city.

And that is what I found, for the most part. On the ground Hong Kong is pretty great, full of interesting people and places and things to see. I took to it instantly, and vowed, just like last time, to start spending a lot more time there.

And then I went up to the top of the highest hill in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak. And for the first time in a long, long time, reality was so much better than anything I could have possibly dreamt up in my mind.

Because Hong Kong is not just awesome, but beautiful. No one ever told me that this city could be so beautiful. That it was surrounded by peaceful rolling green hills, that the surface of the harbor glistened in the sunlight. That the human-engineered skyline would interact so flawlessly with the nature surrounding it, that the breeze and sunlight and clouds would all align into one awesome and breathtaking day, and that I would be rendered speechless by the combination of it all.

Sometimes because my expectations are so high I become complacent with real life. I feel as though nothing much can really impress me because aren’t my dreams always going to be better than reality?

But every once in a while something comes along that reminds me that sometimes, something being real is all I need for it to be better than dreams.”

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The City With Three Heads

3 head city

The best view in Hong Kong is from the top of Victoria Peak, which is the city’s highest point. In the area called Midlevels, Hong Kong’s ultra-rich experience this world-famous view on a daily basis, in apartments which dot the sides of the slope all the way up.

On a humid Monday morning, I was sent to teach a private English lesson in one of the area’s luxury apartment buildings. I’d tried to look a bit nicer that day in an attempt to fit in, throwing on some cheap pearls and my black heels (though I was still pretty sure that with my grey cardigan from Target on, I wasn’t really fooling anyone). I took the subway to a bus station and hopped on a rickety minibus which wound its way alarmingly quickly up the hill. The man in the lobby gave my client a call to make sure she was ready for me, and I was whizzed right up to the 50th floor.

I stepped into a flat that looked like a model home. The furniture was so pristine it had either been delivered a day earlier, or had never been used. Not a single speck of dust sat on the floor, which was a gleaming dark wood. Blanketing the walls were giant windows, overlooking the expanse of the city, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and the boats of Victoria Harbour. I could barely breathe just looking at it.

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The view from the top of the Peak AKA about the same as the view from my client’s apartment…

A maid offered to take my shoes and I immediately kicked them off, not wanting to damage a thing. She got me water, then coffee, as I tried to make myself comfortable around the ridiculously elaborate dining table. My client walked out, a middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

“How are you?” I asked her.

“Yes?” she replied, blinking. Apparently that was the only English she knew.

We spoke a bit in Mandarin, her native language, first, as she was from mainland China. I taught her basic greetings in English, and then watched her struggle to communicate with her maid in Cantonese. After about an hour, I returned to the lobby. There, in fluent English, the doorman led me to a parking attendant who, in fluent English, directed me on how to take the minibus back to the metro.

While speaking English is not the only marker of educational attainment, and I’m sure my client is a very shrewd businesswoman in her native tongue, the situation still doesn’t feel 100% fair. It’s because the parking attendant and doorman, likely fluent in at least Cantonese and English and possibly Mandarin too, actually had to gain more skills growing up to attain their service positions than my client did to attain her phenomenal wealth. They had to gain more skills than even I did to obtain my job as a teacher of that same client, which most would agree is a higher-class job than a parking attendant, even if it’s at a luxury building.

The scenario is a good representation of the different parties who coexist in Hong Kong today, and in particular, the extreme lengths Hong Kongers need to go to just to stay afloat in their own city.

Still pretty British (Photo Credit: BBC)

After over a century of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, and ever since, wealth from the mainland has been pouring into the city. Offices have moved across the border, creating jobs for people fluent in Mandarin. Beautiful properties have been purchased by those who can afford them, and hordes of tourists from the mainland flock over and fill the already crowded streets, buying up all the luxury goods in sight.

While the culture of Hong Kong is similar to China in that people tend to be polite and indirect about addressing concerns, somehow when Hong Kongers talk about Chinese people all of this goes out the window. It’s not just the sheer size of the crowds that is a nuisance, but the fact that Hong Kongers believe the Chinese to be uncivilized. “They walk too slowly, talk too loudly, and don’t dress fashionably,” they’ll say. “And they don’t even speak English!” It seems most of Hong Kong’s ideas about “civilization” have come directly from the British colonial attitudes which governed their city up until the 1990s, but the irony of looking down on China as “uncivilized” when there was previously no border there seems to be lost on most Hong Kongers.

Instead, what people here seem to understand is that Hong Kong’s relative Britishness always gave it a competitive advantage in the international business arena, as it made it easier for foreigners to set up shop—that is, until businesses started flocking to mainland China instead. Hong Kongers can laugh at the Chinese all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have achieved extraordinary success without having to jump through the long list of “civilization” hoops that Hong Kongers have spent centuries clearing to engage with the world. Now, mainland China is where big business prefers to go, despite the large cultural gaps there that are not shifting, and despite the skills that most Chinese do not have, such as speaking English.

The irony in that is not lost on Hong Kongers at all.

Now, the region is in a state of cultural whiplash. The rules about what is necessary to be successful have all been scratched, and Hong Kong is scrambling to figure out how to regain its footing. Should it deepen its ties to the Western world and ensure all students speak fluent English? Should it begin using Mandarin as the main language of instruction, while adopting more Chinese-style classes on mainland values and history? Should it forget the rest of the world and double down on local investment, Cantonese, and Hong Kong culture? Or will some combination of the three provide the perfect way forward?

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My favorite picture of the collision of China, the West, and Hong Kong

Like most exam questions, Hong Kong has decided “all of the above” is the best answer here. In an effort not to leave anything out, as it could damage their students’ chances later in life, Hong Kong schools are teaching everything, and students are feeling the pressure. By the time students are in high school, they can speak three languages. They have one class dedicated to Hong Kong society, another dedicated to Chinese history, and a third where they must slog through Shakespeare. In terms of raw skill-building, the students are knowledgeable about an impressive variety of topics. The downside is that there seems to be little room left to teach skills like critically thinking about these ideas, or even firmly arguing an opinion, which is actually what most of my adult students want to work on. Perhaps it’s the great diversity of cultures the students are made to encounter, and the great uncertainty about their city’s own future, which seems to say that every angle is worth considering and every skill is worth having. I guess no one really knows what will come in handy.

Hong Kongers are trying to gain enough knowledge to fill three heads, to keep up with the mainlanders and expats who generally only need to fill one. No matter how competitive Hong Kongers are compared to the other parties, the game is already stacked against them.

I believe this won’t last forever—eventually, things will boil over, and there will be a new status quo as far as what skills are really necessary to get a job here. But what exactly this will look like is uncertain. All I know for sure is that in a city with three heads, only one will be allowed to tell the body—and that includes all three pieces of it—where to go next.

About Me

Hello!

My name’s Kaylee and I am a wanderer, writer, thinker, and dreamer currently living in Hong Kong. I chose to begin my career abroad because as an International Affairs major in college, all I wanted to do after graduating was start traveling right away. My journey began when I headed off to Shenzhen, China to practice my Mandarin and teach English for a year. I stumbled upon Hong Kong somewhat by accident, as in by taking a few day trips across the border and realizing what an intense, international, and intriguing place it was, so I’ve decided to stay for a bit. My goals for the next few years are to travel East and Southeast Asia, blog lots of great content about Hong Kong/China and the world at large, and make a positive impact on the people around me in any way I can.

The title of my blog, “There Are No Foreign Lands,” represents the mindset I strive to maintain when I travel. It’s easy to go into a new place seeing everything as strange and different—but if you try to immerse yourself and just go with it as much as possible, the trip becomes an internal as well as external journey. Struggling to blend into unfamiliar circumstances, learning about local ideas, languages, and customs, and discovering new places through aimless wandering are the joys which make travel meaningful for me.

Thank you for taking the time to read my work, and I hope you enjoy it!

“There are no foreign lands; it is the traveler only who is foreign.”

Follow me on Instagram! @noforeignlands_

Travel Won’t Kill You, but your Worldview will Never be the Same

I write about travel because I believe it is one of the few things in this world which has the power to genuinely change who we are.

By ‘travel’, I don’t mean heading to a foreign beach resort for four days and then taking a taxi back to the airport—though even that can help people dip their toes in the travel water, and I’m all for it. But to me the word ‘travel’ is much more than that, and is about experiencing sustained, long-term living in another location. I believe this form of travel is one of the most worthwhile things a person can invest their time and money in.

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Hordes of Chinese tourists won’t kill you

Of my 2.5 years of professional experience so far, about 2 years of it has been spent abroad. Many have told me that living in places like China and South Africa is dangerous, but as a young woman who mostly travels solo, I can tell you that the most danger I’ve encountered so far has been taxis that go too fast (or perhaps even scarier, taxis that go way too slow!) The most uncomfortable situations I’ve been in have either been cultural miscommunications, language barriers, or greetings from random men (the last of which can’t seem to be avoided anywhere, though some areas are worse than others).

Hearing stories of genuinely dangerous travel experiences is rare, but this seems to be the main fear people have when friends or relatives leave the country, and for months before you leave you are peppered with cautions, “Don’t walk around alone! Don’t trust strangers! Don’t eat the street food!”

Instead, I’d suggest the warnings people should give are more things like, “Don’t have a crisis of identity! Don’t forget about culture shock!” Or even, “Hope we don’t start fighting after you get back because we see the world so totally differently!” But it is much more realistic that these things will be the actual consequences of travel, rather than the stabbing in some alley in Bangkok that all your friends are picturing.

Traveling likely won’t kill you, but it may kill your worldview. There is an often-repeated Mark Twain quote that goes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” There is a reason people still use it as an Instagram caption to this day; the more I’ve traveled the more I’ve realized that travel is incredibly effective in breaking down the comfortable walls of your beliefs and building them back up again, in a new and stronger pattern.

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Spicy street food won’t kill you

Having walls in the first place is inevitable. Every one of us grows up inside a certain context, our own little boxes if you will. It is difficult (if not impossible) to mentally remove ourselves from those boxes and think about life in another box—most of the time, our walls are just too high. Our own contexts are never perfect; every family, neighborhood, and nation in this world has its own flaws, and sometimes those flaws include encouraging us to stereotype or look down on certain people. They also encourage habits that we assume are universal, but definitely aren’t. Even mundane things like drinking cold water might get you raised eyebrows in another country.

The only effective way to learn what things are only true inside of your own box, and what things are true for all of the boxes, is honestly very simple: see as many boxes as you can during your lifetime.

In my experience, the two lines of thought which travel most effectively destroys are fundamentalism and nationalism. By fundamentalism I mean the idea that one’s beliefs are not allowed to be questioned or challenged, while by nationalism I mean a belief in the superiority of one’s own nation over others. In today’s world I see fundamentalism on both the political right and left; I see nationalism mainly on the right, though the left at times buys into in a sort of reverse nationalism. (By that I mean seeing one’s own nation as inferior to others, and believing its only hope of salvation is emulating another nation’s culture or politics.) I believe that the reverse is less dangerous than traditional nationalism, but that it still represents a view of the world from someone who hasn’t seen enough boxes yet.

You can’t travel and continue to be a fundamentalist because that whole “my beliefs must not be questioned” privilege rapidly erodes when you enter a country that shares almost none of your beliefs. Travel will not politely ask you if it can have a calm, safe discussion—travel talks its mouth off, forcing you to keep up. Travel will put you in a cab with the most pro-Communist Party taxi driver in all of China and have you listen to his praises of the government for the entire ride. Travel will have a woman of color tell you in broken English how beautiful white people are. Travel will get you into a conversation with a Nigerian woman who believes that being gay is the work of the devil. And yet everywhere you go, some of these same people who disagree with you on everything will be so unbelievably kind and welcoming and generous, and sometimes that can be challenging to wrap your head around too.

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Letting your feet get bitten by little fishies won’t kill you

Travel is also fatal to nationalism and its inversions. It is hard to think of your nation as particular and extraordinary once you have seen a dozen others and eaten at a McDonald’s in every single one. Travel shows you that there are hundreds of things your nation is absolutely terrible at—and then hundreds it is great at which others lack. A hard truth of the world that you learn through travel is that there is simply no “miracle cure” to any complex problem—and there is no one perfect nation. You will never be able to move anywhere new and be perfectly happy all the time, and each place has its unique joys and unique annoyances. Your nation is both nothing to brag about, and to be treasured for all which makes it unique and good. Travel primes our brains for the nuance that enables us to hold both beliefs simultaneously.

So in the end… travel is probably not going to kill you, at least not in the physical sense. But it might kill you mentally and emotionally at times, and it will certainly kill some of your beliefs off. It’s a good thing, because nothing in this world deserves to be trusted without question—not ideas, not people, and certainly not street food—and travel helps you to come to terms with this to a poignant extent.

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Interesting fashion choices won’t kill you (probably…)

What if you don’t have the time or money to travel right now? Well, you can challenge yourself by trying to jump into new boxes whenever you can. Read fiction or non-fiction about other countries, particularly ones where you feel you do not understand the culture. Interact with foreigners you meet in your own country—ask them questions about how they see America and what their own countries are like. And if you really don’t want to substitute any of this for the real experience, then don’t. Even if you’re just going to a beach resort in Bermuda, a few minutes of talking to the taxi driver will put you in a whole new box, so don’t pass up the chance.

Starving Elitists

How does the art of politics affect the politics of art?

This article was inspired by my travels to: Montreal, Canada

For Christmas this year, my siblings and I headed up to Montreal to spend a few days together. As two of us are college students and one is a travel addict (hi), we set out into the city trying to be as cheap as possible by seeking out all the free activities we could.

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Luminotherapie is an annual glow-in-the-dark contemporary art exhibit!

One of the cheapest and best things to do in Montreal, it turns out, is immerse oneself in the arts. Though it was the dead of winter, and the night was freezing cold, we were drawn outside by the soft glow of an annual contemporary art exhibit called Luminothérapie. Its aim is to bring light to the darkness of winter, and in this exhibit were a series of glowing purple rings, scattered across a wide open area, free to sit in and snap pictures with. Surrounding the exhibit were a series of projected short films, lighting up the skyscrapers around us.

During the daytime, my siblings and I were able to visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which had just opened a brand new pavilion called the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. The pavilion cost $25 million dollars to build, holds 750 works of art, is six levels high, and offered completely free admission until the end of January 2017.

It was cool to see so much contemporary artwork so publicly available in the city, and it led me to start researching how Montreal had the money for so much new artwork when many other cities these days seemingly do not. As is usual for me, I was basically led into a deep research black hole, this time on the murky relationship between education, art, politics, and democracy, and in conclusion I have come to understand that:

1) Despite the fact that art is a means of expressing free speech, there is a growing current of criticism or even resentment of the arts among Western politicians.

2) This has led to changes in art funding, producing unequal and insufficient distribution–and it is resulting in a crisis for the arts in several different countries.

3) In the Anglophone arts world, Canada has pledged by far the most investment in the arts for the coming years. 

Still with me? Let’s go…

 

The Politics of Art

When Meryl Streep got up at the Golden Globes this year and accepted her award with a lengthy and overtly political speech, the response, as the response to everything these days tends to be, was highly bipartisan. While it may be easy to say this was a consequence of her speech’s content, it is important to recognize that the adjectives used to describe Meryl’s speech are actually part of a broader conservative lexicon regarding the arts, one which has been repeated in multiple countries in recent years.

Disagreeing with artists these days means generally honing in on two points. Either critics state that the artist is a member of the “elite,” this so-called out of touch class of folks who is irrelevant to the common people anyways. Or, they suggest that artists should not speak out against politics at all, either to avoid being controversial, or because there is a lack of talent on their part and their voice therefore has no authority.

This delicate balance between politics and art is a unique struggle of democratic societies. I spent the past year of my life in China, where journalism, visual art, dance, and music are kept completely separate from political topics, so there, art may mean something different. But in societies which guarantee the right to freedom of speech, we are also guaranteed the right—not the privilege—to mix art and politics. Calls to discredit and devalue the words of artists within my own country are nothing short of terrifying to me, and yet through reading more about art around the world, I was able to understand some reasons why they may happen.

 

Reason: The Deprioritization of Art

Arts education holds life-long benefits for students. For example, low-income students who have arts-rich experiences in high school are more than three times as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students without those experiences. Arts education helps to improve standardized test scores; College Board found that students who take four years of art and music classes in high school score 91 points better on the SAT than students who take half a year or less. Studies have shown that musical training can increase connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and that adults who take music lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster in their old age than those who do not.

And yet ‘art’, and by this I mean everything from theater to music to dance to opera, has been branded as unimportant by the American education system—and for that matter, most other systems around the world have done the same. When times are tough and budget cuts need to be made in public education, it is almost always arts and music classes which get their budgets slashed first.

From a young age, this attitude is ingrained in us—that arts are a “privilege.” We see that it is something we only study when there is extra money available, something that the nice private school down the road has but that our struggling public school simply cannot make room for. By the time we grow up, we seem to inherently know that math and science are ‘real’ subjects, necessary for a career, but painting is not (despite the fact that it is a career for many!)

Government investment even beyond the public education system often reflects this same assumption that art is a privilege for the rich. This has massive consequences for the development of the arts worldwide. Government funding helps to create new arts organizations and give career options to new artists. It is responsible for designating where art happens, and who has access to it. It is a major way for people to utilize their right to free speech, and should be enthusiastically supported by any democratic government.

Unfortunately it is not, and arts funding is under threat worldwide. Here are the particular challenges going on, listed by country:

 

Arts in the UK

The biggest threats to art in the UK are unequal distribution and a government focus on cutting “unnecessary” spending.

The government is responsible for the majority of arts spending in the UK, and this has led to a vast gap in arts funding between London and, well… everywhere else. Cultural spending on the arts is about £69 per head in London, and £4.50 elsewhere. This is supposedly justified by the fact that the arts in London bring back the highest revenues, but of course, what it really looks like to most people is just another example of the huge gap between “elites” and “non-elites,” which has manifested in larger political conflicts (Brexit, for example). About 86% of the UK’s population does not live in the London area, severely restricting their access to the arts and contributing to the perception that art is only for elite city-dwellers.

National Gallery, London

It can lead to other problems as well; in 2015, much of the National Gallery in London was shut down due to a massive employee strike. The reason for the resistance was that the government had disclosed its plans to privatize the jobs of the museum’s employees—taking them from art-knowledgeable employees who specifically signed up to work for the museum, and outsourcing them to generic security guards, all in an effort to cut costs for the government.

With the current government of the UK struggling to negotiate the large, time-consuming questions of Brexit, it is not likely that fixing these issues of arts funding will be prioritized in the near future. The UK’s government-based arts spending has resulted in both restricted access to the arts for citizens, and debates about whether arts-knowledgeable employees are even worth paying at all.

 

Arts in Australia

The biggest threat to art in Australia is a government focus on cutting “unnecessary” spending.

Around 65 arts companies and organizations lost government funding last year with the release of the government’s latest budget. This has created a crisis, as most small-to-medium arts organizations in the country rely on government funding rather than individual donors to stay afloat. Many have been left struggling in the wake of the cuts, with uncertain futures; in fact, the artistic directors of theatre companies across the country penned an open letter calling the spending cuts an ‘unprecedented assault’ on the arts.

Possibly even more concerning are the massive spending cuts in giving grants to individual artists and projects. From funding 1,340 individual artists in 2013-14, the budget in 2015-16 only made room to fund 405 Australian artists. This will severely restrict career development for many new artists trying to gain recognition.

Art is not being prioritized in Australia either, and opportunities for new or underprivileged artists are actually being actively cut back on. Alright, what about the USA?

 

Arts in America

The biggest threat to art in the USA is the political call to eliminate government funding for it.

The arts in America rely strongly on individual donors to keep them afloat. However there are also many government and non-profit agencies which assist with grants. The most major one is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency funded with government money. Between 1965 and 2008, it gave out more than $5 billion in arts grants.

The NEA has come under threat a few times in recent years, however. One politician who has pushed hard for the organization’s complete elimination is Newt Gingrich. In the 1990s, he called for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to all be completely eliminated. He insisted the NEA funded artists that were “too controversial,” and that it was, once again, “too elitist.”

Even more troubling is that in 2009, the NEA came under controversy when Breitbart News published an article claiming the NEA was telling artists to create “pro-Obama propaganda” rather than art. Despite the fact that the NEA is a federally-run, bipartisan organization, and there is zero evidence to support their story, Breitbart was able to run this and stir up serious controversy.

So both Newt Gingrich and Steve Bannon, former CEO of Breitbart, are expected to be prominent figures in our new president’s administration, and both have called loudly in past years to defund the arts. Not to mention that public broadcasting corporations such as NPR are also generally lumped in with arts funding, and the president has literally said that the media is his “opposition party.”

If government arts funding is eliminated in America, we will see a widespread lack of arts funding for, again, those small-to-medium arts organizations and individuals who rely on grants to support their existence. We would also see increasing gaps in access to art–while large, wealthy cities like NYC may be able to rely on individual donors to fund all that elite culture, smaller cities would simply not be able to do the same.

 

Arts in Canada

While prior Canadian PMs have not embraced the arts, Justin Trudeau is saving the day.

Canada may be the Anglophone world’s beacon of hope as far as arts funding goes, but it is only in recent years that it has become this way.

In fact in just 2012, then-PM Stephen Harper was lambasted for a comment he made equating artists and elitists (sound familiar?) His specific words on art were: “I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”

Not only did Harper attack the arts in word, but in deed. His government slashed funds for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC—Canada’s national radio and television broadcaster), along with the funding for the National Film Board, the Department of Canadian Heritage and Library, and Archives Canada.

Thank you Justin Trudeau for funding the arts!

However, things have changed under Justin Trudeau’s new government. In his campaign, he promised to deliver more funding to the arts—and luckily, he has kept that promise. His government is investing a massive $1.9 billion CAD ($1.4 billion USD) in the arts over the next five years. That includes $675 milion for CBC alone, to help the organization recover from its budget cuts under Harper.

Says Trudeau on the arts: “Culture is what defines us. It brings us together. Yet for a decade, our cultural and creative industries have been under attack by Harper. I want our creators, in all fields, in all communities—including Indigenous Peoples and linguistic minorities—to feel supported and valued by their government. Cultural investment creates jobs, stimulates tourism, and improves our overall quality of life and sense of community.”

 

Why Should I Care?

You don’t have to be an art fanatic to believe that the arts should be protected, as arts and media are just some of the fundamental ways in which a democratic society’s freedom of speech can be expressed. Living in a society where free speech is guaranteed by law, but the means of producing this speech is actually restricted to a lucky few, is just as useless as living in a society with free health care but a huge shortage of doctors. If the government isn’t actively working to provide for and distribute your rights effectively, then your rights cease to matter, because in reality they do not exist.

To hear politicians claim that only elitists practice art, while simultaneously failing to provide enough arts education and funding to support non-wealthy artists, seems to me that the whole thing is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. How could a fresh graduate from a disadvantaged background possibly enter the arts world in the UK, Australia, or the USA, if they no longer have access to grants or small organizations to practice performing with? If you want art to be for “ordinary people,” then you are obligated to make art accessible for ordinary people. The Western world can’t honestly expect to uphold the right to free speech for everyone while it slashes funding left and right for media and the arts, and replaces those cuts with no alternative means for free expression.

I hope that all of you will help in standing up to support access to these cultural institutions—our museums, our concert halls, our theaters, our artists and singers and songwriters and dancers—for all citizens. If there is a cultural gap here, it is not the fault of artists like Meryl Streep, but the fault of politicians for failing to protect our right to access and create art.

 

For Further Reading…

Benefits of Arts Education

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/will-less-art-and-music-in-the-classroom-really-help-students-soar-academically/2012/12/28/e18a2da0-4e02-11e2-839d-d54cc6e49b63_blog.html?utm_term=.70893233c3a6

http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/04/28/music-art-and-language-programs-in-schools-have-long-lasting-benefits

 

UK

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/11/national-gallery-staff-strike-exhibitions-privatisation

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/nov/05/arts-spending-london-bias

 

Australia

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/may/19/the-70-drop-australia-council-grants-artists-funding-cuts

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/comment-australia-council-funding-loss-hits-home-for-arena-theatre-company-20160515-govjya.html

 

America

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/15/312779821/in-pricey-cities-being-a-bohemian-starving-artist-gets-old-fast

http://articles.latimes.com/1995-12-31/entertainment/ca-19460_1_nea-funding

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Endowment_for_the_Arts

 

Canada

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/arts-federal-budget-canada-council-heritage-1.3501480

https://www.thestar.com/news/politics/federalelection/2008/09/24/ordinary_folks_dont_care_about_arts_harper.html

http://hyperallergic.com/246967/why-canadas-new-prime-minister-might-be-good-for-the-arts-eh/