Memories of China: The Great Wall

This post is part of a series I’m creating about my top travel memories from China. Watch this space for more short stories!

When I was 18, I had barely been outside of the US, apart from a couple of days in Canada and a two hour cruise stop in Cozumel, Mexico. Instead of just dipping my toes into the travel water like a normal person I decided to dive in head-first, and headed all the way around the planet to China for a study tour with a group of 13 others from my university.

Our professor, Dong “Laoshi” (teacher) was a small, middle-aged, extremely hard-core woman. She warned us that our itinerary was “not for the faint of heart” but as young and fearless as we were, we shrugged it off. What were to follow would be the craziest, most challenging, and most exhausting six weeks of my life. We managed to cram in basically every experience defining modern China, from the major tourist attractions to the neglected slums on the outer rings of Beijing, from having an internship to staying with a host family, from chatting with fellow university students to meeting business leaders and documentary filmmakers. We were kept busy from dawn until dusk… and sometimes even later than that.

Watchtower at Jinshanling Great Wall

Six years later, the Great Wall still stands out in my memory as one of the most amazing experiences of the trip. Remember how I said my professor was “hard-core?” Well, this excursion is a good example of what I mean. It was day two or three of the trip and we were all still overwhelmed with crushing jet-lag. Still, she dragged us out of bed at around 6 AM, piled us onto a bus, and drove us deep into the mountains to go to one of the “lesser-known” areas of the Great Wall: Jinshanling.

Watchtower at Jinshanling

Now, when I say “lesser-known,” what I mean is that I’m pretty sure no one else has walked on this thing since like the Ming Dynasty. It was absolutely ancient, and consisted of steep, rugged hills and crumbling old watchtowers. Contrary to the parts of the wall that have been refurbished as cute little smooth roads for tourists, this one was rough and uneven, and walking on the thing was like repeatedly hiking up and down small mountains. For the entire walk we were shrouded in a thick mist, so it felt like we had just traveled through time to a moment hundreds of years ago. Being almost totally alone just added to the atmosphere.

Despite all this beauty, the Great Wall was also where I got to see my first really frightening Chinese toilet. Next to all the watchtowers were some public toilets, which were probably also built during the Ming. Basically they were just holes in the ground separated by the tiniest of barrier walls. No stall doors of course, and all located outside. Even many ‘good’ Chinese bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap, and this one was no exception. Bathrooms like these were probably one of the reasons we all finished the trip feeling like there were no boundaries between us…

Afterwards, we finished off the day by driving down to a Wall-side rural village, eating lunch that a family cooked for us using entirely plants in their own garden (d’aww) and then talking to the village leader about the politics of local government in the US vs. China. We even got to see all his pretty, shiny plaques from the Communist Party—hung all over his walls! Dream come true.

With its combination of ancient beauty and ancient plumbing, China is always a mess of contradictions. That’s just what makes traveling there so constantly entertaining!

Epic Great Wall of China

Photo credit to our classmate Dan who sacrificed not being in this epic thing to take the photo!

Everything in its time

About four years ago now, I had a dream, one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had. I was crawling through a tunnel made of rock, spiraling and climbing desperately upwards in darkness. Just as I thought I might be in there forever, my eyes perceived the light, and my head burst through to the surface, where it was a bright and sunny day. I stepped outside and saw that I was standing on a big green mound in the middle of an ocean, and all around me were various other mounds… I turned my head to look around and found I could see miles in all directions, and the bright blue of the sky and bright blue of the ocean were the most beautiful things I had seen, and when I peeled my eyes open in real life those blues were burned into my brain as a memory and promise.

cropped-cropped-img_3586-6

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

When I went up to the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, 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… 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. (November 9, 2015)

I didn’t know what the dream meant right then. But not long after that, I started searching for internships through my university. I was studying International Affairs, and my school had excellent resources for traveling abroad, so I knew I wanted to pursue a six month internship in another country. But the question, as always, was where? I wanted to go pretty much everywhere. Sure I had a priorities list, but I was pretty much open. That dream, life-like as it was, kept coming to mind. I am a Christian so I had to wonder, was it a sign from God? When I started researching countries, and I looked up Indonesia, I found photographs that looked exactly like this place. Maybe I was meant to go here, I thought. But my parents didn’t want me to go, concerned about the travel warnings they’d seen about the country. So I moved along, keeping the dream in mind but trying to let those images grow dull and fade away. It was only a dream.

streets of hong kong.jpg

Nathan Road, Hong Kong

I think I might actually be in love with Hong Kong. It was one of those romances which is attraction at first sight, but now that I’ve been here for a few days I’ve realized it’s developing into something deeper. It’s not just its physical beauty… it’s a place that contains everything I love about cities and then some. The rolling hills and glistening oceans of Cape Town, the subtle historical influences of Boston, the streets of NYC. And of course, it shares a nation with China, a country I have come to understand if not love (though of course what is love if not deep understanding?) Every people of every nation seems to be here, each style of food and all cultural influences. And then there’s the pace and the fashion and the modernity, coupled with the dirt and the seediness of the back allies and side streets. I feel I could explore it for years and never learn everything about it, and of course that intrigues me. (February 2, 2016)

Then, I had a second dream. This one was about Cape Town, South Africa. I had never been to Cape Town, nor do I remember ever seeing many pictures of it. But there I was, wandering the streets, vividly viewing roads and buildings and parks. I was just… walking, mainly. The only thing special was how realistic it was, and how when I looked up pictures afterward they looked so similar to what I’d seen in my head. Still, I ignored it. South Africa sounded cool, but it was not a ‘priority country’ of mine. At the time I was interested in India, or Cambodia, maybe even Morocco—South Africa had never held the same pull.

Somehow, after months of hearing others talk about it, after both my advisor and my parents recommending it as an excellent choice for me, I accepted my fate and went. I taught English in South Africa for six months at a center assisting adult refugees from other parts of Africa. I learned a lot of things there about myself, not all of them entirely pleasant. But each of them helped build me into a much stronger person, and after that trip ended I was no longer afraid to travel anywhere.

cape town views.jpg

Lion’s Head, Cape Town, South Africa

Rush hour in Hong Kong may have replaced Victoria Peak as the most beautiful thing I’ve experienced… As I entered this place with thousands of other people around me, all rushing forward, I felt a powerful and revitalizing energy course throughout my body, filling me with a deep passion for everything. A passion for humanity, where I began to view everyone around me with profound fondness and love. A passion for multiculturalism, where Hong Kong’s diversity became powerful and thrilling. An electrifying passion for living in general—with aching legs, I began walking up on the escalator, where moments before I had been ready to lie down and sleep… The fact that we were all feeling the same things and moving towards the same place—home—filled me with love. Obviously, what I saw on that night was not rush hour in Hong Kong. What I saw was what I needed to see, what God wanted me to see… I saw that Hong Kong makes me feel passionate and alive to a level I didn’t even know existed in myself. (February 28, 2016)

The travel bug had bitten me, hard. I spent the rest of my days at university dreaming of dropping everything and becoming a travel writer, or at least moving abroad to start working. Thanks to a few God-directed chance encounters I began considering going to China to teach English. Before I knew it I was scouring online message boards for the least sketchy-sounding opportunities. I finally found one, with a good salary and the promise of a visa in the major Chinese city of Shenzhen. I’d never been there before, but it sounded like the right place for me to be. Off I went.

From Shenzhen, it was just a short hop across the border to see Hong Kong. I didn’t rush over or anything, as I knew so little about it. One day I chanced across on my way to the airport, and was hit with an intense rush of feelings, far more than anything I had ever felt about Shenzhen. Each time I returned to Hong Kong, the feelings grew. They were uncalled for, inexplicable. But I chose to listen, and moved there after my year was up in Shenzhen.

I arrived in Hong Kong with a small amount of savings and no job. I started looking… I was looking for months.

cropped-skyline-2.jpg

Skyline of Shenzhen, China

My life is like the Exodus right now… Obviously slavery is a pretty heavy analogy and I don’t mean to lean on it too much, but the thing is that my life in Boston seems… constricted. I know exactly what to be there and what places to eat at and who to hang out with. My role is defined, my place is set. But right now, even though I’m over in Hong Kong, it’s like I’m just wandering in the desert. I keep asking God to give me stuff and feel like he’s not responding in an adequate way, and I’m nowhere near where I want to be and can’t really be there without having a space of my own and a way of making money. I feel burned out and frustrated and like I’ve just been aimlessly searching for far too long. Even though I definitively decided I didn’t want to stay in Boston, I can’t help thinking like the Israelites. Why did you bring me out here into this wilderness? Wouldn’t I have been better off as a slave, where at least I had food, and a roof over my head, and friends? Out here I have nothing! Why aren’t you saving me? (August 26, 2016)

God came through, though it took until that December. Things have been moving forward, slowly but steadily. I have an okay job, a larger amount of savings, and I know more than one person. Importantly, I still love Hong Kong as passionately as I used to if not more so. Now I know its flaws more intimately, but that is the point where genuine love can begin anyways. And the city is vaster than I ever could have imagined, with places to hike to and swim and explore which will keep me busy for years if I so choose.

Like Sai Kung, an area I visited for the first time just this week. I decided to make my way out to an isolated beach, and on the way, I caught a certain view along the roadside…

sai kung 2

Sai Kung, Hong Kong

It was a view that looked exactly like my dream from four years ago, standing on a hill and looking out at a vivid bright blue sky and ocean filled with deep green mounds. After a long dark tunnel, nothing but blue skies. A promise that was made and kept.

God does not work on human time, but on a timeline where eternity is the only meaningful value. Advice is not given at once, but in fragments. At first the advice makes no sense, and comes in as random bursts of energy and emotion. Added together, it makes a story.

The only way to keep the faith is by absorbing the mantra:

“Everything in its time”

I’m sure I will forever be a wanderer, an explorer, and a seeker. Yet I have felt lately that the chapter of life where I was just watching and waiting for God’s plan is coming to an end. I can’t help but feel that here in Hong Kong, the plan is beginning…

But I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

 

The Ethics of ‘Expatvilles’

Is it right for expats to form isolated communities, or should they be expected to integrate?

It is not uncommon for people of a similar ethnic background to cluster together when moving to a new city. Chinatowns and Little Italies are scattered across the world, many of which offer great cuisine and at least some cultural memory of the original country. The same seems to hold true today in cities with a lot of rich expats* such as Hong Kong. The areas of the city in which high concentrations of foreign restaurants, and foreigners themselves, reside tend to be quite a bit different from other parts of the city.

Just a few days ago, I checked out Discovery Bay, a beautiful little expat beachside community just a 20-minute ferry ride from Central. Walking around, you’d honestly think you were in Europe; the décor was Mediterranean, the vibe was laid-back and peaceful, and there were white people everywhere. White people sharing picnics with a bottle of wine, white mothers playing with their children on the beach, and everyone was speaking either English or French. A beautiful place… but I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not.

Discovery Bay Promenade

The promenade in Discovery Bay

I have taken to checking out different areas of Hong Kong lately because I’d really like to move out of my shoebox-sized, shared flat and into a place of my own as soon as possible. Hong Kong offers a lot of diversity in lifestyle, both in terms of the population density and scenery of your neighborhood, and in its ethnic makeup.

I am a white girl from an upper middle class background used to living in a certain environment and culture. But I am also a girl who chose to try something new in coming to Hong Kong while accepting that things would be different here. And so when I look at where I want to live, I am always torn. Should I stay in an area that offers comfort and familiarity, as I will be engaging with the city anyways at the office and in my free time? Or must I immerse myself at all times in the most ‘Hong Kong’ environment possible, to get the full experience from this portion of my life?

The thing that raises the most red flags for me is that many expat-dominated areas are actually nicer than where a lot of Hong Kongers spend their time. Much of this is because of the city’s colonial past. Central district, for example, was originally built up to accommodate the needs of the British, and the Britishness of that area has been retained even after the 1997 handover. While many Hong Kongers spend time there and can afford to live there too, it is still amazing to walk down the street and see 50% or so white faces, whereas in most other areas it’s maybe around 1%. On top of that expats have continued creating new isolated communities such as Discovery Bay, where even native Hong Kongers with plenty of money would likely feel out of place.

When Chinatowns formed across America, it was not because Chinese people could afford to live in a nicer place than almost all of the local population. It was the exact opposite—they mostly stuck together because they needed to find financial assistance, employment, or translators to help them out. It must be acknowledged that there is a big difference in clustering together to find people to assist you in surviving in a new country, and clustering together because have no interest in speaking Cantonese and can afford a beachfront property. Expats don’t really need to live with other expats—they just want to. So in short, expat neighborhoods represent a form of privilege that other ethnic neighborhoods generally do not represent.

Discovery Bay plaza

Major shopping area in Discovery Bay

And yet, these expat havens may also serve practical purposes. Just like for Chinese people coming to America, who I’m sure were often overwhelmed by the culture, going the other way can be overwhelming for us too. Hong Kong is just very tragic in a lot of ways, and the more you speak to people here the more that can weigh on your soul. I have empathy for Hong Kong and its citizens but in the end their problems are not my problems, as I can go home at any time. Is it better for your own health, then, to stay in a place where you can in a sense “go home” each night?

I guess what the question comes down to is this: Should expats be expected to have a certain “goal” or maintain a certain moral code when they move abroad? Is it okay for an expat to go abroad with the sole intent of enjoying his or her privilege as compared to locals, or must there always be a higher purpose of wanting to explore a new culture and see the world through other people’s eyes?

It seems to me that although it would be impossible to set formal rules as to what expats should and shouldn’t do, I think it is very important for people in this category to critically examine our behaviors while abroad, and our motivations behind those behaviors. Abusing your privilege comes more naturally than you might think, and the cheaper a country is to live in, the more ways there are to do it. Living in the nicest environment you can afford with your own income isn’t necessarily an abuse in itself—but you do have to also ask yourself the question, what is my real motivation for choosing this particular neighborhood, and why did I not choose a nice home in a more ‘Hong Kong’ part of town?

If you choose to live in ‘Expatville’ in order to meet others with similar backgrounds, stay close to familiar foods, or have access to schools for your children to attend, I think all of these reasons are in some way justifiable. However, if you live in ‘Expatville’ because you don’t like spending time with locals, you think everyone else’s standard of living is too low for you, or you plan to stumble around the city a drunken mess every night with folks just like you, you might want to take a step back and think about why you even wanted to be an expat in the first place.

In the end, if it turns out you’ve only moved abroad to live out some neo-colonial fantasy, then I would suggest sparing the locals and staying in England.

* It’s worth noting that “expat” is inherently a racially loaded term, as it tends to mean “white person who lives abroad” (or at least someone from a mostly-white developed country like France or the US). When it’s someone from India or Ethiopia or something we tend to call them an “immigrant”… even though they’re basically the same thing.

Discovery Bay beach views

Tai Pak Beach, Discovery Bay

A Nation Which Dreams No Longer

Progressives: Don’t back down from defending multiculturalism

When I decided to spend a day visiting the National Museum of Singapore, the last thing I expected was to be brought to tears.

I went in with no preconceptions of what I would find there. See, I am the type of traveler who does little research before I jet off on my half-formed adventures, preferring instead to let myself soak in a bath of unfamiliarity. I have no desire to enter a place staring through a lens of judgement constructed based on someone’s whiny TripAdvisor reviews on topics like basic cultural differences or a lack of KFCs. Instead, in the spirit of my blog and brand I try and show up and see a place through the eyes of its own citizens, and so I visit national museums as much as I can; not because they are trustworthy sources, but because I believe it is important to understand a place’s self-narrative.

The National Museum of Singapore exhibits great nationalistic pride, which makes sense as every Singaporean I met acted the same. Singapore was a British colony until World War 2, when the Japanese military triumphed and claimed Singapore as its own. The museum claimed that this British military defeat “shattered the myth of British superiority” and that from then on, Singaporeans began asking for independence. When it was granted, the country became part of Malaysia. But there were differences. According to the museum, Malaysia wanted to focus on forming a “Malay society,” while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

It was in this part of the museum where I sat down to watch a video of Lee Kuan-Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, on the day that he announced to all Singaporeans that they would no longer be a part of Malaysia, and would instead become an independent new nation. It was the moment where, for the first time, a definitive identity was assigned to this unclear concept of what “Singapore” meant.

The video was emotional, with Lee Kuan-Yew himself breaking down in tears on multiple occasions. That alone would’ve made it tough for me to leave with a dry eye. But the part that cut me deep in my soul, was when he looked directly into the camera, and said the following words:

“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 a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.”

After hearing those words, after everything that has been going on in America since the election and inauguration, I went to the bathroom, hid myself inside, and let myself cry.

______________

Up until this year, I would have told you that those words were the voice of the American Dream too. In fact, I remember being asked a few years ago what my favorite thing about America was, and I remember answering, “diversity.” I didn’t realize that in some corners of the nation, this is a disputed fact.

And yes, that ignorance was painfully naïve. Thinking about it now, I don’t know that we’ve ever actually had a president look directly at us and tell us all that this was our intention as a nation. And in fact, we’ve had so many in power throughout our history that have voiced the exact opposite. That Native Americans must be removed from their homelands. That slaves must go on being slaves. That Japanese Americans should be moved to internment camps. That Muslims should be banned.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are American idealists who have believed in America as a united and multi-racial nation from its earliest days, and fought for that dream even when it was so far-fetched their efforts must have looked insane. Like Harriet Tubman, an enslaved black woman who was so inexplicably convicted in her right to freedom that she was willing to risk her life to go gain it for herself, and then return and risk it over and over again to guarantee that same freedom for others. We are honoring her by putting her on the $20 bill, notably, to replace the guy famous for kicking Native Americans off of their homelands—does that not say something about who some of us believe truly represents what it means to be an American?

Maybe we have just never vocalized clearly enough that the dream of people like Tubman, this idealistic, impossible yearning for freedom and equal treatment, this idea that no matter who we are we must be respected as human beings, is the American dream, and we must protect all those who dream it.

The current presidency has called our national identity into question, and it needs to be redefined. I believe that there is only one path forward for progressives looking toward how to heal the nation in post-Trump America: the path where we finally institutionalize multiculturalism and racial equality as mainstream American values.

____________________

Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was a lot like the proverbial broken clock that is right twice a day. It’s not that the things he was saying represented any true understanding of external circumstances; it is that external circumstances happened to align with the things he was saying, and to many people, that made him sound right.

Our nation is changing. As usual politics is struggling to keep up, while Trump is someone who does not even try to keep up. I believe Trump may actually sound more coherent to conservatives on the right who have “not kept up,” than the liberal politicians who are actually behind the times sound to young liberal voters.

As I said, our nation is changing, and quickly. It is simply impossible to label modern-day America a white nation. For the last 50 years or so, there has really been a major cultural shift. Black artists, athletes, and politicians have gone from groundbreaking to mainstream. Asian actors write and star in their own TV shows, while Asian doctors perform our surgeries. Tacos are as familiar to American kids as hamburgers, and all of us know how to count to ten in Spanish. People of color, while too underrepresented in too many areas, are still far more visible and empowered than they were in the 1950s.

So many of our defining elements, our best technology, celebrities, athletes, scientific advancements, and even food have nothing at all to do with white America. But white America, or at least liberal, urban, East and West coast white America, has also increasingly embraced these elements as part of our own culture. We all eat sushi, we all listen to Beyoncé, we all use iPhones. We make little distinction between who invented what.

I didn’t realize until this year that this diverse, fusion culture which has always defined America for me has barely trickled into certain parts of the country. I didn’t realize that not all politicians celebrated diversity in politics. In fact, I guess I didn’t even realize that championing diversity and working for greater equality of treatment was something critically necessary for politicians to focus on promoting… until I spent about six seconds on the internet during Trump’s campaign and was horrified by what I found. That not only do people misunderstand concepts like inherent bias, but that they actually actively flaunt their biases and judgments of their fellow Americans. And yes, internet harassment was going on way before Trump—but that harassment is increasingly making its way off of the internet and into real-life acts of violence too.

With all this discontent, should the left back down from our already light-weight treatment of racial justice issues? I have already seen too many articles claiming liberals must “do away with identity politics” or “listen more to working class white folks.” This sure seems misguided. Did America wait around after the Civil War to make sure the white working class “felt okay” with ending slavery? No, we just eliminated slavery, because let’s be real—they were never going to come around to it.

Similarly, I believe that after Trump, we should move forward by stating the goal of forming a just, multicultural America, without stopping to cater to anyone who doesn’t believe in that need. It’s just not, and never has been, something we should “wait on”—we need to do the legwork first, and lay the groundwork to make people believe in that vision only after we’ve jumped.

It is difficult to open minds, but it is impossible to close them. Once a person has accepted that they do not need to be afraid of Muslims, all the terror attacks in the world won’t change that view, because it is obvious to them that these are isolated attacks unrelated to Muslims in general. Our cities will not move backwards, and so our cities, and those with the power in this nation, must take the next crucial steps forward in adopting serious policies that protect our diversity.

_________________

For decades on decades now, equal rights have been labeled the cause of activists and fringe actors, not a mainstream political position. But while the Democratic Party has faltered and fumbled, look at the horrifying fringe positions on the right which have slowly drifted into the mainstream. Only 27% of Republicans believe Obama was born in the USA. Our Attorney General was ruled “too racist” to be a judge in the 1980s. Our current president retweets actual white supremacists and was endorsed by the leader of the KKK.

The Democratic Party cannot wait any longer. It’ll take a lot more than getting Obama elected; it will take every politician in the Party, white or not, building a platform to prove their conviction to racial justice.

Too often, the Democratic Party has used “equality” as something that is self-evident and brag-worthy, rather than a policy goal. But just seeing diversity is not enough to change the hearts and minds of those who do not actively feel a part of this diversity. There needs to be serious policy set in place. Policy that addresses inherent individual biases and larger systemic biases, that fairly restructures the criminal justice system, that encourages more open dialogue between sectors of society that would normally not interact. And Democrats themselves (and particularly white Democrats) need to start speaking out and demanding that this become a part of the platform, or it will never happen—and people of color will continue to suffer.

________________

I think many older adults believe millennials are not as nationalistic or loyal to the country as they are. As for me, I am an International Affairs graduate, I have my own travel blog, and I jet off to solo travel whenever I financially can; so yes, I’m certainly globally-minded. But I am also extremely proud to be an American, so long as “America” offers the promise of inclusion. I want nothing to do with some nation which walls itself off and expects everyone to look up to it, or which only allows one “type” of people to have a voice while everyone else is silenced. I want a nation which represents all the best parts of the world mashed together to make things that are even better than before. A nation of ideas and dreams and innovators, open to anyone who wants to be a part of it. That is the nation I’m proud of. It’s a type of patriotism that may be unfamiliar to my elders, but it is just as strong as theirs.

To be fair, America was not originally founded as this great multicultural nation. America was originally founded as a slave state unafraid of terrorizing its own native populations so long as rich, educated white men got to have a bigger say in politics. We weren’t created perfect, but we were created with a perfect, simple goal: to form a nation that was good. And this is what must drive us forward in redefining America for the future.

The older I get, the more I realize how difficult simply being ‘good’ is. It takes every ounce of effort and willpower to forgive, to be generous, and to love those who you want to hate. It takes the vulnerability and humility to seriously look at oneself and transform one’s actions when necessary. And believing that reaching a greater good is even possible takes quite a large amount of idealism, which is no weak-kneed cowards’ attitude, but the difficult daily work of waking up still believing in the possibility of something that is so outside the realm of reality that most people can’t even properly imagine it.

Those who practice a religion will be familiar with this struggle of faith, with the difficulty of explaining to outsiders why they still believe in the things they cannot see, and how bad things happen because they more often than not lead to much greater things down the line. And so I hope it is with modern-day America. For from this day on, our politicians must work in the business of faith and dreams, and stand firm in their belief that America can be a multicultural nation with justice for all.

From now on, either we will continue to move forward in our pursuit of the American dream, this idea of a nation that rises above the rest to be good in the face of great global hatred and corruption… or we will become a nation which dreams no longer, a nation with no hope or imagination past the imperfect edges of our reality.

______________

If we stop with Trump, I really believe we will have fallen far short of achieving that ultimate ‘good’ that at the time was so beyond the realm of our understanding that our Founding Fathers could not even fully define what it should look like today: a good so strong it is able to pull the best people and cultures from the entire world into our orbit and make them our own. A good so strong it proves once and for all that people do not have to hate each other. A good that shows the rest of the world how people from anywhere and everywhere can learn to love and respect one another, and can work together to go farther than any homogeneous nation ever could.

I am white, but I don’t care whether I live in a “white society.” I just want to live in America, with other Americans who share my values and dreams. And if white people become a minority, so be it. I will proudly live as a minority in the greatest nation on Earth, so long as I am treated with the same level of respect as everyone else gets.

And really, I think that is all any true American has ever asked.

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.

Four Languages Singapore.jpg

  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!

Mango Ice Kasang.jpg

  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…)

Merlion Singapore.jpg

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.

zzzr.JPG

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.

________________________________________________________________________

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.

________________________________________________________________________

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?

________________________________________________________________________

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.

1200px-Palm_civet_on_tree_(detail)

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

WeChat Image_20170423005438

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.

120235232963942245

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.

detailed_political_and_administrative_map_of_China_in_Chinese.jpg

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.
gagalama

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…

IMG_3549 (2)

“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.”

IMG_3594 (4)