Reflections on Asia
Today is my last day in Japan and first day back in the states after half a month of travelling. I've made it a tradition to take a trip at the end of each year as it helps clear my head and helps me prepare for the next one.
Last year, I spent a month split between Nepal and India. This year, it was between Taiwan and Japan.
This was my second time to Taiwan. My first came a few weeks after I graduated from university and decided to do a four month backpacking trip. When I first arrived at Taiwan, I knew very little about what it would be like or anyone who lived there. When I left the country two weeks later, I found it to be one of my favorite places on this earth and left with many happy memories and newly made friends.
So when I arrived at Taoyuan airport this time, I was both excited and wary. To be back in Taiwan was exhilarating but I was afraid I had build up too much expectations of what this trip would be like. Much like how a first kiss is never repeated a second time, I learned from past experience that it's foolish coming in with preconceptions to things.
I had come with Tuling this time, a former roommate and close friend. We stayed the first night in the apartment of a semi-retired Taiwanese couple. Their daughter had moved out and so they let us sleep in her room which was stuffed to the brim with plush animals and books. That first night we quickly slept, unbelievably wary from the arduous task of sitting all day.
The next day, Jack, the father and owner of the apartment we stayed at, took us to a nearby 7-11 to get a SIM card. 7-11 is a unique phenomenon in Taiwan that has few western equivalents. In America, 7-11 is that small convenient shop that sells iffy slurpees. In Taiwan, 7-11 is equal parts post office, coffee shop, restaurant, phone carrier, ticket counter and hangout spot. They are as common as Starbucks, convenient as online shopping and as necessary as pants. My Taiwanese friends joke that the country would fall apart without 7-11.
That first day, we took the train to Jiufen (九份), an abandoned mining town cut into the face of a cliff facing the East China Sea. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction due to the stunning scenery and multitude of food shops that have replaced minerals as the top export of this place.
Most of the shops have English translations next to foodstuff but this was not always the case. While I'm comfortable speaking Mandarin, I moved out of China when I was four and my literacy remains at about that level. Worse yet, what little I do know is in simplified script but in Taiwan, Mandarin is written in traditional. Simplified Chinese was established in mainland China in the 50's to promote literacy among the population since simplified typically had fewer strokes for the same character. While adopted in the mainland, Taiwan has stuck firm with traditional which has the consequence of making all the characters look frustratingly familiar but slightly out of reach.
At night, we met with another close friend of mine from university who now lives in Taipei. She took us on a trip to the north side of the island, to the BaYan (八煙) natural hot springs. This was an one hour drive followed by a twenty minute hike at night. We smelled the springs before we saw them, the odor of rotten eggs signalled our eminent arrival.
The hot springs were located in a relatively flat part of the forest where a series of natural depressions have caused different wells of water to pool. A little further ahead was a waterfall where one could go to cool down (I ended up being the only one to do this and was rewarded with a cold for days afterwards). We stayed at the springs for a couple hours before heading back to the city, smelling simply delightful.
The next day, our host family took me and Tuling to a wine museum. There, while sampling some of the local brews, we were interviewed by a local film crew after they found out we were American. They asked us to compare Taiwanese wine with western wine. Though they probably could not have found two less qualified people to comment about the wine, they nevertheless were satisfied with our callow assessment that Taiwanese wine seemed sweeter than the American counterpart. The store owner gave us a box of biscuits as thanks for the interview and we stayed a bit longer to try out more samples and talk to the bartender. He was interested in what parts of America we hailed from and our lives there.
Something that I've noticed about Taiwan is that many people here have an adoration for America, kind of like the ardour a Seattleite might feel about the Seahawks. I struck up a conversation with an old man during a hike last time I was here. When I told him I was from America, he proudly told me that his son was studying in Chicago and sung praise about the western lifestyle. The old man had never been to America but he was convinced that it was better in every way.
Having lived in the former and travelled around the latter, I say its not that black and white. There are a lot of things that I like better in Taiwan, especially the way they've managed to mix democracy with capitalism and social cohesion.
One example of this can be seen in the life of the elderly. In America, it's common for older folk to be relegated to homes and kept out of sight. In Taiwan, I see them doing tai chi in the city center, strolling through the parks, shopping with their grandchildren and in general, being a fixture of everyday life.
Older people play an active part in the everyday. In society, they are given room and respect and in the family, it is common and even expected for children to house their parents and take care of them as they get older. Filial duty is a strong concept in Chinese culture and Confucianism teaches us to respect our family and our community. This focus on community is prevalent in Taiwan and throughout the east.
Having left China when I was four and living in America for most of my life, I find this culture both endearing and stifling.
The west celebrates rugged individualism and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. I might not own a single pair of boots but I am a fan of the idea but am concerned that we take it too far. In modern times, the political discussion has turned from what is best for the country to the "us vs them" mentality. There is growing disparity between the rich and the poor, compromise is a bad word and our healthcare is the most dysfunctional of any first world country (despite us spending more on it than any other nation).
Basically, there's room for improvement (that was a strong message in our most recent election).
After spending a week in Taiwan, we flew to Japan early in the morning. The flight was mercifully short (3h) compared to the one that brought us to Taiwan (14h) and we arrived in Tokyo before noon.
Tokyo is huge - a city over 13 million people living in a vast metropolis that seems to go on forever. Despite the great population density, the sidewalks are as clean as the counters in an apple store. I always assumed that dirt and litter came part and parcel with living in a dense area but Tokyo is proof that this doesn't have to be. What's interesting is that this cleanliness is achieved despite the city having an aversion to public thrash cans, of which I found practically none outside of metro stations. I lived in cities in Canada that had drives to clean the streets from time to time. Despite putting out thrash cans and recycling boxes everywhere, the city would always soon revert to its littered self. In Tokyo, everything was neat and tidy despite the great inconvenience of throwing out thrash. I suppose it shows that if the underlying values are there, then the details will take care of themselves (conversely, if the fundamentals aren't sound, than no bandage solution will fix the problem).
When boarding the subways, I observed the famous Japanese efficiencies as I never waited more than a few minutes for a train to come. The subways have an overhead panel that shows the arrival time of the next train to the minute and in my experience, I have never seen it be off.
Being on the metro was a little unnerving because of the silence. Despite the trains being packed, I could hear myself breathe. People talk in hushed whispers and there are signs everywhere telling you to set your phone to silence and to not talk on the phone when in the metro.
Everywhere we went, people were very polite. The phrase "arigato gozaimasu" started being filtered out in my head as I've heard it so much. It means "thank you very much" and is doled out in heavy servings by all the Japanese we talked to.
In Japan, we decided to follow the popular tourist migration route that goes from Tokyo to Osaka and ends in Kyoto. We travelled between cities using the "Shinkansen" (bullet train), my new favorite form of transport, first pioneered in Japan, which travels up to 200 mph (initially I thought "Shinkansen" was a train line and marvelled how a single line seemed to run everywhere).
Something to note about traveling in Japan, unlike most Asian countries, is that it's expensive. Food and transportation prices are comparable to that of America. I converted $400 USD into yen at the beginning of the trip and six days later had almost nothing left.
I used the remainder of my money buying food stuff at the airport on the way back. Theres an unwritten rule somewhere that one must buy strawberry flavored kitkats when travelling to Japan. To be safe, I also got wasabi, cheese cake and some sort of chocolate almond mix flavored kitkats.
After three movies, intermittent naps and two hours of an audio book, I caught a glimpse of the space needle from the window seat of the hump of the Boeing 747 which I had been prisoner of the past 13 hours. My heart skipped a beat and I felt a warm fuzzy sensation in my chest. Seattle feels like home to me now and I realized that I missed it.
Sometimes we must journey outward to appreciate what we have. One of my goals for this year is to show greater gratitude for what I have. I think this comes from my eastern heritage as all my other goals involve being able to have more. This is mostly in the form of time to pursue the interests that I care about - like online idea pollution (blogging). How successful I will be at this remains to be seen.