After living in Japan for two years and China for five, I determined that the handling of racial inequities in the USA is very different from Asia. In America, race is an open book. It is a topic that we approach head on. We touch on race in televised speeches and graduation commencements; we comment on race on our TV shows and stand-up comedy (hell, we even have TV shows classified by race), and we openly discuss race among friends and family. Unlike in Asia, race is not something we shove under the rug in the USA. It’s out there for all to see.
It’s only been one day and we are already starting to see the damage. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The disappearance of the Climate Change page on whitehouse.org. Re-negotiations of NAFTA. It’s all really happening.
Yesterday, in a truly humbling event, scores of Women’s Marches were held around the world. Women (and those who support women and diversity) stood in solidarity for equality, love, and women’s rights. I was rooting for all of you.
Although these marches spanned the globe, they mostly represented a fight for U.S. domestic policies. Planned Parenthood, immigration, education, healthcare–Americans turned out in record numbers to fight for these rights.
But I’m Here to Talk Foreign Policy
I’m currently taking a Failed States & Insurgencies class (I know, sounds uplifting right?). The professor is young, but captivating and ridiculously intelligent. He lived in Central Asia for years and actually worked with warlords in failed states formed from the ruins of the USSR.
“Climate change isn’t that big of a deal,” he announces to the class. “Now wait, before you start throwing tomatoes at me I want to tell you the most pressing threat to humanity, something that is far more deadly than climate change–and that’s nuclear warfare. One wrong move, one wrong word, one miscommunication and all of mankind is wiped out, save a few unlucky souls. All your friends. All your family. Wiped from the face of this Earth.”
“So yes, international relations is important. Sure, climate change is a big deal and I know we can deal with it when mankind is pressed with the urgency–but nuclear warfare? That is a much more pressing and delicate subject.”
So while domestic policies worry me a lot, it’s the danger the Trump administration could inflict in the realm of foreign policy that keeps me awake at night. Most voters go to the ballot with daily grievances in mind–I went in knowing that Trump could change the entire world order.
Security in Japan
During his campaign, Trump said the U.S. shouldn’t be the world’s police and we should withdraw and/or reduce U.S. military presence in Japan (even though Japan pays a hefty sum of money for our military to be there in the first place).
Can you imagine what would happen to Japan if the U.S. left, especially with a rising (and aggressive) China next door under the rule of President Xi Jin Ping?
That’s why Prime Minister Abe basically ran to Trump tower mere days after the election results. Although Japan has recently built up its domestic military (aka self-defense force) under PM Abe, the country would be almost defenseless without U.S. assistance (and that’s because after WWII we did not allow them to have any form of military of self-defense).
After the Abe-Trump meeting, it seems that Trump will likely not go through with his campaign rhetoric in terms of military presence in Japan–much to Abe’s relief.
Security in China
I have one word to sum up all current security tensions with Trump & China:
China has one, and only one issue it is absolutely non-negotiable with, and that is territorial sovereignty–especially over Taiwan.
I read a 100 page security briefing on tensions between US-China from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and most conflicts arose from Taiwan.
Trump taking the phone call from pro-independence Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen is a big deal. It has elicited confrontational and disturbing comments from China. If Trump changes his policy towards Taiwan, if he recognizes it as a sovereign nation, China is not afraid to strike.
China attacks Taiwan. The U.S. comes to defend Taiwan. Russia supports China in its claim for Taiwan. Japan also comes into the fight. Starts looking like a world war.
Even if it doesn’t begin with a full-frontal fight over Taiwan in the straits, one wrong move from increased naval ships from the U.S. or China in waters near Taiwan could easily escalate into unnecessary warfare.
The day after the election results I asked my professor what he thinks will happen between U.S.-China, especially with TPP gone and possible military pull out from the Asia Pacific, as stated in Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
“I don’t think the U.S. will pull out,” he cried. “Trump said he will double spending on the military budget. One day after the election and defense contractors had a spike in their stock. He’s obviously going to beef up the military–but why? Perhaps an attack against China?”
I’m extremely skeptical that the U.S. will attack China and I would rather bet my money on a conflict arising from Taiwan than all-out military warfare between US-China. However, one does have to wonder why the U.S. is upping its military strength.
Trump and the China-Japan Economy
The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a multilateral trade agreement initiated by the US and included 12 countries in the Asia Pacific and the US
When I lived in Japan, the most fascinating stories I heard were from none other than the grannies and grandpas. They held no reservations and talked openly and freely about their memories, their thoughts, and their opinions. And since I was an American, they often told me stories about World War II. They weren’t negative or hateful stories, but merely tales told from the depths of their memories. Memories from a time long past. A Japan that no longer existed.
“I remember listening to the radio with my family, about possible air raids from America and instructions for going to the shelters,” one of my adopted grandmothers said as she set up dinner for us, a feast of Japanese oden, tempura, miso soup and fish. “I was so scared!”
“And never in a million years would I think,” she sat down on the tatami floor with an ‘umph’ and looked across from me at the table. “I would be sharing dinner with a young American girl that spoke such good Japanese!”
My other grandma told me stories about her life in Dalian, China; a city occupied and ruled by the Japanese with an iron fist. Her father was a general there, and she lived in a lavish mansion with Chinese maids and helpers all the while oblivious to the torture and killing that was going on outside the wall’s of her estate.
Another grandpa told me about his battles across China and Thailand during World War II. How he was wounded. Taken prisoner.
Yet none of them spoke these stories with hatred, anger, or even remorse. Despite the means, all of the elderly I spoke with knew that whatever they did helped create the Japan of today. A peaceful Japan. A country that is more outspoken against war than any other.
August 6th marked the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima Bombing. It’s a day that has me reflect on both past, present and future Japan.
In fact, the Japanese Remember the Anniversary of Hiroshima as a day to celebrate the continuation of peace in the world, not as a day to recount tragedy.
For some unknown reason, I always longed to go to Hiroshima. I was fascinated with World War II in high school history class, and growing up I read books like “Sadoko’s 1,000 paper cranes,” the story of a girl diagnosed with leukemia from the bomb’s radiation. I reflected on what America did, and I often wondered about what else could have been done. What we had done.
In college I read a book called “Kuroi Ame (Black Rain)” by Masuji Ibuse. It’s a powerful book, a classic of Japanese literature, and an all too realistic retelling of the horrors that happened in Hiroshima. It moved and inspired me.
For some reason, I desperately wanted to see Hiroshima with my own eyes. I wanted to set foot in the city that was crushed by war and rebuilt on peace. I wanted to see what America had done.
When I signed up for the JET program, I even listed Hiroshima as my #1 choice.
Although I wasn’t sent to Hiroshima, I was still able to fulfill my dream…
And Hiroshima was, by far, my favorite trip during my stay in Japan.
The city sparkles. If an alien had landed on Earth and visited Hiroshima, and you told them that this city was laid to waste by an atomic bomb not even a century ago, they would be skeptical–because Hiroshima is that beautiful.
Unlike other cities in Japan, it feels newer. The buildings don’t seem as old. There are no ancient temples or shrines interspersed throughout neighborhoods. Even the castle is a recreation of what was once there and not the original.
The peace garden is lovely. Rows upon rows of flowers, a statue of Sadoko, the infamous rainbow of peace.
The museum is a powerful experience. I don’t really know how to describe it, other than feel a strong sense of guilt for what we did. In the textbooks we’re taught that America had to drop the bomb in order to save the lives of ground soldiers and put an abrupt end to the war. Some people still wonder if that was really the case, or if the use of nuclear weapons is ever justified. That’s all I could think about, walking through that museum.
Despite what America had done, the memorial museum does not play the blame game. In fact, there’s a whole section of the museum devoted to the continuation of peace. Japan is one of the strongest advocates for complete global elimination of nuclear weapons, and pushes for peace more than any country. Even without going into the museum, it’s easy to see that the Japanese value harmony and tranquility more than anything else.
Of course, if you go to Hiroshima seeing the “A-Bomb Dome” is a must. In this new and modern metropolis, it’s the only reminder that this was a city literally wiped off the map by a single bomb. It stays as a reminder to everyone that Hiroshima endured, and it resurrected. It stands tall today as a sign of resilience and peace.
Aside from the Historical Aspect, Hiroshima is Actually a Pretty Cool City
After discovering the tactics for landing dates in Asia, I had romances all across Asia and my dating life was… well, let’s say diverse.
And from my (very small) pool of dating research at this time, I found that the most satisfactory, fun, and long-lasting dates were with none other than Chinese men.
Now, after many hits and misses in the dating scene, I finally found my perfect match: Richard (and surprise! he’s Chinese!).
Here are some reasons why my boyfriend is simply amazing; and coincidentally, why Chinese men make really darn good boyfriends.
Most Chinese men are the cooks in the household. Period.
In most Shanghainese households, it’s not the woman working hard in the kitchen every night–it’s the man. When many Chinese children think of homemade cooking, they don’t think of mom standing over a hot stove; but rather, recall fond memories of dad boiling stews, rolling up won tons or preparing a hot bowl of tan yuan (sweet dumplings) for dessert.
Chinese men tend to either cook with the wife, or just plain take over the kitchen entirely.
I know this may vary by region, since northern China is (I hear) more traditional in terms of having the man out in the field while the woman handles the kids and the cookin’. However, in southern China, it’s usually the man’s duty to whip up some good grub.
Even if they don’t cook every night, Chinese men do tend to help out in the kitchen more than what I was used to. And it’s awesome.
My boyfriend is no exception. He is an amazing cook that can make the simple stuff taste divine (for example, his fried rice is killer!). Richard also makes aromatic and flavorful curries ala India and Thailand. He can even make mango sticky rice!
They Tend to Be Financially Responsible
Most Chinese men** I have met tend to do a good job of managing their money well. In America, we often see young kids taking out student loans to buy a new sports car, or even young professionals maxing out their credit cards to go out for three digit meals in swanky restaurants, buy a brand bag, or perhaps a closet full of shoes.
This usually doesn’t happen in China (mostly because it can’t), and also because Chinese men tend not to spend needlessly.
Chinese people save. A lot. I’ve heard crazy stories about Chinese parents that worked as janitors for 30 years, living in a hovel all throughout, just so they could pay tuition for their son/daughter to go to the USA and study. Imagine that. Making, perhaps, $100/day and somehow saving enough money to pay for U.S. college tuition. They must have skimped on a lot.
Needless to say, this kind of behavior rubs off on the children. In China, every penny counts. Chinese men tend not to spend what they don’t have and save their money for future necessities (in China, most men buckle down and save in order to buy a house, since it’s a must in order to get married).
My boyfriend is the Chinese Warren Buffet himself. He nearly received a third bachelor degree in business just because he loves to dabble in economics and personal finance. His parents, once low paid teaching assistants in China, managed to scrape up enough money to move around the world until they finally found their place in America. My boyfriend learned the value of a hard earned dollar thanks to his parent’s plight, and thus he also learned how to save it–and more importantly, invest it.
Thanks to Richard, I’m investing in stocks and learning more about how to better manage my money.
**Note: This excludes ‘fuerdai,’ the spoiled, rich, second-generation of Chinese kids.
Chinese Men Put Family First (double edged sword here…)
Thanks to an old guy named Confucius, values in China are placed very heavily on family–and it’s easy to see. Parents pull out all the stops to ensure their child has the best upbringing, and in turn their children take care of the parents in old age.
Showing devotion and care to your family is, in my opinion, one of the most important factors in selecting a partner. I mean, seriously, would you want to date a guy that barely visits his mom and treats her like an old hag begging under a bridge? (And trust me, I’ve dated men like this).
In America, we tend to turn 18, leave the nest and live our own lives. Of course, we keep in touch with our family and come home for Christmas every now and then, but for the most part our lives become very separate from our parents. The U.S. doesn’t emphasize family ties as much as in Asia, and thus, we tend to put more importance on our goals, careers, and ambitions instead.
The emphasis on family is crucial in China. Most blue and white collar Chinese men I’ve met in China work hard not for money, fame, or prestige–but for their family, and future family. It’s this kind of dedication that, to me, makes a good man.
My boyfriend is very loyal to his family and cares deeply for his parents (he goes on vacation with them at least three times a year). His dedication to his family shows me that, in the future, he’ll also do the same for me. To keep the family peace, my boyfriend even went so far as to change his entire work career. Instead of become an engineer like he always dreamed, he gave into his parents demands and took the long, hard road of medicine. Although he’s happy being a doctor now, it was not by his own choice.
And that is exactly why family dedication can be a double edged sword. Chinese men often marry whomever their parents approve of. The fairy tale romance of a Chinese man running off with the foreign woman and eloping in some far away land is a rare tale indeed. If the parent’s disapprove, it’s most likely not going to happen.
This also explains why meeting your Chinese boyfriend’s parents is heart attack inducing… but that’s a tale for another time.
Not All (Chinese) Men are Perfect
Of course, not all Chinese men make the best boyfriends–there are, of course, a few bad eggs. I’ve heard some horror stories of Chinese men gambling away their family’s entire fortune. I’ve also heard heart crushing tales about Chinese men that abuse their wives. No matter where you go in the world, there will always be good and bad men (and women), so I’m not speaking for the entire race here.
Yet with Richard, I know I’ve truly found a good catch. He’s a man that cooks, helps out with the cleaning, is financially responsible, devoted to his family (and thus me, assuming I become future family someday), adventurous and fun loving.
I can be a crazy woman sometimes (especially going through this year of reverse culture shock), and I am extremely appreciative of my boyfriend for being understanding, patient, and loving throughout it all. Where most men would have lost their temper and flung me out of the house, Richard has always comforted me with a hug, reassurance, and most importantly a gentle talk about what we can do to fix the problem.
So when it comes to my Chinese man, he truly makes the best boyfriend for me.
What qualities do you look like for when dating? What do you think makes a good boyfriend?
I know. I disappeared for a month.
I wish I could say that I did something cool, like randomly bought a one way ticket to Iceland and partied in Reykjavik for 30 days straight–but alas, my life is not that exciting. The last month was mostly sucked up by a web design class that taught me little, but did force me to build a website (I actually constructed a website for the boyfriend that should be up soon). I also spruced up The Ruby Ronin a bit in hopes that it will inspire and motivate me to write on a regular basis.
Like one of my favorite bloggers Rosie mentioned on her recent post, when you fall into monotony it’s hard to find inspiration to write. That’s exactly where I was–but I hope it will not happen again. I apologize, my readers.
Anyway, this post isn’t about the broken state I’ve been in for the last month–it’s about change.
After one year of living in the states, I’ve not only noticed differences in my new American surroundings, but also in myself.
Thanks to my life abroad, I can now…
1. Stand up for myself (thanks, China!)
In America we smile, say hello, ask how your day is and mind our manners by saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” In fact, almost all pleasantries end with the sentence: “Have a wonderful day.”
Pff, yeah right.
When meek Mary first went to China, she was kicked and tossed around like the newb foreigner she was.
My ‘please’ and ‘thank yous’ in Chinese were met with a grunt and a snort. When Chinese people cut in front of me in line, I sulked and let them butt in. When the taxi driver took the scenic route to up the meter, I merely paid the extra fee with a tear in my eye. The Chinese knew my weakness, and exploit it they did.
Chinese people are highly aggressive. Unless you put your foot down and stick up for yourself, they are not afraid to nickel and dime you. If you don’t persistently demand for your rights in China, then you simply won’t get any. Teary eyed Mary learned how to fight with the cab driver, she got the courage to tell the lady cutting in line to scram, and she even learned how to barter for discounts on fruits, vegetables, and her cell phone bill.
So now in America, instead of letting the server get away with charging gratuity when it clearly wasn’t stated–I get mad. I shove the bill in their face and say, “What the hell is this?”
Before, I would have waved the problem away and said it wasn’t worth the fight.
But China taught me that if you let people step all over you, then you’ll be at the service of others and never yourself.
2. Be More Considerate (thanks, Japan!)
When it comes to manners, Japan reigns supreme.
Although no one in Japan taught me how to be hospitable, I caught myself copying the Japanese without even thinking.
Always prepare a snack, tea or beverage when guests come over. If food is served, spoon out and distribute rice and other dishes immediately for the guests. If your friend/colleague’s beer or wine glass if empty, fill it up. When grabbing food from a communal dish, use the back end of your chopsticks (it’s more sanitary and polite). When in an elevator, push the ‘open’ button to let everyone else out first. After eating a meal at someone’s home, clean up (even if they insist you don’t have to).
In Japanese, there’s a phrase called “omotenashi“… which basically means: damn good hospitality. No one else is as considerate as the Japanese. They can read your mind. They know what you want.
Now that I’m in the U.S., I still find myself practicing these habits (and more) that I picked up in Japan–and I’m glad I did. It always pays to be kind and considerate.
3. Improvise in Any Situation
When you travel frequently, you have to be quick on your toes. Trains to the airport booked solid? Try a taxi. Rainy day ruin your tour to the temple? Find a show or museum to go see in the city instead. Can’t read the medication you need to buy? Call a local friend, or use your dictionary and limited English to work with the pharmacist at hand.
My ability to improvise has proved to be a golden asset here in the states. I can usually handle any curve ball thrown at me, mostly because living in a foreign country was like being hit with twenty curve balls on a daily basis. Whether it’s going to the doctor, paying your phone bill, or finding a new apartment–everything is a challenge where improvisation is almost always needed.
4. Learn to be at Peace with Solitude
When I moved to middle-of-nowhere Japan at the tender age of 22, I lived alone in a large apartment surrounded by rice fields, spiders, cockroaches and crickets that roared (yes, roared) through the night.
It was my first time living alone, and I was deathly afraid.
The loneliness I endured in Japan was tough. I was the only foreigner in my village, with my closest western connection being a McDonalds that was 2 hours away by train. I came to Japan with no friends. I spent many nights and weekends with only myself for company.
Yet I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, because it made me one tough bitch. Once lonely and self-conscious Mary is now able to waltz into a bar solo, take a spot in front of the cute bartender and chat it up in Japanese. I’m now comfortable going to a restaurant alone, with nothing but myself and a book.
More importantly, I was able to travel solo and discover who I am, grow as a person, and become an independent and confident individual.
5. Be Open and Compassionate
Moving to a new country feels much like being a puppy lost on the streets of Manhattan. It’s a big world, there’s people out there to get you, and nothing is familiar. It’s pretty damn scary.
So now that I’m back in the states, I try to help out those from other countries so that they can settle into this big, scary place called America (cause god knows it still scares me).
I can’t even count the number of kind souls that helped me out in China, Japan, and all of my travels. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the experience alive.
While I don’t live in China and Japan anymore, or even travel half as frequently as I used to, the experiences from these places have forever changed me for the better.
How have you changed from living abroad?
Since I am now acquainted with so many amazing people that have stories from Japan, China and Asia in general, I wanted to start a “My Asia” guest post/interview series every every other Monday where readers and fellow friends can share their fascinating adventures.
I would like to start with a story that involves China and the journey of an American man going to discover the path of martial arts.
With a few years of tai-chi practice and teaching under his belt, my good friend Cory was convinced that the final step to mastery would be training on Mt. Wudang in China—the birthplace of Tai-Chi itself.
Cory is not only my childhood friend and fellow lover of cheesy kung fu movies and Asian culture, but he’s also a fantastic writer and quirky character. His stories of Mt. Wudang and its training could easily become a book or movie (much more than this simple blog post, that’s for sure!), and I’m honored that he was happy to share his story with me.
With absolutely no knowledge of the Chinese language and a passion to train in the art of tai-chi in the homeland, Cory traveled to rural China and braved the unknown: Mt. Wudang in Hubei province. Here is his story:
Brief History? Well, Kung Fu styles are either Waigong (external, generally associated with Shaolin) or Neigong (internal, and generally associated with Wudang). They say Taiji was invented by a superhuman Daoist immortal named Zhang Sanfeng, and that he taught it on Mount Wudang in the 900s or something. I found out in China that the legend was a load of horse shit, and that Taiji was probably invented first in Chen village, at the very earliest the 16th century. It was much more brutally martial even up until the 20th century, when the master Yang Chenfu (whose style became the most globally practiced) actually killed his opponents in several boxing matches.
I was a seeker! I wanted to make something unique of my life, and engage with an authentic spiritual tradition. I wanted to find a real MASTER of something. I did…but he wasn’t very fun.
Based on word-of-mouth from another Western student, I went to a small school that mainly taught Wushu type forms to adolescent students and a few adults. It was at a village on Mount Wudang in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by bus, called Huilongguan (Returning Dragon Temple). My first impressions were…my God, I’ve traveled back in time (there were chickens everywhere and coffins stacked outside peoples houses–the original form of life insurance).
The school was built around a central courtyard where the practices happened, and the well was nearby. We had running water for showers, but not for drinking. All the cooking happened on a wood stove in a gigantic wok (in an outdoor space that was roofed). The water heaters broke for about two weeks, twice, in the winter.
The harsh, cruel winter had come to a calm end. The roaring winds from the sea of Japan quieted to a whisper, and the walls of snow melted down into the nearby Shinano River, flowing along the rice fields and out into the open sea. The locals opened their windows to welcome in the fresh air of a spring long awaited, the sun a welcome sight from the months of grey skies and winter storms. In yukiguni—or snow country, as Niigata prefecture is famously known thanks to the Nobel prize winning book of the same name—winters can bring up to seven feet of snow fall.
Yet in the spring, this white world of snow turns into a landscape of cascading pink with the bloom of Japan’s infamous cherry blossoms.
I walked through the soft, rosy glow of hundreds of cherry blossom trees (known as sakura) during mankai, or full bloom. The spring breeze gently carried sakura petals floating through the air, creating a cascading veil of pink in all directions. Japanese festival stalls were set up on the side of the road, the smell of freshly grilled noodles, or yakisoba, wafting through the park. Locals camped underneath the cherry trees with bento boxes and beers in hand, smiles and laughter in the air. After surviving yet another winter in snow country, I’m sure the locals and I felt much like the sakura themselves: reborn in the dawn of spring.
I was in Takada Park in Joetsu City, which was formerly ruled by Matsudaira Tadateru, the sixth son of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Takada castle and the park was built in 1614 and has since become one of the top ten cherry blossom-viewing locations in all of Japan. With visitors flocking in from surrounding cities and prefectures, Takada Park draws a crowd of over one million visitors per year.
As I crossed the wooden, red lacquer bridge over the lotus flower lake and headed toward the castle, I couldn’t help but think of my Japanese literature courses from college and a fundamental theme that seemed to be interchangeable with the sakura themselves: The concept of mono no aware, or the transience of all things. It is the belief that divine beauty is in the fleeting–in the melancholy yet gentle experience of appreciating what will soon be gone. While the cherry blossom is exquisite in color, shape and form; it is so celebrated because it comes only once a year, blooming for a mere two weeks.
The sakura is beloved because we know that, like spring and so many other things, it will soon be gone.
While the winters of snow country were harsh and relentless, the exquisite beauty of Niigata’s cherry blossoms made it all worth it. Only with the cold do I know just how warm and loving the spring truly is.
As cherry blossom season currently waves through Japan (last week of March through the first of April), I close my eyes and remember the scattering pink petals of those crisp April days; the warmth of a new sun, the laughter of children running through the park, the feel of fresh air flowing through my lungs and the sweet, sweet taste of a cold Asashi on a fresh spring day.
Notes on Seeing the Cherry Blossoms in Japan and Snow Country
It’s no surprise that cherry blossom season (end of March through April) is the busiest time for tourism in Japan. The parks are packed, the hotels have no vacancies and it can be a frustrating time to travel through the country.
First of all, don’t go to Tokyo and Kyoto. The cherry blossoms bloom across the entire island, and some of the most exquisite flowers and parks aren’t even in the former and modern capital. Save some cash and find some large and spacious rooms out in the beautiful countryside. Like Niigata.
Takada Park is actually ranked as one of the top ten ‘hanami’ parks in Japan. It’s only a short two hour bullet train ride from Tokyo and, believe me, there is much more to see than the cherry blossoms alone. Sado Island is one of the most beautiful and remote locations in Japan, and it’s only a one hour ferry ride from Takada Park. They also host a bonanza Taiko-a-thon called the Earth Celebration, since Sado is home to the most famous taiko players in the world: Kodo.
Plus, the new Hokuriku Bullet Train line officially opened on March 17th. Now it’s easier than ever before to go to Joetsu City–just hop on the train! On the way, you can also stop for some other amazing sightseeing spots in Nagano prefecture.
The countryside (aka not Tokyo and Kyoto) are the best places to experience the ‘real’ Japan–and most of all, see cherry blossoms without the crowds and hassle.
There’s a scene in the movie Wild that stuck with me.
The protagonist is on the road. She’s exhausted. She has only taken the first few footsteps into her journey, but already she feels the weight of the road. Can I do this? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Have I gone crazy?
And then she stoops down, pulls some sagebrush from the road, rubs it in her fingers, closes her eyes and deeply inhales the scent.
The scent of the Earth. The scent of the journey. The scent of the world itself.
Then, she presses on.
This is Why I Travel
Everyone gets a rush from something.
Some feel it when they’re in the driver’s seat of a race car, going forward at full speed and bracing for the unknown. Others feel it when they’re running in a marathon, every limb of their body pulsating as they start to creep up to the finish line. Some get the rush in a meeting room, on the verge of a new company , idea or venture. There are even those that feel the pulse of life and meaning in the simple, everyday tasks such as gardening, cooking or even the first rays of sunshine in spring.
When I land in a new country and I’m walking from the boarding gate to the luggage carousel, I can feel my heart beating fast. No matter how many times I travel, no matter how tired I am upon arrival, I can always feel it in my bones.
The sensation of being somewhere new and launching myself into the unknown.
It’s better than any drug, than any substance:
It’s the adrenaline of adventure.
When I’m on the train, or in the cab, or riding the bus into the city or village of my long-planned itinerary, my mind is completely liberated of all worries. Of course the small details remain, such as how will I find my hotel, where will I pick up dinner and more importantly–what’s going to happen next?
Yet the worry starts to blend into excitement–the anticipation of discovery tugs at me. I long to taste, see and feel a new world. I want to grab it, rub it in my hands and inhale every moment of it.
In Travel, I see the Human Spirit
The more of the world I see, the more I realize: We all have a story, and every story is just as vital as the last.
The Buddhist priest in Japan that was forced to fight in World War II in Thailand, where he was taken prisoner and survived to tell the tale.
My Japanese host mother, who told me the story of her young love with a German man she’ll never forget.
The newlywed Vietnamese man on his honeymoon with his wife, looking to a new future as we sailed through the karsts of Halong Bay.
The Chinese photographer that wants to change China’s art world with his camera.
When you travel, every corner has a new encounter. Every encounter has a new story–and every new story adds to the wonderful journey that is life.
Not Everyone Can Live This Life
Taking everything you’ve built up in your life and smashing it to the ground:
That’s what becoming a traveler is.
It’s destroying your life to become a ghost between worlds.
It goes against human instinct; it’s a life of instability and danger, of risk and what some may see as little reward.
Yet for some, walking through the history of countries past and present is worth the sacrifice and loneliness. The overwhelming beauty of a landscape that can’t be captured with a camera or the smell of freshly boiled noodles or the scent of freshly baked bread wafting through the streets all make it worthwhile.
Most importantly, the unknown people that will meet you, greet you, and share their life with you will ultimately change yours.
“Mary, I was hoping that you would be a normal girl that settled down and had a family at a young age,” my father told me once.
“But you’re like me,” he smiled. “You want to see the world, and nothing will stop you. You are a wanderer.”
It’s been eight months since I returned to the United States, and the longer I stay here the harder I imagine myself to have the regular 9-5 job routine. Something will always be tugging at me, a voice will always be calling me, an unknown force will always be pulling me away to the open road.
And that’s why I travel: It’s my rush. It’s my adrenaline. It’s my high.
To inhale the world and breathe it into my body.
This is to many more years of travel. To being lost again in a new country. To finding a new place to call home, and going there together with my boyfriend, Fei.
To the road.
I’ve dated men all across Asia—Korea, Japan, China, and even Vietnam. Although I was told that western women weren’t the rage in Asia, I proved the non-believers wrong. With just three easy steps, I was able to score a slew of dates, a few boyfriends and even two proposals.
A Little Background…
I was living abroad for the first time ever in Japan at the ripe age of 22, newly single and ready to try the dating scene in Asia. The appeal of dating a local not only for the cultural and language benefits, but also for the novelty, was exciting. What would my friends and family say if I dated a Japanese person—or, better yet, married one?
“Forget it,” my senpai, the veteran English teachers in the area, told me. “Japanese men aren’t interested in foreigners. Especially ones that have black hair, like you. Japanese men want exotic. They want blondes.”
“We’ve been here five years and have yet to go on a date,” the other teacher said, the cynicism thick in her voice. “Japanese women love white guys, but the same can’t be said about the Japanese men.”
And then, the ultimatum.
“Mary, you will never get a Japanese man while you’re here.”
At a loss for words, I politely excused myself and went back to my apartment. After a recent, and rather horrific breakup with my ex-boyfriend, I wasn’t exactly on the prowl for a man right away.
While many people argue that it’s easier for white men to get an Asian girlfriend, I think it’s just as ‘easy’ to get an Asian boyfriend.
Here are some tips that I found work for getting some dates (and even a boyfriend) in China and Japan.
Step 1: Say Hello
In other words, don’t wait for a man to come by and buy you a drink. In the west it’s normal for men to approach women they don’t know for a date, but in Asia this is still very much a foreign concept. Most of my Chinese and Japanese friends met their significant other through the introductions of friends and family—they didn’t ask out a girl on the street.
Basically, Asian men rarely walk up to a woman they don’t know and ask her out for a drink or coffee.
And if that woman happens to be a foreigner? They’re even more apprehensive.
My best pick up line in Japan was literally “hello.” If I was sitting at a bar and a cute Japanese guy was next to me, I’d smile and say “hello.” These simple greetings of hello led to fun conversation, phone numbers, and a few dates (one of these encounters is still my friend—we’ve been talking now for 5 years!).
Don’t wait for love to come to you in Asia. Asian men are probably interested in you, but the combination of being shy and the taboo around asking out a stranger probably make it difficult for him to get the guts to talk to you. A little hello never hurt anyone.
My second best line in Japan? “Can you speak English? No? Let me help” ;P
Step 2: Speak the Language
Well, if the conversation stops at Hello that doesn’t help much, does it?
While many Japanese and Chinese people speak English rather well nowadays, it’s still very crucial to speak their language. In Japan, many of the men I went on dates with were thoroughly interested in me because I spoke Japanese—and spoke it well. More than that, I think they were touched that someone from afar was so interested in their country and culture.
And if things were to escalate beyond just a date, understanding the language of your partner is a must. Even if communication is mainly in English, the attempt at trying to understand his culture through language study will mean a lot to him.
My boyfriends weren’t just touched that I spoke these languages, either—they were impressed. They not only respected me, they were proud of me.
Step 3: Don’t Find Love in a Club (or anywhere where you’re quite drunk)
Like the popular Rihanna song, western culture has taught us “find love in a hopeless place” (aka, club). Most young women in America believe that putting on your best dress, curling your hair, plastering on some make-up and standing at the bar will help you get a date.
While it is possible to get a date using the Rihanna song method, the date will most likely last 24 hours or less and will not develop into boyfriend material.
In Japan and China men don’t like to meet the woman of their dreams in a bar. In fact, most Chinese men (or at least, the ones you want to meet) don’t even frequent bars. While getting drunk is considered a fun outing in the west, in Asia it is very taboo for a woman to get sloshed in a bar or club.
And most of all, the chances you’ll find a man with similar values and interests inebriated in a dimly lit dance club are some tough odds.
I met most of my past boyfriends through language exchange. Although finding a boyfriend was definitely not the goal, our shared interests in each other’s language and culture already created a strong foundation for us to not only become friends—but something more.
There’s more than just shared language interests: Try joining a sports team on the weekends, find some events online where you might discover someone with similar hobbies (for example, painting class or bowling events); or, perhaps, try the Internet.
Hell, one of my best western girlfriends in China just got a Chinese boyfriend through Okcupid.com (yes, Chinese men in China use it as well!).
And believe it or not, I met my current Chinese boyfriend through this very blog.
The Internet is no longer a creepy way to meet people. It’s an amazing tool that creates opportunities to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon.
Finally, Enjoy the Journey
An international relationship is a humbling and learning experience. Dating someone from a different culture is fun and exciting, but it can also be tiring and difficult. You’ll experience the troubles of a regular relationship with an extra dosage of intercultural clashes and misunderstandings that will truly test your patience.
While some may argue that having an international relationship may be more trouble than it’s worth, I definitely think the pros far outweigh the cons.
And of course, I’m curious:
How did you meet your significant other or date from another culture? Any tips to add?
The wind pummeled us relentless, but we didn’t care. The dark blue waves screamed in protest as they crashed violently against the lava formed rock formation we stood upon. Although the dark, unknowing waters of Jeju looked unwelcoming, the fresh and cleansing breeze of the Korean countryside and its pastel, blue sky was more than enough to keep me here. After relentless days of smog and apocalyptic skies of dust and toxic matter in China, the coast of Jeju was like medicine.
The wind whipping my hair across my face, the sprays of fresh, seawater splashing across my open toed sandals, a fresh paint of blue sky:
It felt great being back in Korea.
Jeju: Korea’s Hawaii
Jeju Island is an island getaway for local Koreans as either a summer vacation or a romantic honeymoon retreat. With a number of beaches, an active volcano, rare rock formations, casino, shopping malls, and a sex (?) and teddy bear (!?) museum —Jeju has developed into more than just a reclusive island off the coast of South Korea. And with throngs of Chinese tourists coming in visa-free from the mainland, it’s become a hot investment spot and shopping haven for the got-rich-quick Chinese.
A Slice of the Simple Life
Jeju was quiet. There was no traffic, no sirens, no blaring horns or throngs of people. Aside from the occasional tourist bus or farming truck, the streets of Jeju were relatively empty. Near the beaches only the sound of waves lapsing against the shore could be heard; while inland, an overwhelming blanket of silence and nature draped itself across the island.
“I feel like I’m back in the rural areas of Japan, back in Yamagata,” Tomoko said as we crawled over the rocks and passed an old Korean grandma fishing clams from the sea. “It’s so green. So quiet. So peaceful.”
Back on land we passed by small vendors along the coast, most of them local shops that weren’t even open. Squid hung in the air on clotheslines, like laundry out to dry. A truck was selling a fresh batch of tangerines, with tangerine soju to match. The sun was warm, but mild; the sea breeze blowing in from the coast was crisp, the juices of the fresh tangerine I bought dribbled down my chin.
Refreshing, I thought. Jeju is, in every sense of the word, a refreshing escape.
Jeju Volcanic Island
“We only have 30 minutes Mary, pick up the pace!” Tomoko sprinted up the mountainside like it was merely a flight of stairs. The steep incline of Jeju’s Volcanic island was not a difficult climb by any means, but to scale it in less than 30 minutes felt like some sort of marathon challenge. I huffed and puffed and sprinted forward, but after a few minutes Tomoko became a speck in the distance. I was no match for her.
Korea is literally a giant volcanic island. Speckled across the island are multiple climbs, with the tallest being Mt. Hallasan. We were taken to a volcanic retreat near the ocean, one that spurted just slightly hundreds of years ago, but not with as much force as Hallasan.
I looked at my watch then up the road, praying that I make it to the summit before our tour bus decided to abandon us. I felt my breath coming in short gasps and came to a stop for a rest. I turned around to this view:
When I reached the top of of this mini-volcano I found myself looking down into a gap that resembled a tub of freshly scooped ice cream. A bubble of green had formed at the top of the mountain, with a lone tree growing in the center. Below me, a crater of green. Beyond me, a horizon of blue. A volcano on the ocean. I climbed below to join Tomoko, who had arrived ten minutes earlier.
“Glad you could make it” she laughed. I smiled back and looked with her across the summit of the volcano in silence.
It’s amazing how something that spewed molten lava years ago was now such a peaceful retreat, I thought; my eyes fixated on the baby tree at the focal point of the crater.
Even in the most unexpected of places, live thrives on.
Let It Go
After a dinner of Korean BBQ, Tomoko and I donned our finest summer dresses and watched a beautiful sunset from the sandy shores. Darkness descended on Jeju.
There were tables set on the sand for outdoor eating (I presume), but Tomoko and I feigned ignorance and used them as our personal picnic blanket. Local Korean restaurants and eateries lined the coast with residents, drunks and tourists alike all dining on the plastic tables and chairs. People were laughing and pouring soju, the splash of the black waves rolling in and out of shore serving as their background music
I, on the other hand, was taking swigs of plum soju while Tomoko sipped on a beer.
We sat next to one another looking out to the black emptiness that is the evening sea. Although we couldn’t see anything, we could definitely feel everything. The air was so fresh we could almost taste it; the weather so perfect, we had no need to mention it.
“We need music,” Tomoko proclaimed. She took out her iphone and searched for a song.
Then she hit play, stood up, and danced on the table. The customers at the nearby restaurants and vendors began to stare.
“My god Tomoko,” I look up at her. “Is this Boogie Wonderland?”
“You better believe it is,” she held her hand out to me. “It feels great up here Mary, come on! Dance!”
I looked around. At least twenty people from the nearby restaurants had their eyes fixed on the crazy Japanese woman besides me, lost in her trance of Earth, Wind & Fire. I obviously wasn’t drunk enough, I thought. I was extremely self-conscious about becoming Jeju Island’s next tourist attraction.
“Don’t worry Mary!” Tomoko laughed and continued her groove. “Who cares! Just let all your worries go!”
I took another swig of soju and thought, what the hell. I tossed the empty bottle to the sand and hesitantly stood up with Tomoko, my dance resembling the shuffle.
But then, the song changed to September. I never really listened to Earth, Wind & Fire in my free time. I knew it as that random background music they play in movies and commercials. Yet standing there with Tomoko, seeing her entire soul and spirit captivated by the melody spurting out from her small iphone speaker, something inside me sparked. My shy shuffle turned into a hip-gyrating, hair flinging, full-blown groove. Tomoko and I were unstoppable.
Our co-workers walked by, pointed, laughed, and took photos. The onlookers having dinner and drinking beer applauded our random dance numbers. A few guys came down and tried to join us, but Tomoko wouldn’t let them up. Instead she looked them in the eye, took their beer, had a swig, and returned it with an “arigato.”
I don’t know how long we danced up there, just the two of us. It was a really long time. Earth, Wind and Fire turned into Prince, then to Michael Jackson, and finally came to a steady end with Nat King Cole’s “It had to be You.”
Sandals in hand, I walked on the moist, sandy coast back to our hotel. Tomoko, still with a hop in her step, skipped ahead, her blue dress fluttering in the night wind. I looked to the nearby shops closing up, the black tide rolling in and out, and the twinkling stars above.
This is the best part of traveling, I thought. Releasing your inhibitions and free falling into the moment.
The Treasures of Jeju
Korea always surprises me.
From having no desire to go there, to a vague interest post Seoul trip, to absolutely falling in love in Jeju—Korea never ceases to amaze me. Korea is a great Asia destination with its temples, Confucian values, neon light cities, crazy soju-filled night life and famous shopping. Yet the charm of its food, people, and natural sights, while somewhat similar to China and Japan, still remain uniquely Korean.
Similar to Seoul, in Jeju you can go to ten floor duty-free shopping malls, have an excellent meal of Korean BBQ and experience the wide selection of Korean coffees in the convenience store.
But unlike Seoul, you get a taste of the simpler Korea. Horses grazing in the field, the elderly harvesting fish, the old mom-and-pop BBQ places with no English menu or pictures—this is a taste of Korea that you simply can’t find on the mainland.
The natural sights are also out of this world, with waters so turquoise blue and skies so fresh and clean that it even gives Japan a run for its money.
For a quiet and reflective escape, Jeju is the perfect place. I went in expecting little, and left with some of the best memories of my life abroad.