Nostalgia Conquered

I’ve been back living in New York City for over four months.

Life was strange at first, but I became adjusted.

Being in the United States of America, especially here, its biggest city, it is possible to get so much exposure to the rest of the world. Apart from the international scale, the traditional US lifestyle and set of customs for those of us whose lineage has been here for generations does possess its own unique factors that can be considered truly American.

Since this is such a big, diverse and complicated country, you can also feel like you fit into your particular region, and the rest of the country and world will always be compared to from that perspective. I’ve always considered everything in the perspective of being from New York and from America, and since I’ve recently returned, I’ve gained insight as to how to compare many other places to here.

As predicted, I do miss many factors about life and travel in Asia. However, being so close to 8th Avenue in Brooklyn, I simply need to walk a few blocks to have bits of my nostalgic cravings shortly appeased.

For instance, I can get all of the cutesy kitsch I want, no short of any glitter or pastels or big eyes.

(Though I don’t usually want it).

Of course I’ll get reminded of some less desirable components, and this brings me  flashbacks of such interesting markets I passed through in Asia.

But then I can just walk into one of the 8th Avenue bakeries, and be reminded of something I enjoyed in a different country, thought about how much I would miss it when I departed, and then just be able to obtain the same thing in New York City.

If I get too caught up in Asian references and travel memories, I can always just head down to Sunset Park, take a pause, observe the Manhattan skyline, and realize my surroundings.

Good Fortune, a local Asian supermarket, also calms my desires for edible consumer goods from the East. When I lived in Daegu, South Korea, I would become excited when the pasta selection in the tiny “Foreign Foods” section of the hypermarket, E-Mart, would offer more noodle options than just standard spaghetti, or if there was more than one version of canned baked beans. In New York City, I can have an entire market of my missed overseas options, plus some new ones.

From Korean rice dumplings to Taiwanese chewy sweets to Southeast Asian fruits, I can access all of the exotic treats within such easy reach.

Again, I can always just step out and realize where I actually am. Biting into any of these foods will take my mouth and mind back to foreign lands, and I am satisfied that I can achieve such a phenomenon in local settings.

Early mornings at Leif Eriskson Park always have something new to offer.

The most consistent practice is Tai Chi, but I’ve also seen sword dancing, coordinated pop-music choreography, exercising on stationary machines, erhu playing, Chinese newspaper reading and general socializing.

But apart from bringing me back to where I had been, it’s nice to have things that look truly American and truly New York. When you travel elsewhere, you are sometimes met with a line of imitations of your own culture that never seem to match up to the feeling you get from where they originate.

It’s even  pleasnt to have the surrounding New York City scenery when you are presented with the urban environments that represent instances of foreign cultures.

And then to get away to experience other places, I don’t need to turn on the television or read a book, but simply to walk down the street.

I enjoy being back. I enjoy being reminded of my travels. I enjoy having left, gained the perspective, returned, reminisced and been reminded.

Asian Cat Photography

Cat cafe on a winter day, Ulsan, South Korea.

A leashed kitten in Ulsan, South Korea.

An Indonesian biker kitten.

Black cat on the streets of Tokyo, Japan.

Kittens cooling off under a bench in Malacca, Malaysia.

Fluffy cat battles fluffy toy in Taipei, Taiwan.

Cat resting in a restaurant booth in Taipei.

Friendly calico in the Philippines.

Variations of the same cat in Lake Toba, Indonesia.

Three kittens in Penang, Malaysia.

Cats forming a pleasing color scheme in Penang.

Sometimes, they reposition.

Tabby cat resting by newspapers in Penang.

Cat bored by the nighttime street action in Bangkok, Thailand.

Cat trying to sell some bootleg DVDs and microphones in Bangkok.

Cozy black kitten in southern Vietnam.

Laotian cat resting on its dirt floor, and simultaneously matching it.

The End

Shrine in Tokyo, Japan
Shrine in Tokyo, Japan

So, it’s all finally coming to its end. The year and a half that I’ve spent in Asia has been reducing itself to its final months, weeks, days and soon hours, before I embark on a 24-hour plane ride back to New York City.

Bell House in Vigan, Philippines

It’s difficult not to reflect or try to remember certain themes or occurrences, even when I am in states of not being attached to the fact that it’s really happening. I’ve been traveling throughout Southeast Asia for about six months, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s become my reality, and doesn’t even feel like a trip any more. Perhaps it will feel more like traveling when I’m not actually here.

Of course there are many things I’ve learned, about myself and the places I’ve seen. I’ve gained new perspective even on being American and the United States itself.

Tiger in Kaohsing, Taiwan

This has been the longest I’ve traveled at once. After a year of South Korea, the weather was headed towards fall, where I decided to skip the cold this time around. First stop was Taiwan, where we motor-tripped around the perimeter of the island, and that was followed by an island-hopping adventure in the Philippines.

Lizard in Malacca, Malaysia

From Manila, Philippines, we flew to Singapore, quite possibly the cleanest city I’ve seen. When I was younger, my impressions of Singapore were that you’d be arrested for chewing gum or littering. When I got there, however, I did not see one cop the whole time, and people were even jaywakling. I only spent two days there before heading to Malaysia and into the cities of Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, learning about the multi-racial aspects of what makes the country what it is.

Lake Toba, Sumatra

Ten days of Sumatra, Indonesia, involved wonderful lake views, volcano trekking and hot springs. It was then we flew back to Malaysia to Penang island, then to the Cameron highlands, a low-temperature tourist spot full of green tea plantations and other assorted temperate agriculture.

Guest house window in Vientiane, Laos

A few weeks in Vietnam was a mixed experience. Then it was through Cambodia, stopping in its biggest city, Phnom Penh, then making it up to the provincial towns on the northern route. We then spent a week in Laos, starting from the south on the river island of Don Det, then the provincial city of Pakse and capital city, Vientiane. Vientiane was very laid-back and hardly a bustling metropolis, and it somewhat reminded me of Binghamton, New York, being full of empty buildings and pedestrian-less streets.

Canal in Bangkok, Thailand

We ended up in Bangkok for a week, a wonderful city of canals, cats, markets and street food. I traveled on my first sleeper train before a brief excursion to Koh Lipe, an island in the sea in the south, before making it back to Malaysia.

Anyway, most people can acknowledge that it’s not about the biggest list of places you travel or how many sites you’ve seen versus how far you got away from the tourist trail, but what you get out of it, whether at the time or during a session of reflecting. Of course I’ll emphasize the good and the adventurous when I look at pictures and tell others stories, but there have certainly been periods of downs during my travels, whether it’s sketchy food, allergic reactions to bug bites, lies and rip-offs or air conditioners breaking on boat rides where all the people are packed in like sardines.

Motorbike shop in Ulsan, South Korea

There are of course big things I will miss about Asia. For one, I’ll miss the casualness of everyday life. In America, I feel as if there is too much officialdom, that I’m always being watched and that I always have to consider the legal consequences of simple actions. Asian food will never be the same when I return, whether spiced incorrectly or just not being up to substantial quality. I’ve consumed many different versions of rice and tofu that I’ll certainly wish to eat again. I’ll miss riding a motor scooter without repetitive visits to the DMV, and checking into a place to sleep without having to give a form of valid identification and copy of a credit card before I even pay the enormous fees.

And, there are of course things I have missed about the US. It will be pleasant going back to where I can truly speak English the way it is on my mind, without modifications to people of other cultures. People, places and food are of course a big factor, but there is also the general feeling of truly belonging to a place and being part of it. There can of course be problems when you’re expected to keep up with the expectations of your society, but this is a standard that any local living in their own country has to acknowledge, whether or not they choose to follow these norms.

Toy vending machines in Tokyo, Japan

Perhaps I’ll return to Asia one day. Maybe I’ll make it to the places I’ve missed in the countries I’ve traveled, or go further on into new places like China, or Burma, or Nepal. But, for now, the time is coming to leave this travel experience as what it was. While it will likely affect me in the future in ways I may not even realize, it is an experience that is meant to have a designated start and finish.

I will make my return home this weekend. Though I’m full of anticipations, wonders and predictions, I’ll really only know what it holds after I arrive.

Taiwan Trip

So, the first place after the year in South Korea was Taiwan. After a two-hour flight, followed by a night in downtown Taipei, we decided to rent a scooter to go tour the island. Being a seemingly small place with fine weather, there is no reason not to venture out and try to see what there is. Some travelers decide to do this by bicycle, others by bus or train, and whichever way they choose to go, there is certainly a wide range of places to explore without seeing everything.

The first trip outside of Taipei was to Wulai, a quaint mountain village known for its hot springs. It was pleasant to leave the hot, heavy city traffic clusters and leisurely drive up into the hills and explore the tropical plants that covered them.

It was then out from Wulai, through some winding hills, and then to the East Coast of Taiwan. We drove up and down the mountains, past shrines and green tea plantations, until we got sight of the Pacific Ocean.

A little closer in, it became apparent that this coastal town was full of rice fields.

We drove on to Hualien, passing through some simple little towns. We’d have to stop at the traffic lights, as road laws are more enforced here than in Korea. It gave us a chance to pause and take in the scenery.

From Hualein it was to the Taroko Gorge, a beautiful site full of greenery and rock formations, but also full of tour buses.

We did not spend too long there, just got back onto the East Coast.

Though we hit the Tropic of Cancer, it was quite cloudy and windy at the time, so it did not feel different.

At night, we arrived in the city of Taitung, where we stayed at Cats Homestay. These were the two owners of this establishment, on their break-time.

It was then down to Kenting, towards the southern tip of Taiwan.

Down to the rocky coast in the southern end of the island, it got quite windy, but nonetheless scenic. Kenting was full of pineapple bushes and typical beach-town tourist features, such as reggae-themed bar carts and sandal shops.

The actual southernmost tip of Kenting was jam-packed with tour buses, so we decided to go here instead.

As that was the most south we could go, it was then up the West Coast. The first destination was Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-biggest city.

Hundreds of tourists from mainland China were in Kaohsiung. Some Taiwan locals choose to go up to the tour groups and show them posters about the Chinese government and some things that they censor. It looked like an interesting way of communicating, but I cannot read Chinese, so I don’t particularly understand what they are trying to get across.

Kaohsiung is supposed to be one of the most bike-friendly cities of Asia.

Of course I made friends with one of the locals.

Up north through the west coast, we had one of those experiences of having people tell us something, and then it coming to a reality. This piece of information was that the west coast of Taiwan was more populated than the east, was full of more cities and was more industrial. The air was definitely different, and there were certainly more towns and assorted development. When we started driving inland, the landscape became more flat, and was full of rice fields, fish farms and duck farms.

One place we stopped on the west coast was Lugang, a small town full of temples and old alley ways.

Even some of the modern establishments had hints of an antique feel. Taipei is wonderful at being a modern city with all of the amenities and efficient factors one could ask for, but this town was better to see history.

Some of the sites exhibited fine symmetry that kept up through all the ages.

After a bit of sightseeing, it was back to the hills. This country area had an abundance of strawberry farms, and we drove into the dusk and dark, searching for a hillside hot spring town campground. Though we could not find this campground, we had the opportunity of driving up a hill way above town until the pavement ended. Some nice people at one of the resorts allowed us to set up a tent on a grass field for free. The sulfuric water was heavenly to the skin after being cramped up on a bike all day, but was not pleasant to the nose.

From there it was back to Taipei, which was at first full of rural roads, and then back through the typical scene of suburban to satellite city to urban planning. It was an experience of a map coming to life in reality, a graphic depiction unfolding into truth upon your senses.

Summer in Nikko

During my time in Tokyo, Japan, I made the decision to venture out somewhere. This decision was reached prior to knowing to where that was. So, I picked up the nearest Japan book I could find, and checked out a list of day trips from Tokyo. I read of a mountain town to the north, full of temples and shrines and hiking. It sounded like the right place to head.

From Asakusa Station in Tokyo, I boarded the Tobu train bound to Nikko. I set out on my solo adventure to a place I had only heard of the day before.

Once out of the seemingly endless urban sprawl, outskirts and suburbs of the world’s most populous metropolitan area, I finally entered the Japanese countryside.

It looked like endless greenery, with the foreground being full of rice fields, the background being dominated by tree-infested mountains . I remember always learning about Japan in school, how very little of the land was arable and much of it was covered by mountains that were impossible to be developed, and there I finally was, taking it in.

After the Tobu train finally arrived in Nikko, it resembled to me one of those unknown Oregon mountain towns, rather spread out and not very populated.

Later on, I made my way later to the shrine and temple area, uphill, in the sweltering heat and humidity. I could have crossed a sacred bridge for a fee, or taken a picture of it on a parallel bridge for free, and I chose the latter.

I trekked even farther uphill to enter the attractions, which were quite a series of eye candy.

The dark shades of the emerald moss on stone sculptures almost made me forget about the bothersome summer sultry.

Of course I had to take a picture of the highlight, the Three Wise Monkeys of the Tosho-gu shrine. For many years, I have been familiar with the proverb, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” This associated image has been portrayed as a cliche to me in various cartoons and t-shirt designs, perhaps with monkeys or other cute animals. But, throughout the years of life, I did not know the inspiration for this concept would have been in front of me in a random journey in Japan.

To escape from the heat later, I also decided to take the bus up into the hills, far from gravity pulling down the sunlight, into the region that was reaching to the clouds.

The first evening I went, and enjoyed pacing around the trails, in the slight rain, getting my boots muddy and damp, taking breaks to view the calmness of the lake.

The next day, I needed another uphill journey. I decided to hike farther into this forest. I followed the path of the stream, and ascended up into the hills to satiate my curiosity of what Japanese forests looked, sounded and felt like up close and personal.

Though I’m familiar with forest, it was a novelty to see new trees, smell new soil, and be greeted with “Konnichiwa!” by fellow hikers.

New woods and new views of water are always a treat. Unfortunately, I found out later that most people have been scared of from traveling to Nikko for fear of nuclear radiation. It is sad that the recent natural disaster and its consequences have hurt this country in so many levels.

For whatever had led to the make-up of my trip, in the end, I had gotten to Nikko alone, explored alone, and even slept in a hostel room all alone. It was an interesting trip by myself, making mix-ups and learning my own way about a small town in a distant land.

Interviews Abroad

Lately I’ve been having a lot of phone interviews for positions teaching English in South Korea. I think this is an interesting way to learn about a place I have never been.

For instance, yesterday I learned that the country code of South Korea is 820 based on a call to my cell phone.

I had another interview about four days ago from a man who originally lived in Virginia who is currently in Daegu, South Korea. He told us that to get there in the first place, you must take a plane to Seoul, the capital city, and then take a four hour bus to Daegu. He informed us that all of the signs there will be in Korean and we won’t be able to read anything when we arrive. He also told us that if we get sick of Korean food, there is a plethora of bad American food options, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Dominos. He also mentioned Costco more than once, and said how there is a movie theater on the top floor there that plays American movies with Korean subtitles. I am not sure if this is quite the experience I wish to gain while being abroad, but it is nice to know that there are comfort nostalgia zones for others. It reminds me of when my Taiwanese students would show me their 711 cards full of Asian characters and cute, colorful cartoons. Globalization…

I am also having another phone interview later for Daejeon, which is the fifth largest city in the country. Having never heard of this place, I looked it up on Wikipedia, and found that it was a place full of math and science institutes. It also has a subway. I was unaware of all of this information.

I also heard from another interview that the weather in Korea is humid year round. Being from the Northeast, I always thought that humidity was a summer factor that did not carry into the cold months, but apparently this is possible. Learning how to feel new weather is always part of the traveler’s journey.

Normally I find job interviews fake, boring and perfunctory, but this time around, I am having an interesting learning process.