lost in translation (the californian takes asia)
After 10 wonderful days spent in Asia, we are back in the states. This trip was kind of a last hurrah for my family following my graduation; with me as a newly-minted college grad, one sister in college, and the other in high school, it's a lot more difficult lately to coordinate our schedules, and this was likely our last family trip for quite some time.
It was our first time in both Hong Kong and Phuket, so plenty of things to explore!
Disclaimer: I got really excited and took a lot of pictures so this is a very long post and I suggest you grab a snack or something.
DAY 1: BEIJING
After a cool 24 hours of traveling and a quick stop in Seattle, we arrive in Beijing! It's been a while since I've visited—the last time I was here was in 2013 the summer after freshman year. It was the first time I'd ever traveled internationally alone, and it was pretty cool just walking around China by myself. I felt very out of my element, not speaking the language and being so culturally distant from everyone around me. But it was exciting, and I am ready to do it again.
The bustling airport feels very familiar; it looks exactly as I remember it, with chaotic lines, colorful posters, wide open and modern-looking spaces with beautiful curved white architecture, and lots and lots of people. I remember feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and awestruck by everything the last time I was here. There are a lot of cultural differences between China and the U.S. that I still have yet to get used to. The complete lack of personal space, for one thing. And the staring. Staring isn't really considered rude in China, so the fact that we are four females who are very clearly foreign and traveling by ourselves apparently merits a lot of odd looks. It's very strange to be in a place with so many people that look like you and to still feel like such an outsider. And also to have so many intense staring contests with people on a daily basis.
Our hotel is a five-star goliath of a building, all high ceilings, lacquered wooden geometric window frames, and sparkling drop-glass chandeliers. Chinese-inspired design with a modern twist. We check in and marvel at our room for a while (our favorite part is the electric bath curtain and the waterfall shower), and then head across the street to a local grocery store.
There are three things I have an endless love for in China: the old architecture of the temples and palaces, the poorly-translated signs, and the markets. Markets and grocery stores are SO MUCH FUN, because you never really know what you're going to find. Some of the highlights: a rice bin as big as a sandbox, two full aisles of drinkable yogurt (didn't know that was such a popular thing), dumplings with purple skins, chicken feet in little tiny snack packs, various meats strung out on display, panda baos, and a tomato shaped like Buddha.
We return to the hotel with all of our newly purchased goodies. It's 7:20 am in California, so we finally sleep.
DAY 2: BEIJING
We wake up at 6:30 am Beijing time to start our day. We head downstairs for breakfast and meet the rest of our tour group. Our tour guide named Bryan, who grew up in Hutong, the old part of Beijing, and is smiling 99% of the time. Two white girls that recently graduated from Cal Poly San Louis Obispo, a black family from Brooklyn, a family of six Cubans from Miami, a couple from Ohio, and a couple from St. Louis. A very diverse group (and this is important later).
Our first stop is the Summer Palace. It was constructed during the Qin Dynasty, 300 odd years ago, as a summer home for the emperor. It is comprised of a man-made lake, man-made mountains, stone bridges, lots of lush trees, and beautiful, brightly-painted architecture.
Bryan tells us that the emperor's number is nine—because on a scale of 0-9 it is the highest—and this is reflected in the architecture. There's a bridge with 17 arches (nine coming toward the center from either side) and there are brass knobs on all the doors arranged in 9x9 patterns.
We walk along the lake and people-watch. Chinese people are so interesting. The men wear their shirts tucked above their bellies like crop-tops, there are people singing and dancing, and some older citizens write Chinese calligraphy with water on the hot sidewalks. And there is an excess of selfie sticks. I notice that Chinese people take a lot of pictures, although they almost never smile in them. Selfie sticks are very popular here, especially for people traveling alone or with a friend, and my sister and I make a game out of how many peoples' selfies we can sneak into (total for the day: 7).
Another strange thing is that they don't seem to be too familiar with non-Asian people, and this is where the diversity of our group becomes very prominent. Random people will stare shamelessly and ask to take pictures the people in our group, especially with the two white girls and the black family. We encountered this in 2009 when we traveled with a white family. We thought it was because one of the girls looked like someone famous, but in fact, it was because she was pretty and not Chinese.
I didn't realize how much I walked the last time I was here; last time, we walked around the entirety of the lake, across the bridge, and up the man-made mountain to the top overlooking the Imperial Garden (the picture on my blog's welcome page was taken there back in 2013!). We don't have time to do the paddleboats like I did last time, but we walk around the lake admiring the architecture and the grandiosity of it all. This entire place was built for one person, which sounds crazy, but they also believed he was a direct descendant of Heaven, so I guess I understand wanting to keep him happy.
We go to Tian'anmen Square after, and then the Forbidden City. "Tian'anmen" literally translated means "Heavenly Peace Gate," and it is at the very center of Beijing, which is also significant. The Chinese characters for "China" (the country) are "zhong guo" or "middle country," because the Chinese believe their country is the center of the world. It's a point of pride.
The square is the largest in the world, is the home of the resting Chairman Mao, and has hosted a number of important cultural events such as the Tian'anmen Square protests of 1989 which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilian protestors.
When you cross through the actual gate at the end of the square, you enter the Forbidden City. Again we see marks of royalty—the large, arched gate for the emperor, the 81 knobs on each of the doors, the yellow-tiled rooftops (the color of royalty), the stone lions at each gate entrance, and the little row of animals marching toward the corner of the curved rooftops (the more animals on the building, the more important the resident). It's beautiful, but in my opinion the Forbidden City is something you need do once and once only. Last time I was here, I hiked up to the top of a hill in the middle of Jingshan Park, just outside the walls of the Forbidden City, which provided a gorgeous panoramic view of the whole thing, but it was much less crowded and much less hot.
Our last destination is the Temple of Heaven, another place my family has visited before. It's essentially this large park built specifically for the emperor to worship, which has now been converted into a public park where people read, play chess, and do tai chi. The crowning jewel is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. It's a large, round, colorfully-painted building that sits at the top of a small hill in the middle of the park. Because the Chinese believed that Heaven was circular and the earth was square, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is circular, constructed without any nails, and the courtyard wall surrounding it is square.
DAY 3: BEIJING
It's a rainy morning here in Beijing. I am conflicted, because while the gloom is lovely and a much-needed break from the heat, hiking up the Great Wall of China in the rain sounds ill-advised.
We visit a jade factory first. This, I assume, is a recurring theme of the tour. In exchange for the discounts given to us on items like pearls, jade, etc., the factories get busloads of eager tourists shopping for souvenirs. We are 200% those tourists, and my sisters and I each walk out with a jade necklace.
But it's not just a piece of jewelry, according to the Chinese. I've noticed that Americans are (generally) more focused on aesthetics over meaning. This is why we wear certain styles of clothing in certain colors and get tattoos of random phrases in Arabic. It undeniably looks good. But the Chinese are very much invested in meaning. White is never to be worn at a wedding because of its association with death. Jade is said to protect the wearer from evil spirits. And the images of animals or fruits are said to bring wealth and happiness. While I don't particularly believe that my accessories dictate my personal well-being, I like knowing these things about my heritage; it makes me feel a little bit more connected to it.
Next is the Great Wall. Our first thoughts are "We've done this before; it doesn't look that terrible," words we will come to deeply regret later. I recently bought a GoPro, so my struggles are well-documented, but these steps are no joke.
This is the most exercise I've done in approximately six months and I am admittedly weak-kneed and breathless upon ascent. It is pouring by the time we reach the fourth tower, and we are completely soaked. But I kind of like it; the air is clearer and fresher up here in the rain, and seeing the endless stretch of stone wall nestled among the green-covered mountain is incomparable. That, and the sense of accomplishment, makes it well worth it. And the selfies.
Getting back down also proves to be a difficult task. My muscles are literally shaking. Why did I think I could just casually climb the Great Wall?
We visit a hutong, or "narrow alley" in Old Beijing. We have to take a rickshaw because the streets are too small for cars, and this is a radically different environment than the rest of Beijing, which despite its preserved historical sites is fairly modern. The houses are low-roofed and falling apart, made of brick and concrete. There's dirt and trash everywhere; children play barefoot in the alleys and men sit outside smoking cigarettes.
But even these not-so-pretty parts of China have a certain rural charm to them. We speak to the owner of one of the houses, Mr. Chung, and it really puts into perspective what being "rich" means. To him, it means living a good, full life, retired, with his siblings and children nearby in the house that his father bought.
We take the subway back, which is a relatively painless ordeal. The subways here are clean and easy to navigate, since they were built in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. Honestly, New York could take its cues from the public transportation here. The New York subway system is archaic, and no matter how many times I visit, I still get lost. Even after living there for a whole summer, I still forget what "uptown" and "downtown" are. Whereas in Asia, I feel comfortable enough taking the train by myself, even without speaking the language.
DAY 4: HONG KONG
I wake up at 4:30 am. Why.
Our flight to Hong Kong is in the afternoon, and upon arrival we meet our tour guide for this part of our trip: a sassy, Asian version of Professor Snape who tells us his name is Donald.
Hong Kong is basically a cross between China and New York. And it's pretty rad. The streets are busy, the buildings tall and practically stacked on top of one another. Unlike New York, they're all very colorful and irregularly shaped, and the skyline looks like a surreal crystal reflecting the blue skies and blue water surrounding it. The streets are reminiscent of Chinatown in New York, with lots of produce stands, beauty stores, and outdoor restaurants.
We go to the famous Hong Kong night market, which is close to our hotel. I'm surprised to find that it's mostly novelty goods and not food; it reminds me of Canal Street in New York, with fake watches and designer clothing, and lots of cheap electronics. It's strange that the streets, which look so ordinary during the daytime, turn into such a bustling hub of activity at night. The restaurant owners from the shops stand outside, waving menus aggressively, trying to entice us to sit down and eat.
We settle on this little nameless place on the street and order seven dishes of har gao (thx Consta). This is my favorite dish at dim sum, always—I can never get enough of the little clear shrimp dumplings, and I make a point of ordering it at every Chinese restaurant I can find them in. These by far are the best ones I've ever had, no contest; I had no idea what I'd been missing out on. The service is also A+, and the cute lil owner stands by and watches us eat, rushing to refill our teacups and clear our plates as soon as we finish.
DAY 5: HONG KONG
Oh my god. This is worse than Beijing. It's not even that hot, but the humidity is stifling. I feel like I may faint.
Our tour guide takes us to Victoria Peak, which is actually on Hong Kong Island across the water from the Kowloon region (my geography's a bit shaky). There, we have a 360° view of the Hong Kong skyline. While Kowloon reminds me of China x New York, Hong Kong Island is much greener, much more like a jungle than one of the most developed tech hubs in Asia. It looks like a place you could get lost in. Still, it's much more modernized than China, and everything feels a bit more polished. In China there's a clear divide between the old and the new, but Hong Kong is like a blend of both. It's relatively new, only around 100 years old compared to China's 3000-plus.
We then go down to Aberdeen, a fishing village, which our tour guide tells us is "the old Hong Kong." He explains that before the rapid period of gentrification, thirty years ago, all of Hong Kong looked like this. We take a boat ride around the bay, admiring the skyline and the floating restaurant, Jumbo, that apparently was in a James Bond movie.
Our last stop of the tour is Stanley Market, an open-air street market that sells clothing, accessories, and other souvenirs. It's pretty touristy, but nice because it's right next to the water. We notice that there are indeed a lot of tourists milling around the market, but most of them don't appear to be American.
Once we get back to our hotel, my family and I decide to go on our own excursion and watch the nightly laser show on the waterfront of Victoria Harbour (it's this thing that Hong Kong does from 8 pm to 8:15 pm every night...still have yet to figure out why), so we take a taxi to the InterContinental.
We sit at the bar and pretend to fit in by acting bougie and ordering a $60 snack, which consists of a beer, green tea, a cocktail, and truffle fries (possibly the most amazing things I've ever put in my mouth). For context, there's a Nobu on the top floor of this hotel, so you immediately know what kind of place this is.
The laser show is undoubtedly cool, especially because it's coordinated among a bunch of different buildings on the waterfront, but I'm most fascinated by the skyline. It's nothing like New York; it's all lit up in rainbow colors with interesting patterns and flashing lights. Like the Las Vegas of skylines, but a bit classier. I take 1726739 million pictures.
DAY 6: HONG KONG
We have no tour planned today, so my family takes the train to Ngong Ping, Lantau Island to see the Big Buddha, a large bronze statue near a monastery on top of a mountain, which according to Wikipedia symbolizes "the harmonious relationship between man and nature, people and faith." We take a cable car up, which is gorgeous, and there's a little village-type place at the top, next to the monastery.
Then we make our way up a bunch of steps to the Buddha, AKA the Great Wall Part II. The view from the top is amazing, and the Buddha is massive and striking. Buddha statues always look so simultaneously serene and powerful, which is a good metaphor for Buddhist ideology itself.
I notice that the statue is emblazoned with a swastika, which in Buddhism symbolizes good fortune, eternity, long life and the whole mind of the Buddha. While the Nazi symbol is a little different (counterclockwise), it's sad that such a symbol of purity has been twisted for such a monstrous purpose.
DAY 7: PHUKET
We arrive in Thailand at 1 am and I am tired and grouchy and hungry. But on the shuttle ride back to the hotel, the Holiday Inn Resort Mai Khao Beach (which is stunning), I get more and more excited.
I love Thailand. I think our trip to Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Kanchanaburi back in 2011 was my favorite, out of all the places I've ever gone. There's just this sense of authenticity about it that feels very welcoming. Don't get me wrong; it can be a very dangerous place, but it's nice to visit. The culture is something else. For lack of a better word, it's very thoughtful.
Everything has meaning, every part of their society is significant in its own way. I mentioned the word jai (ใจ) in my 22 Thoughts On 22 post last year, because I love the fact that it's an idea that cannot be expressed in one word in the English language. But it's the little things, too, like how you're not supposed to smell the flowers placed at the altars in temples because the scent is thought to be an offering to the Buddha.
There's a much different vibe in Thailand than in America. Everything moves a little bit more slowly, everyone is friendlier. The people here live much simpler lives. It reminds us a lot of Hawaii, except it's a third-world country and not a rich island. But the similarities are striking—lots of rich green foliage, very friendly locals, a booming tourism industry. It feels island-y.
We go on an elephant trek, kind of an obligatory Thailand thing to do. It's a lot of fun, and we get to feed them bananas as a treat, but I do feel sorry for the elephants. It's a pretty grim life for them. They're such beautiful, intelligent, playful creatures, but they've been raised from a very young age just to do this their whole life.
Afterward we go to another "Big Buddha" nearby, this one considered an important landmark and a place for both tourists and devout Buddhists.
DAY 8: PHUKET
Mosquito bite count: 12. Number of people that have asked me if I was Thai: three. The strange thing is that this isn't the first time this has happened; a guy asked me if I was Thai the last time I was here five years ago. I found an article on the average faces of women around the world a while ago, and I think I look pretty close to the Thai one, but it's interesting that people from Thailand think so too.
Gino, the most excitable of our tour guides yet, insists that we go see the Simon Star "ladyboy" show in Phuket Town. And yes, it's exactly what it sounds like—a transgender cabaret show. It was a spectacle of feathers and sequins. And holy moly.
These girls were so beautiful. Their contour game was way stronger than mine. You could only tell they were transgender when they spoke, as they'd had surgery to correct the rest. They performed different "bits," like a Little Mermaid number and a K-Pop number. The part that struck me was that a lot of them actually looked Korean, most likely because of the popularity of plastic surgery there that results in many Korean girls looking very similar. It was definitely an interesting experience. Only in Thailand, I guess.
Then we go to the Phuket Town Sunday Night Market, a lively outdoor market that reminds me more of the one in Beijing in 2009 than the one we just visited in Hong Kong. It's a long stretch of food and clothing vendors; they offer some of the strangest things I've ever seen. It's like every other night market I've ever been to, and I adore it.
DAY 9: PHUKET
The next day we go on a boat ride to Phi Phi Island. We stop a little offshore and jump off to go snorkeling. The water is impossibly blue; everything here looks like a postcard. When we enter the water, it's nice and warm and there are so many fish. I manage to film some of it on my GoPro.
Afterward, we sail to the main island and walk around. It reminds me of Ensenada in Mexico, very beautiful but also very touristy.
DAY 10: PHUKET
It's our last day in Thailand, so we take a Thai cooking class before we leave! We made pad thai and curry.
And now for my favorite part: lost in translation, AKA all of the poorly-interpreted, mistranslated, or just plain funny signs that I collected around Asia. It's amusing, but it also puts a lot of things into perspective. This is the reason I love traveling. It opens your eyes so much and changes the way you perceive the world; it changes way you judge the things and the people around you. People are quick to make fun of the way Asian immigrants in America speak, but few admire the guts it takes to survive in this so-called "melting pot." I always wonder how we sound to them, how our strange American idioms come across. And I have a lot of respect for people who learn English, who make an effort to speak in a way completely unfamiliar to them, who live in a place where they are constantly treated like outsiders. It makes me realize that so much of this country is largely xenophobic, even in this day and age—just look at the Trump campaign, which preys on a fear of outsiders and promises security via ethnic purity.
And after three long flights home and around 36 hours of travel, we are finally back in America! It was a good trip, if not very hot and humid (half of the time in Hong Kong, we just followed the air conditioning from place to place.. And I'm happy that I got to travel one last time with my family. It's good to be home, where everyone speaks the language, but it also makes me think about how narrow-minded that really is sometimes. One of the best parts of traveling is becoming comfortable with being a little vulnerable, and being willing to learn as much as possible from people so different from yourself.