Category Archives: East Asia
I have never been able to relate to a lot of the people I met growing up unless they came from a similar background as I do. If they did not, a bridge was immediately formed where we stood on opposite ends, speaking still, yet never truly hearing or understanding one another. This was especially true for Asian people (I know how bad that sounds but let me finish). Growing up, I definitely let the media, stereotypes, and Hollywood brainwash my ideas surrounding Chinese people. I always assumed they were very well-off, and super good at math. The fact that the Asians at my schools fit these stereotypes only pushed my prejudices deeper into my conscious. Before studying abroad, I had only met three Asians who did not fit these stereotypes, but still zero I could relate to. Yet still, I have been fascinated with Asia since I was a child, and made it my mission to eventually travel here. This by far one of the best decisions I have made in my entire life.
My first day in Hong Kong was a very humbling experience. It was the first time in my life I saw Chinese people doing regular jobs, like supermarket cashiers, fast food, and plenty of other jobs. I thought wow, these people are just like every other race: diverse. Diverse in every sense of the word, from their fashion, views, and physique. It washed away my idea that Chinese people were people I just couldn’t relate to because we are just so different, but that is so far from the truth. This is the part where I introduce my brilliant co-worker and friend Ariel.
Ariel is like my tiny little sister, even though shes only one year younger me. She is an incredibly hard worker and has taught me so much about Hong Kong culture. We have similar views on most things we discuss, like the governing and policing parties, how life should be more than just working so much, and plenty of other stuff. She is the reason I work overtime practically everyday, her presence is dope. She’s passionate about her people and their freedom, she goes to protests just like us Berkeley folk are known for doing.
Through friendships like Ariel’s and my coursework through the University of Hong Kong, I have learned a lot about myself. I thought I was capable of adapting to any environment, but I discovered my kryptonite: censorship. During my travel to and from Tokyo, I have stopped in Shanghai a couple times. Since Shanghai is a part of mainland China, censorship is very real there. I was blocked from using all my apps, and even e-mail. I firmly believe that no one or governing force should have the power to control the information people can receive. It creates a bubble for that group of people, they become lost in the dark. Knowledge is power, and when access to resources that can provide that knowledge is prohibited, people gain very little power.
Experiencing this censorship was a miserable experience, until I decided to make the most of it. I exchanged my HKDs (Hong Kong’s currency) for RMB (China’s currency) and wandered around Shanghai. I discovered street vendors who were cooking some food that smelled amazing. I was about 3 dollars short, so I gave them the rest of my Hong Kong coins, and they accepted them with intrigue. When I was leaving, one of them asked for a picture with me, and of course I said yes because she had been so kind.
One of my reasons for interning in Hong Kong was because I imagined the work culture here being extremely intense (it is). So I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to force myself to improve as a professional. I can say mission accomplished. Through my internship with the social enterprise Mircoforests, I have written website content, drafted a grant proposal, designed workshop newsletters, and produced press releases. I have gotten used to working 8 hours a day plus the usual hour or hour and a half overtime (keep in mind my internship is unpaid). I can focus on tasks better, I have learned how to write grants, press releases, and effective newsletters. I know the inner-workings of social enterprises which are similar to non-profits, and I plan on starting my own non-profit or social enterprise once I have the means to do so.
I came here under the impression I was open-minded, then discovered I could be very narrow-minded at times. It feels like someone has pried my mind wide open with a crow bar, showing me a beautiful aspect of diversity and human connection. This experience has prompted a conscious metamorphosis.
It’s been almost a week since I’ve been back in the United States, and while I’ve been nothing short of busy from moving to a new apartment, looking for a new job, and getting ready to go back to school, I find that the time I’ve had to reflect on my experience in Japan and my readjust to life in Miami is quite plenty.
When I came back from my first year abroad in Thailand I remember feeling like people were so standoff-ish in America. Now coming back from Japan I feel quite the opposite. It’s kind of strange to have people being so open with each other compared to the quiet and reserved nature of Japanese people. While there are many things that I’m having to get used to again, there are also some things that seemed to come back naturally to me. Like hanging out with family and old friends, which has grounded me in a way that makes transitioning back to American culture much easier. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve been able to eat all the foods I’ve been missing while meeting up with these people. But already I find some aspects of life in Japan that I miss.
Funny enough, I’m already missing the transportation system that Tokyo offers. I miss the freedom that it gives, especially considering I don’t have a car here. I miss the feeling of calm that Japan has. Stemming from the fact that Japanese culture is so centralized around not being an inconvenience to anyone, traveling around the city and just going out in general has a much more calm atmosphere than what I’ve been experiencing so far while back and it’s been admittedly kind of hard to get used to. I also miss the dynamic that I had with my friend group in Japan, specifically knowing that the likelihood that we’ll all be able to hang out the same way that we used to is impossible, at least for a very long time from now.
My overall takeaway from coming back has been one of general acceptance. While life in Japan and Miami is so completely different, I’m glad to be able to say that living in Japan and learning about the people and culture and language has made me grow and given me a better perspective of the world. I’m feeling positive about the reintegration process so far, and am glad to have such supportive friends and family to help me through it.
Traveling for long periods of time is, I know, intimidating. But when it comes down to it the personal rewards and experiences that you gain from studying abroad are so much more beautiful and amazing than any of the difficulties or challenges it brings. Which is exactly why I know that traveling and studying abroad will never not be an important thing to me, and that it will continue helping me to grow and change for the better.
Prior to studying abroad, I considered myself extremely open minded and understanding. I contribute these characteristics to my creative nature and unique background and interactions with various kinds of individuals from loving, kind and intelligent souls to racist, ignorant, and arrogant ones. However, what I am learning about myself in my time in Hong Kong is that I am not as understanding as I have perceived myself to be. Understanding Hong Kong culture, especially its work culture, has been a ball of confusion, sometimes met with frustration. I cannot understand the idea of dedicating so much of yourself and your time to an occupation, especially if the occupation is not a fulfilling one. I do not understand how when rules are set here, there seems to be no wiggle room whatsoever. Laws and rules are followed as they should be, but when these rules prevent productivity and lack compassion, it seems that logic and rationality become useless within the machine of society.
I understand that I must learn to live by the rules because at the end of the day, I am still a guest in this country and have no right to try changing ideas that have been cemented into their society ages ago. Becoming aware of my lack of understanding is just another example of how I am growing so much here, in the beautiful, yet sometimes confusing place that is Hong Kong.
I remember boarding the plane to China, being really excited for the next twelve hours and feeling overwhelmingly nervous the final hour before landing. I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried about not speaking the language and not knowing anyone in my study abroad cohort of students. The first week was hard because I was missing home, friends, and most importantly my family.
The following week was a lot easier, I got to know my roommate, Juan, who hails from Argentina. We discovered that we have similar viewpoints, took turns cooking, and when we had overlapping free time, we would explore Shanghai together. Then Juan relocated and once again I was alone. When one door closes another door opens and sure enough that’s when I met Manav who has been my closest friend throughout this experience. I can honestly say my time abroad would not have been as eventful as it has been had we not become friends. Manav introduced me to Jagger who introduced me to his roommate Alec, and later we welcomed a new addition to the group, Luke.
The five of us have shared some great times together and I’m thankful for each one of these guys. During the week after we get off work, we all meet at my apartment and share a meal. Manav is Indian and the rest of the guys are American. I also have a lot of Chinese friends from my university back in the United States, but they are all scattered across China, which is a little bit smaller than the U.S. but with triple the population. My friend Peter drove three hours to come visit me and brought a lot of house warming gifts which meant a lot.
Last week my Chinese best friend Terry introduced me to his high school friends who took me out last weekend and showed me a great time. Frank came to my apartment then we met up with his friends; Ken and Gimy at a restaurant. We went to a very nice hot pot and they showed me their favorite hot spots. I am very grateful for Frank and his friends because they showed me that friendship transcends culture and language barriers (although they spoke very good English).
My friend Terry will visit again at the end of July, and then we will go to Chongqing which is very close to Sichuan and is famous for its spicy cuisine. I am very excited to see my friend as well as reunite with Frank, Ken, and Gimy. Afterwards, my Russian friend Val will visit China and we will meet in Beijing where my sister Manal is currently residing. After Beijing, we will visit Shanghai and explore the city with my new host country crew. Although I have a month left in China, I know I will miss this experience and the people I have met dearly. Everything from my job, my coworkers, my boss, and my new friends have exceeded my expectations. I am very thankful for this opportunity and the chance to document my experience through the Gilman Scholarship.
Let me start by sharing these two facts about me: I’m a huge foodie and Chinese food is an irresistible family favorite. I love everything about food whether it’s home cooking, gourmet dining, or searching for the most delicious palate. When I eat with my Chinese friends in the States, they always ask for the “real” menu. The notion of a secret menu that caters to a Chinese palate and another that offers Western-friendly options was very peculiar to me. Naturally, I was ecstatic to try authentic Chinese cuisine.
Chinese people are some of the most hospitable folk I’ve met in my life. When I arrived in Shanghai, my friend Alvin invited me to join him and a Canadian expat for an authentic Sichuan hotpot called Là Fû. Alvin ordered many dishes such as frog, rabbit head, cow intestine, brain, ox tail, and tongue. Initially, I was nervous about trying some of these but they were surprisingly delicious. It was there that I received my first lesson in the cultural differences between China, America, and Egypt.
First, the Chinese version of spicy is something you should probably avoid unless you’re a fire-breather or a dragon. Another part of Chinese etiquette is making sure that your guest has enough to eat. If your host sees that you have finished your plate that is his cue to order more. By the time I realized this, I felt like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day—stuffed. Alvin was very adamant about paying which brings me to my third lesson: The person who extends the invitation is usually the one who will foot the bill.
Last weekend, my roommate and I journeyed from our apartment to The Bund in search of Din Tai Fung. In 1993, this restaurant was rated top ten in the world and featured Shanghai’s most famous dumplings. We finally found it after an hour of walking and although the portions were small, it exceeded every expectation. This week my friend Nick came to visit and took me to a Korean barbecue called “B.C. 2333” where I was treated to the best Korean food I’ve had thus far. Afterwards, they took me on a native tour of Shanghai and I felt as if I was seeing the city for the first time.
There are many differences between the Chinese and Western style of dining. In both cultures, eating out is a way of socializing, but in China there is a greater emphasis on sharing and being a good host. Something I really admire about this culture is the round table style of dining. It is very personable and I like being able to share dishes with my friends. Finally, I would recommend bringing a Chinese friend with you because it is extremely difficult to order authentic food without speaking Mandarin. Unless you’re eating pizza with Italians, nobody knows pizza better than Italians.