A Life Lesson From The Far East
In the last two weeks, we have flown from Japan to Taiwan, Taiwan to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong to Thailand. My head spins amidst these Asian cultures, searching for commonalities but settling on the current prevailing notion that no garden variety Asian culture exists.
So Japan stands in contrast to Taiwan, and Taiwan differs from Hong Kong which varies greatly from Thailand. And I conclude that this split from worn out, unimaginative stereotypes concocted in ignorance proves to be a healthy divergence indeed. It's an important life lesson we've gained from the Far East.
It’s also why our very last activity in Japan—making sushi at Mayuko’s Little Kitchen—perfectly capped off five weeks in our first Asian country. We learned to make sushi, of course, and ate quite well, but our conversation together with Mayuko and Catherine from China (another guest who joined us), lingered long into the late afternoon. We talked religion and politics, culture and fashion. We asked hard questions about their perceptions of Americans and the United States, and we listened carefully to their answers. (A few conversational tidbits: Trump makes them uneasy; "discrimination of foreigners" and "all the guns" embody their present fear of the United States; they appreciate the capability of American youth to question authority and think for themselves; they used to look to the U.S. as a beacon of hope and freedom, but now they are not sure that's what America represents.)
In the end, we laughed heartily at their impression that all of us “Westerners” look alike, and they giggled just as warmly when we admitted that most Westerners believe all Asians look the same, too.
The next morning, we left Tokyo for Taipei where the louder sing-song tones of Mandarin replaced the quietly crisp vowel sounds of Japanese. In fact, just about everything in Taiwan carried with it a bit more noise: the conversation on the subway trains and in the restaurants, the multitude of scooters zooming by on the streets, the buzzing neon signs hanging low over the sidewalks.
With a considerably shorter stay in Taipei, we proceeded as tourists by ascending the (former) tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 (it now ranks 8th), via the (former) fastest elevator in the world (it now classifies as 2nd) for beautiful views of the city and its surrounding mountains.
Additionally, we (and by “we” I mean Mitchell) sought out the quirky Modern Toilet Restaurant where we perched upon actual toilets while consuming food off plates resembling commodes and drinking tea out of glasses shaped like urinals. And don’t get me started on the chocolate ice-cream served out of bed-pan bowls. (Insert here every emoji depicting heavy-duty eye-rolling on behalf of both Autumn and me.)
Modern Toilet Restaurant aside, one of our goals includes sampling local food in each culture we visit. Japan gave us okonomiyaki and sushi; Taiwan gave us xiaolongbao (pronounced “shaow long bouw”).
Xiaolongbao (“xiao long” = small basket + “bao" = bun) translates literally as “small basket bun,” and it is basically a thin “bag” of bread filled with delectable little bits of pork and broth.
To eat, one first dips a single dumpling in a vinegar/soy/ginger sauce before placing it on a special spoon. Next, one should puncture the dumpling with the end of a chopstick and watch as the tasty broth fills the spoon with deliciousness. Finally, one places a few slices of ginger atop the dumpling and slides the entire thing into the mouth. We loved xiaolongbao so much, we made sure to fill our tummies with it twice at the iconic Din Tai Fung during our short Taipei stay.
Our list of Taiwan must-dos also included visiting the old mountain town of Jiufen (complete with a popular street market and amazing views of the East China Sea), and Shifen (which encompasses a railway marketplace and an expansive waterfall). Unfortunately, torrential downpours battered us most of the day, obscuring the views and causing the potential of great bodily harm such as punctured eyeballs at the hands of Chinese tourists armed with umbrellas.
Even so, we’re glad to have made the trip to see all of the sites; to have quite the education on Daoist temples and prayer techniques; to have a hike along the Keelung River to see the Shifen waterfalls; and to create and release a lantern in honor of our late niece (Maya) and my late brother (Mike). We asked God to comfort our sister/aunt, Holly, and we prayed for guidance over what's next for us all.
After just a few days in Taipei, we flew from Taiwan to Hong Kong where we stayed in the Tsim Sha Tsui (aka TST) area of the city. Know this: if the streets of Taiwan and Hong Kong had a shouting match, Hong Kong would win, hands down. The following sign provided the first clue that Hong Kong’s character differed greatly from its more genteel Asian neighbors:
Add the cacophonous din of the city to the seemingly acceptable behavior of throwing elbows in order to pass through a crowd, and you’ll understand why our favorite Hong Kong locations ended up being quiet areas like the sprawling green space of Kowloon Park and the long, tropical, winding path down from Victoria Peak.
Unfortunately, we spent a good deal of our time in Hong Kong dodging cockroaches and avoiding sticky/dirty spots (and that was just in our apartment) as well as avoiding the constant barrage of “foot massage” adverts being pushed toward Mitchell at every corner. (Yes, they singled out *just* Mitchell. For “foot massages,” if you know what I mean).
That’s why we surprised the girls with a one-day trip to the (very reasonably priced) Hong Kong Disneyland where queues for rides and shows averaged a mere ten minutes, allowing us to experience every single attraction at least twice. While customer service lacked the typical Disney flare, several rides (Mystic Manor, Hyperspace Mountain, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, and RC Racer in Toy Story Land) exceeded our expectations, becoming favorites even over our Disney World experience in Orlando, Florida.
Japan shattered stereotypes of Asian culture we didn't even realize we harbored, and for that, we remain eternally grateful. It's part of the reason I love her so.
Unwittingly, however, we subtly revised our broad generalizations only to overlay our newly refined Asian notions upon Taiwan, thus inadvertently expecting Taiwan to resemble Japan... and then later, making the same presumptions of Hong Kong.
Finally, we've concluded that Asia sprawls forth as a richly layered, deeply complex tapestry both of cultural beauty and regrettable flaws... just like our native North America... and just like you and like me. Therefore, to slap cultural assumptions on all of Asia, on any of her people groups, or on you or on me for that matter, is simply bad form. It's one (of many) life lessons from the Far East we're grateful to have garnered.
Next up, our teachers include Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore; may we be equally open to the lessons they have for us as well.