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Final Asia Post: What I learned

“If I knew everything I would not have to work anymore.”

That is one of my favorite quotes to use when the question of “knowing all” comes up. Hey, being a Raton Colorao, one is expected to know a lot! I think the phrase applies to many things in life – and I can certainly put “travel” in place of “work” and have it still be relevant.

El Raton high above Taipei

El Raton high above Taipei

Since this is my final post in what has become my travel series on my trip to Asia, I thought it would be good to convey what I have learned from my first trip to Asia (without overly waxing poetic) – a summation if you will. As I write this (albeit 5 months later!!!!!!), I really want to see if the trip and my experience met my expectations from one of my earliest posts. Hopefully, you will learn something too…

SPOILER ALERT: There is a video at the end of this post I filmed at the beginning of my trip that turned out to be very prophetic…I forgot I even had it until I looked at my FlipCam recently.

So in rapid fire (well, not so rapid fire) fashion, here are my takeaways – complete with pretty pictures and videos for those of you more visually inclined. Remember to click on the pictures for extra detail – especially the food pics!

1. RAPID FIRE QUICK TAKEAWAYS

  • The Taiwanese people eat 447 times per day and are not fat – this is more than likely due to what they eat (or what they do not eat), lack of processed food, and a more active lifestyle. See the Pork Sung Rice Ball below…
  • Taipei has 3 million people, has cutting edge technology, and has the most productive workforce in the world (Well, probably because they work like dogs and get very little vacation. One of my MBA classmates gets about 8 days off per year…yikes)
  • Singapore has 4 million people, has amazing diversity, and is the cleanest and safest city in the world – and it’s not even close. You walk around mesmerized and amazed at the pristineness (is that even a word? If not, it should be).
  • Asian countries kick our asses when it comes to use/adoption of technology – period. We are just now getting to things they have had there for years
  • I have never seen a culture that is faster to adopt trends than the Taiwanese culture; be it hairstyles or fake eyelashes (I can do without the fake eyelashes, but it was hysterical)
  • Taipei has one of the 4 largest National Museums in the world (Louvre in Paris, British Museum in London, Met in NYC) – the National Palace Museum

Waiting for a mid-day snack in Gongguan area of Taipei. Lots of small, fresh meals may be the key to the skinny population – although Western Delights are coming…

…Like a Mister Donut – there are tons of them in Taipei, why did I think they were only a Delaware staple?

A Pork Sung Rice Ball with Egg – Self Explanatory I think. I need to open a stand here in USA to sell these! Contents include Rice, Pork Sung, Egg, and Chinese Donut – all for about $1 USD

“Clean and Pristine” sums up Singapore. Wait – is that a leaf on the ground? Someone is getting fired… 

There are many cultural influences in Singapore – this is near Arab Street

National Palace Museum in Taipei

2. STEREOTYPES OUT THE WINDOW

This is less of a learning for me, but more of a teaching I hope to get across to everyone. Many people have visions of Asia – and they are usually of the ones in movies (such as Vietnam war movies), or of the depressed areas of Mainland China (h-p) as seen by the NBC cameras during the Beijing Olympics (Again, Mainland China). Visions of rice patties, dirt roads, and outdoor plumbing permeate our minds, but that is not the Asia I saw. Do the poor, dirt-road laden areas exist? Sure, of course – but those scenes also exist in Arkansas, Mississippi, California, and New York.

Taipei is one of the great, under-appreciated treasures of the world – a large, cosmopolitan and modern city that is still affordable. It has a mix of the high-end and the blue-collar – both in food and other cultural indicators.

Singapore is an unbelievably modern city with a diverse and extremely well-educated population. Both cities have incredible modern conveniences and no shortage of connectivity/influence both to and from the rest of the world.

And look out – Asian markets are some of the fastest growing in the world – especially the wine market. Hong Kong just passed New York as the number one auction market for wine. Taipei is nowhere near that level of sophistication, but wine bars are creeping up – and wine is becoming more popular there. Singapore already as a huge wine scene – given the amount of money and Brits there.

The countries I visited are WAY ahead of us in some areas (Read: Mass use of Technology & Mass Transit), and a bit behind in others (Read: Work/Life Balance) – but that is the experience you want to have when you travel – the ability to both teach and learn.

PS – The new breed of Asian kids coming up: TALL - another stereotype soon to be gone.

Spotted this place on our way back from lunch at Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant – indicative of the transforming culture in Asian countries. Hmmm – coffee, wine, music – three of my favorite things. It’s a great spot that is now one of my favorite places on Earth.

Yes, scenes like this still exist in the outer villages (this near Danshui in the northwest part of Taipei), but you have to take them as a collective with an entire culture – not as a stereotypical point of view.

When I say “Asia” or “Taiwan” – a scene like this usually comes to people’s minds…

…But Taipei has a great mix of modern and traditional – this is at the National Theater

El Raton in front of Taipei 101 – until recently when the tower in Dubai opened, it was the tallest building in the world.

Modern buildings in Singapore

Diverse Architecture in Singapore

Cultural Sidebar

Why do I keep making the distinction between Taiwan and Mainland China? Well, to put it mildly, they don’t get along…at all. The Taiwanese will not be rooting for the cute little underage/falsified document Chinese gymnasts at the Olympics. Picture the worst of American Classism or Racism – then add in the worst redneck thinking, tack on a little bible-belt religious fanaticism (think abortion clinic bombers-but worse), and you pretty much have how they feel.

Even though both countries have the same “Chinese” origins, they really are different (I liken it to the divide that currently exists between Republicans and Democrats in the USA – aka – The Two Coasts vs. Everyone Else. We are all technically Americans, but many of us have NOTHING IN COMMON with one another). So if you go (to either country), just remember not to lump them all into one or make a blanket statement. The most important thing to remember is that Mainland China is communist, Taiwan is not – BIG DISTINCTION!

Subway Side Note:

I have said this before, but taking the train is a treat in Taipei and Singapore. In Taipei they showcase art hanging from 2-story ceilings in the subway stations. They also have galleries – yes galleries – of paintings in the corridors. How long do you think that would last in NYC? Singapore has expensive elevators that would rival any big city office building – and the marble? Forget about it, unbelievable nice. You could seriously eat off the ground in the Singapore subway station.

Also, how do you feel about complete climate control? I thought about my last week in NYC (before I moved back to San Francisco) at the subway station by my apartment in NYC (the 1 Rector St. station) was FLOODING and leaking from the roof. The 90 degree NYC temperatures made the NYC subways a sauna.

Not that I love the idea, but if you absolutely need to talk on your mobile phone while on a train, you can do so in Taipei and Singapore. They system is so new (within the last 20 years for Taipei), the technology is aligned with the infrastructure. Also, most subway stations have bathrooms – as in bathrooms you would want to use; as in bathrooms without communicable diseases; as in bathrooms with attendants constantly cleaning them. To give you an idea, most, if not all subway stations in Taipei and Singapore have the services of a “main station” in NYC like Grand Central (stores, bathrooms, etc.). Check out the video of the subway as well as some pics:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN457_giigE]

Hanging Art in a Taipei Subway Station

Let’s see: Expensive marble, high-end elevator, supremely clean…office building? NO! Singapore Subway Station!

3. PEOPLE STILL TALK TO EACH OTHER

SHAMELESS PET PEEVE ALERT:

Asian’s use cell phones more than any other culture – and they are SERIOUS texters – but not when they are around others. Sure, when they are alone (especially workers in retail stores) they are constantly on the text. But when they are together with their friends, they actually engage in interpersonal communication.

We have all seen the recent articles here where waiters in restaurants are having a hard time navigating the cell phones on the tables. We can be talking to someone in front of us and then check our BlackBerrys for updates – as in (ANYTHING THAT IS ON MY PHONE IS MORE INTERESTING THAN YOU FUCKFACE). We have all been guilty of it – especially since we all feel the pressures (perceived or not) from a work perspective to stay connected. Or, in my case, when my low threshold for boredom checks in – and I am somewhere where I do not want to be or not with someone I want to be with (Like how I justify it??) . More often though – its more of a laziness. We can learn from this – but to me its another example of the sloth that is becoming more prevalent in our culture – we are too lazy to even talk…

I have said in the last few years that I should have been a chiropractor (I know, don’t get me started on that pseudo medicine bullshit too) since our postures will be all out of whack given the one-had-stretched-out-at-a-distance poses we use when banging on our phones.

walking-traffic-baby-text

4. I LOVE TEA

There, I said it. For as big of a coffee freak that I am the tea in Taiwan is amazing. To learn more, take this Taiwan Tea Primer

I spent a day in Jioufen, about 90 minutes outside of Taipei. Jioufen has two sides: Aside from being a claustrophobically crazy – absolutely insane food stall experience – it is also a serene retreat if you want to go to a Tea House. The teahouses are another one of Taiwan’s great singular experiences. A place where art, relaxation, conversation, and ritual meet. The pomp and circumstance associated with tea can be amazing – and I enjoyed every bit of it. It’s amazing to learn how the tea is grown (high mountain tea is best) and the painstaking effort to pick it (best are hand harvested, whole leaf teas – VERY LABOR INTENSIVE).

Interestingly enough, I did not start drinking coffee until my twenties, and I, along with my grandmother Bev, drank a lot of Tetley growing up – eventually graduating to the English Breakfast and Earl Grey types. I wonder if Bev would be digging the Taiwanese tea as much as I do? I’m sure she would…

El Raton shows his sophisticated tea side in a traditional teahouse in Jioufen, Taiwan

A misty day in Jioufen

A barrel of tea from a Jioufen stall market

The claustrophobia of the Jioufen Stall Markets

5. AN APPRECIATION FOR CULTURE – AKA: THINGS THAT WOULD NOT FLY IN USA

In previous posts, I have pontificated on the virtues of eating at stands that in Taipei or Singapore that, because of our overly-stringent health department/code rules in the USA, would not and do not exist in America. After a while, they were the only places I wanted to eat. But it does not stop there…

One of the things that I have learned and am passionate about as I travel is not just an appreciation – but a true understanding and immersion into the cultures I throw myself into. So yes, the food sometimes freaks people out – but you have to understand it is how people live and act in a certain culture. They do not make $100-$200 trips to the grocery store, they shop day to day (or in Taipei, not at all, since eating out is so cheap). I am sure Asians come to this country and see how we eat and have their own “WTF” moment at the stuff we consume, case in point – the “Double Ridiculous” from KFC:

The latest invention from KFC – the Double Ridiculous

What else would not fly in America? Check out the photo below:

Normal life in Taiwan, but calls to Child Services and a lawsuit waiting to happen in USA. While this may frighten most, scooters are the way families get around and, more importantly, get through traffic.

6. HOLIDAYS VIEWED FROM A DIFFERENT LENS

I spent both Christmas and New Years in Taipei – and I have to say it was a bit refreshing. Sorry, I am not including our latest national holiday, the day after Thanksgiving, as one.

SHAMELESS SOAPBOX RANT: Only in America do we take the day after giving Thanks, go out at midnight or 3am to start shopping – and have people trampled at Wal-Marts. How fucked up is it that we do not have a day of service as opposed to a day of shopping?

Back to Christmas – well, in a country that is 90%+ Buddhist, Christmas… not so big. Sure, they threw a bone to the Christians with some trees, etc. – but all in all, you had no idea it was a holiday. Since Christmas was on a Friday – kids were in school – YES SCHOOL!

But what defines a holiday? Do we really celebrate the true meaning of Christmas in America? (Or any holday for that matter? Do we really remember the true meaning of Veterans Day, Memorial Day, or Labor Day – or is it just another day off for us?). Definitely food for thought (so to speak)…

Christmas Day wrapping outside a mall

Yes – even in the subway they throw a bone to the Christians

7. I STILL TRAVEL WELL

One of my concerns was that it had been several years since I had left the country – and almost 10 years since I had been to a country where I did not speak or understand the language (well, less if you count parts of south and Midwestern USA).

I hate to say something so cliché like “it’s like riding a bike…or having sex…once you learn…” – but its true. Once I got off the plane, I was in full traveler (as opposed to tourist mode). I sought out the back road places, stayed away from the tour buses, and was all in all considered a local by many. I more than stretched my comfort zone with food and activities, and I’m glad to see I have that quality and mindset after not venturing out for a few years. It does go back to the Bourdain adage that Travel Changes People – and once you’ve changed, hopefully you don’t go back.

El Raton with old friends and making new ones. To my right, Yu-Yuh Lu – a classmate from MBA school who I had not seen in 11+ years!

New Years Eve at Vinyl wine bar in Taipei – I befriended the owner (to my right) and my “American” presence apparently influenced other patrons!

And – Funny thing about language: even though I speak ZERO Mandarin, after a while you almost start to understand. It’s the tone and intonation in peoples voices that can almost have you following a conversation.

I recorded this video at the beginning of my trip. While I did not know it at the time, it is a capsule of what turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. I have many great memories I will take with me from this adventure – I look forward to many more - caporegime of world travelers.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsXighzIvTw]

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • isabel September 12, 2010, 7:51 am

    Hello, I’m a student from Taipei,
    As a high school student I’m so busy that I almost forget how wonderful this city is.
    I saw this city in a different point of view by your words, I’m amazed and impressed!
    I’m glad you had a good time in Taipei. Hope you will come back visit us soon. :)
    Isabel

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