Thursday, December 14, 2017

Reflections on My SE Asia Diary

from a cafe in Kuala Lumpur
In 6 months in SE Asia, I was determined to write every single day.
No exceptions. I didn’t realize how ambitious my goal was until I began the trip. Finding time to write was not the biggest challenge. There was plenty of time on buses, trains, waiting for flights, and at the end of a long day on the bed of my hotel room. After all, I didn’t work. I wasn’t studying. Time was all I had.

But it was so incredibly difficult to write.


Because I didn’t know what to say. I would sit in front of my laptop and completely blank. It wasn’t a matter of writing for the public, it was about writing for myself. I always hoped to have something thoughtful  and profound, but many days nothing would inspire me.

Still, I know it would be a great waste if I didn’t keep a consistent diary abroad, so I decided to change my tactic. Instead of sitting down to write a “diary” entry, I began intervening myself.

“Describe where you are,” was the first prompt. I as not in the same place every day. Even when I was, the place was always different with new people, new music, new conversations, and new sunlight. It was never the same place as the day before.

At first this seemed tedious. After all, I can just takes pictures of the place and have a visual record that will last longer than memory. But the camera cannot hear, cannot smell, cannot feel. My descriptions are more valuable than my photos because my own experiences inform them.

In Vietnam I wrote that the winter sky was the “Hanoi sky was a sunless grey, the color of a pearl, the color of the inside of an oyster shell.”

In Malaysia I wrote that Penang’s sudden rain showers “sounded like a burst of applause from an eager audience.” I wrote that the low cloud of Kuching “seemed to drop on the city like a theater curtain.”

After descriptions, the next prompt I would give myself was this: “Tell me how you feel.” I wrote in my diary, “forgetting starts when the feeling stops.”

Thinking about, and then writing out my feelings at that precise moment was a way of bringing myself into the present. First I built awareness of my surroundings in the descriptions, then I built awareness of myself. The feelings did not need to be profound, sometimes – oftentimes – they were just rants of any present frustrations.

I am always too hot, too tired, or too busy to connect with my feelings.
Distraction. Stimulation. Disorientation,” I wrote from Bali, on the fifth day or travel

“I don’t think I am a failed traveler just because I'm getting melancholy on this trip. Just like I wasn’t a failed ex-pat when I got melancholy in Japan. Perhaps my only real mistake is that I didn’t expect this,” I wrote from a café in Bangkok.

This approaches work, and with the exception of only a few days, I was able to write every something every single day in Asia. Now that I’ve covered the qualitative analysis of my writing pattern in Asia, I would also like to look at some metrics. Here are some curious statistics I’ve uncovered:

Total number of words: 103,173

Average entry: 819 words

Longest entry:
11/27 Chiang Mai, Thailand  at 2,406 words
That day I wrote 3 times, beginning just after midnight at 12:03am, then again from a café at 1:10pm, and from another café 9:07pm. It was a big long philosophical rant about my life.

11/2 Yangon, Myanmar 2,255 words
The second runner up was in Yangon, where I dictated my descriptions from the train into my iphone. The train was far too shaky for me to write, so I spoke my diary entry into my phone and transcribed them into my diary while on a boat in another part of Myanmar.

Shortest entry:
10/23 Hua Hin, Thailand at 65 words

I had a small breakdown in Hua Hin, where I felt the most depressed and miserable I had since the trip started – and I wasn’t even a month into it!

The entry in its entirety:

“On a short vacation, I can reflect on what I experienced once I go home. But here, moving from place to place, I am tired.  I can’t reflect on the last place because I am trying to absorb the current place.
As my mom would say,
‘Put the roast in the oven, lite a cigarette and stare at the sink.’
That’s how I feel now. “

I wrote the most in border crossings from Thailand to Laos – specifically Chiang Rai (1518) and Houay Xai (1211). In both cases, I was only in each place for one day waiting for the next mode of transportation to take me to my next place.

A close runner up was again Yangon,  Myanmar where I wrote an average of 1,052 words per day. That city inspired me so much, I never had a shortage of things to say about it.

I wrote the least in Jahor Bahru, another border crossing taking me from Singapore into Malaysia. I wrote precisely 0 words in Jahor Bahu and I remember detesting it and being eager to get out.

As close runner up was the city of Mandalay in Myanmar, where I wrote only 221 words per day because I got sick and felt depressed. 

Honestly, when I analyzed these statistics they surprised me. I had thought expected Chaing Mai to be the place I wrote the most per day since I returned there for a month at the end of my trip for the express purpose of writing. I was also surprised by the average length of my entries. Apparently I did have a lot to say about my surrounding and my feelings. In memory, my diary was just a long ramble of useless thoughts and observations, but when I went to re-read it, two years after travel, I was struck by its poignancy and specificity. Most of the entries read like a narrative, shifting between external and internal observations.

This diary has been pure gold to me. It my favorite and most valuable souvenir. It’s depth and breadth far outweigh anything captured by my photographs or other archiving techniques.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Why Japanese travel guidebooks are better

The Seoul Guidebook I purchased in a Kobe bookstore

When you live in Japan, you travel like a Japanese person. And Japanese people travel in a very special way. First, most of them don't have or use vacation days, so they only travel on public holidays when offices are closed.  This means that they anticipate crowds and congestion and prepare for it. It also means that their trips are really short and jam-packed with things. Japan has several precious three-day weekend a year, and most people with the travel bug take advantage of that break to visit a nearby (or not so nearby country) for exactly three days.

I will never forget the first time I flew to Japan from Dallas, Texas. I met two Japanese woman in the airport who were having a layover form Orlando, Florida. Where they visited Disneyworld. I asked them about their trip and was shocked to find out it was only three days. By that I mean they left Tokyo and flew to Orlando on Day 1, spent an entire afternoon and evening in Disneyworld on Day 2, and were flying back to Tokyo on Day 3. I met them on Day 3. They literally undertook a 20-hour flight in a three day weekend.

A 2-day 1-Night Itinerary in Seoul from a Japanese guidebook

A decade later, a foreigner living in Japan, I had vacation days and I goddam used them. I didn’t have to follow the same rules, so I could avoid the crowds during those three-day-weekends, but I knew this was not reflective of the experience of my Japanese people. The Japanese people have learned to adapt to their strict work and break schedule and make the most out of their three day weekends, and the travel  industry caters to this kind of traveler. When my friend said “let’s go to Seoul for the three-day-weekend” I thought it was a good chance to see how Japanese people really travel. So I took the all-day journey from my village in rural Japan to Seoul, and I prepared for a tiring, jam-packed schedule or sights and shopping.

Before my trip, I had the great fortune of find this book, Seoul Jaunt. This book was pretty much made for people like my friend and I, and is structured to accommodate the Japanese three-day-weekend. This book was my gateway to Japanese travel guidebooks, which are a millions times better than American ones.

Japanese travel guidebooks have way more photos, show a variety of food and meal options, and are catered to specific interests. American travel guides are text heavy, have few photos, and usually they are black and white. They spend a lot of time on history and architecture and maps, whereas Japanese guides are more about your experience in a place. American guidebooks focus on tourist sights, and provide all the history and detail of museums, temples, etc. But Japanese guidebooks understand that everything you do in a place is part of your experience, so they over things, like a comprehensive list  street food. American guidebooks may only talk about the traditional cuisine in a place, but Japanese guidebooks will cover anything unique and interesting, even if it is not traditional or typical.

Here are a few side by side examples:

The hotel list in the Japanese book has compelling images of the rooms in each of the hotels they feature. In an American Guidebook, there is only a list with minimal information. How am I supposed to select something from that list without further research?

In the Japanese guidebook, a map with a simple itinerty is featured The map shows street names, intersections, and locations of key destinations. In the American version, there is a ton of text on the background and history of a few places in a particular region, then a massively over-detailed map which no one could realistically use to find anything. 

In the Japanese guidebook, different restaurant options are show with delicious images of food. On the right, observe how text-heavy the American guide is  (who has time to read all that?) - and with only one uncoupling image. In fact, most of the images in the American guidebook were everyday shots of people on the streets, city parks, and buildings, but nothing about food, shopping, or the things I am likely to personally encounter on my trip. 

Even the boring "how to buy bus tickets" and "how to fill out the immigration form" are on colorful well-designed pages, compared to the boring graphic-deficient American book. 

Lastly, here is a page you won't often find in American books. This is a "gift catalog" which shows ideas for things to buy as gifts for family, friends, and colleagues when you return from your trip. Japan has a big gift-giving culture, and if you travel anywhere, you are expected to bring presents for practically everyone once you return. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Seoul Diaries 2

I had no time to write in Seoul. Traveling with my best friend meant that I had no time alone in cafes. It meant that I constantly had to keep up with her. And she likes to travel, and to shop, so I had little reflection time. I did however manage to scribble some notes in a journal while laying on the bed in our hostel moments before we slept.

The following in an excerpt from that day, Saturday March 22, Seoul, South Korea

The alarm went off at 10:00am but it felt like dawn. Even though we went to bed at 1:00am, not terribly late by the standard of young people traveling, but I was exhausted from the long journey from my rural village to the airport, and the stressful trip from Incheon to our hostel. We allowed ourselves one more hour of sleep and woke up at 11:00am.

The day began with coffee and a cheap lunch around Erwa Women’s University. We walked into a popular restuarnt. Nothing was in English or Japanese. We ordered three dishes by pointed to pictures on the menu, but got four back, and none were the ones we ordered. We laughed about it.

In the afternoon we shopped at Hondae, super crowded form the weekend, but I felt animated moving through the large masses of people. In my rural village, I was using to having a stadium of open air around me at all times. I missed the giant body hug from a swelling urban crowd. I missed touching shoulders and shopping bag. I missing standing so close to someone I could small the perfume on their hair.

Eventually, even we got wiped out from the congestions, and retired to the May Flower café, where we were watch the sun set over the Seoul skyline. We sat at that café for two hours. That may have been the longest time we spent in any one place in Seoul.

Back at the hostel and going to bed just before midnight again, I made a few more observations:
   Finally saw some gay couples. I'm pretty sure that what they are, because I’ve learned the Korean friends of the same sex are more affectionate, and I believe I can discern when they are more than friends…
   There seems to be only one kind of beauty for women. It is repeated on all the ads. Double eyelids, pointy jaw with a small chin, high cheek bones.
   Men are really tall here. Really tall. My Japanese best friend who I'm traveling with is 5’10 and she is easily shorter than most of the men here.
   Things are just as expensive as Japan. Why did I think they would be cheaper? Who misled me?
   Different parts of Seoul remind us of different parts of Tokyo: Harajuku’s Takeshita dori, Shibuya 109, Roppongi hills
   I have not seen nearly as many white-guy-Asian-girl couples as in Japan.
   This country is obsessed with coffee and cafes, they are on every street corner and they are crowded and loud.

Reflections on My SE Asia Diary

from a cafe in Kuala Lumpur In 6 months in SE Asia, I was determined to write every single day. No exceptions. I didn’t realize how ...