Friday, December 30, 2011

The Value of Patience...and Good Judgment

Being on the road, the traveler often comes across situations where his own decision-making. And when the wrong decision is taken, the cost is unbelievably high in monetary terms (not to mention damages to self-confidence)...but it is those wrong decisions that tend to be, ultimately, the most memorable ones. And the same wrong decisions, by pure "virtue" of their being incredibly BAD decisions, lead to the greatest adventures...but at the end, with the wallet all beat up, the traveler has to realize where is that fine line between "adventure at all costs" and "sound financing while on the road."

Yesterday was that sort of day. The traveler planned to travel from Pristina, Kosovo to Dubrovnik, Croatia by transferring once at Podgorica, Montenegro. When the bus from Pristina arrived in Podgorica at 2am local time, the traveler, to his dismay, realized that the daily bus between Podgorica and Dubrovnik, becomes once every two days during winter times, and with New Years holidays coming up, it meant that he has to idly stay in Montenegro until the 2nd of January if he waits for the bus to start up again.

For the traveler, time was of the essence. In a city with little budget options, hotel costs can easily go up to 50 Euros a night. Two nights of hotels and bus ticket, plus food, would easily add up to 130 Euros even without adding in the time cost. So, the traveler decided to get a taxi to Dubrovnik instead, in what later, with a little bit of classic East European-style deception by the taxi driver, proved to be one of the worst one-time conscious decisions the traveler has made during this entire trip. If it were not for the sheer beauty of Dubrovnik awaiting me at the end of all this, the pain from this one would have stuck for quite a while.

So, back in Podgorica at 2:30am, the traveler negotiate the taxi fare to Dubrovnik down to about 110 Euros, gets in the taxi for a what is said by the taxi driver to be a 5 hour drive, and takes off into the twisty, pitch-dark mountain roads of Montenegro. 3 hours later, the taxi driver wakes up the sleeping traveler, telling him in broken English, "it is finished" (i.e. "we are here"). Rubbing his eyes, the traveler looks through the car window to find the Montenegrin border checkpoint on the way to Croatia.

The half-sleepy, half-puzzled traveler tries to question the driver why he stops at the border, getting the response that the driver cannot go over the border. He, with English vocabulary words and many gestures, tells me not to worry, just cross over the Montenegrin border on foot, walk "maybe 90m" to the Croatian border checkpoint, and then grab a taxi from there. He adds that the taxis on the other side is plentiful and the taxi ride from the Croatian border to Dubrovnik should be very cheap because its only a 10 minute drive.

Annoyed by the taxi driver only mentioning this now rather than before the whole journey started, the traveler still had no choice but to get out at that point. The driver bid his friendly goodbye with a warm handshake, leaving the traveler to handle the border himself. The exit from Montenegro was without incident, but as the traveler began trekking from the Montenegrin checkpoint to the Croatian one, he quickly realized that the walk is nowhere near "90m." In that single pitch-dark twisty mountain road between the two checkpoints, the traveler ended up walking more than half an hour.

Then came the Croatian border, with time now at around 6am. The surprised Croatian border official, after hearing that I walked from the Montenegrin side after getting off a taxi, looks at me like I am crazy, stamps my passport, and with a cynical grin, tells me that its too early to call any taxi right now, and that I can keep walking the 44km to Dubrovnik. Then he, with no other offers for help, simply waved me off into Croatian territory, with another twisty pitch-dark mountain road ahead.

The story ends with the traveler unsuccessfully hitchhiking along the road, eventually hitting up a nearby post office with a phone to call in a taxi from Dubrovnik. At 9am in the morning and another 40 Euros later, the weary traveler finally get to his final destination. For all the time he gained, he lost too much in energy, money, and courage to try similar thing ever again. The shell-shocked conclusion to the whole heart-thumping episode is, well, be patient, and be more thoughtful with decision-making...sigh...enough said.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Emigrants, be Proud of Your Homelands!

When I first arrived in America as a young 12-year-old boy, my family lived in a mostly immigrant neighborhood in southern part of Boston. The neighborhood school was filled with immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially the Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, and Serbia. As fellow students of ESL classes, I spent years with them, earning American culture, English language, and talking about the homelands we left behind. And talked we always had about our homelands, with bit nostalgia, and plenty of gratefulness that we all got out.

Once the Albanian told me about the view of America people had back home. He said with a certain degree of cynicism, “back there, everyone thought America is a land where money grows on trees and the roads are paved with gold...I mean, literally.” The naiveté of the comment had such a huge impact on me that six years later, it became the first sentence of a college application essay that got me into Yale. The optimism with which new immigrants approached America cannot be better summarized by that comment.

And then, eleven years after the 12-year-old Albanian uttered that line to me during recess at a public middle school in Boston, I am sitting in a restaurant in Tirana, Albania, enjoying perhaps the best full-course lunch I had during this entire European trip for a mere 7 Euros. The atmosphere is non-deceptively friendly, the setting spotlessly clean, and the staff perfectly fluent in English. The restaurant is everything one can ask for back in America except the price tag is maybe 30%.

In fact, the city of Tirana brightly sparkled just like this restaurant. Under the warm winter sun, the fountains and the parks are filled with families on outings, the outdoor cafes inundated with friends chatting and laughing over cups of freshly brewed coffee, and the streets buzzing with pedestrians and cars going about daily business. The city hums with productive activity, yet simultaneous shows its friendly, laid-back side full of people confidently enjoying their leisure.

Sure, there are clogged streets and run-down buildings, but the cars and buses clogging the streets are brand-new, and even the most decrepit building has bright-colored paint consistent with the overall optimistic feeling of the city. All in all, Albania, at least here in Tirana, is not at all as described by my middle school friends a decade ago. It is a country rapidly moving forward through relentless development, with stylishly dress locals finding their bright future right here in their homeland.

Emigrants, in general, have a tendency to exaggerate; they exaggerate how wealthy and full of opportunities their destinations of immigration are, and they exaggerate the backwardness and poverty of the lands they left behind. Yes, indeed the employment rate and per capita income of immigrant-receiving developed countries may still be relatively high, but there is no guarantee that the quality of life is indeed worse in the “impoverished” homelands. Albania, with her cheap prices and leisurely lifestyle, may be a perfect example.

Ultimately, what drives and motivates emigrants to emigrate may be overblown imaginations rather than any sort of hard facts based on on-the-ground reality. Too long have people from the developing world held steadfastly to their inferior complex: that their countries always are and will be worse off than somewhere else out West. From their standpoint, it makes sense. They, as emigrants, must find some way to rationalize why they emigrated in the first place.

But today, as the gap between the haves and have-nots quickly shrinks, it is fine time for the mentality to change and the complex to disappear. I ask that emigrants everywhere to stop irrationally narrow-mindedly concentrate on the perceived greatness of the West. Go back often to your homelands for visits, in the past decade or two, the grimmest places may have become as trendy and fashionable as any town in the developed world. I know, 100% sure, that when they go back, they, as Albanians will of Tirana, will find renewed pride in the positive changes of their homelands.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Celebrating Xmas: Commercialism or Culture?

Being used to the heavy Xmas decorations and cheesy seasonal songs being blasted everywhere, the traveler feels a little empty moving through Turkey and Greece in the past couple of days. Over in Istanbul, it was just another day at work, everything operated as if nothing special is happening, save for extra-busy working conditions dealing with hordes of (mostly Asian) tourists. Over in Athens, the main sights are closed for the two-day Xmas holidays, but as for everything else, the cafes, the souvenir shops, and indeed the daily routines of the common people, operated in completely normal ways.

Yes, in this corner of the world, there was absolutely no catering to the Xmas celebrations happening elsewhere. No Xmas songs, no Xmas lights, not even a word of "Merry Xmas" from the locals. The reason seems rather plain and simple: Muslim Turks (obviously) do not celebrate Xmas, and for the Orthodox Greeks, their Xmas falls on Jan 7th (a fact that I did not know until I was told so in Ukraine). From a pure religious standpoint, it makes absolutely no sense for the locals to go all-out elated for a holiday that is not even holy for them.

But the reasoning should come out pretty differently if one is to look at the economics. Both Greece and Turkey, especially during this time of financial crisis, have been even more dependent on a strong and resilient tourism sector (and understandably so, both Istanbul and Athens haven unbelievably superb tourist resources and fine weather for this time of the year). And the majority of the tourists, of course, are foreigners, who more often than not, tend to celebrate Xmas (and are abroad for their Xmas holidays).

If the Greeks and the Turks market their goods and services along Xmas lines (e.g. Turkish carpets sold as Xmas presents, and Greek bistros with Xmas menus), one would believe that they can increase the spending of the foreign tourists. The increase in sales should be affirmative, while the cost of Xmas-themed marketing should be next to zero, needing only a few clever Xmas phrases, menus, lights, and cardboard cutouts. Businesses in tourist areas exist to maximize profits, obtained from foreign tourists, so why do these business-owners resort to clearly beneficial Xmas marketing strategies?

Mind-boggling as it is, the answer can only be one thing: that, for the locals, preserving their own cultural identities remains much more important and meaningful than selling a few more goods and services. Perhaps they fear the wrath of their own God for punishing their unfaithfulness if they do even pretend to celebrate Xmas, perhaps, in a more straightforward and down-to-Earth way of thinking, they are just afraid that they are no longer really themselves if they start celebrating other people's holidays.

Indeed, religion is strongly part of cultural identity in this part of the world. Through religious lenses they define themselves, their places in the world, and their nationalistic worldview. To put unnecessary confusion into that integrated sense of national consciousness for a few extra penny from the foreigners, if seen this way, would be highly debasing, and in their mindset, not particularly different from selling their souls for some short-term or one-time financial or materialist interests.

But the Greeks and the Turks are not the only nationalists out there. In the Far East, there are certain nationalities who are so nationalist that they start burning their neighbor's flags for their fishing boat captains getting arrested by their neighbors, and spend majority of TV airtime discussing semi-fabricated historical greatness, but when it comes to Xmas, the East Asians took it up without a single bit of hesitation, with stores hanging Xmas decorations as if Xmas has been around Asia for thousands of years.

The Asian tourists, while busy taking in the amazing sights of Greece and Turkey, should also reflect on the non-existent Xmas atmosphere and what is really means. While of course engaging foreign cultures is necessary, blindly taking up foreign traditions while giving up one's own is, as locals here long realized, ultimately detrimental to one's national and individual identity. More mental caution, less blind commercialism is needed in Asia so that there can truly be a balance of internationalization and tradition.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Three Things the Guidebooks Don’t Tell You about Eastern Europe’s All-around Sketchiness

Sitting in the waiting room of the Sofia main bus station, the traveler gets solicited by another suspicious middle-aged man with dodgy English and even more dodgy purpose. He asks me where I am from, jot down something on a piece of paper, then walks away. Great, just great: another day in Eastern Europe, another day of being targeted for who-knows what scams the locals can dream up. The sketchiness of some locals is just too apparent, but still simply too commonplace a problem for travel guides to NOT address them more carefully to hapless, inexperienced, innocent-thinking tourists.

(1) The first kind is the most straightforward: locals squeeze foreign-looking people for money. But the methods are, from personal experiences, quite innovative. There are semi-legitimate exchange booths advertising deceptively attractive rates only to charge hidden fees (e.g. in Chisinau, every third shop on the main thoroughfare, one cannot help but wonder how many of them are legitimate, and how many paid bribes to the state to be there). The exchange booths are in many places, joined by equally dodgy-looking “casinos.”

Then, there are just outright efforts at robbery in the daylight. The traveler was again solicited by a group of locals trying frantically to tell me something in their broken English. Suddenly, an old lady walks over and pulls me away from the group. Only when we were half a block away from the group of guys she stopped and told me that one guy was distracting me while the others worked on pick-pocketing. Incidents like this, whether for scamming or stealing, make one seriously wary of talking to anyone on the street for any reason.

(2) And speaking of people soliciting on the street, the more intimate and legitimate-looking kind is perhaps more dangerous than the first. It is almost always the case that when one exit on an arriving bus or train that one is immediately greeted by warm, smiling people saying they are providing “tourist information” and immediately help the arriving travelers with their bags to the “information office.” Fortunately, this particular traveler has seen way too much of such tricks traveling in China, and has yet to see the results of falling for such a thing in Eastern Europe.

And the other intimate solicitation is simply disturbing. Even at one or two o’clock in the afternoon, attractive-looking local women talking to lone male foreign travelers at busy intersections and stations, asking if they would like to “have coffee.” The motive is quite evident. Once, when this traveler sternly rejected the offer from a woman who began to rub against me and call me “sexy.” The frustrated woman then attempted to drag me to her “scene of crime,” nonchalantly repeating, “c’mon, quick one, cheap!”

(3) The last one is not even about solicitation, its just pure sketchiness. In many Eastern European cities, the normal neighborhoods frequented by travelers may be only a couple of blocks away from the “abnormal ones” where locals are determined to punish the straying foreigners. For a traveler with previous unpleasant experiences, stumbling upon places such as Bucharest’s majority Gypsy neighborhood, which is literally a stone’s throw away from the main train station, can instantly bring about discomfort.

However, for the inexperienced traveler, they may not even realize that they have landed where they are not supposed to go until something happens. The “sketchy” neighborhoods over here are not like the violent ghettos of the US that also tend to be next to tourist spots in city centers. Over here, there are practically no physically observable differences between a “good” and a “bad” neighborhood. Houses and streets look completely the same, but the intentions of the locals residing the neighborhoods, well, are quite different, to say the least.

Of course, the traveler lists the unpleasant portions of the other side of Europe not because he discourages others from visiting the region, but to remind future visitors that they need to equip themselves with street-smarts they can never learn back home, especially if they are from relatively crime-free developed countries (Japanese and South Koreans, in particular, need to realize that their crime-free home countries make their mentality equal to those of innocent little kids...the local criminals know that very well). Only by thinking like the criminals and understanding their criminal procedures can the tourists be really safe.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Misguided Eastern Pride and Vanity of Quickly Joining the West

On the overnight bus from Chisinau to Bucharest, the traveler started talking to a Romanian who went to visit (unsuccessfully) his love interest in Moldova. Quickly, revealing his frustration that the girl's father was against his (second) meetup with the girl, he went on a tirade against the Moldovans, who he describes as "pretty empty in the head because they are still communist over there." He went on to describe Moldova as a country "that has nothing positive except beautiful women." Yes, he is a little bit biased with heightened emotional tensions, but his sentiment, at least here in Romania, is surprisingly common.

To be specific, it is a sentiment of "we" against "them," a wholehearted attempt for locals here to separate themselves from the other former Soviet bloc countries up north, even though technically, Romanians and Moldovans practically share the same language, culture, and are of the same genetic makeup. Part of the sentiment, of course, is justified. After seeing the truly shoddy trains and buses of Ukraine and Moldova, the infrastructure here is not nearly as bad in comparison. And with Latin (rather than only Cyrillic up north) alphabet in use, and more people speaking English, the place does fill a bit more Western.

But a slightly more Western outlook still does not put sense into the sheer exaggeration locals command to display great effort in "looking to the West." One great instance is how all major hotels, travel agencies, and large department stores quote prices in Euros rather than Romanian lei. The traveler, in desperation of looking for a lodging at midnight, went to a three-star hotel to ask for the price, and was shocked to hear "61" from the receptionist. Only when he was ready to pay for the exceedingly cheap night did the receptionist start converting the price into the local currency, to the traveler's dismaying realization.

Perhaps the effort is in part done to attract more Western tourists. After all, three star hotel for 61 Euros is incredibly cheap compared to Western Europe, where a dorm bed can cost 25-30 Euros even during winter time. Catering to the bargain-hunting mind of the Western travelers, quoting prices in Euros may be a good strategy. But whats interesting is that the same people quoting prices in Euros to the Westerners are actually doing the same to the Romanians as well. With Romania not scheduled to adopt the Euro for at least 3 or 4 years, there simply does not seem to be a point to get the locals reading for the "Euro mentality"...

Indeed, the only feasible reason locals do this is to make sure everyone, locals and foreigners alike, naturally understand that Romania, even as a part of the former Soviet bloc, is different from other former Soviet countries. The people here are intent to brainwash themselves into thinking that Romania is physically Western, Romanian people are liberal-minded, and the other parts of Eastern Europe (barring oddities like Slovenia) are definitely up to "Romanian speed" when it comes to catching up with the West mentally and physically.

But walking through the chaotic streets of Bucharest clogged with excess number of cars and not enough protection of pedestrians, the traveler has to say that not only has Romania not caught up with the West in terms of mentality, but the very enthusiasm of Romanians to identify themselves as "closer to the West" betrays that they still lag behind the Westerners in terms of understanding the reality. Romania, after all, has decidedly mixed culture, like other parts of former Soviet bloc, with distinctly obvious communistic idiosyncrasies.

And her people's understanding of Western modernization still remains highly materialistic as seen by excessive car ownership and copying completely misinterpreted and misunderstood "Western" lifestyles (I have never seen a higher concentration of McDonald's, KFC, and Burger King in Europe than here in Bucharest) while the West has already moved much beyond that to focus on getting in touch with her traditional roots to find new inspirations for the next phase of modernity.

Yes, decades of communist rule in Eastern Europe has had a very traumatic effect on the local population, especially here in Romania, where dictator Ceausescu had no qualms about destroying Romanian cultural traditions. However, at some point, Eastern Europeans have to realize that their Soviet past is an integral part of their respective identities, just as their ancient and medieval traditions are. The Soviet influence can be suppressed superficially, but can never be destroyed. Until they are comfortable with this fact, they will always be vainly displaying their "Western-ness" by bashing fellow Eastern countries and quoting prices in Euros.

The Dilemma of “Transition Economy”: Rich People, Poor State?

The conditions on the Lviv-Kiev overnight “express” train are quite shocking. As the steam engine slowly pulled into the Lviv station to pick up passengers, what greeted us behind the already seemingly two-decade-old engine was a series of green-painted metal box carriages, the design of which has not changed at all since the Soviets standardized them, eh, more than half a century ago. The carriages can be described in one word: rusty. Rust covered the creaky doors and the metal stairs leading up to them.

The inside was not much better. The curtain had 20-year-old (beer?) stains, only to be “outshined” by the 40-year-old rusty rods that are barely keeping the curtains in their proper positions. As the train slowly chugged out of Lviv station, one can hear the wooden frames of sleeping berths and windowsills making creaking noises the whole night, as if they are going to fall apart any minute. Passengers necessarily make their own beds with given sheets and beddings, while conductors go around the half-empty carriage asking stern-faced if anyone wants tea.

The distinctly Soviet nature of all this does not seem to bother my fellow passengers at all, and for a good reason. As soon as her bed is made, the stylishly dressed Ukrainian girl at the compartment next to mine pulls out her spanking new iPhone and drift off listening to music. Other passengers follow suit. All have some 21st century high-tech gadgets to keep themselves busy while the train continues to slowly inch forward with her mid-20th century “old-school” mechanism.

The contrast of the train and her passengers cannot be starker. One is sustainable inefficient “tradition” with no obvious modernization efforts in sight, while the other is racing to get on with any new trend available, much in the same way as people do in any other part of the world. The already old train feels more and more ancient when the brilliantly fashionable locals are occupying it. One cannot help by feel shame for the inanimate objects for not being able to compete...

And the train is definitely not alone. Equally creaky and ancient buses and trams run through the street, but so do spanking new Mercedes and BMWs. Public housing still are concrete boxes from the Soviet era, while newly built private housing, whether it be villas or privately developed apartment blocks, incorporate the best designs both on the outside and the inside. Whatever the private sector owns is new, and whatever the government owns is old and barely operational.

The stark contrast in a way illustrates the state of former USSR’s economic structure. Private citizens, with newly liberated entrepreneurial spirits and ability to consume goods from all over the world, are transforming themselves rapidly to catch up with the West mentally and materialistically. The state, as represented by few remaining state-operated institutions like the Ukrainian railway bureau, has no energy, spirit, or financial resources to be revamping themselves.

Certainly, it can be said that in the effort of “post-communist states” like Ukraine to engage the capitalist-dominated world economic order, the state has been the one to suffer the biggest damage. Many sources of prior income, in the form of protected state enterprises, were killed off by economic reform and previously nonexistent private/foreign competition. By at the same time, the new demands of the electorate, seeking to gain the same benefits as citizens of developed countries in the West, continue to squeeze the coffers of the state with increased public spending.

The financial gap, as a result, has emerged. Private citizens benefit from higher income and cheaper/better goods under a more global environment, but the government only sees increased responsibility and spending while new sources of revenue by way of taxation has not kept up. To prevent excess debt, minor yet “functional” institutions, like these creaky trains, can only be maintained in the current state without hope for transformation in the short term, unless major accidents raise public awareness and demand for substantial change.

But what is scarier than the financial gap is the mentality gap. While individuals, with optimism and competitiveness, continue to plow forward in their quest to obtain the very best of everything, what would they think of their “adequate is good enough” attitude of government institutions? Sure, people are still riding these creaky trains to Kiev, but are they simply doing it out of disdainful necessity? When the individuals start to perceive their government as fundamentally and overtly conservative, without correlation to political thinking, do they simply lose confidence in all government institutions and begin to see political activism as pointless?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The “Mixed” Culture of Eastern Europe: A Vision of Future for North Korea?

Hearing about Kim Jong Il passing away almost immediately after a visit to the remaining Soviet architectures (with their red star decorations intact) on the streets of Vilnius and taking a clunking ride on the old Soviet era train carriages of the Warsaw-Krakow “Intercity Express,” was by all means, a surreal experience. Combined with reviews of some video footages of surprisingly genuine-looking mass mourning (more like mass crying) sessions in Pyongyang, and it seems like we are back at the old Second World.

Indeed, even as the Baltic states and Poland, former bastion of Stalinist communism, transformed themselves into orderly capitalist economies and took up the membership (and the principles) of the EU, the physical and emotional signs of the socio-economic order that ruled the land barely twenty years ago are still very much deeply rooted and difficult to eradicate. Like their parents and grandparents, people here still emerge from their old Soviet concrete apartment blocks to shop at the massive “central markets,” factory-like establishments with crude interiors highly reminiscent of old communist food distribution centers.

Yet, upon closer look, the lives of the people are indeed improving. The central market is filled with consumer goods from all over the world at a reasonable price, and even hostels in old Soviet blocks find themselves, on the inside, stuffed with eccentric Ikea futures, wireless internet, and American movie posters. Even if physical appearance and mentality are slowed to change, the pragmatic side of materialism has forever altered the livelihoods of the local people.

And then, there is North Korea. Even without government-led reforms, the dire economic conditions of recent years have forced similar pragmatic materialism to emerge from the top-down level. Consumer goods, smuggled in from China, South Korea, and Japan, are discreetly on sale in private black markets, and however limited in scale, such official illicit economic activities are changing the livelihoods of locals in the same way it is happening here in the former Soviet bloc.

Kim Jong Un, the new official leader of the country, should see such trends more easily than anyone else. He lived in Switzerland and traveled in the same part of the world that the traveler is currently trudging through, and hopefully, thought of the same thing as he toured the same cities and neighborhoods. People’s desire for materialistic prosperity is natural and unstoppable. The policies discouraging it cannot extinguish such desires, but only delay it.

And on the road toward materialism, both Eastern Europe and North Korea has one unlikely ally: the constant presence of Chinese traders eager to sell the excess produce of China’s countless factories across the world. In both regions, the Chinese have already dominated the inward supply of most consumer goods, giving still cash-strapped locals ability to abundantly stock their homes without too much expenditure. In a world where the West speaks of spreading liberal capitalism to improve local lives, the Chinese has taken upon the mission to accomplish on the grounds the lofty ideals of the Westerners.

Having met local Chinese traders on the North Korean borders and Lithuania/Poland, the traveler can speak confidently that these traders have not and will not give up their effort to spread “made in China” across the most unfavorable parts of the world, where the local populace and governments are often both openly against their presence. With such staunch and preserving ally supplying them with the raw capital of and ideas for free enterprise, the socio-economic transformation of the former Soviet bloc is bound to continue.

North Korea, no matter how much it would like to, cannot move against the strong current of capitalist globalization. And to be honest, in many ways, Kim Jong Un already has his work cut out for him if he wants to steer his country along with the current. He only needs to legalize whatever de facto private enterprises and markets that already exist discreetly across North Korea. Time is against him; if he does not act fast, he may be destroyed by the current just as his dictatorial counterparts in Eastern Europe were.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Where Should Travelers Place the Limits of Their Own Good-Heartedness?

Whenever I am on the road, I have the tendency to let the adventurous and curious side get the best of me. Whenever I see a local restaurant, I go in to try out what the locals have for supper. Whenever I see a little alleyway leading down to a slightly run-down residential neighborhood, I take it to try to get the glimpse of local living conditions. And whenever locals try to have a genuine conversation with me, in however broken English, I respond positively by engaging them in their talks.

Furthermore, I do understand that as one of the few Asian and American travelers out here in the relatively unpopular destinations of Eastern Europe, I do have the responsibility of representing Asians and Americans in a positive way through politeness, friendliness, and good-heartedness. The last, in my opinion, is especially important because there is an inherent need for foreign tourists to counteract the negative images represented by their national governments’ various actions.

The locals understand that foreign tourists in general tend to think in this way. Most of them, thus, are willing to approach these international ambassadors to share their stories and inquire about the actual conditions of other countries. They know they will get friendly responses from the tourists, who are willing to go great length to learn about the local cultures. However, there are also a few locals who utilize the good-natured curiosity of the foreigners for personal gain, often in highly detestable ways.

For instance, this particular traveler was wondering around the Vilnius central station, hoping to buy a ticket for the next train to Warsaw. A local, with excellent command of English, suddenly approaches me and start telling me about his Japanese friend who come visit Lithuania every year to visit his girlfriend. Engrossed in his story, I gradually started believed that his storytelling adds much credibility to his presenting himself as someone with an international outlook rather rarely found in this part of the continent.

And when he cut the conversation to how he is trying to get home but realized how he is just slightly short on cash, I hesitated a bit but, thinking that I need to sustain the positive image of Asians he has, still offered to help out with part of the ticket price. Yet, when the whole procedure ended and he thanked me for letting him get home as a good-bye, I realized that I had been cheated out more than 20 Euros, a ticket price, in this country, can only be appropriate for an international journey.

Every country has immoral people; it is an unfortunate but unforgettable fact. In a way I am quite surprised that this is only the first time that I have been tricked in Europe. In my various solo trips across China, I have already been tricked out of at least 300 Euros on everything from “traditional dance shows” to “sampling new skin treatments.” But to trick your own people is one thing, deceiving foreign tourists is totally another matter. Sure, maybe the local made 20 Euros today on one trick, but in the heart of the disgruntled traveler, Lithuania would forever be branded as a “crime-ridden country too dangerous to visit.”

Worse, the traveler would go home and spread a bad image of Lithuania by words of mouth. The innocent good-heartedness of the traveler toward Lithuania would dramatically decline, perhaps never to be built up ever again. And before long, Lithuania would have lost potential tourism revenue mounting to at least thousands of Euros, and more importantly, many chances to interact with people from across the world. The lowly one-time benefit of one local became a massive damage for his country.

And being the victim of deception for one time is enough for a tourist to put serious limit on his own curiosity. He would start having doubts about talking to locals and helping them out of good heart, no matter how friendly and English-speaking the locals are. Increased vigilance seriously decreases the ability of the foreign tourists to immerse in the atmospheres and cultures of local societies. Losing 20 Euros is no big deal; at least there is still personal safety and valuable possessions intact. But the loss of that adventurous and curious mentality, along with flexibility and trust, is just too painful for the traveler to swallow...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Race and Europe: a Story of “Natives” vs. “Foreigners”?

In a little backpackers pub in Riga, Latvia three Belgian lawyers on a weekend trip gave me a brief lecture on their view of their country’s future over a glass of locally brewed Cesu beer. When I questioned them a bit regarding the potential of the country splitting in half, the discussion got a little sentimental. The three, all from Flanders, blamed the French-speakers from hijacking Brussels, the officially bilingual capital. Especially, they noted the influx of immigrants from Francophone Africa.

They say that the increase of immigrants is leading to creation of new French-speaking suburbs of Brussels outside the Brussels Capital Region, in the surrounding Flemish territories. Traditionally Dutch-speaking towns and neighborhoods are becoming more and more Francophone, spurring a movement in French-speaking Walloonia to seek greater “coalition” with the capital, much to the anger of the Flemish. The Flemish resentment is further bolstered by the transfer of wealth, through social welfare, from the economically developed Flanders to the much poorer Walloonia.

In a continent where different local ethnicities, after centuries of conflicts and wars over religion and territory, finally began to compromise and cooperate through the European Union system, the entry of new immigrants are creating new sources of tension that threaten to reignite old feuds. The Belgian division exacerbated by French-speaking immigrants is but one of many such stories. There seems to be fear of non-European immigrants, not only because of the usual arguments of cheaper wages, more crimes, or free-riding welfare, but also because of their often detrimental role for the existing internal social organization of Europe.

Most of the perceived fear is often a result of the rather static, trite attitudes of Europeans toward non-European immigrants. The staid mentality is particularly clear here in the “far east” of the Continent, where visible non-European presence is limited to few Chinese immigrants operating Asian restaurants, and a few others studying in local universities. From personal experiences speaking to (and being spoken to by) locals with broken English at the street level, it is quite obvious that their understanding of non-Europeans is almost purely based on stereotypes.

But while some excitedly tell the Asian traveler how much they love Jackie Chan, Buddhism, and chow mein, others seem to go a bit further with the stereotypes. In one case, the traveler was approached by a Lithuanian man selling chocolates on the streets of Vilnius. Finding out that he is talking to a Chinese, he earnestly began to express how Lithuanians respect the Chinese for having so much money and intelligence, and how he believes that China, with her power, will take over the world one day.

Such stereotypes, widely held by ordinary Europeans everywhere, perhaps can only be put in such positive terms in a non-immigrant country like Lithuania. For major destination of immigration, such as Germany, France, and Belgium, the respected qualities of the Chinese, and any other non-Europeans, would be translated as a menace, weapons that the non-Europeans can use to reshape the existing arrangements of Europe, both economically and socially.

The Belgians at the Latvian pub tells me that one in four Belgian is French-speaking Muslim. But the impact of non-Europeans on Europe no longer needs such statistics as evidence. Despite the economic downturn in Europe, non-Europeans are still creatively integrating themselves into European society. The traveler, coincidentally, also met an Israeli transiting through Riga and going to Berlin to set up a bar, and an Indian studying in Finland in the most cutting edge computer graphics technology to help sustain that Nordic country as the major IT center of Europe.

The fact is, Europeans can no longer live without the non-Europeans in their society, and no longer has complete control of what the non-Europeans can do within their continent. Stereotypes aside, the “natives” must start dealing with the non-Europeans also as equal stakeholders in future development of the continent. It is as my Belgian friend at the pub conceded, the Flemish are too inflexible, forcing their culture and language upon the non-European immigrants through mandatory immersion class. Such coercive top-down measures can only enlarge the schism within Europe. It is time to simply accept the non-Europeans in Europe as who they are and redefine Europe accordingly.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

From the North to the East: the Inconsistencies of European Integration

A young muscular Caucasian man tried their hardest to communicate to the staff at the ticket sales counter with his broken English. He was trying to confirm his bus going home from London's Victoria Coach Terminal to his home in Romania. It was his first time returning home from England for Christmas, and he was frantically asking me directions to his boarding gate as he dragged his massive bags across the crowded station. For millions like him, working on the other side of Europe for a higher wage, even as manual laborer (e.g. this Romanian is a construction worker), was made possible by the Europe cutting down border controls and treating other EU citizens as equals in every EU member state.

A British citizen would remark that a presence of people like the young Romanian here is a reason for depressed wages, as the Eastern Europeans are willing to work harder for fewer pounds than the British. And with a few observations on the road, the traveler can confidently say that the effect felt by individuals through the process of European integration has been one of obvious tension. And the tension is especially high when it comes to non-EU citizens residing in one of the EU countries. The benefits of European integration often also extend to these non-EU citizens, in sometimes quite dubious manner.

For instance, at the ferry terminal in Oslo, a middle-aged Ugandan man, who gained permanent residency in Norway through political asylum (in a way quite reminiscent of the exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center), was asking for a cruise ticket to Sweden for a "vacation"...He frankly told me that he is living off social welfare from the Norwegian government and he not worked for, well, quite a long time. Upon hearing about how cheap the tickets are, he quietly but excitedly told me, "haha, its like staying on a moving hotel for free."

Two problems can be thought of in such a situation: (1) obviously, Norwegian (for that matter, all European) political asylum system need a bit of rethinking on exactly who really deserves political asylum and who does not, and more importantly and relevant for this topic, (2) is it not a bit awkward, to say the least, that the social welfare benefits, paid for the taxpayers of one country, is, due to lack of border restrictions, going so easily to another country as tourism revenues. There has to be some sort of exceptions that need to be made concerning what is appropriate within the framework of a "common market."

Maybe I am over-thinking this issue and being a little paranoid. That are, after all, plenty of instances that integration has led to increase in human exchange for positive reasons. In a Swedish hotel, there is a Finnish student just flying in for a day to check out the dorm that he will live in starting next school year as a Masters student in a Swedish university. The ranks of winter travelers are filled with Germans, Italians, and even Ukrainians as they transit for tourism and commuting to work in a neighboring European country.

Yet, on the flip side, even in these exchanges perceived to be "good," there are winners and losers, and for some of the losers, they are consistently losing. Many Europeans travel for the sake of seeking cheaper alternatives to their own countries. Here in Tallinn, Estonia, for instance, hostel dorm beds cost 9 Euros whereas the same would cost about 25 in Sweden. The same goes for food, alcohol, all sorts of services, and perhaps even higher education. As their own citizens move freely to other European states to take advantages of cheaper costs, the industries back in their native lands are bound to suffer.

Indeed, speaking from a strictly economic sense, a "common market" is bound to eventually converge on one single price for the same commodity or service across different geographical regions. For places where prices remain high for strictly logistical reasons (e.g. Norway), people can simply move out to seek cheaper lives, forcing employers to raise wages to retain employees. In such cases, young workers from poorer parts of Europe may stream in to take advantage of the high wages, but minimizing their expenditures within the country in order to maximize the amount of remittance sent back home.

Either way, basic economic reasoning would point to a darker future for countries on the more expensive end of the EU. Yes, they can keep key industries (like energy in Norway) alive with high wages, but unrestricted travel means that the employees can easily consume the bulk of their wages outside of the countries where they work. The services sector in the high-wage country would wither despite the high wages and a youthful immigrant population. Quite a paradox that perhaps the proponents of European integration should think a little more deeply about...

The Psychological Benefit of Winter Traveling in Europe

Exiting the main train station at Hamburg at 9pm a few days ago, the traveler was looking through the maps under the dim street lights to find his lodging for the night. Suddenly, an obviously intoxicated German girl approached me from across the street, asking first in German, and finding my incomprehension, then in English whether I had any alcohol with me. Even though I politely told her that I do not have any, the girl, finding out that I am from California, quickly forgot about the alcohol and began a twenty-minute tirade on how Germany sucks and she wants to move to California.

In particular, she just kept on ranting about how much the weather is horrible in Germany, and even though she lived all her life in Hamburg, cannot tolerate the cold winters. But at that moment, the weather was still in the lower teens. Yes, the wind chill did make things a little uncomfortable, especially for the exposed hands, but otherwise, winter in Europe, so far, felt pretty bearable, and definitely did not deserve the amount of hatred the drunken German girl expressed.

Well, couple of days later when I found myself in the streets of Oslo, I knew exactly where her hatred came from. Walking through the Norwegian capital, even now in the warmer part of December, is like walking through a minefield. Every step one takes requires confirmation that the foot is not on a big slab of ice frozen over the pavement. Every minute one sees someone, including the residents of the city walking through these streets everyday, slipping and almost falling.

The municipal government attempts to remediate the situation by poring little black rocks on the pavements to increase traction, but unbelievably, often the ice is so thick that the little black stones end up at the bottom side of the ice slabs. As people slide across the streets, they can do little by crack embarrassed smiles and jokingly complain about the terrible road conditions. Combined with chilling winds that hit the skin like razor-sharp knife cuts, a stroll even in the southernmost portion of the Nordic country is not a fun one.

But, of course, everything has its bright side, even in the dark and cold of winter in the Far North. Some of them are quite straightforward. Being outside the obvious tourist season, the major sights, lodging, and transportation facilities are all literally devoid of crowds. That, by all means, translates to better rooms and tickets for far cheaper prices and enjoying great sights without having to deal with too many people blocking the way. Traveling is indeed easier, if not for the weather.

Yet, the biggest benefit of winter travel does not even really have to do with travel itself. It is, after all, trudging through freezing temperatures for days and weeks at a time, quite often a big test on the physical endurance of the travelers and more importantly, their will to continue with and ultimately complete their ambitiously established travel plans. At some point during some parts of the trip, the mentality of the travelers simply goes from “I want to travel because I like what I am seeing” to “I have to travel because I told myself I am going to.”

And to balance the two is a major task, and if successful, a major accomplishment in any extended winter travel plan. Chilling, literally, in the below freezing temperatures, one is bound to ask oneself, sooner or later, and in multiple occasions on the trip, “why the heck I am burning cash to do this?!” And often times, one would not be able to come up with legitimate rationale simply based on the sights and the destinations. No beautiful church or ancient ruins can beat a warm cup of tea in front of the TV at home in the freezing winters.

But the legitimate rationale is greater self-control, in the form of finishing what one had started. It is that determination to continue the trip against all odds, whether the weather or the sense of self-doubt, that really add the greatest meaning to the trip. The trip, while pushing the boundaries of where I had been geographically, also pushes the limits of where I can go mentally. And that active increasing of one’s tolerance for adversity amid discovering the hidden sights in some remote corner of the world, maybe, is the first step we all should and need to go through in order to discover the hidden sights in the remote corner of our own psyche.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Caring for Illegal Immigrants, Norwegian Style

The Nobel Peace Center in downtown Oslo is currently running an exhibition on displaced peoples and refugees around the world. In terms of countries represented, all the usual ones are on display. Yemen with its Somalians washed up on shore, Serbia with people displaced by the war in Kosovo, Georgia due to war with Russia, Congo with civil war refugees, Columbia with people suffering from drug wars...the exhibition seemed like nothing surprising until, in one uniquely decorated corner of the exhibition space, Norway was represented.

And the Norway portion was the highlight of the exhibition itself. Norway? The host of the Nobel Peace Prize does not normally come across as a destination of refugees from anywhere, partly because it is so far from another zone of conflict or sources of poverty, and partly because, frankly, there is little that attract refugees. With a small job market and super expensive cost of living (perhaps on average the highest in Europe), refugees on the bottom of the food chain would, theoretically, suffer much more than they potentially would in other European countries with long traditions of immigration, like the UK or Germany.

And the number of refugees in Norway, compared to those of the other countries represented in the exhibition, is by any means tiny. However, the Norway section proved to be the one that the exhibitors put in the greatest effort within the entire exhibition. In a combined photo and video story-telling, the section focuses on the suffering of one young Iranian guy, Rahman, as he seeks asylum to stay in Norway in a detention center in northern Norway. Through interviews with Rahman, it portrays his emotions as he happily enjoys life in the modern, friendly detention center and then shares his depression as he gets rejected for asylum twice.

Then, shockingly, it starts talking about the next phase of Rahman's life. After being told to leave the country after his second asylum rejection, Rahman simply escapes the detention center and seeks a new life in southern Norway, doing odd jobs to make ends meet as an illegal immigrant without papers. The story ends by informing the audience that Rahman is still hiding somewhere in Norway, working illegally, and that, according to his own words, he will "never leave Norway, ever." In one corner of the section, the audience is encourage to write a few words on a Post-it to encourage Rahman.

Wait, what?! The audience, here in Norway, in a museum sponsored by a (practically) Norwegian state institution of Nobel Prize, is encouraged to emotionally support an illegal immigrant living in Norway?! Even in the left-end of the American political spectrum, with active encouragement of "amnesty for illegals," encouraging citizens to help illegals fight government authorities to stay in their country indefinitely seems quite unlikely, and if anything, not politically acceptable even for the most "liberal" element of the society.

But here in Norway, with its largely homogeneous, mono-ethnic society and natural resources-based small economy potentially easily disturbed by large influx of people with dubious productive capabilities (not to mention completely different cultures and languages), it simply makes no political or economic sense to be supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants in any way. Yet, the ultra-liberal values of the locals have pushed them to express the utmost sympathy for the illegals even if that means great sacrifice of their own individual interests.

People, both in the US and Europe, mention how the American version of "liberalism" is not leftist at all compared to what they have in Europe. And in many ways, that is really true. Norwegian liberalism, as seen by one exhibition, proved itself to have moved on from simple concern for social welfare within the political boundaries of the individual country to concerning itself with the condition of the entire human civilization. Such a global mentality, for a country of barely 5 million people, should certainly put to shame equally wealthy yet inward-looking major powers such as the US.

The Norwegians tells us that human dignity and the right to better life does not distinguish itself across borders, race, or culture, and certainly not between citizens and non-citizens. Sure, the exhibition indirectly adds to Norwegian nationalism by showing how this country has it much better than many others around the world, but the ultimate message is beyond just simply adding to the ego of the locals. By outwardly blaming their own country for failing to protect illegals, Norwegians are questioning the fundamental flaws of a political-based human organizational system.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Coexistence of Modernity and Tradition, in a “Modern” Sense?

Walking around cities of northern Europe, it is never hard to find the traditional and the modern side-by-side. The most glittering glass office buildings with the most cutting-edge design often stands next to the oldest churches dating from imperial eras centuries in the past. The best efforts of the city and national leaders to preserve heritage often cannot be fulfilled completely; it seems that even here, the businessmen do not like typing away on their computers in a 17th century building.

The phenomenon here is not particularly unique. After all, every country in the world faces similar dilemma. Some sees a need to keep physical pieces of history alive for posterity, while indeed, modern business and people have certain needs that cannot be satisfied by those historical relics. Yet, strangely enough, here in Europe, and Copenhagen in particular, there is a unique feel of harmony as little pieces of modernity are injected into century-old townscapes.

Over in Asia, modernity and tradition are always perceived as enemies. For one to advance, the other must suffer. The two are constantly fighting to win a perpetual zero-sum game. The tearing down of traditional neighborhoods and disappearance of traditional art forms, to be replaced by skyscrapers and youth-led pop culture, are perfect demonstration of the conflict. But here, ancient residences with their equally ancient residents stand, literally, right next to the newest additions of the city, surrounded by businesspeople with their global projects and youth blasting their pop music.

In Asia, such coexistence would have led to complete cacophony and mutual hatred of the two sides. Here, however, there seems to be not a single bit of annoyance in the air as the two go about their daily lives. None strive to prove that his/her lifestyle is better than that of the other, and none attempts to “expand” his/her own “territory” by damaging the other’s interest in any way. It seems that long time ago, the two groups have already come to the conclusion that the best way of life is a mixture of both, openly and publicly, without shame or condescension.

That such peaceful and accepted mutual existence of tradition and modernity can exist in Europe, but not Asia, is, perhaps, because Europe essentially created the modern definition of “modernity” by which the rest of the world must live by. And by striving to be “modern” like the Europeans, the rest of the world, especially in a self-conscious Asia, decided that even European traditions, in the most superficial form that most Asians come to understand, are actually somehow more modern than millennia of Asian traditions.

So, the rest of world, in an effort to become “modern,” went on a campaign to shame their own cultures into positions of inferiority, and a blind and all-too-comprehensive purge to replace their own inferior traditions with superior European ones. Above the ruins of traditional local symbols, not only are modern skyscrapers constructed, but pieces of mimicked European-style traditional residences are hastily built. A foreign tradition attempted to inject itself on cultures where there are not only no such cultural roots, but also not even proper cultural contacts with distant foreign lands until little more than a century ago.

Meanwhile, back here in Europe, the people have moved on to other forms of modernity, fused with tradition. People are going back to greater consumption of less processed food (I have never seen greater concentration of sushi bars outside Japan than out here in Copenhagen). They are going back to bicycles, with dedicated cycling lanes while in other parts of the world, the car is still embraced as a symbol of modern wealth. And communal living dating from the age of the hunter-gatherers is reemerging, weed- and graffiti-filled, in places like the “alternative commune” of Christiania.

The fact is that, even with their economy badly damaged in the past few years, the Europeans are still leading the world in terms of innovative mentality. They still pioneer what the rest of the world would call “modern thinking.” But the ever-changing European “modern thoughts,” in fact, have their developments largely triggered by reflecting on European, and world, traditions. What is cutting-edge does not come from a vacuum, but from looking back at history. And Europe, by keeping traditions alive on every street corner, makes possible those easy, omnipresent stimulations for further innovation and creation of “modernity.”

And this is the point that those in the other parts of the world, happily destroying their own traditions with wrecking balls and brainwashing, do not really understand. They have not yet figured out the correlation of the ancient buildings and ways of life in their own cultures with their own sense of “modernity.” They do not realize that they can never be “modern” by simply copying Europeans, because they can never fully copy European traditions. Perhaps such lack of a deeper realization is what truly cause others to lag Europe in mental modernization.

First Impressions of the Continent: Three Things They Never Tell You in Guide Books

After a tumultuous journey on a part-filled ferry, the weary but excited traveler finally launches himself upon the Continent, devouring every sight he can possibly manage. And the trusty (and excessively massive) travel guidebook has certainly not failed me when I am deciding on what route and sights to take in at every destination. But as I mentioned so many times before, traveling is a human experience, and the feelings and attitudes behind the sights to be visited tops the list of definitive memories. And after three days and four countries, the traveler would like to share a few impressions not found in the travel guides...

(1) Red Light Districts are highly over-rated, really. The establishment has been a matter of imagination for people everywhere, especially in certain parts of Asia where the practice is, eh, a bit more "discreet." Watching scantily clad girls moving about behind a window under a red light in some narrow alleys, really, is amusing only for about ten minutes, especially considering how the girls featured must "cater to every taste" out there. In other words, some of the girls moving about, seriously, can get some people pretty nauseous just by looking at them.

And because the Red Light Districts have advertised themselves so well, the "forbidden," "off-limits" exotic atmosphere of the Districts are simply gone. The famed De Wallen in Amsterdam is right in between major shopping streets, so that entire families with kids somehow get through the red light-filled alleys. The Repperbahn in Hambug, the biggest in Europe, seem to become more and more catered to casual tourist traffic with benign night-markets along with out-of-place Chinese restaurants. The openness of the Districts to practically everyone means the excitement of tourists trying to visually fulfill their sexual stimulation, well, just have to take a backseat for the sake of the locals trying to make money in every way possible.

(2) Hmmm, should do I feel guilty speaking English? While the travel guide always recommend learning local phrases and refrain from the thought that "every local should know English," unfortunately (or fortunately), "everyone knowing English" seems to be the case in the Low Countries and Scandinavia (so far). Sure, locals will speak to anyone in local language first, but if the response is in English, they, no matter age, gender, or ethic background, will switch into perfectly fluent English. They can even curse in the most native-sounding way, as I found out from the girls in De Wallen when I attempted to take pictures.

While it is evident that English is the global language and that English education in this part of the world is simply flawless, it is still a bit discomforting for the foreign traveler to just pretend there is no language barrier. Sure, communication is no problem, but the mechanical use of English,rather than genuinely trying to speak a broken version of the local languages, perhaps, takes away so much possibility of intimacy and heart-to-heart communication with locals. Every local loves a foreigner attempting to culturally immerse himself...maybe the foreigners should try a bit harder...

(3) Europe is a playground for conspicuous high-rollers, or maybe people are just used to high prices. The travel guide never mentioned anything about how public toilets on the Continent cost money. And unbelievably enough, with so few publicly marked toilets, and very very few toilets available inside mostly hole-in-the-wall cafes, coffee shops, bars, and neighborhood restaurants, even guys line up to cough up 50 cents to pee. The scariest and most mind-boggling part of all this is that every local I talked seemed to be completely matter-of-fact about paying such a hefty fee for what I would consider a "entitled human right."

Thankfully, Europe is civilized enough that no one goes around peeing in the streets (Done that way too much in China, the US, and even the UK). Europe is even more "civilized" that in certain parts, people get charged for unavoidable food containers (30 cents for plastic bottles in Germany, for instance) and they can only choose from very good cars if not taking the convenient public transport (I am still amazed by the fact that EVERY SINGLE taxi running through the street in Copenhagen is a Mercedes-Benz by default).

Of course, the observations is only that of four incredibly wealthy, Germanic-speaking, well-connected Western European countries. As the trip continues to the East, such certain stereotypes will most likely go out the window in no time. But for now, what is certain is that the unparalleled architectural and scenic beauties of the region, and Europe as a whole, will not the most impressive, the "wow"-inducing memories. Instead, it is the truly distinctive thoughts and lessons learned from the intended and unintended interactions between the travelers and the locals that will be forever ingrained in the psyche.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Coming Face to Face with the Free-Willing Nature of Europe

It is sometimes shocking that sometimes, a single bus ride can leave a lasting impression that can hardly be ever changed. The situation is just long enough for certain views to be formed, but at the same time short enough for the views to be highly generalized stereotypes, most often confirming previously held second-hand impressions and stories. Yet, even as the traveler is typing away on his laptop on the hard ground of Brussels Central Train Station, at a savagely unmitigated 3-degrees-Celsius wind at 6:30am, somehow the impressions just stick in the mind more than anything else.

For some reason, a quiet midnight journey on the cross-Channel ferry from Dover to Calais, tonight, was turned into a madly drunk 3-hour party by a horde of British and French high school students, nominally on some sort of school trip, but with no obvious parental or teacher supervision, seemed to be bent on spreading their notoriety far and wide on the Continent. From the second we the passengers got on the service deck (lounge above the parking for the buses) of the ferry, screaming and shouting echoing full volume across the entirety of the boat did not stop until the kids got back on their own buses on the French side.

The excess energy was well-justified. Somehow the kids collectively managed to bring from their bus 24-packs after 24-packs of unopened beer, and without any hesitation, began opening the cans at the lounge and chugging them, to the absolute amusement of the other passengers. Amazingly enough, the ferry staff, walking around at regular intervals, simply walked by the quickly inebriating kids several times, saying absolutely nothing to the fact that they are dirtying the floor with spilled alcohol, and perhaps, just perhaps, disturbing other passengers with their, eh, boisterousness.

If anything, the ferry herself actually did much to contribute to the well-maintained inebriation of the students. In the middle of the service deck, surrounded by seats and couches for resting passengers, was the biggest duty-free shop I have ever seen outside an airport. The area of the shop, literally, covered more than one-third of the total area of the deck that, by my estimates, could comfortably accommodate 500 people without any feeling of claustrophobia.

And, a full third of the duty-free shop, similar to what is usually found in airport duty-free shops, was a full range of alcohol, especially hard liquor, on sale for something around 8 pounds a bottle. The kids certainly did not pass up the bargain. As soon as the shop opened its doors upon exiting Dover port, the kids began snapping up the bottles, quickly piling up a small mountain of glass bottles in heir arms. Handing in stacks of cash quite abnormal for wallets of 18-year-olds, the kids directly took the bottles to their beer holdings, and their own moving bar on a boat was in operation.

Two-and-a-half hours later, as the boat approached the French coast, I watched the ferry staff moving about the boat collecting empty glass bottles. The dismayed staff dug up empty bottles after empty bottles of high-quality duty-free gin and vodka behind seats, trying to appear rather nonchalant about just how much a bunch of high school students added to the revenue of the ferry. As the kids exited the service deck and returned to their buses, each still had three or four bottles of unopened hard liquor “saved” in large plastic bags, perhaps for the last two or three hours of bus ride to their final destination on the Continent.

Watching situation such as this unfold in front of my eyes is a cause of reflection rather than straightforward condemnation. While people like my Indian co-passenger on the bus watched the scene in absolute horror, for most of the people on the boat, whether staff or passengers, the reaction was little more than slight, but also bemused annoyance. They still went about their own things, letting the kids handle their own affairs and enjoy their trip. I doubt that the other passengers can be described as “quietly angered” or “begrudgingly tolerant.”

Instead, it somehow seems to me that there is an air of genuine acceptance, not because it is happening outside their control, but rather, because it is not perceived as any problem. And it could be a bit inappropriate description, but calling such acceptance the basis of a certain European “free-willing nature,” may be suitable. After all, it is culture, rather than some man-made and enforced legal code, which ultimately determines the right and wrong.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Month-long European Solo Backpacking Trip in The Planning...

The winter break at the LSE officially begins on the 10th of December, and with it my month-long required absence from London (my dorm building, unfortunately, would not accommodate its residents without extra fees for the duration of the break). Instead of paying extra to stay in a London without classes and assignments, a long-needed temporary exodus from the rainy metropolis is being "planned," or more in line with reality, itching to be enforced as a matter of purely spontaneous exploration of epic proportions.

Week-long solo backpacking trip for me is not anything new for me, but the ambition regarding the upcoming trip due to begin in days, even in my mind, tops all previous ventures by its sheer magnitude. The longest previous trip was mere 2 and a half weeks affair (San Diego to Fairbanks, Alaska by bus), and the most number of borders crossed was no more than 4 (A southern China bus/boat trip that also involved Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan). But this one, with 4 continuous weeks of on-the-road action, will, at the last attempt to count precisely, involve no less than 22 countries across the European continent.

Here is a brief outline of the trip. Starting from London, bus to Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm (week #1). Then, ferry to Helsinki and Riga, and bus south through the three Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine (week #2). Then, from Kiev, down through Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Istanbul, and finally to Athens (week #3). And finally, the trip would hopefully push me back up north through the Balkans into Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and if possible, Berlin. A flight will hopefully take me back to London in time for the first class of the next term.

And of course, as with every previous backpacking trip, the use of airplanes as a form of transport, except for returning to the home base (in this case, London) is banned. Traveling, after all, is about the beauty of the journey, not necessarily speedy arrival at a certain destination. It is about finding that personal freedom and flexibility on the road, not being restricted to predetermined courses undertaken by many others in previous years, decades, centuries. After being holed up in static London for so long, the beauty and the freedom are the very things I miss the most...

And this trip will represent nothing that academic life in London has represented so far. On the road, I am free from the curses and pressures of diseases, assignments, and job hunting. I am free from seeking happiness out of bottles of alcohol. I am free from the social constraints that make our academic and post-academic lives so depressing and miserable-sounding. And most of all, the trip will be the purest form of energy, injecting excitement of witnessing something completely new, and spurring on inspirations for further writing. It is an opportunity to write on the road, something I cherished so much when I was travelling in Japan.

But at the same time, the trip is bound to be a learning experience just as it is a mentally uplifting one. For too long, Americans and Asians alike have been accustomed to seeing "Europe" as a monolith, a region, despite historical conflicts and linguistic differences, tend to hold similar interests and mentalities due to common experiences and geographical proximity. The trip shall be a series of observations to thoroughly debunk that stereotype. Too much different people reside in too much different conditions to "Europe" anything more than just a geographic name like Asia.

As 2/3 of the continent is explored from northern winds of Scandinavia, to the Soviet and Muslim lingerings of the eastern edges, to the troubles brewing in Greece and the Balkans, the diversity and the sometimes loving, sometimes harsh realities of the European mosaic will be revealed. To see all that firsthand, in perhaps an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is definitely worth the difficulties of communication, financial troubles, and countless dangers and annoyances on the road. To preserve my reputation as a firsthand observer of societies, the trip simply have to be done.

And the trip, in the situation allows for it, would not be the only undertaking of mine on the European continent. One trip, even if a month long, cannot cover all of Europe. The subsequent one, sometime in the spring, will focus on the British Home Isles, Switzerland, the Iberian Peninsula, and even Morocco. A whole new set of cultures and adventures awaits and I can only hate myself for not being able to secure more time and resources for such trips. The last adventures before going back into the dreary world of real work better be good ones.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Do I Always Have to Act as "the Asian Representative" in Multicultural Social Events in London?

One of the best things about heading to parties here at the LSE is that there is simply no guarantee what sort of exciting people one would meet. Especially in house parties organized by a few housemates from different countries and backgrounds, when they all bring their friends to the party, the house simply turns into a little United Nations. One hears of stories, whether it be work, travel, living in foreign lands and situations, that one previously perhaps only exist in imaginations, or maybe in ways that one have never even really thought about...

For my part, I do my best to contribute to the unique blend of international story-telling at these parties, but often faces a dilemma. As an Asian, I am often tempted to tell the many unique, interesting, and sometimes truly thought-provoking stories I experienced from being Asian and living in Asia, but I often find myself fighting a lonely battle on that front...that is, I am going out that task with absolutely no back-up whatsoever...well, makes sense, considering that I am usually the only person of Asian descent in these 20-30-people parties.

So, most often, without someone with deep common incentive to spread the "Asian influence," I simply stick with my "second identity," joining forces with the American crowd to promote the lifestyles and values of Americana. Sure, there are enough good conversations stemming from that, but at the end, it still bugs me, and everyone else, that as the only Asian person in the room, I should and must somehow actually play my part in the international melting pot of the party by introducing any kind of nominal Asian characteristics to the conversations.

My continued lack of success in that front is really begging the question in my mind: "where are all the Asians?!" Among the proudly global mix of grad school students at the LSE, people of Asian descent numerically is significant and by some measures in certain programs, even close to an absolute majority. Yet, I am continually disheartened by their lack of presence in the countless small and large social events that I found myself a part of. No doubt, such a contrast is giving many non-Asians here an impression that Asians are just not interested in mingling with others, or maybe even that they are not interested in having fun in parties.

But I do know that Asians, just like Caucasians or blacks or Hispanics, have its own portion of people who love to mingle, meet new people, and share different experiences. And I know because I see pictures of Asian friends drinking and partying here, in the same way as non-Asians, and I see advertisements for massive parties from Asian organizations. The stereotypes are not true: even among the on-average slightly more diligent students of the LSE, the Asian students are not studying all days, but partying and socializing aplenty.

The problem is just that they are approaching social events with a distinctive, shameless isolationist way. Parties organized by Asians are heavily skewed in favor of Asians, to the point that even if English is used, the topics of conversations tend to be so much in detail about Asia that only the most Asia-loving-and-knowing non-Asians could possibly find the situation comfortable. It is as if the Asians would not be comfortable with any situation that is not strictly and completely about themselves, their cultures, and their places of origin.

Living and working in a global society is a matter of balance. One needs to be willing to give knowledge to others just as equally as one is willing to take knowledge from others. Unfortunately for many Asians out here, their unwillingness to expose themselves to the influences of others from completely different cultural and ethnic backgrounds means that they also gave up the opportunities to give others more knowledge about Asia. The Asians, at the end, only passively hope for non-Asians to learn about Asia on their own, without creating the environment for proactively assisting non-Asians to understand the need to learn more about Asia and interact with Asians.

And because non-Asians cannot learn about Asia from Asians, they do not express interest toward anything about Asia. Asians, as a result, become increasingly isolated in multicultural situations, with little to talk about with others unless they discard any attempts to refer to Asia. Asians' natural tendency to be shy and of course, their imperfect command of English only makes them even more timid and unwilling to reach across ethnic lines to interact with people of other cultures.

The Asians of LSE, by their collective action, is expression opposition to cultural globalization within a already global environment. But they can still change. If another Asian initiate a conversation with non-Asians at a party about Asia, I will gladly back him/her up. It is a small action, but accumulations of such is necessary to create the cultural confidence and courage necessary for Asians to proudly be themselves in social atmospheres and international settings in general. It is the necessary path for Asia to escape tendency toward cultural isolationism and truly become part of a globalized world.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who the Heck Needs to Learn the British Accent?

Hanging out with the masses of different foreign students here in the LSE and in London, there is often a very clear trend when communicating in English. While people of every other nationality makes a concerted effort (or at least, do not mind) to pick up the standard British accent, the Americans not only makes a concerted effort to reject British English in every single way, they actually, at times, accentuate/highlight the peculiarities of American English so as to make their audience be perfectly clear that they are hearing from an American.

As the Americans get together in the local pub, and start lashing out about how "weird" is the English they hear from English people in a place called England, one has to think about just exactly what makes the Americans so confident and bold (to put it positively) or so arrogant and reckless (to put it negatively) to actually criticize a language at its very historical origin. It is as if the Americans are somehow perfectly convinced that the version of English that they imported from Britain centuries ago evolved to become better than the original language.

To understand the underlying reasoning, it is interesting to compare the situation of Americans in Britain to a very personal experience of being a mainland Chinese in Taiwan. In both cases are people moving to another country (lets set aside the political issue here for now), with somewhat different cultures, that then lend themselves to create unique biases and stereotypes. But the relative positions of the two are quite different. Taiwan, despite contention from Hong Kong, is now considered the pop culture center of the Chinese-speaking world, and would be the undisputed one in Mandarin-speaking areas as long as mainland media controls remain in place.

In other words, Taiwan's status in the Chinese-speaking world is not that different from that of the US in the English-speaking one: the center of all cultural things new and cool and worthy of emulation. Taiwanese pop music and dramas are ubiquitous in Chinese communities around the world, just like American ones are, well, present across the world. And as the culture spread, the unique forms of Taiwanese Mandarin, just like American English, began to be heard not just outside the country of origin.

Cultural attraction is often not felt, and they are often simply unstoppable. That was certainly the case when I traveled to Taiwan in the past summer. In that two-week roaming around the island, I picked up more Taiwanese Mandarin than I did British English for the past almost three months. Come of think of it, there really was not any sort of deliberate effort to learn the Taiwanese accent, just as there is no deliberate effort to not learn the British accent, the process simply happens, in spite of or despite the consciousness or the lack of consciousness to go about a certain way.

In essence, learning an accent is also purely an exercise of desired cultural immersion, unlike learning a new language, where practical purposes of doing business or conducting diplomatic affairs. And people only desire to immerse themselves in cultures that they feel are "cool," "hip," or whatever expression they would use to express superiority. And once they find that "upward cultural gradient," people cannot help but automatically pick up those accents they hear in music, in TV, and in movies.

So, you have people who openly speak about American English sounding like "pure ignorance." Let them continue their random criticisms. Even the most anti-American accent person found in Britain know that the Americans do not care that their accent is being secretly or openly bashed. The Americans, no matter what is said, still take massive, unwavering pride in their "ignorant" accent. With the massive soft power of America backing their pride, the Americans literally have no reasons to feel inadequate about their way of talking, and every concrete evidence to help rationalize why they refuse to adjust for the British accent.

As the world become globalized and movement of information and personnel become more easy and frequent, it is only a matter of time before every language become unified under one single universal accent. That "standard" accent would not be determined by some uncertain notion of historical origin, but by the simple ability for others to feel a certain affinity toward it. And there is nothing better for creating the affinity than cultural power. Well, too bad for British English and mainland Mandarin...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Connections? Connections! Connections...

We all concede that drunk people tend not to watch what they say when they are drunk (and surely they will not remember what was said a day later), but sometimes certain drunken comments can simply destroy a good "drunkenly euphoric" moment in, literally, an instant of time. The speaker tries to bolster his own credentials by sprinkling some, what he himself conceives to be, strips of pure gold on a night of gradually built up good impression over hours of genuinely friendly conversations, only to destroy that image by, well, trying a little bit too hard.

Few comments can galvanize a group of young professionals and grad students to resort to pure hatred and the most vulgar profanities being used in their minds as talks of the "future." Whoever that touches the topics of what we are going to do after graduation and/or few years of entry-level work better keep the conversation focused on the general, non-personal, humble variety...or the result is a walk straight into a dense mental minefield where touching off an explosion among the audience is only a matter of time.

And there is not a more perfect example of such instant explosion than a comment spoken last night in a little pub at two o'clock in the morning. The conversation, naturally enough for a bunch of foreign students in a UK devoid of post-grad work visa, ended up on the issue of how to stick around in Britain after the inevitable expiry of our student visas. As we all express our frustrations, one American pops in and straight up blurts out, "I KNOW I will get a visa to stay, because I got family connection with the heads of all the major companies."

A moment of dreadful silence...we all standing there, thinking, "wait, what, did he just say that?! And, eh, why did he just say that? Is that suppose to impress the girls or something?" Well, maybe if he was in some random bar with a random group of juvenile teenagers, that comment could have sent his stock through the roof, but he does realize that he is talking to a bunch of LSE people, i.e. some of most independent-minded and absolutely self-reliant people one would ever meet in the world?

Any conversation after that inflammatory comment was thrown on the table, understandably, cannot possibly persist without some intense anger barely suppressed through the communal effort to maintain some sort of air of outward friendliness. For "queasy" people like myself, staying until witnessing the bitter end of that effort was just a bit too much. "Not digging the conversation," some of us had to call a night at that moment, leaving the host and some others to deal with a situation more cumbersome than taking drunk people back to their respective houses.

But, lets take a step back from an equally juvenile streak of profanity-filled curses that is bound to be the first reaction as we left the scene of the crime. After all, what motivates our anger is as much our hard-to-admit inferiority complex as the sheer inappropriateness of the comment about connections. As much as we believe ourselves to be independent, we do all need some practical help when it comes to fulfilling our dreams, whether they be the short-term ones about making ends meet, or long-term ones about satisfying our personal ideals of "saving/changing the world".

We honestly are all frustrated by a system where 95% of the jobs in the world are not even advertised and perhaps half the advertised jobs already have "competent" candidates pre-selected through some secondary source of recruitment. Beneath all the f-words and the a-words, we do feel envy, a certain degree of jealousy that tells us that solid networking, not some hard-to-define "skills/expertise" stipulated in our one-page resumes, is the element that lead to jobs for high-level pay or for genuine professional interest.

So, ultimately, we all have to secretly concede to the guy with the connections. Sure, he made some enemies in an instant, but he was perhaps the only one in the night who was drunk enough to let copious amounts of alcohol lead to the dirty, dark truth that no one else was willing to bring up. For that, and for the amazing connections he proclaim to have in the UK (lets hope that part was true, and not some alcohol-induced lie), he does have my respects, and I am sure that other unwitting members of his audience, when they wake up in the morning from drunken anger, would agree with me to some extent...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Going Out" for Students: Mentally Compulsory?

Just another of the grind here in the LSE Library, on the gigantic working table with six strangers coincidentally sitting quietly, each intently focused on his or her little section of the table in front of them. Each buries his or her face in the massive pile of academic books, journals, and/or a notebook computer opened to some online journal article. Each person invariably takes out a notebook, frantically jotting down lines after lines of neat notes as they flip through pages or scroll through screens...

But they all do zone off, very inconspicuously. Their eyes are still on the books, journals, computer screens, but their minds are obviously somewhere else. Their eyes no longer keep moves along with the endless mesh-mash of words and sentences. Its like staring out of the window or the wall back in the classrooms of high school, only we here at the library table, perhaps because of the six others (plus however many at the adjacent tables) watching over the each of us constantly (so we tell ourselves), refuse to secretly embarrass ourselves by openly admitting loss of concentration.

It is these times that I envy the guy sitting at the corner, near the windows. He pulls open his laptop, and the eyes start moving more wildly than needed for reading an academic paper, and his typing becomes inconsistent short spurts, dubious for essay writing (barring the most creative and "brilliant" writers). Mundane entertainments of Facebook and email takes over, and the guy suddenly transports himself to a happier private space, much to the quiet dismay of the others, who can either continue the pattern of self-distraction or painfully ignore the signal by trying to toil in academic work even harder.

Yet, even as the quiet battle of concentration and embarrassment carries on at the six-person table in the Library, sometimes I feel that the six of us already established a Sixth Sense mental connection od some sort the moment we all sat down. The boredom and the annoyance with ending work are by all means communal, mutually felt, and understand. We all know we want to be somewhere else, but somehow manages (once in a while) fight back the temptations of doing something else to be here, at the studying table.

But the distractions just won't go away. The guy with the laptop at the corner unwittingly send off a smirk seen by all at the table. He found something, maybe a pub crawl, a party, a gathering of some sort, disguised as academic but offering free drinks. Split second of jealousy and the rest of us go back to our notebooks, scribbling harder and faster than before. "We study hard and so should you," we try to say to the guy with the smirk...but then, everything goes back to normal. All six of us comes to a physical stop, our collective minds wondering what could be beyond the invisible confines of the table.

Half the time we get invites from some colleagues to do something, whether it be lunch, dinner, coffee, a movie, a drink, a day trip, or even something as ridiculous as shopping or a visit to an amusement park, there are hints of desperation in the invite. "I just want to be somewhere, anywhere other than the library, studying at some table with a bunch of strangers for hours everyday!" they seem to say. The destination or the activity no longer seemed to matter. Any excuse was good enough to escape the school.

Funny how I never felt so strongly about being stuck in the library back in undergrad years (even though I perhaps done much more of that then than now). Part of it may be the fact that we are all in a city as exciting as London. Or maybe LSE has never really bothered to instill a sense of school pride in her students than places like Yale tried to do with endless ideological brainwashing. Or I suppose alcohol was not that big of a factor as an American undergrad. Either way, the feeling of somehow being a "caged animal" at the LSE Library simply persist and refuse to go away...

"I am going out tonight, because I just finished a big assignment and don't have anything else due for another two weeks!" Every time I hear such a statement, I cannot help but consider it some sort of bragging coupled with unscrewing of some invisible pressure valve within the statement-maker. Well, here I am, sitting at the table and just done with a big assignment due in two weeks. Maybe I too need a mini-celebration of some sort. A blog post, on the desperate vanity of "going out," is good enough "going out" for me to release my pressure valve...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Ambiguous "Work"-"Life" Balance of Grad Students

People often say grad school is the scion of "flexibility," an almost sacred place where people can genuinely pursue academic interests of their fancy, at their own pace, in a sea of endless resources. It is sheer independence, on one hand reflected in the I-don't-give-a-damn-what-you-do-as-long-as-you-pay-your-fees attitude held by the school administration, and on the other hand illustrated by just how much leeway the students are given to "pursue their own studies" as long as assignments are turned in at the proper deadlines.

...Or perhaps, not even. While crazy weekend all-night dance parties seems to become more and more far-fetched for the "mature" (i.e. older and less energetic) grad students, in their place came literally any excuse to have an alcoholic gathering under any occasion. Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday became Friday and Saturday nights, and stepping into the local pub at any moment in time no longer brings any sort of shame or "wise" second thought...and so, the assignments are the ones being pushed back, with fierce last-minute type-ups occurring literally minutes before the due date comes to an end.

And we (the school administration included) are thought that procrastination was the realm of the high school students and perhaps some lazy undergrads. Quite a major portion of these grad students did have real full-time jobs at some point, being held accountable for completing far more difficult and complex projects with stricter deadlines than submitting 2000-word "research" essays to professors too busy with their own research projects to actually keep track of when the essays are actually submitted.

Obviously, being out of a full-time job, for many, means that they are also out of the rigid regimen associated with those full-time jobs. While everyone does agree that being in a place like LSE is indeed a financial investment despite tendency toward mass production, at the same time even the grad students, joining the ranks of the carefree exchange students, are simply rejoicing, maybe a bit too often, just how much "life" and freedom they got back by quitting their jobs and going back to school.

In the end, somehow "life" itself became "work," while actual schoolwork, whether it be reading or writing, simply became more and more of a nuisance that one has to put up with in order to continue enjoying the high "life" in the great city of London. In simply too many occasions, we have all been witness to another masters or PhD student with a bottle of beer (or something much stronger) commenting on just how little they worry about their papers considering how much of the school year(s) they still have left.

Having fun certainly do seem to slow down time in that particular manner. Everyone seems to reminisce about some "dude, that was sick" kind of party he or she attended, bragging and telling stories of someone's excessive drunkenness, only at the end to realize that the party actually happened, literally, one or two days ago. Give those storytellers a year in London, and they can definitely publish a few thick volumes that compile the collection of tales in "the Hard-living Grad Student's Guide to London."

And the fact is, there are just too many instances when the "life" of partying and having fun is not at all separate from the "work" of a grad student, often in a, well, quite nerd-like way. Tipsiness so often lead to massive debates about merits of free trade and immigration, with quotes flying in from current affairs and theoretical works supposedly read for seminars. And not a few of these pub debates are hosted by none other than the professors themselves getting a few pints at the end of their long, tiring days of dealing with half-serious students.

The blending together of "life" and "work," all in all, maybe the ultimate expression of what it means to be an academic, at the not socially compulsory grad school level. Even as many states the purpose of doing grad school is to buy time for finding that job, the fact that they are still willing to pay massively for being here means they do enjoy this grad school lifestyle. Otherwise they could have just cheaply stayed home and continued their job search while getting fed and clothed by parents. And with enjoyment, it should be no surprise that work, in many ways, become synonymous with life.