On a completely unrelated subject…

I went sky diving last week. This is huge. You don’t understand how terrified I am of heights. Those ridiculous videos popping up lately of people climbing skyscrapers in Shanghai make me want to throw up. I don’t even like walking on bridges. I’d had it on my “40 Before 40” list, but not really in all seriousness. I kind of thought maybe I’d come up with something better and replace it, but things don’t always work out how we think.

This all came about when I suggested to my husband that we do something “exciting” for our anniversary.  I should have been more explicit because what I meant was a trip to Peru or a long weekend in New York City. Instead he booked us two tandem jumps in Colorado. I freaked out and then he did this coddling thing where he tells me “you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, I’m sorry…I wasn’t trying to make you do something you didn’t want to.” I hate being coddled or treated like a baby (I’m sure he knew what he was doing), so naturally I had to go through with it.

I put it out of my mind until we were actually suiting up at the dive center. I thought there’d be some formalities or a class or something, but no. This place was very chill and the only instructions we received were brief as we were getting dressed and waiting for the truck to bring us to the plane. I was sure I would screw it up and send myself and my jump master plummeting to our deaths. However, it turns out that he’s a lot more competent than that and we landed safely. It wasn’t even that horrifying except that I was the last one out of the plane and as he shoved me up to the door, the plane started to turn so we had to sit there for about a minute while the plane completed it’s turn and leveled out. During this time, I had the unnecessary chance to stare out the door at the ground for way too long while I waited for him to shove me out, which is exactly what he did. The free fall portion only lasted for about a minute and then he pulled the parachute. Free fall was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, but we were so far up that it didn’t seem like the ground was rushing at us. It was just surreal. After the parachute was out and the wind wasn’t so loud,  it was so peaceful and beautiful, just floating to the ground. I was actually kind of disappointed when it was over. I really hadn’t thought I would enjoy it as much as I did, much less want to do it again. My poor husband on the other hand, got really nauseous from the free fall and had a headache for the rest of the day. If I go again, I’ll have to find someone else to accompany me.

It did occur to me while we were drifting down that I would never go sky diving in China. Primarily for two reasons. The first is safety. I wouldn’t trust that safety would be the primary concern or that the jump masters would necessarily be well trained for any and all emergencies. Or that the pilot wouldn’t swing back around and hit us. The second reason is because of how tightly controlled their air space is by the military. The PLAAF might catch wind that a foreigner was sky diving and they’d think I was a spy trying to get into some facility. They’d probably send a fighter escort to make sure I landed somewhere safe, but they’d probably hit me too. Basically, I don’t see myself coming out of that experience alive. Besides, how much fun would sky diving be in all that smog anyway? I doubt that sky diving would be super popular in China.

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I got naked with Russian ladies

The best thing about graduate school is having spring break again.  I bet the title of this blog makes it sound like my spring break was pretty crazy, huh?  I’ll explain later.  This year I met up with my husband in Moscow and we spent a few days there before heading to Novgorod and St. Petersburg.  We had a fantastic time and saw Red Square, The Hermitage, a Soviet Video Game Museum, went to the Ballet, stayed at a cat lady’s Soviet Union era apartment, and ate a lot of good food.

This is going to sound stupid, but part of my motivation for going there was to find out if there is any basis for Chinese people constantly thinking I’m Russian.  In my experience, most Russian women in the Chinese cities I’ve lived in so far are prostitutes.  When Chinese person tells me I look Russian, I can’t help but wonder if that means I look like a prostitute. As it turns out, the Chinese are on to something.  Upon landing in Moscow, an airport employee who was addressing everyone else in English, turns to me and starts speaking Russian.  I responded with “Excuse me, I don’t understand.” She pointed me towards a line to get in to go through customs.  I get closer and see that it was the line for Russian Nationals.  I went up to the counter anyway and was berated by the customs agent for being in the wrong line.  I suppose that if Russian people also think I look Russian, then I have no reason to worry about the Chinese thinking that too.  A good portion of the Russian women I saw were all absolutely stunning (something in the water?), so I can’t say I’m offended…but I am confused for sure.  If I had to guess the reason, I would say it’s probably my “bitchy resting face.”  One annoying thing about Americans is that we have this tendency to expect that everyone always be smiling even while doing the most mundane things.  If you don’t, you’re likely to hear idiotic comments like “Smile! It can’t be that bad!” I get this all the time and it’s super annoying.  It’s just my face, OK?!?!  I noticed that Russians don’t seem to have this expectation.  People sit on the subway, order food, read books, walk around all without smiling like idiots, unless they have a reason to.  I think my bitchy resting face causes me to blend in with them and not stand out as a smiley foreigner so much.  I like that and would move to Russia for that reason alone.

After landing at the airport and trying to leave it, the trouble began.  We had planned to take the subway to our hotel.  We managed to get on the aeroexpress from the airport to the subway station in town.  From there, we were supposed to switch to the subway, go two stops, switch to another line and get off two more stops later and walk about 500 meters.  It was supposed to go off without a hitch.  And then the Moscow subway system happened.  Or rather, our expectations of subway systems happened.  We had made the following assumptions: 1. There would be maps of the subway system.  2. These maps would include the English versions of the station names and not just Cyrillic.  3.  Stops where you can switch lines only have one name.  All of those assumptions proved wrong and it ended up taking us nearly 6 hours to finally get to our hotel and it cost us almost $60.  Clearly we did it wrong.  After this, we realized that we had no choice but to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and once we did, our lives got a lot easier because we quickly also realized that trying to ask directions got us no where as it would seem that only about 3 people in Moscow speak English.  I never would have thought that a short trip somewhere would require me to learn another alphabet.  However, this inspired me to start learning Russian this summer when I move back to the states.  I feel an affinity for Russians because of my bitchy resting face and because my Grandma was from Russia (she didn’t have bitchy resting face).

I liked Moscow quite a bit, especially Red Square, but St. Petersburg was amazing.  I had honestly expected Russian food to be gross.  There’s a lot of meat, which I don’t eat, but it turned out to also include a lot of vegetables, cheese, good coffee and loads of wine.  There was also a lot of vodka.  Some restaurants provide a free shot of vodka at the beginning of each meal and I did notice a big difference in quality, you can’t even smell the good vodka and it goes down so much smoother than most of the crap you find in the US. Russian people were also so much friendlier than I expected, given our history and the recent events and tensions over Crimea.  We got lost a lot and anytime we looked like we needed help, someone would take the initiative and try to help us without asking, even if they couldn’t speak English.  A few people went as far as bringing us where we were trying to go.  I was really impressed with how willing they were to help strangers.  I saw lots of instances of people helping each other with bags or strollers on the stairs in the subway and cars even slowed down when it was raining to keep from splashing pedestrians.

The best experience we had there was at the banya.  Banyas are Russian bath houses.  We went to one in St. Petersburg that was one of the last ones to be heated by a huge log fire rather than with gas or electricity.  First, you undress in the front area and then you go into the bathing area where you fill up a pan with water and wash off.  Then you go into the sauna and sweat it out while hitting yourself with birch branches.  I only figured all of this out after all of the Russian ladies at the banya banded together to help me.  We had shown up without towels or soap or anything because it wasn’t originally part of the plan, it just sort of happened.  After the front desk lady realized that, she scrounged up some towels for us.  Then, when I went to the bathing section, I had no idea what to do and some Russian ladies came over and showed me what to do and shared their soaps and shampoos with me.  Then I went in the sauna with the branches, but I was supposed to soak them first in hot water and I hadn’t done that.  Another lady saw that and she brought me back out, got me a pan full of boiling water and put the branches in.  She swished them around a bit and then led me back into the sauna.  She handed the branches back to me and I began my attempt at imitating the Russian ladies in the sauna and slapping myself with the branches.  Everyone laughed at me for doing it wrong and then another lady took the branches out of my hand, laid my towel out on a bench and made me lay down.  She then proceeded to smack the shit out of me with the branches.  I hadn’t been doing it hard enough for their liking.  Or maybe it was just an excuse to beat up an American.  At this point, I had to leave.  The sauna was incredibly hot and I started to get light headed.  A lady saw me go pale and led me out and put me in the cold shower.  She then sat me down on a bench and got me some water to drink.  I felt better soon enough and it was time to head off to the Ballet.  Their willingness to help me understand that bit of Russian culture instead of just going about their own business was really touching.  I don’t often come across foreigners where I live in America, but kindness like that won’t be forgotten and I’ll be sure to pass it on when I have the chance.

Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture 延边朝鲜族自治州

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A North Korean village viewed from the Chinese side of the border

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A North Korean railway station viewed from Chinese side of the border. Kim Il Sung’s portrait is visible.

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The fence constructed on the Chinese side to keep North Koreans out of China

 

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s NE Jilin province in order to do thesis research.  I had never been do the NE before and had a great time there.  One of the people I interviewed was super cool and offered to drive me and my friend to see the actual border.  There were portions of the fence that had been beaten down or had stretched out sections of fence with foot paths leading up and away.  It was both creepy and surreal to imagine the people who had made those footpaths and what their stories might have been.  I learned a lot and not only about my thesis topic.

1. Korean-Chinese have managed to keep their culture intact:

I have visted a lot of so-called autonomous regions in China – Tibetan autonomous regions, Uyghur autonomous regions, Dai autonomous regions, etc, but none of them have had their culture as well preserved as the Koreans in Yanbian.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that in many of those cases (cough, Uyghurs, cough), there have actually been measures taken to suppress their cultures, their language, religion, etc.  Yanbian, specifically Yanji city was almost like being in South Korea.  There were Korean language radio stations and TV channels, schools that taught in Korean, all the signs were in Korean and there were a crap ton of Catholic churches!  Anyone who has been to both Korea and China has probably noticed that Koreans don’t tend to do things like spit everywhere, honk car horns for no reason, or shout into cell phones in public places.  I hold these behaviors in low regard as they are three of the things that annoy me more than almost anything in China (and non-stop construction noise).  Guess what?  Most people in Yanbian don’t do these things either!  It was such a nice break from China.

2. I had underestimated the level of ignorance on the issue of North Korean Refugees:

My reason for going to Yanbian was to do research on the issue of North Korean refugees in China, which is a pretty delicate issue during ordinary times, but with the recent release of the UN’s report criticizing NK for its human rights abuses AND dragging China into it, I wasn’t sure how successful this trip was going to be.  (The UN Report is heartbreaking, but I encourage everyone to read it because more people need to be aware of what’s going on in North Korea.)  I had a couple of contacts at Yanbian University who had agreed to let me interview them, but I needed to find more people to interview in order to make the information “significant.”  I had thought that no one would be willing to talk to me, which actually ended up not being the case.  However, the few women that I tried to talk to about it were completely ignorant, as were a large majority of Han people I tried to talk to.  Han people tend to regard it as a minorities issue, not a humanitarian issue, and therefore not their problem.  Women viewed it as politics and not their business…or something like that.  However, the Korean-Chinese people were on the ball for the most part and extremely knowledgeable not only about the refugee situation, but also about North Korean politics and history.  They credited this to being able to understand South Korean news broadcasts, which probably played a large role in their understanding of China’s international law violations in this matter.  I still found it shocking that so many people would be so ignorant about what was going on just a few miles away – as in, they had no idea about the despotic nature of the North Korean government and the fact that so many people are starving there.  When asked what he thought about North Koreans, one man even said “The women are beautiful, they’re so slender!” But when asked if he knew why they were so thin he said “I don’t know, I guess they exercise a lot.”  *GROAN*

3. Han men are creepy on Weixin:

So way back when I first started using Weixin (Wechat), I had this problem with dudes using the “people nearby” function and then sending me the creepiest messages ever, trying to get me to come to their houses or straight up asking if I would sleep with them.  I guess it’s because like in real life, I am a white girl in my profile pic and as everyone knows, white women are lose (thanks, Hollywood).  Eventually, I added the phrase “I’m already married and not looking for anyone else, thanks” to my profile and the weird invites slowed down, but were still too frequent.  Then I added “I’m already 30, married and not looking for anyone else, thanks.”  I didn’t get a single weird invite after that until I went to Yanbian.  I went to Yanbian with a female Chinese friend of mine and she had the idea to use Weixin to find more people to interview, which when she did it, it worked out great.  She got friend requests from some really great, normal, nice local men who ended up being incredibly helpful and we even hung out with them after the interviews were over.  Me, on the other hand, went back to getting messages from Creepy McCreepertons, who incidentally, were all Han.

4. Missionaries suck:

We went to Yanbian Technical University one day to try and find some people to interview. What I found instead were some douchey missionaries.  First, I want to say that I don’t have a problem with religion – I was raised Christian and still have those beliefs, even if I’m not the most pious person.  I don’t even have a problem with missionaries, but the majority of missionaries I’ve met in China have all been carbon copies of the two assholes I met in Yanbian.  My problem with missionaries in China is that they all have this “I’m sacrificing myself to come to this awful place in order to save the poor, dumb, ignorant Chinese who don’t know any better!”  They look down on China, on Chinese culture, on Chinese food, and they literally think that Chinese people are all stupid.  Meanwhile, most of them, but specifically these two, had been in China for over 10 years and couldn’t speak a word of Chinese.  So…you’re telling me that you think you’re going to come here, try to relate to people on a level that would allow you to discuss something as personal as religion, but can’t even be bothered to do it in the local language?  Fantastic, clearly you’ve got this under control.

I made the mistake of being too honest with them about what I was at the university for and they freaked out about how dumb I was for trying to talk to people about such a sensitive issue and when I told them that I hadn’t had much trouble getting people to open up so far, they couldn’t believe it and refused to allow me to interact with anyone else.  They were sneaky about it though.  I realized about halfway through lunch that the reason they invited us to have lunch with them (I didn’t want to, but they made it sound as if they knew someone useful I could interview) was simply because they wanted to keep an eye on us and make sure we left without talking to anyone, but didn’t want to miss lunch to do it.  The female one was bat shit crazy, I’m pretty sure.  She had crazy eyes and kept saying things like “We have people to protect!” or “We know too much!  We don’t even go on the internet because we know we’re being watched!”  First of all, anyone who actually knows anything sensitive, but important also knows to keep their mouths shut and act like they don’t.  Second of all, most foreigners are watched somewhat closely in China, but only the ones doing something illegal, like oh say…BEING MISSIONARIES really have anything to worry about.  Pretty sure the Bible says in there somewhere to “obey the laws of the land” and I don’t recall there being a caveat of “unless you don’t like them,” so sorry missionaries, you may not like the law, but don’t get butt hurt about it when you get busted for breaking them.  I couldn’t wait to get away from those two nut jobs.

Long story short, I had a great time in Yanbian and got a lot of really useful information for my thesis.  The food was amazing and they have makkalli and Korean style bathhouses.  Yanji city is highly livable except for the fact that I would be too afraid to make friends with any other foreigners there because a lot of them in Yanbian are missionaries.  Christianity and Catholicism already have pretty firm footing there, so of course missionaries like that are going to go where their job is the easiest.

I finally made it to Bhutan!

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The view outside of one of our hotels

The view outside of one of our hotels

I’ve been trying to get to Bhutan for YEARS. Until quite recently, I had a job that was just ruining all of my plans all of the time. Now that I’m in grad school and I get lots of vacations, I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of that and the fact that I’m located relatively near a lot of the places I want to visit. Why did I want to go to Bhutan? Probably anyone reading this blog wouldn’t even ask that because it seems obvious to people like us. Why wouldn’t I want to go to Bhutan is the more difficult question.

From the time I first heard about the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” I knew I had to go check it out myself. In fact, that was one of the first things I asked our guide about. FYI, when you go to Bhutan, unless you have a personal letter of invitation from a Bhutanese citizen, you have to go with a tour group. We went with Norbu Bhutan, which was really quite good, aside from some communication problems with the guys at their main office in Delhi. Anyway, I asked our guide about GNH and he kind of scoffed at me and said, “People are the same everywhere, everyone wants more than they have. Now that Bhutan is opening up and everyone is seeing all of the ipads, laptops, iphones, etc that the tourists have, people are becoming less than content. I don’t believe in GNH anymore.” Ok, so maybe it was a little blunt, but I am a blunt person and therefore, I appreciate bluntness, aka, honesty from other people. I wasn’t disappointed to hear that (don’t ask if you don’t want to know, amirite?), but after hearing him say that, I expected people to seem more depressed or something…my personal impression based on the 8 days that I was there was that Bhutanese people do seem happier than most Chinese or Americans I know. They genuinely did seem to take more joy from the simple things and definitely did not get as upset about things going wrong or being difficult.

Even though we went in November, it was a lot warmer than I thought it would be, it was beautiful in fact. The air was so nice and clean (especially compared to China!) and the Bhutanese take a lot of pride in creating products locally – especially food! Most of the food we ate was not only locally sourced, but organic. Also, they eat cheese…a lot of cheese. My favorite dish was chili cheese, which is exactly what it sounds like, spicy ass chilies covered in un-processed, organic goat cheese. Bhutan is a VERY Buddhist country, so most of the food is vegetarian, which meant a lot less hassle for me. I would go back for chili cheese alone.

Of course we saw all the big tourist sites, Tiger’s Nest and Punakha Dzong (beautiful architecture – all buildings in Bhutan must be built in the traditional style). Our guide and driver took us to a few places they don’t normally take tourists. The reason they don’t normally take them to these places is because most tourists in Bhutan are in their 60s or older, so they aren’t really interested in the same things we are. They took us to a Bhutanese style bar and to try out archery. The bar was strange…it was located in a basement (wut), there was a stage at the front and customers could pay money to make their favorite dancers go on the stage and dance for everyone.  You’re probably thinking the same thing I was thinking when our guide was explaining this to us, but no, this is not a strip club. The dancers are all fully clothed and include men and women who do mostly traditional Bhutanese dances. I was creeped out at first, but after I realized how innocent the whole thing really was, I really enjoyed seeing Bhutanese bar culture. I didn’t see one creepy dude trying to get at any girls, no skanks bumming free drinks, no puke in the bathrooms, and no one making out, so yeah, a lot different from the US.

The archery was a lot of fun too. We were all terrible at it, even our guide and driver sucked. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and we got a chance to watch some pros practicing. They would set up two targets about a football field length apart (I think?) and teams at either end would take turns shooting. The team that wasn’t shooting would crowd around the target and do distracting dances to try and make the other team miss. First of all, that was hilarious to watch, but secondly you know those guys are good if the opposite team is willing to crowd in around that target with arrows flying at them.

We really did have a wonderful time. I wish it were easier to visit (expensive, difficult visa process, limited flights), but I can see why the Bhutanese government enforces those policies. The King is very strict about trying to maintain the purity of the Bhutanese culture and often cites Nepal as a negative example of what can happen if a country opens it’s doors to any and all tourists. Drugs, prostitution, crime, watering down of Buddhist principles have all been negative side effects of increased tourism in a lot of countries. Bhutanese young people are like young people everywhere – they want to get out and see the world and do exciting things and it seemed like there at least a small sense that the protection of the culture was actually holding the country back and keeping people poor. It would be interesting to go back again in a few years and see what kind of impact globalization has had. The fact that the Bhutanese government sees keeping foreigners out as a way of protecting their culture and environment really reinforces the need for responsible and conscientious tourism. Anyway, I give Bhutan a 10 out of 10! I strongly recommend a trip there. It really isn’t as expensive as it seems. I think the fee per day is $250, but that includes the visa, hotels, food, transportation, guide, and driver. It really isn’t much more than a lot of people would spend anyway. We went during the off season and got a small discount, about $220/day. The only thing that was really ridiculous was the cost of the Druk Air flight from Bangkok into Paro, but Druk Air won’t have a monopoly on flights for much longer as they are allowing other airlines to begin operating out of Paro International Airport.

PS I almost died hiking up to the Tiger’s Nest, so I sincerely respect any old person that makes that climb, but to set the record straight, we hiked up PAST the Tiger’s Nest to camp at the top of a freakin mountain and then climbed DOWN to it. There were old people doing that too, so I still felt like a wus. We did hike it faster than them, but still.

South Korea isn’t Weird

Most people in China have this week off in honor of National Day, the founding of the PRC on Oct 1, 1949.  Many people choose to travel within China during this week, but anyone with common sense does what I did – flee the country.  Trying to travel in China during mass holidays is something that I find to be more and more intolerable the older I get.  I just can’t bring myself to do it anymore.  As such, I booked a ticket to Seoul, Korea for the week with the dual purpose of visiting my little sister and doing some research for my thesis.

Korea keeps catching me off guard.  I’ve been here several times before, but after being in China for so long and coming here and still being surrounded by Asian faces (racist, I know), I still can’t get used to the fact that the people are so different.  I took the subway into Seoul for a meeting the other day and it was a long trip, about 2.5 hours each way.  Not one weird thing happened to me the entire time.  I got on the subway and read quietly without being disturbed by anyone wanting to practice their Engrish, no one relieved themselves on the train, no weirdos came to stand next to me to read over my shoulder or touch me, no one stared at me, just basically everyone acted normal.  Not a single person was weird about the fact that I’m not from around here.  For anyone who hasn’t spent a significant amount of time in China, the fact that I’m even writing this probably doesn’t make any sense.  Let’s put it into perspective.  The day before I left China to fly here, I was approached by 5 random people who wanted to practice Engrish with me, a guy sat next to me on the subway and stared intently right at my face for his entire ride, a woman followed me around a convenience store to see what I was buying, and a group of children, egged on by their parents laughed and pointed at the laowai just minding her business walking down the street.  That’s what I mean by “acting weird” about foreigners.  I don’t live in a small town and there are tons of foreigners here, so I’m really not sure why we’re not over the thrill of white people yet.  Another thing about Korea, when I go into a restaurant with my sister they don’t try to ask you in English whether or not you’re ok with chopsticks.  They always try Korean first and when that fails, they switch to English.  No one has even tried to give us forks instead of chopsticks.  The attitude seems to be “Well, you’re in Korea, so maybe you know some Korean and have learned to use chopsticks” instead of in China where the attitude most of the time is “there is no way a white person knows our language or can use chopsticks because white people don’t understand China!”   Everywhere that we’ve visited, people have always approached us with an open mind about how the communication was going to happen.  In China, when you go into a store or something, all of the employees do this thing where they look around in a panic thinking “oh shit, I don’t remember any English!” and sometimes they ignore you altogether because there is just no way that communication is going to happen.  I like how no matter what, Korean people will engage you and do their best to understand and help answer your questions.  I got confused about the subway the other day when I was trying to get back from Seoul and I would stop random people to try and ask and usually I could make myself understood, but some people would pull out their phones, open some translating app and give it to me to type in what I was trying to say.  They would read the translation and then type in their answer and give it to me to read the English.  I was honestly quite shocked that anyone would actually take the time to do that.  Some people would even walk me to where I was supposed to be (I got lost a lot) and then go on their way.  In China, it’s easier for me to ask directions since I can speak Chinese, but even given that, sometimes when I approach a person, before I can even say anything, they wave me off and walk away while saying “I don’t speak English!”

I’ve really enjoyed every trip I’ve made to Korea, I love the food, the culture, there’s so much to do and see here, but I think my favorite thing about Korea is the people.  It’s not entirely fair to compare China and Korea perhaps, but it’s hard not to.  I live in China and deal with a lot of weirdness from the people every single day and then I come here and it’s like I’m just another person in the crowd.  If I had to guess, the difference comes from the fact that foreigners, specifically Americans have had a pretty strong presence in Korea since the early 1950s.  Old people then maybe would have been weird about it, but their kids and grandchildren all grew up with foreigners hanging around as the norm.  Our presence is seen virtually everywhere with all of the military bases.  I’ve visited the Korean country side and even there, no one was weird about it (I also think that it’s considered rude to stare in Korean culture, unlike in China).  Whereas in China, foreigners were mostly kicked out of the country during the Qing Dynasty and we didn’t start making a solid appearance again until the early 80s when China opened up again.  So that means that the first generation to really grow up with foreigners around are the people aged about 30 and under, everyone else remembers a time when we weren’t allowed into the country and when there was actually propaganda against the West, especially the US. You could even argue that there wasn’t a widespread presence of foreigners (outside of large cities like Beijing and Shanghai) until the 90s.  If Korea is any indication, then we should expect the Chinese to stop being weirded out by us in about 50 years.  I’d like to see the day when that happens!

 

Thamestown – a Chinese Ghost Town

Earlier this week I completed one of the things on my “40 Before 40” list.  I’ve read loads of articles about China’s Ghost Towns, which are housing developments typically created for the super rich that include luxury housing, retail space and parks.  They’re also usually built in very inconvenient locations, way on the outskirts of a city and no where near people’s jobs.  I went to Thamestown on the edge of Shanghai with some friends and we spent almost an hour on the subway before we got there and still had to take a 15 minute taxi ride from the subway station, so it’s definitely not a desirable location by Chinese standards.  The village was modeled after a British city and is full of cliches and British architecture with Chinese characteristics.  It also wasn’t exactly what I would call a ghost town.  There were tons of people there.  Granted, none of them lived there, but it wasn’t even close to empty.  Most of the people were there to take wedding pictures or to rent bicycles and ride around enjoying the scenery.  Most of the stores were empty.  There were a few cafes that looked like they were in business, but a majority of the businesses were wedding photography studios.  Most of the landscaping hadn’t been maintained well, there were squaters in some of the shops and even though they wouldn’t let us into the residential area, we could tell that every visible home was empty.  The shutters were falling off, the paint was peeling, yards were overgrown, etc.  Thamestown employs a small army of migrant workers to walk around picking up after the tourists and they seemed to be the only ones who actually live there.

I didn’t know what to think about it.  Obviously, Thamestown is ridiculous.  It looked like a bunch of Chinese people who had seen “Mary Poppins” a few times too many got together and decided how Britain might look.  Then someone invested a crap ton of RMB into this project (probably the government) and now it’s just sitting there decaying and serving as a backdrop for photos.  Maybe the investment will pay off if Shanghai’s city center hurries up and expands enough to encompass Thamestown, but no one is maintaining the place in the meantime, so I suspect that the more likely outcome is that it will sit there for a few more years until the government decides to start it all over again.  They’ll tear down Thamestown and rebuild something just as unnecessary just so they can provide construction jobs for migrant workers and inflate their GDP.  A lot of people are becoming very wealthy from this constant cycle of build, tear down, build, but in the long run, it’s doing more harm than good.  Constant construction creates a lot of waste and demand for materials, as well as air and noise pollution. Since wealthy developers and the government (who claims to be trying to control the price of housing) are generally one and the same, I believe that this cycle also leads to increases in the cost of housing.  I hear there’s a fake Paris around here somewhere.  Maybe I need to check that out.

The inside of this church was weird.  I can't quite put my finger on why.  It was evident that it was never used for anything remotely churchy and the stained glass was fake.

The inside of this church was weird. I can’t quite put my finger on why. It was evident that it was never used for anything remotely churchy and the stained glass was fake.

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Harry Potter

Harry Potter

Princess Diana.  How else would you know it was supposed to be Britain?

Princess Diana. How else would you know it was supposed to be Britain?

The CCTV camera is unintentionally accurate.

The CCTV camera is unintentionally accurate.

This guy really tied it all together.

This guy really tied it all together.

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This outfit will be hard to explain to her future children.

This outfit will be hard to explain to her future children.

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North Korea – Best Korea!

I mentioned in my last post that I visited north Korea earlier this year and I thought maybe that would be interesting to some people.  I went in April for Kim Il Sung’s 101st birthday with a group of friends from school.  I had long wanted to visit nK, but because of restrictions associated with my previous job, I had been unable to.  Stepping off the Air Koryo flight in Pyongyang was surreal.  For days I had to keep reminding myself that I was finally there, seeing it for myself after reading about north Korea and studying it from afar for so long.  What I found there was mostly not surprising…the restrictions, the sense of only seeing what “they” wanted us to see, the poverty (it was visible, in spite of their best efforts), and the crazy number of statues and pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il.  What I found that was surprising, was the warmth of the people.  Until I stepped foot in the country, I only had the stories of defectors and the media from which to judge north Korea.  The impression I had gotten was of a cold, militaristic people with no independent thoughts and an undying love and devotion to the Kim regime.  While that is true to some extent, there is far more to the north Korean people than our media portrays.  On some level, logic would have told me this, but it was still something I needed to see in order to really believe.

The international airport in Pyongyang is small.  There wasn’t even a jetway, we just got off the plane and walked across the tarmac into customs where we were directed to wait in a line before having our visas checked.  Honestly, I was a little scared, it was all so weird (I had just spent the last 90 minutes on the flight from Beijing listening to military marches blaring through the speaker system) and I just didn’t know what to expect.  I thought maybe I’d be harassed or interrogated at customs and that I’d say something wrong and be locked up in a gulag.  The customs agent probably was used to this type of nervousness and surprised me by greeting me with a huge smile and saying in English “Welcome to Pyongyang!”  I was caught off guard and thought maybe this person was just trying to impress me with the friendliness of the north Korean people.  The next north Koreans I met were our wonderful guides (handlers?) Song Sim and Li (not their full names, but what they asked us to call them).  Both of them were so sweet and concerned for us…they worried that we couldn’t handle the food and reassured us many times that our safety would be assured, even if all hell broke loose.  The time at which we visited was during the peak of the tensions between north Korea and America.  We had a group of 7 and in total, there were only 10 Americans in the country at the time.  Clearly, we were either braver or dumber than most Americans.

Every where we went, we were greeted by north Koreans who seemed genuinely interested in learning about us and they asked questions about our country and our experience studying abroad in China.  I found them to be very open to engaging in conversation of any kind as long as you approached it correctly.  If you sound accusatory or tried to lecture a north Korean on why their way of thinking is wrong or why Communism is wrong, then they wouldn’t engage you.  On the other hand, if your attitude is one of understanding and trying to learn from them, then there isn’t anything they won’t discuss with you.  We asked our guides about everything including nukes, gays in north Korea, family, education systems, why they hate Americans, propaganda, poverty, the famine, the Kim family, censorship, defectors, etc etc.  We talked about everything and learned so much about the Korean point of view.  They were eager to see pictures we had brought from home and were curious to hear what we were listening to on our ipods.  One of my classmates played “Gangnam Style” for them and the reaction was pretty funny.  It was like watching your grandma hear rock and roll for the first time – pure disgust.  They loved Mariah Carey though.

Almost all of the conversations we had with north Koreans other than our guides had to be translated through them.  Our guides had told us that “most north Koreans” had learned English, but we found this to not be the case at all.  Or maybe they were afraid to speak to us independently.  I was surprised at how few north Koreans stared at us.  After being in China for so long and being stared at everywhere I go, it was a nice break, but I also was a little suspicious.  Song Sim told me that they didn’t stare because “north Koreans are used to foreigners,” but once we left Pyongyang, we were stared at by everyone!  We even had groups of small children follow us once.  I tried talking to them.  I said “hello!  How are you?”  and I actually got a response after repeating myself a few times.  One of the children said “Fine, sank you!” After that, the guide at the site we were visiting, angrily chased them away.  Maybe she thought they were bugging us, or maybe there was another reason for her exaggerated reaction.  It was hard to take things at face value there after reading so much negative information about the country.

We had bugged our guides constantly to explain the anti-American propaganda that was everywhere.  It was interesting, but disheartening too.  Song Sim taught us how to say “American aggressor” in Korean – “mi gook nom.”  After she taught that to us, I realized that whenever they were talking about us, that was what they called us!  I think they underestimated our ability to pick that one word out in conversation, but every time any of us heard it, we would shoot Song Sim or Li a look and they would grin at us and say “oh, sorry.”  I’m pretty sure that’s just what they call Americans there.

People often asked us how the food was there.  Knowing that most north Korean citizens are actually starving, I don’t think I can complain because we actually had food.  It wasn’t as varied and the flavors weren’t as strong as the food in South Korea, but that may be because they were trying to cater to what they assumed Americans would eat.  I suppose not all of us have a taste for kimchee.  They served us a lot of bread and we only had fruit once during the 8 days we were there.  I never saw a fresh vegetable, but I absolutely love kimchee, so it was fine.  Aside from the doodz incident mentioned in my previous post (which started in China, for the record), I didn’t have any problems with getting sick from it.  Oddly, I was the only one in our group who didn’t get sick at least once.  One guy got some pretty serious food poisoning, but no one else did and we ate the same things at every meal.

Song Sim was the older of the two guides, she’s 31 and is married with a child.  Li was much younger and had only be working as a tour guide for about a year I think, she is in her early 20s.  Both of them spoke amazing English and Li even spoke Chinese pretty well.  I had heard that north Korean guides had to work in pairs so that they can keep an eye on each other and the way they related to one another seemed to reinforce that.  Often times, if we asked a sensitive question that Li wasn’t sure how to answer, she would look at Song Sim and let her answer instead.  Based on their body language, sometimes it seemed as if Song Sim was giving Li directions or maybe even correcting her.  Both of them had wonderful personalities and Song Sim especially, enjoyed messing with us.  If someone was taking too long to get back to the bus, she would tell our driver, Mr. Kim to shut the doors and drive away.  If we were in America, this would just be an annoying little prank, but in north Korea, it takes on a slightly more sinister meaning as the people being left behind quickly realize what it might mean to be abandoned in north Korea.  Needless to say, they got us every time.  Song Sim taught one of the guys in our group how to say “I love you” in Korean and then opened the window in the bus and directed him to yell it at all of the traffic girls we drove past in Pyongyang.  The traffic girls are typically very disciplined, they don’t react to much.  To this point, the biggest reaction we’d received from them was a tight lipped smile and maybe a small wave if there were no cars.  After my friend began yelling “I love you!” at all of them, many of the traffic girls laughed and instinctively covered their mouths with their hands.  A few of them turned beet red.  It was adorable.  At most sites we visited, the local tour guides were women and the boys really enjoyed flirting with them.  Those ladies would melt like butter and seemed to really enjoy their time with us.  Song Sim and Li encouraged this behavior and I think I know why.  In spite of what they would say (aka the party line), referring to Americans as “mi gook nom” (American aggressors) and the such, I don’t think that they really believed that we were the enemy.  They more than likely don’t appreciate the American government, but they were definitely able to separate the individuals from the government.  I think they genuinely wanted people to like us and get to know us and see that there wasn’t anything to fear.  It’s a lot harder to hate a faceless enemy after you’ve met a few who treated you with respect.

I really enjoyed talking with Song Sim and Li.  I felt that if our situations had been different, we could have been good friends.  Leaving them was actually pretty hard.  I normally don’t get too attached to people, especially in such a short amount of time, but I still think about them often and wonder how they’re doing.   I plan to return for Kim Il Sung’s 105th birthday and hopefully sometime for the Mass Games.  I believe that visiting north Korea as it is right now allowed us to gain an understanding into how China was and how Chinese people lived during the 60s/70s, so I felt that this trip was an opportunity to gain some perspective on how that crazy period of Chinese history may have looked and felt to the people who experienced it.  I wish more Americans would visit north Korea.  We can’t judge individuals based on the acts of our governments and more interaction between individuals would help improve relations between America and north Korea.

Here is a list of some of the sites we visited during our time there:

Pyongyang: Arch of Triumph, Juche Tower, Pyongyang Orchestra, Circus, Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, Kim Il Sung Square, Kim Il Sung Stadium, bowling alley, the brewery, north Korean “Starbucks,” Chollima Statue,

We also visited the DMZ, Kaesong, Sariwon, Haeju, Sinchon (including the Museum of American War Crimes) and a number of sites within those cities.

If what our tour operator told us is still correct, only about 3000 Americans have visited north Korea since it opened up to American tourism.  I know I didn’t go into a ton of detail on the specifics of our trip, so I would be happy to answer any questions about it.

Li is in the foreground and Song Sim is in the background.

Li is in the foreground and Song Sim is in the background.

Curious children spying on us.

Curious children spying on us.