May 11, 2017

South Korea

Ironically, the first thing I noticed about Korea is the prevalence of Chinese.

One thing in particular. There are four languages used at the airport, and the prevalence with which they are used varies. Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese are used on most airport signs, as well as in the subway.

But on the bus from the airport, I saw a sign that said “Please buckle your seatbelt” in two languages: Korean and English. On the same bus, there were advertisements for duty-free goods at the airport, also in two languages: Korean and Chinese. The coupons in the seat pocket in front of me, also for duty-free goods, were printed in Korean and Chinese.

Modern Chinese tourists are infamous for rampant consumerism. Perhaps the best known narrative is found on the Champs-Elysees, where a line outside the Louis Vuitton store is generally dominated by mainland Chinese. So it isn’t necessarily surprising that advertisements in Seoul can be found in both Korean and Chinese.

Korean marketers have found their best source of income from the Chinese. They know that the best people to sell to are the newly rich mainland Chinese tourists that have piles of money to spend.

In Hong Kong, I make generally speak English when I am buying things, to avoid the bias against mainland Chinese shoppers. At the same time, if I do speak Chinese, some salespeople will make a bigger effort to sell me something, because they are certain that I will buy.

Traveling around Asia has revealed how the rapid accumulation of wealth in China has impacted the tourism industry in the rest of Asia.

March 26, 2017

Living cheap in the most expensive cities in the world

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s worldwide cost of living list just came out, and it turns out I like expensive cities. Singapore tops the list, and Hong Kong is second, while New York City rounds out the top ten, tying for ninth place.

For a student like me, the question of affordability is dependent on two things: food and housing. And from my experience, that puts New York at the top of the list. Nowhere in New York can you get a meal for 3 USD. Not even the grocery store.

I am drawing attention to the hawker centers of Singapore and the cooked food centers of Hong Kong. These places really draw me in. I love the local vibe, the fact that I don’t really know what’s on the menu (at least in Hong Kong, as my reading isn’t perfect), and the affordability of the food. I can get 5 meals with the same money I would spend on a New York meal.

People make fun of the fact that I am obsessed with cheap food. I like finding the jankiest places, the most hole-in-the-wall eateries. Not only are they cheap, but they’re also a bit of an adventure: In Vietnam or Thailand, I sometimes have no idea what I’m pointing at. The only concern is food poisoning (which isn’t quite an issue in the two most expensive cities in the world). Oh well, I’m training my stomach/immune system.

Chicken rice. Satay. Cha siu. Red bean and pineapple buns. Anything on rice. Egg waffles. Frankly, everything that I could ever want to eat can be found at these local places. I just need to know where to go, and how to order them.

The point is, not paying full time rent means that I can perceive both Hong Kong and Singapore as relatively cheap (at least if I want to live cheap). And really, what more can I ask for than good food?

March 15, 2017

A mishmash of thoughts about Vietnam

So I arrived in Vietnam today and was ushered in to the country with a strong flow of tourists through immigration. I was interested in three people in particular, who were talking in English for the length of the flight talking about America and their travels. They talked about the nuances between the rest of the world and their own country. How lucky I am, I thought, to be sharing a plane with these people. They got in line for the visa on arrival, and I went ahead to the immigration line (by the way, the visa on arrival is the better choice).

The first thing I notice when entering a new country is the prevalence of English. Is it the first or fifth language on the signs at the airport? Here, it’s the second. When it’s second, there’s some ambiguity: you still don’t know if every menu and every sign will have that language.

I get in the taxi, and it turns out that the airport is pretty far from the city. We drive for an hour in silence, while I peered outside to see Vietnamese suburbia. Reminds me a bit of China. I realize that I can relate some words from Vietnamese back to Mandarin pinyin: hang kong, for example, is related to airports in both languages. Vietnamese, it seems, is only one more step removed from Mandarin than Cantonese is.

Crossing the street in many of these countries is an adventure in itself: scooters, bikes, taxis, mopeds are all vying for a spot on the road. Add to that the constant thought of “which direction do I look?” and street crossing suddenly becomes a careful game of injury-dodging.

I think one of the most interesting things about Vietnam is the impact of socialism. I visited the Hoa Lo prison today, a “historical relic” that overemphasizes the goodness of the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese, they say, were brutally oppressed by the French colonialists before 1954. At the same time, American prisoners in the same prison were treated very well. The hyperbole of the signs creates a sort of caricature of propaganda that made the claims difficult to believe.

After the victory of the Viet Cong in early 1973, Vietnam was faced with the task of rebuilding itself. They needed to do this under the pressure of intense economic sanctions by the US and other Western nations. The socialist model needed to compromise if they wanted to grow economically. So in Hanoi, everywhere I turn, there’s an eccentric mix of socialism and capitalism. Luxury malls are placed next to fake North Face merchants. Uniform-clad guards with red stars on their hats guard the luxury malls, opening the door for visitors while looking very intimidating.