On Trump, “Elitism”, and “Living in a Bubble”

25 Nov

Donald Trump’s victory in the US election was an event that shattered our perceptions of political reality. In addition, it has led to a lot of unfriending on facebook, debates about how progressives should move forward, and a lot of articles about the concept of “living in a bubble”. I wrote this post about how “cosmopolitan” liberals (including myself many times in the past) can often hypocritically criticize those who “live in a bubble”, and how we must try to move forward.

Some time ago, I traveled in Southeast Asia, and one of the places I went was Chiang Rai, Thailand. While in Chiang Rai, I went on a tour to some of the hill-tribe villages that was run by a member of the community who had grown up in one of the villages. This man was great at what he did, and he posts many pictures from his farming life on facebook. He spends a good amount of time in the year farming, and another time in the year running tours so he can make money from an exchange with tourists, and use the money to benefit his community. He was always curious to get to know his customers, and the countries they were from. Because he was poor, he had never been outside of Northern Thailand. He had spent most of his life surrounded by people who lived like him and looked like him. By any standard of any so-called cosmopolitan liberal, he would have been seen as “living in a bubble”. Even so, tourists were curious about his life. They loved learning about his culture and seeing how he lived, and knew he made a good living from this.

Now, imagine that this man is a white man who lives in a farmland area in Indiana, and has never been outside of Indiana. He makes a living farming, and sells corn-maze tickets at a county fair some times in the year to make money. He exchanges friendly chit-chat with his customers, some of whom are “cosmopolitan elitists” from Chicago, but for the most part, unlike the man from Northern Thailand, his customers are people who live like him and look like him. He knows and resents that the big city types don’t want to connect with people in rural Northern Indiana. That part of America, they say, is full of backwards, racist Trump supporters who want to go back to the 1950s and hate black people. They want to travel to someplace more “exotic”, and “get out of their bubble!” Never mind that hill tribes in Thailand can also have some traditions that are backwards by western liberal standards! It’s okay to learn from these “noble savages”, they are more “exotic” and “different”.

Meanwhile, at a tech startup in Boston, a savvy young programmer who had a 3-week trip to Thailand shares photos of his tour run by the man in Northern Thailand. The same day, he buries his mind in disbelief that the same country running his startup could possibly elect someone like Donald Trump for president, and then goes on to sneer at those backwards farm people who live in “rural America”.

This brings me to my point. Many wealthy world travelers who criticize people for “living in a bubble” are perfectly happy living in a bubble themselves, as well as learning from people abroad whose lives, if in America, would be seen as leading them to “living in a bubble”.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go abroad and learn about cultures in places like Thailand. But my point is that we can’t apply double standards. I’m also not saying that marginalized people who feel unsafe after Trump’s victory should go backpacking in Northern Indiana. I’m aiming this at the coastal class of people who are white, liberal, and can afford to visit lots of places. Too often, world-travelers treat their “going out of their bubble” as if it is a contest, to see who can be most different from those “redneck” folks in rural Indiana. We cannot escape the circumstances we grew up in and worldviews we shaped, but we can attempt to connect better with those who are different than us, especially those close to us, where it matters to us most.

We shouldn’t overtly sympathize with Trump supporters. What they have done is racist, despicable, and normalizes hatred. We shouldn’t let them dictate our nation’s future. But we also shoudn’t unfriend them on social media, or block them out of our lives. Many times, trying to persuade people who have different views than us will fail. But it definitely can’t succeed unless we try. And try. And try. And keep trying.

Defying Potential Expectations, Study Shows Millennials Still Drink Water When Thirsty

19 Sep
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Perhaps millennials drink water not in spite of the changes in society and technology usage but because of them?

 

Millennials, the latest generation to have fully come of age in America, have proven doubtlessly puzzling and fascinating to researchers for various reasons. Much has been made about the habits of this unique generation and how they have developed over the years. They are a truly one-of-a-kind generation in American history, as, despite coming of age under in a time of technological advancement, their living preferences and habits contradict each other in such a strangely human manner.

Some who can’t afford to live in cities are actually living away from cities. Others prefer suburbs.  They also love cities somehow. This paradox endlessly troubles those who try to characterize this weird generation. How can a whole generation, especially one that loves diversity, love cities and simultaneously stay away from them?

While the snapchat generation may be very digital, they do actually seem to be able to talk face-to-face as well. They also sometimes buy cars.

Now, there is another trend among millennials which puzzles researchers. They drink water. Researchers at University of Middleburg, Pennsylvania have discovered that water consumption, contrary to what one may think, is still going strong among this diverse generation of Americans.

Tom Smithburg, a sociologist specializing in youth culture states – “We believed the combination of technological change and financial uncertainty of America today would possibly lead to a potential decline in water consumption among those who are thirsty, but puzzlingly, the human method of water-drinking still is going strong among this generation”.

Fascinatingly, millennials don’t just drink water at home. They drink it when they are out and about in the town. Smithburg states his 20 year old son, who is at college in New York City, sometimes needs to drink water when he’s out with his friends on a hot day. This ritual of needing to go somewhere to find water perhaps is an enigmatic way millennials bond in the human sense, despite being obsessed with snapchat, facebook and instagram, and despite the uncertainties of the time period. While water drinking has been a human activity for generations, millennials have not brought about its decline. It remains a quintessential part of human life, despite the changing times.

 

(Yes, this is a satirical parody)

 

 

Memories of Travel, and coming to terms with the end of a long-term backpacking trip

6 Aug
We can look out of the window of this train again, but we can't live the exact same experience we lived the first time.

We can look out of the window of this train again, but we can’t live the exact same experience we lived the first time.

Whoever we are, there are occasional stretches of time one experiences, where there are certain moments in life that give us strange emotional epiphanies, and thoughts swirling in our heads that we can’t really put into words. As if, deep down you feel a certain way, but you can’t really describe how. For me, it is hard to understand what it’s like before and after these times, but it is one of those times now.

For the past three months, from May Third of 2016 until now, I’ve been backpacking around Asia. I plan to devote several future blog posts to travel advice, but today I’m going to talk about emotions, and coping with the end of a trip. I spent two months in China, and one in Southeast Asia, divided among Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. And the moment of a realization that I’d known all along, yet never truly thought about, brought a feeling upon me that I can’t quite put into words, as I sat in my hostel dorm room in Phnom Penh with my brother, trying to figure out when we would pack for our overnight bus to Siem Reap. This was the end. It was over. After one more stop in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, it’s done. Gone. Me and my brother will be flying to Manchester, England where we will see our family. And even if I do the same backpacking itinerary again, it will never be the same.

By this, I’m not saying that I’m assuming every place I visited is going to change drastically, although, this is Asia and very rapidly changing. I’m saying that I will change in ways that will mean I can’t experience the trip the same way again – I will never be able to go back to the point in my life in May 2016, where I stepped off that plane in Beijing Capital Airport, ready for the greatest adventure of my life. I will never have those exact same thoughts, same anticipations, and same feelings that I did when I landed in Beijing that night. I think future trips will be valuable too if I backpack this region again (which I definitely hope to do). But I will not be the same me. This trip has created a treasure trove of memories, which I must hold onto and cherish, as the Cambodian nation has done with its ruins of Angkor.

I doubt I’m the only one who has had these thoughts at the end of a major trip. To those who have struggled with a feeling similar to mine, here’s my advice: Plan future trips, because the travel bug never goes away once you’ve caught it. But also, embrace the fleetingness of your memories. Know that you’ve had a collection of experiences that you will never have again, but you can remember fondly. And if you do similar trips, remember that you will have whole new experiences then too. Just because travel isn’t new to me anymore doesn’t mean it’s any less exciting.

Maybe you can’t travel abroad again in the near future due to various circumstances. Maybe this is your rare chance in a long time, and you loved every minute of it. In that case, still, cherish your memories. Your trip may not last your whole life, but if you keep reminding yourself of them, the memories of it should.

I’m also looking forward to embracing new classes in my life at home, reuniting with my college pals, and just seeing how things go. There will be times of stress, in which I want to go back to the younger me, before my trip, that didn’t ever see an inch of 2016 China, and had no idea of the extent to which I’d appreciate the great places I’d go and people I’d meet. Once those moments pass though, they pass forever. Let’s cherish them while we can, and remember them fondly for the rest of our lives.

 

Six Tips for First-Time Visitors to China

28 Jun
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The newly futuristic city of Guiyang

For the past two months I have been traveling around China, and it is my favorite country that I’ve traveled in as a tourist. From when I first touched down in Beijing to when I got on my last bullet train ride back to Beijing, I had so many incredible experiences backpacking in more than 10 different Chinese provinces. I met friendly people who I will stay in touch with, I ate tons of amazing food, and the historic and architectural sites I saw were stellar. Most interesting to me was the extent to which China’s provinces feel very different from one another, despite the Han Chinese “cultural glue”.

Due to the langauge barriers, traveling here as an English-Speaker is not a chill, relaxing walk in the park, but it is very engaging and encourages you to learn. Here are six tips to make your trip to China more enjoyable and rewarding.

Read about the history and culture of China before you go.

This should be done wherever you go, but I would argue that in China it is deserves even more attention. Chinese culture is thousands of years old, not hundreds. There is such a huge diversity of traditions and ideas that have developed over the years. With the oldest continuous civilization that exists today and a ton of regional variation, you are bound to find aspects of Chinese culture that interest you. There’s no way anyone, especially a tourist on a visit, can learn everything about a culture, but it is very important to understand the basics. So read the pages in the back of the Lonely Planet book about the culture of China as a whole, and then go online (or if you’re at college, take an elective) to learn in more detail about specific elements of the culture that interest you. For me, it was the Buddhist sculpture and architecture that I found the most interesting.

Especially outside the biggest cities, you are likely to get stared at or asked questions if you don’t look Chinese. Get used to it.

Inland China does not have an established western backpacker trail. Whether it’s in the restaurant cars of the K-class intercity trains or those hole in the wall restaurants in the alleyways behind the office buildings, there will be plenty of times outside the big cities when being a foreigner (laowai, or the Cantonese term, gweilo) gets you attention. From my experience, older people were more likely to just stare, and the younger people are often keen to practice English. Try not to take it as a bad, uncomfortable, or offensive thing. You may be one of the only westerners they’ll ever see in that vicinity.

Travel by train in the hard seat or sleeper carriage-. It’s affordable, and a great way to get to know the locals.

Even if you don’t speak Chinese, the trains in China are easy to use once if you do advance research and you get the hang of it. Buy your tickets in advance online and pick them up at the station, because you never know if it may be fully booked. Also, get to the station at least 40 minutes in advance, so there is time to wait in line and go through security. If you don’t speak mandarin well, research the train schedule beforehand so that you know how long it should take before you reach your destination, as announcements on older trains are not in english often. Also, memorize the chinese characters for your destination. But all of this is worth it. On the hard-seat and sleeper carriages, travel is cheap, and you will meet many locals, some of whom will be keen to practice English, share snacks with you, or just be curious about you. You should also converse with them in their native language, and demonstrate your Mandarin or Cantonese knowledge.

Accept that you aren’t going to see everything.

Trying to visit every cool highlight in every region of China would be as time consuming as trying to do the same in all of Europe. China is extremely diverse and gargantuan, and should be treated as a contiennt when planning trips. It’s not like Vietnam or Thailand, where there are well-defined tourist trails with easy-to-name highlights along the way. So choose several provinces of the country, and see the “must sees” or whatever you are most interested to see in those provinces. You’ll never be able to see it all.

Learn basic mandarin. Even a little effort goes a long way.

Outside of the most touristy areas in big cities, you will need a little bit of mandarin knowledge. But it’s a huge misconception to say that this means you need to be fluent in mandarin. From my experience, newer backpackers often over-estimate the difficulties posed by language barriers, and the more experienced ones who continue to do so are generally the ones who don’t make any effort whatsoever to speak the language. Folks, do the world a favor and learn at least a bit of langauge, and try to use it as much as you can. In China, it is a necessity, and even if a non-english-speaking chinese-speaker will try to understand an english-speaker, they will be far more polite and receptive if you make just the slightest little bit of effort. Sometimes nowadays, service people will have guests type in english in phones so that they can use translator apps to figure out what tourists want. But don’t be demanding. They are under no obligation to speak english, and shouldn’t feel that they are so.

Avoid “Laowai-passing”

Laowai passing (or as it is known in Japan, Gaijin-passing) is when you use your status as an ignorant foreigner to get away with things you aren’t allowed to do, since you know that officials (who possibly dont speak english) may avoid confronting you. An example would be if, say, you don’t have enough money on your subway ticket to be able to leave at the station you get off at, and the staff don’t speak english and aren’t able to explain how to use the subway properly. And so they’d just let you through the side gate. While many foreigners get away with this sort of thing, it really isn’t cool. You may well be the only foreigner someone on that subway line sees that day, and if you make a bad impression by doing this sort of thing, you are collectively hurting the reputation of foreigners in the local area. Learn how to do basic things that may be different from at home, like paying for the bus or subway. Learn the Chinese characters for ‘entrance” and “exit”, or “male” and “female” (for toilets). Also, if you’re going to be talking to locals (which you should), make sure to learn Chinese etiquette around gift-giving, meals out, and asking about things. There are many online resources that can help with that. Don’t be overly anxious about it, if you mess a few things up they will understand. But you need to show that you care about trying to fit in with etiquette. Also, know that 4 and 7 are unlucky numbers (which is why this post has six tips instead of seven). 

Beyond Europe and Southeast Asia – 6 Reasons China is Well Worth Backpacking

19 Jun

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I’ve been traveling around China for the past 6 weeks, and it has been a delightful experience. China is my favorite country I have visited so far.

It is hard to overstate the scale of China’s size and history, as the Chinese civilization is the oldest society on earth that exists as a nation today. It has been through countless golden ages, dynasties, internal divisions, and wars throughout its thousands of years of existence. In regards to food, traditions, dialects, architecture, and landscapes, each region almost feels like a different country. A foreigner could spend five years traveling in China and still only scratch the surface of this complex and rapidly changing society. Basically, based on the desires of most backpackers, China is worth visiting.

But compared to Europe and Southeast Asia, China isn’t nearly as heavily backpacked, at least, by westerners. There are several reasons why this may be, from the language barrier, to the intimidating size, to the portrayal of China in western media as being an urban, dystopian, polluted wasteland. But language barriers can be overcome more easily than some expect, and outside of a few urban areas, this media narrative is misleading and false. China is well-worth backpacking, and here are six reasons why:

The country is massive and diverse, with large differences between the provinces

China is more than just a big country. It is a complex civilization with a level of regional variation like that of Western Civilization. While 93% of the population is Han Chinese, this statistic is misleading, becuase there are huge variations in Han Chinese culture between the different regions. Going from Henan to Hunan, or from Sichuan to Yunnan is to cross into what feels like a whole different version of China, like crossing from France to Germany within Western Europe. The differences are not just in a few things like local food specialties or obscure slang – there are different cuisines, traditional festivals, major dialects, architecture styles, and levels of economic development in each region.

Outside the coastal cities, it is affordable to visit

The coastal cities of China, like Hong Kong (its own autonomous zone) and Shanghai can be as expensive as world-class cities anywhere. But if you maximize your time inland and spend less time in these major cities, a trip to China can be very affordable. In Yunnan, it is more than possible to get by on around $45 a day, but you may struggle to get by on twice that in Shanghai.

The historic sites are massive and distinctive

When you sightsee in Beijing or Xi’an, you’ll realize that this isn’t a country where you can meander through alleyways that have loads of smaller landmarks or museums. In comparison to Europe, think fewer but better sights. Chinese cities typically have a few really, really big tourist sites and maybe one or two smaller museums. While there isn’t history at every turn, the individual sights in each region are large and take time to see. The Great Wall near Beijing, and the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an are two famous examples, but what about the Mu Family Mansion in Lijiang, or the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall in Guangzhou?

The countryside is very scenic and dramatic in certain regions

The countryside of China is dramatic if you go to the right places. Head Southwest to see the Karst peaks of Guangxi, the Miao villages in the hills of Guizhou, or the dramatic mountain ranges of Western Sichuan. Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan is rightfully considered to be one of Asia’s greatest treks. Also, the mountains and deserts in the Northwest are their own type of beautiful environment.

The food is excellent wherever you go

I have had one or two bad meals in China. As long as you don’t eat unsafe buffet food or street food, you’re good. The specialties in each region are very distinct, but within big cities, food from most regions is represented. Trying famous regional specialties in their regions for the first time, like Peking Duck, Xiaolongbao, or Crossing-the-Bridge Noodles is an experience you’ll always remember fondly.

The public transportation is increasingly extensive and easy to use

While New York City can’t stop delaying the date of opening for its Second Avenue Subway Line, China has already built the world’s largest network of high speed trains in the years since 2007. But High Speed Trains arent the only vehicles that make Chinese transportation great. There are sleeper trains, new metro systems in cities, buses, sleeper buses, and a variety of airline options that all make getting around China a breeze. Just make sure that for longer routes, you buy your train tickets in advance. Also, it helps to know when your stop is on the train timetables for your route, since english announcements are not common on the trains that aren’t bullet trains. Check out rail.assistanceinchina.com for route schedules and maps. chinahighlights.com is a great place to buy tickets.

7 Differences Between China and Japan that Travelers Should be Aware of

29 May

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Note: The following is not an anaylsis of political or government differences, and it is not a judgement of which country is better to visit or live in. These are just some differences a traveler to the region will likely notice if they visit both countries.

Historically, orientalist tendencies in Western Literature, Art, and Media have lumped East Asia together, as if it’s one, giant exotic weird country, with a culture that encapsulates everything the West is not. But as anyone who is from Asia, has studied it, or has visited it will know, this perception is racist baloney. These days, Asia has regained its place on the global political stage, after many of its countries struggled economically during the 20th century. My prediction is that more and more Westerners will become at least aware that there are major differences between Asian countries and their cultures. But it is important not just to acknowledge cultural differences, but to know what they historically have been, are today, and to be aware of why they exist, and understand how these differences can be mis-interpreted or misrepresented through the western lens.

As a western backpacker visiting this continent in the year 2016, there is no way I can ever understand every cultural difference between or within Asian countries. But what I can offer is my observations that other travelers have observed too, and my thoughts on how tourists should understand these differences. It is not just about knowing what differences and mannerisms you’ll observe in each country, it is about how a respectful visitor understands these mannerisms and their differences, and how tourists can be respectful –  And I’ll start with some observable cultural differences that travelers should be aware of between China and Japan.

1: Languages and Language Barriers

While Chinese and Japanese share a similar writing system made up of thousands of characters, the languages sound extremely different from one another when spoken, even if a few of the Chinese-influenced words are pronounced somewhat similarly in Japanese. So let’s break down the major differences between Chinese and Japanese:

Chinese is tonal. The tone at which a word is spoken (think the difference between saying “yes!” and “yes?”), affects the actual meaning of the word. This takes some getting used to, and it is often difficult for westerners to learn.

Japanese is not tonal, and emphasis on any particular syllable is avoided. The closest thing to a tone or emphasis that Japanese-speakers give certain syllables a different subtle “pitch” depending on dialect, if a word is the same as another word. (In the Tokyo dialect, for example, the word “Ima” meaning “now” has a slight downward pitch at the “i” , differing it from “Ima” meaning “western-style living room”). Foreigners who attempt to learn Japanese shouldn’t worry too much about pitch, you will probaly be understood.

Chinese has one writing system of thousands of chracters, meaning different things. It takes longer for westerners to learn to read and write than Japanese. The romanization of Chinese, pinyin, is sometimes used menus and signs, but to really read the language, you have to know the characters.

Japanese has three writing systems (Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana), and it can be easy to write if you know the sounds and pronunciation of the words, since you can write them in the two alphabet forms, Hiragana and Katakana. The tricky part is reading Japanese, since many signs and menus will use Chinese characters (kanji), which is considered the more formal way to write something. For this reason, being able to write Japanese in the way a native speaker would is a whole different level of skill than being able to speak it, or write it with just hiragana and katakana.

For a traveler visiting either country independently, make an effort to learn at least some of the basic phrases in the language. In China, the language barrier is far bigger, with english being spoken only in the most touristed areas. In Japan, although kids learn English in school, people can seem shy to practice it, especially outside tourist areas and big cities. Learning Japanese goes a long way, even in big cities. It’s not only respectful to learn the language, it could make or break your ability to buy the ticket to catch that last bus or train out of wherever you’re going.

The other important thing to cover is dialects. Mandarin has many different dialects, and Cantonese is usually considered to be its own language. Though the dialects can be very different depending on region, and many consider them to be different languages, most people will understand standard mandarin. In Japan, there are two main dialects to be aware of: The Tokyo Dialect and the Kansai Dialect. The Kansai dialect is spoken in Kansai, whereas the Tokyo dialect has become the standard in most other regions. Okinawa also has its own distinct dialects that some see as different languages. In general, the Kansai dialect is seen as more youthful and lively, hence why many Anime voice actors use the Kansai dialect. But travelers with the Tokyo dialect will still be understood.

2: Treatment of people who aren’t of East Asian descent

This section is based on the experiences of westerners traveling here, as I am unfamiliar with the experiences of foreign East Asians in either country, and have heard mixed things.

In China, particularly in rural places, westerners often find themselves to be subjects of intense curiosity. Many times, they get asked to be in photos by Chinese people. Younger people can be very enthusiastic to practice English. Sometimes, people will yell “Hello!” at random westerners who walk down the street.

Many westerners who have lived in both countries find it easier to make friends in China than in Japan. Partly, China can seem more outward looking because of its recent rise and opening to western economic ideas since the 70s, but also, China has a much longer history of trade with outsiders than Japan, which remained in isolation (Sakoku) for a long time, before the Meiji Restoration.

It is not true that no one in Japan is curious about westerners, but many travelers find that Japanese people keep their distance from westerners more, as if they see it as more being polite and humble (“I’ll stay with people from my culture, but I’ll be polite and gracious to yours by letting you do your thing”). Sometimes, this can be interpreted as if the Japanese are a strange, mysterious people with weird ideas. In reality, it is more out of shyness and a perceived sense of cultural distance. These attitudes can be traced somewhat to Japan’s history of isolation. Even the grammar of the Japanese language reflects that foreigners are always considered in the “out group”, no matter how close they are as friends or romantic partners with a Japanese person.

3: Etiquette in Public Spaces

Through an Anglo-American lens, mainland Chinese are often seen as rude in public spaces. People in mainland China, especially older generations, often seem to talk more loudly, cut in line, and spit on the ground. The action of talking loudly is due to the need to emphasize the tones in the language, and doesn’t necisserily mean people are arguing. But this mannerism, along with other mannerisms, have really hurt the perceptions of Chinese tourists abroad. It is important to deconstruct the other mannerisms and understand where they come from. Prior to the revolution, and the opening of China to outsiders after the revolution, China was one of the poorest regions on earth. Many villagers lived in a state of “survival mode”, with literacy very low, and trust in authorities also very low. The western version of “civil behavior” was something that was unfamiliar to many Chinese, but versions of that behavior were still encouraged by Mao and his government. But the rapid change in society made it difficult for new ideas of acceptable behavior to stick. What Japanese and Westerners called a “civil-society” was not established in mainland China to the extent it was in Taiwan and Hong Kong. And, while the wealthy cities became more westernized, the behavior of many people didn’t become westernized. Among younger people, however, western ideas of “civil-behavior” are catching on.

Japan, on the other hand, comes across as the complete opposite of China when it comes to etiquette. Waiting patiently in line is done without question, talking on trains hardly ever takes place, and people generally are far more quiet. 

Another very imporant thing to go over is the concept of social hierarchy. In China, there is some social hierarchy, and certain words in the language change depending on it. But it is less important than in Japan. The handshake in China is the greeting gesture, unlike the Japanese bow, the depth of which depends on the hierachal status of who they are speaking to.

Japanese peoples’ mannerisms, grammar, and vocabulary is often dependent on their social status relative to the person they are talking to. If you’re talking to a boss, or senpai (it’s a word which has been bastardized by an anime meme, but it really just means someone who is of an upper class status relative to you), you use far more formal language. If you are talking to a friend, or a Kohai (someone lower than you on the social ladder), you use less formal language. Foreigners (Gaijin), however, are in the “out group”, and the language and mannerisms used to address them will reflect this.

4: Diversity and regional differences

Let’s be real: a country with over one billion people is bound to be far more diverse than one with 127 million people. Even so, China remains misperceived as homogenous by many westerners. The statistic that 92% of Chinese are Han Chinese is extremely misleading. Within the Han Chinese ethnic group, there is a huge amount of regional variation in food, dialects, traditional festivals, and architecture. Some scholars argue that the differences between the provinces are bigger than the differences between Western European countries. The remaining 8% is made up of numerous other ethnic groups; the Zhuang, the Tibetans, and the Ughyurs being the most well known. Although around 40 other ethnic groups also exist. Add in the hui communities (Chinese muslims), and China is a much more culturally diverse country than many people perceive it as.

It would be wrong to say there are no differences between regions of Japan. Certainly, there are local food specialties and unique events around different regions of the country. But it is nowhere near as regionally or ethnically diverse as China.

5: Dining

Food in China and Japan are very different. Let’s start with the obvious: there is far more variety of flavors, regional cooking traditions, and ingredients under the umbrella of Chinese food. Chinese cuisine is far more likely to be spicy or sour, for instance. Sichuan, Chongqing and Hunan are the most well known regions

Japanese food is subtle and delicate in taste, and in many cases, there are smaller portions. There is very little spicy food. Presentation in Japanese cooking is far more valued – the components of the meal on a plate need to be arranged nicely and look good. In China, its not uncommon to see huge portions – although this is largely because the food is meant to be shared.

When it comes to dining etiquette, Chinese meals are meant for groups to share. There are many customs around this, like how the first person to pour tea has to pour it for everybody.

Japan has a lot more restaurants that are geared for solo dining, a classic example being the ramen counter. If you’re a solo traveler, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid eating Chinese meals alone (don’t miss out on the great food!), but you may get some weird looks.

Also, as a side-note, be very careful with street food in China, and only drink bottled water. Don’t eat at cheap restaurants unless they have a lot of Chinese customers (a large number of families at a restaurant is a good way to tell). This way, you’re going where locals know it’s safe to eat.

6: Religion, Spiritual Practices, and Martial Arts

China has three main spiritual practices which have influenced its culture over the years: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. There are also numerous animist religions still practiced by minority groups in certain places. In Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism are the main religions, but Confucian values are culturally influential too, even if you don’t see confucian temples in many places like you would in China.

For a growing number of people in these countries, religion is not “practiced” in the traditional sense. It is increasingly rare to see monks in either country. But the values that these religions hold are evident in how they have shaped the national psyche, and many people harbor an interest in these religions, even if they don’t practice them.

The Martial Arts of both countries are numerous. Globally, Japan is most well-known for Karate, Judo, and Sumo. Chinese martial arts are far more varied in origin, from region to region, or even from village to village. Unlike with Karate, there is no major, official, international organization for managing and defining the practice of martial arts in China.

7: Pop Culture and its Global Influence

Japanese media and pop culture exports are far more well-known worldwide, the most well known examples being Anime (cartoons) and Manga (comics). In the west, they have gone through on-and-off periods of popularity within the boundary of “geek culture”. Hollywood is now in the process of planning anime adaptations too, such as Ghost in the Shell, the filmmakers of which were criticized for the decision to have a non-Asian person (Scarlett Johannsen) play the protagonist. Still, if these adaptations prove popular, they may drive more westerners to be interest in Japanese pop culture as a whole. Japanese popular music, J-Pop, has been eclipsed by K-Pop in the west, but still has some niche popularity.

China has its own pop culture too, but it is not well known in the west by any means. Many of its most well known elements, however, have not come from the mainland. Like J-Pop in Japan and K-Pop in Korea, China has C-Pop. The main sub-genres of C-Pop are Cantopop (from Hong Kong), Mandopop (from Guangdong), and Taiwanese Pop (Taiwan). In general, as the mainland regions of China have been growing in economic power, the gap between the genres has been narrowing. Outside of China, however, Chinese pop remains not well known. While Hong Kong dominated cinema between the 1960s and the late 80s, this has declined, and there is effort being made to increase the publicity of mainland cinema. Chinese cinema has featured many kung fu films, but also has pushed the boundaries into other genres too.

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Overall, these are the main differences that are most important for travelers to know. This is by no means an exhaustive list of differences, it is only an overview of the major ones. It is.

Travels of JoFo, Part II: This Blog’s Pivot to Asia – where I’m going next, and what I will be writing about

28 Apr

A change is coming to this blog. This blog will not be what it once was. It will still be a travel blog, but it will be different in various ways.

No longer will the majority of posts about places will paint the world’s towns and cities with broad strokes about “what this destination is like”. Rather, this blog will interweave travel advice with the broader historical perspective about the changes and trends taking place in the world here and now. I have written for too long with advice solely for travelers’ experiences themselves. This blog is now going to focus not just on advice for experiences, but it will put places and experiences into broader context. I plan to research more about the trends shaping countries and cities as I visit them, and talk more to locals about where they live. I also plan to do more critiquing of the establishment voices in the travel industry. While I have done both those things in the past, the “current” typically wasn’t the focus of my blog.

And to get started refocusing my blog more to changes in the world today, what better place to do that than China? China has arguably changed more in the past 30 years than any other society on earth. This is my next trip, the beginning of a 3.5-month jaunt through Asia. It’s the beginning of my new geographical focus on travel pivot to Asia. While I will still visit Europe, it will no longer where the majority of my trips are located.

Since I turned sixteen and started this blog, my travels have taken me to countless places. I’ve had countless experiences and seen countless sights across Europe, the United States, and with brief forays into Asia and South America. I’ve had great experiences, and I will continue to do so. But the way I write about these experiences will change.

Too much travel writing frames countries’ histories as if the “interesting stuff” is all in the past, and that globalization means the traveler, the businessman, and the study abroad student now can experience the world on his or her own terms, free of contributing to long-term triumph or consequence for the society in which they visit. What I seek to illustrate is that no foreigner or local in any country is an island. Just by being in a foreign country, a foreigner is changing his perception of the country, and the country’s perception of the place where the foreigner is from. The decisions the traveler makes about where to shop, what to do, and how to interact with local people are by no means insignificant. This is why I also plan to write more about etiquette and ethical travel, especially in regards to developing nations.