During my last trip to Taiwan, my dad took me to his coastal childhood countryside home of Hualien to sweep the tomb of his dad. During this nearly four-month-early celebration of Qingming Festival, I learned a bit more about my family and my nation’s nuances.
As you probably know, some western cultures use the Gregorian calendar, while in the east some cultures adhere to the Lunar calendar. In Taiwan, on top of observing the Gregorian and Lunar calendar, the Taiwanese folks also follow the Minguo calendar which marks the number of years since the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. In a way this method of timing embeds a sort of banal nationalism that can remind the people of Taiwan how much time has passed since the beginning of modern China. As such, while it may be the Gregorian year of 2014 in many parts the world, the Taiwanese also recognize the time as the 103rd year of the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Born in 1909, and therefore a man of the *Qing dynasty whose birthday is unplaceable on the Minguo calendar, my grandfather fled from Henan, China in his thirties, after his political party lost control of mainland China, to start completely anew on the island of Taiwan.
*The Qing dynasty: 1644-1911 BC
In the text message I said that you have complicated matters by coming to Hangzhou. I suppose since we only got to know each other, you should know that I am a lover of literature and often try to find its ideas in real life. The way we met was superbly coincidental. In literature and in life, writers (or just people) often talk about the paths taken and the paths not taken. Since we encountered atop a mountain on a literal pathway, I found it fascinating that I could see from our taken paths, we were able to create such a brilliant rapport and meaningful friendship in one evening.
I romanticized this happenstance. In the dictionary the romance I am referring to is not of love but rather simply “a quality or feeling of MYSTERY, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life: the beauty and romance of the night. Wild exaggeration; picturesque falsehood. A work of fiction dealing with events remote from real life.” I wanted our story on Yellow Mountain to be an unbelievable nonfictional memory. Intangible. I suppose this perspective sounds absolutely ridiculous now that I am typing my imaginations out. Oh, what crazy ideas I get when reading and traveling solo..
That’s not to say I don’t want you to be my real life friend or that I didn’t have a good time today along the Hangzhou West Lake causeway. I absolutely do and did.
If you have time you can read the story that gave me this idealization by one of Japan’s modern literary masters Haruki Murakami titled 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. In this short story he shares how the protagonist crosses paths with this random girl on the street… and imagines the rest.
As a Taiwanese-American, I entered Japan with my Taiwan passport for no other reason than that I did not want to use up more space in my American passport. As a result, I had to apply for my Chinese visa in Tokyo with the same passport. The issue is that since China does not recognize Taiwan as a country, and thus does not validate the legitimacy of the Taiwanese passport, I had to apply for a special pass.. In lieu of a visa, I got a new travel document to stay in China for up to 5 years as a Chinese citizen by proxy. It was quite exciting for me to enter through the Chinese National gate in China (and not the foreigners gate) where I felt a third kind of national pride previously unbeknownst to me.
The motorbike is the transportation of choice in Vietnam.
A mutual friend, a fellow by the name of Leo*, welcomed me to Vietnam and his home on my first full day in the city. As an architect, he created all the furnishings in his apartment. He hails DIY as his lifestyle and I could see one of his projects, a rustic long table made out of wood panels, was the centerpiece of the apartment, so seemingly sturdy and chic that it could’ve easily been on display at the upmarket Restoration Hardware. His restroom also held thoughtful Zen-inspired elements with perfectly smooth grayscale pebbles adorned on its floors. True to his DIY philosophy, his faucet sink didn’t have a drain and collected water in a glass bowl, later to be flushed down the shower drain.
This all begun in his childhood when he read a book which documented the life’s work of Leonardo Da Vinci. Through self empowerment, he adopted Leo as his English name and thereby then aspired to become the architect he is today.
French colonial architecture designed in the style of Beaux-Arts can be seen throughout the city, with the style being particularly prevalent in the Old Quarter. Having lived in Paris, I recognized the French (or old Europe) flair of designing streets that seem to suddenly swerve and are fundamentally opposed to the grid system as seen reflected in American urban design.
A Vietnamese lady carrying merchandise balanced on her shoulders to sell for the day.
Heavy, backbreaking, sweat-inducing hard work
These receptacles don’t always carry just fruit or raw materials, sometimes the women literally carry materials to be cooked fit for a food truck on their shoulders.
The Woman’s Museum in Hanoi documented female roles in society: as political leaders, business women, and as mothers.
The wandering business women oftentimes are migrant workers from the countryside who rent beds at hostels for $.85 USD a night, returning home each fortnight with around $20 to support their family.
The Eiffel Tower’s famed architect, Gustave Eiffel, also designed the Long Bien bridge in Hanoi.
On the bridge, laid out carpets create space for makeshift cafés serving lemon tea and dried squid. However, beneath the bridge, on land and boats, live the poorest people who cannot afford to own land thus ineligible to even send their children to school. :(
In both Vietnamese (Ha Noi) and Chinese (河內) the city’s name means Inner River. Atop the bridge you can escape the bustle of the 2 million+ population city and catch a breathe of fresh air above the gaping river.
Thanks to Khunie and his hybrid motorbike, we were able to get to this bridge!
It is difficult to cater to my vegetable food preference here.
Statuette of Mary inside a believer’s taxi parked outside of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in central Hanoi.
I met the lady in red while eating breakfast alone at a small cafe (seriously, I’m never really alone when I say I’m ‘traveling alone’). Turns out she lived in Saigon for 3 years and recently moved to Hanoi to teach English at a Japanese international school. We strolled the crooked streets and eventually lost each other to the crowds for a moment. It was at that moment I realized I couldn’t search her up on Facebook because we hadn’t exchanged names! We regrouped shortly and all is well.
The photographed Vietnamese youth approached us to practice English. The girl nonchalantly asked me “WHY ARE YOU SO BLACK?” To which I responded, “Because I like to stay out in the sun,” which is incomprehensible to many because whiteness is the ultimate mark of beauty in Asia.
The comfort of fashion!
The lovely Trang Gizz drove us around West Lake on her motorbike!
A typical Hanoi restaurant is equipped with red and blue plastic furnishings.
How can I leave Hanoi without trying pho?
The old quarter and new developments juxtaposed in Hanoi.
If something goes wrong with the wall, call that number and they will fix it. Seriously, none of that gethuman.com shenanigan.
These seats that are so quintessentially Vietnamese!
Nightlife in Hanoi with ladies and gentlemen arrayed finely for all to see.
This is a cafe tucked in a residential neighborhood dedicated to the art and life of Trinh Con Son, a legendary artist in Vietnam. Listen to his magical stuff that inspired a generation here.
During this voyage I realized that traveling alone is the biggest experiment I can conduct on myself. I say that because since I am the only person making decisions in new places, I can see the immediate results of my decisions and how exactly I react to new environments. I know I can see how decisions and environment affect me at home, but not quite as explicit as when I am this isolated and controlled subject. I can trace exactly how I met a person and what I did that lead to my circumstance right now.
When traveling alone, I’m an isolated variable and my new contexts are new experiments.
A traveler from Chongqing, China, told me he jokingly wore this shirt as ‘protection.’
Hoi An is a beautiful port city with buildings painted with bright colors like yellow and turquoise, once colonized by the Chinese for its premium location in Southeast Asia. In Vietnamese, this dreamy city’s name means ‘peaceful gathering’ and when I was here, the open spaces and clear air refreshed my mind that I almost forgot about all the busy ruckus left behind in Hanoi.
I didn’t mean to purchase the ceramic cup that rainy day in Hoi An. I feigned interest and the storeowner girl hooked me in, blocking me from leaving and forcing me to enter in an amount I deemed acceptable to buy on her handy calculator. I put in a number so low I expected for her to retire her sales pitch. The original price was around 250k, I put down 50k on the basic calculator. She said no but gave me numbers near it and eventually while I was about 50 feet away from the storefront, she let me buy it for 60k (~$2.82USD).
My Southeast Asia politics professor Dr. Zook once held a lecture about how the desperation for the people of the Philippines to participate in a high winnings game show reflected the zeitgeist. That’s how I felt that lady chasing let me recall beneath the vibrant, peaceful town of Hoi An.
This isn’t litter.
I learned to fear the ocean and understand (sort of) how people of Maldives feel when I was in Hoi An. The ocean’s tides would rise each night and flood the streets of Hoi An. I also noticed some abandoned, unfinished developments along the shore a bit outside of the city center and saw the hundreds of sandbags that tried to block the ocean from advancing towards land.
Although there exists bus stops, it is completely possible to catch a ride if you wave down the driver or his helper along the route! The helper and driver seemed to conduct a delivery business along with driving passengers, oftentimes stopping in the middle of the road for ONE MINUTE to pick up merchandise en route. The Vietnamese folks are really good at planning logistics!
Hoi An’s speciality: the white rose filled with shrimp!
Delicious vegetarian delight
With a handpicked purple REI backpack capable of holding up to 65 liters, I ventured off to the piquant Southeast Asia, multifarious South Asia and then the personally nostalgia-inducing East Asia between fall and winter 2013. Having spent my last semester at UC Berkeley abroad in France that spring, I yearned to understand more from the part of the world I came from - Asia - and how its ideas and systems operate relative to ‘the West.’
For nearly two decades I followed through with the California Master Plan for Higher Education, leaping through K-12, community colleges and then finalizing my studies at the premier public university of the state. But even with this formal schooling, my life at home held values of ‘the East’ where Confucian ideas like honor/shame, filial piety and familial duty were instilled in my mind. So in going to Asia, I wanted to understand how the degrees of liberalism and traditions compare with my Asian American views.
In Fall 2013 I set off to Southeast Asia for not only its natural beauty and warmer weather, but to analyze its social systems and history. I wanted to see how colonists whose homes I had visited earlier in the year in Europe - Holland, France, Spain, Portugal - influenced the landscape of Indochina. I wanted to see especially how Asian culture is before its transpacific migration to America. I wanted to see the intercultural difference within Southeast/South/East Asia.
After 3 committed years, I officially changed my url from bobbypinned.tumblr.com to arielwang.tumblr.com.
Ever since my positive experience in sharing a room with a complete stranger in the dormitories, I have grown keen of sharing spaces with just about anyone. The best way to know someone is to live with them, and I have adapted this personal philosophy as a lifestyle. From the progeny of Mexican immigrants to electrical engineers to Marxist community organizers to financial analysts to human rights activists to fashion photographers to marijuana enthusiasts to professional masseuses throughout three continents, I have lived with just about anyone interesting who opens their home to me.
Right now l am literally living with a random Japanese girl I met in Vietnam AND her former Superconductivity professor in TOKYO! Needless to say, I am an advocate of any kind of cohabitation, as long as it gives me the chance to observe and live a new routine through collaborative consumption.
Never did I think this ideology would be the basis for my life. This winter my father took me to his seaside hometown of Hualien, Taiwan for the first time. He showed me his childhood home and I saw that it resembled my cottage in college but painted flat white with a yard surrounding the property. Shortly after he took me to see my mother’s nearby college and where I would take photos and send to my mother and my aunt.
My aunt would be the one to reveal the following information.
It turns out, my mother lived about an hour away from Hualien and needed housing to be closer to college. MY MOTHER rented a room in my father’s childhood home. This is how my parents met.
How is it is possible that it took me 23 years and 11 months to find out the nascence of my existence?
Ghibli films quite often aren’t black and white in terms of antagonists, and characters who start off as the obvious villain are often revealed to have their own understandable reasons for doing the things they do, and may end up helping or working alongside the central character to achieve their goals. It’s these balanced and complicated relationships between characters that has made The films of Ghibli stand out in stark contrast to the often black and white world found in Disney movies and many other western children’s films.
A memorable moment on the Internet: I received the most ever “likes” from a textual Facebook status in my social media existence. In a photo-saturated environment like Facebook, I am amazed that my one fat block of text was read. I’m happy people whom I’ve connected with and are connected to via the Internet have taken the time to read my thoughts. Cheers to the Internet and friendship!
When I was traveling solo in Vietnam, I stayed at the impossibly well serviced and inexpensive hostel called Hanoi Nonprofit Hostel for around $5 a night. Although it was a room fit for four, I was usually the only occupant, until one day a Japanese girl checked in the afternoon I checked out. We spent 3 hours together and I learned about how she was en route home from Australia and wanted to sightsee Vietnam along the way.
The Japanese girl, Kana, at the time briefly mentioned how I could stay in Tokyo at her friend’s house and that she knows people who would be happy to employ me as a teacher. I took her offer with a grain of salt and continued on traveling..
Everything we agreed on came true. I’m here at the apartment of her friend - who is her former professor - and sharing a room with Kana. I have been a swiftly and gently welcomed outlier to this Japanese family.
I chose Japan because of its hyper-developed state. I feel like I’m living in an operative futuristic yet archaically traditional world. The toilet is warm by default. My housemate has a scanner which he uses to scan all the barcodes of his recently purchased items to account for his spendings. The sushi waitress glides her sensor over my computer chipped and stacked sashimi plates to see what to charge me. There exists a toaster oven button specifically for mochi toasting catered to the likings of the Japansee palette. The doors are made of sliding glasses with touchscreen ‘doorknobs.’
But my roommate double takes when I switch the pillow from the head to the foot of my bed because it doesn’t optimally correlate with the sun’s path. I guess we gotta respect the sun in the ‘land of the rising sun’!
Nevertheless, we do things as a family together (kind of). On my second night, my computer ran out of memory and disk space so my housemates and I headed on over to Tokyo’s famed Electric City: Akihabara. The store is glittered with signs of every electronic niche compliance available to the consumer market. They sell things that I only ever consider obtaining if I buy it online because who would think a store would have the capacity to hold 20 different types of epilators?
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