Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Different Perspective

My friend wore a suit underneath his leather jacket. He even wore a tie, which I had never seen him wear before. It seemed strange – usually when I saw him he preferred to wear casual clothes to class. I knew that in his country, formal attire was normal for university students, but he had been in China for two years, and had, in his own words, “let himself go”. Recent events, however, made him decide that he should go back to acting the way his countrymen should.

He explained to me that someone important to him had died, and he had been in mourning since last Monday. He had even missed classes on Tuesday due to grief. Even now, he said, he often had to fight the urge to cry. He explained to me that the one who had died had helped him a lot: it was only by the grace of this person that he was able to study in a foreign country. Even talking to me in private, he still called this person “great”.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Privilege (Education)

When you are born in a position of privilege, it can be easy to forget how much that privilege how much that privilege affects our opportunities in life. Especially if all those in your social group also benefited from the same kind of privilege that you did, it's not at all hard to fall into the trap of thinking that your experiences are normal, and that the benefits you receive are universal.

I was fortunate in a way to have been exposed to the fallacy of this assumption from a young age. At the age of five, I moved with my parents from the leafy eastern suburbs of the capital city to a country town, with a population of around about 3,000. Despite the fact that I had not even moved to a different state, the cultural differences were striking. During the half year of school that I had attended in the city, most of my classmates had, like myself, a fundamental knowledge of reading and writing taught to them by their parents before they attended school. "Problem students" - well, I suppose they existed, but I do not remember many. Most of my classmates from that school were destined to attend either a private school or one of the state's top public schools. Almost all had parents who valued education.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Things You Learn

When away from home, you learn about things that you possibly never would had you just stayed in the same place. It's inevitable in a way. Things like the intricacies (or lack thereof) of foreign transport systems, the taste of different kinds of food and some basic features of common life are all things that you can't help but learn when travelling. One can learn more than that, though.

For example, how many people can say (without looking it up first) what the third tallest building in the ancient world was? I certainly couldn't - not until the same day I went to see it recently. The first two are easy to name: at 146 and 142m in height respectively, the Pyramids of Cheops and Chefren are world-famous, and easily the most distinctive structures in Egypt. Even if people cannot remember the names of the Pharaohs interred within, most people would at least be able to point out their location. Ask people to name the third tallest structure, however, and it's a bit like asking them to name the full crew of Apollo 11: they remember that there was Neil Armstrong, Buzz Alrdin and some other guy.

Given a chance to guess, most people would throw out a few possibilities: perhaps it was a pyramid in Peru? Those knowledgeable about their Ancient Wonders might suggest the Pharos at Alexandria, which would earn them a cookie for being almost right, however even before its destruction in the early 14th century, the Pharos was eclipsed as the third tallest building in the world by a country far removed from Egypt.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More Communist Propaganda

My last post had a look at some modern Chinese "Communist propaganda". It seems pretty childish to western minds, but I get the feeling it works for China. What I want to talk about now, though is another, far more subtly crafted form of propaganda that I noticed in North Korea. I'm not talking about the Arirang games here, either. The Arirang games are ceratainly elaborate, and a fine piece of propaganda, but there is nothing subtle about them.

In Pyongyang, there is, amongst other sights, a memorial to the Chinese soldiers who fell during the Korean war. It's a decent size, though not huge, but it's also quite prominent on a hill. And it gets a constant stream of Chinese visitors.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Communist Propaganda

The Chinese government likes to engage in propaganda in order to keep the population in line. Here are some example of a long-running propaganda campaign in my city:

Be dedicated and love your work!

Be friendly and harmonious!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Things Could Always Be Worse

When I went to Japan early last year, I found myself in a bit of a situation.

I'd gone over by ferry from Shanghai, rather than by plane, which meant that rather than arriving at an airport, I arrived at the Osaka ferry terminal. Through a series of mishaps, I had not brought any Yen with me from China, so when I arrived at the ferry terminal, I had with me not a single coin of the local currency. There was also no ATM or money changing facilities at the ferry terminal.

"Oh, that's ok," I thought naively. "Japan's a developed country. I'll be able to get some money out at any ATM just like I can in China. There's a subway station about 10 minutes walk away. I can get some cash out there."

Those who are familiar with the Japanese ATM withdrawal "facilities" can already see that I clearly hadn't researched my destination country carefully enough. I had fallen into the classic rookie error of assuming that a country with a GDP of $33,000 per capita and was world renowned for its creation of high-tech technology goods would have at least the same kind of banking convenience that could be found in a country with less than a quarter of that per capita GDP, and which had only been opened to the west for about 30 years. Silly me. Japan sure showed me what I deserved for making assumptions, when I tried using the ATM by the subway station, only to discover that it didn't accept my card.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Tourism in Developing Countries

Personally, I'm not hugely keen on the "tourist Meccas", such as Thailand, Bali, and so on: I've been to Thailand, and while I enjoyed myself, and my trip definitely met my requirement of "being warmer than the 1 degree average temperature with no heating that I had to deal with in China", I found the trip somewhat lacking in general, due to the large number of tourists everywhere. Now, I'm certainly not begrudging the Thai people their tourist industry, and Thailand does certainly have natural beauty and a culture that is worth exploring as a tourist, however when a country is as devoted to tourism as Thailand is, I see two problems.

First of all, when such a large amount of your cultural traditions become intertwined with the tourism industry, it's very easy for the traditions to (at least to an outside observer) appear to be mainly for show. At least in Thailand it's obvious that the people there still embrace much of their traditional culture in their daily lives - I loved seeing people pray at Buddhist shrines, and seeing Elephants walking down the street doing the shopping. Too much commercialisation of a culture, however, serves only to turn those commercialised aspects into a caricature of their former selves. The culture ends up being known and recognised not for its philosophy and literature, but rather for consumer-friendly dances and songs. Now, I was born and raised in a dominant culture, so I can only imagine how those from less dominant cultures must feel, however it seems to me that it would be in many ways demoralising to those from developing, tourist-industry oriented countries to see their remaining culture being seen as a sideshow to those from richer nations who come to visit at their leisure. It's a question that I really should ask some of the locals next time I go to a tourist resort region.

Monday, October 31, 2011

On the Importance of Travelling Companions

As I mentioned in my first post, this summer I went to North Korea. Once I had decided to go, I searched the internet to see which tours were available, searching in both English (my native language, and thus the "easy" option) and Chinese (which I also speak well enough to keep up with my university studies in Chinese). I very quickly found some English-language tours that organised tours that left from Beijing, but with a whopping price tag of $3000. Well, forget that, I thought. I immediately turned my attention to the Chinese-language tours leaving from Dandong, the Chinese border city near North Korea. After contacting one of the companies, I discovered that the price for an Australian citizen to visit North Korea during the Arirang games was 5600RMB - nearly twice the price than that for Chinese citizens, but a 70% discount when compared to the English language tours. Plus, the tour left from Dandong, rather than Beijing, which meant less time in places that I've already visited, and more time in the DPRK. I was sold.

What I wasn't counting on when I chose the Chinese tour was the fact that it gave me a very different set of people to travel with when compared to the English-language tour. Apart from a pair of Hong Kongese, a lone Singaporean and myself, the rest of our group of 30-odd people was from mainland China, and throughout the tour, none of them were afraid to share their opinion on what they saw with the world, and thus give me a new insight into the country.

So much to say...

As a student, I am blessed with long holidays, and I have decided to take advantage of these to go travelling. This summer, I travelled not only around China, the country I live and study in, but also to both of the Koreas. During my mid-semester break, less than a week from now, I will be going to Sri Lanka with my boyfriend who I met in North Korea. (I will wrte about how we met in the blog at some stage later.) After much reflection, it occurred to me that the story of my experiences, and the lessons I learned from this holiday are too important to just be forgotten, and too complex to be relegated to just a few lines, or even just a single essay.

To tell all of this, I decided to start this blog. Don't expect me to give day-by-day accounts of my travels. To me, the experience of travelling is much more than a simple list of "been there, done that". In this blog, I will talk about the people that I meet, the things that I learn, and the impact that my travels have on my life and way of thinking. I will also blog occasionally about my experiences living and studying in a different country and culture from the one I grew up in.