A Race in Europe

I studied abroad in the summer of 2017, at the London School of Economics. During my time there, I spent every single weekend in a different country. Belgium. Netherlands. France. Then, after the program, I went to Italy for two weeks with just my mom, which happened to be her very first time in Europe.

During my time in Europe, I began thinking that maybe we were blessed to grow up in a melting pot of a country. I had Indian, Korean, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Egyptian, and all sorts of ethnicities and races in my classrooms. Seeing someone of color was never something I gave much thought to; they were my colleagues, and I respected them as individuals, not as tokens of their races.

Florence, which was the first Italian city we stopped at during our trip, was my rude awakening. While perusing through the aisles of the Florence Leather Market, I was called out to by the vendors with “Ni Hao” and “Konichiwa,” but never “hello.” In one interaction with a street vendor, he asked me where I was from. “The U.S.,” I replied. He shook his head and said “No. Where are you really from?” I didn’t even know how to interpret his question. I looked him in the eye and affirmatively replied “I’m from the U.S. California, to be exact.” With his thick Italian accent, he tried again: “No no no. Not where you live, but where you are from. Where you call home. China?”

To this very day, I think about that interaction frequently. I think about the numerous, nearly countless, number of times I was said “Ni Hao” to, and the weird stares and gawks that I received, all because I was a yellow person in the middle of Italy.

I don’t have a resolution to this story, but I say it to provide food for thought. Understanding how to properly address other cultures without jumping straight to conclusions is difficult. With a language barrier, it’s even harder. But race should not be a form of objectification, and nowhere else in the world have I ever received responses similar to those that I found in Europe. Why is this so? I wonder…

Tok-yo Breath Away

Get the pun? It’s a city that definitely has that kind of effect. Japan is a country that has always been on my travel radar, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to three major Japanese cities this past September. I boarded a plane from LAX, my mom boarded a plane from SFO, and we met up in Tokyo to begin a 10-day excursion around Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.

There are so many fine details that this article will fail, again and again, to cover, but these are some of the small, joyous things about life in Japan that I’ve picked up along the way. We began our journey in Tokyo and spent the most time there as well, so here are some little glimpses into the daily life of the locals:

A rainy day at Shibuya Crossing; many pedestrians own clear umbrellas.
  1. It rains frequently, but very few people get by with rain jackets. Nearly everyone has an umbrella on hand, and get this–the umbrella is usually clear. Yes, the transparent umbrella is the most common one in Japan. I figure it’s because of how busy the streets are…an advantage of a clear umbrella is that you can see what’s in front of you.
  2. Family Marts are lifesavers. Family Marts are similar to our 7-Elevens, and can be found all over the country. They have a hot foods section, where they serve hot teas, coffees, and fresh food. They also always have a fully-stocked umbrella rack (usually of those transparent umbrellas I mentioned above), because rain in Japan is super unpredictable, and rain doesn’t stop people from keeping to their busy schedules.
  3. Japanese toilets are more technologically advanced than some computers I’ve seen in this modern age. Japanese toilets, especially in more formal places such as restaurants or airports, are bidet-style toilets that feature bidet washing, seat warming, and self-deodorization.
  4. Japan has a crazy abundance of vending machines (1 for every 23 people, to be exact). Nearly all of these vending machines exclusively sell drinks, not food. There are also some that do udon-in-a-can, or quick miso soup.
  5. Instead of packets, like the ones we see in our Panda Express chains or sushi restaurants, to-go soy sauce comes in miniature bottles. These tiny bottles are resealable, so you can use as you need and put it in your pocket for later!
Japanese vending machines.
To-go soy sauce bottles.

A Love Letter to Beijing

My first time going overseas in those big gravity-defying futuristic-looking things that made my tiny little ears pop was when I was just 7 months young. It was a flight to Beijing, China, where I was going to meet the entire extended family from both my mother and my father’s sides of the family.

My mom grew up in Beijing, and my dad grew up in a rural city just 2 hours north of Beijing. Since that first flight at just 7 months old, I’ve gone back at least 15 times, many of which were whole summers during elementary and middle school. As a Chinese-American who takes great pride in my Chinese heritage, I’ve always, always considered Beijing a second home. Comfortable. Familiar. Loving, with all my family members around me.

City buildings in Beijing, Paulson Institute.

But not everyone’s first impression is as endearing as mine. Beijing is a whole different world compared to the sleepy suburbs of the Bay Area where I grew up. The population of Beijing, first and foremost, can’t compare even to our busiest metropolitan areas. There’s a charming disregard for traffic laws (seriously, no one follows them), rude awakenings left and right when people chastise you for walking too slow or pushing past others, and a depressingly high number of cigarette butts lining the streets.

Zhajiang mian, Red House Spice.

However, once you begin to look past the flaws, you see an expansive history of culture and tradition. Old Beijing cuisine has some of the most flavorful dishes I’ve had in my life, with its world-famous Peiking Roast Duck, Zhajiangmian (Beijing’s signature soybean paste noodles), Roubing (Chinese meat pie), and more. The history in the city is unparalleled; the Forbidden City was home to the former Chinese imperial family from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, which makes it the ceremonial and political center of the Chinese government for 500 years.

Forbidden City, The China Guide.

There are traditional alleyways called Hutongs, which are essentially small street sbetween rows of single-story Siheyuan (family courtyards) dwelled by Beijingers in the past. Because of the interlacement of the Hutongs, every house is connected to the other, which made it easy for local people to keep in touch with their neighbors. This sense of familiarity and connectedness was welcomed with open arms back in the Hutong days, which is rarely found in this modern world. Today, Hutongs are used to show the history of old Beijing, many of which are now lined with street vendors and artisan pop-up shops.

Although Beijing doesn’t always top the lists of those who are seeking the next place to travel, I recommend it with my whole heart. The cuisine, history, and warmth of Beijing is unmatched, and I know it’ll be a huge part of my life, forever and always.

It’s a Small World

We’ve all heard the colloquial phrase, “It’s a Small World.” While walking to class, you pass by your friend, who happens to be talking to someone you met while studying abroad. You say, “Oh wow, it’s a small world.” The idea of a ‘small world’ is further perpetuated by media. According to TIME, “It’s a Small World” by the Sherman Brothers (which you’ve probably heard on the water-based ride at various worldwide Disneyland and Disney World parks) is the most publicly performed song of all time. 

In fact, we’ve had such an obsession about the idea of a small world that Stanley Milgram, renowned American social psychologist, conducted a small-world experiment to examine the average path length of social networks of people in the U.S. The research was groundbreaking in that it suggested that human society is a small-world-type network characterized by short path-lengths. In layman terms, we know and connect with people a lot easier than we think. So if our world is so intricately connected, maybe the world isn’t so big and scary after all.

My first flight was when I was at the young age of 7 months old. I was a newborn, boarding an international flight at SFO to Beijing, China, where I would meet my extended family for the first time. Since then, I’ve been on a flight somewhere every single year (without miss), and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

I believe that traveling is the single most effective way to expand one’s worldview. Tasting other worldly cuisines, experiencing cultural norms so drastically different from our own, seeing and understanding different fashion standards, and feeling a distinct sense of community in each part of the world I travel to has given me the most gratification in life. Talking to local vendors, hearing their stories of growing up, and carrying those stories with me everywhere I go has allowed me to grow as an individual, and as a member of a society we should all strive to be a part of–understanding, accepting, and reciprocating of all world cultures.