Sunday, March 28, 2010

MIM Trip - China, in two parts

One of the photos China really didn't want you to see — outside the Forbidden City at night


Apologies for the delay, but Blogger was one of the many things locked behind the Great Firewall, and I was too busy discovering Tokyo to write this up then. Thank god for boredom on airplanes, then. Plenty more photos from China available here.

Finally arriving in China was something of a wake-up call. Compared to the more western-oriented nature of Japan and South Korea, at first the Olympic city appeared to be much the same — driving into town from the nicely-appointed airport, you can see a variety of new skyscrapers with impressive Chinese national and international brands. Here, Sinopec tower; there, one for China’s offshore oil company; just down the road, one of a couple of banks.

Beijing looks very nice, modern and new if you are looking up — at the skyscrapers or streetlights or even the city traffic. Watch your feet, though, and you can see the weariness of winter and the truth that, while not third-world, China is still a developing nation in many senses. Broken, dusty sidewalks happen in the United States too, but there’s a certain sense of dilapidation in parts of Beijing. Walking along the wall of the Forbidden City toward Tiananmen Square, you see all sorts of small stores, shacks, and side-streets that run toward Beijing’s poor (middle-class?) areas away from the upper-middle-class boom.


China is also culturally very, very different from anything else I had ever experienced before. Chinese traffic is indicative of many things (ranging from waiting in line at McDonalds to doing business and planning) — it’s busy, noisy, and conducted with elbows as you force your way up toward the front. One of my grad school friends joked that something “wasn’t impolite, we’re in China” was very true — politeness certainly is relative to the context, yes, but for somebody who’s only ever been in the west (and the west coast of the United States at that), it’s a strong shock.

[This is without even going into too much detail on cab rides in Beijing and Shanghai, which were harrowing to say the least. Cheap, fast, and efficient seems to be the order of the day, though you might be a bit frightened].

Being an American tourist of even modest means in China makes you feel like a black-card-strapped rock star back in the United States. Want to share a multi-course meal at a very nice Chinese restaurant, complete with a couple rounds of Tsingtao and dessert afterwards? $15. Subway fare almost everywhere in Beijing was 2 yuan (which had to be state subsidized to drive people onto the trains and away from driving); the exchange rate is roughly 7 yuan to $1. Hit the ATM, pull out $200 and walk away feeling like a rap star with a much, much fatter wallet.


On one of the last nights in Beijing, a group of students went out to a party hosted at a bar on the other side of the city from where our hotel was located. All-you-can-drink until midnight at a bar that was a converted houseboat? 100 yuan, or (roughly) $15; taxis weren’t even close to that. A good time was had by all for sure.

This also translates to shopping in China, especially in the markets where haggling is the name of the game. Beijing has a few famous markets, the Pearl and Silk markets, where the legitimacy of the goods is questionable and the first price you’re quoted for anything is nearly 400 percent too high. The merchants are very aggressive and know enough English to catch onto some things — a few students were walking through one of the markets and one of them accidentally said the other’s name, which led to the poor sap being called out by name throughout the rest of the market. The slightest eye contact toward something while browsing will lead to merchants falling over themselves trying to offer you twelve of whatever that is, whether it’s leather goods (wallets, bags, etc.), clothes, or electronics.


The dance that ensues when you do want to buy something is complicated. Step one is to ask the price for something else, then immediately cut that price in half. The haggling then starts, once you figure out where the price floor is; then, you ask about what you really want, stay firm on the price, and even walk away to prove your point. They’ll come asking for you to come back, and accept your price.

This is how you get fake decent-quality fake North Face jackets for $20, or string upon string of pearls for $20 total. I’m really not good at this sort of haggling, and even had a moment of conscience when I realized my price was incredibly good within the context of American prices, if not the “market goods game” that developed within the cohort. Sure, you can be an ass and get your “I Climbed The Great Wall” T-shirt for 25 cents, but what’s the point? Just pay $2 and be on your way.


I don’t know if I could live in China — more on this when I talk about Shanghai — but being a tourist there is a certain kind of fun. Your dollar goes a long ways if you’re smart, sights like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Olympic stadiums, and the Great Wall were amazing — the Great Wall was one of the best experiences of my life — and the sights were definitely eye-opening.



It might be a very obvious observation, but Shanghai just feels like a much more developed, more westernized and older city. It and Tokyo feel similar; I’m led to believe Hong Kong is about the same, and my personal theory is because all three were developed earlier than cities like Seoul —they had outside influences from the late 19th century on, instead of post-WWII like the South Korean metropolis. That said, there’s just a purpose and genuineness to the skyline in Shanghai that just didn’t feel there in Beijing. It’s like comparing Spokane and Seattle — they both might have downtowns, but you can tell which one walks the walk.


That said, I liked the neon and hustle of Shanghai. I went out a couple nights with students from China on our program — notably Michael, who’s from Shanghai and seems like a boss in his hometown — and got to enjoy an entirely different experience than I would have had otherwise. Nothing like an elaborate, multi-dish Chinese dinner full of things I can’t remember and that they certainly don’t serve at any restaurant I’ve seen in Portland (or the United States, really). Didn’t try the bullfrog; probably should have, in retrospect, because when will I again? Our night out at a hot pot dinner was also a lot more fun and, yes, kicked the crap out of doing hot pot in Portland. Most of the food followed such a pattern on this trip, honestly.


I felt like just being out in the neon of Shanghai — and washing it in from the backseat of a car, feeling the skyscrapers bear down — was a different enough experience that things like trying bullfrog didn’t seem as necessary as they probably will when I look back on this trip. However, making a fool of myself at a karaoke box surrounded by my friends and the Chinese students in our program? Definitely an experience I got behind, even if the Chinese girls put a bunch of Backstreet Boys and N’Sync into the karaoke mix for the three Americans out that night.


Ah, Shanghai. I could probably ignore China’s myriad problems (like censorship, reason no. 1 why I couldn’t update this site at all during my Chinese trip) if you threw me into doing business in Shanghai, but man, learning to drive in China might be a bridge too far. I don’t know if I’d honestly want to make the personal sacrifices necessary to work and live overseas in order to live in Beijing, however; despite the PRC’s best efforts, I still don’t think I could believe in Beijing. Shanghai for the money, Beijing to be a tourist for four or five days.


Monday, March 8, 2010

MIM Trip - A little bit of Seoul


At Hyundai's Asan manufacturing plant, where they make roughly 1,200 cars a day. Yikes

I will readily admit that, of our four cities and three countries on the MIM Asia Trip, Seoul was at the bottom in terms of preference; I've studied Japanese so long that finally making it to Tokyo was great, Shanghai is a massive modern metropolis, and Beijing is host to a wide variety of fascinating Chinese history. Seoul? Eh.

(I don't think it helps that I was not terribly happy with the travel getting to Seoul. From hotel to hotel in about 10 hours? Arriving after midnight? Whacking my head in the airport tram at Incheon? Big baby right here).


The parking lot at Hyundai Asan is also a fair representation of Korean roads: Good luck finding something that isn't Hyundai or Kia.

However, because I had such little knowledge of the city and country, it's been a big surprise. Tokyo felt very tight — even the major roads were very, very narrow, the raised highways frighteningly so — but Seoul feels a lot wider, bigger, much more like Seattle or Portland than Tokyo. Also, the drivers are a bit crazier here (on my unofficial driving scale, going from little old lady going to church at one end to Los Angeles on the other, Tokyo is close to Portland, whereas Seoul tips toward L.A. China is apparently batshit crazy too). Also, EVERY car here is a Hyundai. Dead serious. Gotta love strict importation laws preventing competition...


This is also definitely my "stranger in a strange land" experience as well. Sure, Tokyo's on a different continent, but it's fairly westernized, I've studied Japanese forever, and I've been reading my travel guide for Tokyo religiously. You can get around Tokyo with zero Japanese very easily. Seoul, however....not counting brand names for western companies, I've seen more signs and markings in Japanese around here than I've seen signs in English. Gaijin charades abound, especially since only one of my graduate cohort is intimately familiar with the Korean language. That said, the place seems nice enough — right near our hotel is a big downtown shopping district, kind of halfway between the excesses of Shibuya in Tokyo and what I'm anticipating the Silk Market in Beijing will be — that is, while there are real stores with legit goods down these alleys, it seems like a good chance to find fakes.


While we had a lot of time to hop around Tokyo on our own, we've been really limited in Seoul. The first full day here was basically dedicated to a DMZ trip, which was fascinating in ways I couldn't comprehend without being here. What you might not be able to wrap your head around is that this is a country still at war. Of course it's not an active, hot war, but when you hear from your tour guide about when Korean men generally get their required army service out of the way, and you see barb wire fences and guard posts lining the highway in the last few kilometers leading up to the start to get the idea a bit.



The above is just about all they'll let you take photos of at the DMZ — actually, what they'll let you keep photos of, I should say. There's a large yellow line about twelve or fifteen feet behind the rail and, while they'll let you go up and look through binoculars to peep at North Korea, you really can't get any kind of photos.

Our tour also went down to Tunnel 3, which is the third of four found tunnels dug by North Korea trying to...well, I don't know. Prepare for an invasion? I guess. Our guide said he believes the South Korean army knows that 13 or 14 tunnels exist, including the four that have been found; chances are there are more and, considering the short 30-mile distance between DMZ and Seoul (which has about 40 percent of South Korea's population in the vicinity), it's not too shocking. The North denied Tunnel 3's existence and, apparently, North Korean soldiers painted the walls black to say it was a coal mine; the South turned it into a tourist trap and profited, upsetting the North to no end. They wanted a cut of the profits!


It's indicative of a very complicated relationship between South and North. I get the feeling that many in the South feel pity for those stuck in the North, and save their hatred for a pig-headed and dogmatic regime that's fractured what was previously a country united for centuries. The hope for re-unification is strong and romantic; there's very real issues that will need to be addressed if and when that happens — the north/south gap is far, faaaaaaar worse than West and East Germany were — but the most cynical of South Koreans just want to delay the cost instead of saying they don't want to address it at all.



The example that really drove this into my mind is Dorasan Station. It's the northernmost train station from the South before going into the North, and it was used for a few years early in the century by the tourists who were allowed from the South to the North to one of a very, very few tourist locations. It's standing still, and as nice a station as any I saw in Japan — it's now a symbol of hope, an extended handshake just hanging in the air until such a time as it's needed. There's still a departure gate for Pyeongyang,'s hard to explain. It's just a very palpable, romantic thing to actually see in person.


Hyundai Asan was fascinating for other reasons. Remember what I said about every car in South Korea seemingly being a Hyundai? Here's part of the reason why. Nearly 350,000 cars a year roll out of Asan for the world market, namely the Sonata and Azera (which are both available in the U.S.). Seeing a huge production plant — one that can roll out a completed car once a minute — was absolutely stunning. I've seen plenty of documentary shows on Discovery Channel and the like about auto manufacturing plants (thanks dad!) but seeing one, walking through one, seeing the robots spot weld, check each body with a laser...seeing cars born right in front of my eyes was spectacular. It's on an enormous, unfathomable scale, made even more impressive because Asan is a highly vertically integrated facility — from raw sheet metal waiting at one end of the factory, to finished Hyundais at the other end, everything can be done at Asan.


So I leave South Korea with a much greater respect and understanding for the country, an amazing sense of sympathy for a country that desperately wants to be one again, and a strong suggestion to give Seoul a chance if you have the opportunity. It's not quite as cosmopolitan as Tokyo, but maybe that's not a bad thing.

MIM Trip — Shashin de hansshiteiru

Remember that old cliche about photos and thousands of words? So much has happened between the first post on my Asian excursion and now that I feel the need to drop some photography in here. All of my photos from the trip so far are available from my Flickr account page.

A variety of photos from Tokyo:





Enjoying (ahem) lunch at a plant tour

Photos from a day trip out to Hakone, approximately 2 hours outside of Tokyo by train






Fuji-san! (aka Mt. Fuji)



More shortly about South Korea.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

MIM Trip - Hajime Tokyo


I believe the sign as you walk down the stairs to customs at Narita Airport says "おかえりなさい," which means "welcome home" or just plain "welcome." After spending the last two months of class with the spectre of the Asia trip over our program, getting lined up at PDX to begin the journey felt like a huge relief and a reason to be excited.

Good grief, though, 11 hours on a flight was one of the more mind-numbing experiences I've ever had. At least with a similar day spent on the road, the scenery changes, you (usually) have more leg room, and at least you can roll the windows down. Airplanes feel like air-conditioned death after about six hours; 11 feels like a marathon.


It wasn't until well after I arrived in Japan that I felt like I really arrived in Japan. Riding to the hotel from Narita, checking in, everything else felt incredibly similar to the United States; walking down the street, past vending machines offering packages of cigarettes for a few hundred yen, to a ramen-ya right across from Shinagawa Station (one of the big rail hub stations in Tokyo) that I felt like I was in another place.


After a couple of meetings this morning (you know, business stuff - the reason we're on this trip) we had the afternoon to run amuck in Tokyo. A decently sized group of us set off to Akihabara and scattered from there; me and my group spent the afternoon wandering up and down the main road, staring up at glittering neon, poking our heads in back alleys and dodging the dressed up girls looking like cosplayers passing out flyers to get you to go to the maid cafe they represent (I pray those links are safe, they're both to Wikipedia so you should be fine). I really want to go back at another time and look through a couple of stores.

Exhausting the possibilities in Akiba, we hit the Yamanote line again and shot over to Shibuya.


Take note of that crosswalk - it's absolutely unreal to really fathom the mass of humanity in there. If you've been to Times Square in NYC it's like that...times a lot. It's amazing. So is the selection of shops there, too — from huge department stores like Tokyu, Shibuya 109, Bic Camera, and more, to tiny holes in the wall like one we got roped into, which had the tightest freaking spiral staircase of all time.


The train system has been amazing to get to learn, Japanese toilets are awesome, I've had two great ramen meals and bought a hot drink out of a vending machine (they're even labeled as "warm") and am starting to see the sense of equivalents to $1-$6 coins and a more cash-based society (good god a Post Office ATM was kind of a pain to find, but I do know where it is in Shibuya now). I can't wait to explore more of the city and get into the subway proper, even. Shame none of the cool clothing I've seen will fit ever...


The full Flickr set (which will be updated) is available here. Mata ashita.