In Love with Asia

I have fallen in love with Asia, Vietnamese women and the Spirit of adventurous Americans. My love for all of these started in 2011, and I added Vietnamese women this year. Let me preface this blog that I have not seen that much of Asia, but I feel drawn to visit as many times as possible; it draws me as much spiritually as it does intellectually. I have been to the continent twice, and I have been to three countries: South Korea, China, and Vietnam. And I absolutely love the culture, the people, the cost of living and so many other things about the countries! When I first went to Asia in 2011, I went to visit my ex-patriot (expat) friend, Angie. She had lived in South Korea for a year and I decided on a whim to visit her. It was the first time that I left North America and I went completely by myself! Three flights later, 2 buses and a night with her friend because I missed my second bus, I found my friend in Pohang. I discovered a few things in that first 36 hours:

  • I am more adventurous than I realized.
  • The Korean people are the sweetest people I had ever met up until that point.
  • The expat community is a very generous, loving, caring community that will not let a stranger in a foreign land be a stranger very long.

So, this is what a foreigner feels like in America….

And with that visit, I learned that culturally I loved a few things about being an American in Asia. I loved that the expat community felt like they were on vacation all the time. I loved the traditions around food like sharing a bunch of main dishes and never letting your companion’s drink go empty. And I loved that it almost felt like I stepped back in time to the Leave it to Beaver Days.

My second trip to Asia (for business) was just a few weeks ago. Even though it was a very different context, this trip actually gave me some major insight into 2 other Asian countries: China and Vietnam. First stop was Shanghai to visit the expat community again with my cousins who have lived there for 2 years. After a weekend of fun, we headed to Central China to visit a juice manufacturer and a fruit cup manufacturer (and their fields) and back to Shanghai for a trade show. Then we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to visit the farmers, collectors and manufacturers of both black pepper and cashews. I won’t bore you with all of those details, but here are a few travel tips if you are in the areas.

SHANGHAI:  If you are looking for ideas, here are the places we visited.

  • Stayed at the Westin Bund Center and it had a lot of great eateries inside.
  • Tian zi fang (a market you do not have to bargain in)
  • Yu Yuan Gardens (gardens with a market before the entrance that you can bargain like crazy)
  • The Bund (at night is the best time to visit)
  • We went on a motorcycle sidecar tour (Back of the Bike Tours) and it was so very worth the $120 for a 2 hour tour.
  • Go to the French District if you can – that’s where a lot of expats hang out
  • Find out where the expats go for foot massages and pedicures. Get a foot massage if you can – a shoulder massage comes with it.
  • We walked past Yu Yuan Gardens a few blocks and went into the Tesco to observe a grocery store in China – worth it.

HO CHI MINH CITY: If you are looking for ideas, here are places we visited.

  • Stayed at the Sheraton which housed the Aqua Day Spa – a full spa that has incredible services for decently cheap prices compared to American equivalent services. We probably spent half of what we normally would have.
  • The Sheraton also housed a great breakfast buffet that had great flavors of Vietnam and the best Pho I had in the entire area
  • Chu Chi Tunnels are about 2-3 hours from the Sheraton and are far out, but interesting, none the less. The cafe that is nearby was incredible to watch lily pads floating up and down the river while enjoying a cold beer and great foods.
  • The Bitexco Building is the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City and there is a bar that is on top called Bitexco52.
  • We visited another grocery store, Big C, in Ho Chi Minh City and that was interesting as well.
  • If you can go to the black pepper fields or cashew fields, it is worth it!

Because of this trip, I have a new love in Asia and that is for the women of Vietnam. I told my father-in-law, soon after I returned, how much I appreciated and understood why American men married Vietnamese women after the Vietnam War. They have such a sweet demeanor and I have much to learn from them on how to be a better lady and a better person in general. They have a humble, servant attitude and are attentive to the needs of everyone around them. They are soft-spoken and gentle in their approach to others. They put their needs last, which is not necessarily something that I want learn, but I do appreciate that they did. I loved the women so much that I have decided my next tattoo piece will include a Vietnamese woman in traditional dress somewhere nestled around Lily pads and a river – perhaps on a boat. I’m still working on funding for this project and deciding the location, but that is how deeply Vietnamese women moved me.

Overall, Asia is a wonderful place for an American to visit. It humbles you and helps you understand that the American culture is not the only culture out there, nor “the best” country; it blurs the lines between religions and politics and the human spirit and the American dream. And at the bottom of this blog, there are some more of my personal cultural observations from this particular trip (see EXTRA OBSERVATIONS). They may or may not be accurate, so please take them with a grain of salt.

If you have visited Asia and gained anything out of this blog, I am happy that you stumbled on it. If you have not been there yet, I hope that you have a chance to go to gain your own insights and create your own observations. Please share any of your experiences in the comments section of this blog if you would like.

Until next time, I’ll continue down my journey out of the rat race and continue to enjoy my job sending me on global adventures.

EXTRA OBSERVATIONS:

  • Farmers in Asia carry the exact same pride as US farmers. They are proud of their products and their gardens and everything else. We tasted peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, tomatoes, cucumbers, black pepper that is still green on the vine, lime tree leaves, mangosteens, and rambutans. It was all fabulous and the farmers hung on our facial expressions to make sure we enjoyed it all.
  • Just like any small business owner in America, the people genuinely seem to want to the right thing. They want to have success and move up in life; but they do not know what they do not know in regards to food safety and occupational health and regulations and anything else. It sounds easy, but as an expert in the food industry, I can tell you it is not.
  • A funny note – while walking to the train station, I caught a Chinese man looking in my shirt just the same as any other culture. Hahaha!!!!
  • The Chinese society is developing so quickly, they do not realize what they historically have. On the way to a factory, the retailer we were working with stopped to visit the Shanghai Ancient Town, which was the capital city of China in 1511 AD, during the 6th year of the Ming Dynasty. The factory owner did not know it existed and many people seemed to be walking the streets not realizing that the ancient city was a part of their every day lives with a huge wall and river surrounding the city.
  • Food wise: usually the host in China orders for everyone and orders a variety of colors, textures and flavors. Without that, the mean is not a success. Vietnam is similar culturally, but the host seemed to ask more the opinions of their guests.
  • A discussion about the smog in inland China brought on a deeper discussion about depression rates and health issues. We were told that the Chinese government doesn’t share statistics like depression or suicide, but it is thought to be a generally healthy population and many accept the current status and trust the government will work out the environmental and sustainability issues. Thirty years ago, they had 4 generations in the same household because they couldn’t afford otherwise. Now they are down to two again in the household.
  • Chinese love to travel internationally, so they are aware of the conditions in other countries. They believe the condition of China is the sacrifice for getting wealthier in the last thirty years after the recession.
  • Math is drilled into kids’ heads early on and they are given incentive for speed and accuracy. This is why they are so quick and good at math.
  • Because the humble nature of the Chinese people, they want to please and follow direction, but sometimes they need things spelled out on how to do what you need them to. This will become important in business relationships where they might do exactly what you ask and not necessarily think how to get from A to D if steps B and C are not shared.
  • Vietnamese people seem to be slightly different in that they are being proactive to make sure they understand their regulations and reach out to the government for aid on all safety related items for food safety and occupational health, as well as financial assistance.
  • A note about Westerners – we have no immunity because we’re so clean. Clean is not always good because now that our system is exposed to something, we’re weak and can get sick easily overseas.
  • Driving is so different here. Even though they are highly unsafe without helmets and not following the rules of the road as strictly,  they are very cautious in their approach to driving because they know to protect the life of those in/on their vehicle and around them. We saw very few accidents in China, but several near misses in Vietnam between cars and scooters. Honking is common to help others know you are there and everyone expects everyone to not know they are there. 3-pt turns in the middle of the street are no big deal in front of everyone.
  • In China, the farmers write their own rules in many ways and the rest of the population abides by their rules (i.e. dry their grains in the middle of the street).
  • In China, the farmer’s markets are typically near the apartment rises, so they buy fresh food nearly daily. Grocery stores have a very diverse selections of meat and fresh fruits, but they still prefer to buy local.
  • An interesting share about their perspective of large US cities is often they often think it is quiet compared to China (i.e. Chicago) – people talk quieter than China, car horns are not blaring all of the time as a warning system, and there are not that many screaming sales people, etc.These are common noises in the Chinese culture.
  • China taxed companies based on turnover instead of profit, so the government isn’t helping them if they have high expenses year to year.
  • Sometimes as an American, the money feels like monopoly money.
  • Also a TIP: Get legitimate taxis because drivers that do not go through companies will drop you off in the wrong place because they are not allowed to drive you into certain districts because of the “unofficial” cast system. If you speak Chinese, you possibly can withhold pay until they get you a legitimate taxi and deduct the amount to your destination that the other driver says it will cost. But overall, it will cost you more and is not worth it.
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