Remote Year Month Six: We Out Here Backwards in the Future in Japan. Thoughts From Over Year Later in Ailing America

I started writing this last year a little over a year ago in my time living out of a suitcase trapezing through the world. I meant to write each month to reflect on the year past, but my brain has not been operating at full capacity with the pandemic last month.

Today marks 46 days of not talking to anyone in person other than saying hi to building staff and store clerks. I’m certainly not being able to fly anywhere I want. The lesson I learned that month feels urgently relevant.

I wrote…

Japan evokes complex and more personal feelings than any other Remote Year destination. My first international trip was to Japan when I was kindergarten or so, following that my first trip to Taiwan. My own story in a larger historical context involves Japan’s colonization of Taiwan and pillage of China and Asia. 

What I learned is how some places can be advanced but backwards at the same time. Development factors are not longer linear. Societies can be glittering but stacked rotten moribund layers, even if they have the resources to change them. I really feel that living in COVID-19 overrun America now.

As I moved through the world, I could feel that gaps between the so-called developing and developed world closing rapidly. In some aspects, countries we consider less resourced or advanced are able to do some things better than the so-called rich developed West. The US and Europe feel a lot less special. Latin America feels more like United States and vice versa. Asia feels like the future. Well except for Japan, where it used to feel that way.

That paragraph I wrote a year ago feels so prescient given how COVID-19 called America’s bluff, and Japan, the world with the oldest population, has been vacillating in terrifying denial.

I learned Places Can Be Advanced But Backwards. The world no longer consists of a dichotomy of First World Superpowers or Third world Banana Republics. All places now have spaces in between. In a way, you can look at COVID-19 as the natural result of places that have Third World wet markets literal blocks from affordable First World Global transit. Medellin has one of the world’s most innovate public transit systems. Vietnam, a competent public health infrastructure. I actually got vaccines and needed medical treatment while in Vietnam, and while the buildings felt a bit dilapidated and communist era, it has a competent, courteous, and efficient staff. I felt completely safe and taken care of. Both places look like what we’d in the US consider Third World, but I wouldn’t give gold stars to America for public transit or public health. This is the world we live in now.

But back to me in Japan 2019. For so long, we Taiwanese looked down at ourselves through colonialist lens and inferiority complex, especially to Japan. I’ve been on trips with Taiwanese people who look at the clean streets and organized crisp lines in beautiful Japanese cities and say “well we lost to them here.” I have a very distinct memory of that one beautiful summer in the 2009 walking along in Hokkaido hearing those remarks from older Taiwanese travelers.

I feel different now. Japan feels less impressive. It’s still impeccably clean, with a refined hospitality, and a perpetual obsessive eye for craftsmanship. But the neon glow doesn’t feel that impressive, even in Tokyo. Shanghai and Seoul feel more energetic and creative now. Japan shows its age.

Japan still is what I’d consider the only place in Asia that truly feels first world to American eyes, and it feels a lot of a lot more first world than the US – safety, on-time trains, and the like, but the mentality is what I consider truly backwards. The treatment of women, the work culture, and the unanswered questions of war crimes and colonialism still haunt Asia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany, and the contrast could not be more apparent.

I remember reading about how when Riz Ahmed stares at the grandeur of London, he remarks “My blood is in these bricks.” When my mother came to visit, we walked by a temple and she pointed out how they took people from Korea and Taiwan during the colonial era to build these temples. Now, tourists all over the world go to Kyoto to admire them. Hiroshima has a monument to Koreans killed by the bomb and vague references to the “Chinese sacrifice” in the war devoid of some important context. 

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For too long we have felt inferior to them, and no. Not anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I really love going to Japan and as a Taiwanese-American, I feel an undeniable connection to the culture because of history for better or worse. I’m grateful for the generous hospitality I’ve experienced in Japan and look forward to visiting again. Sushi is always on the menu for Thanksgiving Dinner at my house. But Taiwan has a female President and is an exemplar of tech innovation handling COVID-19.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent the last several weeks in shutdown NY, listening to sirens that have thankfully slowed down. More than 13 thousand people have died here, four times the number on 9/11. I literally live two blocks from the 9/11 memorial, so this is palpable for me. 

I’ve talked often about how I love working in the US, but I’d love to live in Asia. America is the land of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, the NBA, and scrappy immigrant dreams. People from all over the world flock to work here to build dreams and empires. Here you can get the highest salaries, live how you want, and be embraced for it. The cost is the risk of living in a decling empire. But I’m used to American salaries and perks, a bit too Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman. I’m a fat American, an Asian woman who literally can’t fit in Asia. Ironically though, Taiwan has become kind of this progressive wonderland run by competent people at a societal level even though I can’t live there.

To me, what it feels like the US has lost a collective confidence and a willingness to yield to the extreme voices rather than bold ideas for the future. We’re a rich country that feels like a poor country, the World’s First Rich Poor Country. I remember pre-9/11 America and miss it. 

I’m watching what I learned about Japan now mirrored. The country of my parents’ birth and where I still hold a passport feels like a nice place to go now. But I love New York, and have chosen to stay. I love the good things about America, especially the opportunity to live shoulder to shoulder with multitudes of restless ambitious people from around the world who have chosen to make this place home and dreams come true. I lament the things that are so backwards: the healthcare system, gun violence, and repetitive cycles of racism. 

Inequities have grown more extreme within countries and globally. I felt that viscerally in Japan and in this moment now in the US. This is not a lesson I wanted to live through again this way at the other end of it. Countries can be progressive and advanced but backwards and regressive at the same time, and unfortunately it depends where you sit in society whether you’re in the good or the bad of it. 

Remote Year Top Prague Food Experiences

Prague is city full of multi-layered almost stereotypical European charm, and there was something so magical about this month on Remote Year wandering around a city with such a classic soul. I loved being a digital nomad in Prague. Wanted to share some of the most delicious and lovely places I visited.

Restaurants

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I wrote a whole entry about Kantya if it wasn’t clear how much I loved it.

Eska is elegant hipster, if that makes sense. Delicious central European food re-done with hipster vibes and delicious. Part of the Ambiente restaurant group that owns Kantya, Lokal, and Cafe Savoy listed here that I enjoyed that’s about “modern Czech cuisine”. They all shatter any negative stereotypes of central European food.

Delicious hardy traditional with the best of ingredients. The Fried Cheese is so good, but even plain old potatoes here amazing. I hate to use the word elevated with traditional food, but it fits the bill here.

Traditional Czech food in a cool pub. Hearty, greasy, and full of character, stick floors and all. Exactly what you’d expect, but better.

Viennese style cafe in Prague. In the middle of the tourist slog in the old town, but really good food.

Cafes

Prague wasn’t the place I expected to find the most delicious soft shell crab bao and delicious drinks in a totoro themed cafe. Great place to come and work in a beautiful quiet spot in the city.

What I said in the post. They also have Wifi, so it was really cool to work in such an elegant spot during the non-rush afternoon hours. I don’t think I’d recommend doing that tbh when they’re busy, good food, really good cake, and beverages all around.

Probably little known fact, but the Czech Republic is home to one of the largest Vietnamese diasporas, so plenty of cool Vietnamese coffee shops, especially run and owned by hip young folks.

Bars

This is one of the coolest and most original, yet one of the most low-key bars I’ve been too. Everyone there just seemed so cool too. I want to say it was like an LA Silverlake vibe, but there’s was nothing insufferable or pretentious about the place. Amazing drinks and one-of-a-kind.

Anthony Bourdain spot. Great selection and what felt like extra delicious beers on tap.

Nice spot with views to stop by for a beer and goulash if visiting Prague castle. Beer also made by monks if that’s your thing and pretty decent.

Independent microbrewery near Pilzen in a lovely small town if you want something smaller after visiting Pilsner Urquell factory. Good IPAs and that sort of thing.

  • For other places I visited and wanted to visit, check out My Prague Map.

Remote Year Month Five: Remembering How Fucking Asian I am in Chiang Mai

Thailand is where I think I had the most divergent experience from the group. For context: I was one few People of Color in our Remote Year cohort and the most visibly and culturally Asian in the group. 

I’m surprised there wasn’t more friction in the year, but when you’re forced to live together with 30-some-odd people as your only people for a year, the dynamics change quite a bit. I am glad to say now I have matching tattoos with a bunch of people I would never have been friends with in real life in America. I digress a bit but feels poignant when I’m looking over the notes I wrote for this a year later finding myself getting more caught up in if Wuhan is a Chernobyl moment for the CCP than the impeding global pandemic.

What I learned on Month Five of Remote Year in Chiang Mai was how fucking Asian I still am, and I am. How I feel so tied to this continent, even when in this country I have very little real relationship with. Before I went to Chiang Mai, I spent my first Lunar New Year in Taiwan. I was really feeling the vibes, of the journey home

After a month in Hanoi, which very much feels like part of the Sinosphere culturally – it actually feels like Taiwan of the past; Chiang Mai is a different animal. Thailand, unconquered and uncolonized, except perhaps by themselves. Kishore Mabubani’s writing on his love affair with Southeast Asia mirrors my own.

Southeast Asia feels like a porous cultural transition zone, with influences from all over Asia, especially the combination of Indian and Chinese, but Thailand holds steadfast to its own culture and identity. Thailand was never colonized , in contrast to its neighbors, and that is evident despite being overrun with Western tourists now, there’s a different feeling there. A lack of inferiority complex and brazen addiction to tradition not found in its neighbors and especially in contrast to my own Taiwanese upbringing, always longing for a “pure Chinese” culture, Japanese culture, and American culture, etc. You can feel the reverence for tradition everywhere in Thailand, especially in the aesthetics. 

 

In Chiang Mai, I felt the most acutely aware of how your lived experiences and background make you different. How differently you’re treated, in a good way. And how you look at the world with different eyes. I know a lot of people get annoyed at how touristy Thailand can feel, but that’s a bit of snobbery White nonsense there as well and distinct discomfort from Western people. It’s like they want things to be backwards to enjoy it and have it feel authentic and special to them, whereas I’m like, the Thais and anyone else are allowed to be rich and have nice things too, and I’m not out here judging if their tourism industry has figured out that hustle to the fullest. White tourists tend to be looking for the wild wild east at fire sale prices, as if people don’t have to live there and want to live as well as everyone else. 

There’s also a huge Mainland Chinese tourist presence, so I felt like in a way a lot of the more highbrow tourism was catered to me versus the backpacker crap for White people, although I definitely was treated better than the Mainland Chinese because of my demeanor and American-accented English and just being able to say I’m Taiwanese, but it was also that I haven’t lost the gestures that are universal to us as Asian people. An internal language spoken by us. I felt so at home and welcome. 

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What a delight finding that Thai people love this in the AM too, but the tapioca in the soymilk was a clutch move I never thought of.

It’s hard to explain such a high context and nonverbal culture to those on the outside, but for those months in Asia, it was so easy to find an easy affinity with people and even the same ways of arguing with each other. In those months in Asia, I felt like parts of me long buried, reconstituted themselves. To feel so deeply and spiritually connected to the Buddhist paintings and stories and ancient traditions in temples so culturally different from my own, but sharing long ago common roots.

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Even now back in America for half a year now, I find that a lot of traditionally Asian American touchstones don’t really vibe with me anymore. I emphasize more now with how bewildered Asian immigrants probably look at us Asian Americans, it’s probably like looking at a walking talking uncanny valley doll, people the same eyes staring back at you, who eat the same food as you, believe in some of the same things you do, but are still so different from you. I know a lot of Asian Americans feel alienated in Asia, but that’s not my experience.

I’m a western Asian for sure through and through – and that’s how most people read me, definitely at least at first, but my heart is firmly rooted in Asia at this point. I’m Taiwanese-American, and live in America, and I know a lot of people don’t like this perspective, but our hearts are in Asia in traditions history that go back thousands of years rather than a generation of American-ness and Wonderbread what I see as shallow identity based mostly on shared oppression. It’s just not enough for me.

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I wrote that I “Resolve to fight. Believe in my perspective” in my notes for February 2019. If there’s anything that I have changed from pre-RY Bessie to now, is that I’ve really doubled down on who I am, even the parts that others and myself find sometimes contradictory, bewildering, and uncomfortable. Thanks Chiang Mai welcoming me to connect to your culture so I could rediscover my Asian diaspora self.

Remote Year Month Five: Feeling Reborn in Vietnam

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After spending time in places like Croatia, Bosnia, Czechia, Germany, Portugal, and Spain and then reading about their recent histories, I was in a pretty nihilistic and depressed mood. For a lot of the places I saw, I had the distinct sense the best times for them were over, especially Portugal’s problematic love affair with its far bygone “Age of Exploration” (read: slavery and colonialism), and that things weren’t going to improve significantly anytime soon. 

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Also given the backdrop of what was happening in the US at the time and still happening in the US and the West, I couldn’t help but think the post-War period was ending and not in a good way. After corporate December back in the real world didn’t help lighten the mood, a friend I had lunch with was probably legit concerned I was in a dark place. 

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Thank goodness I was getting on a plane to Asia at that point. Seeing Vietnam in its current stage of development after endless conflicts with France, Japan, the US, Cambodia, and internally, it was good to see a place so young, alive, optimistic, and reborn. Indeed, that is the feeling of being in all of modernizing Asia for someone who is Asian, who was born in a time when the rise of the East was not yet written in destiny. Even going elsewhere on the continent still feels like a journey home

Even though I’m obviously not Vietnamese, for the first time in Remote Year I felt in my element. Vietnam has that wild wild developing East feeling a lot of places have lost, quite frankly in a good way, but nonetheless it’s exciting being in that sort of place in a way only a first world person could feel. 

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Hanoi remains the most vivid and out-of-body month I had on Remote Year, a sense of what the French called depaysement, maybe because it was the only month I didn’t take a side trip out of the country and started to make real friends on the trip. It also felt super familiar. In many ways, Hanoi is so modern, yet it easily feels like I got dropped in 1980s Taiwan. 

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It also felt like a true re-birth. I learned last year in January that places and people can be re-born and heal. Considering all the malaise in the West at the moment, and as someone who finds herself often between New York and London, the rot feels real, but now I know, not necessarily permanent, especially given all the resources we have. I hope a sense of will finds us, but I’ll fight to keep the Asian will that’s inside of me still, one that will always survive and perhaps find a way to thrive as well.

So finally I also have to give props to the mighty Vietnamese, for resisting China, France, the US, and now resisting China again, a young country full of hope and confident its best days are yet to come. I write this now remembering how special it was to be there during the eve of Tet and flying back to Taiwan for the Lunar New Year shortly after.

The world is full of problems and sadness, writing on the heels of a New Year of catastrophic ecological disasters, strongmen on trial, and a possible pandemic. But Vietnam shows us what is possible and for many people globally, it’s a true belief that the best days are yet to come, and this is determined by the will of the people despite lack of control of their governments or their economic state. 

Thanks for the lesson and rescuing me out of a nihilistic state, Vietnam. 

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Sidebar: It’s important to note that Vietnam in Western eyes is not even looked at a place with real people, but a war that somehow happened to Americans. I empathetically push back on that, and that Vietnam should most be looked through its people, especially by people in the United States whose perspective as been obscured by decades of terrible movies centering White American men (no more Apocalypse Nows or Deer Hunters please). I recommend this first book that explores the ethics of memory

Remote Year Month Three: Dictatorship Depression in Portugal

I feel reflective in a good way re-reading and editing disjointed thoughts from last November and December a year later. I’m filled with an optimism rooted in the benefit of experience and perspective despite world events.

I capped off three months of Remote Year in Europe. I spent the better half of December opted out of RY in a slog of work and family commitments between NY and CA. I was in what Remote Year calls the “Growth Zone,” but my mind was also slipping into the “Danger Zone” of negativity. During our orientation, we were warned Month 3 is hard, because this is now real life and not always easy.

I had really looked forward to Lisbon after a magical summer trip there, but November 2018 wasn’t that. I remember my first visit and looking at the narrow roads, ailing infrastructure, and happy visitors. I thought to myself that this place is about to blow up with tourism, and it is not ready.

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When I came back, tourism had exploded. All the ills of tourism and part-time residents from the EU and further abroad, from “too overpriced for locals” housing and businesses to petty crime, had arrived full force in Lisbon. This was the only month I had something stolen off me. This was also definitely only place all year I felt I was definitely causing harm as a digital nomad in a tight housing markets.

It’s also the place, looking back, I felt most uncomfortable. I’ve noticed visiting former colonizing empires, eg. UK, Spain, Portugal, France, Japan, versus not, eg. Czechia Croatia, Bosnia, is that they’re a whole lot more racist because their education and societies laud their past empires. I get a sense when they see someone like me, the first impression is 1) oh no Chinese tourist 2) then some sort of twisted racial jealously at this American-accented English-speaking Asian woman, someone whose socio-economic standing globally challenges their notions of superiority. After a decade of traveling in Europe for fun and for work, it’s gotten real old. There is a jingoist part of my mind that says, “Yes, I’m an upper-middle-class American, and yes, I’m an Asian woman, and you don’t rule anything anymore and America is still number one, get over it.” 

I knew it was bad when at one point I took a picture of this old beautiful blue tiled building in Porto, and a woman came out and told me it was sold already so don’t bother. 

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Portugal is a country still struggling with its colonial past, recent dictatorship, and what I consider current victim of unintended neoliberal excesses, cursed as a cheaper place with good weather and good living too accessible by richer neighbors and nations. It wasn’t just tourism crowding people out, it was digital nomads and richer Europeans buying second homes. 

To be sure, I enjoyed many beautiful, singular experiences in a city of rich history, but it’s not one for the rainy winter season. The creature comforts started to drag a bit. Living out of a suitcase is something I never got as use to as my travel companions. I’m too old, yuppy, and spoiled. I wrote that a feeling of “the movement of time yet a trappedness” started to settle. I don’t know if people who haven’t had the experience will understand how time passes on Remote Year, you are doing the same stressed out corporate life crammed with so many life experiences in month that some people will never experience in their lifetimes while trying to stay sane and healthy. The days and months, are all long in a beautiful way, but emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting way. 

I remember thinking about Anthony Bourdain vibes and how traveling would make him depressed. I remember his quote often that, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” The thought crossed my mind that maybe all the travel exacerbated whatever demons he was struggling with.

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After I had a month back in corporate America, especially super negative and competitive NYC and Silicon Valley, and months spent looking at endless exhibits on the horrors of World War 2, Communism, and Dictatorships that came after, my depressing takeaway from last month that that generations can be lost to unfortunate tides of history and misfortunes that you are born in such a time, the wrong place at the wrong time, and how little individual human life and will can matter felt deep. 

It’s a miracle Portugal is a free and liberal European state. The whole EU is a fucking miracle despite its problems. Current generations don’t appreciate it enough because we’ve begun to lose the living memory and connection to those times. I remember visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp and realized the school aged children visiting there were different from people my age in that they personally don’t know or weren’t raised by grandparents who survived the horrors of World War II. We’re in a different era now. 

So I learned this month that places can be beautiful but broken and mired in the past, but we risk forgetting and even misremembering. Places can be victims of unintended consequences or perhaps intended consequences of neoliberalism, eg. looking at over-tourism in Barcelona and Lisbon.

Places can change too quickly in good ways and bad ways. Looking back, part, I could say the same thing about myself. Personally, I felt the shackles of independence. It was my most lonely month, but one where I felt like the travel started to change me. In the heaviness of the old continent, I can write now I could feel myself being reborn on my mother continent the month after in Hanoi and months after.

Looking back, I do feel indulgent using places I am foreign to to hold up a mirror against my own history and place in the world, but that’s also what travel is. 

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Remote Year Month Two: A Prague State of Mind

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Month One of Remote Year: Maniac out-of-body adventure. Month Two: Finding my emotional center grounded in a sense of gratitude and wonder. Meandering in this beautiful European city and working out of the most beautiful of workspaces felt like a gift every single day. 

I also started to get to know people in the group. Still, I was very much in my head and put a lot of pressure on myself on the work I needed to get done. In hindsight, I did a lot but wish I leaned into just milling around more around Prague. Just means I have to visit again, ideally with a bit less neurosis. 

What I Learned

As a group of mostly Americans, we really tried to lean into the America avoidance but not really, considering how much watching bad of Trump news and Kavanaugh’s nomination was done by our group of mostly women. Escapism was in order, but like with my Croatia neurosis, couldn’t help but be in historically reflective state-of-mind.

This part of Europe’s contemporary state remains tied culturally and economically to its recent Soviet past. I didn’t know that Czechoslovakia had been an industrial power, one that could have easily rivaled today’s Germany if history had been kinder to its people. 

The Czech experience taught me of how it easy it is to be a victim of history, of simply being born in the wrong time, and how generations could be lost. Dictatorships, authoritarianism, and destruction are much more the norm in the human condition than the exception. For all the problems inherent in myths of American exceptionalism, it is exceptional that no large-scale conflict has been fought on American soil since the Civil War. The rest of the world has suffered on catastrophic scales.

It’s always boggled my mind how multi-generational American mindsets and especially White Americans exceptionally lean into the Just World Theory, but it made a lot more sense with the tangible contrast. 

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So many of the exhibits I saw in Prague and when I traveled in Germany cautioned against totalitarianism, from the twin experiences of the Nazi era and Soviet oppression. During the Centennial celebrations of Czechoslovakia, we got to experience how the two present day states were celebrated their shared history. So much of what I saw felt the last of an era was closing, and with a new era opening with far-right nationalisms brewing globally without a coherent response. I felt pretty pessimistic, especially since being a person of color with my own historical baggage – I’m the opposite of drinking the Just World Theory kool-aid to a fault. 

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In Germany, I walked with my co-worker through Munich, who talked about misconceptions in the US about how all Germans are taught to be ashamed of themselves because of the Nazi past. He told me a lot of that is a misconception, now used by AfD and other Far Right groups, the truth is they are told about the truth, not to forever feel shame, and that the truth has to be upheld and remembered. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t automatically inoculate them against race-baiting fake news and propaganda, though it definitely makes a difference.

Looking at the truth honestly in complex manner to understand history and therefore our current situation is something we Americans lack as a nation

Looking back I wrote a little more than a year ago today at the end of 2019, today I feel a bit same same but different, but we have a lot more control over our destinies in the US than others, although it’s definitely eroding in the wrong direction. The lesson for me from Month Two also is, the future is not yet written for us, but we must always be mindful that our futures can be written for us. 

The Meat Cafeteria: A Modern Version of the Meat Sweats in Prague at Kantyna

I ate so much my first meal here it made me sick. Then I went back twice for more. One of my few repeats during my month in Prague.

An acquaintance recommended Kantyna in Prague simply as a “meat cafeteria.” Kantya feels like an upscale art deco NYC deli. I guess it is a mother source via feedback loop of history since Central European Jewish immigrants brought the roots of that from this region of Europe.

The beef carpaccio, beef tartar, and cuts of brisket are standouts here. Pair wisely with potato pancakes and rotating sides.

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I have to say, I feel a theme here of somewhat fetishizing the old cafeteria style dining and making it upscale, and I’m here for it. Even though I’m someone who typically loathes the notion that your food is suddenly better by “elevating it.” To me, it’s just modernizing a dining experience with nice flatware and decor, making something traditional super well that suits modern diners of every stripe, and cooking food faithful to the past and tradition. It’s really hard to do, and Kantya excels. Eat the meat.

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Kantya is part of Ambiente restaurant group behind other great dining destinations I enjoyed such as Lokal, Eska, and Cafe Savoy that all highly recommend.

  • Website
  • Politických vězňů 1511/5, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
  • ~$10-$25 USD depending on gluttony level