After recovering from omicron about the same exact time I finished quarantine in Taiwan, I felt like reposting what I posted on Facebook another Christmas spent alone preventing the spread of a rampaging infectious disease. Ironically, I think it’s time restrictions go down and an exit strategy needs to start happening for Taiwan as vaccines go up, but I have to say I was so cared for that it was a shock to the system of living through the covid surge in NYC.
Got some curious questions about how Taiwan works and how I get to have a brief COVID-controlled life. Personally, I don’t believe there is zero spread in the wild, but it’s obvious no hospitals are being overwhelmed after living through a mass causality event during the NYC surge. Additionally, given there is actual planning here, I’m confident the government and health system can handle a spike, if not a surge.
First, to enter Taiwan you must be a national or have residency. I have jus sanguinis nationality through my parents and entered with my Taiwanese passport. (I, however, do not have household registration, meaning I don’t have voting rights or full welfare benefits unless I work/live in Taiwan for specific durations of time/pay taxes for full citizenship benefits, however I am able to enter the country as such so families are not potentially separated during this time as much as can be managed). I suppose the same quarantine and monitoring below could be applied to non-citizens, but I think the lack of skin in the game would create problems. Eg. Someone like me cares a lot more about their own flesh and blood than that Kiwi pilot who refused to cooperate after spreading COVID and fines can actually be levied and enforced given that this will not the last time I return. I can’t just skedaddle. I encourage Taiwanese-Americans to inquire on a passport as most of us qualify for this, and you never know when you might need it as long as you are prepared to be part and parcel to any responsibilities. The diaspora has an important part to play in the years ahead as China becomes even more aggressive, especially speaking in general we represent a relatively elite and potentially influential social class in the countries we live in.
Anyway, prior to boarding at JFK, I had to have a negative PCR test dated within the last three business days. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to live in the state of New York where COVID tests are free and plentiful given the amount of stress and money this caused others returning from other states and countries. I also had to fill in Quarantine Entry Form prior as well with where I would be quarantining and other information like my US Passport number (since I do not have national identification number without household registration) and any travel history.
There are quarantine hotels available throughout Taiwan at various price ranges, including the cheapest at around $30 USD dollars a day, which is the subsidy provided by the government given per day at the end of your quarantine. This is even given to people who quarantine in their own homes for their service (must have own bedroom and bathroom, and no elderly people or small children in household). I personally am not applying for it since the fine print says you shouldn’t if you are still collecting a salary. I’m still working remotely, and I’m not paying Taiwan income taxes (I would need to declare my remote work income after 90 days and pay ROC taxes), so not a thing I will do even though I’m sure many have done it. In addition, the hotel rooms are subsidized, eg. I got to enjoy staying in a Marriott for less than 1/2 the normal prices, which included three meals a day and herbal health tea.
When I arrived, I received a text with all my information on a quarantine form on my US cell phone from the declaration form. After getting off the plane, there were two lines, one for people without a local SIM card who had the quarantine form registered with their local phones verified. Once I bought a local SIM card (~30 bucks for unlimited data and voice for a month), I filled my new number in the form on the link and then received a barcode form with my information pre-filled out. There were lots of staff ready to help out, super organized, efficient, and what I can only describe as a great customer experience.
Once my number was in the system, I passed through one more paperwork check (PCR test, cell phone, hotel booking), then went through passport control as per usual, and then out. There are designated buses at a low low price that will take you to hotels in a roundabout journey, but most people opt for the taxis, which are also subsidized (paid $30 instead of $50 that would normally be the price). I filled out another form for contact tracing for the taxi driver. Before I got on the car, she sprayed my luggage, and me, and even the bottom of my shoes with alcohol. She also took a picture of the barcode on my cell phone in case if I got sick for contact tracing. Everyone was super friendly and they even had English speaking staff for people who don’t know Chinese, all forms and documentation were available in English as well.
When I got to the hotel, I had to enter through the parking elevator where someone checked me in decked out in PPE, mostly verifying who I was, payment, and when I wanted to have my meals, which were three delicious healthy bentos a day. She then pressed the elevator buttons for me and I had to walk to my room was waiting with the door open, because I couldn’t leave it for 15 nights, I didn’t have a key. The next day a policeman called and gave me a very stern speech about quarantine. I then stayed in there and chilled for 15 days while working, went by quicker than I thought it would. The quarantine is enforced by a geofencing system based on cell phone tower pings versus GPS as a compromise for less invasive potential privacy problems, although it is interesting to see how this tech will evolve and be used after the pandemic is over. If your cell phone went out of range, it’s turned it off, or if you don’t respond to texts/calls, the police will be dispatched to retrieve you. Each day, the CECC texts me to check on my status. Additionally, I have a form where I record my temperature twice a day for 22 days. If I have any COVID-19 symptoms, I have to immediately inform the CECC who will arrange for testing and additional care.
Once I was out of quarantine, I am under a seven day Health Self Management period where I can go about my normal life provided I have no COVID symptoms, but I must have my mask on at all times when I am outside. The mask order here is not for everywhere, but I must wear mine everywhere except eating, and I cannot share a dish with others (a woman got fined recently for sharing hot pot with 9 friends the day she was out of quarantine) although I’m allowed to eat with people and go to restaurants. I’ve opted to go to places that are not fully enclosed and mostly stuck to takeout. I can’t go to large public venues like nightclubs and concerts specifically (eg large public New Year’s Eve celebrations though I’ll be done by then) although I can go to malls, go to class/work, go shopping etc, and take public transit and otherwise go about my life. Once these 22 days are over, I can prance about unmasked outside and go to a music festival.
Honestly, even without this seven day ‘cooling off period’, I think my mind is still too psychologically unused to indoor dining and crowds that my brain is still ringing alarm bells. I’m less freaked out than I was the first two days, but I’m at a point like many others that when I watch shows on Netflix and there’s no social distancing or masks it freaks me out. Other people I know who have returned mentioned they had to go through a bit of de-conditioning/cultural shock until they were able to not freak out anymore.
Overall, 10/10 recommend the Taiwan COVID prevention experience.
I learned in Mexico that wisdom from the ancient times to now is needed to deal with the climate crisis and the challenges to our civilization of the time. Access to clean water, preparing for extreme weather, the survival of old ways of life, and how they can apply to us have become more crucial. Rooting out corruption and greed are the keys to the path forward. Wish it was this simple.
Out of all the places I went on Remote Year, the La Condesa Colonia definitely did not look like we were in a developing country. Parts of it and surrounding environs could be mistaken for leafy American suburbs, except for the orange jugs of whatever that are ubiquitously lugged around and the need to carefully source every beverage. It was the only place where we were advised to start taking probiotics and warned about how sick we could get. The attitude in Southeast Asia toward “surprise cleanses” seemed blase in comparison. When I got to Mexico, I watched the recommended BBC Doc “World’s Busiest Cities,” with a huge focus on the struggle for clean water in Mexico City, by far the largest city in North America and second largest in the Western Hemisphere. From dying ways of traditional life to corruption in poor neighborhoods to massive infrastructures to account for climate change, it was something that felt inescapable in Mexico City even in one of the most trendy and posh districts.
When I landed in NYC, I couldn’t help but be so astonished by the drinkable tap from the sink, but we have our problems and responsibilities. We have some much knowledge from past and present to shape the future.
Mexico City was also my last month on Remote Year, and the most close to home literally and also to the soul since I’m from SoCal. The rest are bits and bobs I wrote and reflected on before re-entering to a world where such mobility was about to dramatically come to a sudden halt.
8/16/19 The Second to Last Week
The thing that is strangest now to digest is what moments felt the most vivid versus those that have dulled through time. How much life that got packed in a privileged year versus real life. Realizing some of what makes travel special is actually its scarcity.
It feels ungrateful to say that sometimes this life has felt a little less special at moments because it is all the time and that one of the biggest things I learned this year was the need for rest and how to rest, and the need for some constants for health and self-care and how valuable those are, and how lucky I am to have those moments to recharge for the sheer insane energy an undertaking like this took.
Not sure how I will really feel back in a routine and the grind in NYC, I miss the things that used to grate at me, like the repetitiveness of life I think I’m more ready for. My mind and my body are catching up to my age and a more settled life phase that I’m happy to lead because I did the things I wanted to do when a lot of people will just give up on their hopes in dreams in their late twenties. I moved to NYC for a rising six figure salary and traveled the world for a year. How many people want to do that and could do it, but actually would? Me that’s who.
When I reflect back this week a lot of my thoughts circle around how connected and common the world is, how optimism and negative outlooks vary so much globally, and the strangeness of bonding and becoming friends with people I wouldn’t expect in a strange singular life snapshot.
Ultimately, I think I’ll measure this year more by the year that comes after and how much friendships and mindshifts actually stick.
The one thing I do walk away from is how much opportunity there is in the world and each moment in life, which is ironically difficult in the opportunity and distraction rich and scarcity mentality-rife that is New York corporate life. How lucky we are to live in a city with everything and opportunity, but people are so unhappy. I hope I don’t fall back into the mindset more than anything and embrace what comes next. Stop being afraid, and live with the consequences after all, after this, you can do it.
8/19/19 Confidence, the Growth Zone, and Gratitude
Scratching that Itch
When I left NY I wasn’t ready for the endless routine of life without accomplishing what I wanted to do: live aboard, adventure. I just wasn’t ready to settle and felt like the window to do so was closing. I wasn’t particularly happy with my career, but made leaps and bounds in development in my time abroad.
It’s funny now near the end, I want routine now. I think I’m happy to start settling in and meet someone to settle down. My wanderlust for something like this has been fulfilled. I can still imagine moving to another country for a bit or for long-term job travel, but I’m ready to be closer to my family, lean into my friendships for the long-term, find my career goals and life’s journey for the long haul.
I was pretty indifferent about the concept of the growth zone, which was a mantra. I even make jokes about, “What am I supposed to grow this year?” I just wanted to travel and see the world, and that seemed like enough work.
But here I am, with a growth zone tattoo on my ankle along with a lot of the group I traveled with.
I’m eternally grateful for the ability and health to take this journey. It’s not easy. Honestly, I feel really broken down. I’m so glad I did this. I’m so lucky to have had the privilege of a job and living in probably is one of the best times to be alive.
How do you even begin to process traveling for an entire year and living out of a suitcase? What prompts any sane person to go and then follow through to travel with a group of strangers, packing around month to parts unknown?
Leaving for an adventure was hard. Coming back is hard, will be hard. A year is short, but some years are more significant than others. I know it looks great in pictures, but I don’t know how to describe the moments I had where I wondered what insane people do this. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being able to stop talking about and thinking about Remote Year, to the point it will annoy anyone who wasn’t on it, but you can’t do something like this for so long and so hard without it profoundly affecting you. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s part of my story I want to tell and will be writing about in the months to come and sharing the journey more intimately than the out-of-context random photo dumbs and Insta-stories.
At the Airport
I’m at the Mexico City airport wiping away tears but also excited for what comes next in life. I can think of two themes I can share about the year that I want to share in this moment and remember it first before the madness of finding a new place to live, going back to work, and building a life again at home swallows me for the next month.
緣分 In Chinese and Vietnamese culture, we have this idea of Yuan Fen. It’s one of those words that cannot truly be translated, but it refers to the serendipity of human relationships and who you are ‘meant to’ meet. I don’t necessarily believe in some cosmic force binding the universe together, but I believe that 緣分 is a precious quality and has too much inherent synchroneity to leave to chance. I felt a lot of loneliness and a lot of human connection this year. I traveled with effectively a group of white people all year, and no other Asian Americans quite like me. Even though my experience was different in a lot of ways, I also believe difference and acknowledging can make connection stronger and more honest. I’m surprised at how close and attached I got to the people I traveled with and how much more connected I feel to a larger world. From the tip of Canada to the Strait of Magellan, Las Americas are a mix of cultures shaped by a beautiful mix of people and tragedy of conquest and exploitation that we’re only beginning to unpack. In Asia, I’m surprised at how Asian I still am, not just by blood, but by thought and culture and how my life, future, soul will always live on both sides of the Pacific. And Europe, guarding the riches and sins of the old world, it felt like watching a case study in for trying to forge new integrated identity and reality in a world where old powers, antiquity, and homogeneity are fading.
This year was full of 緣, and prompted by it.
2. Growth Zone. This is the tattoo with the dot representing self, and a larger circle representing the growth zone – a Remote Year staple term. I really rejected the growth zone for a lot of the starting months because I just wanted to enjoy myself and the fact that life is insanely overstimulating you, not just seeing new things, but the fact you always have to be alert and even buying groceries or going to a pharmacies is so hard and different every month. This was our group tattoo for the month, and while I now share this with a dozen or so people the meaning is different for each of us.
For me and growth zone, and especially seeing all great work The Cosmos is going and what we’ve talking about and will be something to keep in mind the months moving forward is moving from a survival and scarcity mentality to an abundance mentality. The skills you use to survive, especially as the children of immigrants and refugees, can’t be what helps you thrive. I’ll see this reminder now every morning when I’m putting on my shoes, and think about all the amazing experiences I have and the people I shared it with who I grew to love.
My lesson from RY was going from survivorship to the possibilities of a global world, of seeing how much is there. I’m glad I got this lesson, because now reflecting back on this, it would be tested in a way I never imagined.
What I learned in Peru is that there is so little we truly know about the ancient world. Machu Picchu and the civilizations of the Andes in what is now present-day Peru demonstrate that. So much knowledge about science and civilization, lost to the Spanish Conquest and time. Machu Picchu itself is a miracle, staying hidden from the Conquistadores who worked to erase the Incas from history. The Incan civilization easily rivals the ancient European civilizations we learn more about in school in the United States and the knowledge of ancient Asian civilizations imbued in me.
Also reminds me of when I was in New Zealand prior to flying to Chile. I learned just a small bit of history about the Maori and other Polynesian people, who left in boats to the Pacific Islands. I learned from one of our tour guides that not much is known why or how, but their migrations were planned and scouted, bringing seeds and supplies as far as Rapa Nui – setting forth for exploring and and settling new lands long before Europeans reached the New World.
Personally, I was really having a hard time, a few days hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which was a huge mental and physical struggle for me, a long-time colleague committed suicide. I was still mentally processing the impact of spending four months in Asia and reaching an age where it was no longer about just going to nightclubs and night markets, but enjoying traditional art and rituals, finally understanding the phase “these are things you’ll appreciate when you’re older” and how they connect to me. I finally found myself drawing in closer to the group I had traveled with, which I admit I resisted for a long time. It was a month of learning how little I knew about the world, both literally in terms of world history, and my emotional world, which is a running theme of Remote Year for everyone.
For most of my life, I’ve been a pretty tribal person, and aside from that, it takes a long time for people to grow on me and for me to fit them into the tapestry of my life. In hindsight to the hellscape that’s been 2020, I’ve been so glad to have these experiences to draw upon in the lonely weeks of quarantine where I didn’t talk to anyone in person for 72 days. I have a new group of friends we’d shared such a singular experience together, no matter how different we are. I learned in the last few years, sometimes difference can make connection stronger. Remote Year forced me to get close to, learn to with live, with people I’d never have become friends with in real life. I learned I could be the better for it, and that your friendships with people different from you have additional layers of complication, but sometimes they’re worth it. There’s myopia of understanding the world a certain way, and my understanding of civilization, modernity, and friendships broke in month ten of remote year. In all the guides about surviving autocracy that have gone around these last few years, many of them talk about good memories being your light. This month will always be a source of light for me.
Also, because this is a food blog, I’d be remiss not to mention Peruvian food is the best food I’ve had out of Asia – probably because of so many Asian influences. A few favorites:
The United States has more in common with Latin America than most people in North America think or know about. That is what I learned in Chile. Many Americans look at Europe as its kin, but after my first few weeks in Latin America with shared immigrant heritage as settler nations, with the same unresolved issues of massive inequity, latent authoritarian tendencies, non compassionate capitalism, and endemic violent religious/race/class conflict that come with that.
This has really come to roost in the last few months. Seeing police attacking journalists and thinking they can get away with it and wanna-be secret police feels almost karmic in some ways.
Latin American of course, has key differences, the Spanish language heritage as well as societies based more on casta and class. Race is different here, and I don’t want to use North American assumptions as a framework. However, it can’t be denied are the similar dynamics of waves of White settlers, subjugation of indigenous people, slavery, and histories of immigration. Although assimilation and cultural constructions ultimately differ, the lighter the skin spectrum, the better your life outcomes are in South America as it is in North America. Unresolved roles around the church and state and conservative elites willing to bend to authoritarianism for commerce and security exist as well, which is endemic globally. I think specifically about how elite Chileans and Portuguese supported their capitalistic and in case of Chile, explicitly neoliberal dictatorships and the effect neoliberal policies have had in the US.
The connection to the US of course is that a lot of the suffering and torment from Latin American dictatorships came directly at the hands of men like Nixon and Kissinger, hungry to protect capitalism and influence in their backyards. American prosperity is directly and intimately connected to the political and personal lives of our American neighbors, for in the Americas we are connected by our settler births.
A Brazilian friend once told a lot of things turned out differently in the US and Canada was that people came to settle versus people coming to exploit in Latin America. Some of the first Europeans to arrive and settle for reasons of religiosity are something we’re still grappling with today, but I’m not sure it was so different for the Spanish and Portuguese either.
Disturbingly, what I did also take away which might be good for me or maybe not, is that a privileged class will be okay, although living in a perpetual uneasy fear of violence, even as the governments fall apart in the Americas. It’s the case everywhere but perhaps even more pronounced in deeply unequal societies like Chile, Brazil, the United States, South Africa with histories of brutalization, exploitation, and a wide spectrum of skin tones and ethnicities. Indeed, how much COVID-19 seems to be ravaging the Americas uniquely and South Africa might have a direct connection to that past.
So what I learned that month is that the United States of America, really belongs to the Americas for better or worse. The original sins: the subjugations of indigenous people, slavery, and now a caste-like societies we live in are something we have to answer for and atone for if we want to move forward. It ties us to the rest of las Americas.
I remember on a call in Japan, I said I’d started to lose touch with reality. The brutal time difference got to me. It would be 11pm when New York got up at 9am. I didn’t get enough sunlight. I dove further into madness, going on a whirlwind tour of Seoul, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore during my official month in Kuala Lumpur. It’d been months since I’d been in the US and in an office. Spending time that month in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and to a place as multicultural, modern, yet feeling ancient and traditional was a homecoming for a lost daughter of the diaspora, and peek at what being a modern Asian will be in the decades ahead. People with a mastery of the past, present, and future. For me, it’s new ways to look at what is being transnationally Asian, versus the superficiality and respectability politics of being solely Asian American.
It took me a long time to piece together what I learned from that month, and this was the draft that didn’t have a narrative. This was the most difficult post to edit compared the previous months and in Latin America.
I think what I learned is what an idealized life could be for me, and my potential place in a modern Asia. I think we’re at such a moment of the power shift to the East, perhaps I picked the wrong side of the Ocean to make my bet on, but I had that month in Malaysia to live out a fantasy expat life in a nice apartment with a view of the Petronas Towers.
The rise of a Modern Asia is no longer just about economy, but culture and rise of civil society. This has been the story anchored by China’s rise as a superpower, but the modernization of Asia is a far richer story. It sounds self-orientalizing to say it and really something an Asian American might say, but I say this as someone fluent in an Asian language and able to speak several dialects. I have to say, I reveled in how deeply I could move in KL whereas it was much more difficult for the traveling companions. KL wasn’t like Vietnam, Japan, or Thailand in its welcoming of tourists. There’s no timidity when everyone speaks English. But I could easily become more of an insider depending which Chinese dialect I decided to speak, even though it’s obvious I’m not Malaysian. The Malaysian Chinese welcomed me especially regardless.
KL showed me that multiculturalism, preserving identity, and evolving it are possible, a model for modern Asians in adapting our heritage. From the hipster renditions of Kopitiams to the art, I admire the Malaysian Chinese and the beauty of a multilingual multicultural society for carving out spaces that integrate the traditional and modern without contradiction.
In my mind, even as a single 35 year female New Yorker, I still have some vestiges of the ideals of Republican China, a place between ideology and dreams, and restoring the light. The month in KL is where I felt like I got to live an ideal life in a borrowed cultural sphere, it was great to be a guest in KL. As nice it was to be asked if I was a returning Malaysian, it was nice to in a place so multicultural where I could speak the brambling mixes of Mandarin/Cantonese/Hokkein without the anxieties I’d feel in China/Taiwan/Hong Kong in the contentious times we live in now. It felt like a great place to be an Asian outsider, a wannabe expat for a month. I joked to my friends on RY if I didn’t have a good job to go back to in NY, I’d have just stayed.
There’s no neat bow to end this month, just ramblings and learning about what it is to be modern Asian. The question I ask myself is what is my generation’s place and contribution?
Also, given this is a food blog, let me tell you, the food is incredible. I enjoyed the food in KL the most:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Digital Nomad Life
WIP Coworking Space: Lisbon
WIP Coworking Space: Lisbon
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.
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.”
Traditional coffee and bakery
Digital nomad-oriented coffee
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.
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.
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.