A mountain dweller in the Asian valleys

What a summer! A few months back I mentioned that I was taking some new responsibilities at work, and that despite that extended mission, I intended to write more often on that blog about my encounters, my surprises, etc. But fact is that in the last two months, I have been on the road, living these cultural differences without having the opportunity to jot down a few thoughts. 8 countries in two months… From public speaking at the National Library in Vienna to listening to a private concert of Lady Gaga in the Centennial Olympic Park of Atlanta during a business conference, from hugging koalas in Australia to surviving taxi rides in Taipei… I have experienced a few things worth capturing, especially in the Asia Pacific region most recently.

Asia Pacific is a conglomerate of diverse countries, cultures, people, nations, etc. And there are many ways to go around. Long ago I lived in Singapore where I was working in a regional capacity which allowed me to grasps some of the complexity and nuances required to deal with the inhabitants of the region. I also toured a few countries from the South East Asian peninsula and around (Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Honk Kong or Macao and later Japan), which was a favourable ground to get ready for the cultural disparities to be encountered this time around. For this trip, I had decided to move North, which also meant moving from West to East from a cultural perspective. At least that was the assumption when embarking.

East meets far West?

Many tourists try to find commonalities between what they discover and what they experienced in the past. Between the known and the unknown. At a time when Scotland is discussing its independence from the United Kingdom, it was interesting to look at Australia with the eyes of a London-based person. As such, I could not refrain from wondering if this big English-speaking country would nowadays be more similar to the UK, or to let's say to the US. The history would lead us to think towards the earlier, but the economic neo-colonialism would most likely tilt the scale the other way. Originally, I was convinced that the famous Aussie bum would be sat between two chairs, as the French say, but I was to be proven wrong. Australia is not where East meets Far West.

Looking at a GPS, you could feel like driving across British counties... Most of the Australian cities are trademark infringements, tributes from the colons to their origins. As such you drive around many glorious (well rarely so) cities of good old England. Fulham, Ipswich, Chiswick... And you also drive through these towns on the left side of the road, which is right side for Brits and other folks who did not fall under Napoleon's influence back then. On the other hand, the scale of things are more American-like. Bigger than life some would say. For instance, as far as I recall, I had never seen a road sign pointing me in a direction with a 4-digit distance. And that was a "close-by" destination by the local standards! Cars too are disproportionately big, making any European SUV feels like a Fiat 500 on the local highways and that is understandable when you consider the size of the road kills they have to face: Wallabies or Wombats are "slightly" more sizable obstacle than the average field mouse.

Everything is bigger or greater here, but not in the same self-proclaiming way that their American cousins do. They may have a Great Barrier Reef, but no sign of superlatives here and let's face it this reef is totally Great. So it deserves its attribute. But otherwise no Biggest, Largest, Greatest, Awesomest... This country has inherited from its former dominion a sense of restraint. Australia may have Dollars, cowboys, ranches, great outdoors, surfers, skyscrapers, etc. but it retained a tuned down attitude. To its advantage. It also has tea, cricket and rugby but it retained its laidback attitude. To its advantage again. In essence Australia is a mix of many influences, stirred and blended in a melting pot that pays tribute to its relatively new modern history of immigrations. And frankly, when I saw the following sign in a supermarket, I could not avoid but thinking that it could be a good idea:

Obedience and influences

But I had to move North, going deeper in the Asian culture. Singapore, Taipei and then Shanghai were on the agenda.

To conclude on foreign influences, let me kill another myth. My knowledge about China is patchy - at best. To my excuse, this may be the Empire of the Middle, but it truly is peripheral to our western educational curriculum... Just look at a European or American world map: it is hard to say that China is front and centre. So when I arrived in Taipei, I assumed that the relatively recent Taiwanese secession under Chang Kai-Shek would imply a strong, reminiscent influence of Mainland China from a linguistic, cultural and economical stand points. But as I walked the streets of the capital, it felt strangely familiar. I had never been to Taiwan, let alone China, and I could not put my finger on it until I exchanged with my local colleagues. Taiwan is not looking to the East for inspiration. Its influences lays further west: Japan. Probably inherited from the former Japanese occupation, but also by the desire to cut bridges with their immediate cousins, Taipei shows many signs of Japanese influence. Anime, Manga, Sushi bars, shiatsu massage and other Mos Burgers... are just a few hints at my shared interest for Japan with this nation. Japan happens to also be the #1 travel destination for locals.

Alien appeal

I guess we all find in the unknown an exotic appeal and get drawn to it. Actually even the local vermin may look pretty exciting to the new comers. For example, I could not refrain myself from taking pictures of the Cockatoo who landed on my balcony, before realising there were dozens of them rampaging the resort we were staying at. In Australian cities, kiwis can be seen as the local pigeons and consequently do not catch the eye of anyone else but the tourists. I guess they are like the London squirrels, the Venice pigeons, the Parisian mimes or the Dutch on the French Riviera... An attractions that the visitors are happy to benefit from briefly, but that they also keen to rapidly forget.

But let's face it, every country has its specialities, good or bad. As a foodie I explored there culinary portfolios and was lucky to be truly treated by my friends with great local food experiences. From the Taiwanese bubble tea to the bush-style dampers, from the Singaporean Ice Kacang to the Chinese dumplings, from the more sophisticated Kumqwat crème brulee to the somewhat puzzling sweet dried meats, jelly fishes or Black Pepper Crabs... I have been indulging every bit of the way the delicacies of this region. A time I felt more like a Gulp Trotter:

Marche a l'Ombre

There are then these little adjustments that you need to make.

As a sun-deprived person from London, this tour between the equator and the tropics was a blessing. The opportunity to recharge my Vitamin D batteries which have been running low for... let's face it 8 good years. But I suppose that when you are living there, the sun is more a foe than a friend. The sun is there merciless. It is scorching hot, and for people who enjoy pale skins, you may need serious protection if you do not want to look like an Italian vanilla/strawberry gelato. As a matter of fact, French singer, Renaud, had a hit in the 80s with a slang-loaded song entitled Marche A L'Ombre whose lyrics seem after reflection pretty topical:
In French
...and in English (personal translation)
Et j' lui ai dit
" Toi tu m' fous les glandes
Pis t'as rien à foutre dans mon monde
Arrache toi d' là t'es pas d' ma bande
Casse toi tu pues
Et marche à l'ombre
And I told him
You, you piss me off
You have nothing to do in my world
Bugger off you don't belong
Go away
And walk in the shade

Well, as a Kwai Lo (white devil), as the Honk-Konguese call the Westerners, you need to adjust your walking patterns. You shouldn't stop at the very last inch of the pavement, ready to cross when the signal turns green... You need to stop at the very last inch of the last shadow, ready to cross when the signal turns green! That nuance allows you to look less awkward when you are left by yourself, with your co-workers sympathetically smiling at you, sweating in the heat, waiting for that a man icon as red as you to dress up in a fresh, green outfit.

And more...

And finally there are other local "experiences"...  Some of which you may want to forget, or you may need to talk to someone to get over it. For instance taking a Taiwanese cab and grasping the full meaning of the "danger of multitasking". My taxi driver was indeed, in his obvious order of preference, but simultaneously: chewing a betle nut and rightfully spitting its brownish saliva in an over-used, stained paper cup; entertaining several conversations on WeChat, the local emoticon-based instant messaging phone application; watching a Chinese Opera on his embarked DVD player; and, oh yes, driving me to my hotel during the rush hour with hundreds of scooters zigging when we were zagging on the sound of the opera tunes... I have not been so frightened in a cab since a New Yorker of Italian lineage boasted his vague origins and considered the safety lane between Manhattan and Newark as the reproduction of private Monza circuit.

But what I will continue to value the most are these conversations, these insightful encounters with locals who give you the keys to a slightly better understanding their culture:
  • an Australia-based war veteran from Scotland returning home after 40 years to vote in the referendum;
  • two retired ladies sharing their Proust's Madeleine when pouring golden syrup on their grilled damper bread in the middle of a bush tour;
  • the Singaporean taxi driver who sung a country song before starting a yodelling demo;
  • these university friends we left in Singapore 15 years ago and find unchanged as if we left them the day before (except maybe the additional kids running around);
  • these colleagues and their upmost generosity who made me feel not only welcome but blessed... To all of you thank you.
I have taken many pictures of these trips, and you will be able to see some on my Flickr or Instagram streams. But these encounters are truly the highlight of my summer... Maybe because my capillary state did not allow me to fully appreciate this, sadly:

To read further: