When, Where & With Whom?

            For how long should I travel?  My schedule was flexible, but rent in the bay area is very high and paying for an unoccupied apartment combined with the expenses of travel would be too much.

            My plan: get out of my lease for my unnecessarily large apartment, shove all my stuff into storage and use my rent money to partially finance the trip.  I’ll bring my laptop, I told myself, and work from abroad.  In fact, I would be saving money working on my project in a developing country rather than in the Bay Area

            I got out of my lease, which surprised me because even in April the dot-com bubble had burst and the discouraged and uncommitted had begun their exodus, leaving behind vacant apartments.  Because rent prices were beginning to drop, I hoped that, when I returned, I could rent a smaller apartment for much less money.

            Where to go?  I already had a list, which had been evolving for several years.  Korea, of course.  To attend my cousin’s wedding.  To visit family.  To learn more about the strange foods, customs (which, back then, were known as “rules”) and holidays from my childhood and to understand better where my parents came from, and from that, more about me.  I wanted to eat Korean food –  real Korean BBQ with oil still bubbling from the wood charcoals and salty and spicy yet comforting putae chigae.  And I wanted to eat in Korea among Koreans – perhaps they’d be coming in after a day’s work or celebrating a birthday or meeting old friends.

            After Korea, I wanted to go to China for so many reasons.  Culturally and historically I view it as the birthplace and authority of East Asian culture.  The rules of society, the way old people are treated, why and how you bow, what you do and read and eat in East Asia – much of it originated in China.  I also wanted to see it because of the role China already plays in the world, and the much larger role it will someday play.  According to one of my guidebooks, by 2020 China will have the world’s largest economy.  Could this really happen – could China sustain its current pace of economic growth?  What will this mean for America and the world?  I wanted to go and see for myself and discover what I could.  And then there are the places and things that you hear about – Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Rape of Nanjing and Mount Wudan.

            While giant mainland China has some influence on pop culture, it’s still relatively small compared to Hong Kong’s.  The movie that began my interest in Hong Kong is Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express.  It portrays Hong Kong as dizzying in pace and energy but still capable of sweet and quirky moments.  The movie’s second story features a young woman (played by Faye Wong) who works at a food counter and listens to California Dreamin’ all day and a handsome policeman who talks to household items -- sponges and towels and such. I wanted to go to Hong Kong and see if I could somehow feel absorbed by its frenetic pace and maybe afterwards feel like I’d seen the most modern city and stood among the busiest streets and the most hurried people.  And, schedule permitting, I could strike up a conversation with a small washcloth.

            I am also a fan of Japan’s products -- anime and gadgets, sushi and ramen, judo and Iron Chefs.  Japan plays such an important role in Asia and in the American psyche.  During the 80’s, the media portrayed Japan as the economic threat to America -- they were the super-efficient builders of electronics, zealous and occasionally sinister business executives and the world’s hundred dollar bill toting tourists.  I wanted to explore the country and see its people, those people who could turn sport, business and even cooking into an art of war, those producers of cute Hello Kitties and dazzling gizmos.

            I never thought much of Taiwan except in its historical context, until I saw Edward Yang’s Mahjong at the 1998 San Francisco International and Asian Film Festival.  It instantly became one of my favorite movies ever.  The main characters, with names like Red Fish, Toothpaste and Hong Kong, met in the dark and stylish Taipei Hard Rock Café and TGI Friday’s (which are much more cool and upscale in Asia than in America) concocting moneymaking schemes amidst Taiwanese and European fortune-seekers.  My plan to visit Taiwan was cemented by the fact that a college friend, Larry, and his wife would be in Taiwan during July.

            Finally, Vietnam.  Years ago, when I told some co-workers about my hopes to travel in Asia, a Vietnamese-American friend told me a trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Vietnam.  At the time, I gave little weight to the advice, suspecting a lack of objectivity.  But after seeing Tony Bui’s Three Seasons, I was convinced.  Over the years, I became more and more interested in Vietnam and its beauty sounded mythic – lush, green fields of  rice paddies, floating markets, islands in lakes and serene ponds of lotus flowers.


With Whom?

            I shopped the prospect of Travel in Asia! to many people.  My brother was already spending his last dollars and vacation days in Europe with his girlfriend and my cousins who were going to Korea would have no remaining vacation time.  Other friends weren’t interested or couldn’t afford (usually the time) to take an international vacation.

But I knew a person who would come through.  For years, my former roommate Nick had been interested in Asia and Asian culture.  He watched much more anime than I, studied Japanese and occasionally read translations of Chinese poetry.  Even though the trip was planned with little notice, even though Nick may or may not have had enough vacation time, even though the bay area economy was getting worse each day and Nick should’ve been focusing on keeping his job rather than risking it, I knew Nick would go.

I would go to Korea on May 21, a few days before my cousin’s wedding.  Eleven days later, I would meet Nick in Japan.  We would wander Tokyo, ride the bullet train to Kyoto, then fly to Beijing.  From Beijing, we had a list of potential destinations in China.  On July 2nd, Nick would return to the States and I would continue traveling in China and Hong Kong on my own until Larry arrived in Taiwan.  After a week in Taiwan, I would spend almost a month in Vietnam.  Because it would save about $400 and with no objections to another stop, I would stop in Bangkok for a few days before going back to Korea.  After a few more days in Korea, I would return to California.  Three months, give or take a little.



Copyright © 2001 Edward Lee.  All Rights Reserved.
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