A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: towangle


Terrifying Two Year Old

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Narita airport is an hour by train and an hour and a half by bus from central Tokyo. Ben, Stacy and I were meeting friends of friends at the Grand Hyatt to get keys to an apartment, and a bus was the most direct route. After stashing our overstuffed suitcases in the compartments below, we grabbed seats near the middle of the bus, Stacy and I on the right and Ben to the left and forward. Soon after, Tiger and his mom boarded the bus and eventually took the two seats behind Ben.

Tiger's mom spoke to him in English, but to little effect. The two and a half year old, as we later learned, was a barrel of a child. At no less than 50 lbs his stout mother could barely contain him let alone pick him up. His nearly shaved head and 6 inch tail of hair in the back added to his young sumo wrestler image. Mom's inability to handle him physically gave Tiger free reign within the confines of his window seat. This included climbing the curtains, temper tantrums ameliorated with a one liter Nalgene sized bottle, and frequent tugging matches with the handle on the back of Ben's seat.

One a couple occasions I made polite conversation with Tiger's mom, yes that is his real name. I even tried talking to him, but he met my attempt with an stone faced stare that proclaimed his indifference for my existence. Determined not to be intimidated by a two year old, I held his stare. Soon he bored of the effort, glanced at his mom long enough to smile and went back to reefing on Ben's seat.

His antics were briefly interrupted by our first stop. He leaned over his mom to watch the departing passengers. As 5-7 year old boy came by with his parents Tiger struck with his first startling the boy and provoking apologies from Tiger's mom.

Ben took the opportunity to change seats rather than endure the wrath of young Tiger for the remainder of the ride. Despite wining the staring contest, I must admit that the boy was intimidating. I hope he doesn't grow up into as big a bully as he appeared to be on our 90 minute bus ride.

Posted by towangle 19:13 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

My Korean Mother

Local Bus Hospitality

-17 °C
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On Friday morning we packed our bags and checked out of our hotel. We hoped to make it back to Seoul in time for a honor guard presentation at the War Museum. A city bus picked us up on the main drag through Daecheon Beach. There were several seats available for the 15 minute ride to the Boryeong bus station. Not wanting to hassle with taking off the large backpack Stacy and I were sharing, I sat sideways in a seat and let the pack rest against the window. The next seat back was occupied by a small elderly Korean woman with dark hair and a weather worn face and smile. While most Koreans we encountered seem almost shy, it wasn't long before she was chatting away in Korean - not a word of which I could understand. I pulled out the cartoon tourist map we got of the area and pointed to the bus station. She seemed amused, but that clearly wasn't what what her interest was. After a short pause she tried again. I shrugged my shoulders and gave her the "I'm sorry. I'm clueless." look. Some of the other passengers were chuckling and making comments to her - probably something like "Give it up. He doesn't speak Korean." When a third attempt to communicate with me similarly failed with me smiling helplessly, she let her frustration show with curt comment and an open handed wallop on my shoulder. I couldn't help but laugh. Ben and Stacy were across the aisle and stifling snickers themselves.

All the while the bus continued making stops, quickly filling up the remaining seats. As older passengers got on, younger passengers were quick to give up their seats. At the next stop I took my chance and let an older gentleman take my seat and removed the backpack so as not to club any of the other standing passengers. My new guardian would have nothing of this. She climbed out of her seat and in no uncertain terms ordered me to take her seat. Using my lone Korean phrase said, "thank you", and sheepishly sat down. For the remainder of the trip her five foot minus frame stood guard over me and my assigned seat. Soon we arrived at the bus station. I quickly thanked her again and escaped off the bus.

Posted by towangle 19:09 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Chinese Business Woman

Cultural Exchange

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My last week in Shanghai I got another email from my post on Expats.com about doing a language exchange. After several emails and text messages I met up with Judy at a subway station near her work. It was after six so she took me to one of her favorite restaurants. There was a wait to get a seat which usually is an indication of good food. I was not disappointed.

We had small side dishes of corn, greens, lotus root and a bowl of rice. The main dish was a large steel bowl of tender fish in oil with peppers and other seasonings. Though the meal could have fed 3-4 people we did our best to finish it off.

My Chinese was and is still far from conversational. She would teach me a few words and phrases here and there, but for the most part we relied on here significant English capabilities to learn about each other's background and culture.

Born in 1977, she is a year younger than me, but in China you are considered 1-year old when you are born, making us both 31. She is just old enough to be born before the advent of the One Child Policy and has a younger brother. The mother of a 23-month old son, she dislikes the One Child Policy, though she is not interested in having a second child any time soon. She and her husband live with his parents, allowing them both to work full time and rarely have to prepare meals. Her husband works as an IT manager and she is the assistant manager of a steel import/export company. Eventually she would like to open her own import export business.

In college Judy studied English, but she never had a chance to travel abroad and immerse herself in the language. As such she can read and write quite well, but there were times when our spoken communication broke down. That said we had lively conversations and I enjoyed hearing her perceptions of and opinions on the US and the world.

Whether it is the media, Bush, Clinton or Hollywood, big names and big institutions get much credit and much blame. For all the positive social changes popularized by Hollywood, movies and television have also exaggerated many negative stereotypes about people in the US. At one point Judy asked me about social interactions between men and women in the US, essentially questioning the impression that in the US people are very promiscuous. Is it true that people people meet, kiss and have sex on the first date? While this may be true for some people, it is far from the norm. Still this perception is common in many countries around the world, which can create awkward situations when romantic interests Americans do not progress as quickly as they do in the movies.

Judy was also curious why people in the United States are still prejudiced against women and blacks. That was a challenging question to field given language limitations and the significant variability in prejudices among people within the United States. In a nut shell, I tried to clarify that we all have prejudices and while the US has a long way to go as far to eliminate racial and sexual bigotry, we have also made a lot of progress, particularly in the past 60 years.

For me prejudice usually connotes racial bigotry, but feelings of prejudice or pre-judgement can easily apply to other groups as well. To be able to address prejudice on a societal level one first must be able to recognize it in one's self. I won't air my laundry list here, but I know that I harbor my fair share of negative opinions about some segments of American society. My opinions are part belief, part past experience and part lack of understanding for some points of view. As such I am inclined to pre-judge some people based on their political leanings or religious affiliation.

Interestingly Judy made no secret of disliking Indians and Japanese. She recalled an experience where she replied to a language exchange post similar to mine. The English speaker was a business man from India who was really looking for a Chinese girlfriend. This was not Judy's interest at all, and tarnished her view of Indians. As for Japan, the Chinese frequently protest Japan's unwillingness to apologize for atrocities committed against the Chinese and others during the World War II and Judy is no exception. Half teasing, I tried to give her a hard time for being prejudice, but she denied that it was prejudice at all. Unfortunately our language skills were not broad enough to explore the semantics of her assertions. While the prejudice in her remarks was blatant, I am sure her opinions and dislikes are more nuanced than she was able to communicate.

Since we did not connect until the very end of my time in Shanghai, we only met once. Since then we have exchanged a couple emails. I am in the middle of trying to explain the stereotype that Americans begin and end friendships as is convenient. In Asian countries and places where people tend to stay in the same place all their lives, friendships take a long time to build and are not lightly discarded. Examining the sources of American stereotypes is one of my favorite parts of these cultural exchanges.

Posted by towangle 19:02 Archived in China Comments (0)


Last night out

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Living across town from the University where Stacy went for classes meant that we didn't usually participate in the late night excursions of her mostly younger classmates. On the last day, after the final and closing ceremony, we ventured out for an evening of Karaoke at Party World. Finding taxi's for 30 people was a challenge and we were the last group to get into a cab.

We arrived at what looked like a hotel, with long lines of taxi's collecting and depositing passengers. We wandered into the lobby and were fortunate to have a Chinese speaker in out midst to help locate our party in the dozens if not hundreds of Karaoke rooms. While Karaoke in the states is usually found in bars, where everyone enjoys or agonizes through each singer, Asian karaoke bars are set up so groups of friends or colleagues can have their own private karaoke experience. We eventually found our group in rooms 392 and 393, busy selecting play lists, belting out classics and pouring the first of many rounds of drinks.

The rooms were sound proofed with one or two large screen tv's so everyone can see the lyrics. Smaller consoles in the room let you browse available songs and add them to the rooms play list. A large selection of English and Chinese songs were available. The videos accompanying the songs were rarely if ever done by the original artist and there were frequently amusing errors in the English lyrics.

Introverts though we are, eventually Stacy and I were coaxed to the microphone. Whether on the mic or singing along in the background, the belting out of lyrics and the clouds of cigarette smoke did a number on our throats. Despite raspy voices and a long cab ride home, we both had a great time. I imagine there are similar karaoke parlors in some of the big cities in the US, though I have never heard of them. If not, they get my vote for the next big thing.

Posted by towangle 18:59 Archived in China Tagged events Comments (0)

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My vote was for
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Posted by towangle 08:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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