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Staring at the Lion’s Feet in Shanghai

“Sometimes we don’t even realize what we really care about, because we get so distracted by the symbols.”
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Back in 2006, just before my first Spring Festival celebration in China, I wandered the streets of Shanghai. My travel companion was busy most days with her friend, so I was usually pointed in a direction to sightsee and attempt to not get too lost (with my limited Mandarin ability at the time, I probably would not have found my way to the usual meeting point). Most of the days’ activities were centered on the Jing’An area of Shanghai–the temple that has since been remodeled to the point of being unrecognizable and the enormous mall at which I had my morning coffee while waiting for my travel companion who couldn’t contact me because I had no mobile phone.lion's feet at Jing'an Temple in Shanghai, China 2006

I set about wandering the nearby area as I waited each day and took photos of what was interesting, or at least the angles I found interesting. I was lost in my camera viewfinder as I gazed at buildings and life that moved past, ignoring the noise of the shoppers going in and out of the posh shops of Nanjing Road. I took this photo from the foot of the lion guarding Jing’An Temple.

Witnessing Changes in Shanghai

“Even if we could turn back, we’d probably never end up where we started.”
Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

I first visited Shanghai during Spring Festival in 2006–I had turned 26 a few months before and I had only arrived in China at the end of October. I was mesmerized. This was a destination I had to see.

Check out that clear sky behind me in 2006

Check out that clear sky behind me in 2006

I was confused by Mandarin–I knew a few words and phrases then, but I couldn’t hold a conversation or read a menu (I was still in my point-and-pray phase of ordering at restaurants).

I returned nine years later on a 72-hour transit visa for an interview. I had a little time for sightseeing, but there wasn’t much I wanted to see this time around, mostly because I was exhausted. I wasn’t quite prepared to return to mainland China–I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the country again.bund-2006

What I saw during my overcast daytime walk brought back memories–something that feels a lifetime past. It was almost shocking to see the changes across the Huangpu River in Pudong–the city had changed; I had changed. I was overwhelmed on my short walk along the Bund–I tried to recall what it was like nine years prior with my different self. I gazed across the river at the now-crowded skyline with even taller skyscrapers.Pudong-Shanghai

I am not the same 26-year-old who experienced Shanghai for the first time with a travel companion I had only met a few months earlier. And Shanghai is not the same city–it has matured in some ways, and I swear there’s more construction than there was in 2006.bund-shanghai-2015

I was able to meet up with my friend Expat Edna (last time I saw her was at a meetup with former China expats in New York in 2009). This is her second stint in Shanghai, and I took the opportunity to ask about life in the city. She told me there are more expats and many more services to make life easier (there’s even non-Chinese beer to avoid the boredom of turning Tsingtao into Skittlebrau (yes, I have done this)). It’s not the Shanghai either of us remembers.

I don’t expect things to stay the same as I travel–particularly not in China–but it’s still a shock to the system to witness the changes.

Have you ever revisited a place only to be surprised by how much it had changed?

Experiencing the 72-Hour Visa-Free Stay in Shanghai

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

I had planned to take a weekend in Hong Kong–the flight was cheap and I didn’t want to wait until my visa-free stay in Taiwan expires just before Chinese New Year when the ticket prices will skyrocket. Instead, I got an email and Skype call about a prospective job in Shanghai. I was excited and checked on flights to mainland China to schedule an in-person interview and editing test. It was easiest to just go immediately.

Hong Kong from the airplane

Just passing through Hong Kong this time around

I thought about the 72-hour visa-free stay that China now allows in a few cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. I only knew it existed, but I didn’t read all the details close enough.

As I got on the phone with Cathay Pacific to see about cancelling my flight to Hong Kong, I thought I should see about just changing my flight to include Hong Kong on the way back from Shanghai. I mentioned the 72-hour visa over the phone while talking with customer service. Everything seemed fine.

Then I got to Taoyuan International Airport.

“This ticket is no good for the transit visa,” the Cathay Pacific agent told me.

I was confused. I asked multiple questions.

“You need a third destination after Shanghai.”

“But I have a third destination. I’m going to Hong Kong before returning to Taipei,” I said.

“That doesn’t count.”

Technically, Hong Kong and Taiwan count as third destinations even though they are still China according to the mainland Chinese government (and despite having different passports, stamps, and visa requirements). The problem wasn’t that my third destination was Hong Kong; the problem was that Cathay Pacific always stops in Hong Kong on the way to anywhere else. This made Hong Kong my point of departure.Hong Kong from the airplane

But what if I just got a direct flight back to Taipei? Well, I couldn’t do that either, and certainly not with Cathay. The problem with that plan is that Taipei is my point of departure. Yes, my point of departure was Taipei…and Hong Kong. Are you confused yet?

So, unable to coax any sort of refund out of Cathay for this massive early-morning headache (before I had even had my coffee), I booked another ticket from Shanghai to Seoul to Taipei on Korean Air. “That works,” the agent said, “but how will you get the ticket as proof?” “How about you print it for me? I can put it on a flash drive.” No, they couldn’t do that. But they would get Korean Air to fax the ticket to them, which took so long that it left me 15 minutes to check in for my flight and run through immigration and security.

Shanghai People's Park in 2006

Welcome back to Shanghai (the air was only this clear 9 years ago when the photo was taken)

I had arrived at the airport in Taipei early–I figured I could relax and enjoy some coffee on the way to my flight. I ended up needing every minute of it to deal with the Cathay agent who was entirely unhelpful. I also didn’t get coffee in Hong Kong because that hour layover meant running from one end of the airport to the other (and going through security again) to be the last person to board my Dragon Air flight (one of the worst flights I’ve ever had).

As I departed Shanghai (I have to admit the immigration officers in Shanghai are so much more polite than the ones I remember in Shenzhen years ago), I asked the immigration supervisor on duty about the 72-hour transit visa. He confirmed the third destination regulation. However, he wasn’t sure about my original flight plan–it was too confusing. And if I had re-booked a direct flight back to Taipei, they probably would have accepted it.

To add to my frustration, my hotel in Shanghai insisted I take a taxi to the airport at 4:30am for my 8:00am flight. They said it was too far to go at 5:00 or 5:30. I arrived at the airport at 5:00–Pudong International Airport doesn’t even open for check-in until 6:00.

It turned out to be a much more expensive trip than originally planned. The original ticket to Hong Kong was $157. That turned into about $300 when I added Shanghai (still not bad). It was another $375 for the trip to Seoul. I’ll call it an experience–I need to be less hasty when booking tickets before ensuring I know all the details involved in the trip.

Have you ever made a costly travel mistake? How did you handle it?

Nationality Spotting Abroad

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”
-attributed to Mark Twain, but probably not

This post contains rants and profanity, as well as cynicism and sarcasm.

The other day a lead editor at Yahoo! Travel wrote an article titled “How to Spot an American Anywhere in the World.” You know the type of article; it’s the one that calls out all the stupid America-centric behavior that makes Americans bad travelers. This is almost the same article that has been published elsewhere about once a year since “The Ugly American” stereotype was first coined. It’s also utter bullshit and lazy journalism. Sure, it adds some of the non-offensive behaviors that are somewhat funny, but it’s still a worthless load of shit.

In particular, this article focuses on Americans who travel to Europe and possibly Mexico (but only Cancun). This does not discuss veteran travelers, backpackers, food tourists, adventure travelers, etc. It focuses on a small demographic of American travelers who probably are getting out of the country for the first time and experiencing some slight culture shock.

Crowded Saigon backpacker area is perfect for noisy conversation

Crowded Saigon backpacker area is perfect for noisy conversation

Yes, there are stupid American travelers. I met some when I took a tour of Israel 10 years ago (seriously, your luggage was overweight for a 10-day tour on the way to Israel; I had a duffel bag and a small backpack and everyone thought I was crazy for underpacking).

Damn tourists always get in the way

Damn tourists always get in the way

But let’s move on from the brutish American traveler with his white athletic socks and baseball cap (which is popular among plenty of other travelers) and see how we can spot other nationalities while traveling.

  • Israelis. Why not start with them since I mentioned the trip. These are a bunch of pushy, noisy partiers who treat Southeast Asia like a garbage dump while doing nothing cultural and only looking for pot and ecstasy to continue the rave that only exists in their dirty hostel.
  • British. Let’s go to the former colonies and see what’s wrong in that country without actually knowing a single fucking thing about the local culture. These places would be so much better if they were still under the crown. Also, American beer tastes like shit, but I’ll drink Budweiser or Heineken instead of the local beer.
  • Australians. Shirtless beach bums wandering around with a beer in one hand and a prostitute in another. Loud and obnoxious, but will probably buy you a beer or two to hang around for a while.
  • Germans. Complain about a lack of efficiency anywhere in the world because everywhere should be just like the Fatherland. Also, German beer is the best beer in the world and American microbrews aren’t really beer. Oh, you like drinking stouts and IPAs? No, those are terrible beers; I’ll drink a Heineken.
  • French. Can’t understand why no one around here speaks French. And what is it with this lack of cheese in Asia? Oh yeah, and there was that asshole who stole my Coke in London as I sat outside having lunch. Side story: I met a French bartender in Scotland. I mentioned that I had wanted to visit France. She replied, “Why? There’s a reason I’m here.”
  • Japanese. Seriously, how much time do you need to take a fucking picture!?
At least they don't travel like this

At least they don’t travel like this

As you can see, these stereotypes are nothing more than sweeping bullshit generalizations for short-lived entertainment purposes and internet clickbait. Good job, Yahoo! Lead Editor. I’m sure your university journalism professor would be proud of your journalistic integrity (well, probably proud that you actually have a job anyway…great I made myself feel bad about my career path).

An appropriate reaction to such articles

An appropriate reaction to such articles

Are any of my stereotypes true? Well, sure, I’ve met these people while traveling, but that doesn’t mean it’s everyone. I’ve met wonderful travelers from all over the world–most of them were solo travelers or in small groups.

Why don’t we finally bury this stupid article on travel stereotypes and focus on travel stories that are worthwhile, like who the fuck actually travels with an Ostrich Pillow? Also, I would probably travel with one of those things because they look comfortable and ridiculous–it’d be hilarious to walk through immigration with that on my head (until US agents decide it’s a threat and need to detain me indefinitely).

Are there any other traveler stereotypes you’re tired of hearing? Add your own rant.

A Crowded View in Taipei

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
John Muir, Our National Parks

On New Year’s Day, I headed to Xiangshan–Elephant Mountain–in southeastern Taipei. I’ve hiked this “mountain” before in much warmer weather. This time around it was a national holiday, and throngs of locals and tourists heading for the hills to catch a better view of the city.xiangshan-panorama

This time around I only wanted to hike, so I didn’t bother bringing my fancy camera. Fortunately, my new phone takes panoramic photos, unlike my fancy camera that lacks some features I didn’t take note of before purchasing it. The clouds broke above Taipei 101 just in time for a better picture. I managed to squeeze in among the crowd to get my photos.

EFL Jobs Abroad: The Interview

“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead–ahead of myself as well as you.”
George Bernard Shaw

As I’ve re-entered the job market in Asia, I’ve looked at returning to teaching English as a foreign language (EFL); it’s a job I’ve enjoyed at times in the past despite the stress. After being away from the experience of teaching abroad, I have rediscovered the good and the bad in the job hunt. There are lessons that have stuck with me over the years, but I had forgotten about the general treatment and perception of most foreign English teachers in Asia, which is reflected in the operations of some schools and the contracts they offer. I’ve seen low pay, long hours, and absurd restrictions thrown at teachers for the “privilege” of teaching in certain places. I’ve also encountered some great operations that are, unfortunately, part time.

Peking University Graduate School across campus from where I worked in Shenzhen

Peking University Graduate School across campus from where I worked in Shenzhen

The most important thing to remember when it comes to EFL jobs is that your questions to the employer are more important than the questions being asked to you. For any interview it is important to ask a potential employer some key questions; this element is much more important for EFL positions. Schools around the world need qualified English teachers—there are more available jobs than teachers available. This means you hold the upper hand in the interview process.

Unless you’re applying for a position with an established and respected program, such as JET, Peace Corps, or other government-sponsored program, there are questions you should ask to help avoid employment shocks and possible disasters in the future.

1. How many classes will I teach each day and how long is each class?

This sounds like an obvious question with an obvious answer, but it’s not. Some job advertisements state 18 hours of teaching per week or something similar. Does this mean 18 academic hours or total hours? How many classes will fill this time? Unless it is already stated, you should ask how much you will be paid for additional classes.

A good follow-up to this question is: How much time is there between classes? This will help in the future for you to decide how to prepare your classes.

If you have to teach more than 20 classes per week, the pay should be exceptional. I was offered a job that would have required me to teach 40 classes per week for less than $15 per class in Tokyo. If you factor in lesson planning time, you’re looking at a 60-hour work week for about $25,000 per year.

2. Are office hours mandatory and, if so, how many?

Just because you’re teaching 18 hours a week does not mean you will be at the school for only 18 hours. Many schools want to monopolize your time so that you won’t have time to tutor privately for extra cash.

You should also inquire as to what your duties will be outside of the classroom. If the school offers an acceptable salary, you may not be interested in tutoring part time, which means the office hours may not matter. In some cases, you may just sit at a computer doing whatever you want during those hours.

I had to schedule at least 10 hours of available office hours when I worked at the graduate school in China (I scheduled more to make the commute easier). This was intended as time for students to come in for additional help, but they almost never came, so I had more time to plan lessons and grade assignments (and take naps on my office sofa).

The graduate library in Shenzhen

The graduate library in Shenzhen

3. Are there times when I will have to work on the weekend?

The job may claim that you will only work Monday through Friday, but that doesn’t mean they won’t alter the schedule and have you work on a Saturday or Sunday from time to time. In China, it is standard practice to “make up” classes on weekends when the classes have been canceled due to national holidays. This may create six- or even seven-day workweeks. In some countries this is unavoidable, but you should know what to expect.

4. Is housing provided or will you help me find an apartment prior to arrival?

This is a complicated question. If the school provides housing, what amenities and furnishings are included? Is housing on campus, and, if so, is there a curfew? If they help you find an apartment, how much will it cost and where will it be located? If the school doesn’t help you find an apartment, will they have temporary housing for you while you search for an apartment? Everyone should be very careful when it comes to housing in a foreign country as locals and foreigners are treated differently by landlords. The laws protecting tenants in your home country are not the same when you move abroad.

I interviewed for a program in Japan that required me to provide an address for where I’d be living, otherwise they’d have to rent an apartment to me at an inflated price (they were definitely making money off the rental).

Sometimes you get to live in a nice neighborhood

Sometimes you get to live in a nice neighborhood

5. Will you provide me with the appropriate visa and cover all expenses involved in obtaining it?

This changes depending on the country. No matter where you go, you will be required to have a legal visa. Some schools will try to have new teachers pay for the expenses—you should not. If the interviewer says, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” it’s a sign that you should avoid the school. They should provide specific answers to important questions pertaining to visas.

Note on China: If the school does not say it will send documents to apply for a Z visa in your home country, avoid the school at all costs. This is the only way to obtain a legal work visa/residence permit in China now.

6. What materials do you provide for classes?

This sounds like another innocent question, but it can be one of the most important. You may not know the difference between textbooks, but you want to know that materials are available for use. If classroom materials are not available, you should ask about reimbursement for purchasing your own, assuming you don’t plan to keep them at the end of your contract.

7. Do you offer any classroom training or professional development seminars?

This is not a deal breaker, but it is a useful question. For more inexperienced EFL teachers, this can be important. Having some training prior to beginning your experience as a foreign-language instructor can be greatly beneficial to you and your students. This will also provide a general idea of the school’s expectations of the foreign teachers.

Be careful with this one. I have encountered more than a few training centers in Japan that required unpaid training, even for experienced teachers.

Some schools make these park rules seem reasonable (pay attention to no. 6)

Some schools make these park rules seem reasonable (pay attention to no. 6)

8. Does the school offer language classes for teachers?

Most schools should be willing to aid new staff through culture shock. The best way to overcome the shock of a foreign country is to learn the language. Schools should not expect foreign instructors to learn a new language on their own—it’s important to have a structured class.

9. How many teachers are currently at the school and how long have they been there? 

For some EFL teachers, the number of foreign teachers matters—some people prefer to have other English speakers around, while others would rather interact with locals. Having staff that has been at the school for a while can be helpful to new EFL teachers in getting acquainted with the new surroundings. If the staff changes every year, there’s probably something wrong with the school’s management.

10. Can you provide e-mail addresses of current and/or former teachers?

If the interviewer says no, end the interview. There is no reason why they can’t find a teacher willing to speak to a potential employee. You don’t need to speak with a current or former employee, but there should be someone willing to vouch for the school.

If these questions have been answered to your satisfaction, you will have less to worry about if you are offered a position at the school. With less stress prior to arrival, you can spend more time focusing on educating your students.

You can read some of my ESL teaching articles on FluentU.

Are there any questions you’d add to the list? Any questions you wish you had asked before accepting a job?

Airbnb and Long-term Travel

CNN Travel has an article today about a guy who moved to Hong Kong and only lives in Airbnb accommodations to “get out of the expat bubble.” CNN likes to think that this is an important experiment–trying a well-known service like Airbnb in a single metropolis where it isn’t widely used.

I’ve checked Airbnb in Hong Kong, though not in a long time, because I had thought about staying there for some time to visit friends. I decided against it because there was nothing even close to my price range–and I was willing to go as high as $900 per month.

My first Airbnb apartment in Tokyo

My first Airbnb apartment in Tokyo

After staying in Airbnb accommodations over 10 of the last 14 months, I know a bit about what to look for and what to expect. I have used Airbnb in Tokyo, Osaka, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul, Taipei, and Perugia. I know that I could easily find something cheaper if I was set on staying longer in each city–it’s fair to charge more for a short-term rental than for a six-month lease. I have, however, discovered some places with reasonable rent, but I always stay for a month or more in each place. My landlord in suburban Tokyo offered a nice deal if I wanted to stay long term–it would’ve saved me more than $100 per month if I had found a job to keep me there. She was a nice enough host that I contacted her when I returned to Tokyo because I knew it was better deal than anything else.

I have seen the good and no-so-good of Airbnb throughout Asia and even in Italy. The only negative experiences I’ve had have been with landlords during email exchanges–I have never stayed with these people because the red flags kept me away.

In Hanoi, I searched for apartments but they were all through real estate agents–only a few people were renting out dozens of properties. They all insisted that I pay a $400 deposit to stay for one month. I didn’t trust these people enough to pay that in cash, so I spent a little more money and stayed in two hotels for the month. It cost me $200 more for the hotels, but I got my room cleaned each day and free breakfast and coffee.

How could I say no to a comfortable hotel bed in Hanoi?

How could I say no to a comfortable hotel bed in Hanoi?

In Saigon, the Airbnb apartment wasn’t ideal, but it was acceptable for $400 for the month. I had a communal kitchen if I had wanted to cook and a free laundry service (there was a woman who cleaned the rooms almost every day and even took my laundry). The only problem I had was with the gate and door locks to the building–I broke two keys (one on the last day).

This is actually South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's bomb shelter bedroom

This is actually South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s bomb shelter bedroom

I was only surprised by my accommodation twice. The first time was in Taipei. I followed the directions and read the street signs until I came to my street and found it full of Japanese prostitution bars (this neighborhood was locally known as the high-end prostitution district). Somehow the apartment was quiet enough for me to stay for three months (it was also only about $500 per month). The landlord even replaced the air conditioner when I told him it was broken and reaching 90 degrees in the apartment.zhongshan

The second surprise was my closet in Seoul. Seriously, my bedroom in Tokyo was the same size as the entire apartment in Seoul, and that closet had a bathroom and kitchen. I was told after a month that I was paying about twice what I should for that claustrophobic experience. Still, I managed to stay there for two months before heading to Italy.

My Airbnb stay for a month in Perugia was surprisingly cool…or maybe cold for August. I noticed that most listings around Italy didn’t have air conditioning. When I inquired about the temperature in the apartment, I was told that because the building had thick walls, it stayed cool. This was a pre-Renaissance building converted into apartments, and the walls were thick. I actually wore a sweatshirt in the apartment (actually needed it outside at night because it got unseasonably cold).

The closet I called an apartment forced me to take 4-mile walks every evening

The closet I called an apartment forced me to take 4-mile walks every evening

One thing I learned about Airbnb in Asia is that most hosts don’t want to deal with the site. They don’t like the fees. Not only do they lose some from Airbnb, but they lose more from PayPal foreign exchange fees. A few asked me to reserve the apartment for a week and then pay the balance in cash on arrival for a slight discount. After the first two times, I began asking about staying cheaper if I agreed to pay cash on arrival. The landlord in Saigon insisted that I not reserve through the site–I was told to see the apartment first. After seeing it the first night I was told I could pay cash or go through Airbnb, whichever was easier.

Entrance to the building in Perugia

Entrance to the building in Perugia

So, what was the advantage to using Airbnb? Not much. Convenience was about it. There was a greater level of trust with the people I chose to rent from. I’m sure some local rental sites would’ve had cheaper options, but they would’ve been more difficult to sift through. There was also the added benefit of having a washing machine, wifi, and utilities included in all the places I stayed. If I was traveling instead of working 50 hours a week, I would have rather stayed in a hotel or hostel to meet more people.

Have you used Airbnb? What has your experience been?

Happy 2015!

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

I can’t say I’m sad to see 2014 go. I can’t say I’m happy about it either.

2014 started out with me on a boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, where I almost immediately met up with a long-time social media connection. I experienced the beauty of adventure in places I hadn’t been–Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Italy. But the end of the year turn to struggle and I’ve been on the job hunt for too long.taipei101-fireworks

As I’ve searched for new work, I’ve found some interesting freelance opportunities–I’ve learned new teaching methods at a small school in Taipei and I’ve been getting paid to write (I’m also writing more for myself). I’ve also found potential in a startup that I can do on my own (though I’d prefer to find others to help out, if I follow through).taipei101-fireworks2

There’s potential for settling down (sort of) in 2015. There’s also potential for more wandering, though less frequent. More importantly, there are the new friends I’ve made who support me in my endeavors to come.taipei101-fireworks1

Last night I rang in the new year with friends as we drank in Songshan Creative Park to watch the Taipei 101 fireworks at midnight. It was beautiful…for five minutes.

Happy New Year to everyone I know and those I haven’t yet met! Hope you have grand plans this year too.

Comparing Prices: Venice and Tokyo

I departed Italy after a little more than a month. I took a few days in the most expensive city I’ve ever visited before boarding my flight back to Tokyo.

Seriously, I think Venice is more expensive than Tokyo. Granted, I lived in an apartment in suburban Tokyo and cooked most of the time, but I was still able to go out and enjoy myself on a budget around a city that is known to be expensive.

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

Rialto Bridge in Venice, also known as the bridge of shops I cannot afford

The water bus in Venice costs EUR 7 (EUR 1=USD 1.31) for a one-way trip, or EUR 20 for a 24-hour pass. And I thought paying JPY 300 (JPY 117=USD 1) for a one-way train ride from the Tokyo suburbs to Shinjuku was expensive. To be fair, the bus from Venice to the airport was only EUR 6 (EUR 15 for the boat that would’ve required less walking) while the bus from Narita to my suburban Tokyo apartment was JPY 3100 (of course, it’s also a two-hour bus ride from Narita as opposed to about 30 minutes from Venice to the airport). Tokyo now offers a half-price airport express ticket (about JPY 1500 to Shinjuku Station) for tourists that can be taken only from Narita; it’s full price to exit Tokyo.gondola2

Tokyo is known for the most expensive taxis in the world–I was told that if I stayed out after the trains stopped running, it’d cost at least $100 to get home (probably much more considering how far outside the actual city I lived). I didn’t ask how much the fancy water taxis were Venice, but I assume they’re ridiculously expensive. I found out that a half-hour gondola ride is EUR 80 plus tip, which is another EUR 15-20. I guess that’s why I saw gondolas regularly carrying six people.

Anyone want an expensive gondola ride?

Anyone want an expensive gondola ride?

Both cities can be expensive, depending what you do in each–tourists pretty much get gouged in both. There are, however, bargains in Venice and Tokyo for those who seek them out.cheap-eats-venice

In Venice I managed to find a few places that served really good paninis and small sandwiches–the small sandwiches were only EUR 1.5 each and the paninis were EUR 3.5, which made for a nice lunch. I also found places that served wine or a spritz for only EUR 2 (they were usually EUR 5 or more along the popular tourist routes). A meal in a nicer restaurant, where the food wasn’t mediocre, was usually EUR 20 or more. Those rare restaurants were worth trying if they could be found. If you want less expensive food and drinks, you have to go to places that don’t have seating–I managed to only pay EUR 1 for an espresso because I didn’t have to sit down.venice-coffee

After speaking with a friendly couple from a town not far outside Venice, I found that even the locals don’t think much of the food there except for a few places, like Paradiso Perduto where I met them.

In Tokyo, most decent meals will cost JPY 1500 or more. But, there are some good small restaurants for less than JPY 1000 (many of the good ramen shops are less than that). Beer is another problem–Japan taxes beer based on malt content, and it raises the price significantly. In an average bar, a cheap beer like Asahi or Kirin will be about JPY 700, while better beers can cost up to JPY 1400. Similar to Venice, some places in Tokyo charge a seating fee of a couple hundred yen.shinjuku-road

While I can’t comment on prices of rent in Venice, I can comment on the price of hostels. On my first night in Tokyo last year I stayed at a business hotel in Asakusabashi, which is a more central location than my apartment, for JPY 6500 per night. The room at the Belmont Hotel was comfortable with plenty of space for a short stay. In a hostel in Venice, just off the main tourist street through the city, I paid about EUR 30 per night and definitely was not as comfortable as I was in Tokyo. Most hotels during the summer, particularly on weekends, were at least EUR 70.

The free view of Tokyo

The free view of Tokyo

The main attractions in Venice are also more expensive than in Tokyo (privately-run museums can be a bit pricey in Tokyo as well, but the major sites are free or reasonable). It seems Tokyo would prefer to draw attention to its historic sites free entrance, while Venice would rather charge admission to everything except Basilica di San Marco (fortunately, I was tired of visiting churches and could save that money for food).

This dish was only JPY 500

This dish was only JPY 500

Overall, Venice is the more expensive city. As a tourist, Tokyo can be very expensive, but it gets less expensive when you know where to go (and it would’ve been less expensive for me if I had lived in a more central location to cut down on transportation costs). Venice, on the other hand, doesn’t get much less expensive. Travelers also don’t get the same value in Venice that they get in Tokyo–almost everyone complains that the food around Venice is mediocre (and just about every restaurant on the main streets should be avoided for this reason).

Does this mean travelers should avoid Venice? No. It only means that travelers need to be aware of the cost before heading to a destination with a reputation for high costs–the same as Japan. I wasn’t surprised by the prices in either city, but I was disappointed in the quality of food at most restaurants in Venice.

 Have you been to Venice or Tokyo? What did you think of the cost of traveling around the cities?

Christmas Greetings from Taipei

East Asia loves Christmas–I witness this while living in China. My Christmas tradition didn’t change much when I moved to southern China years ago; the movies were on pirated DVDs and the Chinese food was better, but it was still more or less the same tradition.marry-xmas1

While walking around Taipei with my friends the other night I came across this misuse (or maybe it was intentional) of the English language. I’d just like to know who used to be Max and why I should be interested in marrying him.

Anyway, merry Christmas to friends and readers, however you wish to celebrate it!

Holiday Lights of Tokyo

In the run up to Christmas, I noticed the prevalence of Christmas lights all over Tokyo. Every shopping area was decorated to attract more customers and all the people were busy taking photos in front of the displays.yomiuri-land-lights

Last year my landlord took me on an after-work excursion to see the light display at Yomiuri Land, the local amusement park in Kawasaki. My landlord somehow had free tickets to the park to see the light display–one other short-term tenant also joined us for the evening.yomiuri-lights

It fortunately wasn’t too cold on that early December evening and we were able to walk through the crowd at our pace without stopping for the rides–it was the lights that interested us.jewellumination

I enjoyed this one because at first glance it looks like they’re putting up the lights for the Jews of Tokyo to celebrate Hanukkah (alright, maybe I was just hoping for that–it’s even in the right color of Hanukkah). yomiuri-fountain

There was even a fountain light show set to music in the park, which was much more difficult to get a decent picture of but I managed a few.yomiuri-lights1

On Studying Abroad

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
-Gustave Flaubert

The White House recently created a new Study Abroad Office to somehow support students who take the initiative to further their education outside the US borders while incurring crippling debt upon graduation. I really don’t see the impetus for creating such an office other than greater government surveillance of students abroad who are already encouraged to notify the US embassy in the host country–it’s not like the government is going to provide better loans or grants for the students. It will supposedly “manage” government scholarships for students who study abroad, but there’s no information whether it will expand such scholarships to relieve the debt burden.

View from my apartment in northwest London

View from my apartment in northwest London

Reading about this government initiative of sorts got me thinking about the advice I’ve given to students over the years–take at least a semester and study abroad. According to US government data, fewer than 10% of students study abroad, and only 1.5% of university students went abroad in 2012.

Back in 2000, I took a semester abroad. As a monolinguist at the time I headed for England–I was already studying English, literature, and creative writing, so it made sense to me. It, of course, brought up the old Simpsons joke, “Pfft, English. Who needs that? I’m never going to England.” All joking aside, I was desperate to get out of central Pennsylvania one way or another.london-from-st-pauls

My university denied my application because they claimed my grades weren’t good enough. As an alternative, I was pointed to study abroad paths that weren’t managed by my university–I applied for programs through other schools. I originally applied for a program in Oxford (but not at that Oxford University). I was told I was the only student on that program. My parents convinced me to change my school choice to one in London so I could be with other people from the program–who knows if that worked out for the best as I still talk with only one person for that semester abroad.

As most of the people housed in my apartment building were in the same program that required more class time than mine did, I didn’t get to interact with them too much. They also hated going to the pubs on our street because they thought the patrons were unfriendly–we were in London during the Bush-Gore election and faced a lot of political commentary from the Brits (I laughed it off as the locals attempted to offend the American; they usually bought me a beer after 15 minutes when they realized I wasn’t offended). I took the American jokes in stride and occasionally had some British jokes as retorts (it almost got me in trouble after I laughed when the bartender called my Australian friend a Kiwi).

What education in England doesn't include a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford?

What education in England doesn’t include a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford?

Classes in London were amazing–I feel that I got a better education in those literature classes than I did in almost any of my courses back home. Of course, I took courses that weren’t offered back home–modern British theatre, colonial literature, and an art and culture course only offered to international students (there was also a renaissance literature class in there). I was told I signed up for too many courses (I originally wanted five, but the advisor wouldn’t allow me). Unlike a lot of international students, I showed up for all my classes–no sense in wasting the educational value I was receiving.

I hung out at the student union most nights–they had a large pub for the students with beer that was much cheaper than anywhere else in London. That’s where I met all the other students; and I rarely ran into any other international students. I learned about the school and places to wander around and outside of London. Everyone had suggestions for me.edinburgh

I must admit that most British people I met didn’t think too highly of Americans–the stereotypes they held did not apply to me. The first step toward breaking preconceptions about groups of people is an encounter with those people. Time and again I heard comments about how I wasn’t like the other Americans these people knew. I didn’t feel like an ambassador for my country, but I might have at least changed some perceptions.

After I returned from my semester abroad, I volunteered at the university study abroad office–the office was happy to have someone with experience in studying abroad through a third party. I helped students who couldn’t find a program through the university that fit their academic and travel goals. When I met younger students during those final three semesters, I encouraged them to take a semester abroad–two of my friends enrolled in different programs in Europe during our last year.

Dublin on one of the few sunny days I had all semester

Dublin on one of the few sunny days I had all semester

Studying abroad is what opened my eyes to the world of travel. I forever became a wanderer after that. I was forced to travel alone because I couldn’t convince any one of the Americans in my program to travel for a weekend or even three days. I got fed up and took a university-sponsored trip to Amsterdam (I knew no one on that trip). After that trip I took another three-day solo journey to Dublin, where I met a lot of fun locals who pointed me toward some of the best sights of the city (though everyone was awful with directions). I even took a longer solo trip around Scotland while I was practically homeless between the end of the semester and the time my parents arrived for a vacation.

Not only did I learn more about literature and culture in class, but I also learned to trust myself and be more independent. Any free day I had was spent wandering the city in search of whatever I might find–sometimes I had more specific destinations rather than my usual lost wanderings.scottish-highlands

There’s more that a student can learn from studying abroad. Most people go to non-English-speaking countries to improve their language skills, which is something I wish I could’ve done if I hadn’t given up on Spanish after my freshman year. It’s also what drove me to move abroad after grad school with intention of traveling and learning a new language that I wouldn’t forget.

More than just improving Americans’ perception of the world around them, it improves other people’s perception of Americans. One kind person traveling abroad will encounter many people who may not have a favorable impression of that person’s culture–that one kind person can change the opinion of everyone he/she encounters. Conscientious travelers do more for international relations than all the diplomats combined.

If you’re a student reading this, I encourage you to take a semester abroad; see more of the world around you while you’re young. Higher education is much more expensive than it was when I earned my degrees (and it wasn’t so long ago), but the long-term payoff of a more well-rounded education is worthwhile.

Have you studied abroad? Did it improve your education? How did it change your perspective?

Cao Dai: A Different Kind of Temple in Vietnam

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
-Thích Nhất Hạnh

As part of my tour of the Củ Chi tunnels outside Vietnam, we stopped at the Cao Đài Temple 60 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City. As I searched for tours to take outside the city, I came across this relatively new religion with a rather interesting temple. I had never heard of Caodaism before I checked out day-trips from Saigon, but I found the concept of it intriguing.cao-dai-temple

The history of Cao Đài only dates back to the early 20th century when Ngo Van Chieu had a vision and began the religion. Caodaism was formally established in 1926, incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism. Caodaists created their own army that fought against Japanese occupation in 1943. The religion was repressed by the Vietnamese government in 1975, but regained legal status in 1985. Today, the religion claims to have about 6 million adherents worldwide.cao-dai-temple1

To add to the inclusiveness of Cao Đài, the religion’s saints include Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. I can’t really argue with a religion that accepts a literary figure as a saint, though I could think of other writers more deserving of sainthood.cao-dai-saints

The extravagant temple resembles a cathedral with elements of Buddhist and Taoist temples, particularly in the design of the pillars.cao-dai-temple-interior

While walking around the open space around the temple that provided little shade from the heat of southern Vietnam in winter, we entered the colorful temple with the large crowd of tourists before the Caodaists entered for their prayer service.cao-dai-temple-procession

Tourists were pushed to a gallery area above the main floor of the temple to watch the midday prayer–traditional Vietnamese music playing as the practitioners walked into the temple in their white, red, yellow, and blue robes. The yellow represents Buddhism, the red Christianity, the blue Taoism, and the white is for the ordinary adherents.cao-dai-temple-service

It feels awkward taking photos of religious ceremonies–I usually ask before I take pictures at any religious site–but after seeing everyone else taking photos, and more or less encouraged to do so, I snapped a few. I still avoided taking photos that could identify specific people inside the temple as it might be offensive.cao-dai-temple-man

Because Cao Đài Temple is such a large tourist destination, it seems that Caodaists just accept the gawking hordes as a way to promote the religion.

Overlooking San Marco Square

“There is something so different in Venice from any other place in the world, that you leave at once all accustomed habits and everyday sights to enter an enchanted garden.”
-Mary Shelley

I wasn’t certain I wanted to pay to get in. Sure, the view should be pleasant, but is it really worth 8 euros? Everything else in Venice is overpriced and I didn’t want to go to the ATM again.campanile-di-san-marco

Compared to the prices of everything else around Venice, it’s reasonable. Taking the elevator to the top of the Campanile of St. Mark’s Church provided the best views of the city. The problem is arriving at the appropriate time to catch the best weather, the smallest crowd, and the right angle of light. One of my hostel roommates took the journey the day after I did, but he had a view of the sunset–something I should’ve seen instead of morning. piazza-di-san-marco

Morning isn’t all bad. The weather is clear enough and the crowd is thin as most tourists wander the streets just after breakfast. It would’ve been better if I had a sunnier day like I had in Reykjavik.venice-from-san-marco

I was still able to see the surrounding islands and architecture, like that of Santa Maria della Salute.
st-maria-venice

The 323-ft tall Campanile di San Marco is just across from Basilica di San Marco in the corner of the square. On a clear day you can see all of Venice and the surrounding islands from the bell tower. Of course, scaffolding ruined the view of the top of the church, but I was more interested in looking out over the lagoon and square. san-marco-church

The campanile that stands today is not the original, as the original that was built centuries ago collapsed in 1902. The reconstructed campanile reopened in 1912. The rebuilt bell tower explains why there’s an elevator instead of narrow staircase up to the top. I was kind of looking forward to climbing the stairs to the highest point in Venice, but the elevator wasn’t so bad.overlook-doge-palace-san-ma

Usually I prefer the free views of the cities, which is why I enjoy hiking so much. I skipped the bell tower in Florence, which I heard is quite a view, so I decided to take in the view from Venice’s highest point as long as the line wasn’t prohibitively long.

How often are you willing to pay for such views of cities?

Admiring the Duomo in Florence

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve previously written about the fatigue travelers experience when visiting temples and churches–around Asia the temples all start to look alike, and it’s the same with the churches around Europe. Every once in a while, however, we encounter that one temple or church that reignites our interest (in some cases this occurs more frequently than expected). This was the case in Florence.Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

As I walked back toward my hostel on my first half day in the city, I stopped at Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as Il Duomo di Firenze. I had seen this architectural marvel from Piazzale Michelangelo as I looked out over Florence on a clear, yet oppressively hot, August afternoon. The iconic symbol of Florence stands out among the exquisite architecture that fills every corner of the city–it’s one of two structures that towers over everything else, the other being Palazzo Vecchio.duomo-florence3

I was fortunate to show up in the city on a quiet Friday afternoon–I entered the Duomo about an hour before they closed the doors to tourists for the day. There wasn’t a line to enter the cathedral, which was why I decided to have a look despite my exhaustion. I was fortunate to enter just a few minutes before the start of the free English tour, so I was able to learn a bit of history while gazing at the art that is the interior of this grand cathedral.

I admit that the exterior of the cathedral is more impressive than the interior, but it’s still amazing, particularly the painting of The Last Judgement by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari on the inside of the dome. The work was completed in 1579.duomo-last-judgement

The Duomo was started in 1296, but wasn’t completed until 1436. Michelangelo’s “David” was supposed to stand atop the dome, but the statue was never hoisted to overlook the city. “David” was supposed to be one of 12 Biblical figures around the cathedral, but the others never adorned the structure either. There was a sculpture of Joshua by Donatello in the Duomo, but it disappeared in the 18th century.duomo-florence2

There’s a lot more to see in and around the Duomo, but it certainly isn’t free like the cathedral. For an additional price there’s a museum in the crypt and visitors can also climb stairs to the interior of the dome to see cathedral from above. Outside, visitors can pay more to climb Giotto’s bell tower, and there’s always a long line for that. There are combo tickets along with the Baptistery of St. John across the street. After budgeting for the Uffizi Gallery and Academia, along with all the food, I wasn’t enthusiastic about spending more euros for a crowded view–I already got the best view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo.duomo-florence

As usual, There was a portion of the Duomo covered by scaffolding for restoration work. Fortunately, it wasn’t entirely encased in scaffolding like the Baptistery of St. John.

What church or temple has reignited your interest?

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