The Conundrum of Social Norms Abroad

Before arriving in China, I had been warned that the crowds might bother me, that certain social norms would likely strike me as rude, that some of the rules and requirements would seem arbitrary and archaic, and that most definitely I would be struck down by food poisoning. I heard all of this and considered it, but was secretly hopeful that spending time in China would help me understand some of these differences in order to be more tolerant of them… An ever-present and lofty goal of foreign travel.

Let me tell you: at the airport in Xi’an last week, I definitely failed to rise to the occasion.

We get to the airport a respectable two and a half hours before our international flight. For those that know me well, you’ll understand that this was a major accomplishment, one of which my paternal grandfather would be proud. We basically walk up to the counter (the line was refreshingly short) and are told that you cannot check in more than two hours before your flight. Never mind that there are no other people in line at this point. The rule stands.

After wandering aimlessly for a while, two hours before our flight rolls around. We can’t match your passport number to the number of your reservation. Go stand in that other line so they can change the number for you. We couldn’t possibly be bothered to do it ourselves. We finally check in and proceed to the security line. A woman immediately pushes her way past us and parks herself directly in front of us in line.

Off to a great start today, aren’t we?

On the plane as we are filling out immigration forms, a stranger sitting next to me with whom I haven’t exchanged a single word physically moves my hand off of my own form, in order to copy down the flight number. Seriously!?

After the long flight as we’re getting off the plane, our personal space bubbles cease to exist, as 120 bodies push and strain toward the forward door even before it has been opened. Evidently, those few precious seconds you might save by pushing are infinitely more valuable than any act of courtesy that might make disembarking easier for everyone.

At the baggage claim as I stand and wait for the conveyor belt to start moving, a man shoves me sideways to get a spot at the rail. No bags are coming out yet, so it’s impossible that he has seen his. He just needs to be in front really badly and evidently in this country my body is no more important than an inanimate object.

I consider several courses of action:

  1. Start throwing elbows to clear a reasonable bubble of personal space
  2. Channel my inner NBA star and box out with my big booty
  3. Calmly explain my Western ideals about courtesy to this rude man
  4. Be a true Seattleite, roll my eyes and feel annoyed, but do nothing

Wanna guess which one I chose?

Admittedly, none of these infractions are major as isolated incidents. But after two weeks in China, I am tired of being pushed, cut in front of, and otherwise treated as invisible. It’s exhausting to feel constantly on the defensive, trying to stake my claim to my spot in the bathroom line or even just to the spot of ground I happen to be standing on. I’ve reached the point where it takes every last iota of my patience not to scream out, “I AM HERE. I EXIST. I AM SOMEBODY!” Right, Navin R. Johnson?

Reflecting on these experiences from this calm quiet balcony in Bali, I am struck by a couple of realizations.

First of all, the words of Reinhold Niebuhr come to mind:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I cannot change a whole country’s perspective on what constitutes basic courtesy. Any attempt to do so will be futile and will just make me an unhappy visitor. Not to mention, I shouldn’t want to! The whole point of foreign travel is to observe cultural differences, to learn about them, to reflect on them. But not to judge them.

Second important realization: Oh. My. Gosh. I am such a hypocrite. Yes, I think that not pushing, waiting your turn, and respecting other people’s personal space are basic acts of courtesy. However, there are countless examples of ways that I fail to be courteous. For illustration purposes, I have been known to commit the following social infractions (in some cases frequently):

  • Being late.

I am constantly running behind schedule. I have a complete inability to realistically determine how much I can accomplish in a given amount of time. A couple of months ago, I arrived at a friend’s house half an hour late to a movie night. He kindly but firmly told me that when people are late to appointments with him, he feels like they are saying that their time is more important than his time. Talk about feeling rude. And ashamed.

Another time recently, I showed up an hour late to a dinner party. Wanna know the worst part of this story? The dinner party was a going-away party… for me. I walked in the door and was greeted by a dozen faces of loved ones who had been waiting to bid me farewell. And instead of expressing their annoyance or scolding me, they enthusiastically welcomed me, asked questions about my upcoming trip, and poured me a glass of wine. I felt extremely loved but also so guilty. Dad, I am really really sorry I was so late. Thank you for throwing me a wonderful party with my amazing family. 

  • Burping really loudly.

Okay, I know many people consider burping not only very rude but also disgusting. But my dad didn’t have any sons, you know? He had to teach someone his tricks. To my mother’s dismay, she now has three daughters who are quite capable of an impressive belch. What’s the problem with that!? It’s a natural bodily function! And also super rude.

  • Monopolizing the conversation.

I have incredibly patient family members and friends who are attentive listeners. But sometimes they must just want to tell me to shut up so they can get a word in edgewise! On one occasion, my mom and I drove 3 hours east to Moses Lake and I don’t think she spoke more than ten words the whole way. Thanks for listening, Mama.

Similarly, when I am talking to one of my best friends, I often realize that I have been talking and talking nonstop and will say to her, “Oh no! I’ve been rambling at you again!”. And every time, without fail, she responds, “It’s okay, I like listening to you ramble”. My heart SWELLS just thinking about these amazing humans who put up with my flaws!

The list goes on and on:

  • Being bossy.
  • Using my sister’s stuff without asking.
  • Complimenting myself.
  • Wanting to have the last word.

Ask my family, they’ll have dozens more examples. Wait. Actually, don’t ask them. I don’t want too many of my hideous secrets getting out!

The point I’m trying to make with all of this is since WHEN are any of us perfect enough to feel so self-righteous in someone else’s country? I most certainly am not.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still going to feel frustrated when I feel like people are being rude to me abroad (or anywhere!). It’s one of those gut reactions that’s nearly impossible to avoid. But taking a few deep breaths, reminding myself that nobody is perfect, and reflecting on the fact that I even have the privilege to spend time exploring a foreign country in the first place… All definitely noble pursuits, even if I do fall very short from time to time.

Oh, and also: this. So I totally have the last word.

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Happy and smiling at Heavenly Lake, Urumqi.

 

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A Shameless Letter to My Father

Oh hey Dad! It’s me, your eldest daughter. You know, the one you often call Stinkasaurus. Note to readers: Think that’s weird? Trust me. That’s only the beginning.

So, let me start this off by saying that, generally speaking, you’ve been a pretty great dad. I’m sure I could make a long list of all the wonderful things you have done as my father, and how you’ve shaped me into the overly talkative, annoyingly optimistic, sassy human I am today. But for the purposes of this post, we’re going to set all of that aside. After all, the point of persuasive writing is to convince the reader to adopt my point of view. You should know, you were on the Debate Team in high school. Such a cool kid.

In the spirit of convincing you, I’ve compiled a list of the biggest infractions you’ve committed against me as my father. Yes, this would be what the scientific community refers to as a guilt trip:

  • When I was an infant, you left me crying in the middle of the bed and went to take a shower so I would fall asleep and be quiet.
  • When I was a little girl, you used to come home from your basketball games and tell me your socks smelled like cherry berry muffins so I would smell them. You lied! I checked.
  • When I was six or seven, you were supposed to tell me stories before bed (real ones!), but at least half the time you would fall asleep while you were “thinking of a story”.
  • My friends growing up, who actually did all have real names, lost their true identities and came to be known as: The Squaker, Figlet, the Fish, PLC, the Medalist, and Heavens, among others.
  • On Halloween, you informed me that November 1st was National Potato Day, during which I should go knock on people’s doors and instead of saying “Trick or treat?”, I should shout, “GIVE ME A POTATO.”
  • When I was in third grade, you started calling me The New Dork, since the dorkiest boy at school had left town and you said someone had to take his place.
  • One time when my best friend Courtney was over, you convinced us that zucchini pizza tasted just like regular pizza and forced us to eat it. Again with the lies!
  • When I was eleven, you tricked me into going to little league tryouts, even though I was terrified and didn’t want to play. Oh softball. The most traumatic part of my childhood, thanks to YOU!
  • When Olivia was little, she couldn’t pronounce Stephanie correctly. So what do you do? You get her (and everyone else we know) to call me STINK instead.
  • When I was in middle school, you left me in the hardest math class, even though I was the only kid my age and came home crying on the first day of school.
  • When I was 13, I came home from school and you were in the kitchen, casually cooking a steak. You asked me if I wanted some, so obviously I had a few bites. As I’m chewing, you lean over and say, “Hey Stink! That steak is older than you are!”. You fed your daughter a piece of cow that had been in the freezer for fourteen years.
  • When I was a senior in high school, I ran the Whidbey Island Marathon after training for 6 months with your best friend Paul. My whole family showed up to cheer me on. Everyone except you! What did you want me to do!? Turn around and run another 26 miles?!
  • After college, I lived in Spain for two years teaching English, remember? The land of good Spanish wines, delicious seafood and tapas, and beautiful scenery. You would’ve loved it there! Except you were too busy at home to come and visit!
  • Since I’ve been an adult (wait, have I been an adult yet?), I think you’ve made me cry with your Christmas Eve toast every single year. Twenty eight years later, and you’re still making me cry. Sheesh.
  • Even now, when you answer the phone, your typical greetings include: “Helloooo, Snortin’ Norton” or your personal favorite, “Hello girl with face like dog that chased parked car.” These are VERBATIM. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

 

Moral of the story: I think most any reasonable human would agree that you owe me one. And I’m ready to cash in! Here’s my demand, plain and simple:

Come on an epic Asia adventure with me!

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Obviously this is an amazing proposition, and I’m sure you’re ready to buy your ticket this very instant. But just in case you aren’t totally convinced yet, never fear. I’ve also come up with a bullet-proof list of reasons why you are going to LOVE Asia.

Reason #1: The food.

Okay Dad, get this. Are you sitting down? Because this is pretty revolutionary… There is basically no cheese in Asia. Gasp. Like, you won’t have to tell every waiter at every restaurant ever to hold the cheese. You can safely assume that pretty much everything you order at a Taiwanese, Chinese, Thai, Malay, etc. restaurant will be cheese-free! Note to readers: My father has been telling everyone for years that cheese is made out of milk and boogers.

And, you know what’s even better?! You can basically have Dragonfish (only way better) for every meal! In Taipei, you can get an amazing bento box for like $2.00. Or how about the 24-hour sushi we had near Tsukiji Market in Tokyo? Malay curries, Indian food served on banana leafs, delicious Japanese Kobe beef, dumplings, shabu shabu, OH MY! You’ll be in Asian food heaven every meal of every day!

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Cooking demonstration in Penang

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Even panda-shaped pork buns!

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Oh my, Kobe beef plus a cute grandma!

Reason #2: The weather.

Dad, remember your life philosophy? The one about never driving to a place where there is snow on purpose? Never fear! We can totally keep you snow-free in the vast majority of this continent. In fact, stay in Southeast Asia with me and you’ll never actually be cold for a single moment! You will literally turn off the cold water faucet after your shower and instantly be sweaty again! It’s like your dream come true!

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Beautiful sunset #1

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Beautiful sunset #2

And guess what?! The crazy heat here means that you can wear your favorite outfit every day: muscle tank, short shorts, and flip-flops! And the best part is that people won’t even look at you like you’re a crazy person because your clothing will actually be weather appropriate. Disclaimer: you will still be a crazy person, people just might not know it right away.

Reason #3: The animals! 

Alright, back up a minute because I have to tell the readers an adorable story. My dad really loves owls and for years has hoped to see an owl in the wild. A couple years ago, he got an owl box as a gift. Hoping to convince Mr. Owl to use his box as its home, he asked Moisés to climb a really tall tree and install it in the branches. And there the owl box has sat, empty, but ever ready for a kind and willing owl to set up residence.

DAD! You don’t have to just sit and wait for an owl to arrive! Come to Asia, where I saw an owl in REAL LIFE. It was just chilling in a tree at the Botanic Gardens in Singapore! Or if you’re really impatient, we can hop over to Tokyo and visit the Owl Cafe there! As a last resort, I even found an Owl Shop in Malaysia, where you can buy all things owl.

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Whooooo aaaaaare youuuu!?

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This store sells owl EVERYTHING!

Not enough for you? In addition to owls, you love interesting creatures of all shapes and sizes, and Asia is full of them! I think this point is best demonstrated by a series of photos, taken by yours truly. Feel free to be impressed by my photo taking skillz, if you want:

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Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

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Botanic Gardens, Singapore

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Kowloon Park, Hong Kong

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Arashiyama, Kyoto

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Kerama Islands, Okinawa

Reason #4: The experiences!

Dad! Haven’t you always wanted to breathe underwater and swim through a school of goldband fusiliers? Or maybe you’d like to climb to the top of a tall mountain and see the lush green mountains covered in a silent fog? Wouldn’t you love to go bird watching together in a tropical rainforest, stopping to listen to the bird calls? I promise it’ll be way better than that time we froze our asses off looking for eagles in Rockport… 

We can do all that and MORE on our amazing adventure! Oh the places you’ll go! 

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And if you’re worried about your daily workouts being interrupted, I have a solution for that one too. How about we hike to the Mango Bay viewpoint first thing in the morning and have a mango smoothie for breakfast? Or we’ll just walk all over town exploring all day long, averaging 20k steps per day (ask Tammy, she knows from experience). Hey, that reminds me of how you’d rather park 17 miles away from your destination and walk rather than ever have to parallel park.

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As you can see, I’ve thought of everything already. That’s because I’m young and clever. Which reminds me of one of the most important reasons why you should travel with me:

You didn’t do it when you were young.

But don’t worry, you’re young at heart! You still laugh at jokes about farts and giggle when you watch Beavis and Butthead. And you’re in better shape than most twentysomethings! Don’t wait until you become old and feeble. The time has COME, the walrus said!

Reason #5: The price.

Okay, you’re a data-driven decision maker, right? Let’s look at some numbers.

  • Cost of a 2-tank scuba dive trip in Koh Tao, Thailand: $40
  • Average amount spent on food and drinks per day in Kuala Lumpur: $10
  • Total cost of a week’s accommodation in Penang, Malaysia: $60
  • Experience of traveling abroad with your darling daughter: priceless.

See, Dad? You don’t have to worry about this trip costing you all your hard-earned pennies. Traveling in Southeast Asia is a bargain! You love those! As a reminder to readers, we’re talking about the guy who distinguishes between his “fancy” tank tops and his normal tank tops based on the number of holes they have.

And if you’re not convinced by the numbers above, the stock broker in you will surely appreciate the beauty of investing in a sure thing. You invest money in stocks and bonds every day, hoping the companies will perform well and your investments will rise in value. But the beauty of investing money in travel is that you are guaranteed to come home with loads of new experiences and unforgettable moments. Just remember: when you’re lying on your death bed (when you’re 152 years old), I promise you will not regret that trip you took with your daughter in 2016.

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So now that I’ve presented the most compelling argument of all time, please head on down to your neighborhood Skyscanner or Kayak at your earliest convenience, pick up your golden ticket, and blow that corporate popsicle stand! I’ll be waiting for you at the airport with open arms and a potato in hand.

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Love you, Dad.

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Traveling from Koh Tao to Penang

I want to preface this by letting all of you in on a little secret: if you are traveling abroad, especially in the third world, you will get scammed. Sometimes it will be in small ways and sometimes it will be in bigger ways, but the fact of the matter is that it will happen to you. It’s an extremely violating feeling, especially when it is so obvious. It is easy to feel indignant, like a giant injustice has been done to you. How could you cheat me like this!? After I came into your country speaking only English with my wallet full of money?!

It sucks. I know. But I think we should consider a better way to think about getting scammed abroad.

I think the easiest way to avoid being scammed is to do your research. If you know roughly what the taxi fare is supposed to be between the city and the airport, you can insist on a fair price. If you know you should only pay 200 baht for a Thai massage, you can skip the stalls that are advertising them for 300 baht. And if you know there’s no such thing as a Malaysia border fee, well, you’d be smarter than me.

Okay, but here’s the thing though. It’s impossible to research every possible thing every single time. It’s exhausting! We travel to experience new cultures and new things, right!? Not to spend all day reading online forums and worrying about the multitude of ways that things could go wrong. Sometimes you just have to learn through your mistakes. And sometimes, the moments when things go wrong end up making the best stories later on.

My journey from Koh Tao, Thailand to Penang, Malaysia started at 8:20pm on a Thursday with a frantic farewell. Seems to be my modus operandi. Sitting at Su Chili in Sairee Beach (try the red curry peanut sauce, it’s amazing!), I scarf down my dinner, quickly wave goodbye to my new travel buddies, and have a typical Stephanie-style run/walk back to my hostel. I’m already sweating. 

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Mix it all together and pour the sauce on top! 

Quickly grabbing my stuff, I get on the back of the hostel owner’s scooter and he zips me down to Mr. J Bungalow, where I need to pick up my ticket (you can read elsewhere on the Internet about Mr. J, a unique Koh Tao character who sells homemade condoms with a 20-year guarantee). He hands me my ticket to Penang, quickly spouting off travel instructions that go in one of my ears and immediately leak out the other, and tells me to hurry, hurry, the ferry leaves in 10 minutes! Crap, I should’ve paid more attention to what he just said.

Fortunately for me, I make it down to the pier and get on the night ferry. Oh my gosh, what a surprisingly pleasant experience! The bottom of the boat has been converted into a traveler slumber party, with two long rows of tiny mattresses and fuzzy blankets with tigers on them! I fall asleep almost immediately, enjoying being rocked to sleep by the boat. I just hope I don’t roll over on top of either of the people next to me… I’m kind of used to taking up 98% of the bed.

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A friendly traveler slumber party!

The lights in the cabin all come on at 4:21am, letting us know that we’ve reached Surat Thani on the mainland. Can’t we sleep here for just a few more hours? Everyone files off the ferry into immediate chaos, with a bunch of Thai people asking, “Where you going?” and dividing us into groups. I start immediately regretting not paying more attention to Mr. J, since I don’t even reeeeally know what the next leg of my trip is supposed to be. All I know is I paid 1200 baht for a ticket from Koh Tao to Penang, theoretically. And now here I am, needing to take it on blind faith that these people are going to send me in the right direction.

They usher a group of us into the back of a pickup truck and drive us around the corner to a small office with a bunch of plastic chairs arranged in a semi-circle outside. I talk to these two German girls for a while, asking and answering all the typical questions. Where are you headed? Where did you come from? How long are you traveling for? They call us in group by group. When it’s my turn, I step inside the small air-conditioned office and I’m greeted by an overweight Thai woman, dressed in a yellow pajama set. She gets right down to business.

“You need pay 2000 baht”, she says. “For Malaysia border crossing.” I’ve never heard of anything like this, but she goes on to explain that she collects the money, gives it to the bus driver (which I actually did see her do later), and he presents it to border control when we get there. It’s 5am, I’m alone in a not-the-safest third world country, and I’m not feeling very brave about creating a conflict. Plus her explanation sounds reasonable. Ish.

But crap! I don’t have even close to 2000 baht on me. I spent most of my baht beforehand, thinking that I’d be in Malaysia the following day anyway and wouldn’t need any baht there. I tell this to the lady, and she gives me very precise directions to the nearest ATM.

“That way,” she says, waving her hand in some vague direction. “Five minute walking.” So I ‘five minute walking’ in the direction she’s pointed, channeling the expanding search pattern I just learned in my Rescue Dive course. Eventually I come across an open-air market just starting to groggily open its eyes, the freshly-caught fish still flopping around in plastic trays. I locate a 7-Eleven, and thank goodness, there’s an ATM right outside. I take out just enough baht to cover the rest of the requested sum, grumbling to myself as I again pay the 200 baht ATM fee. I hurry back as fast as I can to the tiny shop, round the corner, aaaaand everyone else has left. Ummmm.

I walk back inside the shop and present my newly-acquired funds to the yellow pajama lady. She takes the money, my passport, and my golden ticket from Mr. J (note to future self: do NOT let go of the only proof of ticket purchase you have!), and then hands me back my passport and an indecipherable yellow transfer slip. She tells me about her sister who lives in North Carolina. She tells me how clever she thinks Americans are. Are you mocking me!? She then directs me outside to a nondescript van with a middle-aged male driver. Again, he literally just drives me around the corner (I have two legs, you know), drops me off on a curb with all my stuff, and says, “You wait 5 minute. Bus come 5 minute.”

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What does it even mean!?

I sit, alone in the dark on an empty road, wondering where the hell the rest of the travelers are and why I’m not in that place too. Five minutes pass, and a bus pulls up and slows down. Two small honks. I’m unsure what to do. Two more bigger honks. Alright, alright, I’m coming. I step onto the bus, showing the woman my chicken scratch yellow transfer slip, and say hesitantly, “To Penang?” Barely glancing at my slip, the woman says, “Yes, yes” (whatever lady, just pay the fare) and ushers me onto the bus. I sit at the back of a dark bus full of Thai people, clutching my bag and wondering where the hell this bus is taking me. Ten minutes later, we pass a bus station, and I wonder to myself if I was supposed to get off there, and transfer to whatever actual bus I was supposed to be taking. That seems somewhat reasonable, plus I still have no idea where I’m going, and I’ve begun to suspect I got on the wrong bus. No shit, Sherlock.

I get off the bus, wander around the bus station, don’t see any other travelers, and start to worry a bit. What do I do now!? I notice we’ve passed a Lomprayah office, and head over to try to ask a question. I have about 52, but figure I shouldn’t overwhelm them right away. Sidenote: I have nothing but good things to say about Lomprayah. They are an organized and well-run travel company, labeling people with tiny stickers so they know where each person is headed. Am I an object? They also have excellent WiFi, which I’m grateful for at the moment. The bad news is that their office doesn’t open until 7am. It’s currently 5:52. I sit down on the concrete outside a chain-link fence and make phone calls to people I love on my amazing Republic Wireless phone. This calms me down a lot. Technology FTW.

At 7am, a lady walks up to unlock the chain-link fence. By the look on her face, I imagine it isn’t often that she gets to work and finds a confused westerner sitting on her pavement. She immediately comes to my rescue, repeatedly phoning Mr. J and the travel office across town to figure out where in the world I’m supposed to be. And to be clear, I wasn’t even traveling with Lomprayah! Thank goodness for kind people. Seriously. She tells me to sit in the waiting area and that someone will come pick me up. Don’t know who will come and pick me up, but I guess that anyone is better than no one given my current predicament.

After well over half an hour of sitting in an uncomfortable white plastic chair, I start considering the very real possibility that no one is ever going to come pick me up. But wait! There he is! The same man who left me to die on that desolate curb pulls back up in his minivan and walks over to me, shaking his head and laughing. There’s laughter in his eyes though too, so I think it’s good-natured. We have a conversation in broken English about how I wasn’t supposed to get on THAT bus (well why didn’t you say so in the first place!?) and he drives me back to that same godforsaken office. Oh yellow pajama lady, how I’ve missed you. After telling me all the things I’ve done wrong, she makes 47 phone calls, speaking loudly in Thai and grunting a lot, and then tells me she’s arranged for me to be on the next minibus. She also tells me she’s not letting me out of her sight, so I don’t mention to her that I’m starving and would kill for some breakfast. We sit in oddly companionable silence for a bit, and then she starts talking.

“My sister in USA 10 years,” she says. I tell her that’s a long time. “She study medicine. I alway help her with the money so she can study.” I make a mental note to try to be that generous with my own sisters. She goes on, “You know, my sister lady in her body, but she man in her heart. You understand me?” I tell her I do. “It okay,” she says, “I love her same.”

After that, she pulls out several postcards that her sister has sent her from North Carolina, written in beautiful Thai script. She tells me she misses her. She sees me writing in my journal, and pulls out a whole stack of her own, flipping through the pages and showing me her innermost thoughts (not that I can understand them anyway).

Thinking back on this whole situation, it’s a bit baffling. First she scams me, then she tells me I’m clever. She scolds me for getting on the wrong bus, then she confides in me. She tricks me, but then she takes care of me and makes sure I get safely on my way. After almost two weeks spent in extremely exploited, overly touristy Thai islands, full of western children playing games in a foreign playground (oh my gosh, are you going to the Full Moon Party!?), this might be the most meaningful interaction I’ve had with a Thai local.

Ten hours and two harrowing minibus rides later (Mr. Bus Driver, are you on drugs? Or are you just 70 and don’t see well at night anymore?), I finally make it to Penang, safe and sound. I treat myself to an overpriced and crappy pizza, the first real meal I’ve had in over 24 hours. It may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

So what I’ve been thinking about is this: you will get scammed while traveling. It’s going to happen. But maybe instead of feeling violated and angry, we should just consider it part of the cost of traveling. After all, we are the ones who show up and don’t speak one word of the local language. We’re the ones who expect everything to go according to plan, even when our plans are hazy at best. But maybe in those moments when the plan breaks down, we learn something about ourselves or the people whose country we’re visiting. Maybe if we look for it, there is always a bright side. Maybe these moments are actually the real travel.

Have you been scammed while traveling? Can you find the positive in your experience? Tell me about it in the Comments section below.

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Taiwan! Let’s play I Spy.

Weird! I have a blog. I wasn’t sure I’d want to do any blogging while I am adventuring, and I’m even less sure whether I’ll want to share any of my blog posts with anyone at all. But it does seem like a nice way to write down some thoughts; first, because I type much faster than I write and second, because the thoughts will fade and be replaced by new ones as soon as I leave this 85° Cafe. Speaking of which, a yam latte sounds very strange but tastes very yummy.

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Okay, so! Hooray! It’s my first ever time in Asia! Thank goodness I have a cute Mandarin-speaking partner-in-crime that is showing me around everywhere. I told him yesterday we should at least develop a contingency plan for if we lose each other, because right now, if he suddenly disappeared, I would have no map, very little money, and absolutely no sense of which way is home.

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But! So far, so good. We have been exploring, eating a million delicious things, and spending time with his adorable family. I am already in love with his nephew, but I mean, how could you not be?! Look at that face. My favorite thing about becoming Jonathan’s buddy is how we don’t need to speak the same language or understand each other’s words to giggle together. After all, he’s only one! He probably doesn’t understand most things people say in any language! But with just big happy eyes and smiles, we communicate all the important things. He gets me!

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The other day at the park, Patrick and I were people watching, which developed into a game of I Spy. I actually think this would be a pretty fascinating business idea. What if you made a whole deck of fun I Spy cards for travelers, one for each country? It could have the obvious tourist attractions that you’re sure to see, but could also include more subtle and interesting cultural items. Can you imagine? Travelers would run around foreign cities, trying to find as many items on their I Spy cards as possible! The whole traveler world could start a giant game of I Spy! It would be a beautiful thing. As an example, Spain’s I Spy card could be like this:

I Spy: Spain Edition

  1. The Sagrada Familia
  2. A teenage boy with a rattail
  3. The Alhambra
  4. A whole leg of jamón serrano
  5. Las Fallas festival in Valencia
  6. A child under 5 that’s better dressed than you
  7. Playa Victoria in Cádiz
  8. A plate of paella that you could fit inside
  9. Plaza Mayor in Madrid
  10. People eating dinner at 11pm

Note: I’ve seen all of these things. And Number 6? That one I saw every day I lived there!

Wanna play I Spy, Taiwan edition!? Are you ready?

1. An abundance of brown poodles.

Oh my gosh, everywhere there are poodles. It’s like an infestation. Mostly they are light brown-colored, small, and excessively groomed. And the funniest part is that people push them around in STROLLERS! I haven’t gotten over it yet. I laugh every time I see one. At the park, Patrick and I made guesses about how long it would take us to find poodles in a stroller. I said 7 minutes. He said five. We saw two poodles in a stroller after 6 minutes and 38 seconds. I declared myself the winner of this game.

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2. Taipei 101!

I Spy with my little eye… The Taipei equivalent of the Space Needle! Taipei 101 is a beautiful supertall skyscraper with 101 stories. In fact, it was the tallest building in the world up until some crazy rich people in Dubai topped it in 2009. BUT, Taipei 101 is clearly still cooler, because in 2011 it was classified as the tallest and largest green building in the world! Also, there is a Starbucks on the 35th floor (reminds me of the Starbucks in the Columbia Tower in Seattle!). We haven’t been to the top yet, but we did take some pretty pictures of it from down below.

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3. WHITE TRUFFLE XIAO LONG BAO.

Excuse me!? Din Tai Fung ain’t got nothin’ on this place. We had xiao long bao with pieces of white truffle inside THEM. I don’t know how to emphasize this enough. Patrick said my eyes popped when I ate my first one. They also have basil-infused ones, which are green. And almost equally mind-blowing. I can never go back to the person I was before.

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4. 7-Elevens on EVERY corner!

Okay, so I’m sorry to say that Patrick’s statement about bubble tea shops on every street corner was a bit of an overstatement. In fact, the other day we had to wander around for a whole 10 minutes before we found bubble tea (oh no, the horror!). However, I’m pretty sure when we are walking around, we pass a 7-Eleven every 12 seconds. And the 7-Elevens here are quite remarkable! You can actually buy pretty legit (and not disgusting) meals there! They have a very distinct smell because they all sell hard-boiled eggs soaked in tea, called tea eggs (surprisingly). But that’s not all! Want to pay your utilities bill? Buy concert tickets? Reload your transit pass? Pay your parking tickets? 7-Eleven’s got you covered!

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5. Night markets galore!

Another Taipei specialty is the night market, a magical place that comes alive after dark, full of street food vendors and a billion people. There are small children playing carnival games, bright lights everywhere, and so many delicious smells: fried cuttlefish, assorted meat buns, popcorn chicken, red bean cakes, flavored mochi on sticks… ugh, but wait! Did something die?! Did I accidentally wear the same socks for 129534 days in a row? Did someone mix blue cheese, dirty toenails, and rotten dead animal together? NO! It’s just stinky tofu! This is something that people actually eat (and thoroughly enjoy, according to everyone I’ve spoken with on the matter). But it smells. so. bad! So far, I’ve successfully avoided trying it. But unfortunately for me, I promised Patrick I would try anything he wanted me to try while in Taiwan, aaaaand stinky tofu is most definitely on the list. I will report back on whether or not I survive the experience.

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6. White / Asian couples.

An interesting thing we’ve been I Spying for is multiracial couples where one person is Asian and the other is white. I think we’ve spied probably ten or so. But guess what? All the ones we have seen so far are white men with Asian women. We have yet to spy an Asian man with a white lady other than US! We think this makes us superheroes.

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7. Guess this character!

Family, look who I found in Taipei! You know who he is, right!? I had no idea he was Taiwanese! Please comment or email with your guesses. First correct answer wins a kewpie doll (right, Dad!?).

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8. Ridiculously delicious breakfast for $5.

Okay, so our first morning, Patrick took me to one of his favorite breakfast places. And you see, Patrick has issues ordering a reasonable amount of food. For someone so skinny, he can eat like a 300-pound man; it’s really quite impressive. When I told him that he had ordered waaaay too much food, he argued that it only cost an extra 60 cents! And that we might as well try it. At about $5 for one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had (for two people!) I couldn’t really argue with his logic. We came back again the next day 😉

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9. Beautiful melodies everywhere you go!

I was having a conversation with Patrick recently about how unfortunate it is that the only thing you can really communicate with you car is “hey, you idiot!” or at best, “WATCH OUT!”. What I mean to say is that a car honking (at least in the US) is generally associated with negative things. We think that this is a underdeveloped feature! Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a more extensive car language, such that you could push a special button and a nice happy wind chime sound would happen, which would mean “THANK YOU, KIND DRIVER!” or “you are a lovely human!”?

Taiwan is doing this! My favorite so far is the song that plays in the MRT (Taipei metro) when the train is arriving. It is like a mini-concert, full of beautiful sounds and key changes. I think Patrick should writes words to it and sell it on iTunes. He would make millions, certainly. Another personal favorite is the nice melody played by garbage trucks. Everyone you go, there are nice pleasant sounds and happy humans. It’s great!

10. So much amazing BUBBLE TEA!

Despite having to occasionally walk around for seven minutes to find it, we have had more than our fair share of amazing bubble tea already. Pretty much every day, in that lull between lunch and dinner (the time when I would usually go to the kitchen at Redfin for some chocolate-covered almonds), one of us will say to the other one, “is it time for bubble tea?!”. We even visited the first ever bubble tea store, where they served us an enormous milk tea in a huge beer glass with a handle! I am quite pleased with my new favorite afternoon snack! 🙂

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And there you have it! The first 10 I Spy items that occurred to me (although I could probably come up with 50 more things that have surprised me already!). I’m loving it here: the people are courteous and kind, the city is clean and organized, and the food is INSANE (or as Nathan would say, it’s stupefying!). During the upcoming week, we’ll be heading south to explore some other parts of the island. Stay tuned for updates!

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