“In worthy teaching, all things are related.” ― Confucius,
Sleek bullet trains, wooden spoons and foothills flushed with ginko, cypress and black pine: these things define my first visit to Asia. I don’t know why I didn’t take time write about my experience in Kobe in 2015. It was eye-opening and inspiring, I cherish it. I’m still determined to retire in Arima. There were many small moments of beauty I think on and smile. But for some reason, I didn’t feel compelled to write about my travels back then as I do now.
Japan is a beautiful country. It’s collectively well-maintained, efficient, a perfect balance of modernity and antiquity. While it’s relatively “Westernized,” it’s nonetheless a country that takes pride in its tradition, and in this there’s a certain stability and sense of equity.
The reason I didn’t feel a need to write on this is because, ultimately, my experience in Japan wasn’t greatly challenging. The conference was its own thing that came with its own lessons, but even conferences have an element of predictability. Working SIGGRAPH Asia in Japan was enjoyable – almost easy.
China is a different story.
To start: conference-related predictability was there in the best of ways. While it’s not as heavy-hitting for me as SIGGRAPH in North America, SIGGRAPH Asia holds all the same treasures in the form of amazing teammates, content, and adventure. SIGGRAPH Asia is much smaller than the North American conference and there’s an intimacy and family-like vibe that runs throughout. It’s heartfelt and different and special. It means a lot to me.
The intimacy I find in this environment is a nice shield from some of the divisiveness fueled by recent politics in the USA (which is its own blog post/tome). While I have hesitations about the direction we’re heading in, I still feel proud and fortunate to live as an American. It’s through traveling and seeing more of the world that I gain a deeper appreciation for living in a country founded on ideals of freedom and license to happiness; on embracing the will of its diverse and proud people. That said, the country has serious problems, as well… but I’m an idealist at heart. My country will get through its tumult, like it’s gotten through everything prior. Until then, now is a unique time to reflect on what it means to be an American within the greater context.
SIGGRAPH Asia 2016 was held in Macau, an autonomous territory in East China just a ferry ride West of the financial giant that is Hong Kong. Originally, it was a colony that that Portuguese Empire merely “rented” to China until sovereignty was fully transferred in 1999. Today, it’s most popularly known as the Las Vegas of Asia. The amount of money that passes through this area is outrageous. More outrageous is how it’s spent.
The conference was held in The Venetian Macau, just one of several super-opulent Sands-run casinos that dot the islands. Being in this space was akin to being in an amusement park; using ideas of Venice and Italy as inspiration, the massive building was covered in campy recreations and over-exaggerated designs. The whole structure was essentially a circle, and the placement of angled walls gave the illusion of making progress through the floors when really, you’re constantly backtracking to the casino areas and shopping… classic theme park design, right? My teammate really acutely pointed out that the Michelangelo copies that covered the ceilings and oversized chandeliers resembled a video game from the late 90s where the textures were just mapped onto smooth surfaces and all the 3d objects were a higher-but-still-not-high-enough-poly count. I didn’t have a chance to check out the neighboring casinos as much, but the report was that they weren’t too different, albeit following different themes like “Paris” and “Rock n’ Roll.”
This would be funny if it didn’t point to something darker hiding underneath. A theme that kept surfacing this week was Western notions of beauty and appeal – not just in the physical sense, but in values, too. While China remains the #1 economic rival of the United States, the fact remains that most of the world’s wealth is concentrated in North America and Western Europe. It’s not surprising that in a city so flush with cash, almost every outward-facing communication tries to align itself with Western style: from dress to physical features to even advertising classically English James Bond-y vibes of sexiness, danger, and mystery. Chinese fireworks, prints, and traditional attire served as accessory features to all the European-style bartending, galas, and gambling. I’m still not sure what David Beckham was so smug about.
What we were witnessing at the bottom of this was sad: a complex culture trying to paint itself as just one exotic element purposed to delight the tastes of another culture. Is that presuming too much? Maybe it is. But speaking as an American walking into this space and immediately feeling too familiar with my surroundings, I don’t think I’m entirely off.
It wasn’t all like this, though. When we managed to get away from the main strip and explore a bit, we found the real Macau: old winding roads with Portuguese names, mosaics of fish and circles laid into the tiles beneath our feet. Portuguese-Chinese fusion architecture was everywhere, and beautiful. There were lots of hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars, dimly lit and dark-wooded and vaguely piratey… you could really get the sense that this used to be a true port town in its early days. I loved this part of Macau. I’m a little bit of a history buff, so exploring parts of town that distinctly marked the Silk Road and the footsteps of Old World navigators was exciting. Similarly to how I felt visiting London, you really get a sense of your own brevity in the grand scheme of life.
Still, the brightest lights were never too far away.
There was a weird dichotomy to the conference being held in this place, at once both richly historic and glossily overrun by the colored lights and neon. SIGGRAPH people aren’t really known for their love of dropping cash on the casino-party life. The whole week it felt as though most of us were scraping for real experiences of Macau, only to find even its deeper levels still permeated by consumerism… am I sounding super highbrow yet? Sorry. Macau was interesting and I’d love to come back one day, if only to explore its darker corners.
Then there was Hong Kong.
A long time ago, an old drawing professor of mine was telling us about his travels. He was a really stern Russian guy, had been forcibly enlisted as a Soviet bomber when he was young and so had seen many places, people, and things for better and worse. When we asked him if he had ever been to New York City, he paused, took a drag of his cigarette, and said that it was a place that he felt he must go to every year, at least once – if only to feel alive.
NYC is the only city I’ve visited that’s comparable to Hong Kong – and even it seems to pale in certain ways.
Hong Kong is a massive force. You can’t really understand what 7 million people look like until you’re standing among them. By miles and numbers, New York is the more cramped city, but somehow Hong Kong gave the feeling of being even more dense, more urgent, hectic. If you want a city to feel alive in, this is it.
Shallow dive bars, bistros, and dance floors were carved into the ground levels of buildings. Constant sound and movement. Eugene took our group to an outdoor cookery and Patience led us to a gorgeous underground restaurant with Hong Kong style tapas. Chinese tradition still lives in this city, but it’s undeniable that the pace and energy of city life has chipped away at the number of “authentic” businesses you can find. I was surprised by the number of ex-pats in Hong Kong, too; I guess after a week of struggling with Cantonese in Macau, it was surprising to hear English being spoken all over in every type of accent. My airbnb was in Central, the main business district, so I may have gotten more exposure to the ex-pat thing than in other parts of the city. Regardless, it was striking – really reminiscent of the “melting pot” idea that defines New York.
One aspect of city life where Hong Kong has New York beat is in consumer culture. It totally makes sense given the amount of business that’s conducted in these city limits and manufacturing in this part of the world… but the ads of Times Square and a stroll through Canal Street seem like child’s play compared to the frenzy happening in the vast outdoor markets and shops that overtake Hong Kong. You can see money changing hands at every turn in this city. Buying and selling seems to be way of life – and abstaining from this means missing out. The fact that it’s December may have amplified this. lol
Walking through Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, I was struck by the sheer amount of product: anything you could think of from toys to magnets, electronics, clothing, knockoff designer watches and bags, hilariously mislabeled leather goods, teas, and everything in between. The tourism industry naturally accounts for a lot of why these goods accumulate so densely in the first place – there’s an idea at play that if you want something cheap, you can find it in China. Sellers know this and play it to their advantage.
I haggled. In my defense, I’m a super slow and deliberate shopper so when you let me meander through a straight up forest of things until I find exactly what I want, and THEN offer me a chance to talk the seller down still… it’s catnip. I describe it this way and it was a fun experience, but it was also a reality check. By American standards, I’m not especially wealthy; However, I didn’t realize how far an American dollar can go in this part of the world. What I wouldn’t blink at spending in USD is a lot to drop in HKD – and it makes a significant difference in how a business gauges a successful day. I haggled because it’s how business works here – but I couldn’t stomach being aggressive. I felt a weird discomfort inside when conversation started turning that way. At a point it felt wrong to insist a price go lower when the stakes were clearly higher for the seller in front of me. Maybe it’s culture shock. Maybe I’m overthinking. But again, maybe I’m not entirely off, either.
Yeah, thoughts were firing pretty rapidly this whole trip. I was so happy to have a chance to break away from the bustle on the last Saturday. A few of us decided to hike the Dragon’s Back in the morning before the heat of the day arrived. Patience was our lovely guide, supplying the pineapple buns, translations, awesome dim sum, and directions to post-hike waffles. Side note, this was also the morning my world turned upside down after trying the canned Nescafe from one of the hot vending machines. So warm and sweet and yummy.
There’s nothing really insightful to say on this. It was meditative and refreshing. The nature of SIGGRAPH and conferences in general makes it hard to get daylight and peace from the outdoors throughout the week. And for me, a bad day means being cooped up. I’m a lizard. I need rocks and sun to survive. This was perfect.
When I travel somewhere new, I make a tally list in my head of the reasons that could convince me to live there one day. At some point, walking along this trail, smiling and saying “hello, good morning” to the other hikers and their families, was the first instance of the trip where I felt I could mark a tally. I didn’t know exactly why at the time, but I do now.
I began this entry with a quote by Confucius that I think captures my takeaway. As much as this post has focused on the differences of where I’ve been to where I’m from, it’s not lost on me that both places are intimately connected; both on the macro scale of economics and politics, to the micro scales of personal relationships and adaptation.
I come from the United States; visiting China has shown me just how much of my life has been shaped by the hands of individuals living here. There is very little I own or have owned that has not brushed fingers with this side of the world. There is culture here that lives on in the United States and aligns strongly with what I’d call “American values” – but lots of Americans have a funny way of not making the connection; of not seeing the wood for the trees and understanding that different expressions don’t mean different core beliefs. Hong Kong retains its own unique pride, history and identity, as does Macau – but the cultures of both places model generosity, hospitality, and sharing. The new forms these cultures take in my homeland, while different, still carry these values… and as someone from the South, this rings especially true. The trick is recognizing our own weakness to distraction: Differences in language, dress, and expression can absorb attention, confuse, and make us forget our commonalities.
It’s sort of paradoxical. Being American is, by definition, the sum result of living in a country with amazing diversity – with communities shaped by dozens of different and beautiful cultures, languages, and histories. My history comes mostly from Europe; I don’t claim the same cultures of every other American citizen, but I do get to celebrate and enjoy the gifts diversity brings to my home. It’s a benefit that we Americans share, together. That’s why my time spent hiking the Dragon’s Back stood out – that friendliness and willingness to connect with a stranger is a defining trait of places I recognize as home. It’s a point of pride I find as an American. For others, it’s a point of contention. It’s foreign and infiltrative. It’s conflicting.
Reflecting on what it means to be an American right now is also somewhat confusing. With the results of the election finally settling into reality, I was sort of anxious to travel overseas; I think a lot of my fellow Americans can sympathize with a vague feeling of shame and failed responsibility: that as a country, our money handling and politics have reached soap opera status; that we’ve used our inalienable rights to elect a celebrity to the highest office; that the democracy we believe makes our country superior has lately served as a channel to broadcast how finicky we are at being moral. I say all that with a grain of salt – and probably more than a little arrogance. We’re a “global superpower” – that’s the term, right? It doesn’t feel as though we’ve been acting like one.
But see, that disappointment stems from ego – nationalism being just a larger, mass iteration of ego. I love my country. But there’s a healthy balance to be reached between love and pride and taking responsibility for others. Maybe the balance is what we call patriotism.
Being healthy – financially, physically, and otherwise – is an extreme stroke of luck.
Being able to travel the extent I have has been an incredible privilege.
Being an American has enabled both things powerfully.
There’s a cycle at work I can’t ignore: without the freedoms and supports my country has set in place, I’d never have the opportunity to meet and bond with others I might never have met. Travel is a privilege, but it can also be a practice. From it, I grow in consciousness as a citizen of the world and in gratitude as a daughter of the United States.
Reading back this post, a lot of what’s written is obvious¹… but I just needed to get it out, I guess. I’ll stand by this: there are some things you can’t fully comprehend until you’ve felt them with your own body, seen them with your own eyes, and breathed in.
To travel is to be taught. And in worthy teaching, all things are related.
¹and also totally ignores the title of this post lol. sorry!