going off the grid

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‘People seem to be nicer to you when they think you’re lost.’ I’ll write that down, Octi thought to himself. That’s a good line. That’s a really good line. The bus jerked again, and Octi had to grab the armrests. He didn’t have to be embarrassed; there was no one else on the bus. 2 more hours to Nasca, he muttered. That’s not a long time at all….

Lima had been fun, but it wasn’t what he was looking for on this trip. Maybe Nasca provided the answer. It probably didn’t, but he had time to kill and questions to mull over.

He heard footsteps coming up the stairs. “Hola, vas a Nasca?” the voice arrived before the person. Yes, Octi answered, realizing there wasn’t really an alternative given that it was the only stop left. The bus stewardess walked up to him.

“You speak English?” she asked, surprisingly fluently.

“Yes, do you?”

“Enough to chat,” she said, and then smiled. “Where are you going?”

Octi looked at her puzzled. “Nasca…” he answered.

She laughed. “Yes, this is obvious.” She sat on the chair in front of him and turned back. “What are you looking for? Adventure?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I think I’m looking for answers”

“What is your question?”

“I don’t have an answer to that too”

She stared at him softly, her eyes scanning his face. “My name is Adalina,” she said, reaching out her hand. Octi shook it back. “This is the part where you say your name? Or am I wrong?” she responded to his silence.

“Oh yes. You can call me Octi. My parents named me October.”

“Why don’t you want to be called October? Is it too long?” she probed.

Octi stayed silent for a while. “That used to be it. But I think Octi lets me be myself, October reminds me of who the world wants me to be”

Adalina turned her body more and made herself comfortable. “Very interesting, Octi… do you not like who the world wants you to be?”

He turned his head towards the window and stared at the cliffs running past. They were majestic and unmovable. They must have been here for centuries, he thought. Yet, they spoke nothing.

“No, I do not.” he said, and then let out a sigh. That felt good. “I think all my life I’ve grown up wanting to live a certain way. I’ve wanted to change the world, to make an impact in history. And then I traveled the world, and I’m not sure if I want to do that anymore,” he went on.

Adalina kept her eyes fixed on him. Octi took that as a cue to keep talking.

“Listen, this may sound crazy, but I’ve been thinking. What if I go off the grid? What if I just disappear and travel around South America on what I make from odd jobs and things like that? It’s cheap enough to do so and I know I can survive. I can just leave everything behind, and everyone will be forced to forget about me. I’ll get to restart everything”

Adalina laughed, loud and involved. Octi looked at her, shocked at first, and then joined her. “I know, its ridiculous. What was I thinking?”

“No, not at all.” she said, coming down from her laughter. She placed her hand over his, looked at him staight and said, “Hazlo! Do it.”

“No, I was joking. What would my family think?”

“Write them postcards. Tell them to keep it a secret. You can’t live your life bound to someone else’s will… you’re not free at all.”

Octi looked at her puzzled. Her hands were still on his. He did not know what to say.

Adalina saw this and moved her hands away. “We’re almost at Nasca, it’s 30 minutes away. It’s a beautiful city, and I hope you have a good time.” She got up from the seat. “I can’t wait to see my family again.”

Octi watched her go back down the stairs. He went back to staring at the cliffs out of the window. I can’t do it, he thought, everything will change… everything! He turned his head to the other side of the bus, and noticed for the first time, the coastline. Dense, powerful waves slamming against the beach and drawing back to become join the expansive ocean. Octi looked up The National on his phone and played Sorrow on loop, plugging into the music as he stared at the ocean for the rest of the ride.

Adalina walked up the stairs again a while later. “We’re here, October,” she yelled across. Octi walked up to the front and took out his earphones. It’s Octi, he said, and are you planning on grabbing dinner?, he quickly followed.

Adalina looked at him for a second and then smiled. ‘Yes, Octi, of course. I forgot. And that depends, I know a good place, but we may get lost”.

That’s completely fine, he replied.

____

hooah.

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opportunity-averse

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It’s always interested me how people become afraid of change as they grow up. We live our youth in hope; in aspiration that at some point our lives will be better and different. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t. But regardless of the outcome, as they grow up, some decide that they don’t want to bother with anything different any longer. Inertia has set in.

I’ve discovered this day to day in my own life recently. When I was younger, I lived a life one could say was limited in opportunities. I honestly saw no way to traverse the imaginary moat that prevented me from living my dream life. I thought for a long time that I was never going to leave Southeast Asia. Sometimes, I’d even find myself resigned to the fact, and I was only 10 years old. Even if an opportunity came along to live just a portion of my dream, I would question the true worth of the impact. “I’m going to have to go back to reality at some point,” I’d think.

Then, I grew and recognized how to be hungry, and I’ve posted about these times in previous posts, and the opportunities never stopped. In fact, in almost a self-serving cycle, the more opportunities I seized, the more came my way. The fire burned strong and burnt away any reservation or fear.

But right now, as I lie on my bed in Chicago, and think about what troubles me, I think about the fact that the limitless opportunities are in some way paralyzing. There’s so much one can do, so how should one choose? And even if he does, who else can come with him? One might as well resort to not exploring anything new, either becoming indulgent or idle.

This is a function of blessing; blessing because all of a sudden I traversed that impossible moat and yet am puzzled by how I got here. But that blessing is not complete if I am one of only few who can enjoy this side. So I must balance exploring this side of the moat and enjoying it, and yet finding ways to create bridges over the dark depths of the moat for more to come over.

One must explore, one must be hungry. One must want to keep encountering change, from both sides of the moat. One must be ready to take risk and play it dangerous. I’d never be who I am if I played it safe, and I don’t know who I’d be otherwise, but I’m pretty darn happy with who I am now.

hooah.

i know nothing

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I haven’t told a story in a while. I feel like I have words lodged here and there, attempting to come together like colors form a picture. The mind gets clear when I can write, when I can put down the emotions and the sensations in a form that exceeds itself. So write I will, and perhaps I can understand then.

____

This story starts with a man not too different from me. Eazy was at his regular spot, on the roof of the building he lived in. He had his notebook in his hand, a Moleskine that was gifted to him by his ex-girlfriend, and that he ironically had never used till she broke up with him.

‘Never could understand what was so special about these’ he said, running his hand over the page. ‘I could just as easily write on a notebook from the C-Store.’

The landscape in front of him always had a way of inspiring him. It was Toronto, 2016. Young and bold. This was going to be his break , his big entrance into the world of literary stardom. He had already traveled enough and he was ready to summarize the world in a singular expression. No longer would he be subject to the whims of a system, he thought.

‘It’s time to tell my own story’ he mumbled under his breath.

He uncapped his pen, and moved the top to the page.

‘He…’

He continued staring at the page. Where are my words, he thought. The sensation was a tightness in his brain, blinding his ideas and stuttering his thoughts.

‘He… lived an exceptional life’

Eazy stared at the words he had just wrote. It was only his first line and he already felt unhappy with his work. There was a different story he was trying to tell, and yet, he didn’t know how to say it.

“Eazy, are you there?” he heard someone call out.

He turned around to see the silhouette of a long-haired woman walk towards him.

‘God, she’s always been beautiful’ he thought as he continued sitting.

‘Hey Tina’ he replied. ‘Of course you’d know where I’d be’

‘Everytime Eazy’ she said , as she sat next to him. ‘How’s that story coming along?’ she asked as she peered over into his notebook.

His hands quickly covered the one line he had written. ‘It’s not done…not yet at least’ he mumbled.

‘I saw the one line you wrote’ Tina said as she laughed, ‘It’s not your best work’

‘You’re a great friend, you know, Tina.’ Eazy retorted. He continued staring at his Moleskine for a while more before turning back to her. ‘I’m having problems figuring out what I really want to tell. There’s a story that needs to come out , but it just isn’t.’ he said.

‘Talk to me Eazy, I’m here’ Tina said, placing her hand on his. Eazy turned to her and smiled.

‘Well, alright. Tell me something, Tina. What do you think is a universal theme in all stories you’ve read or seen?’ he started.

Tina stared out into horizon, thinking. ‘It’s about good vs. evil’ she said. ‘It’s always some good guy fighting a bad guy, and saving the day’

‘That’s exactly what I thought as well. Yet it didn’t make sense.’ Eazy replied.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well think about this. In this world, is the fight really against evil people?’

Tina stared back at him for a while. ‘Of course. There’s ISIS, there’s North Korea, heck, there’s disgusting people in this very neighborhood. What on earth are you saying if you’re insinuating that there aren’t bad people out there?’

‘I’m not saying anything like that. There’s absolutely no denying that there are incorrigible people out there. But I’m a writer, and as a writer, it’s impossible for me to see someone as good or bad. ‘

Tina pulled her hand away from his.

‘Listen to what I have to say. Just hear me out. I don’t think you can ever claim someone to be good or bad without recognizing the limitations to the label. You’re talking about a person at a specific point in time, detached from his past and his future . What if he turns evil at some point in his life? Does that mean he was never good? Being good had nothing to do with him becoming evil, yet for all sakes and purposes, the label is stripped from him because his evil is his legacy. What would have kept him from evil? Good? I doubt it.’

‘So you’re saying that evil people are naturally bound for their futures? That they’re destined for evil?’  Tina probed.

‘No, no. But that’s an interesting idea’ he said, as he scribbled the thought onto his palm. ‘What I think I’m trying to say is that there’s a bigger thematic war going on, in both the literary world and ours. One that actually makes more sense. That’s where I’m stuck.’

‘I hear you’ Tina said. She turned back towards the horizon, and Eazy did too. He heard her take a deep breath and sigh heavily. It was funny how Tina was here all this while. She had been supportive of his writing from the beginning, the one and only. If anything, she was the reason why he was back on the roof.

‘Look at that skyline, huh?’ she muttered. ‘Sometimes, this is what I need to take on the day.’

‘Hope!’ Eazy shouted.

‘What?’ Tina said, as she turned towards him.

‘The thematic battle. It’s between Hope and Despair. Both are forces, dynamic and unstable , unlike good and evil.  But more importantly, they are both pure, sincere and absolutely consuming. That’s the bigger battle in our lives. We have to continue hoping, because the loss of hope, the start of despair, is when we have truly lost.’

‘We have to keep believing.’ Tina smiled. ‘I like it.’

‘I like it too. And I think I know just the story to write.’ Eazy said , smiling back as he grabbed her hand and held tightly onto it.

Their eyes locked onto each other, and they continued smiling. Tina turned her head back to the horizon and paused for a while before finally, with hope in her voice, uttered ‘Tell me the story, Eazy’

And that he did.

____

hooah.

take my youth, take my memories

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It was the day of the big reveal. Tiffany locked the door as she walked into the gallery. It’s a different feeling having the whole place to yourself , just you and your work.  She saw her soul here , a portion of it at least, laid out for the world to see. It was weird to her how one’s soul can live outside of their conscience.

The first picture was when she was 17 and had her first kiss. She was gleaming, her smile spread cheek to cheek. The summer camp they were at could be seen in the background, and the low quality of the photo taken on her friend’s phone was obvious through the noise all over. She remembered the thrill of the kiss, and then the immediate confusion that followed. What was going on, she had asked herself. I never knew he liked me… but he is kinda cute.  They had stopped once she realized her friends were giggling by the side. They simply walked away and went somewhere else to continue the snog. Whatever happened to him, she thought. They never saw each other past that summer camp.

It didn’t really matter all that much. Her mom had told her before “Your first kiss will be the most magical thing in the world.” She didn’t think so. Every subsequent kiss with Rick had only gotten more magical, and he was definitely not her first kiss. She looked back at the picture again, and smiled at the innocence of her youth.

She walked a couple of pictures down and stopped at a small one. It was a postcard she had written to her best friend that got bounced back. He had decided to travel to Europe and had invited her along. She remembered the day at the airport, giving him his farewell hug. “You sure you don’t want to do this? This small town isn’t big enough for our dreams” he had said. I’m not sure if that life’s for me, she had replied. That was the last she saw of him. They had exchanged postcards for a year, his stories of adventures in the Greek Isles and Swiss Alps and her stories of getting her first job and learning to cook. Her adventures were no less worthwhile, but he was right. Her first job taught her that she was too full of ideas to be locked behind a desk. She sent him the final postcard, asking to join him, if only for a month or so. It never reached him, and she never found out why. Where are you Buzz, she muttered to the postcard. Come back soon, I miss you. Bring the adventure here. She imagined him sitting in a villa in the Croatian countryside , with a beautiful wife and a backyard of opportunity . He’s probably happy wherever he is, she thought.

It was 15 minutes to opening time. She took another lap around the gallery, making sure everything was in place. She smiled at some of her photos, laughed at others. As she neared the middle of the route, she stopped at a portrait that had been drawn of her. Her face was long, her brows furious and her lips curt. This happened 10 years ago and yet so much has changed , she saw. She had been dating Rick for a year, and things were starting to get serious. ‘I’m going to break up with him’ she told Amy, her sister. ‘I’m not sure if I’m ready to be this serious’ she had insisted.

‘Let’s hit the pause button’ she said. ‘We decide our lives, and it’s seems like at this point, you need to know more about yourself before you make any more decisions’

‘Alright’ she said, thinking of Morty and his Croatian villa. They took a year to travel around Asia. From fighting pythons in the jungles to waking up in the middle of the Mekong, her world was changed. It was after the first month, on the streets of Bombay that she had made her first call to give up. Amy had looked at her straight in the eye and said ‘We can go back right now, but let me ask you something first. Have you answered your question?’

She had known the answer wasn’t true. That was when Amy drew the first portrait of her. Every month since, Amy would sit her down and sketch her look. The gallery had them laid out in sequence. As Tiffany continued walking down, she found the one that excited her the most. For the first time, on the last portrait, she had smiled profusely. It looked better than her smile of innocence at the beginning of the gallery. This was confident, proud in fact. You could see a sparkle in her eye, she was happy regardless of the situation. She had just traversed the Three Gorges in China and was overlooking the Bund in Shanghai. She looked back at Amy and smiled. “Hold that” she had said, and took a picture of her that she proceeded to copy into sketch.

“I know the answer now” Tiffany said. I know what this life means for me.

The last picture in they gallery showed Tiffany finally sitting on a bench in Central Park, New York. She was reading a book and smiling to herself again. Rick had taken that picture when she wasn’t looking. Below the picture was a quote she had placed. “When you decide happiness is completely in your hands, you’re probably ready to grow up”

She smiled again. It was time to open up.

geronimo.

 

understanding invariants

Maturity hurts. It’s a weapon you carry in your inventory, embellished with the pains of your past, that adds to its ferocity in battle. When you carry it, you become slower, but therefore more calculated. You become tired easily, but also calmer. The stronger your sword becomes, the less you have to use it. One day then, you’ll have to leave the sword, and the person who carries it from you will have to learn to handle its weight.

I’ve been called ‘mature’ since I was young, without ever understanding what that meant. I’d nod my head, and say ‘Thank you, sir’ . I never thought I was ever mature though. I was curious – that was probably the better word for me. ‘Curiosity killed the Cat’ right? Well, I let myself face death, danger and disgrace many times in my life.

My curiosity was derived from a dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that was fed by my environment’s challenge to always be better. It was initially academic, and once I discovered I had a handle on studying, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of more fields. I wanted to be a better adventurer, a better leader, a better social butterfly. As I entered into these fields, I faced my first big hurdle. Rejection. People told me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do – that I wasn’t good enough or that I wasn’t fit for it. I was distraught , disgraced even. Then I gained my first taste of maturity. My parents and friends presented me the sword. ‘You’re growing up’ , they said. ‘You’ll need this’. I wiped the blood of my wounds on it, and felt its strength. I walked forward, and claimed my place. People won’t define who I am, I said, and did what I knew was right.

The problem with carrying a sword as powerful as maturity though, is that you think you’re prepared for any battle. I walked into the military, thinking I could handle this without a stretch. I was brought down immediately. Hubris and physical toil hit me hard. I remember so many times being at the end of my limits, and having to dig deeper. I had to remember my family back home, so that I could continue on my mission. I had to remember my platoon mates had families too, so that I could help them build their shellscrapes. I had to remember my own mission to be better, and that helped me get a Gold in my fitness test. People yelled in my ear : ‘Is this how you want to go down, Rovik?’ , and I realised my sword was definitely in need of more embellishing. I wiped the blood of my wounds on it, and felt its strength. I became a better leader, and a better soldier. I saw my friends almost die, from all kinds of ailments and physical conditions, and realised how truly sacred life is, not to be meddled with.  I was going to take life and security a lot more seriously.

The moment when you decide to start teaching others how to wield a sword is an interesting one. I had the benefit of mentors since I was 18; people who invested in me as a person and gave me personalised advice. When I started The Hidden Good, I was put in a position to train people and envision the same future I was seeing. More than that, I wanted them to add to it – to share it with me. I realised I was building an army then. An army of mature, wise and passionate individuals who knew how to wield their own swords and carry on the good fight. While teaching them, I too learnt how to better wield my own sword. I had to be confident in my lessons, and uphold them , bettering myself as I went on.

Perhaps the most forgotten aspect of swords is that while they’re heavily offensive, they play defensive roles as well – protecting you from the vile forces of others. I’ve let down my sword too many times. I trusted people too many times or I was tired of the weight of the sword and wanted to forget it, lapsing into immaturity. I had to remember to carry my sword again, and I would be reminded why it was so heavy in the first place.

Why is this topic important now? Because I’m realising how fleeting almost anything I do in college can be. My maturity, in its limited capacity, has reminded me that there is no point stressing or worrying about aspects that honestly would be forgotten in a few years. I’m reminded to invest in things that last – relationships, lives and futures. Love more, live more, smile more.

And in all of it, carry your sword with pride.

geronimo.

breath of the dragon – visiting east asia (part #4 – Hong Kong)

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The final stop of my adventure, Hong Kong was meant to be less of a ‘traditional’ adventure and more of an opportunity to meet friends and see the city as a young adult. But of course, this collection of islands and territories surprised me once again. this time with its history and evolution. Lan Kwai Fong will dominate as my best memory of the place, but behind all the raucous noise of the city, you can see a society accustomed to its place as a world market leader.

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My host, Jethro, and I were having a conversation. I said that unlike the regular tourist, the true traveler values engaging with sights and experiences first, and so we resist paying for needless frivolities like ‘taking photos at the top of a building’. He quickly retorted ‘Well, in Hong Kong, paying is engaging’. I guess that very well summarized the spirit of Hong Kong City. Malls span most places, and right at Causeway Bay where consumerism finds its home, you’ll be blown away by the pure diversity of products you could purchase. At Times Square (obviously named after New York) you’ll find tall and large digital billboards reminding you that the giants of Gucci and Prada still extend dominion even in Hong Kong. You’ll find many more examples of cultural appropriation here, such as at Hollywood Road and SoHo. It’s almost funny how we find issue with the West when they appropriate our cultures, but yet here we are appropriating theirs.

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Probably one of the things you could enjoy and yet escape paying for is the night skyline along Victoria Harbor. In my opinion, both sides of the Harbor are magnificent for the viewing, and one should take the time to admire not only the symphony of lights . Take time to reflect also on the development of a city that was given away ‘in perpetuity’ to the British and then taken back. It’s probably been liable to more political instability than most countries but yet it has stayed its course and arrived here. That’s really admirable in my opinion.

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The Star Ferry brings you across the harbor for a meager HKD 2.50, or USD 0.40 . Reaching Tsim Sha Tsui brings you to the supposed ‘better’ side of the harbor in terms of skyline viewing, and one can also witness colonial buildings that incite curiosity. They’re definitely worth spending the night exploring and admiring.

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Hong Kong’s markets are worth spending half a day exploring. From Bird Markets to Fish Markets to pure fake goods markets, there’s no shortage of products for you to expend a couple of dollars on. Go to Mong Kok or Prince Edward Station and simply walk south towards Jordan Station on the MTR and you’ll be wondering whether the value for money is too good to be true. It probably is, although if you don’t have expectations that are too high , you could enjoy a few good steals.

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Here’s where the trip gets slightly more interesting. Having been to Hong Kong twice before, I decided to take a risk and go into the New Territories. Although the ‘NT’ take up most of Hong Kong in landmass, most people only identify the City as the boundaries of their visit. I’d strongly recommend taking a quick MTR ride out and exploring the Territories, including this Walled Community located at Kam Tin. This is one of the last Walled Communities from the time of the Five Clans i.e. pre-British Hong Kong. Fun Fact : Everyone in the community is supposedly born with the last name ‘Tang’.

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Walk through the wall and you’ll find narrow alleys and people living in close unity. It reminded me of the ‘kampung’ settings in Singapore. What struck me the most was that it wasn’t just the elderly living here, as you’d intuitively expect. Whole families and even children populate this community and add some well appreciated life to this almost ancient and forgotten part of Hong Kong.

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Onto food! My favorite dishes from Hong Kong are Condensed Milk Toast and Milk Tea. It’s a sweet tea-time snack, and the crispy toast is well matched with the soggy texture of the condensed milk. Wash it down with the Milk Tea and you’ve tasted some of the best of Hong Kong. Tsui Wah, a popular chain selling regional dishes, is a great place to grab some of these.

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There’s a lot of dishes Hong Kong is famous for. Go to Mak’s Noodles for Wonton Noodles and Tai Hing for Roast Meat (especially their juicy Char Siew), but don’t leave Hong Kong without going to a Dai Bai Dong place, which is essentially a noodle place that adds ingredients as you ask for them. It’s an old penchant of Hong Kong street-fare and is not lost in the pursuit of great flavors. Chopsticks Kee on Wellington Street was the place I went to, and not only is the food absolutely lip-smacking good, the service staff are very friendly and homely, and the prices are very much value for money. It’s a quiet hole in the wall so you may have some difficulty finding it, although I’d recommend asking around. Most Hong Kong people have proven to be very kind in my adventure.

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And finally, how could we talk about Hong Kong without talking about Dim Sum. Traditionally a brunch meal, dim sum is famous for providing a huge diversity of small dishes that are savory, sweet and even herbal. Most are served in bamboo steamers, which allows the food to be freshly delivered as they’re cooked. We went to Lin Heung Tea House on Wellington Street. One of the strongest merits of this place is it’s traditional demeanor. Most Hong Kong Dim Sum places tend to be in fancy hotels and restaurants and therefore jacking up the prices. Here you’ll find regulars and families, people who value what this humble place has to offer. Don’t take it’s simple outlook as it is though; you will have to fight for your seat, and you will have to join the mad rush to get the dish you want. That’s part of the fun I suppose, and it made for some really fun photos. For a full look at this teahouse, check out ‘Hangry Nat’s’ blogpost here : https://hangrynat.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/forever-1926-lin-heung-tea-house/

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Although I don’t have pictures (for good reason), Lan Kwai Fong definitely ranks up as one of my most memorable watering holes. Accompanied with SoHo, the range of bars and clubs provide no end to your night. Although costly (even costlier than Singapore, who would imagine) , the experiences you will make at LKF probably will never leave you. Accompanied with the ups and downs of the slopes and the open drinking on the streets by expatriates and locals alike, you’ll always leave LKF a little more happier than when you came.

I’ve always compared Hong Kong as a more ‘Chinese’ Singapore, and in many ways its still true. East definitely meets West here as well, but where in Singapore we’ve integrated a lot more cultures, Hong Kong still remains predominantly a Chinese city. It faces the same struggles as Singapore – some search for meaning is going on in all the noise. But you’ll take away a sense of achievement here . People are proud to live in Hong Kong, they’re proud to have a stake in this city. That, to me, is magical.

___

Here’s where I pen down my final epilogue on the whole ‘Breath of the Dragon’ adventure. I spent my summer trying very hard to heal the broken parts of myself. I gave myself that goal at the beginning of the year. I never identified as Indian, and always thought I was more Chinese than anything else. I was somewhere in between, almost stuck. These two major trips sought to reconcile these aspects of myself. I’m glad to admit I found the answer ; that while I find strong connections to both cultures, I am definitely neither one nor the other. It is perhaps in that respect, that I find myself indefinitely Singaporean and more so than before. By extension, I’m also an international citizen. The world is my domain and I’ve discovered the ability to empathise with a wide range of people.

Spending my last week home has let me corroborate my thoughts. Summer has been amazing, and I can’t wait to take on the rest of the year.

You’ll hear from me soon.

geronimo.

breath of the dragon – visiting east asia (part #2 – Shanghai)

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Shanghai – most people’s true gateway to China.  Most people think of Hong Kong as the best window into understanding the mainland, but in Shanghai only can one truly appreciate Chinese policy and influence with the familiar allure of a mega-city.  Shanghai’s main draw for the traveler aren’t just the pompous parties and beautiful skylines – there’s a story to be shared behind the draws of a city that was once divided and distributed to various international powers. To truly witness the struggle of a population with its own modernity, Shanghai unveils itself for you.

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Some history is probably necessary to understand Shanghai. After the First Opium War, which the Chinese lost, Shanghai was conceded (together with other ports such as Hong Kong) to the British. This led to the eventual formation of the International Settlement and the French Concession, a separate agreement made by the French because they probably thought they were special. The Bund then, is one of the most prominent remnants of the International Settlement, with old colonial style buildings lined up for all to awe at. Some of the buildings have interesting stories to them, especially ‘Big Ching’, based off ‘Big Ben’ in London, that you can see in the picture.

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What the Bund is more famous for though, is this amazing view of Pudong. It’s a lot better at night, but Pudong is essentially the Communist Government’s attempt at building a modern financial capital on the mainland away from Hong Kong. It’s been developed in the past 15 years only, causing massive changes in the environment and a very strong boast of the extent of Chinese willpower. Some buildings stand out for their gawkiness and some just stand absolutely majestic, but all in all Pudong from the Bund is a view worth catching.

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The French Concession is worth visiting too, it’s picturesque and its roads remind you of the alleys in Paris, with trees forming a shelter over the walkways. It’s filled with boutique fashion shops mostly, but take a trip to Tianzifang nearby and be overwhelmed by the transformation of the alleys to accommodate budding artists and craftsmen. It’s a supposed ‘hipster hangout’, although I’d dare say anyone can find something of interest here.

xianzicheng

Along the same lines of conservation and transformation, visit Xintiandi which is just north-east of Tianzifang. Although the eateries in this place are a bit more up-market, stroll around the neighborhood to witness how the old ‘shikumen’ houses (colonial facades with localised Asian interiors) are preserved. Cited as an exemplar of modern preservation methods, this neighborhood feels different from the rest of Shanghai and leaves you to imagine a different time. The site of the first congress of the Communist Party of China is here as well,  and with free entry you can gain insight into the rationale behind the formation of the Communist Party and the epic saga that ensued. Propaganda or not, it leaves you enlightened into the mantra spread across the mainland : The Communist Party is a necessary force for China’s freedom.

yuyuan gardens

Take a trip into Old Shanghai, by visiting YuYuan gardens, a beautiful enclosed neighborhood of old style buildings and rock gardens. One can spend a half day here just walking around and admiring the architectural beauty of the place. The Huxinting Teahouse (in picture) has witnessed many annals of history , most prominently being used a base in the Opium War and seeing Bill Clinton drink tea in its premises. You can witness many old Chinese crafts and trades in the Tourist mart, although I’d advise bargaining to around 20% of the price. I managed to knock down a bundle of items from 400 Yuan to 80 Yuan, and all I had to do was to stand my ground. After you’re done with the premises, walk around the extended neighborhood , in around a 50m radius to see more of Shanghai’s old architectural styles and take a whiff of how this city used to look like before Pudong became the standard.

shanghaifood

Shanghai cuisine is defined by sweet flavors and dumplings. I never knew how much I loved dumplings till I came to this city. Yang’s dumplings by far command a dominant place in my list of ‘Food I wish I could try again’ . Located in the food street of Huanghe Road, these dumplings are pan fried and hold together a mix of wholesome meat and delicious soup. They don’t skimp on any thing – quality nor quantity , but the best part is that your wallet hardly feels a pinch. You would be foolish to visit Shanghai and not try these.

xlb

What is more famously known though, are the Shanghai soup dumplings. Sometimes called the xiaolongbao (although many would dispute it based on the thickness of the skin) , these soup dumplings spill out such rich and savory flavors that you could go for 5-8 at a time. There are many that are famous and there’s even a XLB index out there to help guide your choices although the XLBs near the City of God Temple are a good start. I’ve tried XLBs in Singapore and Taiwan, and the Shanghai ones are definitely royalty .

shanghai3

Many people say Shanghai is just a great city to party and make money. That’s true – I had one of my better parties in Shanghai. Mint, the club I was brought to, had a shark tank in it. I’m not kidding.

But to the true traveler, Shanghai invites a discussion on a shotgun transformation from old city to new. To serve this demand of modernity, people influx from all over the region and what you face is this interesting misplacement of cultures and values in a city that probably requires something else. Notice the taxi driver I caught, stopping his car in the middle of the road and going to take a piss in the probably recently pruned garden.

The young people definitely don’t show any signs of being out of place. They’re raucous, ambitious and above all else, optimistic about the future. Shanghai is their playground, and they will dominate it.

Special thanks to George Mao (for hosting me), Isabelle (aka Rat-Slinger), Karin, Jing, Cooper, Jimmy Zhao, Justin, Alan, Cheryl, Clare and Jing, for the amazing time in Shanghai and taking me off the beaten path.  Next post is on Taiwan.

Till then,

geronimo.