Encounters with strangers in Shanghai always come with difficult questions. For one, ‘why did you come to China?’ is one that has been asked each time I have met someone new and over time, it’s become more and more of a burden to answer it […]
This dessert is for all of your friends who recoil in fear when you say words like raw, vegan, or gluten-free. If hearing ‘cashew cheese’ sends shivers down their spine, this will be the perfect cake to prove them wrong and turn them into raw […]
This melange of turmeric root, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and chili would soon become the spice paste in our fish amok. The burnt-orange turmeric root is responsible for giving the amok its distinct creamy amber hue. But it also leaves a yellow tinge on your […]
I feel like I need to catch this blog and you guys up on everything that’s happened in the last two months. It’s been ages since I wrote my last real post, while spending a few days in Seoul in September. Since then, I’ve been to six more countries; I spent two weeks working from Tokyo; then came back to Shanghai and moved apartments the very same weekend. I want to say in between all that that there wasn’t any time to write. But that’s not true. I’ve had time, I just haven’t had the drive. The thing is, I start writing, and then I stop, because I feel this incessant urge to convey deeper meaning into every word I type, which is clearly ridiculous. Really, my challenge right now is just not dedicating enough time to writing, so that’s what I’m going to work on for the rest of the month – making this blog alive again.
And so, a quick two-month update: D and I spent our National Day holidays in Rome (but more on that later!) and after 24 hours in Stockholm (where we got engaged!), we flew to Florida. And then after less than 48 hours in the States, D flew back home to Shanghai and I headed to Tokyo to spend two weeks as a mentor at the Le Wagon coding bootcamp.
It’s my third time in Japan and third time in Tokyo, but my first time as a digital nomad. Here I am, finally, a millennial in the throes of 21st century work-life-balance, writing code out of cafes and AirBnBs around the world. Except I couldn’t find any cafes with comfy seats or good wifi.
My AirBnB in Meguro-ku is cozy, but in the way a prison cell in Sweden is cozy. At 18 m2, there’s enough space for a bed, a closet built into a wall, a mini-fridge, microwave, kitchen sink, and most importantly a bathtub – but I can still touch the fridge with one hand, if I’m lying in bed. Meguro is lined with three-story, white plaster buildings on narrow streets. I walk home every night between 8pm and 11pm, and through I’m usually the only person on my street, I walk quietly, afraid to make any noise because somehow in Japan it feels wrong. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I bring my recycling to the first floor and an old Japanese lady helps me separate the combustibles, from the non-combustibles, from the plastic, from the paper, from the food waste (this makes me painfully aware that we never separate the recycling in China – largely because it all gets dumped into the same container in the garbage truck).
In Tokyo, everything slows down. Shanghai gives me this constant anxiety in the pit of my stomach for forgetting to follow up on all of these things that need to be completed, of constantly running behind. Tokyo is nothing like that. It downpours every single day I am in Tokyo, which casts a sort of white noise over everything. I get soaked at the Tsukiji Fish Market on Saturday, balancing my camera, the umbrella, my backpack, and the flimsy paper plate with the gigantic oyster. I get soaked on my way to the Impact Hub every morning (i keep wanting to call it a Naked Hub, but that’s just a Shanghai thing)
There’s so much to see in Tokyo, but for the first eight days, all I see are the Impact Hub, the shelf that sells Onigiri at 7/11, my AirBnB, and torrential rains. Japan feels so much more in tune with the rest of the world – it’s been so long since I’ve talked about a tech scene where Apple or Google were relevant. In China, we’re so isolated in our own ecosystem, that I can’t help but say things like “well, this would be easier with WeChat”. But in Tokyo, in Tokyo things are both part of this huge world, but also contained in their small communities. On Wednesdays, there is always homemade curry at the impact hub. Other days, people bring in gluten-free walnut cookies, cake from Hokkaido, or bottles of absinthe. It feels much simpler to make an impact on a smaller scale. For two weeks, I lecture at 9am, then troubleshoot code until 9pm, or on some days 10pm. And in the evenings I eat ramen.
It’s not Thanksgiving in China until you bring the turkey legs you bought online to the butcher shop across the street, because they do not fit in the slow-cooker. It’s not really Thanksgiving until the lady in the butcher shop hacks each turkey leg in […]
UPDATE: Sometimes lanehouses are the worst and sometimes lanehouses inspire us to write the same thing about them (mostly because we all end up having a cockroach infested apartment with crappy water pressure at some point). The other blogger kindly reached out to me and […]
There are two security checkpoints at the DMZ. We take out our passports and an armed guard verifies them against the passport numbers we provided at the start of the morning. He gives a salute to our van driver, who salutes him back and we are allowed to pass through.
Being at the DMZ is uncomfortable. It’s an eerie, yet idyllic, patch of farmland, just 40 minutes North of Seoul. When I read about this place as a kid, I had always pictured an area with exotic flowers and wildlife, devoid of humans. I never pictured the barbed wire, the bridges with oscillating roadblocks, the unnerving feeling of entering a combat zone. Then, there is also the DMZ of the 8-minute documentary we were forced to watch before descending into the third infiltration tunnel that ended with swelling orchestral hymns and the loud proclamation that, ‘the DMZ will live on in our hearts forever!!’. Now I’m not sure what to think of this place.
Which makes me uncomfortable, because when I am in a place doing ‘dark tourism’ as our guide called it, am I a tourist, a voyeur, or a civilian casualty? This isn’t like visiting a Basilica in Rome or the Empire State Building, because we are not just gawking at people across the border; they are monitoring us back, and looking for any wrong moves. In first grade, our teacher made us visit mass graves that commemorated Word War II, and yet, this was somehow more, what’s the word, wrong? restless? U
And yes, South Korea does blast K-Pop at North Korea. At the Dorasan Observatory, there is a constant din of the loudspeaker playing Korean pop, the weather forecast, propaganda messages, and what our guide calls ‘useful information, like how to get a stain out of a shirt’
So, how does one get here?
You MUST book a tour. There is no way to get to the DMZ without a formal tour group. I wish there were, because I usually do everything I can to stay away from big tours, but there is understandably no public transportation to the border, and all visitors need passport checks to enter the restricted areas. But there is a plethora of tour companies which do tours almost daily (minus Sundays and public holidays). I booked my tour through Viator and it was about 50USD for a half-day tour, while whole day tours usually run about 100USD.
There are three kinds of tours. There are only a few areas are open to the public, from the super quick and glancing tour package, where you look at the museums, the Dora Observatory (to see the propaganda villages built by the north) and the Dorasan station that was built to unify North and South Korea in 2004, but is still in ruin on the northern side. For those who want to venture further, there is also a tour of the third infiltration tunnel, which was discovered in 1978 and had been dug out by the North using dynamite. The tunnel was so large, 30,000 soldiers could come through it in an hour, on their way to Seoul. There are no photos allowed in the tunnel, which is about 73 meters underground (and there is a 11º incline to get up and down it), but I’ve included some of the artistic approximations below. Finally, for the hard core buffs, there is the tour to the Joint Security Area (JSA), the room where North and South Korean soldiers stand 24/7, and where the peace accords between both sides take place. The JSA tours are the closest tours to the North, and the one I wanted to do, but it wasn’t mean to be.
You MUST book in advance. I procrastinated and bought my tickets a few days before my trip date. Which meant that I didn’t get to go on a JSA tour, because every single tour up until the 17th had been booked up. I still got to go into the tunnel and see the observatory and the bridge, but I really wish I could have been able to get further into the DMZ as well.
Bring your passport There’s no way to do a tour without bring your passport. The other rule that comes up is dressing ‘nicely’ at the DMZ, which I assume means no ripped jeans and no Thailand elephant pants. This is done, because soldiers on the North Korean have been known the use images of ratty tourists as propaganda, to show that the people visiting are really poor and can’t even afford clothes. Though honestly, that may also be its own type of propaganda.
I get off the train of Hongkik University and the first thing I notice is how good it smells. Seriously, there’s an entire two block stretch that smells like sweet buttermilk biscuits, Cajun fries, and fried chicken. There’s a small strip of land in the […]