Tag Archives: Travel

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

The Whole Wide World

In the midst of my grandmother’s final days, I couldn’t help but think about how different her life had been from mine, how everything she had been through had made things possible for me, my sister, our cousins. I received the news of her passing in Porto, on New Year’s Day. It pained me to be on the other side of the world, away from family in both the US and Hong Kong, away from friends even. Yet at the same time, I thought about how far we had come, as a family, that I was able to be there, a spur of the moment trip to Portugal over my holiday.

My grandmother never left China, never left Hong Kong really. Growing up, even after my parents moved with me and my sister to the States, our vacations were rare, and quite modest. A few road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, once to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Our big getaway was New York and DC – to deal with immigration paperwork. That was the extent of it. My parents always provided for us, and I never was left wanting of anything. But luxury was unknown to us: we rented instead of owned, moved around a bunch to save. And we rarely traveled.

I was at a museum in Paris when I received what turned out to be my last call from my grandmother. I was spending the holidays there with my best friend – she a half-Spanish French native whom I had met in Tokyo. About a week later, I reflected on the moment, the trip, and I thought too about my last couple of months working in Geneva. I had been to Brussels and Rome, spent a weekend with a good friend over in Barcelona. I didn’t think about this in a self-indulgent way. Rather, I thought about the fact that I was able to see so much, and experience so much, on behalf of my grandmother, on behalf of my parents.

I never once took for granted what I had gained because of my family’s move to the US. Still, I don’t know that I ever envisioned what my life was going to be like when I grew up. Until the point of graduate school, I never really thought about what my life could be like. Even as my personal travel expanded, it never quite seemed like real life. Things only felt different, I think, when it was my studies – my work – that opened up the world. Conferences in Chicago and New Orleans, in Seoul and Berlin. Field work in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The world simultaneously became bigger and smaller, less bounded but more accessible.

I have admittedly struggled with expat life at times, as has been well documented on these pages. These recent weeks in particular have provided plenty of triggers. Missing the holidays, the milestones, the passings. Just watching La La Land this past weekend, and seeing the spirit, the hope and beauty, the melancholy of the city I grew up in, captured onscreen – it made me yearn for life back “home,” for the experience of being there. But I don’t think I would prefer that alternative, don’t think that I would be happier being in LA, or even the US. In fact, at this stage of my life (however long it may last), I can say resoundingly that this is not the case.

Perhaps it has to do with my tendency to settle, to be comfortable. Even in Japan, in a shoebox apartment with a modest fellowship stipend, with no hope for professional progress and almost no love life, I was a little too content. Maybe the inherent discomfort of being an expat is the very thing I need then. A friend suggested once that expats are people who are in search of something, who lack something in their lives. I suppose I’m still  searching. But what I’ve found so far has propelled me a bit in my life, has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived.

The people I’ve met – they’re the core of it. I have learned so much, from one-off dates and fleeting encounters, but especially from the kindred souls I will forever hold close to my heart. I have a friend in Hong Kong who still tells me regularly she misses our days as graduate fellows in Boston. A Japanese friend in Singapore who checked in on me every time he was in Tokyo, even if he had to meet with luggage in tow. The couple who I spent a full week with in a studio in Paris, nonstop, on their holiday; the aforementioned best friend who took me to all her family functions. They are in my life because of a confluence of coincidence*, but also fundamentally because I moved from comfort.

*”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”

When I told my mom about my trip to Rome, she asked how long the flight was from Geneva. She asked a few more questions about Italy  – something my sister and I both picked up on. They, along with my brother-in-law, were to visit me in Switzerland later this year. After the conversation, my sister put Rome and Venice on their itinerary too. I think about that, and the hundreds of places my sister has been to in her life. I think about my mom, a homemaker until we moved to the States, who then – and to this day – would have to wake up before the crack of dawn six days a week for her blue-collar job. And I think about her being able to see Italy and Switzerland and France and Japan.

I think about my grandmother.

Leaving Los Angeles was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being an expat continues to be the privilege of my life. I know it. I just have to remind myself of it sometimes.

(Photo by bm.iphone, uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To Be Continued

I’m always reminded of how small the world can be when I get on a plane. I ask myself why it is that I haven’t visited home in so long. Why it is that I don’t travel more often. It takes ten hours, maybe 12 or 13, and I can easily be on the other side of the world: my sister’s home, my mom’s apartment, in a city or in a country that I’ve never visited before. Less than a day – nothing in the grand scope of things. I suppose money is the primary deterrent. Still, as privileged as I am, it still seems like an excuse.

It’s incredible though how much life can change with a plane ride. With a moment, really. For about six months, I lived with an increasing degree of uncertainty, knowing only that my future would very likely not rest in Tokyo. Then, I received an email. For about three weeks after that, I lived with the certainty that I was moving to Geneva. The fear of an unknown future barreling down on me shifted to that of a concrete future barreling down on me, my world suddenly one in which I simultaneously faced the reality of leaving a life behind while preparing for one that had thrust itself on the horizon.

The finality of leaving Japan struck me time and again. Perhaps it’s a feeling that expats more experienced than I have become accustomed to. But the particular circumstances of my farewell certainly helped to prolong it, forcing me to confront the end of this chapter of my life at an almost comedic level. My supervisor went on an extended vacation about a month previous, prompting an official farewell lunch and after-work drinks then. My best friend went on a long-planned vacation two weeks after that; her departure preceded by an emotional and reflective week of gatherings and conversation.

A week after that was when I actually left my job – the first real workplace I’ve been a part of, and the source of essentially all my relationships the past two years. It was accompanied by more meals and drinks, naturally. On top of all that, an unexpected wait for a visa pushed me to abscond from my apartment and shack up with a buddy for a week – thus providing a literal manifestation of my now-transitory existence in Japan, my purgatory of sorts. Visits to the immigration bureau, the ward office, and the Swiss embassy underlined the gravity of the chain of events set in motion. It all felt so real, yet so surreal also.

I don’t know that it hit me until I got on the plane, and perhaps not even then. Fact is, a week into my new life, I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet. I’m too busy being overwhelmed – by the big things, the first days at the new job, the in-progress apartment hunt, but also the little things, the denominations of coins and cash, the instructions at the Laundromat where I sit writing this – to have my feet fully underneath me, to be able to truly process everything that has happened in the span of the past month or two. I can’t help but be aware of the most painfully obvious elements of the move, of course. There’s the smallness of the city, its corresponding and welcomed manageability. The pace of life, the rhythm and space, the diversity and liveliness, all plain as day.

But the physical traits of my new surroundings matter less than how I choose to perceive them, how I choose to interact with and engage them. And that is yet to come. After all, my life changed with a plane ride, but not simply due to the physical act thereof. Rather, it changed and will change because the ride has put me in a place where I must define and redefine myself: my life and career, my path and future direction, my hobbies and interests, my friendships and relationships. Not all of that is entirely under my control – it never is. But the assessment, the reevaluation, even the confrontation: it’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it’ll get me to the place where I want to be, inside.

Japan: Year Three

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*drafted July 30, 2016

This seems appropriate. Three weeks before I’m to leave the country, I don’t know where my next destination is. In fact, there’s a decent chance that the answer to that question – and to that of the inextricably linked, “Did I get the job?” – actually reached my inbox sometime in the past few hours. But I have no idea. I’m in a mountain lodge, no wi-fi, no shower actually, putting this down with pen and paper. Because I got stuck on a hike that took longer than anticipated. Because the last bus took off at the unconscionably early time of 4:40 pm. But mostly, because I needed to get away from it all – the uncertainty, the stress, the crowds, and especially my own head space. Like I said, this seems appropriate.

The Japan experience has had its flaws. This is an understatement, and certainly more than enough space has been devoted on particular aspects of these flaws. But perhaps it is natural, at this late stage, to overlook those, and to consider the past three years of my life with rose-colored glasses. And that is indeed some of what I have been doing for what feels like months as endgame in Japan draws near. I suspect some of it resembles a senioritis of sorts. But I would vehemently disagree with the idea that nostalgia is all there is. Because ultimately, this has been an incredible, exhilarating experience. And it is now legitimately fucking hard to let go.

I’m leaving Japan because my fellowship is up. I’m not trying like hell to stay because the ceiling for both my personal and professional lives here are severely limited. Job opportunities tend to be few and far between. Dating has not exactly been a rousing success. My social circle remains generally confined to work colleagues, and as fantastic as one of those relationships has been, that too is not the healthiest of circumstance. I see my family much less than I would like, and my relationship with friends stateside deteriorates further with every year I spend here, more and more milestones passing by. So why then is it so difficult to leave? Why then am I not champing at the bit to move on?

The uncertainty doesn’t help, that’s for sure. That I am diving into the great unknown provides requisite pause. But familiarity explains only so much. No, what makes it so difficult to leave comes down simply to what I am leaving behind. The coolest city in the world, exuding life and vibrancy and excitement, filled at times with grandeur and decadence, at others marked by restraint and purity, and sometimes, yes, a fair bit of weirdness. A country full of wonders, with a seemingly endless supply of vast natural landscapes to get lost in and quaint towns and villages and spaces to absorb, with all my senses. And people who I connected with, in an almost visceral way, in a way that we only could here, because of the circumstance of Tokyo, Japan that envelops us all.

Who knows. Maybe some of this is bullshit. Maybe what is killing me is, as per usual, impending heartache. But whatever the reason, I’ve come – if not quite full circle – then most of a circle. Three years in Japan. Time of my life. Will you look at that.

On the Kumano Kodo

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When I originally planned a trip on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (“the world’s best unknown hike”), what appealed to me was the combination of hiking and sightseeing, especially in a locale I hadn’t visited, one also generally unknown to foreigners. But as the date approached, I came to believe I genuinely needed the pilgrimage aspect – if not quite for religious reasons, then existential ones. I realize I’m privileged, healthy, overall lucky; none of it I deny in the least. Yet caveats aside, I cannot help but circle back to the fact that I too often feel like a fucking mess of a human being.

I’ll be unemployed in four months and barely give a fuck because I can’t imagine any occupation from which I can derive any sense of joy or feeling besides fundamental apathy. I recently turned 33 and still can’t find anyone who appears remotely capable of reciprocating my romantic love, a problem compounded by my repeatedly falling for those who see me only platonically. I live in a country that I cannot stay forever in for any number of reasons, yet I find myself increasingly wanting to, probably because I am so incredibly sheltered here, the way the country is from all the world’s problems.


I didn’t experience anything truly profound during my five-day hike. I still don’t know what I’m doing with my life, where I want to live, why I can’t find love, or how to rectify any of that. But for those five days, none of the big stuff really mattered. I had the overriding goal of getting to the next place. I walked through forests, small villages, a shrine or two. When I arrived in the inns I had booked, I enjoyed the local onsen, ate decadent meals, and managed generally meaningless conversations with hosts or fellow travelers. And with my spare time, I was preoccupied by a work quasi-emergency – I ended up writing and editing and researching in the evenings.

I don’t know that I ended up with any sliver of inner peace after the fact. Sure, I was proud of myself, felt a genuine sense of accomplishment, etc. In fact, I would not hesitate to say the trip was one of the best experiences of my life. But the takeaway is mostly about distraction, I think. I thought a lot about the minutiae that occupies my mind, in convincing myself that a report or an email actually mattered in the greater scope of things, or in counting the markers remaining before reaching my destination for the day. Maybe that’s my life. Because if I didn’t have those things, then I would have been left thinking about the existential questions. And the bottom would have fallen out.

Let It Burn

The world is dysfunction. I walk through the park – the Centennial Olympic Park, no less – and there are more homeless here than there are visitors. City workers set up for an unspecified event, a marathon from the looks of it. Tourists, myself included, snap shots of nearby statues, plaques, landscapes – landscapes decorated with those for whom survival is a struggle. They exist in the park the way the trees do, the way the benches do. They exist but invisibly so. This is normal city life, we have been told, and we have somehow been conditioned to accept.

A ten-minute walk from this park, a day earlier. I sit in a conference room with ten others. Four are there because they have to be, because they have been scheduled to present, same as me. Two are friends, two others share my alma mater: all moral support. Only the last two are genuine audience members. We’ve come from all over the country, the world in some cases, myself included, to be here. I wonder if anyone aside from my friends grasps the absurdity of it all. They debate regime complexes, breadth versus depth, theoretical frameworks. We’re so far removed from the world that it borders on delusion.

All manner of accommodations adorn the skyline from my perch in the middle of the park. The conference I’m here for is a four-day affair: thousands of attendants, hundreds of panels, dozens of rooms. I try to make sense of all of this. I know what we do matters, that society requires the pursuit of knowledge, the sharing and imparting thereof. But I sit here and look upon my surroundings and I sit here and think upon the conversation in those rooms a ten-minute walk away. And I try to make sense of all of this and I fail. We’re so far up our own asses it’d be funny if it weren’t my life. Maybe it’s funny anyway.

My friend got laid off yesterday. My mom has been up since 5 am for her job. A dozen homeless line up in an alleyway by the church, presumably for a warm meal. Meanwhile, I spent nine dollars for a beer at a basketball game last night. I received a free trip to this city to talk for ten minutes on a panel with two real audience members. Sometimes, on what I would say are my best days, I feel like I don’t want any part of this world. Let it burn. Except pyromaniac isn’t exactly a sustainable life philosophy. And this is ultimately the only world in which I exist. So where does that leave me?

The Southeast Asia Travelogues

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From December 19th to January 3rd, I took a trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. Some thoughts I jotted down along the way:

December 19

What is it about being on an airplane that makes you reevaluate your life? Is it the act itself, your helplessness laid bare in a glorified metal container cast through the skies? Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of time to yourself, in-flight entertainment aside, inevitably turning you inward. Mostly, I think it’s the trip that the ride bookends on one end or the other, providing natural markers for a period of your life, no matter its length. There is after all a moment in the air when your focus snaps back, when you realize it’s time to return to real life, and all that it entails. And in that moment, it seems impossible not to think about precisely what it entails.

December 20

I stepped in shit today. Cow or horse, I’m not sure. But I was immersed in my phone when I felt the squish – prolonged, deep. The smell wafted up shortly thereafter. I could only laugh. It was a quintessentially me thing to happen. I’m the guy who knocks over an open bottle of red wine on its side at a conference dinner. I’m the guy who heaves a football on the beach and has it hit a teenage girl in the face. I’m the guy who steps in shit my first full day in Thailand.

But at the same time, I’m also the guy whose errant football throw causes no injury, leaves no mark but embarrassment – mine of course. The wine spill I created somehow avoids my colleague’s dress altogether, containing itself to a small dish that the restaurant replaces. So I stepped in shit my first day in Thailand. But it didn’t smear much, and the smell didn’t linger long. All in all, like I said, a quintessentially me thing to happen.

*Another took place the evening prior, when I agreed to pay 30 baht (~$1) to a red car – essentially a group taxi – and ended up giving him 3 baht (~$.10) instead, basically because I couldn’t read my coins and just took a stab at it. I figured it out hours later only when I googled the denominations. I suppose the four other passengers paying at the same time provided the perfect cover, unbeknownst to them and me.

December 21

A pigeon pooped on my face today. ON my face. It hit the top of my glasses frame, grazed down my cheek, and then hit my shirt full on. Well played, universe.

In Thailand, what they do in the cinema is show two previews, then two commercials, another preview, a few more ads, one final preview, about six more ads, a reminder to turn off your cell phone, the king’s anthem (which everyone stands for), the coke and popcorn ad, and then the movie. Something like that, it’s hard to recall the exact 40-minute inane sequence. Then again, I got to watch Star Wars for about $5 in a theater with maybe 10 other people.

December 23

How dose it feel to be the living embodiment of a stereotype? Three real bros, brahs even, strolled past my seat at Thapae Stadium last night for Muay Thai boxing. Half an hour late, they were altogether unfazed by the in-progress bout between two kids who couldn’t have been more than 10. Immediately, they acted the part of jocks generally found only in a 1980s high school comedy. “Knock his ass out!” “Red’s got the look!” They ordered alcohol almost immediately, with one declaring his intent to “get wrecked,” the plan being “to get some pussy tonight.” There was nothing particularly egregious about their behavior: they didn’t harass anyone, didn’t make unwanted advances. But their presence was surely felt. They were white guys in their 30s. This is Thailand, after all.

A short review of Episode VII. The Force Awakens is a lazy, tired movie. Everything is the same as always: the plot, the characters, the dynamics, the conflict, down to the new Death Star planet, whatever the fuck they called it. Maybe they go somewhere drastically different with the characters and the storyline in the next movie, that’s fine. But for now, they remade A New Hope and somehow the world decided it was sufficient.

December 24

Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about how airport food prices seem to be set with complete ignorance of the outside world. I’ve been paying anywhere from 40 to 90 baht ($1-3) for meals in Chiang Mai, delicious without exception. But the Bangkok airport charged an obscene 140 baht ($5) for a small, prepackaged bowl of wonton noodle soup with roast duck they clearly microwaved. Its quality fell not only well below street fare but even the instant wonton noodle soup found in any neighborhood Costco. I suppose there’s some sense of comfort derived from the knowledge that third world airports too fuck over their citizenry, along with anybody in transit. Regardless, I finished the noodle and then promptly proceeded to McDonalds for a McChicken value meal. C’est la vie.

December 25

All I wanted was a ride from the airport to my guesthouse. The taxi driver (officially sanctioned) wanted to be hired for the full day. Shame was his tactic. Our pleasantries quickly devolved once I informed him I intended on biking around Angkor Wat by myself. Why travel if I wasn’t willing to spend money, he queried? He made a racist characterization about Chinese people, then started in on my guesthouse, giving me shit about the lack of a swimming pool, the sorry state of its bathrooms. Other Cambodians, he said, being super subtle, would look down at me. Other Cambodians, he said, wouldn’t travel at all if they had to be prudent. They’d be downright embarrassed in my shoes.

It’s strange to know exactly what it was that he was trying to do and to be affected by it nevertheless. I still wasn’t planning on hiring any driver, let alone him, but I was somehow shamed a little bit by his words, even pissed. My initial attempts to justify my prudence, in a conversation I had severely initially misjudged as standard taxi banter, became more brusque. “Fuck them,” I said, referring to the imaginary judgmental Cambodians he spoke of. I didn’t know what else to say: me, the over-privileged vacationer to a third-world cab driver, no matter how much of a dick he was? So I said no more. I put in my earbuds until we arrived, grabbed my stuff without so much of a “thank you,” and went on my way.

I’ve been in Cambodia for less than 24 hours, and I’m not a fan. Everyone has something to sell: “buy something, sir?” are the first words I am greeted with by every street vendor. They follow me through their store if I go in, or alongside it if I walk past, tracking my line of sight. The tuk tuk drivers that flood every available space on the street ask if I need a ride, and when I refuse or do not respond, quietly whisper if I am looking for a “lady massage” or company for the evening. Later on, after I have been accosted by dozens of these offers, a few are taken aback by my visible annoyance. This may be the culture, but I am not the audience.

December 26

I’m an awkward vacationer. I feel strange about taking too much time before getting started in the morning, guilty if I’m back in the hotel too early in the evenings. I have no sense of ease about doing whatever the fuck I feel like, even on my own vacation. I cannot lounge around for hours on end – that is, unless I have already set aside the time for lounging around. I imagine it’s a psychological parallel to my struggles when I hike downhill, or when I go swimming. I need to feel the ground beneath me. I need a sense of order, of control.

December 27

The van stopped at a few other guesthouses, picking up passengers on the way to the bus station. The first, a cute British girl, was winding down a six-week trip – three in China, three in Cambodia. She worked for a children’s rights organization in London, had the excuse of touching base with other, developing-world NGOs for the purpose of trading notes. The last, a British guy, had quit his job back in February, and had been on the road since September in an epic journey that already encompassed of Europe and the Middle East. He’d be at it until May. Both were friendly; neither the least bit obnoxious. But when the van reached its destination, and we filed onto the bus to Phnom Penh, I was relieved to find neither was sitting next to me.

I’m not the kind of person who makes lasting friendships in hostels, or even forms the kind of temporary bonds that rearranges an itinerary for parts of a trip. I don’t begrudge people prone to such tendencies – my sister being one of them – but I certainly cast a skeptical eye, and I am a downright judgmental asshole when I see horseshit articles about how “the most meaningful relationship I ever formed was during a four hour layover with a guy I haven’t talked to since” or whatnot. I suppose I only believe in something that’s ultimately transferrable beyond the time and the space, beyond the transience of an experience, no matter how unique the experience.

There are so many goddamned people in this world. Why am I so privileged? How did I get so lucky? I see it all here, the kind of lives ordinary people have to lead – the kind of lives that, almost unfathomable to me, my parents and grandparents led – and I wonder why I got to escape. Why I sit contemplating rather than toiling. I find it impossible to believe in a higher power, because if one did exist, I’d like to think they wouldn’t make people wait, people suffer, people toil. Because this very well may be eternity already.

December 28

There is a small exhibition in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) about how the world stood by as the Khmer Rouge perpetrated unthinkable atrocities on their own population. It focuses in particular on a Swedish delegation that toured the country in the late 1970s, got the five-star treatment, and essentially became Pol Pot’s biggest sympathizers on the world stage. “How could they have been so blind?” the museum yearns to scream. “How were they so easily fooled?” a delegate member reflects with remorse. I couldn’t help but think of what’s going on in North Korea right now. “Never again,” we always say, but that can only come after the fact.

Two of the 12 survivors (of roughly 20,000 prisoners) of S-21 were there at the museum. They’re there regularly, living testaments to the hell that took place just four decades ago. One was an artist who survived because his captors took a liking to his portraits; another proved his worth by repairing machinery. I had just learned about their stories, walked inside the same four walls where they were held, a prison that was once a school and had now become an educational institution once again. I didn’t end up approaching either man. What is there to say?

December 29

I needed a tuk tuk for a short journey, half a mile at the most. In my defense, the sun was unforgiving, and I had come down with a cold. Anyhow, the first would-be driver couldn’t understand where I wanted to go. So I found another, laying in his carriage, not a worry in the world. “Central Market,” I directed towards him. He didn’t budge. A huge grin crept over his face. “Too lazy,” he replied. I laughed. My favorite person in this country.

December 30

There are beggars a block away from the Royal Palace; the unmistakable stench of human waste noticeable in the air. Down the street from the Russian embassy, there stands decrepit complexes – slums too kind a word – that look far older than they possibly can be. At the riverside, children urinate in plain sight, garbage lays everywhere; all of it a stone’s toss from the restaurants and lounges that line the nearby street. Yet, Phnom Penh is not a city marked by contradiction. No, the luxury that does exist remains the clear exception. I spend my last few hours in Aeon Mall, the epitome of everything the city, the country, is not: clean, modern, developed. It is a first world experience amidst a strictly third world locale, and thus surreal in its own way.

January 3

My family immigrated to the United States when I was six. I’ve been back to Hong Kong just a handful of times since, visiting relatives who stayed behind. It always feels surreal. I might look like everyone else here, but to begin, my Cantonese is limited and I’m culturally out of sorts. But the strangeness of it doesn’t really concern the fact that I don’t feel at home in the place where I was born. It’s that I get a glimpse of what my life could have been had I stayed.

That feeling was amplified this time, the visit itself different. I stayed at home with my grandmother, chatting, mostly listening. I went to a barbeque my cousin had with friends. Another cousin took me out drinking, his wife teaching me dice games until the break of dawn. My aunt and uncle made dinner another night; I lingered afterwards, watching Inside Out and playing board games with their eight-year-old granddaughter. I spent New Year’s Eve with friends visiting from the States.

In short, I wasn’t the center of attention at big gatherings on either side of the family. Instead, I was just a part of things. The life I left behind, the life that could have been, felt far more vivid, far more real as a result. I usually leave Hong Kong with my heart warmed, reminded of the presence of loved ones on the other side of the world. This time, it was strangely bittersweet. I recognize it undoubtedly speaks less to Hong Kong than it does my current vulnerability – in Japan, in life. Still, I’ve never felt that before.