Saturday, June 1, 2013

Japan- An Entirely Different Experience

Due to some technical difficulties probably resulting from DJing one too many raves in high school, my computer decided to stop working for a few weeks in Hong Kong, so I am playing a bit of blog catchup from home.

Without further ado…Japan. To be honest, Japan was not a country I originally thought I would have the opportunity to see while on exchange, however, a cheap flight and an extra push from a good friend to pull the trigger on Sky Scanner landed me in Tokyo two weeks later, and I couldn’t have been more excited.
Although every country I visited deviated from the norm of life back State-side, Japan differed in ways that I could have never predicted. For one, the three cities I visited were all drastically different from the US, but more surprisingly, they were all drastically different from each other. So much so, that I almost felt as if Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima were different countries rather than cities 2 hours apart in the same country.


For the most part, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when landing into the most populated city on the planet. By this point in time, I had lived for 4 months in Hong Kong, so metropolis life wasn’t necessarily culture shock in it’s own right. However, what did shock me was how peaceful Tokyo was considering its size. For a city of over 35 million people, Tokyo might have been one of the most calm and relaxing places I had been. There were certainly crowded areas (like the electronics market with SEGA stores at every corner and the night life areas of Shibuya and Roppongi), but by and large, I was overwhelmed at Tokyo’s efficiency, cleanliness, and most of all, friendliness.

Speaking to Tokyo’s efficiency, this city (and Japan as a whole for that matter) knows how to move people. Lots of people. And fast. I have never seen a more complex metropolis train map in my life for a single city, yet after a few days there, I began to appreciate the brilliance of such an amazing feat of ingenuity. To build a mass transport system for a city of 35 million and to have the thing work daily with very little trouble is astounding.  It sounds a bit dramatic, but the train system in Tokyo, as well as the rest of Japan, is truly a work of art.

Aside from a brilliant train system, Tokyo may also have been the most diverse city in which I have been. The differences in regions within Tokyo was not necessarily due to a difference in the general culture of the locals, but the “feel” of the different areas was very noticeable. I know this is an extremely generic statement, so let me elaborate a bit.

From the 5am tuna action on the coast, to the peaceful and newly built region in Odiba, to the absolutely insane electronic markets, to the peaceful Tokyo garden (the oasis in the concrete jungle), to the business district in Central, each area was vastly different from the others. Each area offered a unique experience, yet was fully Tokyo in its own way. Join all of the different regions together, with their different paces of life, architecture, cuisine, and places of interest and throw in a brilliant train system to connect them together and you truly get a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. You get Tokyo.

However, although each region of Tokyo differed in many ways, there was one constant- the people. As a collective whole, the Japanese people were among the most friendly I encountered in Asia. Although the language barrier was usually a bit of an issue, I never met a local who didn’t take time out of their day to help me fumble through my map and figure out which direction to walk, which rail to take, or which stop to get off for the next destination. Always greeted by a general willingness to lend a helping hand, I was overwhelmed with the Japanese hospitality. This remained true throughout Kyoto and Hiroshima as well.


Kyoto was pretty much different from Tokyo in every way imaginable. Taking a 2-hour bullet train from Tokyo, I arrived in Japan’s sacred city. With many temples, trees, and mountains surrounding us, Kyoto was rich in natural beauty and historical culture. I will never forget the two-hour canoe ride down the river with mountains and trees surrounding us- it looked like the perfect landscape out of an old Japanese movie in which Samurai war lords would fight feudal battles over power and territory. I'm sure Tom Cruise was there as well, because they needed an American's help to fight ;). While Tokyo felt futuristic in almost every way, Kyoto took me back a few years in the time machine. 


Visiting Hiroshima was an absolute necessity for me once I purchased my flight to Japan. After writing my AP Language final on the ethics behind the atomic bomb, I knew I could not go to Japan without seeing one of the hallowed cities.  Without turning this too much into a political post (the internet is the worst place for these kinds of “debates”) I’ll describe my thoughts after seeing the only original building left standing in a city that was roughly the population of my hometown, Fort Wayne, at the time of the bombings.

Initially, seeing the building with all of the windows blown out and rubble on the floor in the midst of a thriving mid-sized city left me a bit “shell-shocked.” Riding my bike all day with David tasting local cuisine and enjoying all Hiroshima had to offer was fantastic, and then we pulled up to the Genbaku Dome. And then I realized that in this city still exists an aura of pain that I have never experienced and pray that I will never experience. And then I realized that all of the kind, friendly people I referred to a few paragraphs above had to endure the effects of a weapon that killed indiscriminately. And then I realized that all of the war rhetoric had reduced the decision to drop the bomb to terms of a simple mathematical equation of saving American lives at the expense of Japanese lives. And then I realized that America had placed a statement of global hegemony to Russia over innocent lives. And then I realized that the paper I wrote back in 2009 could never adequately describe how wrong this decision was.

I am aware that in war, bad things happen. My grandfather fought in Germany as a sniper in World War II and aided in liberating a concentration camp, and I couldn’t be more proud of his service and the legacy he left for the Williams name. However, I am not willing to let the excuse of war cloud my judgment regarding the senseless loss of innocent human life and reducing man to a math equation. It’s easy to sit in a war room and draw up X’s and O’s so long as you, your wife and your kids aren’t apart of the equation of sacrifice. However, those were someone’s wives. Those were someone’s kids. Japanese, or American, they were still human, and losing sight of this fact is anything but human.

After seeing the results of a weapon designed to reduce men to ash, I know now, more than ever, that Hiroshima is a testament to the horrible things of which man is capable, however, Hiroshima is also a testament to the inexplicable resolve man has to not only survive, but to rise above less-than-ideal circumstances and thrive. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Southeast Asia- What You Won't Learn in the Classroom

As I’m sitting down to write this post, I’m finding it difficult to know where to start. I had the pleasure of spending the past 16 days traveling around Thailand and Cambodia. As I posted earlier, one of my main reasons for choosing to study in Hong Kong was its closeness in proximity to the rest of Southeast Asia- an area of the world that I have always wanted to explore.

Our trip was broken up into four main areas: Bangkok, Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai, and Siem Reap (The first three in Thailand, and the last in Cambodia).


We were in Bangkok a total of four times, but never for very long- it was essentially our hub for train/bus turnarounds from place to place, but it served us well for quick recharges between traveling. We found a nice hostel there that was super clean and had great air conditioning and reliable wifi (basically everything you need but never find in a cheap hostel).
However, the time I did spend in Bangkok was great. This city doesn’t really get much credit among most travelers I talked to in Thailand, and I can see their point. Bangkok is insane. To me, Bangkok is essentially a massive city that grew up to fast- kind of like a kid who skips his teenage years and jumps straight into adulthood; he may look grown up, but he certainly has moments where he doesn’t always act like it. 
With all-but-torn-down buildings on the riverfront adjacent to 5 start hotels and hundreds of protruding phone wires lining the streets passing by cell-phone shops, Bangkok’s architectural and technological infrastructures are the most lopsided I have ever seen. With modern shopping malls selling merchandise for Western prices located in areas with begging children who are elated to receive 10 bhat (about $0.30) as alms, the gap between the rich and poor is the most stark juxtaposition I have ever seen. With modern luxury cars zooming by tuk tuks and mopeds along streets with minimal traffic signals that no one follows, Bangkok’s traffic is the most hectic I have ever seen. After living in Hong Kong and driving in Chicago for a summer, I thought I had a decent idea of what “crazy” traffic was like, needless to say, I hadn’t the slightest clue of what crazy even meant.
Honestly, the traffic is analogous to theoretical capitalism- everyone looks out for themselves, and somehow, the magic hand of traffic finds an equilibrium in all of the noise. Needless to say, it’s Adam Smith’s dream world as far as traffic is concerned.

One of my favorite highlights of Bangkok was taking a boat down the Chao Phraya River to see the Grand Palace and some temples. The river was just as hectic as the streets- everything from the small banka I traveled on, to enormous barges seemingly sailed in whichever direction they pleased. The only rules that anyone seemed to follow were Newton’s laws of motion, so the little guys got out of the way accordingly. The boat ride also showed the stark differences in riverfront property that I was referring to earlier. However, as the sun was setting and the waves were splashing over cooling us off every so often, it was hard not to be mesmerized by Bangkok- a city of chaos that functions surprisingly well without the constraints that the Western world puts on society.

Koh Phangan:

Koh Phangan was beautiful. If you’re willing to brave a 13 hour train, 2 hour bus, and 3 hour ferry with layover times in between, the carrot at the end of the maze is well worth it. My friends and I stayed at a hotel located right on the beach that faced the Western side of the island. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in a hammock watching the sunsets every night. It was probably the most serene part of our trip. We spent all day riding around exploring the island on the mopeds that we rented, and ended most nights just soaking in the beauty of the island in a hammock. Koh Phangan is also home to the full moon party. Essentially it’s an all night rave on the beach. I love house and techno. I love the beach. This was a pretty easy sell for me. Even though it was about 85 degrees at night, I had a blast dancing and throwing fluorescent paint with about 20,000 other young travelers enjoying the beauty of the island- definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Another event that impacted me was on our last day- my friend Devesh and I decided to go exploring and use up the rest of our gas in our mopeds, and in doing so, found a mini golf course. This was no ordinary course, though. As we pulled up to the course, a Swedish guy came out of his house to greet us- we were in his backyard. After talking to him for a bit, he told us that he retired there a few years ago and built the course to keep himself busy. He was my hero. Even toward the end of life, Christer was looking for an adventure- he saw the beauty in the little things and taught me that age doesn’t necessarily have to define how and where we write our story. Not to mention, he built the absolute most difficult putt-putt course I’ve ever played.
 After a few group members crashed their bikes, went to the hospital, and paid over $700 combined for damages, we were ready to head back to Bangkok to catch our train to Siem Reap, Cambodia (luckily I didn’t crash…yet).

Siem Reap:

Our journey to Siem Reap was easily the most taxing of the trip. The cheapest way to the border was a $2 ticket for a 6 hour train ride that left at 5 in the morning. However, this wasn’t the same kind of train that we took to Koh Phangan. There was a reason it was 47 bhat. There weren’t any beds or air conditioning. Only wooden seats (if you were lucky, otherwise you had to stand) and the windows open. Personal space was also a luxury that a $2 ticket doesn’t afford. While this train was probably the most miserable 6 hours of my trip from a physical discomfort standpoint, it was also one of the most eye opening. With vendors carrying putrid street meat up and down the aisles shouting prices every five minutes, to the man across from me clearing his throat and watching himself spit out of the window even more often that the vendors’ shouting, to the hard wooden seats with no ability to recline or rest your head, I realized that I have it pretty good. Actually, I have it really good, and I take that for granted all too often.

Once we arrived at the border, some fellow travelers warned that the tuk tuk drivers are notorious for scamming tourists into buying over-priced, fake visas. Sure enough, our tuk tuk driver drove us to an “Official Cambodian Visa Office” in which not one person was wearing a uniform or had any formal identification. Also, we were informed that we were only allowed to pay in Thai currency. Needless to say, we left pretty quickly with some not-so-kind words on the way out. After a five minute walk to the border, we bought some legitimate visas, got our fingerprints taken, and entered the Kingdom of Cambodia. Unfortunately, our encounter with shady locals was far from over.
After negotiating a minivan to take our group straight to our hotel, our driver dropped us off at a small restaurant and said that only tuk tuks could drive the rest of the distance. Being the tired, stupid tourists that we were, we got off the minivan to go to the tuk tuks only to find out that the new driver wanted a cash deposit to book a tour for the next day in order to take us the rest of the way to our hotel. At this point, everyone in the group pretty much lost it. I actually took a backseat role to this one and watched the arguments and yelling play out- it was hilarious, and unfortunately I didn’t get it on camera. So, long story short- we didn’t pay the guy, and we found a new tuk tuk driver to take us the rest of the way (because the van that we had originally paid for left as soon as we got out). On our way out, we saw another group of tourists about to get dragged through the whole song and dance, so we told them to stay on their van- this made the tuk tuk scam artists even more angry, but they had it coming.

Aside from the initial scam-fest, Cambodia was full of nice people. It was also the hottest and most impoverished place I have ever been. On our second day there, the temperature was a brisk 109 degrees not factoring in the insane amount of humidity. We drank a lot of water- at least 3 liters a day (I know, I’m turning into a European with all of these metric measurements, but they honestly make more sense…)

The poverty in Siem Reap made Bangkok look like a first world country. With malnourished cows roaming freely on the streets among the traffic and small children begging for milk powder, it was a pretty depressing scene in some areas and made me reevaluate the insignificant things about which I complain.

Aside from the poverty, the ruins at the Temple of Angkor Wat were beautiful. Built in the early 12th century, this Hindu temple still remains the largest religious monument in the world. We got there to see the sunrise over the main temple- it was beautiful (although a bit cloudy, so the sun was short-lived).
Walking around the temple, it was amazing to think that humans built it without the assistance of modern technology. Some of the stones easily weighed multiple tons. Truly a mystery to me- I would’ve loved to see it as it was being built.

After a long day at Angkor Wat, we ended the afternoon with a foot massage- however; the masseuse was a tank of small fish that ate the dead skin off of your feet. Definitely weird at first, but after a few minutes, you get used to the tickling.

Chiang Mai:

Back to Bangkok. Get on another bus. Travel all night. It was becoming routine at this point. Our last main stop was Chiang Mai- a beautiful city in Northern Thailand. With cooler weather, and much nicer people, Chiang Mai had a lot to offer. We spent our first day renting mopeds and exploring a mountain. There was one small catch though, we had to drive through the city to get there, and the lack of traffic laws still applied in Chiang Mai. Once navigating the city and white-lining past long lines of cars, we made it to the mountain and started our ascent. We visited a few temples, but after seeing Angkor Wat, they were relatively unimpressive. As my friend Mike Hines would say, “Nothing to write home about…”

The coolest part of the trip was reaching the top of the mountain and seeing the small village at the top. We stopped and had some espresso from coffee beans grown a few miles away and enjoyed the view overlooking the mountain and small town. Also, we had ridden so high that the temperature probably dropped about 20 degrees- definitely refreshing. My favorite part of the mountain exploration was definitely the descent. With few cars in our way, we made our way down the winding roads going a lot faster than we probably should have been going, but it was one of the most freeing feelings of the trip. Later on, a friend of mine and I went back out with his GoPro camera to record us driving through the traffic, and after an entire day of cruising and winding turns, I found myself on the ground in the middle of traffic after falling at a near standstill. Pretty embarrassing to say the least, but I’m thankful I walked away with only a few scratches.

On our last full day in Chiang Mai, my long awaited elephant ride was finally upon us (I have wanted to ride an elephant since the beginning of my exchange). We spent the first half of the day learning the turning and driving commands (the most important being STOP, or as they say, “Yood”). The second half of the day, we were able to take them on some paths and stop in one of the rivers to wash them off. The elephant that Devesh and I were riding had a baby tag along with us, so that added to the excitement. I will never forget getting in a water fight with an animal that could truly crush me in one step. It was amazing to see how smart these creatures were as well. They knew so many commands and were extremely friendly- it sounds cheesy and hipster, but interacting with nature in such a personal way is hard to describe and was definitely one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

All in all, this trip was life changing for me in numerous ways. Traveling for this long taught me to take initiative and get things done when it came time to book trains and busses and ferries. It taught me to make decisions quickly and not stand around and wait for someone to make them for me. It taught me to think on my feet in a whole new way- to know when to bargain, and to know when to concede 100 bhat extra to someone who genuinely needed it more than me. It taught me to appreciate cultures that operate under a much different set of customs and rules from my own. It taught me to use phrases such as “the opposite side” rather than “the wrong side” of the road. Southeast Asia taught me to listen before I speak and to think before I judge.

Most importantly, my travels in Southeast Asia put poverty into a real, tangible perspective. I complain when I don’t have hot water for a shower- they are content when the water is clean enough to drink. I complain when the wifi at the hotel breaks down for five minutes, they are content to even have access to the Internet. I complain when my food takes too long at the restaurant, they are happy to have food at all. I complain that my school classes are boring, they are content when they can send their children to school so they don’t have to spend the day begging in the streets. This trip, above all else, showed me what contentment actually looks like, and how far off I am from ever reaching it most days. It shattered my matrix of comfort…in a good way. This trip showed me that happiness truly isn’t found in material wealth, because some of the poorest people I met in Asia were some of the most genuinely happy.

What I’d say to the people there: You don’t need our Rolex, Mercedes, Starbucks, and Polo- you have something much more valuable- much more than any tourist’s money can buy. At the end of the day, most of us tourists are living in existential poverty because we live our whole lives with everything and never find genuine contentment of any sort. We feel great when we hand someone 10 dollars because we think our benevolence is commendable, when in reality, we should be the ones begging for alms. We should be asking for their secret to being content with the little things- with their secret to being content with the simple fact that “I’m alive”.

 I highly doubt that on my deathbed I am going to regret not making more money, living in a more expensive neighborhood, sending my kids to a more prestigious school, or driving a nicer car, but I have a strong suspicion that if I live my life in sole pursuit of acquiring material wealth and never reaching any genuine contentment, I will look back on my life as a massive materialistic failure, and I’ll be damned if I ever let that happen.

Thanks Southeast Asia- you gave me much more than I could ever give you.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


It has been a few weeks since my last post. I had planned to write a bit more often, but I have been caught up with living life recently and have not taken much time to sit down and reflect. In a sense, I enjoy the spontaneity that Hong Kong brings, but sometimes, I crave a bit more of a routine for things like catching up on the news and writing blogs (I know, I know, I'm an old man at heart...tell me something I don't already know.)

To sum up the student life here, I will steal a quote from my good friend, Otter Kohl. "Hong Kong happens while you are making other plans."

In other words, there are so many things pulling for your attention, sometimes it's refreshing to pull in the reins, make a pot of coffee, and sit down and force yourself to reflect. So, that's exactly what I am doing.

Since my last post, one of the main highlights of my trip was my introduction to rugby.

A New Zealander friend named Lawrence whom I met through a spider web of family connections invited me to go see his club, HKCC, play in the championship match. Before ever coming to HK, I heard that rugby had a great presence here, mainly due to all of the ex-pats who enjoy playing, so I made it one of my goals to understand the game before I left. Anyway, I was extremely excited to get involved.

I met Lawrence at a local field and we watched matches of lower leagues all day- all the matches leading up to the showcased, championship match at 7:30. Throughout the day, Lawrence was kind enough to explain the game to me and answer my litany of questions as the games carried on.

At first, rugby seemed like a chaotic cacophony of massive men smashing into each other without much regard or respect for any of Newton's laws of motion. It is still amazing to me some of the hits that I saw- full-blown open field hits with no pads or helmets. It was unreal. However, as the day went on, I began to understand more of what was going on, and the game looked less and less like a jumbled mess, and more like the beautiful game that so many around the world have come to love.

So, after gaining a brief understanding of the game throughout the day, 7:30 eventually rolled around and the showcase match was about to begin. I did not realize until Lawrence told me just before the match was about to begin, that this match was essentially a battle to claim the title of the best rugby club  in Hong Kong, which is a HUGE deal. Also, many of the players on the pitch also played for the HK international squad- we were in for a great show.

From the very first kickoff, the HKCC fans went crazy. Singing their club songs and standing/jumping the entire game. Throughout the day, I was able to learn their club's songs, and screaming the songs with Lawrence and all of the other HKCC fans was one of the coolest things I've ever experienced. Normally, I am not one to show much emotion or scream, but something about being there and getting involved with all of the fans just drew me in- I couldn't help but support my friend's club, and screaming "Aberdeen" and "HKCC" songs alongside my new Kiwi (person from New Zealand) friend will forever be a treasured memory.

Finally, if rugby taught me one thing about life, it's this: Go For It. After watching 200 lb men collide full speed with no regard for the pending physical consequences, it struck a chord with me in the sense that sometimes we exercise too much restraint. I am definitely guilty of this. Many times, I love to have a roadmap and plan for everything- I like the calculated. I like being in control and being safe. Hong Kong has challenged this area of my life many times already, and watching rugby only made this challenge even more real.

Of course, I am not suggesting to live life without intention, I am simply stating that sometimes we just need to pick up the ball and run full steam ahead into what we want. Without regard for getting hurt. Without regard for failure. These two fears have held me back many times, because it's easier to sit on the sidelines and conjure up a million excuses of why you can't win and why taking action will probably result in injury. That may be true, you may lose. You may get hurt. But at least you can say you played the game, and that you played it with everything. I may never run full speed into a pile of guys twice my size, but I will find my rugby, I will grab the ball, and I'll play till it hurts- until I've finished the game.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


For a multitude of reasons, it is hard to sufficiently and succinctly "sum up" my trip to the Philippines. On February 12th, 2013 I traveled with a group of 9 friends whose backgrounds spanned 6 countries on a journey of a lifetime. Never in my life have I seen such a stark juxtaposition between organic beauty and manmade poverty. Moreover, never in my life have I felt like such a foreigner. However, I do not mean this in a negative sense that the connotation of the word "foreigner" often carries. I simply mean that I definitely stood out as being "different." But, to be honest, I've never felt more comfortable being different in my life. From the very beginning of the trip to the last goodbye to the stewardess when I landed in Hong Kong, the Filipino people treated me as if I were family- and that is something I will never forget.

For example, the day we arrived in Puerto Princesa on Palawan island, we were greeted by a tricycle driver named Jun. These tricycles are effectively motor bikes with an extension cab to hold a few other people (5 Filipino sized, or 3 Western size...we found out very quickly that there was a difference). Jun took us everywhere. He showed us his favorite spots- the most notable were a private beach in which my friends and I were literally the only ones there for about 5 hours, and he also showed us a very exclusive waterfall area that had some of the most amazing views I have ever seen. He cooked us lunch, helped us find the best spots for photos and dining- he was just an all around awesome guy, and it was a pleasure to meet him and spend a few days getting to know him. Jun's friendship and generosity was indicative of nearly every encounter I had with the Filipino people. Every interaction was greeted with warm smiles, a helping attitude, and a genuine and beautiful spirit to willing to help me and my friends enjoy the best Palawan had to offer. I cannot say enough about the locals, and I cannot wait to return.

As far as the scenery was concerned, I have few words that accurately describe it. One thing of which I am sure is this; I wish I had a better camera and a keen eye for photography to truly capture the landscape. I did my best with the iPhone, however, any technology would be hard pressed to fully capture and express the beautiful Palawan.

Although Palawan was full of rich scenery and stunning beaches, the natural wonders were often overshadowed by the extreme poverty in the region. It's hard to believe that such a place exists where people live on less than 5 USD per day and whose main tasks include finding food and water for them and their families. It's amazing really- how happy the people were. I'm not suggesting that all in poverty in the Philippines don't suffer through hard times, but, from what I could gather, there existed a general sense of peace on the island. No one was troubled by the constant bustle of western life. iPhones, facebook, or whether or not a hotel had a solid wifi connection were none of their concern. The locals simply enjoyed running their local meat markets, driving their trikes, or driving bankas on island tours around El Nido (the highlight area of my trip). They lived a simple life- and in many ways, I envied that. Their families, work, and enjoying the scenery and life in general seemed to be their priorities- and it definitely challenged me to take a step back and reevaluate why it is so hard for the Western way of life to just take a step back and relax once in awhile. Being a business student, I find myself, many times, consumed by constant stress of the "next step" of life. What grade do I need to get on this exam to make sure my GPA is solid for this interview which will lead to this job that will help me get into this grad school...the list goes on. While I am not necessarily saying it is bad to have a plan (God knows I do, and have for a long time), I am simply saying that life on Palawan challenged me to be open to detours.

For example, on our boat tour around El Nido, our engine broke down and we were stranded in the middle of the ocean for about 2 hours while waiting for a new boat to come. At this moment in time I had two options- complain and allow fear to cloud out rational judgement, or enjoy the moment and adjust to the curve ball of the situation and make the best of the new circumstances. And I am glad I chose the latter, because apart from a few jellyfish stings, I had one of the best times of my life swimming and diving off of the boat and enjoying the view of all of the surrounding island peaking just above the bluest water I have ever seen. Although I was a bit uneasy at first, I did my best to enjoy the scenery of the new moment, and I now realize that I could have wasted two hours being upset and missed out on one of the most exciting and beautiful parts of my adventure.

Life is no different, really. We make plans. We develop roadmaps. We establish general frameworks from which we make decisions. And these are all great things. Without any sort of structure, life is essentially chaos. However, when circumstances arise that challenge our plans, roadmaps, and frameworks, we as humans are faced with a decision. Do we adjust and adapt in order to enjoy the beauty of the new scenery in which we find ourselves, or do we dogmatically pursue a dead end, refusing to change and refusing to make the adjustments necessary to open our eyes to the beauty of the new scenery. If we choose the latter, we effectively miss the opportunity provided by the new circumstances.

All in all, Palawan was a fantastic trip. I will forever have memories of killing a poisonous snake, dining on the beach with locals, searching through local meat markets to find food with flies everywhere, having waves crash over our banka and feeling as if we were moments from capsizing, talking to our boat driver about his plans after college, rope swinging into ice cold river water with a waterfall view. Most of all, though, I will remember the kindness of the locals, and the challenge to adapt to the unexpected. This is why I chose to go to Palawan. This is what I learned.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Australia Day

Today is Australia Day. The Aussies here got everyone super excited for it and a bunch of exchange students flooded the residence lawn and set up shop to barbeque all day. It was amazing. It was amazing because we all supported their day. They were excited and we got excited with them. Reminded me of the Bible verse in Romans 12 stating "rejoice with those who rejoice." The exchange students definitely lived by this verse today.

Today was truly indicative of my experience here so far. Amazing. It's hard to put into words, but at the most fundamental level, life here is awesome because I live with 450 international students who all come from different cultures, backgrounds, and religions, but the most important factor (as I have stated in earlier posts) is that we are all human. That is the only similarity that one needs to belong here. Everyone is hungry to learn about other cultures and to share their own story. It has been so refreshing to be in a place with very little judgement. I have already learned so many things and had great conversations with everyone. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Australians, Saudi Arabians, Iraqis, Europeans, Africans, Asians- it doesn't matter, everyone has something to give. Everyone represents a unique culture and has a value-adding story to tell.

However, the biggest thing I have learned in my experience in Hong Kong so far is that it is OK to be myself. Although I have learned so much from other cultures and religions, I have also grown to love and appreciate my own on a new level. This is not to say that my culture and religion are flawless, because they are most certainly not. However, I am proud to share my culture as well. I am proud to contribute to the melting pot of Hong Kong. I am American. I am a Christian. I am from the humble midwest. I am Landon. And I have never been more comfortable or proud to say so.

It's interesting, really- That it took traveling to the other side of the world to finally feel most comfortable in my own skin.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Culture Shock

Since coming to Hong Kong, I have not really experienced culture shock in the sense that I am anxious or overly stressed due to a difference in lifestyle- that being said, there are some cultural norms and customs here that are extremely hard to get used to.

The biggest difference I've noticed is the expectation to obey without question- it seems as if most of the locals live their lives in complete subordination to rules and regulations. For example, when I first arrived I did not have a student ID. Apparently the student ID is necessary for one to scan into the dorms- so, because I didn't have it the first few days, every time I wanted to enter my building I had to have a 10 minute conversation with the guard (who I have explained this to many times) because he was so intent on following procedure- intent to the point of being irrational in my opinion.

I am not suggesting that rules are bad or unimportant, it is just different because people follow them without question here. If you know me well, you know I don't like being told what to do- just ask my parents. So, it is definitely an adjustment coming here and being expected to obey without question. I guess the "without question" part is what bothers me the most- I want to question. I want reasons. I want to know why I am expected to behave in a certain way. And this desire is something that even Hong Kong can never take away.

You also see this attitude of rule following and subordination in the classroom. The professors, for the most part, encourage class participation, but if there is someone talking in class, it is always an international student. I am not sure if it is because they do not want to speak aloud in English (which is probably the case) or if they do not want to question the professor's ideals. In my experience at IU, the professors encourage debate and critical thinking- so far, most of the lectures have been three hour monologues, so I may have to start participating more just to keep myself from going insane.

Another big difference is obviously the food. I have had some of the most amazing meals in my life here, and I have also had some of the most repulsive- the trick is finding a local who can spot out the good places because there are literally thousands of choices in any given area of the city and there are definitely some hidden gems. Last night, I had the chance to go out with a local friend I made named Alson. He took me to a hot pot restaurant in Mong Kok that was absolutely killer. I can't wait to come back with my family and take them there. Among some of the more interesting things we cooked in the pot were pig intestines and cow stomach. We also threw in some normal things like oysters and beef, but even the more bizarre stuff actually tasted very good. I will have to make my mom and sisters try the more adventurous options. ;)

 Also, they don't split bills here, so that gets a bit obnoxious when you're out with a group of twenty plus.

One thing I absolutely love about this culture is the non-stop, fast paced life. Every time I got into the central part of the city, I just take a moment to look up at the beauty of all of the skyscrapers and realize how blessed I am to have an opportunity like this. It's unbelievable to look around and see the beauty and brilliance that humans are capable of creating. Other than the sky scrapers, the best example of human efficiency and brilliance can be seen in their subway system. It's amazing how many people can be moved from point A to point B in such a short amount of time and how easy it is to switch from one line to another. The signs are excellent and it actually makes a really complex city seem relatively simple.

All in all, Hong Kong, although much different, has provided me with such an enriching experience so far and I can't wait to learn more.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Mong Kok

The last two days I have spent a decent amount of time in an area of Kowloon called Mong Kok. This place is absolutely insane- it is the most densely populated place in the world. People literally everywhere. It is definitely not a great destination for the claustrophobic.

Mong Kok is full of markets selling anything from bogus Kobe Jerseys, to HK souvenirs, to any kind of jewelry you can imagine. What's really cool about shopping here, though (other than the fact that I bought an awesome Notre Dame snap back for about 5 dollars) is the fact that all prices are negotiable. The original price of my hat was about 25 dollars, but I was able to talk the lady down to a more "reasonable" price. It's a really great place to practice your negotiation skills- if you're a fan of garage sales or Pawn Stars and you don't mind getting bumped into every now and then, Mong Kok is the place for you.

Mong Kok is also the place to buy crazy kabobs from street vendors. I haven't worked up the courage to try the intestines quite yet, but I'm sure I will give it a whirl before I leave.

As I walk around the congested areas- which is essentially everywhere, I am constantly amazed at how efficient this city is. From the queuing line at fast food restaurants, to the subways that move thousands of people at every stop, to the massive sky scrapers, it is amazing to see how the people of HK have adapted to their environment and surroundings to accommodate 7 million people living in 30 square miles.

Seeing how Hong Kong has adapted to their space premium issue constantly reminds me of an old saying that my Dad told me my grandpa used to say referring to being dealt a bad hand in life

"when you learn how to play with those cards, we will give you some new ones."

Hong Kong may have been dealt an unfortunate hand as far as space and land is concerned. But spending even a few days in this city, it becomes abundantly clear that they know how to play their cards right, and it is beautiful to see the brilliance of which humanity is capable.