Asia in My Dreams: Romanticizing the East

After half a century, I still haven’t been to Asia yet.  Being Canadian-born and resident in Canada all my life ( Huron-Iroquois native Indian for “Kanata“, meaning village), I have only impressions and tenuous connections to ancestral land of China.

Statuary on top of temple. Hsinchu City, Tawain 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker. An Asian interpretation of baroque-like detail
Statuary on top of temple. Hsinchu City, Tawain 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker. An Asian interpretation of baroque-like detail.

As Asia hurtles along in the 21st century to remake itself, I have had to rejiggle my perceptions about this diverse area and simultaneously, my hopes of ever visiting there.  By now, I’m wondering if I will ever be motivated to visit at all. Let me explain.

My mother & I, southern Ontario. Beginnings of my reality, dreams and my identity
Mother and I at home in southern Ontario, Canada. Beginnings of my reality, dreams and identity.

 Dreams Start in German-Mennonite Ontario County Area
While growing up in a small southern Ontario city, I had visions of a land with ancient pagodas dwarfed by sheer rocky mountain spires,  blue Mao-suited residents shuffling in black cloth Chinese slippers who were eating food that was more deeply layered and diverse in taste, compared to the fare served up in diner woks across North America.

These images were reinforced by my parents’ collection of older Chinese pictorial magazines that I later plundered photos to illustrate my school projects and ace some high marks. (I think the marks were for the amount of  information I enthusiastically shared in the project.)

Cycling in village area, Changzhi, China 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker
Cycling in an enclosed village area, Changzhi, China 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker.

Also my half-baked impressions, were fed by letters with Mao and Communist peasant inspired stamps on letters from relatives in mainland China, during the 1970’s.

Dispatches from Other Canadian-born Chinese
Later, in the 1980’s when other Canadian-born Chinese friends went overseas to live and travel, there were stories of being tracked occasionally by Chinese authorities, some travel restrictions, difficulties of learning Mandarin as adults while savouring both, delicious and lousy cheap food, sights of  rural poverty, crowded cities, some magnificent scenery and architecture.

It was mostly foreign to me.  But still, wonderful to hear tales both great and not so great.

In a mountain park. Seoul, South Korea. 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker
In a mountain park. Seoul, South Korea. 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker. Ideal, tranquil image of Asia.

Finally a sister and I had vaguely entertained the idea of a trip to China. But that same year later,  the 1989 Tianamen Square massacre of several hundred student protestors in Beijing and terror,  forced us early to switch our sights to Europe.  We spent three weeks bopping around in 10 European countries.

She however did embark a few years later, on a memorable trip with her husband for several weeks in China and Thailand.

Expanding Asian Dreams-  Moving to Toronto
Meanwhile my childhood romantic thoughts were crystallizing with greater clarity when I moved to Toronto to find work after university. Here was one of Canada’ highest proportion of Asian-Canadians where suddenly, I wasn’t noticed as much by racial ethnicity.

Spicy Korean seafood noodle soup with condiments 2012. Calgary, AB. Began exploring other Asian cuisines, outside of Chinese Cantonese food starting in my mid 20's.
Spicy Korean seafood noodle soup with condiments 2012. Calgary, AB. Began exploring other Asian cuisines, outside of Chinese Cantonese food starting in my mid 20’s.

For the first time in my mid-20’s, I started to taste the fiery kimchee soaked condiments and egg smothered bim bap in Korean restaurants, as well as barbecued eel,  sushi and sashimi from Japanese restaurants  and curries from Malayasian eateries.  Yup, that was how “narrow” my experience of  just Asian cuisine.  What do you expect from a kid who  grew up in a German-Mennonite city and then, spent a few years buried in her studies in the conservative, Caucasian dominant city of London, Ontario?

My Asian dreams got wider geographically  –through food as a touchstone.  Thai food stoked the golden visions of the Royal Palace in Bangkok and skinny market boats floating down canals, loaded with fresh produce.

Cambodia 2007. Photo by S. Chong-Purvis
Cambodia 2007. Photo by S. Chong-Purvis

Too Lazy to Learn, Globalization of Asia: Other Excuses Not to Visit
Yet, increasingly I was focusing more on the history of the Chinese and Japanese in North America.  Not only was it more relevant, but it was simply easier and less to read.

Laden cyclists and motorbikes compete for road space. Vietnam 2007. Photo by S. Chong-Purkiss
Laden cyclists and motorbikes compete for road space. Vietnam 2007. Photo by S. Chong-Purvis.

As a hobby, it was too much effort for me to figure out  over  3,000 years of Chinese dynastic history prior to the Opium Wars in the 1800’s.

Over time, the lure of a different place untouched by Western consumerism and individualism, was losing its exotic veneer : family members told stories of occasional breathing problems in polluted, humid Bangkok or Beijing, nearly blind consumer worship of McDonald’s, Louis  Vitton and cars sweeping across at least, urban Asia, or news reports on gross occupational hazards where locals died or were injured while labouring under dangerous conditions.

Commuter train crowds in Taipei, Tawain 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker
Commuter train crowds in Taipei, Tawain 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker. Similar scene at rush hour in Vancouver, however with approx. up to 60% Asian faces.

 Need Asia Anymore?
Now the latest, is that some streets in Shanghai core areas are just like any North American yuppified area.  Do I need to experience that when I can get a similar experience just by wandering down Robson St. in Vancouver, BC with over 30% Asian-Canadians in the city?  Or in the suburb of Richmond where the population is now 60% Asian-Canadian.

I probably have it all wrong –again.

Canadian Living a Fragmented Mosaic of Asian Influences

Halong Bay, Vietnam 2007. Photo by S. Chong-Purvis. Another tranquil Asian image.
Halong Bay, Vietnam 2007. Photo by S. Chong-Purvis. Another tranquil Asian image.

Yet, I know my romanticizing of the East, is not the same as those who don’t have any family members from Asia.  The photos of my mother, still young and pretty in  her cheong-sam and striking a pose with her babies in Canada, is the beginning of why my dreams aren’t out to lunch.

The fact is  that I can see English script and often, can guess the original writer, began life by learning Chinese ideograms.  A tell-tale sign:  there is a certain consistent neatness in English handwriting. Or the fact, like a lot of Asians raised on home-Chinese cooking, we enjoy steamed fish in a bit of soy sauce, ginger root slices, green onions and oil.  To us, that’s highlighting quality fresh whole fish.  However a lot of non-Asians just see this steamed fish dish, as a boring, less dynamic  dish.

Steamed savoury egg custard with slices of beef cooked with soy sauce, ginger root and onion. Dish seldom served in North American Chinese restaurants. But known & enjoyed by those born / raised on home Chinese cooking.
Steamed savoury egg custard with slices of beef flavoured with soy sauce, ginger root & onion. Dish seldom served in North American Chinese restaurants. But known & enjoyed by those born / raised on home Chinese cooking world-wide. 2012 Calgary.

Or that I enjoy savoury, steamed egg custard as comfort food for supper.  It has bits of sliced meat marinated with soy sauce cooked in a tasty, slightly watery custard.  Lovely with rice on the side and simple stir fried veggies.  But this custard dish rarely makes it to restaurant menus in North America.  Probably because it’s puzzling and not  as colourful as a heap of artfully stir-fried seafood with veggies.  Eating a wide range of Asian cuisines means appreciating a diverse range of food textures, contrasting flavours and colours in one meal.  My father’s favourite dish was steamed, lean pork slices with abit of salted fish to flavor the pork. We enjoyed it also –several times per month for dinner.

Like ordinary life, not dreams, I learned to cook rice in the pot over stove as a teenager. Electric rice pots only entered my life in my early 30’s.

Burning incense swirls around in temple. Changzhi, China 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker
Burning incense swirls around in temple. Changzhi, China 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker

No wonder why my Asian dreams confuse me. These life memories are like colourful glass fragments in my shattered mosaic of understanding that I have had to piece together thoughtfully, over a long time.  These  experiences fused with dreams, probably only makes sense to me and others who bumble along in life.

But as time marches on and our world shrinks with personal blogs popping up from all over the globe, Asia looks less and less romantically exotic.  Globalization is making gelatos, sorbets and coffees popular in the big Asian cities. Even the Chinese and East Indians who have money are jumping on the European wine kick  –their romanticization of the West.

Or am I wrong?  Maybe it’s just me. I should just hop onto a plane and get to the truth of my arms-length, or ocean-length view of Asia. My parents have never wanted to return to China. For them, they probably rather keep the dreams of how it was before the Chinese-Japanese war and Communist takeover.

For now, I’m just content to explore Canada where I can still get lost in its vastness.

Further Reading:
Chong, Jean. Romanticizing the West:  Asian Craze for European Gourmet Desserts. In Cycle Write Blog, Feb. 2, 2012.

Seoul, South Korea 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker
Seoul, South Korea 2011. Photo by HJEH Becker

37 Comments Add yours

  1. MB says:

    Love that photo of you and your mother.

    I dream of traveling to China, particularly Southern China, to visit the villages of the Miao ethnic minority—the Hmong being a subgroup of this ethnic minority. I too, also romanticize about China and many other countries around the world. I know that the world is changing and what I would fantasize and idealize about China or other countries may not be what is reality.


    1. Jean says:

      Wonder what you would find out about the Miao in China if you talked with them. And how they have adjusted to the political and economic changes that have occurred in the past decade in China. Yes, it is one of the rare photos of my mother in that type of dress. My father would have taken this photo.


  2. Andrew says:

    It is a very interesting piece. You really touch upon the negotiations of ethnicity and construction of ethnic identities, as well as the ambivalence of hybridity. The China and Asia in your imagination, the one from which you form that part of your identity, was formed in a particular place, from a particular point of view, with particular influences. It is different from the China and Asia of your parents and their parents or peers. In The West, China is often portrayed as a mysterious and unchanging place that can never be understood. China probably benefits from this desire in the exotic and unknown as it can mask the far that it is a hugely complex nation where events, experiences and mythologies collide in a less than romantic reality.

    My Korean American friend was going through a bit of an identity crisis and decided to do her dissertation in Korea. She was unprepared for the barriers the Koreans had constructed to bar her from being accepted as “one”, when she had grown up “the Korean girl.” She had never experienced the continuity of life in Korea and was, by all intents and purposes, a foreigner. It is interesting how many of these ethnic nationalities are only inclusive by “race” as a projection (Jeremy Lin) and concurrently exclusive by experience.

    It is very difficult to explain my own “Taiwaneseness” seeing as I have spent the past 15 years living as a resident of Taiwan and losing touch with whatever is going on in North America. I consider myself to be one of the “ethnic foreigners” in Taiwan. I am still a “foreigner”, but my experience as a foreigner and all the of the BS that comes with that status, puts me in like company with many others.

    Anyways… If you ever do decide to come out, you are welcome to visit Taiwan.


    1. Jean says:

      “In The West, China is often portrayed as a mysterious and unchanging place that can never be understood. China probably benefits from this desire in the exotic and unknown as it can mask the far that it is a hugely complex nation where events, experiences and mythologies collide in a less than romantic reality.” Yes, no doubt China benefits from this impression of exoticism since it wants to bring over….tourists. 🙂

      Even my parents who have had no interest to return to visit China, probably have old, long-gone images that don’t really apply to present day realities of China today. I can sympathize with your Korean-American friend of the cultural, nearly distant shock of what separates between herself and ethnic Koreans in Korea in terms of life experiences when she went over there for awhile. Hopefully her experience was softened a bit with knowing 1-2 people who knew both Korean and English.

      I agree the Jeremy Lin craze phenomena for a short spell (for now), did highlight how there is a tendency to project certain impressions and identification, even though Lin was completely American. He culturally, would not have a ton in common, with a resident in China who has never lived overseas.

      Nowadays in the big cities that have very large Asian North American population, one can experience some of that cultural difference with recent immigrants.
      I’m sure your little daughter, Andrew will be helped by both of her parents for a positive formation of her self-identity, should your family decide to stay in Taiwan when she becomes of school-age. One thing for certain, her fluency in Chinese language will be better than folks like myself — a big plus!


  3. timethief says:

    Hi Jean,
    As ususal I’m here drooling over how you have woven together another outsanding article replete with beautiful photos. As our family had a house fire and everything went up in smoke, I teared up when I saw the picture of your and your mom. You see I have no pictures of my mom and I. I have only 18 photos I have been given since my mom passed away in December and none of them have my parents, who are now both deceased in them. So here I am in your blog sniveling and mopping my tears as I admire your romanticizing the east writing and images.

    But I have dreams visiting Japan – no kidding! They began when I was a child who was admiring my mother’s fabulous collection of handmade vintage Japanese dolls and they have yet to end. Mom acquired the dolls from her brothers who brought them home from the war to their little sister. Mom loved all things that were Japanese and I shared her love of Ikebana and calligraphy. I went on to become a painter and my style is bamboo Chinese brush painting (“Sumi-e” in Japanese). Though we disagreed on many things and though my mother excelled at being disagreeable as it was here style and I did not appreciate it she did like my style of painting. (Typing that last sentence made me laugh out loud and I haven’t been doing much of that lately.)

    Love always,


    1. Jean says:

      I continue to be amazed by some of our shared connections in certain areas of interests. I had no idea of your lifelong interest in Japanese arts. I am aware you practice some brush painting. Hope you showcase it one day on your blog. (Or maybe you have?) Do you have any of your mother’s Japanese art and craft collectibles?

      I’m sorry for the loss of your parents and to hear of that devasting family home fire. What a loss of …memory and object d’histoire! Our visual memory of loved ones do need jogging with a precious photo or 2 since details get lost over time. The photo of me with my mother in a traditional dress is rare. There are probably less than 5 other similar types of photos. My younger siblings hardly have any baby photos: maybe my parents were tired by then, trying to juggle the responsibilities with 6 children. I am the eldest and hence, enough baby photos but some of which I’m not sure where they’ve gone. But hopefully, in the hands of other family members.

      Yes, photo is poignant and highly treasured.


      1. timethief says:

        For many years I painted for a living but it took its toll on me. My wrists and hands are no longer able to produce paintings every day for the market (carpal tunnel and arthritis) . These days I paint only as a hobby and only for myself. The painting I previously is contracted work that belongs to its owners and not to me so I won’t be posting images of it on my blog. The Japanese art and craft collectibles are all destined to be given to my nieces and I won’t be waiting until I pass on to give it to them.


        1. Jean says:

          Too bad I can’t see some of your work because of the copyright matters! I would love to see it. I’m sure you have some well-loved works that you have produced. Just a side note: there’s an upcoming cherry blossom blog post soon with more images to enjoy. The post content turned out to be something different from what I had originally planned. 🙂


  4. jribaudo says:

    Wonderful writing! If you do decide to come to Shanghai, it is always open to visitors. There are so many ‘foreigners’ here that you will feel right ‘at home’.
    Thanks for visiting my blog!


    1. Jean says:

      Based on what I’ve heard and seen in photos, part of Shanghai is moving along very fast. Have a great stay there for awhile!


  5. toranosuke says:

    Thank you for sharing this very personal set of thoughts on your relationship with your Chinese/Asian heritage and identity. We each, surely, must negotiate these things for ourselves, no matter where it is we come from, and it is interesting to get a glimpse into someone else’s negotiations.

    I do hope you will visit China, or elsewhere in East or Southeast Asia someday. Yes, it’s true that in many respects East & SE Asian culture is getting more and more Westernized. But the history and heritage is still there, and even in the more Westernized parts, a distinctively Chinese (or distinctively Shanghai, or distinctively that particular neighborhood) aesthetic & culture still remains. I have not myself yet visited China or Taiwan, but I can tell you from experience traveling in Japan that even in the most Westernized parts of Tokyo, where the street scene resembles quite closely a scene of life in certain parts of Canada, as you say, even there, you can walk a block or two away and find a Buddhist temple, or a Shinto shrine, or a historical building very distinctively Japanese in its architectural style, cultural purpose, and history. And more to the point, even without going a block or two away, even within that heavily Westernized street scene, there are countless elements of distinctively Japanese fashion, Japanese goods/products, Japanese language of course on the signs…. Heavily Westernized it may be, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still Japan.

    All of which is to say that the pagodas and mountain spires, the cheongsams and Mao suits, of your romanticized impressions still exist, alongside countless other aspects of distinctively Chinese culture. Visiting Shanghai won’t be just like being at home, no matter how Westernized it may have become, and I think, I hope, it will be a very enjoyable, or at least interesting, experience for you. I know that visiting my own people’s homeland was for me, as Westernized as that may be as well.


    1. Jean says:

      Thanks for dropping by! Yes, most likely there would visible and behavioural nuances that would make cosmopolitan cities like Tokyo or Shanghai, distinctively Japanese or Chinese in spirit.Just the festivals themselves and what is celebrated there vs. in North America, would be another (small) distinction.

      I also enjoyed your reflective, farewell blog post about Japanese-Hawai’ian culture vs. Japanese culture from Japan itself when you were going to return to the U.S. mainland. Hard to know where I would travel in the future overseas simply because I don’t see it happening for awhile because of committments.


  6. Jean, thank you so much for sharing personal memories and this picture with your mother. This is my favorite post on your blog so far and the comments here make it even more touching.

    “No wonder why my Asian dreams confuse me. These life memories are like colourful glass fragments in my shattered mosaic of understanding that I have had to piece together thoughtfully, over a long time. These experiences fused with dreams, probably only makes sense to me and others who bumble along in life”.

    You may think you are confused because you were born and raised in Canada. However, China’s pluralism and long history makes it very difficult to define its cultural identity – even for people who have spent all their life in China. Of course, being Canadian with “foreign roots” makes it even more confusing.

    My feelings towards my roots are very similar to yours even though we have a different course. Before moving to Montreal, I grew up in Gabon and yet my life there was filled with a lot of contradictions resulting from the exposure to many different cultures opposed to one another. Now that I live in Montreal, I struggle with unseizable memories and I am torn between many other cultures. Sometimes the sight of one street, the face of kid or just a fragrance reminds me of something else, but I am notre sure what. I went back to Africa only once and even there, I felt like a tourist with heavy memories. During this trip to 3 African countries, there were times where I didn’t understand where I was. I felt like a pang in my chest, the same kind of feeling I had after my first few days in Montreal.

    So when I hear people with similar experiences, I feel better. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one out there and I am happy to see that I’m not crazy either! Thank you for that!


    1. Jean says:

      Thanks for the compliment. It is a favourite photo when I was a baby. I wouldn’t say I was confused but more disonnected occasionally when I was in my teens and couldn’t relate to certain experiences that my non-Asian friends had and vice versa. You have to realize that when I was in high school, the history curriculum was still British history, our colonizers. Sheesh. I didn’t learn Canadian history in-depth which would include the different major waves of immigration, etc. until my final year of high school. So I just missed out on the curriculum improvements several years earlier. I first learned of the Japanese-Canadian/American relocation experience during WW II, on tv..a movie, Farewell Manzanar. I didn’t even know until I was around 19, that Chinese-Canadians couldn’t vote until 1947..after WWII, etc. My father immigrated to Canada in 1952. History is alot closer than we realize at times.

      So yes, I could wonder about stuff in China, but first I had to learn what happened on home turf, Canada. 🙂


  7. Your mother was beautiful. Maybe always is to you, though.

    However, this was such a poignant and thoughtful post. Off topic, but if anything deserved to be freshly pressed this was so good.

    The nearest I have been to China, was Hong Kong, when it was still British. But I couldn’t believe how ‘foreign’ it was.

    And exciting. The nearest my partner has been was south Wales, maybe more useful and authentic?

    Your life is where you make it. Roots (?) history, become increasingly irrelevant. And as others have said, you aren’t going back to some curious cultural phenomenon.


    1. Jean says:

      This is true that life is where you make it. However for some North Americans whose ancestors visibly, are not originally from Europe, they do have to make a clear decision in their own head how they have to respond to others who occasionally assume them as “foreign”. My partner was in China and Tawain last year for a very short time period (less than 4 days) and was herded around since he was invited to present as a conference speaker. I was glad he did experience this, though barely scraping the surface of what he saw. There’s enough in the media about China blasting along economically, but still there appears to be great disparity in the population on a huge scale, that we do not see in North America. Maybe I’ll get there one day.

      My mother has had it tough since the time of that photo since she had 6 children. She doesn’t know much English but it is through her we have retained a bit of Chinese speaking fluency –in rough, ungrammatical way. But who cares, one just needs to commmunicate whatever works within a family.

      I’m only mentioning a person’s mother tongue since it can be tied with one’s identity and enhance the travel experience.


  8. I know this is an older post, but it caught my eye under “Featured Posts” and was quite interesting to read. I hope you don’t mind a few belated comments?

    Although I cannot comment on how well your experiences of Asian cultures in Canada represent the respective cultures back in Asia, my experiences in the US are a stark contrast to what I’ve seen in Asia. Even the most “Westernized” cities in Asia have a unique flavor to them that is very different even from US cities with high Asian populations like Honolulu.

    To focus on one topic you seem passionate about, Chinese food, even in the tiny minority of Chinese-American restaurants that offer authentic Chinese food, they lack the diversity of food available within China. China has a great diversity of regional cuisines that haven’t made it to the US because those regions haven’t contributed as many immigrants to the US. So if you are hungry for things like ma-la Sichuan style hot pot, or the multitude of flavors of northeastern water-boiled dumplings, you’ll be hard pressed to find them outside China (even outside their home-regions in China, they are still just not the same).

    My advice? Skip cosmopolitan places like Shanghai (although even those are uniquely Chinese), and sample a couple of different regions of China. It won’t be the China of your parents, let alone the China of your grandparents, but it will definitely be full of experiences that you just can’t get in the West.


    1. Jean says:

      Thx for dropping by, SeasStarlight. I tend to highlight only certain types of Chinese food dishes or an ingredient simply because it’s familiar to me but not necessarily to many other people who don’t eat Asian dishes often. We barely spent much time in Honolulu when we were vacationing in Hawai’i. So I can’t comment on fusion cuisine vs. straightforward Chinese cuisine there. After all, I don’t go overseas outside of Asia, to have Chinese food. It’s to have more indigenous local food! (Like poi, loki, Kona coffee, etc.). Maybe one day I’ll get to China and yes, visiting Shanghai would be more the historic areas.

      If you have a chance, visit Greater Vancouver, BC. The suburban city of Richmond, is over 60% Chinese origin and a ton of cuisine choices. Here’s a blog of a couple based in that area who reviews restaurants in the area (plus other areas that they visit world-wide).

      I loved Hawai’i simply because I think its roots make it so different than the rest of the U.S.


  9. jbw0123 says:

    After you gave me a scolding, had to check out your blog. I hope you do go to China and cycle around and report back here. There is a wonderful combination of culture, history and image in your writing. It would be fun to read a follow-up.

    I’m about to send off a visa application for a visit to China this spring, after thinking about it for many years. We have friends in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, which I figure ought to be a good start. As you say, it’s challenging to approach a trip like this. So much history, so much geography, so many languages and cultures; although for someone like me with no roots or historical ties, it might be a little easier to just go and let my mouth hang open like any old neophyte.

    Your steamed fish with soy sauce sounds lovely, and if you posted a recipe for egg custard, I’d try it out.


    1. Jean says:

      Hope you have a great trip in China and you should, with friends!

      Well, a loosely written recipe, since it’s just something from observing my mother and me, preparing this recipe nearly in my sleep:
      1 fistful of beef, thinly sliced.
      1 small jot of soy sauce
      Pinch of flour
      Minced, finely sliced ginger root (1 tsp. or less)
      1 tsp. Finely chopped onion
      Mix together in a low porcelain or glass microwave dish. Let marinate for 15-20 min. Use a wide saucepan. Put in approx. 1 inch of water. Place in dish in middle of water. But not too much that it will boil into dish of meat.
      Turn heat to boil. When boils, turn down heat to medium. Stir meat. Cover with lid. Make sure water doesn’t boil off. 5 min. later, pour in 1 whipped egg yolk or egg white equivalent amount into meat. Stir around. Put lid back on. Near end of cooking, stir to break up egg puffiness.
      Add more water to steaming water. Should be cooked in less than 15 min. Serve in dish with veggies, rice or pasta on side.


      1. Julia says:

        Thank you! I’m trying it this week. Best —


        1. Jean says:

          The custard will be naturally slightly watery which is why the meat is lightly marinated with a tiny jot of soy sauce. (Or you can use a soy-garlic chili paste.) Let me know how it turns out. The recipe that I jotted down is serving for 1 person.


  10. James says:

    Thanks for such an honest and personal account, Jean. As someone who grew up “on the other side” it’s very interesting to read about your perceptions of Asia as a Chinese-Canadian raised in a small town, with only limited exposure to that part of the world until you moved to Toronto.

    I guess I had the very special position of seeing it from both sides, growing up in Hong Kong and flying to Canada every summer to visit family. I’ve often wondered how it would be if my father had not chosen to return to Asia upon finishing his graduate studies at the U of T – how different my life would have been, and if I would even have existed at all.

    I can understand your concern about globalisation, but I’m not sure I agree with your statement that gelatos, sorbets and coffees are eroding the culture of Asian cities… by the same argument the presence of Asian restaurants in a European city such as London or Paris takes something away from their inherent charm. In both cases I see it as more of a novelty and less a habit that has a real impact on the local culture, which in itself is not static but a living, breathing quality that is always in flux.

    Perhaps what you were alluding to was the propensity to clear old neighbourhoods for luxury condos and high-end, air-conditioned shopping malls, but that’s to be expected in any developing nation with a rising middle and upper class, who take pride in sipping European wines, toting designer handbags and wearing the latest fashions from Milan. That said, consumerism alone is not enough to eradicate a deep-rooted culture that has been in existence for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

    Here in Hong Kong a visitor’s first impressions may be of a very Westernised place, but scratch the surface and you’ll still find a deeply traditional society. Even the most modern buildings submit to the rules of feng shui, which explains the rounded or bevelled corners on office blocks, or the seemingly random placement of escalators at odd angles. It doesn’t matter if the new tower going up is in steel and glass; chances are that it will be sheathed in bamboo scaffolding during construction. In between the skyscrapers, wet markets sprawl haphazardly beneath tarpaulin canopies, and columns of fragrant smoke rise from the temples dedicated to the sea goddess Tin Hau. New arrivals gradually learn to navigate the vast array of customs and traditions that also have a say in the business world, where formality and ritual enjoy far greater importance than in the West.

    From the sounds of it, the ‘romantic exoticism’ you’re looking for is best found in the countryside, far from the heaving neon-lit cities. A couple of examples I can think of are the Himalayas, the wilderness and minority tribes of China’s Yunnan province, the culturally rich (and volcanic) islands of Indonesia and the Philippines, the Keralan Backwaters of southern India… then there’s a slew of smaller historic cities that have maintained their old world charm: Luang Prabang in Laos, Hoi An in Vietnam, and Pingyao in China being just three of the more famous ones. After living for nearly six years in Europe I’ve really come to appreciate the vastness and the sheer diversity that we have here in Asia.


    1. Jean says:

      What I didn’t say in my blog post is what I would imagine mainland China to be: shiny, modern in some areas of big cities and other areas trying to be shiny, modern but not quite there where construction is shoddy/worn out quickly when you walk up close to examine….like what I see in some of the big Chinatown areas in Canada. People spitting more loudly than in North America, etc. Louder dialogue/conversations. (I really hate seeing young people of all colours here sometimes, spitting in the streets for no reason. They aren’t exercising hard or anything like that I can see. Just spitting carelessly.)

      Every….stereotype you can think of plus others minding their own business. I agree China is like Canada, geographically huge and diverse. I wish I did go to China 15 years go: it wouldn’t have been as polluted as now in terms of air quality. That’s something we’ll have to sort through if/when we go. My partner has real allergies to bad air, perfume (cosmetic counters are no-go places for him. He gets a headache immediately.) Here’s a Vancouverite’s comments on influencing Chinese opinion (or lack of) on environmental protection:

      Until I lived in Toronto and Vancouver, I didn’t know about the pleasant anonymity of living cities with huge Asian descendant local populations.

      You are indeed lucky to have lived in a variety of places and visited Canada often.
      Hey, the gelato and wine “erosion” of Asian culture is best kept like happy embrace of culture from another world. Just like people liking stir-frying techniques and tofu (for those who like it.).

      I may seek your blog/advice when we do go. Or somewhere else in Asia.


    2. Well said. Many aspects of the different cultures of Asia are very much alive and inseparable from daily life. Sure there are lots of “ancient towns” sprinkled throughout Asia full of traditional crafts and architecture, but even in the big cities life is full of that culture, especially around the holidays. Modernization hasn’t changed that, and globalization just adds to the ever changing mix. Even cultural elements thought to be traditional, such as spicy ma-la cuisine in Sichuan, or tempura in Japan, have really only been around a few hundred years. Cultures take in elements from other cultures and make them their own. If you’ve ever had things like a very-Chinese take on Indian food, you’ve seen that that process is still ongoing.


      1. Jean says:

        Guess I’ll have to get to Asia one day, Starlight!


  11. Lovely shots. I know very little about the Korea I left when I was young. Showed these pix to my boy.


    1. Jean says:

      One day your son may go back to visit your birth country which would be cool. I personally have not known any Korean-Canadians, though both Toronto and Vancouver have significant Korean communities. Like you, I’m not terribly warm to the term “Asian-American” or similar. It’s equivalent to saying the French are like the Germans, Swiss, Norwegians….


      1. After our emails last night, I dug up a faint memory over 20 yrs old. The first – and possibly only – time I heard of Korean-Canadians. But wherever there are any Korean-Anythings LOL they will congregate en masse, so I imagine Toronto and V have large groups of them.

        Actually, what I had explained in Part 1 was why I consider myself Asian-American, not Asian.


        1. Jean says:

          There is at least 1 Koreatown area in both Vancouver and Toronto….high concentration of restaurants and some shops. Probably more because there are things in the suburbs which I don’t go the fringes of those cities.

          I actually don’t know much about Korean-Canadian nor Korean-American history at all.


  12. So poignant. I can relate to being raised in North America and having only been to Asia (Taiwan) three times in my life. Funny, the last time I went to Taiwan, there were a couple difficult days, such as when I got a stomach bug, and I thought to myself… why risk this when you can just to go Cupertino or the San Gabriel Valley, where all the food/goods/cultural events are replicated? But there is still nothing like actually going to a place to experience what is the same and what is different. You should go sometime!


    1. Jean says:

      We’ll see, Grace. Sounds like maybe your boys might have joined you in a trip there. That would be good thing for them.


  13. Alex Hurst says:

    A really interesting essay. I would say, as someone that has lived here for about five years now, what you get out of a place truly is what you put in. I had a romantic image of Japan before I came, and honestly, it’s still a bit preserved. There’s a strange paradox of nostalgia and time warp, quirky modernity and tech that all seems to meld together into a really unique, obscure heart.

    I love it here. Of course there are many things I don’t like…. but I think it depends wholly on where you go, how you decide to interact with others, and even, yes, what biases you take in (or not). I know a lot of my friends didn’t enjoy it here as much.

    At the very least, I think a visit is worth it. But there is some truth to tourist trap warnings. Go for the things that feel genuine to YOU, and you will not be disappointed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Well, to me, Japan sounds and looks quite different than China. Certainly Asia without sometimes understanding of western concepts and western history,it ends up “There’s a strange paradox of nostalgia and time warp, quirky modernity and tech that all seems to meld together into a really unique, obscure heart.”

      While all of us love romantic, frozen in time images of a country, true love of country means embracing a country’s culture fully with new and old, bizarre and dignified. I think the one thing that I might annoy the heck of me, is the situation with university educated Japanese women…it just sounds waaaaay more constrained for them compared to women with similar education in China. It just feels like feminism is still kept down strongly in Japanese culture…ie. women appear not to have full time professional careers in their chosen university education. I mean how many Japanese female engineers are there? And we think there isn’t enough female engineers in middle management ranks and up in North America….

      I actually think mainland and HK Chinese women are freer to exercise their rights…


      1. Alex Hurst says:

        I unfortunately can’t answer that question with more than empirical evidence. I know two female stem cell researchers, and that’s just in Kyoto, and in my personal life… Not a giant city, and my circle of friends is quite small.

        I think things are opening up a great deal to women, and men, actually. The younger generation is rejecting all of the restrictions of the former ‘work until you drop/be a good housewife’ generation, and they don’t have to worry about the government infringing on those rights. The government worries, of course, especially with the increasing amount of people who have decided that not only do they not want marriage, they also don’t want sexual partners (even though Japan is already struggling with a low birth rate).

        I think feminism is taking hold. Just slowly. As everything else goes in this country. I do think interesting things will happen in the next decade regarding both feminism (especially sexual harassment) and queer rights (which have gotten the spotlight recently), as well as transgender rights (which may in fact be better here than in the west).


        1. Jean says:

          I met a woman from Kobe who lived in my city here in Canada for 2 yrs. She fell in and out of love with a native Indian guy here. Anyway, I certainly didn’t get the impression from her and who she knew in terms of women, living lives that tapped into their natural intelligence, etc. This was just last year. Glad to hear things are changing slowly. Wonder how Japan will resolve the low natural birth rate over the decades. Gasp: immigrants? 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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