Tag Archives: Asia

How Flat IS the world, Mr. Friedman?, Asia’s answer to Slim Jims

On my last night in Hong Kong, I meet up with Sandra, a friend of a friend (Alex) of a friend (Prue), and her fiancee, Stu, a sharp and funny Asian-American couple who have been living in Hong Kong for about a year and a half.  They are shocked when I sheepishly suggest Indian food for dinner, but laugh and take me to a place a short tram ride away.

We exchange travel stories–they spent a few months traveling in New Zealand, Western Europe, and parts of Asia before moving here–after choosing curries.  It’s clear we’re all still trying to figure out these places, and we spend a lot of time talking about China and India, the two countries that shock and awe the Western media.  Just as I was blown away by the mismatch between Western headlines dreading an Indian IT takeover and the wretched poverty on the ground in the subcontinent, so too are Sandra and Stu baffled by the reality of China.  “But they are the fastest growing economy in the world, yes?” I say.  Well, yes, they say, but there are other things growing alongside it, particularly huge environmental and humanitarian problems.  Sandra in particular seems appalled at how expendable human lives seem to the government.  “You heard about the pipeline spill, right?” Sandra asks.  I shake my head.  “Apparently a pipeline burst somewhere near the Yellow Sea.  It’s a huge oil spill, even worse than the BP spill, they think.  So the Chinese government comes out and says they’ve got the problem under control, that they’re fixing it.  Turns out they have people on boats literally scooping the oil off the water with buckets.”  “No way.”  “Oh yeah.  Some of them were using their bare hands.  This stuff is really toxic.  They don’t care.”  Stu talks about how Chinese construction companies keep popping up in Western countries, like Iceland, to handle brief jobs.  While they’re there, they pick up industry knowledge, he says, and then bring it back.  “But they cut out all the steps in the middle,” Sandra says.  “Yeah, because there are all these steps to, say, building a product that incorporate things like consumer safety, worker safety,” Stu says.  “But the Chinese figure out, ‘Hey, we don’t actually need those steps!  Who cares about that other stuff?'”  Sandra shakes her head.

“Is it a big drive to be number one?” I ask.  “Do they just want to be the top economy so badly that they don’t care, that it’s all about progress?”

“No, it’s not like that,” Stu says.  “Everything the government is doing is about population control, about pacifying the populace.  They figured out, you know, people get mad when there’s no food.  So they set quotas, they have giant stockpiles of everything–to make sure they have something to hand out, just in case.  When too many people move to the cities and there aren’t enough jobs, they start paying people to go back to their rural villages.  No, it’s not about being number one.  In China, to the Chinese, they’re already number one.  They already own the world.  They are the world.  That’s not a question.”

After dinner, they take me on an Asian dessert tour, treating me to Portugeuse egg tarts–transmitted via Macau–and stopping at what they call a classic Hong Kong diner, an overcrowded cafeteria of plastic bowls and chrome tables, for “steamed milk,” a kind of pudding.  We agree all three flavors are mediocre.  Stu translates parts of the Cantonese menu while we’re waiting.  “The names of Chinese dishes are all idioms,” he explains.  I raise my eyebrows.  “…Meaning?”  “Okay, for example, General Tso’s Chicken.  That’s a very Chinese name, because it doesn’t tell you anything about what kind of chicken it is, how it’s cooked, what it tastes like.  Beggar’s Chicken, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall Chicken–these are typical names.”  I nod.  He points to a group of characters.  “See, so this says something like…’fragrant coffee with milk steamed and cooled.’  And this one, for the egg flavor, that says something about ‘frozen blossom.’  A Chinese person would know that that means this is the cold version, and not the hot egg skimmed milk with vegetables and meat.”  The Chinglish translations that Westerners giggle over make a lot more sense now.

Finally, they show me So Go, clearly the highlight of their night tour.  It’s a Japanese grocery store that’s like an Asian version of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods combined.  I’ve never been anywhere with so many foods I can’t even begin to identify.  There are bags of peas and beans coated in some rice batter with sprinkles of–is it seaweed?–bags of things coated in what might be wasabi, bags of puffed and dried leaves or stems of unknown origin. There are bags filled with snack paks of sardines.  There’s an ice cream counter with flavors like green tea, red bean, and sakura, or cherry blossom.  There are samples of nuts coated in batters with flavors we can’t describe, rows of packaged mochi, a counter with dozens of different flavored mochi filled with frozen creams.  There the gourmet counters with gift box sets of mooncakes and tea, wafers filled with bean paste, and tiny pastries wrapped neatly in origami folds of tissue paper.  There is an entire aisle devoted to seaweed.  In the snack food section, Sandra shows me rows of string cheese in flavors like fish, chicken, sausage, fish sausage, etc. and jokes, “This is Asia’s answer to Slim Jims.”



July 26: Man, it’s beautiful here.  Railay, the peninsula where we’re staying, just survived an insane storm.  Everything and anything with even the tiniest capacity to absorb water is totally drenched.  Somehow more than an hour after the strongest winds–knocking heavy signs into windows, breaking glass, knocking over and shattering potted plants–it is still raining.  Turns out it’s the monsoon season in Thailand.  Hrm…this may impact our snorkeling plans. But the waters are so green!  The cliffs so tall!  Thais so friendly, with their singsong call of “Sawadee ka!  Sawadee khap!” everywhere you go.

The tide is insane in Railay.  We arrived at high tide and my first thought was “Geez, why did they build this place underwater?”  The tide eats all the footpaths and you have to wade to reach the main trails cutting across the peninsula.

Six hours later the waters receded some 500 meters away, opening routes to beaches on the far side of Railay and stranding long-tail boats on their sides with their umbilical anchors lying naked, looking silly.  It’s somewhat isolated, as even though it’s not an island, you can only get here by boat.  No roads!  What a great place.

July 29: They say “emerald green waters” in all the guidebooks and it sounds like such a canned phrase, but I don’t know how else to describe the color.

On Ao Nang, we wander around shops selling carved wood Buddha faces and elephants.  Long-tail boats cruise the waters each with jutting metal motor tentacles coming out the back, big ancient wood prows wrapped in the red white and blue bands of the Thai flag popping out the front.

I take a class at the Thai cooking school at a place near the top of the hill, off the jungle-path that passes one of the many rock-climbing schools on the cliffs snaked with roots and belay ropes.  We make Tom Yum so spicy it causes eyes to water.  We fling prawns and crack eggs right into the hot oiled wok.  Pumpkin in coconut milk–SO sweet, like 7 sugars condensed into two textures.

Railay East–cheap beachfront bars, a Rasta joint, Chok’D’s Bar with the acoustic guitar player singing the Beatles and Oasis and My Girl and every other hit pre 1999.  Two striped kittens play-fighting in front of Thai Food, six tables clustered under a fish net and separated from the kitchen by a counter and half a roof.  The cook serves us the spiciest yellow curry we’ve had yet.  Why so many cats???

July 30: This book (writing in my journal, whose pages are now translucent) was almost destroyed when I took it on our water-logged snorkeling trip to the Phi Phi Islands.  The speed boat slapped up and down on the waves so hard it felt like it was liquifying your organs.

Your teeth snap together and you find yourself thinking, I should watch where I put my tongue.  It rains, waves splash and spray, more rain, more wind, and soon everything on the boat is soaked.  So glad I didn’t take my camera. The best part, Shawn and I agreed, was our second stop, when we drifted in a turquoise lagoon framed by the cliffs of one of the Phi Phi islands, and it started to pour.  It was real monsoon-style rain, and we were already drenched, towels and clothes and everything, and with nothing dry to put on and no way to dry off we were getting chilly.  Then we heard a laugh and a shout and saw one of our guides leap off the boat deck, giggling and diving around.  “Come in!  Cold up there!  Much warmer in the water!”  The French guy jumped in, and then his wife, her lips blue, and both rose grinning.  I climbed onto the deck and leapt off with a little shout.  The water was indeed wonderfully warm, and I bobbed down to my chin.  We held our hands up in the rain and laughed at a fleet of boats called “Jame Bond” and watched other tourists swimming in the rain, grinning at the warm blue water and the green and black cliffs rising up all around us.

Chinatown in Singapore, Obama and Clinton

Taken from notes on July 22:

“Singapore!  What a cool place!  Food stalls–braised pig trotters–long goose and other fowl necks fried with the heads and beaks still attached, looped over long rods in shop windows.  Chinatown area–rows of medicinal shops, boxes and vials of pills and herbs and syrups covered in Chinese characters.

Tiger balm, ginseng tea.  Fishy stink–I ask what the piles of blackened pickle-like things, arranged neatly by size, might be.  Sea cucumber!

At one store, where I linger over flavored candies, an old man I can’t help but think looks like Pi Mai begins a conversation like this:


Me: “…?”

“Russian?  You are Russian, yes?”

“No, American.”

“American!  Ah, you belong to Mr. Obama.”


“He is a Negro, but he is good.”  He is massaging someone’s foot with a lot of oil.  I have no idea how to respond to any of this.  “But now Crinton, she there, she Secretary.  Crinton President, now wife try.  But she not the President.  Now she Secretary.  She do good!  Everywhere she go, she very nice.”

“Very nice,” I agree.  I pick up a box of “watermelon ice” candies and head for the register.

“U.S., she from U.S., you know,” the man alerts the cashier from somewhere below-ankle.

“Very long, to fly to Singapore!” says the cashier.

“Well, actually, I’m coming from India.”

“Oooooo, India!” says Pi Mai, rubbing the lower thighs vigorously.  “Very dirty there!”  He adds, best of all:  “I saw a documentary about it once.”