6 LESSER-KNOWN REASONS TO STAY IN ASIA
Travel guides and websites entice westerners with the images of serene temples rising over a jungle fog, shining skylines, pristine beaches and elephant rides through the jungle. These Asian attractions exist, and you’ll enjoy them. But if you ignore your return flight home and stick around here- as so many do- you can get to know this continent in a way that the casual tourist could never begin to. Here are six little-known reasons to enjoy, and stay in, Asia.
6. URINARY FREEDOM
The American Age brought with it armies marching out into the world and “spreading democracy”. Perhaps, as China and East Asia emerge, we can look forward to regular “pee-freeing missions” as the 21st century progresses. It seems men can pee everywhere in Asia. It almost feels encouraged. Picnic-tabled streetside restaurants stay open into the late hours (offering large bottles of cheap beer, of course) all while the nearest open bathroom is a cab ride away. The consequence of this incongruence manifests itself nightly upon the uneven sidewalks of Asian civilization.
Other western travelers, as they quickly slip on their flip-flops, often tease me about my elevated combat-like boots, I have to smile knowingly. The ground is dirty over here. And it’s not just the steps of four billion East Asian feet. Often, the bathrooms offered are worse than no bathrooms at all. You can’t blame a man for choosing a quiet alley. And forget partitions. Every male traveler to Beijing can recount the horror upon walking into their first hutongpublic bathroom and meeting eyes with a squatting Chinese man, midway through his most urgent 5,000-year tradition.
I have seen situations in which a man is speaking to his table, stands up, swivels around, undoes, pees, redoes, swivels back around and sits back down, all while maintaining his conversation. His dinner guests listening intently and nodding, not the least concerned that the casual public urinator has now just put his hand into the shared bowl of peanuts; a bowl which may end up at the table of the next restaurant patron. Perhaps, you.
Some newcomers may be disgusted by this practice. We, for one, have learned to appreciate it. We’ve succumbed to temptation and marked our territory a time or two (waiting for the bus, long walks home, short walks home, locked out of hostels, near the line at festivals, walks home). In time you will get comfortable and it becomes an amenity. I say enjoy it.
5. CONVENIENCE STORES
Another American tradition that’s migrated east, convenience stores are part of the furniture of any urban Asian landscape. As urban planners, I was taught to look down on chain convenience store chains. In the past, we’d usually gravitate toward the Lower East Side-esque privately owned “corner store”. At first, 7-11 and Family Mart were a tough sell for me.
Well, just like pissing in public, I’ve come around to it. In Taiwan, 7-11 does everything. A modern day 7-11 employee is like a human Swiss army knife. I’ve seen one 18-year-old employee deliver a baby while helping an elderly woman make copies. Soft drinks and even hot food (Taiwanese ‘tea eggs’ are particularly worthwhile) are served up 24 hours a day in air-conditioned respite. In addition, convenience store locations are the post-it notes of Asian wayfinding. The stores are the fulcrums and joints of Asian cities. If you’re getting directions to anywhere in Japan, Korea or Taiwan and it your path doesn’t include three or four 7-11’s as reference points, then it’s probably inaccurate.
4. 100 DIFFERENT KINDS OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
Jakarta’s “bajaj”, Bangkok’s “tuk-tuks”, Ho Chi Minh’s “cyclos”, the “trikes” of the Philippines, the bullet trains of North Asia, riding in the back of a pickup truck under the Burmese stars: the Asian continent seems to constantly be pushing and pulling its people back and forth in evermore creative ways. Hop on and move with the movement: getting to your destination has never been more fun. Enjoy it.
3. GETTING CLOTHES TAILORED
Disgruntled western customers will complain that the tailors of Asia are a waste of time, even if they are a bargain. It’s true that hundreds of disproportioned and unwearable shirts are spit out each day in Hoi An. I’ve personally once had a 1980s style power-suit made that had me looking like I was guest starring on an early episode of The Larry Sanders Show. So, why should anyone take the risk and waste the time and money?
The key to getting well-made clothes tailored in Asia is found in one word: PREPARATION. Or, READINESS. Plus, TIME. So, that’s about two or three words. Whatever. It means one thing: know what you want and don’t let the tailor talk you into anything. Asian tailors are more deceitful than the North Korean Central News Agency. They will tell you anything and everything to get your business and put your ass on a plane back to Dallas wearing a giant polyester suit with buttons stolen from old teddy bear overalls. However, you can get excellent and inexpensive work out of them if you go in knowing how to negotiate and what results to expect.
Go in with:
- details of how you want your collar and cuffs cut
- insist on seeing which buttons they will use
The tailors will lie to you. They do it every day. You can lie to them. Lets call it “negotiation”:
tell them you have all the time in the world and will be trying it on until it fits perfectly
- tell them you recently moved to their city, or nearby, and are looking for a long-term tailor
- tell them you have a well-known travel blog and can report good news (or, bad) depending on how the clothes end up
Upon trying on the clothes, NEVER take their word for how the clothes fit you. Trust your instinct and check yourself over at all angles. Check the length of the sleeves; check the way the pants fall and fold on your shoes (never try pants on wearing just socks). Look behind your shoulders for excess material in your dress shirts. The shirts should fall naturally and comfortably. Does your butt look good? Don’t pay for your pants until it does. That’s the advantage of tailor-made clothes. The proof is in your butt.
2. EATING WITH STRANGERS
Asian food is often informal and eaten out on the sidewalk on crowded plastic tables. Often, you’ll be encouraged to sit with strangers to enjoy your food. Make the most of it and open a conversation. You may get to share a wider assortment of food and get the scoop on the next great snack to try.
1. GETTING THINGS FIXED
I remember returning to Berkeley after a trip to Mexico and using a lunch break to try to professionally mend a few tears in a lambskin coat Bill had lent me. After enquiring around different shops and trying unsuccessfully to bargain, I ended up paying about $50 and picking up the coat two hours later. Not a worthwhile experience. Having our belongings repaired is barely cheaper than just buying new. As an American, its our instinct is to toss away “broken” power adapters or shoes with worn out soles. Your right earphone isn’t working? Toss ‘em and get a new pair, right?
Not in Asia.
I have had a pair of leather boots expertly resoled for $9 (parts and labor, Cebu, Philippines). Broken headphones were raised from the dead (and still going strong) for $0.50 (Vigan, Philippines). Every power adapter I brought over from the US has been rewired a time or two (all still going strong). I have no idea how they fix my stuff, but they do a great job.
The key is to find a local street where you see street stalls set up. Don’t bother looking for a fancy façade or air conditioning. Just walk around and try to get a few estimates. Trust your instinct for how honest the repairperson may be. Take note of how confident they are in their abilities. I have found that not much negotiation is needed (China as a possible aside) and most will give you an honest estimate. I’ve never had a bad experience with the repairs themselves. If they can’t do it, they tend to tell you upfront.