Short Story 8
Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Philippines
Imagine talking to someone and they ask which countries you traveled? You answer. He or she follows up with, “What do you like about each one?” You stop to gather your thoughts since there are different things you admire. Then, the person says, “What’s one thing that sticks out the most about each country you visited?”
This is where a short story comes in handy. You’ll get a summary of one unforgettable moment from 14 countries through my solo traveler goggles. Are you ready? Good!
I’m smiling like an amused child as my eyes scan the glimmering building lights of the Akihabara district. This area in Tokyo is a gamer geek and anime paradise. I feel as if I’m relieving my childhood gamer days where Nintendo, Gameboy, and Sega Genesis were my prized possessions and hobbies. Many stores and outside shops in Akihabara have displays of different game consoles, from the Atari of the 1970s to PlayStations of the 21st century. A bunch of games are available to buy too. Akihabara’s gamer hub district includes M’s Pop Life Department, a seven-story sex store. The top two floors are small rooms with many shelves containing pornographic movies and small TVs airing Japanese couples having sex, including anime. For the other five floors, when it comes to sex, you name it, they got it! Some of the locals inside look under the age of 18. Does this sex store have age restrictions? No one is at the front entrance door checking IDs, and staff aren’t policing the floors for underage shoppers. It's bitter sweet saying goodbye to Tokyo as I’m preparing to walk to the nearby subway station. The cities of Okinawa and Kyoto were worth visiting a few days ago, but Tokyo, especially the Akihabara district, is making my heart melt. I feel like a kid inside.
2. South Korea
The isolated Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is silent and on-edge. Between the border of North and South Korea is an unbarricaded concrete slab on the ground, the height of a sidewalk curb and roughly ten feet wide. Two blue buildings are between the slab. Soldiers on both sides of the borders stand like statues, closely watching each other’s moves. The tour guide stops my group to share that a few weeks ago, a North Korean solider crossed over to the South Korean side of the DMZ and was shot by the North Korean side. The guide also mentions that tensions inside the camp are higher than usual, regardless that it’s Christmas Day 2017. Inside one of the blue buildings is a conference room with one table where military divisions of the North and South have serious talks. Half of the room and table is South Korea, the other half is North Korea. The tour guide says to my group, “You can go to the other side of the room and take a picture with the solider.” I walk hesitantly toward the motionless solider, who’s wearing masculine and intimidating sunglasses. I’m officially in North Korean military territory standing next to him. It’s the most uncomfortable picture I have ever taken.
What’s cool about working and living in Shanghai is riding the public bicycles during my commutes and to get from Point A to Point B. Each ride on a Mobike is approximately 35 cents for every 30 minutes. All I do is open the app and scan the QR code that’s on every bicycle to unlock it. Mobikes are scattered on sidewalks throughout Shanghai, especially where I’ve resided in the Jing’an district, a part of the city center. Some of my Chinese friends tell me that riding a public bicycle regularly can be categorized as having a lower social status in Shanghai. They also get concerned looks on their faces whenever I mention that I enjoy riding Mobikes. Their responses: “not safe” or “dangerous.” I’ve been riding a bicycle almost every day for two and a half years with no helmet. I finished doing one last bicycle ride around my neighborhood. My time working and living in China is coming to an end tomorrow. It's been a blast riding Mobikes. Some were in great shape, while others had issues, like a wobbly tire or busted brake that I didn’t know about until I was preparing to stop. Riding a bicycle in my mid-thirties felt exciting, as when I rode my BMX bike to elementary school.
4. Hong Kong
This Yick Cheong Building in Hong Kong’s Quarry Bay looks more eye-catching in person compared to some of the photoshopped stock images online. Scoping the building is at the top of my agenda. Yick Cheong isn’t a modern high-rise building or fancy skyscraper where people can take aerial pictures of Hong Kong from the top floor. The compound doesn’t have sex appeal, even though many tourists from different countries gravitate to it before flying back home or to another country. Yick Cheong is an old-school and colorful 20-story apartment complex made of concrete. The ground-level floor has mom-and-pop shops where the local residents can get their basic living necessities without leaving the community. I’ve never been amazed by the appearance of an apartment complex. I feel somewhat hypnotized by the rugged-looking and soulful architecture of Yick Cheong. Something noticeable is that many units don’t have curtains in their kitchen and living room. This reminds me of when I lived in an apartment in Langfang, China, for six months. The kitchen didn’t have curtains or blinds. Maybe privacy is irrelevant or taken with a grain of salt in this community. Close-knit is a better way of putting it. The Yick Cheong Building is one of a kind!
What I’m witnessing can make even the most ungrateful person feel grateful for what they have. This Baseco community in the Philippines isn’t an area most tourists are eager to see in the city capital. It’s a compact slum connected to a beach in Manila. The tour guide, who was born and raised in the Baseco slums, showcases the resourcefulness of the community locals. It’s a true case of working with what you got, to the best of your abilities, with the time and resources available. Walking through the squeezed-in mini alleys saddens me as children and adults look at me with tired eyes. Perhaps they’re saying that they would trade places with me in a heartbeat. I don’t feel threatened or uncomfortable. If the tour guide allows the group to take pictures, I probably won’t out of respect for the Baseco Filipinos. The last stop of the slum tour is the view of the connected beach. It’s a large landfill with piles of trash. A few kids and adults are looking for recyclables to make some money. Now I know first-hand what real poverty looks like from getting inside access to the Baseco slums of Manila.
You’ve made it through the first five countries. Good stuff! Part 2 (Short Story 7) of 15 Memorable Countries That You Won’t Regret Traveling, covers more countries. Which ones? You’ll find out in Part 2.