I won’t say that going to China and Taiwan is like visiting a different planet, because it’s just not true. Sure, there are many differences in culture, lifestyle, and environment, but there are also many similarities. For instance, I went to a jazz club in Shanghai that reminded me of the Blue Note in Manhattan. The ferry in Hong Kong inevitably reminded me of my own beloved Staten Island Ferry. And plenty of familiar franchises lined the city streets (seriously, I’ve never seen so many 7-Elevens in my life). But for all the similarities, for a foreigner, China is, well, foreign.
The following are just a few stories that I’ve been fortunate enough to take home from my first trip to two incredible countries (and my first school/business trip). Hopefully, a moral or two can be found, but try not to learn too much so you can have fun with your own misadventures.
1) I cannot stress how important it is to pack light. I know it’s a bit of a cliché at this point to say it and that it can get tangled up with “letting go”, “spiritual lightness”, and “freedom,” but, let’s be honest, you don’t want to pay more for overweight luggage. Also, packing light helps to keep things organized. Trust me, when you first get to your hotel in Hong Kong after a twelve hour flight from England and two hours stuck in traffic on a bus coming from the airport that made you incredibly carsick and you only have twenty minutes to get ready for the first mandatory session at the auction house, you don’t want to have to rummage around looking for your good shirt. Also, be sure to pack a wrinkle-free or seersucker shirt because you won’t have time to shower, brush your teeth, call for an iron from the lobby, and press a shirt in that twenty minutes.
And always know the dress code for your trip, because otherwise you only find out when you get there that shorts are far too casual for almost all of the events you need to attend despite the fact that you will be walking in the blazing semi-tropical sun of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Taipei and rivulets of sweat are streaming down your back onto your nice chinos. Yeah, those ten pairs of shorts were a total waste. So make sure you know what you’re getting into; that is crucial to packing light and packing well.
It might sound like my packing situation was a total mess, but I can happily say that it wasn’t. Packing a wrinkle-free shirt saved me once or twice, but most importantly, I was smart enough to bring a piece of home with me. Homesickness is real, so having something that reminds you of friends, family, or your bed can be a real comfort and comfort is not always easy to come by in a new place. So take it with you even if it seems a little weird. It might seem weird for a twenty-two year old man to bring three stuffed animals with him, but I found great comfort in them when I felt far from home. Plus the room service lady at that hotel in Taipei seemed to think my plushes and I were cute, so there.
2) Blending In (And Always Hold a Drink). Ok, so blending in sounds like it goes against the whole individualistic, be-yourself mind frame that so many Americans were taught as children. That’s because it does to an extent. Not that I’m suggesting you do anything you find morally, ethically, or religiously uncomfortable, but you just don’t want to fall into the clueless-foreigner-who-doesn’t-even-try-to-fit-in category. That being said there is a time and place to play up the token American role for kicks (or to emphasize your New York accent to seem tougher, which totally works).
Two major things come to mind when thinking about blending in China and Taiwan. Both of them had to do with dinner. The first, I’m pleased to say, was something I felt I did rather successfully: eating with chopsticks. It sounds silly, but being able to put my third grade NYC public school-learned skill to use made me seem less clumsy and foreign at the dinner table. I am sure no one would have minded me asking for cutlery or taking it when presented alongside chopsticks, but I’d like to think I displayed some sort of tact and cultural know-how. Not to mention how my chopstick technique improved in speed and accuracy by the end of the trip.
The second involves a glass of wine. I should start by saying that for a number of personal reasons, I do not drink. It’s just a thing for me and I feel rather strongly about it. In fact, I never drank a sip of alcohol in my life… until I had to attend a sort of business dinner in Taipei. A rather important businesswoman had come over to our table to toast and everyone had raised their wineglasses except for me. I had turned down the wine since it would have simply sat there in the glass until the table was cleared, so I raised my water glass instead. Our hostess noticed this almost immediately and set about fetching me a glass of wine and measuring the liquid in it in comparison to her own to ensure I had a sizable sip. I tried politely declining and faking a sip, but it clearly wasn’t working. I briefly considered flipping the table, but I knew there was no way of turning down the drink without seeming incredibly rude and ungrateful to someone who could potentially prove to be a networking asset for my friends and colleagues and who treated us all to an incredibly lavish, several-course dinner. So I drank the entire glass in a single swig. I won’t sit here and tell you that it was the right choice or that I still don’t think about that night without feeling like I betrayed my own values, but I did what I thought was my only viable option at the time. Which brings me back to blending in. Sometimes unfortunate events are inevitable and other times you might be able to fake it by holding a wine glass you have no intention of drinking.
3) Try Everything (Within Reason). Ok, so on the heels of that last story, “try everything” seems like a bad suggestion which is why I amended the advice with “within reason.” I am not suggesting vegetarians should try meat or that anyone should do anything that goes against their principles or could lead to them harming themselves or others. What I am suggesting is that travelling anywhere is a good time to try things that maybe aren’t available or common at home or even things that you haven’t gotten around to. For instance, I tried karaoke for the first time in Shanghai whilst celebrating one of my friend’s birthdays. Sure, the only reason I hadn’t done karaoke before is because I was always busy when my friends in the States went, but it still counts as a first (I was an electric performer, in case you were wondering).
Trying everything (within reason) also helped to earn me the reputation of “freakishly thin eating machine.” There was just so much food that I had never tried before, so when it was time for the incredibly large, family-style meals, I was somewhat insatiable. I’d list the things I ate, but we’d be here a while. But I will say this, I never acted like something was weird or gross. Sometimes, the tastes, textures, and smells were incredibly different from anything I’d encountered before, but I always kept in mind that this was something I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to try. Not only that, I could not think of a more offensive thing to do than show disgust towards food that someone else enjoys or wants you to try. I’m not suggesting you should take seconds of something you hate; just don’t say “eww” or make a big deal of spitting it out. I should admit that I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t enjoy and that I was incredibly lucky for that, but I did decline quite a few things that contained certain fruits (they irritate my throat), alcohol (except for that one instance, I was entirely successful), or squid (squid are beautiful creatures that don’t deserve to be eaten into extinction which I was told was a possibility when I was eight years old and visiting the Coney Island aquarium).
I won’t pretend trying food makes me brave or singing Maroon 5 with my friends makes me heroic, but I’d like to think that some of the people I met were impressed with my willingness to try new things and to not reject something because it seemed foreign to me
4) Rest Well. When you travel, there are so many things to do and see that it can overwhelm even a seasoned globetrotter or businessperson. As I am neither of those, the rush of getting from one place to another, exploring, and attending lectures, professional dinners, and whatnot left me incredibly exhausted by the end of the day. That’s why getting as much as sleep as possible before the inevitable early session was crucial. Were there exceptions? Of course. Sometimes you need to stay out late to enjoy a bit of the nightlife. I could hardly say no to that Shanghai jazz club or karaoke, but I also accepted that skipping a few nighttime soirees and adventures was necessary. More than once, I slipped into my pajamas by ten to read, watch TV, or just sink into those sweet hotel linens. Truth be told, one of my fondest memories of my trip is of me and three other friends just hanging out in one of our hotel rooms, eating snacks, and watching Mean Girls. So don’t be afraid to have some down time, it’s definitely rewarding in the long run.
I spent about three weeks in the Greater China area before headed back to London and ultimately New York. I had a fantastic set of memories and I’d like to think I balanced all of the school and business with plenty of fun and exploration. In the end, those memories you create become the stories you tell. And, in a way, that’s what makes all the adventures and misadventures worth it.