Wednesday, November 12, 2014

First experiences in Japan and Korea

Hi guys! I am writing to you today from the second stop of a trip I began earlier this week – Seoul, South Korea! If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, then you realized that the actual reason that I felt the need to catch up on my long overdue China blog was because I was returning to Asia! I am so fortunate to have a job that allows me to see the world, and this past Sunday I set out on another one of those trips.

I left my apartment on Sunday morning for what would be my fourth time at the airport that week. I think that was some sort of record for me as I flew in to Atlanta from Dallas the Sunday prior, and then flew in and out on a one night trip to Florida midweek, and then back again to fly out on Sunday. The midweek trip was the shortest trip I have ever flown for, I was actually eligible to check in for my return flight when I was just arriving at the airport for my departure!

Anyways, back to this trip…

I flew out on Sunday morning and had a pretty uneventful trip, which is what you want in a flight. However, I arrived early. Flight was delayed. The usual.

Mentally, I did what I did on the last trip I had to Asia, borrowing from my marathon & running mentality and I broke the long flight into smaller sections of different 1-3 hour segments. Then, only focused on the segment of the trip that I was in at that moment. Sleep for 2 hours. Movie for 2 hours. Read for 1 hour. Sleep for 1 hour. Movie for 2 hours. Read for 1 hour. And so forth. I watched 3 movies on the plane, got some work done, and slept for a bit.

The most notable part of the trip was in the form of a short conversation I had with the guy sitting next to me. Midway through the 14-hour flight, my flight neighbor introduced himself to me and after chatting for about 15 seconds he told me I reminded me of a girl he knew. Since we didn't really have much to go off of, I joked "Does she travel with lots of pillows and blankets too?!" (I was using a travel blanket, travel pillow, pashmina, and the pillow and blanket provided by the plane) to which he replied, completely sincerely, "No. She just always had a lot of snacks..." Oh. Well, glad he noticed that from our first 7 hours together! It really cracked me up and I couldn’t wait to share it with you guys from the moment after it happened.

Between the flight and the time change, I arrived in Tokyo at 3:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon. I was a bit tired but chose to not focus on it, and basically just didn’t stop moving as I got to my hotel, checked in, and then head out to meet two friends/colleagues for dinner.

Everywhere that I read said that Tokyo was a safe city and our restaurant was close to the hotel so I chose to walk and left a bit early to wander a bit. I was immediately bummed that my trip to Tokyo was going to be so short because I wanted to see more than what was in my local area, but the streets were incredibly quiet and clean and unique.

I will definitely need to return to Japan at some point and spend more time seeing more of what Tokyo has to offer. The restaurant where we had dinner was on the 27th floor, which gave great perspective to how massive the city was, and I was only able to see such a tiny portion.

I did get to experience some local food, and go for a run while in Tokyo, which did make me incredibly happy!

The meal that we ate in the evening was at a more formal restaurant and I left it to my colleagues to choose the meal, letting them know that when traveling, I was willing to try anything. Although I was a little weary of items I saw on the menu such as horse and turtle.

Dinner ended up being an order of sashimi, a tuna starter, a vegetable crudité that came with an oil and anchovy dipping sauce, and also an order of two different cuts of local beef that came with a number of salts/rubs to try with the meat.

Now, I am not really a fish or seafood person. I never order raw fish when going out for sushi in the U.S. and have only just started trying cooked fish at restaurants. So the fish part of the order was not my favorite, but I wanted to try it as it was the local fare. I know people eat sashimi all the time in the U.S. as well but it is just not really my thing. The flavor of the different fish varieties that I tried was not bad at all, but I struggled with the chewiness and texture of some of the types. And the anchovy sauce actually wasn’t bad, just not my preferred taste. However, I was more than happy to try out the vegetables and eat a meal as one would in Japan. The meat that was had was absolutely delicious as well. It was cooked lightly and some of the pieces were essentially raw on the inside. I opted to try the more cooked pieces of meat and I loved having the different salts/rubs to spread on top of the meat as well.

It seems to be a common way to eat in Japan – which you can notice when you go out to Japanese restaurants in the states – to be served a dish with a number of different flavorings on the side. Wasabi, ginger, soy sauce, etc. and leaving the diner up to make the choice of how to flavor their own food.

The meal was on the lighter side, which was nice for me since my eating schedule was way off with the flight and time difference. I walked back to my hotel, enjoying the gorgeous evening that it was.

I collapsed into bed when I got back from dinner and I think fell asleep as soon as I closed my eyes and allowed myself to. However, unfortunately, I didn’t stay asleep as long as I would have liked and woke up a few times in the night, finally waking again and staying awake at about 4:45 a.m. I used the time to catch up on e-mails and then went for a 3-mile run outside by the hotel.

Running in new cities I travel to has quickly become something I get excited about and look forward to doing when I travel. When I learn about a new place I am going, my mind quickly jumps to “Can I run there?” without me even thinking about it. And since I think it’s really important (and I know my mom reads this and I don’t want her to worry…) I want to be sure that I say I do everything possible to stay safe while running in new/foreign places (and just always, in general!) I started to actually write out a few tips, but my list was longer than I thought and so I will make that its whole own post at some point.

My morning run was so enjoyable to be able to see Tokyo that way, and also to help wake me up and get me energized for the day. Oh, and I also stopped at the local Japanese Starbucks and tried one of their local drinks I have never heard of in the U.S.  It was called "Snow Toffee" or something weird like that, and I am sure it negated whatever calories I burned while running immediately before.

I started my workday right after the run and my day was back to back nonstop starting with first meeting in the office until I left for the airport. We did take a break for lunch, which was a very cool experience. I ate with two [different from the night before] colleagues at a pretty small restaurant which had only one specialty item on the menu, which was a crispy pork dish that you could order a few different ways and came with a number of sides.

The room that we ate in was I guess a traditional Japanese style where you take your shoes off and sit on the floor when you ate. Underneath the table there was an few feet cut out below so that you could extend your legs. It was a first for me to eat in a restaurant like this!

Tea was served with the meal and the pork came on top of a bed of white rice in a bowl, with a soft boiled egg on the side that you dumped on top, and some radish that you put on top as well. The additional sides included miso soup, soba noodles with soy sauce, and some sort of fish and potato vegetable thing. The soba noodles were served just plain and then you dipped them in soy sauce – and my coworkers explained to me that it was totally fine to slurp/make noise with your noodles while I ate them (good to know!) I really enjoyed the food at this meal, and also the way that we ate it.  Plus, it was fun to spend time with my coworkers outside of the office and learn about the work that they are doing and some of the non-work stuff as well.

My Japanese colleagues knew a lot about American sports like football and also all followed how Japanese athletes were doing in the U.S.  They knew all about the popular Japanese baseball players and told me about the current Japanese tennis player who is doing incredibly well in international tournaments.

I was really happy that I was able to eat two very different and also traditional meals in Japan while I was there, even though it was less than 24 hours! After what was, a very short trip, at the end of my work day, I headed to the airport to jump on a plane to the next stop in my trip – Seoul, South Korea.

These first few days in Asia were a bit of a misadventure when it comes to transportation. Expensive taxi rides, airport confusion, and missed buses were all a part of my first 48 hours in Japan and then Korea, but despite it all, things have been going smoothly without any major malfunctions or disasters.  Oh, and I did get to see an impressive Japanese taxi driver calculate my fare on a giant calculator while driving me home!

All of that is a bit a part of traveling and although it might stress me out a bit in the moment, I try to take it in stride. However, what really irks me when I travel is when technology doesn’t go according to plan. This morning I fought with my computer trying to get the internet to work for 30-40 minutes and was about ready to throw my computer out the window!

But anyways… I made it to my hotel in South Korea late last night at ~11:30 p.m. and was totally exhausted. I had been up early due at around 4:30 a.m. due to jet lag so it had been a really long day of work, meeting people, airport time, traveling, etc. For dinner that night all I really ate was a few bites of the meal that they served on the plane.

And while I have to commend Japan Airlines for serving a meal on a 3-hour flight, it was pretty unappetizing to me and eggs served cold on an airplane make me a bit nervous. The night itself was a bit unique/different in that it was a) completely empty b) the interior lights were left on the entire time even though it was an evening flight c) when we were preparing for landing they announced that we are not allowed to take any pictures out or window while landing – which I thought was very interesting! Anyways, I tried to just take in all the experiences around me and then as I arrived at the hotel, I was more than ready to pass out and fell asleep I think instantly when my head hit the pillow.

Where I am staying this week is actually not quite in Seoul, which is where I thought I was traveling, it is in a small technology park/city a bit outside the city called Pangyo. It’s unfortunately not got a ton of interesting shops or things to sightsee, but then again, I am here for some busy days of work! I spent the morning in the local Starbucks (where I was able to get the internet to work – thank you Starbucks!) before going into the office.

On my first full day in Korea I did eat two great meals though. For lunch we got the equivalent of Korean fast food, which was still a sit down restaurant, but I guess nothing fancy and the equivalent of going to get a quick burger or sandwich somewhere. I didn’t know the difference though and enjoyed the dumplings, sushi, and weird rice noodles that we had!

However, as good as that was, I totally loved the dinner that we had. We went out for hot pot, which I thought was delicious and a fun way to eat.

The table had a heated hot plate center, to which a pot of hot broth was filled with different vegetables including a variety of mushrooms, cabbage, and sprouts, as well as some thin, thin filet that cooked really quickly when added to the broth. The meal comes with a number of different sauces to dip the cooked vegetables and meat in, including a spicy one, a lemon broth, and a peanut sauce.

After finishing the protein and vegetables, some noodles were added to the pot, cooked, and then eaten.

It was sooooo good! And also, I have to brag a bit because I am quite proud of my growing abilities to get food in my mouth with chopsticks! I am sure that I have the worst technique ever, and sometimes I have to take a break from eating because I get finger cramps. BUT, I am stubborn and refuse to forks when nobody else is and love that my abilities are growing with the Asian utensil.

It’s funny, when I travel, one of the reasons that I love to push myself to try the local methods of eating and the local foods is because I love seeing the reaction of my coworkers. They are generally so happy to see someone at least try their local food and show interest and learn, rather than coming in with their mind already made that they won’t like something and their nose turned away.

Today at dinner I tried the Korean kimchi, which my coworker told me is hugely popular locally but most foreigners cannot eat it. I was really nervous and tried a piece of the pickled, spicy cabbage, and actually didn’t find it terrible! I don’t think I will be eating it on the regular, but it was easier to get down that some other things I have tried when traveling (i.e. pickled watermelon!)

One of the other neat things about dinner tonight was that we each had a beer and I learned about some of the local drinking customs in Korea. It was really fascinating to learn about the elaborate “rules” or tradition that come along with going out for drinks and having a beer in Korea. We also talked about many of the differences in food, language, and culture between Korea, Japan, and China, which I found really interesting. I want to share that all with you but will do so in another post as this is getting long!

I’m excited to try more Korea food and learn more about the culture while I am here and will be back to share it all with you. Hope you have a great week!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

China Recap Part 3: Beijing!

[This post is the ultimate of a catch up post, finishing up an entry I started months ago after my trip to China.  I wrote "China Recap Part 1: First Days in Shanghai" and "China Recap Part 2: Eating in Shanghai and Wuzhen" over the summer, posting in July, which was already a month after I visited!  I have been sitting on Part 3 for a while, and finally want to be able to share it with you.  Enjoy!]

On Sunday morning, we woke up early to head over to the airport to catch an Air China flight from Shanghai to Beijing.  It's not a very long flight between the two cities... I think that my coworkers said that there is one leaving every 20 minutes or so!  Because I knew that the flights were so frequent, it was frustrating when the one flight in the airport that was delayed an hour was the one that we were on.

Once we actually got going the flight was fine and uneventful, until we arrived in Shanghai and our luggage was missing!  I had flown with two colleagues and myself and the other girl and I both checked bags (duh, we had a lot of stuff!) and when the luggage came through the carousel it wasn't there.  Now, I know that this happens and I've traveled enough that missing luggage sort of just becomes a possibility -- but I am always surprised when luggage goes missing on a direct flight.  Especially one that had an hour delay -- I would have assumed all the luggage had lots of time to get on the plane!  And, what made this situation a bit stressful was that we had no idea how to speak the language to communicate that our luggage was missing, ask where it could be, and talk with the airport employees.  In addition, we had a FULL days agenda in Beijing to do some sightseeing on our free day and we were supposed to be meeting a coworker who had offered to take us around.  We were already an hour behind because of the delay so the near hour we spent trying to figure out the luggage situation put us further behind schedule.

Luckily, I work with the nicest people in the world, and we ended up putting our coworker Jackie, who was already waiting for us at our hotel, on the phone with the airport people so that she could talk to them.  Let me just say, my coworker Jackie is such a sweetheart.  Now, I shouldn't say just her, because pretty much any of my colleagues that I am close with from Asia, are always incredibly hospitable (as I mentioned.)  The tradition in the culture is to give out gifts when meeting with someone to show that you want to have a long relationship.  The former coworker I met for dinner the night before used to do that, and any time that Jackie has come to the U.S. she has also brought me really beautiful gifts, as have other Asian coworkers.

I had just spent Thursday and Friday with Jackie in Shanghai as she had been at the team meeting I was at in Shanghai (she flew back home to Beijing, where she is based, Friday evening.)  And when I arrived there she had for me a beautiful hand painted wallet that was customized with my name written on it and everything.  It was so gorgeous and thoughtful of her.  It made the small gifts that I had brought over from the U.S. for her seem so dinky!

Anyways, she continued to be an incredibly host and friend, continually calming me down in my frantic text messages apologizing for being late, telling me that it was not a problem.  She helped over the phone with our luggage situation and still had a smile on her face when we arrived at our hotel where she had been waiting for us for an hour.

We quickly checked into our rooms and changed our clothes -- she told us to wear sneakers and sort of exercise clothes that were good in the heat.  She was taking us to see the Great Wall and apparently it is  a bit of a hike and wanted us to be prepared!  I hadn't really brought any clothes that were sort of "middle ground" between business or dressier clothes and work out clothes so I just put on work out clothes, which is pretty much what I am most comfortable in at this point anyways.

Jackie had gotten a driver and van for us, picked us up lunches, brought sunscreen, bug spray, waters, back packs, hats, and pretty much everything you could possibly think of that we might need.  She was so wonderful!  We piled into the car and headed out on the first part of our adventure in Beijing.

It was really interesting to learn about Beijing and the culture/city there after having just been in Shanghai and Jackie was the perfect person to teach us!  She is a Beijing native, and just like my coworker whom I had dinner with on Friday night, was incredibly proud of her city and wanted us to leave China thinking that Beijing was the best city!!  It was easy to see right away when arriving in Beijing and talking with her that I think the rivalry between Shanghai and Beijing natives is probably VERY much like Boston and New York City in the U.S.  The two cities aren't TOO far apart but they are incredibly different, each with unique features and charm and natives of the city who are fiercely proud of their city and will tell you over and over that their home city has more to offer than the other.

I'm sure any readers from the Northeast are probably familiar with that rivalry.  As a Boston girl who has been living in Upstate New York for 10 years and many friends in both cities -- I know these arguments very well!

The city of Beijing boasts a lot of history, which the locals will tell you is much different from Shanghai.  The city itself is built in "rings" that expand outwards around "the Forbidden City" in the center of Beijing.  The Forbidden City is the ancient palace that is in the center of Beijing.  I unfortunately did not get the chance to visit the Forbidden City as time didn't allow it -- but to me that just means that there is something that I definitely need to return to Beijing for.

Anyways, I DID get to see the Great Wall, and for real, it was a breathtaking, awe inspiring event for me.  It was one of those things that even while it is happening, you are just like "Woah, I can't believe I am actually doing this!!!"

To get to the top part of where you start to walk the wall, we took a gondola up.  We hiked up a number of the steps, which were tall and steep and put me out of breathe.  It was an incredible view and one that I will never forget.  I just want to share a bunch of these incredible photos with you at this point.

The Great Wall of China?  CHECK!

To get back down from the great wall, rather than take the gondola back down, you have to take a small sled/cart thing which actually was SO fun.  I laughed the entire way down I think.

I also got really into the infamous Chinese pose for photos.  Peace signs all around!

Jackie's hospitality did not end while after taking us on an incredible adventure at the Great Wall.  Following that amazing afternoon, she brought us over to her favorite tailor to partake in another activity that I've been told a trip to China isn't complete without -- having custom clothing made!

It was so cool to be able to sort through reems and reems of fabric, page after page of design, and pick out every detail of an outfit.  In addition though, I am an incredibly indecisive person.  I can barely decide what to eat for each meal, so making all of those tiny decisions was really hard.  What length do I want my jacket?  How many buttons?  Where do I want the sleeves to hit?  What color fabric?  What color thread?  Do I want it split in the back?  Split in the sleeves?  What should the inner lining be made out of?  There were so many decisions to make, and I would be lieing if it didn't overwhelm me a bit.

However, it was an experience I didn't want to miss out on.  And I chose to have a dress made for me with traditional Chinese fabric, and some clothing that I usually have a hard time finding on my own.  I had a two suit jackets, a skirt, and a button down shirt.  We were only going to be in Beijing for a couple of days, but we planned to return for a fitting in two days and then get our outfits the morning before we left!

It was a long, long day and we finished with a well deserved meal before resting up for a busy few days of work.

The meals we ate in China were always epic, with so many small little plates and different things to try.  It was hard not to want to take photos of everything we saw on the menu and everything that I put in my mouth.  The food was also incredibly different from anything that I have ever eaten before.  Even things that looked that started out looking familiar, like Starbucks, would end up taking turns to be different.

And of course, you know I have to try ice cream everywhere that I go!

Anyways, the rest of the week was pretty busy with work, so there wasn't too much sightseeing beyond what we did on that Sunday.  However, we had a really fun and challenging few days of work that I felt really grateful to be able to experience professionally and personally.  I had done a lot of research before traveling about the culture of doing business in China so it was neat to see in action.

We squeezed in our clothing fitting, and then the night before we left, we also had the opportunity to drive through Tiananmen Square, and although we never got out of the car, it was cool to see such a historical site.  And I snapped some cool pictures from the window!

On our last night we also finally endulged in what is a Beijing speciality - Peking duck!

Peking duck takes a long time to roast and is carved for you by the chef at your table.  The best way to describe how we then ate it was like it was fancy fajitas.  Everyone had a number of different little pancake/crepe things to put the duck in, and a number of sauces and toppings to add.

We had our Peking duck meal with my other American colleague, Spanish colleague, Indian colleague, and one Chinese woman who was the wife of my coworker from India.  She helped show us how to eat the duck and was kind enough to wrap up a few Chinese fajitas for me so that I could have the authentic experience!  It was a great meal and incredible experience.

The whole trip was an amazing cultural immersion, made 100 times better by the kindness and hospitality of every one of the local colleagues who went out of their way to spend time with me, show me around, and introduce me to the culture, food, and sights.  I returned home very tired, but very fulfilled and happy.  AND, with an entire new suitcase full of stuff that I had to buy!  You saw my dress that I had made, as I wore it to my uncles' wedding in June, so you know the deal there.  Eventually I will point out the other items I had made, but in addition to the clothes, souveniers, and gifts for others -- my bags & extra bag were packed coming home!

And with that, my China experience is completed for you!!!

Better late than never, right?