Why do we travel? 4 (#travel, #philosophy)

This may be the last in the series as our trip is coming to an end and my interest in blogging about it may be as well, I fear.

Today we got a late start. We work up around 7 but didn’t really get our act together and find food until around 830. We ended up picking up some bagel sandwiches and cappucinos (called a white here, as opposed to a black or straight coffee) from Two Men Bagel House. The bagels were outstanding, crispy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside as promised in the reviews and the sandwiches themselves were creative and filling. Our quality coffee escapades continued, I found my cappucino extremely satisfying as did the Wolf.

We ended up watching the rest of “Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Netflix with breakfast and by the time we finished it was almost 1030. The day was fast getting away from us and we hadn’t decided what to do yet and were seriously considering just staying back and relaxing. But somehow this felt like a copout. We came all this way and we still knew so little about the city. The Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest seemed interesting but we just didn’t feel much excitement about potential sun and heat exposure… It’s really, really warm here.

We were working on narrowing down a short list of air conditioned history and art museums when my friend from LA started texting me. It led to an interesting exchange which I thought I’d partially relay here as its relevant to the subject of why we travel.

The first thing he asked is if I think this is Asia’s century. I’m borrowing some logic from a book I read on the way over, “Asian Godfathers” by Joe Studwell, but my answer is not really. Taipei is an industrious, commercial environment but I didn’t see much in the way of economic trends noticeable back home and I didn’t see any brands or businesses I could imagine dominating the US or Europe. It seems their role in the value chain is to add manufacturing technology exports to branded finished products and serve their domestic markets with largely unconsolidated product and service businesses, at least for now.

When it comes to Western brands in HK and Singapore, financial services dominate but there are also some inroads being made most conspicuously by McDonald’s, Starbucks and purveyors such as Marks and Spencer. Global fashion brands have done an outstanding job of penetrating all of these markets. There is a 3story Apple store in HK in the IFC Mall but I don’t know where one is in Singapore or Taipei, probably somewhere though as I saw authorized resellers.

Again in HK and Singapore, I don’t see anything that looks like it could become an emergent global brand. So this is Studwell’s point– these economies are dominated by raw materials monopolies granted to local cronies and their near captive financial institutions, and none of these businesses face competition from global firms which also means the local entrepreneurs aren’t being challenged to produce brands that are exportable.

No exportable brands mean no “Asian century”. The demographics may be on their side but the political systems are trapped in the mercantilist past. That’s weird to say as a person who is skeptical of the idea that the West in general and the US in particular have not seen their power and prestige eclipsed.

But for now I’ll say, based off the limited experiences of this trip the Asian century is not upon us. But I don’t know what is. It also doesn’t mean I’m calling for stagnation or economic collapse in this part of the world (China the possible exception, that place is weird.)

I also was raving about some of the food we had had so far, here and the previous locales and my friend asked if I’d consider it best in the world or how I’d rank it. I think that question kind of misses the point. We decided to skip an opportunity to eat at one of the “Top 50” restaurants in the world here in Singapore despite securing a reservation months before our trip. That kind of restaurant caters to food innovation and the experience of dining. I’ve been to places like that– they’re amazing, you often feel entranced and delightfully confused about how food can be what it is on your plate or in your bowl or what have you. But that isn’t about eating so much as it is about imagining, in my mind. There’s a time and a place for it but I wouldn’t judge a place and its food culture by trying to rank it against experiences like that.

What I am after in eating is intensity of flavors and simple food made from timeless, cultural recipes that speaks to the incrementally developed genius of a people and their place and how they turn their culture into what they eat. I’m talking about the stuff people eat day in, day out, that I’d be happy eating with similar frequency. Some people call this “local”, whatever you call it, it’s not cuisine and it can’t be ranked.

Some of the meals we’ve had in this sense have been superb. The purveyors aren’t trying to impress or win accolades. But they sometimes do both in the course of making their traditional dishes.

Another thing we discussed was the purposelessness of this trip. We didn’t come for work. We didn’t come to see friends or family. We really don’t know much about the history or culture of these places. It is a bit of an existential crisis initially to arrive somewhere without anything to accomplish besides “seeing” it, and then, not knowing much about what you’re seeing or what you might keep an eye out for.

Having visited these three cities now and noticed their similarities and differences, both compared to one another and to places and ways of life back home, I feel confident in saying we could live here if we wanted to and we’d be quite comfortable. I’m sure of that. But at this point I’m still not certain why we’d want to move.

There are some things that are far ahead of where were from that are wonderful– the cleanliness and efficiency of mass transit, the cheapness and ubiquity of mobile communications technology, the attitude of cooperation and community. And there are some things that are unique, like some of the food spots that it will just be hard to find something of similar quality back home even in a diverse place.

But other than that, I haven’t seen anything that really appeals to me in some deep way, that I can’t get where I come from. These places aren’t freer. It isn’t any easier to start a business. Or even to grow wealthy– no El Dorado here, as far as I could see. Why pack up and go across the globe for what would essentially be an economic and financial reset?

P and I have remarked several times how fun it would be to raise children in a foreign place and let them learn new cultures and languages from their friends. But it would also be great to raise them in a uniform culture were familiar with, hopefully amongst a community of like-minded progressive parents like us (not big P progressive, mind you!!) Those are tradeoffs to pick one over the other and I’m not sure why we’d come all this way for that particular trade-off.

Living and working in Hong Kong and Singapore in particular seem like a young man’s game. If we turned back he clock ten or fifteen years and I was just about to make a go of it, and I knew of these places, I’d probably head this way and try to make my fortunes on my own, especially if there was greater opportunity for a Westerner looking to take that risk. Without a spouse, without family obligations and without a routine and a financial basis for myself back home I’d quickly set out for a place like this and see if I could try. The only reason I didn’t when that was the case was that these places simply weren’t on my radar.

But now, it makes less sense. Without some compelling economic reason, why come here versus continue on roughly where we are? That choice seems rather arbitrary.

One of the reasons we travel, and here in particular, is to see if we feel like we could make a go of it some place else. And I guess I’m a little disappointed to realize these last few times that we could, that we’d be happy, but I can’t find a compelling reason to jump.

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