Shanghai, China; Singapore; Phuket, Thailand. [March 2017]
Asia should feel exotic. Distant. There should be a faint familiarity from the first decade of my life, to be overwhelmed each visit by the new and uncanny fragmented through centuries of splinter and change.
But, say, what are those concrete and glass monoliths surrounding me? Why (with jealousy) is Didi so much cheaper and faster than Uber in the US? Why (with even more jealousy) does Singapore’s hyper-efficient MRT make the NYC Subway system look unfit for rodents, let alone sapiens? Why does the Aleenta Phuket deliver hospitality beyond what most five-stars in the Western hemisphere can only print on their glossy brochures?
This, I suppose, is what progress looks like. The Asian Tigers are playing catch-up at a breakneck pace. That is something to applaud. Living conditions here for the rising middle class, by all appearances, are fast converging to that of the McMansions in the West.
But when you venture deeper into the heart of the beast, you can still find the Old – the Old you came expecting to find. It takes a bit more effort now: Jia Jia Tang Bao, purveyors of cocaine-quality soup dumplings, is tucked into a residential area of Shanghai, away from bustling Pudong and Waitan; a platter of $2.50 SGD Michelin-starred chicken rice and other sinful delicacies are nested away in Singapore’s labyrinthine hawker food centers; a bumpy 2-hour drive and 10x bumpier 2-hour speedboat ride brings us to the Similan Islands, where fauna and flora only mildly exhibit symptoms of human encroachment.
What, then, does one lose in the relentless pursuit to move forward?
I hope Shanghai knows to take a break from building the next mile-high skyscraper to savor each steaming, meticulously hand-crafted soup dumpling. I hope Singapore appreciates that tourists like me flock to the city not to shop at the next brand name-polluted mall but to explore the gastronomic cultural fusion on each street corner. I hope Phuket understands that whether you sleep in a straw hut or a poolside villa, the sun sets with the same colorful enchantment and without discrimination.
I hope we don’t devour too much of our past as we forge headfirst into the future.
“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” -James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
“Sometimes I think that the surest sign of intelligent life out there, is that it hasn’t tried to contact us.” -Bill Patterson, Calvin and Hobbes