The Amazing People I Met on My Journey in Asia

I have just returned home to Japan (as strange as that still sounds when I say it) from a grueling, non-stop trip through seven different countries in Asia that started at the end of December. When I travel, I always enjoy taking photos, sampling street food, and going to the famous places. On this trip, however, one thing stands out from everything else as to why I will remember this trip: the amazing people I met at all points during my journey. 

I have had my fair share of encounters with travelers back in the United States and Canada during a number of road trips and day trips I have taken over the past few years. My friend Andrew and I always had a knack for meeting interesting folks. During a 2000-mile foray into the Northeastern United States and Canada’s Maritime provinces, we met interesting characters at rest stops in New York, inside custard stands in the rolling hills of Vermont, at the dance club in Montreal, and at a nice cafe perched atop Quebec City on a rainy and blustery July morning.

The nice things about these chats with fellow travelers is that they were short, sweet, and fleeting. It brought a breath of fresh air to our travels, and even revitalized our travel spirits. One of these encounters actually saved one of our trips in its entirety. We were actually planning our swift (and earlier-than-planned) return to the United States in the face of sleep deprivation and unprecedented tropical moisture in Quebec City this past summer.  We were seeking out a cafe with WiFi to plan our return trip home until met a couple and their daughter from New Brunswick that inspired us to keep going and make it the whole way to the coast. From that point onward, I’ve made a point to chat with people I meet along the road or in the airport. 

Almost from the beginning of this journey in Asia, I had some fascinating encounters with other travelers and even ended up making some new friends along the way. They were good omens for what was to transpire on this trip. 

The encounters all started during my flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok early last week when a gentleman sat down in the middle seat next to my window seat. I thought he seemed a bit rushed and in a hurry so I contemplated not saying hello and turning on my iPhone for the duration of the flight. Fortunately I trusted my instinct to say hello and strike up a conversation. After a few minutes of casual chatting, he ended up giving me the best travel advice for Bangkok and the surrounding areas. As it turned out, he had made many trips to Thailand and his advice helped me make the most of my stay in the Southeast Asian nation.  Add to that the talk we had about international business, marketing, politics, and the beers we enjoyed at 10,000 feet, and it was a flight I won’t soon forget. He gave me his business card and I am sure we will remain in touch and keep up with our future travels as we o across Asia and the globe. 

This conversation was just the beginning. During my second night in Bangkok, I had just finished up a day tour which included riding elephants. I was quite exhausted but decided to head out into the city instead of taking a nap at my hotel. After a few hours of walking, I ended up winding through some of the red light district and settling down at an outdoor bar to enjoy a drink in the warm evening and do some people watching.  A middle-aged Westerner was sitting at the seat next to me, so I decided to say hello. After a few Jack and Cokes, we had ended up discussing his military service, my life in Japan, his current life in another, very different, Asian country. We ended up making our way to another eating establishment in the city and shared stories like we had known each other for quite a long time. At the end of the night, we exchanged e-mails and I am sure we will continue to be in touch. Just a few kind words made for quite an interesting and memorable evening. 

The following night in Bangkok was by far the most unlikely of all. In an earlier post, I remarked on how I made friends with two Japanese-speaking girls in Hong Kong in the most unlikely of circumstances. The new friendship I made in Bangkok was even more unlikely! While waiting for some famous street noodles, I sat down across from a middle-aged couple that was just finishing up their noodles. As fate would have it, they were Japanese. Just before they got up to leave, I asked, in Japanese, 「それはどうでしたか。」(How was it?). With a  look of befuddlement, they sat back down and we had an engaging conversation about my life in Japan, their life in Japan, and what it was like to be in Bangkok. We never used any English because they could only speak Japanese. After teaching me some of the Hiroshima dialect, the gentleman’s wife retired to the hotel and her husband and I continued on for some more drinks and food at various different establishments. He used to live in Bangkok several years ago, so I had another unlikely tour guide for what to see in my final day in the city. As it turns out, he works as a schoolteacher for the same age group of children that I teach. We had talks about Japanese school life and really had a good time. We plan to meet in Japan in the near future to continue our discussions.  

Things went rather well in Bangkok, but I could not have expected how well they would go in Singapore when it came to making new travel friends. 

When I arrived in Singapore, I was excited to tackle the city about which I studied so much in college for one of my final papers. Seeing British landmarks, examining the skyline, and going to the top of the Marina Bay Sands were at the top of my list. After quickly checking in at my hostel, I was on my way to the Sands to take in the tourist-only view of the city and had zero intentions of getting to the pool and bar which only awaits hotel guests. 

While I was taking a photo of the view of the city from the photo deck, a woman bumped into me and ruined the scene I had tried to capture using my miniature tripod. She was very apologetic and I was eventually into a discussion with her and her husband about traveling in Asia and my life in Japan. This was our first night in Singapore. They were at the Sands and I was at a hostel in Clarke Quay. They graciously asked if I wanted to join them in going to the pool. How could I say no to the chance to see somewhere I had always wanted to see and would never get to see unless I could afford a room at the hotel? 

With an enthusiastic “yes,” I accepted their offer. We shared a drink at one of the bars overlooking the harbor and we took photos of each other atop the building at the pool. They retired to their room and I remained on the roof at the pool until it closed. Yet another unlikely encounter with other amazing travelers that took me to the most unlikely of places. 

I had met a new, exciting, traveler on each night of my trip and knew this would have to come to an end at some point, but I was mistaken. The new encounters just kept coming. 

The following evening after my day trip to Indonesia, I returned to the hostel looking to experience some of Singapore’s nightlife and hoped another solo traveler would be looking for the same thing. A lonely looking girl was sitting in the lobby so I struck up a conversation with her. As it turned out, she already had plans for the evening with another person she had met at the hostel, but would be in Kuala Lumpur the same time I would be in Malaysia. We exchanged e-mails and decided to meet there for some street food since we were both solo travelers and were looking for other interesting people to meet along the way. 

Shortly after she left the relaxed lounge, another person arrived and sat down next to me. He seemed eager to speak, so we started chatting about our stay in Singapore (it was also his first time)- the sights we had seen and what we planned to do over the next two days. After a while, we decided to head out into the balmy Singapore night. It was a great decision and we had a good time at one of the most famous nightclubs in the city. The following morning, we headed out to Merlion Park and some other sites around the city before returning to the hostel later that afternoon. 

As we sat in the lobby killing time before our checkout and departure, another fascinating person walked into the room. This person was not a backpacker at our hotel, but rather a Singapore native who was there to meet up with a friend and give a tour of her hometown. After a brief conversation, the three of us found out that we would be in Hong Kong for New Years’ and made separate plans to rendezvous in the city if time allowed. Nothing like this had ever happened for me during previous hostel stays.  

Not only did I meet some awesome people in Singapore, we would meet yet again in different cities in the future. 

I rendezvoused with the first girl form the hostel in Kuala Lumpur and we enjoyed an evening of sampling the interesting street food all across the city after going to SkyBar and checking out the amazing Twin Towers. As it started to rain, we split ways and were on to our next destinations the following day. I couldn’t get over how we had just met in Singapore the previous day and then toured and ate our way through Kuala Lumpur the next day. We may meet again in Seoul when I go to Korea later this year to visit friends from college. 

More of the same transpired in Hong Kong as I met up with the other girl from Singapore on New Years Eve after the fireworks. A group of us went out into the city and enjoyed some of the post-fireworks festivities after having only met a few days earlier in Singapore. It was a great time and yet another completely unlikely scenario. 

How often do you meet someone from a totally different country in one city and then meet them again in a totally different country mere days later? It always pays to be open and talkative at hostels or at other places when you are on the road. You never know anyone’s story or what they may be doing next. 

My last night in Hong Kong was just as interesting as the previous five nights. Two Scottish guys rolled into the dorm room at the hostel as I was preparing for an evening of sightseeing and photography in Hong Kong. They were very interesting fellows who had just arrived in Hong Kong after a few days in Vietnam. We were telling our stories of travel in Asia and I decided to join them on their trip to the night market in Kowloon and then head back to Hong Kong Island to watch a soccer game with them at one of the British expat bars in the area. After a few drinks and a few other stops along the way, I returned to the hostel for a few hours of shuteye before heading to the airport and returning home. These engineers were some of the most interesting and intriguing people I met on this while journey. 

When it is all said and done, the things I will remember most from my most recent adventure will not be the food or the sights, but the people I met and the friendships I made in all stops along the way. Whether they were a fellow American Expat, an American businessman, a Japanese teacher, a Korean university student, a Hong Konger living in Canada, a Singaporean local, Australians on vacation, or Scottish engineers, it was great sharing conversations and stories with them along the way. Unlike other people I have encountered on the road in the past, I have a distinct feeling I will cross paths with more than one of these folks again during our travels. 

Speak to people as you travel. You never know which person will lead you to an unforgettable adventure or the place off the beaten path in your next destination. Hostels and planes are invitations to meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. I met some amazing people on my journey through Southeast Asia.

 

Speaking Japanese in… Hong Kong?

One of the first things that comes to mind when you think of communication in Hong Kong is most likely the British legacy of the English Language. I will certainly admit the English ability in Hong Kong was a major plus and benefit for someone like me in Hong Kong. If I said I used more Japanese than English on one evening in Hong Kong, I am sure you would be surprised. I certainly was, too.  The ability to speak Japanese in Hong Kong is another experience about my time in Hong Kong I will not readily forget. 

This unlikely evening all started when my friend and I made our way from our hotel to the Victoria Peak Tram station located near Hong Kong Park on Hong Kong Island. We were there to take in the view from Victoria Peak. Once we passed through the turnstile, we saw the long line and were a little annoyed with how long the wait to ride the tram and get to the top of the peak would take. Image

Waiting to go to Victoria Peak. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

After waiting for about ten minutes, something very unique caught my ear. I heard a language that was certainly not English and most definitely not Cantonese coming. The two girls in line in front of us were either speaking Japanese or Korean, we thought, so I tuned in to find out what they were speaking. After a few seconds, we instantly recognized they were speaking Japanese and listened in to the discussion for a little bit. These girls had come from a place between Osaka and Tokyo and happened to be in Hong Kong just for the weekend to do some shopping and sightseeing. After a little bit of deliberation, I decided that I would just go up to them and ask the following question: すみません。日本人ですか。(Excuse me. Are you Japanese?)

We certainly knew they were Japanese, but I always like to ask Japanese people I see abroad in their mother tongue. The reactions I get, as a taller white male with light hair and light eyes are always fascinating. They just turned around and looked at us with a look of befuddlement. I am sure they were thinking whether or not we actually knew Japanese or just were joking around with them. After a brief discussion about Japan and our travels to Hong Kong, we boarded the tram together and went to the top of Victoria Peak as a group of four. 

One of the nice things about traveling alone or with one or two friends is that you always meet interesting people whenever you travel. Whether it is at Acadia National Park, a roadside diner in Vermont, a rest stop in New Hampshire, at the Subway in Quebec City, or on the hard benches at an airport, I have met some fascinating people on my travels. The exception here is this was the first time I ever met some fellow travelers who did not speak any English. This was certainly a different dynamic, but one certainly worth exploring. 

After about five minutes of chatting, I realized I was having no problems and there was almost no language barrier. I was so grateful that I studied at Middlebury the previous summer and continued to study Japanese each night in my free time because those opportunities opened up so many doors for new friends, acquaintances, and conversations. Our new friends helped us take photos and provided some nice company for the evening atop the tower at Victoria Peak. 

One of the bonuses that goes with studying language is that you never know when you will have to use your other language. This time it happened to be in Hong Kong, of all places. I was grateful to have made some new friends for the evening as well getting in some solid Japanese conversation. From travel to college majors to interests and thoughts on the scenery at Victoria Peak, we were able to discuss things in Japanese with no difficulty. Certainly a moment I will never forget. 

There’s just one catch to this whole story: they bid farewell in English at the end of the night. 

All I can say is that if you are studying a foreign language right now, do not give up and keep pushing yourself. I push myself each night in anticipation of the next unexpected moment when I can use my Japanese ability. The moment is often magical and unforgettable. I went to Hong Kong and ended up speaking Japanese for a whole evening. I never would have conjured up this situation in my wildest dreams, let alone three years ago when I did not speak a word of the language. 

Had I never taken Japanese studies seriously, I know I would not have had the chance to engage in a conversation like this outside of English. Keep studying. The end result will be worth all of your effort!

Have you ever had an experience like this? 

 

 

What Learning Japanese has Meant to Me

A little more than two years ago, I went to Japan for the first time as a part of Temple University’s study abroad program at Temple University, Japan Campus. My decision to study abroad in Japan was rooted in reasons different than many other students: In the Spring 2010 semester, Temple Football and I parted ways and I did some serious soul searching.

Following a long talk with my most trusted advisors at Temple, the choice was clear: study at Temple Japan to learn about myself and the world. I had always had an interest in Japan and the United States’ relationship with the East Asian nation but never thought I would have the opportunity to actually go to Japan, especially as a college student. What seemed like a great opportunity to grow as a person and expand my horizons has become so much more as time has continued to pass.

I will never forget what it was like when I first arrived in Japan, with my vocabulary limited to: ありがとう (arigato- “thanks”), and さようなら (sayonara – goodbye). The whole experience was not terrifying, as it probably should have been. It was truly invigorating for me. I made some new friends, studied the language hard with a professor who really cared about all of her first-year students, and ended learning so much more than I ever though possible. Two months into my study abroad program in Tokyo, I had finally figured out how to go through Tokyo without getting lost and was even able to have very, very basic conversations with some of my friends in Japanese.

Things all changed on March 11, 2011, with the Great Earthquake. My experience in Japan came to a drastic end, as I was forced to return home to the United States. Little did I know it, but the kindness expressed by the Japanese on the night of the earthquake inspired me to continue to study their language and lit a spark within me to try to return the favors they had given me when I was such a novice in Japan for the first time. The scenes of that night have never left me- shopkeepers handing out onigiri on the night of the earthquake, and the policeman in Shibuya who knew three words of English who helped guide me home amid the chaos of March 11th.

Once I returned to Philadelphia, I joined the International Students Association to help foreign students at Temple learn about Philadelphia and the United States much like the Japanese had helped me during my time in Japan. It was rewarding to return the favors of the past, but I had no idea what would be on the horizon for me in a few short months.

Fast forward to today and so many things have changed. I went to Japanese language school last summer in what was one of the most grueling and rewarding experiences of my life. I am now back in Japan as an English teacher, enjoying every tiny interaction that I have with the Japanese people and with my newfound friends in Japan.

When I returned to Tokyo at the end of July, familiar places seemed to be abound with new life that was absent just two years ago. Instead of memorizing what I needed to hear on the train to get off at the right stop, I was able to listen to others’ conversations and read advertisements. I could speak with my friends only using Japanese and I could even see how English translations differed from the original Japanese meanings of announcements and signs. It was almost like I was back in Japan for the first time.

I have such a deeper appreciation for Japan and the Japanese people since I have returned subsequent to my language school. Everything from chatting with people in the restaurants and bars, to reading the signs, to just saying hello to people on a daily basis helps me know the language study was what made this all possible. If I had returned to Japan without studying Japanese in the interim, I do not know if I would be enjoying it as much as I am at this point.

My first time in Japan, my Japanese friends made such a great effort to help me in any way possible in Japan and now I am back, two years later, to help the Japanese in any way I can, albeit in a different role.

Learning Japanese has done so much for me from a personal to a professional level. Meeting new people and interacting with people in their native tongue is an experience I will never forget as long as I live.

I am an advocate for English education in the United States, but I encourage everyone to study a second language if they have the opportunity. Devoting the time and energy to this study  will reap tremendous benefit and personal satisfaction in the future. After the long hours of study, the first time you have an interaction with someone else in a language other than English will be an unbelievably memorable experience.

I hope I can have this type of experience in Korean someday.

Have you had this type of experience in your language studies?