D62. Nov1. Dhobi Dhobi

So. I’ve already spent three days resting at that nice hotel.
Though, I’ve spent the first day washing my things – all of them were dirty – and part of the second day drying them with the iron so that the cleaning people wouldn’t find out my dozen of panties, socks, tee-shirts, hung everywhere in the fancy room – Like that for instance 🙂

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“But why the hell didn’t you give your things to the laundry service?” are you gonna ask me. No, I’m not greedy, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the dhobi wallahs.

Dhobi stands for a caste group responsible for washing clothes, from collecting linen to ironing them, those different functions implying that, Inside the group, there are subdivisions. As you know, castes are not supposed to mix, but further, subdivisions within the same caste do no mix neither.
Anyway, coming back to my primary concern, the thing is that ten years ago, when I visited South India, I had a chance to see how they were washing the clothes. That’s how I understood why my clothes were smelling weird and why, one day, I got back my bras completely ripped apart.

So, the process is the following. You go to the polluted river and you splash the clothes on the rocks, to make sure the stains and dust vanish. The problem is that it doesn’t only remove the stain, it removes the fabric, which make your things age very prematurely !!!

Dhobi Wallah

On the other hand, it gives jobs to thousands of people across the country and they are very afraid that, some day, washing machines will kill the profession. That far, they have been lucky.
Yesterday, the cleaning manager, when entering my room, asked if I wanted the sheets to be changed. When I answered “No” I thought he would kill me. I guess it’s because people like me jeopardize this profession ? From now on I will ask my linen to be changed every day.

D58. Oct 28 . Entering a parallel universe

So. On Monday I flew from Taipei to Delhi, with three hours stop at the Shanghai airport. The first plane was full of Chinese citizen, the second plane full of Indians. I sat first. Next to the window. The seat next to me, the aisle seat, remained empty quite some time, and I was thinking I would fly with nobody next to me, which is always good news when you want to sleep. Finally, just before we took off, an Indian man came to the seat. But didn’t seat. He seemed very upset. Finally, he said something to his wife who was seating a couple of rows from here. And they exchanged seats. He sat next to his friends; she sat next to me. I was so pissed. She shyly said “hello”. I had to make a big effort to answer. “Hi”.

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I spent seven hours with that woman, who was clearly curious about me, so I finally calmed down. She comes from a wealthy family, father was a lawyer, brothers are doing pretty well, one of them works for the Delhi government. She studied education but never got to become a teacher. She married that guy who doesn’t sit with women in planes, a doctor. She sometimes follows him when he goes to congresses, her daughter is studying law, and she has authority problems with her boy, who is sixteen. No kidding.

Of course, my travel stories are light-years from hers.

She is nice, she says I’m right to do so, that she would have liked to do the same. She tries to understand. Ho, I don’t leave at my parents’ place anymore? At what age did you leave your parents home? Do you have siblings? Did you brother left home as well? You are in your late twenties?  You didn’t get married?

She lives in Cashmere and offered me to spend a month at her place. We exchange phone numbers. She uses Whatsapp a lot to catch up with her friends. She wants to connect and know more about the world, does she explain.

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Indira Gandhi Airport, New Delhi. I’ve asked for the hotel to organize a pick up for me. It is two in the morning and taxis, at night, can be tricky.
My driver is looking for “Mister Nedjar”. As I am a woman, he barely believes that I am who I pretend to be. I have to show him my ID. Calm down Steph, calm down.
As I try to make sure we are driving in the good direction, we have a nice chat. He is of course asking me what I’m doing here, when my husband will join me, etc. So I explain. I will be alone for a while at the hotel, waiting for my fiancé to join me (in real life Fabien, who will join me in ten days or so is just a friend), and then we will have a motorbike tour of Rajasthan…
“Did I get the authorization from my parents to travel?”
I don’t believe what I’m hearing. Do I really look like I’m 25???
But then I understand better.
“My mother didn’t authorize me to go for the week-end in the mountains with my bike”.
But the guy isn’t 25 neither. Probably 30/35, married, a daughter of three and a babe, the mum lives with them. And controls everything.

mother

He has a Royal Enfield 350 cc motorbike, that he share s with his brother.
“You are right to do that now”, he says. “Because later, you have to work, take care of kids, listen to wife”.
“Sure”, do I answer warmly. Listen to wife. Oh my gosh, I’m gonna spend one month here…

 

 

D54. Oct 24 . United Colors of Taipei

I was supposed to leave the city on Thursday, to explore the seaside, but finally I got lazy, spent the morning drinking cappuccinos at Starbucks, while watching movies. I’ve loved that lazy moment… No obligation, no appointment, no meeting… At two I finally moved my A** and went to a pedestrian district, Ximending. During the day it’s an open-air shopping mall for the hype young generation, and an alternative artistic scene gathered around the Red House.

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At night, it welcomes the GLBT community from allover Asia, as this is the only gay-friendly country of the continent…

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Korea… So Kawaii !

“Kawaii” is a Japanese word meaning (more or less) “cute”. It stands for girly mangas, kiddo merchandising, etc. Hello Kitty, for instance, is the very essence of Kawaii. According to specialists, it blossomed in Japan as a way for Japanese adults to escape their heavy lives, torn apart traditional and modern duties… Then, the kawaii aesthetic became popular in the Western world, before contaminating China, Singapore and Korea as they were emerging.

And indeed, in Korea, kawaii prevails!
The curious thing though, is that everyone embraces kawaii… not only individuals or companies, but also institutions.

Here, two cities. On top, a Seoul metro station, with puppets sitting on a platform bench. Below, Gyeongju’s mascot, used everywhere, from the train station panel to the trees grids.

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One step further: corny cartoon characters are also used for educational, civic purposes:
Stoping at crossroads, calling the fire brigade…
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Another step further, and this is, by for, the most fascinating: featuring the army and the police as funny things.Capture d’écran 2013-10-22 à 07.40.33

On the left, this ridiculous cop is paint on a police bus !!!
On the right, this is how the police is going to respond demonstrations…
And that kaki lion, here? The army sign I’ve discovered on the demilitarized zone area.
A restricted zone, with real dangers, real weapons, real military guys, real hostile country behind the line… A cartoon character still ! Unbelievable !!!

 

Korea in love with France

Many food brands have adopted French names, and French recipes.
You find more Paris Baguette bakeries all around the country than you will find Starbucks coffees.Capture d’écran 2013-10-21 à 04.06.14

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And French luxury food brands are also well settled, from Eric Kayser bred in the coffee shops to Ladurée booths in the very upper-range Shinsegae Department Stores.

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Though, the Korean appetite for France goes far beyond food and fashion.
Many stationary goods, from notebooks to pouches, use French names and graphics.
Many decoration goods as well play with the art de vivre à la française.
I’ve even noticed that quite many Koreans with an Eiffel Tower image as their smartphone wallpaper!

 

 

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Beyond impressions, facts speak for themselves: France is the 7th largest investor in the Republic of Korea. It’s surprising, as wee barely hear about South Korea in France.
There are approximately 7,000 South Koreans living in France (excludes Korean French adoptees), and 2,000 French people living in South Korea – Not much.

A couple of years ago, France returned to South Korea the many old books which had been looted in 1866. Last notable fact: France is one of the few European countries to not have official diplomatic relations with North Korea.

 

 

D49. Oct 19. Demilitarized Zone

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They call it the DMZ – Stands for demilitarized zone, this famous 4 km thick line along the 38th parallel, dividing Korea.

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Peace messages are hanged to the barbed wires.
As a tourist, you can watch a movie were South Korea showcases the country’ courage. You can enter different tunnels, dug by North Korea to invade South. You can observe the other side from an outdoor platform.
Even though this is very conventional, visualizing North Korea doesn’t let you indifferent. This last trace of the Cold War brings you back in the 20th century in a quite striking manner.Capture d’écran 2013-10-19 à 11.24.07

A train station was built by South Korea to join the two countries by train, even though North Korea forbids access by train to its territory.
I couldn’t feature out if this railway station was meant to be a provocation, a message of hope, or just a way to be ready for trade when North Korea opens doors someday.

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Many South Koreans are waiting for that moment to come. Like this girl we met in a coffee shop. SHe was speaking English perfectly, as she learned fashion at St Martins School, in London. She had to go back to Korea for visa reasons but will be back to Europe next year to study fine arts, as Korea is less open to contemporary artists. Anyway. She was telling us that she know she has a great uncle and a family in North Korea, but never had a chance to meet, or even exchange a phone call. “For me, did she say, this is very abstract, but for my dad it is very real”.

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Diversity ? Korean don’t mix

Today, as we were lost on our way to find the UN cemetery, we passed by Busan’s University. Where I captured the following snapshots of students, on their campus.
Don’t you notice something weird?

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And here are pictures I took a few days ago when visiting museums and temples. Seniors taking package tours. Do you notice?

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Men and women don’t mix. From 7 to 77 it’s the same story. When being in groups, you will see benches of girls, groups of boys, barely a mix.

I don’t have any explanation to that.
What I know is that co-educational schools is a recent trend in the country. In 1996, only 5% of all schools in South Korea were co-ed. Today, many schools still teach boys and girls separately.
Though, other countries have that educational system in place and I don’t see so little diversity in groups of people… Let’s investigate further…
Traditionally, in Korea, men and women were strictly segregated, both inside and outside the house. Yangban women (aristocrats) spent most of their lives in seclusion in the women’s chamber. It is said that the traditional pastime of nolttwigi, a game of jumping up and down on a seesaw-like contraption (balançoire), originated among bored women who wanted to peek over the high walls of their family compounds to see what the outside world was like.
I like this seesaw trick very much, don’t you?
Anyway, this tradition segregation might explain why today, still, male and female don’t really mix…

Why do Korean Women hide from the Sun ?

Like everywhere in Asia, it is important for women to have white skin, pale skin having historically prized as beautiful and tan as unattractive – having a dark skin meaning you’ve been working as a farmer in the fields…

In the Middle-Ages, women where crushing pearls and eating the powder, then they used skin creams containing amazing levels of mercury, then Michael Jackson turned grey, then they came with those blistering hats…

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Sometimes they remind me of Joan Collins (Evil in Dynasty – above), some other times they  copycat Laura Ingalls (Angel in Little House – Below).Capture d’écran 2013-10-09 à 16.35.37 Capture d’écran 2013-10-09 à 16.35.48

Either a tribute to nylon (above)… Not very breathable between you and me – Or to natural fibers.

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Sometimes, some of them even look like bee catchers…
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In the US, women stopped being obsessed with white skin in the 1930’, as the society moved away from agriculture. Tan became progressively a sign of wealth. According to sociologists, it’s still going to take some time in Asia, where you’ve got a huge number of the population that just one generation ago were still farmers. As long as they are still trying to leave that behind, as long as it’s a little stigmatized, that’s probably going to act against a deep tan becoming the mode.

1.2 billon Chinese on vacation

Before flying to Seoul, I thought we could, at least, go to Xian, so that Alex wouldn’t have come here for nothing. But we couldn’t. Chinese are on vacation. A potential of 1.2 billion people in buses, trains, planes. Every transportation mean was fully booked; we were stuck in Shanghai. Chinese get the same rights as we do, and we complain 😉

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Under Mao, factories were the pivot point of existences. From the 1966’ Cultural Revolution to 1995, Chinese were working 24/7. In 1995 indeed, after two decades of reforms triggered by Deng Xiaoping, the population was granted 2 rest days a week – Saturdays and Sundays. Then, after the 1997 Asiatic downturn, Beijing understood the need to develop domestic consumption to sustain growth. That’s why, all the sudden, 3 “gold weeks” of vacation were set.

For many, though, leisure is not yet a new paradigm, just an unreachable mirage. Public service and big companies employees invade malls and planes, while others set the conditions of their pleasure. Even worse: In some cases, to be allowed to take those bank holidays, they have to work on the weekends prior to those gold days!

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Freedom

FreedomShanghai. Citizens’ shadows…

Two years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Shanghai & Beijing.  I had, indeed, noticed that I couldn’t access my Gmail account. Hopefully, I could access the e-mails which where hosted on my French platform… named “Free” – How ironic is that?  I could also access Le Figaro newspaper online, but not Le Monde, for some reason. But I forgot about it.
Of course, I also know about the Chinese regime practices, muzzling opposition and where freedom of the press doesn’t even exist as a dictionary entry.
That far, my political consciousness prevented me from going to Burma or Cuba. For China… well… I was so interested in discovering the Silk Road that I put some of my principles aside. At least, I thought I was…

Let’s Rewind.

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A few days ago, I was looking through the window of the Trans-Siberian train, absorbed by the never-ending skyline of trees and dachas. I felt peaceful. I felt complete. I felt free.
I was realizing that I was here, twelve thousand kilometers from home, about to reach a city I had always dreamt about, on my own will.
From where I come, the 18th century freed human beings from slavery, the 19th century set liberty of expression, and the 20th century put women at work. In addition to that contextual freedom, I was realizing, in that train, a few hours from reaching Vladivostok, that I am where I am thanks to my own energy. I – me, myself, I – am responsible for the additional part of freedom making that one-year trip a reality, breaking for a moment the straitjacket of a daily life – for what it means.
To make a long introspective story short (shorter at least!), I’m less than ever willing to let the Chinese Communist Party telling me what I can say, where and when.
Let’s be clear here. I do not pretend to an activist. I am not. I am just a traveller who wants to keeps her liberty of action.

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“But weren’t you in Russia last month?”
It doesn’t compare, really. Of course, one more time, I am not a national citizen, or an opponent to the regime, just someone who crosses boarders. Ok, I guess that in Russia I couldn’t wear a tee shirt claiming “Fuck Putin”, and I couldn’t show my boobs in the street, and I would probably loose elections if I was competing against United Russia. But I can send e-mails, write stories on the Internet, ride a car (which is not the case in China by the way).
Unless what guidebooks say about Russia, you don’t really need to register in every city you pass-by. The police may ask you (should you be arrested, which is already quite unlikely) where and why you stay in Russia. Showing your train tickets, or hotel bookings, are good enough evidences for them.
On the Red square, I’ve even been able to make a guard hold my mascot for a stupid photo. I just wanted to see how tough those guys are supposed to be.

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So I’ve decided to leave China. I am flying to South Korea, another country we know nothing about and that I’m very excited to discover!!!