Thoughts on My First Time in Asia

This post is a little departure from my normal posts-I wanted to record what I felt on my first night in Asia, as well as reflect on the difference between what I had expected and what it was actually like.

It’s dark and I’m sitting in the passenger seat on the wrong side of the car. I see statues on the side of the road, wooden and grouped together in threes.

“What are those statues on the side of the road?” I ask the driver and hostel owner.

“Terracotta statues. You know like in China. 2,000 years old.”

“Are these ones that old?”

The hostel owner chuckles. “No! These are made from the earth. How can they be so old?”

I laugh softly at my silly mistake. Maybe being in Japan is less like being culture-shocked, and more like being a child again. I look out the window and see the same stars in the night sky as I see back home: the three straight dots of Orion’s belt, the swoop of big dipper’s cup.

We arrive at the hostel. I walk upstairs to my room and see my bed is a mat on the floor.

“Oh. Is it normal to sleep on the floor?” I ask my Korean roommate laying on the next bed, her face aglow in the light of an iPhone.

She smiles. “Yes, that is the Asian way.”

I settle down onto my mat, and arrange my things by my feet. I feel the cool breeze coming in my window, and hear the sound of cars rushing on the highway, the summery sound of chirping crickets. Maybe I’m not so far from home after all.

As I try to fall asleep, I repeat my reality like a mantra. “I’m in a  hostel in the middle of the  Japanese countryside. I’m in Asia.” It feels too surreal to be true.

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Asia in so many ways has surprised me. Each of the countries I have visited so far, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand have been so incredibly different. From the absolute silence in the streets of Japan to the bright lights and chaos of Hong Kong to the laid-back, beachside life of southern Thailand, I’ve realized first-hand just how varied Asia really is.

The squalor of Thailand surprised me at first- after reading countless blog posts about the country I had foolishly anticipated a Gaugin-esque, palm-tree paradise. I hadn’t imagined the snarl of telephone wires, the omnipresent 7-11s, the flea-bitten stray dogs.

But finally, finally after weeks of food poisoning and near-constant anxiety for the journey ahead I feel at peace. I’ve spent a happy week on Koh Tao, filled with sweaty mornings fighting Muay Thai, quiet nights in the bungalow and productive afternoons spent working on freelance and blog work.

One thing I hate about being in Asia is that I feel like I’m not connecting with anyone who lives here. Which makes sense- I don’t speak Japanese, Cantonese or Thai. And if there’s a considerable language barrier, how will you ever be able to connect with the locals in any real way? I don’t know what it looks like inside of a Thai home or what the perception of ladyboys is or how  Thais feel about their neighboring countries. I don’t really know anything about Thailand at all.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself as a traveler over the past eight years it’s that it’s not enough for me to jump off rocks and look at temples- what fascinates me most about travel is speaking other languages and gaining the perspective of people who live there.

But we’ll see- all I know is that Asia has plenty of surprises in store for me yet.

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 What were you thoughts when you got to Asia for the first time?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

38 thoughts on “Thoughts on My First Time in Asia”

  1. We started our time in Asia in Japan too and I also remember being a bit disappointed that it wasn’t all that weird, not nearly so foreign as I had thought it should feel. I also agree that one thing that can be hard about traveling in Asia is how much dirtier it is than most photos and reports let on—the amount of trash that is just dumped by the side of the road is really depressing at times. At this point it doesn’t phase me as much, but it definitely was difficult in a few instances to reconcile the tarnished reality with the exotic paradise I had concocted in my mind.

    • It definitely wasn’t as much as a culture shock as I anticipated- though I do imagine if I went somewhere really off the beaten track I’d feel differently, like Western China for example. That’s so interesting that we had a similar experience when arriving- I definitely had pictured it a bit differently!

  2. It’s interesting how travel bloggers decide on how to portray their time traveling – and it may only be a little sliver of what they’ve experienced. There’s a lot on Thailand and you’re right, I mostly just hear about the beachy, paradise aspects of it. I’m glad you wrote about something a little different; I really enjoyed this post!

  3. When I first arrived in Asia I was shocked at how different it was but also shocked at how similar to Europe it was. After a couple of days it also hit me, this wasn’t the paradise I expected it to be. It was SO hot and I was feeling sweaty all of the time. And the stray dogs, the trash, the smells. I was overwhelmed at times. But I loved it.

    • That’s how I feel- despite the sometimes discomfort (squat toilets, for example!) I still love being here. I just wish that travel blogs would show those kind of things sometimes and not make everywhere they go seem like a paradise.

  4. I really liked Japan, starting out in Toyko, then taking the bullet train to Kyoto, whose gardens and architecture are beautiful. The people were very friendly to us–we were the “People to People,” group, national oil association representing the US, I like their culture, especially their ancient ways. I like the way they present their food, always so artistic, and their graceful way of moving… Love,

    Gamma

  5. Great post, Ashley. Some of it definitely resonated with me. I`ve been in Korea for a month now and I`m starting to itch for interaction with the locals. Luckily I`ll be here for a while so I just gotta dedicate myself to learning a good bit of the language.
    Travel on!

  6. A reason why I knew I had to leave Asia- I was so tired of not connecting with anyone! I especially mean my time in Korea, where I constantly felt like an outsider who would never be able to be “let in.” The cultural and language differences were just too drastic. While I know a fair amount of people who were able to connect, I just couldn’t. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love experiencing it! One way I did connect though, was the food :)

    Being in Spain, and able to speak the language, I am starting to feel a lot more comfortable than I was in Asia….and it’s a great change!

    You have so much more to see of Asia, and I’m sure you will love it! Even though it isn’t always easy, and you might feel you are missing something in terms of getting to know the people, I’m sure you will look back and be amazed with yourself and all you learned!

    • The food is always the best way to connect :). And I’m so jealous, I LOVE Spain. I studied there twice and miss jamon iberico and tortilla every day. And yes, I will definitely love Asia I think- I just need a bit more time :)

  7. Hey Ashley…this was such a genuine post! I felt exactly the same when I first arrived in Asia…even though I found that some people and places are definitely more open to receive foreigners and welcome them into their culture. Bali, for instance, was one of these places. I had never before felt so welcome and so well treated! Balinese people really do their best to share their believes and thoughts with you and try to learn from you too. I was in Bali for 4 weeks doing research regarding tourism development and I learned so much about the people and the way they actually see things that actually made me wonder why some asian countries (like china in my opinion) are so unwelcoming given their amazing cultural background. I really think its quite extraordinary to see such differences and really absorb these moments of WOW so that we can value our days even more :) loved the post! Have you ever considered going to Bali? xx

  8. I know and I totally understand you. First days in Asia can really surprise everyone, but you will get used to it quickly. Asians are extremely friendly so you will be fine! Enjoy yourself xx

  9. Hey Ashley, I think it’s really great that connecting with locals is important to you. Have you considered reaching out through the CouchSurfing community? It’s always worth a try.

  10. The first (and only) time I’ve been to Asia was Japan, and even speaking some Japanese didn’t help that connection… thankfully I had loads of friends from university who were from Japan and they took me around and into their families homes, etc. and that made all the difference in the world. Finding locals through Couchsurfing or the local Craigslist-style things can help a lot!

  11. I totally agree that it’s tough to transition to a country where you don’t speak the language. It definitely feels like there’s a disconnect there. Hopefully you’ll find ways to connect over food, babies, and beers (my go-tos)!

  12. I moved to Shanghai about 3 years ago and if it hadn’t been for the great mix of foreign and local staff at my school (I teach history), I don’t think I’d have felt so connected to the culture (or picked up so much Mandarin without lessons). I moved to Azerbaijan for a year and felt so disconnected that I came back to Shanghai, haha. Looking forward to more of your posts, especially about Southeast Asia as I’m heading to Thailand with my mom for Christmas (never been!) and Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia for Chinese New Year. Very much enjoy your honest writing — have fun :)

  13. A million different things! I studied abroad in South Korea during college and my trip in from the airport to downtown Seoul was straight out of Lost in Translation. At times the language could be a barrier although by the end of my time there I could read Korean characters but I would always run into instances where no one spoke any English. And for, being a red head it was incredibly taxing with the non-stop staring I received-ranging from children to elderly people. It made me incredibly self-conscious to be gaped at so. But I did grow to love the hustle and bustle and just the sheer differences from anything in the US! Hope you’re loving it!

    • I could imagine it would be tough to have red hair abroad- I remember what it was like for my friends with blue eyes and blond hair. I guess you just get used to life in Asia and remember that the good tends to outweigh the bad :)

  14. It’s difficult getting an inside perspective even when you live in Asia – it took me nearly a year and half to first be invited to a Thai person’s home. On the other hand, so much of life is lived outdoors in Southeast Asia that I feel like you can get glimpses into private life so much easier than other places. Many people live where they work, you’ll notice shops with dinner tables and TVS in the back, many people eat at the street food stalls as part of their daily routine, and a lot of your food is cooked in front of you.

  15. I love this post. I just found your blog from a link I found on Pommie Travels as I’m always looking for blogs by solo female travellers. My first time in Asia, I arrived at Delhi airport in India at about 2am… I was expecting it to be warm, quiet and dark. Instead it was cold, loud and the streets were ablaze with flashing lights from cars and trucks as they were all making deliveries. Literally, the city was awake and working as if it was rush-hour in the UK. I was completely shocked but totally in awe! The honking of car horns and bright colours of the trucks really were a brilliant welcome to Asia.

    I’ve not yet travelled anywhere else on that continent yet, but in the new year, I intend to go back to India, to Thailand, to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and maybe Vietnam and Laos… I am so excited!

    Keep posting hon, I loved this :)
    x

  16. Hi Ashley!
    When I first went to Asia 16 years ago (Yikes)! I travelled solo and I started in Bangkok and I didn’t like it!
    It was dusty, hot, none of the maps were current and I couldn’t read the writing. Well, I soon adjusted as my next stop was Hong Kong. I loved it. It just still seemed sort of British!!

    Since then, I try to get back to Asia every 3 years or so and now I even like Bangkok.
    Everywhere I have been, the local people have been welcoming, warm and kind. I made new friends and was invited to parties on the spot pretty much everywhere except for Singapore.

    Sadly, I couldn’t connect with them and kept themselves to themselves. I kept bumping into loads of Brits though….!

    • That’s so funny! I actually thought it was easiest to connect with locals in Singapore because of the common language. One guy I met at a hawker center took me out for moon-cakes and a Singaporean couple drove me all over the city one night (long story). I’d like to try Bangkok again and see if I have a change of heart like you did!

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