-'Taipei? Yes, I got to Taiwan this morning and have been unable to withdraw cash.'
"I'm sorry, can you confirm how long you will be in Thailand for?'
Duh. Taiwan is not Thailand, but it's not the first time I've heard it. Neither was I surprised my card got blocked once more, even though I had notified my bank well in advance. Ever since a real case of fraud (for a tiny amount) was committed with my credit card last year, I have been high on my bank's watch list. Which means they block my card once every three months on average, or whenever I visit several countries within a few days, or enter a country considered 'unusual'. What was new to me was that the Indian call centre agent had never heard of Taiwan, either.
I've meant to write a rant about the Asia issue for a while, but didn't want it to be all against white folk ;) As somebody who counts the Middle East and East Asia among as her favourite travel regions, the idea that Asia = South East Asia makes my blood boil. It's akin to the concept of calling the USA 'America' (talk to some Mexicans, Chileans or Argentinians about that, who will all insist that they are American, too), but also comes with a whole lot odd associations.
Issue #1 Backpackers and travellers with limited horizons
'You know how it is in Asia...' goes the discussion in hostels and online. 'Locals want to rip you off...' 'You just have to get to used to the corruption' 'Drinking is cheap' 'Nobody cares what you dress like' 'You don't need to learn the language'
Ok, I get it. Thailand provides high level creature comfort at cheap prices. Cambodia and Laos offer a thrill with the safety net that you can always buy your way out of trouble. Vietnam offers three star hotels at less than European hostel bunk bed prices. Travel and life in SE Asia is cheap and safe (if you aren't a local). These countries are great destinations. However, they are not representative of all of Asia. What if somebody told you that the US is like Bolivia, you know what America is like? Or yeah, those Europeans, they love going to the sauna down there in the Canary Islands? How the culture of Norway is so similar to that of Greece? Asia is a continent, and just because you have travelled to a tiny part of it, it doesn't mean you have a clue about the rest of it. It's like visiting only New York and concluding that all Americans must walk a lot. Like visiting the Octoberfest and believing all Germans eat pretzels all the time (actually, until a few years ago, you couldn't buy them in many parts of the country!). Another stupid thing I've heard is that 'Asian people are not educated about politics' or 'Asian women cannot be independent financially because of the culture.' ... Try telling that someone from Taiwan or Hong Kong!
This over-generalisation works in so many ways - equally for people who claim they don't like Asia based on a trip to some Thai island. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of the region but I love Japan, Korea, Turkey and Lebanon. Guess what? These are all part of Asia! As is India, by the way. The Middle East is another area people have even less of a clue of - if I had a penny for the times that people have told me that they would never travel to a Muslim country because they don't want to wear a headscarf... (newsflash: the only countries that require you to do that are Iran and Saudi Arabia)
Issue #2 Spending time in 'Asia' = Being a bum
Being a competitive bitch, this is the part that annoys me the most. When I tell people that I freelance online and spend a lot of time in Asia, most see me as a starving artist pretending to write a book while sipping cocktails at some thai beach. Asia means SE Asia to most and that equals being poor, lazy or plain unsuccessful. People stop taking you seriously and keep asking when you will get a real job, when in fact you are now making more money than in your reputable office job, while having the time to study and learn a foreign language.
On the other hand, if I tell people I spent a month or two in Japan or Korea, they think I'm boasting, or pity me for staying in a 'developed' country where I obviously couldn't have experienced 'the real Asia'.
Issue #3 A nest of nomads!
I have been what is now becoming known as a digital nomad for almost 5 years. In all that time, it didn't occur to me to search out other people that do the same thing as me, because really, if I had wanted to hang out somewhere where everybody is the same, I could have stayed in my home village as a teenager. Recently I joined some Facebook groups for digital nomads and was surprised as what I found (or was I?). Virtually all posts discuss locations in SE Asia, where to live cheaply there, where to find other digital nomads... Or complain about places that aren't full of them already! Especially places where you might need language skills (i.e. not south east asia) other than English are discredited for that fact.
I thought people chose this lifestyle to break out from the heard mentality, but as these examples show, many people might become free in terms of physical movement, but are not willing to get too far out of their mind's comfort zone. It's like a 2015 version of The Beach waiting to happen in some coworking space in Chiang Mai!
Regardless, I'll spend some time in the north of Vietnam this winter. It's my favourite part of South Asia Asia - cold and close to China, and so different from the rest of the region, as proven by the fact that most people who love SE Asia seem to hate Hanoi :)