So... we  went to New York for dim sum, a Japanese art exhibition and purikura - if that's not multicultural, nothing else is...
My girlfriend and I have been travelling in Asia for 4 months now, and although things were a bit weird from the beginning, how we are perceived - and mostly the differences in how we are treated - have taken a turn for the worse since entering Vietnam.



Let me explain. 


My girlfriend is a British citizen, and has been from birth as a native Hong Konger ("nationality at birth" in immigration forms is a bitch for any HK person born before 1997). She has also lived in London more than half her life, finished college/high school and uni there and worked in London for almost 10 years. She was born in a British colony and holds a British passport with dual citizenship. In China or Taiwan, she’s a foreigner. In the UK, she’s a foreigner. In her birth city, she’s a foreigner. She speaks Cantonese as mother tongue, English fluently and decent Mandarin. In the western sense, she represents pretty much as cisgender (actually, German friends keep telling me how feminine she is, which will make her laugh out loud!). On the Asian girly girl scale, though, she's probably in the androgynous zone. Does this count as we travel? No, she is simply perceived as "some Chinese girl". 

I'm German and speak English as my second language well enough that many people (though never people from those two countries) think I'm British or Australian. I've lived in the UK what people would call "all their adult" life, so ever since my first grown up job. I've had a lot of different phases when it comes to gender-representation, but if had had to classify myself, I guess I look pretty femme, but aren't at all on the inside. I am usually seen as "some European girl". 

Virtually never do people perceive us as a couple, not really even within the LGBT community in London, which says a lot about how open minded that community is. 

This all means we barely face the issues that other lesbian couples face (including harassment, or guys chatting us up, doesn't happen because people are simply confused out of their mind). We also have never experienced the "one bed or two" situation often described by other gay couples travelling. People would never think we are sisters, either.

What people DO think:

The guide/interpreter situation

This is how you do Asian food, you German. Let me show you.
In Europe, people most often talk to me and assume that Celine doesn't speak English and/or the local language. Which is fair enough when it's in a country where I speak the local language and she doesn't (continental western/middle Europe). It's super weird when somebody insists in talking to me in Romanian or Russian, though! Especially in Eastern Europe, people seem to think that I must be a local guiding my Asian friend.

In the US, we experienced the race segregation in this so called melting pot like probably no other tourists as Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans alike kept giving us the weirdest looks that said "How come that white girl is hanging out with an Asian chick?". Travelling together, people so far have been the friendliest to us in Ireland (it's not a myth, they are lovely folks!).

Likewise in Asia, people started to speak to Celine in Japanese, only to find me replying in Japanese, which has led to a lot of laughs (Japanese are also fantastic). In China or Taiwan, people have a hard time wrapping their head around a Chinese person who doesn't speak fluent Mandarin though, which meant they expect Celine to be somewhat of a local guide for me, even though she is just getting by with the language. 

Surprisingly, the country that handled things the most smoothly was Korea - Koreans got the gist that we both had no idea of the language and must be tourists AND travelling together pretty quickly, no questions asked.

"American!"
We got a lot of that in South Korea, Taiwan and Saigon - places from where a lot of Asians have migrated to the US and where such Asian-Americans return with white friends in tow. I can say I'm German a hundred times, in whichever language I like, we simply must be American. We're trying to not take it personal.

"So, you are students in the UK"?
Ugh, this is one I hate because it means people don't take us seriously, or worse, think that we cannot afford whatever we are trying to buy (we're not millionaires but not budget backpackers either!). I'm 28 and my girlfriend is 32 at the moment... while she DOES look extremely young even by Asian standards, most non-Asians perceive her as underage, to the point that she's been asked for ID in British pubs. It also gets tiring to explain to people that we are not students travelling during our uni break/gap year, and that yes, we have lived in the UK for almost 25 years if we combine both our time there. I guess it's better than being seen as wealthy tourists whose money people try to get at - we can always pull the "but we're poor students" card. 


"Did you meet while travelling?"

Showing my girl how to Weihnachtsmarkt, Hamburg, 2013
This is a variation of the above that hurts quite a lot, because this innocent question is the travel epitome of white heteronormative society values. Why indeed would a western girl be travelling with an Asian girl, anyway? Of course because we both can't face travelling solo and thus we entered a partnership of convenience.

It also implies that an Asian person and a white person cannot be friends just because, but that there must be some ulterior motif.

This is the point at which we have to tell a white lie in non-LGBT friendly countries.  We usually say "No, we live together in London", which is then followed up by "So, you are students?" (see above). If people seem cool and open-minded (mostly this happens with middle aged couples, never with younger travellers), I will say "No, she's my girlfriend" and they will get the gist.


The illegal immigrant

This riles me up beyond belief (I didn't mean to order this list by how much reactions annoy me, but here goes). Celine once had a UK border guard sigh and tell her how he "hates dealing with passports like this", i.e. British citizens who weren't born in the UK. Travelling into Lebanon, the Lebanese border guard was very rude to her when she couldn't supply a contact number within Lebanon, maybe considering her a Filipina trying to enter the country illegally (which happens, as many Filipinos take work in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East)? The worst was BA staff at the check in at Copenhagen airport as well boarding the plane back to the UK. The ladies kept ask Celine in dumb English if "ENGLAND.REALLY.YOUR.FINAL.DESTINATION???" - "AFTER LONDON, YOU GO WHERE?" (To her parent's house, you racist bitch!). Denmark, I deem you not part of Scandinavia, but a more racist outpost of Germany. Entering St Petersburg, the Russian border police scanned each page of her passport. Physically scanned it to save the data, not just "glanced at them with their eyes".

Illegal immigrant, Mr Farage? I'm a proper Sarf Landahner, let me show ye Boro(ugh) Market, Brasov, Romania
At countless border crossings, I am served promptly and often with a "Herzlich Willkommen!" (lots of the border staff speak German), while my girlfriend is treated as someone who escaped the commies and forged a British passport to run  a Chinese takeaway and steal all your patents. In all fairness, only the US border police so far treated both of us equally poorly. Land of the Free.


White privilege... and its flipside

This is the hardest and something that might be unique to South East Asia, whose tourist market caters heavily towards white people. Note that there has been a lot of Chinese influence in all these countries and that Chinese actually make up a significant minority in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines etc. - they have been doing business here long before any European colonizers arrived, and are considered savvy and influential business people – respected they way you respect powerful people, but also welcome for the money they bring. 

I couldn't actually believe Celine when she told me how she had zero hassle in Thailand and people were so lovely to her. I love Thai food and many things about Thailand, but I can't stand the way everybody treats me like a walking ATM, sweet talking to me just so I will buy their elephant pants/counterfeit books/overpriced and bad western food. I feel this is the strongest in Thailand, but it's becoming more prevalent throughout SE Asia. 

So that's the positive side - no or little upsell, harassment or rip off for East Asians in South East Asia. In addition ethnic Chinese (here you go, Taiwanese and HK friends), Japanese and Korean tourists tend to travel very differently, spend more money, dressing a lot better and adapting a lot more tothe local culture in general. Let's be honest: Most of them deserve to be treated better than your boozing, smoking, half naked and/or girl-ogling Western tourist. 
Say kimchi! Because Korea treats all women as... women in the Confucian sense.



The negative one is when my girlfriend just goes about her way without receiving any special attention, and I am treated like some neo-colonial mistress (let's face it, that's what it is). Vietnam is my favourite country in the region, but travelling together has shown me how much "special treatment" I get here as the white "Madame". While motorbikes and cars nearly mow her over, they go easy on me as they fear trouble with the tourist police. Doors are held open for me, free teas are handed to me to coax me into buying some made in China supposed hill tribe crap. I am handed the western menu and told to order my goddamn stir fried noodles instead of ordering a portion of rice, a main and several side dishes as is common in Asia (and most of the world, people...). Staff gets surly if I refuse to order their cheap cheap beer, all day happy hour, Madam. Yet they kiss my ass the moment I as much as glance at something that they can sell to me. People rarely even perceive us as travelling or being on the road TOGETHER.

Let’s also mention sex tourism, shall we, because people like to ignore that part of SE Asia. My girlfriend is extremely shocked at me being able to point out middle age western guys chatting up South East Asian girls. As a western woman, I am aware that local women treat white men better than white women, be it for the promise of a big tip or something else altogether. I am just happy that my girlfriend seems uninteresting to them compared to all the scantily clad, submissive, sweet talking Asian girls here (and anyways, her annual income is higher than theirs, even though Jeff & Mike out for some Asian chicks would have a hard time dealing with that).

Honourable mentions: 

In the Middle East and North Africa, we have actually both been treated equally well so far. Know to haggle, show respect for the culture and it matters little if you are black, white, Asian or mixed here. I’m excited to see what Latin America will bring for us.

German people are also a lot nicer to foreigners than they are towards fellow Germans. They LOVE cute Asian girls. We've been having a great time travelling in Germany with my girlfriend doing the talking in English.

The verdict:
People all over the world are confused by multicultural ANYTHING, and that takes centre stage above all things sex or gender. We also met a French friend in Vietnam recently who’s been getting a lot of attention from Vietnamese guys because they think she’s Nicki Minaj or something… while she considers Bretons “her people”, in spite of her French-Asian-African heritage.

So I guess, this is not really about being a lesbian couple travelling, but much more about being two people of different races travelling together... have you got any experience with that?











In spite of the horrid pictures (hard to take pictures in the Finnish autumn with a non-professional camera, my post on how to travel to Helsinki on a budget is by far the most popular one on here. I was reminded of this when totalling up our travel cost for the three weeks we spent in Finland this summer. 

Let's be honest: This wasn't meant to be a budget trip by any means, as we did a few very special (and pricy) things and went to one of Europe's least travelled corners. Yet, the cost of food, accommodation and transport was very managable. I know we could easily have gotten away with half the cost if we had stuck to mainland Finland and with hostels and couchsurfing, but that's not how we roll. This is how we roll:

Our travel style:

As my girlfriend and I are currently travelling full time, working and studying on the road, I've decided to start publishing our expenses. Our travel style can be described as lower mid-range, I guess - We often stay in a place a few weeks and rent apartments, and don't do a lot of touristy stuff or travelling around. Sometimes we end up in a hostel, sometimes in a 4/5 star hotel - both rarely for more than a night or two. Most of the time, we stay in cheap guesthouses, 3 star hotels or rent via airbnb.


We try to travel in a sustainable way and avoid flights, but when the question is between a $5, 10 hour chicken bus and a $40, 50 minute flight, the flight wins. We do a lot of walking, hiking and cycling, but we also don't worry about taking a taxi once in a while when public transportation is a pain.

We love exploring local markets and supermarkets and cooking ourselves, but we love all kinds of food - cheap street foods as well as a nice restaurant every now and then. We don't really go out to drink and party, but like a drink, especially a good wine (ok, that's mostly me). When available, we love to take cooking classes wherever we are. We might skip typical tourist attractions in favour of more pricy, unique trips.

Itinerary
We flew into Helsinki and spent a week there. From Helsinki, we went on a 3 day excursion to St Petersburg, Russia by ferry - this included 2 nights on the ferry and 2 nights in town. I'm including St Petersburg and related expenses in this, as it really was a side trip from Finland and we wouldn't have spent much more in an extra few days in Finland in comparison. Upon arriving back in Helsinki, we took a train to Turku. We spent 5 nights in Turku and then went off to a special adventure at nearbKylmäpihlaja lighthouse island. After that, we travelled back to Turku and spent the night near the ferry terminal to catch the morning ferry to Mariehamn, Åland, where we spent a week before taking an onward ferry to Stockholm.


Accommodation
In Helsinki, Turku and Mariehamn, we rented apartments via airbnb. In Helsinki, this was a large studio with giant balcony right in the city centre. In Turku, a one bedroom apartment in the old Swedish part of town. In Mariehamn, we had a giant 80 square metre, 2 bedroom flat with our own sauna and a balcony with forest view to ourselves (this was mostly because we decided to go last minute and there wasn't much available in town, plus Åland is the most expensive part of Finland).

Our most expensive night, at 160€ (around $180 considering the poor Euro rate, or £120) was spent at the Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse - which is only fair as it's a tiny island in the middle of nowhere and staying at the lighthouse is the main attraction. The cheapest nights were those spent in Helsinki, where the fantastic Finnish design studio cost just 36€ a night (that's £26 or $40) - cheaper than the apartment we stayed at in St Petersburg, if only slighly. Our two nights on the ferry in St Petersburg cost 60€ each, for staying in a cozy cabin - for statistics' sake, I divided these by 50% for travel and accommodation.

On average, our accommodation was £35 a night, or £17.50/$26 per person. That's about the same as the price of a bunk bed in most Helsinki hotels.


Transport
Aland water calves :)
Getting around was surprisingly cheap, especially considering the plush ferries - which are essentially cruise ships - we used for four legs of the itinerary. We only took a train once, from Helsinki to Turku, which was $35 for a 2 hour trip in our own compartment in the eco-train (if you pre-book online, you can get very reasonable train prices in Finland. Booking is easy and efficient). In Helsinki, or stellar location meant we could walk virtually anywhere in town, so we only paid around 6€ for the trip out to nearby Suomenlinna. The local bus to Moomin World was around the same for a return trip from Turku. Within Turku, we walked everywhere except for our last night, when we took a 10€ taxi for the 4 km trip to the harbour (there is ony an hourly bus, and that left 2 km away from our accommodation and would have cost 3€ each).

Ferries in this part of the world are dirt cheap and amazing value, as they make all of their money from duty free sales (the Swedish call them "drinking ships"). You can go cheaper by just hanging out on the deck, but 60€ per person bought us our on cabin for the overnight trip to St Petersburg. The 7 hour trip from Turku to Mariehamn and Mariehamn to Stockholm was just $20, also including our own cabin and bathroom. The views from these ferries are absolutely priceless!


Food
Eating out is pricy and food is often disappointing in Finland (unless you are really ready to blow the bank, I'm talking $60 onwards per person, and that will be for a Viking style meat feast full of creatures of the forest which we would rather not sample). In Aland, there were few restaurants to choose from, anyway. I can therefore count the times we ate out in Finland - once for brunch at a vegan cafe, once for pho at a Vietnamese cafe in Turku, once at a traditional Finnish buffet place in Helsinki, one sushi lunch in Helsinki, dinner at the lighthouse island (because that's the only way to get food there ;)) as well as lunch in Aland after cycling for 30 km. There were plenty of coffee and pastry breaks, though. We also ate on the Mariehamn to Stockholm ferry, where the 20€ dinner buffet will provide you with a fantastic Scandinavian feast, including pricy seafood and unlimited wine and beer (for 2 hours).


We ended up preparing most of our meals ourselves, shopping at supermarkets and the local markets. If you go to Finland in the summer, you better like berries and mushrooms! I first thought they were a bit pricy, but then realised that prices were not per kilo or pound, but per "bucket" ;) You can choose between a small and a big bucket - one is a litre, the other half a litre. I'm not sure how that translates, but we did buy kilos of mushrooms and berries and never paid more than 6€ for a giant batch. We ate plenty of mushroom pasta, mushroom risottos, berries in any form as well as smoked fish and rye bread.

Alcohol in Finland is not cheap, but it's fun to buy, even only if it means you need to go to the "Alko" (the state run shop that is licensed to sell everything but the weakest beers and ciders). They kept giving us free chewing gums and sweets whenever they checked our ID - as an apology for bothering us even though we're over 18. Wine prices were actually slightly lower than in the UK, with a bigger choice :) Beers were a bit more expensive, but not outrageously so.

Eating out in St Petersburg was dirt cheap (and because of the EU sanctions, there wasn't much choice available). However, outrageous prices for the food on the ferry to go there and return to Finland meant that the 3 1/2 day side trip to Russia cost the same in terms of food as our days in Finland.

On average, food cost us just £6 or $9 per person and day, including drinks and amazing Finnish coffee. Not bad at all, although I wished vegetables were a bit cheaper up there.


Activities & other costs

The great thing about travelling in the Nordic countries is that the best things are completely free! I spent a lot of time running along the Baltic shoreline in Helsinki, we visited two museums, one castle (total entry fee 22€ each) and cute islands and didn't really pay for any special tours. The boat trips were definitely the highlight of our trip! There is one exception: We both have a bit of an obsession with the Moomins, so even if it's made for kids, we had to go and visit Moomin World near Turku, which is a tourist trap with a whopping $40 entry fee for adults. It was great fun, though, and definitely worth the money if you ask me - I'd rather pay for this again than visit any other theme park. We also rented bicycles to cylce around Aland for 2 days, at a cost of 10€ a day.

Apart from the ferries, our favourite activity was probably using the sauna that was part of our apartment in Mariehamn! It totally made up the high cost of the apartment.

What I haven't considered as part of our travel costs is the... ahem... shopping. We did buy some overpriced Finnish design items in Helsinki, as well as some cute trinkets at Moomin World - I swear, we don't usually shop like this! We also sent a bucket load of post cards as many places we visited had unique stamps, postal stamps and post offices (Moomin World, Aland, the country life museum in Turku) - sending postcards from unique locations seems to be popular in Finland!

Total: Our total daily travel cost for Finland was £53.56 per person and day. That's currently 75€ or $82, definitely much less than a similar trip would have cost in the UK or Ireland, and also less than we spent on our trip to the US east cost earlier this year. At lot of it is due to the fact the Finland uses the Euro, whose value is currently ridiculously low. We weren't really aware of this until we arrived in Stockholm, where suddenly everything seemed to be double the price.

If you want 3 weeks in Finland full of adventure and sightseeing, you can easily spend double. Backpacking, on the other hand, you would probably only be able to shave 30 % off this budget, unless you prepare all your meals in the hostel kitchen.

Overall, I felt Finland was amazingly good value - accommodation, food, transport and service were of a great standard and we never felt like we were being overcharged. It will never be a budget destination, but it certainly is the best value country in Northern Europe.



Feeling like a frog out of water at Sun Moon lake...
I've decided to start writing monthly review posts of our travels - mostly because I am too busy (lazy?) to journal regularly, although I do like it.

So, what did we do in November?


Leaving Japan
After nearly two months in Japan, including 5 weeks in Osaka, we had to say goodbye. We didn't want to, especially as the weather wasn't nearly as cold as I had expected for early November. Also, I finally managed to speak more Japanese and become a little bit more comfortable reading kanji (and studying my heart out).

Speaking of study, early November also marked the beginning of my last course with the Open University - it's a course on heritage, including UNESCO world heritage, what is heritage and what does it mean to different people, and how come the British stole all this stuff to put in the British Museum? It's very fun, especially if you have visited a lot of the sites. It makes me question and appreciate what I see and how I interact with places I travel to a lot more.


Feeling meh in Taiwan
We spent 3 weeks in Taiwan - 12 days in Taipei, 5 days in Tainan and 3 days at Sun Moon Like. While I love Taiwan and it was great to catch up with an old friend, it somehow felt anti-climatic to me, I guess mostly because it's not Japan. The hot, humid weather and countless mozzie bites also took their toll and we spent most of our time in Taipei working and studying, with some museum visits and a lot of eating out.

temple view from our Tainan apartment!
Tainan was much better - It's a bit like the Kyoto of Taiwan, but with a more colourful, colonial heritage and mind blowing food. It's my favourite place in Taiwan, not only because there is fantastic vegetarian food, too. I had my first Taiwanese onsen experience (very different from Japan, but I might even prefer it), and we went to the amazing Museum of Taiwanese history.

ancestral feast at the Taiwan History Museum
Our last three days were spent at Sun Moon Lake, which turned out a total tourist trap. It's quite built up and heavily polluted, it's hard to believe it's considered one of the most scenic sites. It didn't compare to Lake Chuzenji near Nikko which we visited in September, or any lake I've seen in Europe. Maybe like West Lake in Hanoi, which is a built up, polluted tourist strip in the city centre. Accommodation at Sun Moon Lake is super pricy, too, so I really don't think it's worth the money or hassle to go there. Luckily, I had used free hotels.com nights to book us into the cutest chalet style hotel right at the lake, which had amazing breakfast, a brand new sento (Japanese style public bath) and sauna, pool and gym. After a night at the amazing airport Novotel in Taipei (another fancy hotel which came at a surprisingly decent price - it might be the best hotel I've ever stayed at!), we were off to Vietnam.


Welcome to Vietnam!
After Japan, Vietnam is probably my second favourite Asian country. The boundless energy, pride and humour of people keep me coming returning again and again. We had to fly from Taipei to Saigon, which is not my favourity city, but we actually spent a fun three days there with cooking classes, going to the theatre and getting a massage (which inadvertently ended up being a Thai massage, ouch!). We also had a fantastic Italian meal one night - I'm not one to crave western food when in Asia, but the place came highly recommended and was fantastic - better than many Italian restaurants I've visited in Italy! Saigon also has plenty of Japanese and Japanese fusion restaurants due to heavy Japanese investment in the city... and of course, its own food! A foodie heaven.

Since leaving Saigon, we were not that lucky. We had booked a cute wooden house just outside Hoi An in central Vietnam ("the Kyoto of Vietnam"... what a travel writing cliche). Upon arrival, it was extremely cute, but also extremely infested by mice. Airbnb's service upon seeing the picture proof was fantastic, full refund with no hassle. Either way, we ended up spending a week in a homestay/guest house in Hoi An instead. Four years ago, this was my favourite place in Vietnam. Now, I was hardbroken by the heavy construction and coastal erosion, as well as the fact that the place seems to be turning into a Vietnamese Mallorca, where backpackers as well as middle aged Europeans come to drink, unaware of the town's amazing cultural heritage (which is rapidly decaying in spite of the Vietnamese goverment receiving lots of money for preservation).

Overall, November could have been better, although it surely could have been worse. Before, we were considering to spend a few more months in Asia, but our intolerance of hot weather especially made us decide to return to Europe in mid-January. 

view from out guest house in Hoi An... I can't decide if it's pretty or neocolonially wrong :(



temples in a sad state of affairs in "UNESCO world cultural heritage" city Hoi An


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