Southeast Asia: My effort at scraping some social science out of a backpacking trip [SE Asia 1]

Introduction

I just recently wrapped up a multi-year stint teaching EFL in South Korea–an up and down experience I honestly wouldn’t trade for anything smoother. My time abroad has already been an exercise in mind-expansion, and that will hopefully continue as I visit (roughly in this order): Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

This is a famous backpacker area of course, and there’s no shortage of blogs on the region from that perspective. Rather than narrative travel or “tips,” I will focus on digging a little beyond the vacation lens and provide some insight into economic, social, and political realities as they seem to play out on the ground. Where possible, I will pursue conversations and experiences that give me a personal sense of some aspect of life in these countries, which I will then augment with data (not the plural of anecdote, but a very helpful companion).

In reality what will probably happen is: I see something that provokes a question, I research it, and a few paragraphs result. For instance, I have a particular fascination with what Tyler Cowen calls “GDP tourism.” Directly encountering the fuel that drives the country forward is an exhilarating experience. One question I ask when I’m in a new place is generally “Where is the money made here, and what does that look like?”

 

GDP tourism: South Korea

In the city of Ulsan, where I lived in Korea, the GDP was more obvious than most; you can ride your bike right past the biggest car plant in the world (Hyundai), or take a peek at the world’s biggest shipyard (also Hyundai, I believe). You could go and see the fields upon fields of cars being driven one by one onto massive ships, ready to be shipped along the veins of worldwide trade until they reach their ultimate owner, in some small town you’ve never heard of but where someone produces enough value that they can, through a spiderweb of transactions and networks, trade their skills as a plumber to Hyundai for a car that came from a country they had never been to, yet which built and shipped a car halfway around the world in the anticipation that someone like that plumber would choose to buy a Hyundai.

 

Grocery store tourism: South Korea

I also have a hobby of checking out grocery stores wherever I go. Preferably a supermarket chain, multinational or no, but traditional markets, convenience stores, or local marts are also objects of interest. You can learn a lot about a culture by looking at what the supermarket carries, and how much it costs. Korea, for example, has a love affair with Spam dating back to the Korean War. Today, if you walk through a typical store you’ll find more varieties of the canned meat than you ever wanted, and around the holidays you shouldn’t be surprised if you receive a few cans of delightful mystery meat and some cooking oil wrapped up in an attractive gift box which, in America, might contain some sort of holiday sweets.

In Korea, brand-name Spam is “fancy” because in the aftermath of the Korean War, when it was the poorest country on Earth, American soldiers had it in their rations, and due to its portability and preservation, it was easily used as a trading good and included in aid packages. Korea’s current love affair with meat (it’s in everything) comes from this period where meat was an occasional luxury, which usually arrived in the form of Spam.

You can also ponder the mysteries of why watermelons cost $20.00 USD, while bananas barely register on your receipt at $0.15-$0.25 USD per banana.

Given that I am spending 1-2 weeks in most of these countries, I will develop at best a tenuous grasp on the realities that shape them–but it should always be interesting, and hopefully factual!

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