Friday, November 12, 2010

travel fears

I travel a fair amount. I've visited East Asia, Southeast Asia, South America, Australia and New Zealand, the Middle East, and many parts of Europe. When choosing travel destinations, I like to pick places that are different from the places that I've already been. I find a lot of people rule out destinations because they're afraid of terrorists or pickpockets, but I figure the first is a very low probability occurrence, and the second can be minimized by wearing money belts and not carrying valuables.

One place that I am wary of is China. I went once in 2002, and we had a good time. We spent half the week in Shanghai, attended a friend's wedding there, and then spent the rest of the week hiking at Huangshan. The scenery was gorgeous, we had lots of yummy food, and we enjoyed travelling as a group. We also found what appeared to be a tape recorder in our hotel room.

Many years later, a friend who is a US citizen but was born in Taiwan was denied a visa because her US passport lists "Taiwan" as her country of birth. They insisted that she change it, so she decided not to go after all. D's US passport also lists Taiwan as his country of birth. This was not a problem in 2002, but I would not be surprised if it was a problem now. I would be very irritated if we paid $150 only to be denied a visa.

In addition, the food safety and pollution issues seem to get worse and worse. The WHO has reported that 750,000 people die prematurely every year because of air and water pollution-related diseases including respiratory illness, lung cancer, heart disease, making pollution the leading cause of death in China. Acid rain falls over 30% of the country, and has spread to Seoul and Tokyo. Some of China's food safety incidents have gotten international attention (melamine in baby food and egg products, pesticides in the powdered ginger imported by Whole Foods). Other incidents were widely reported only in Asia, but still sound quite serious. For instance, there were reports of sewage in stinky tofu, plastic in tapioca pearls (to improve texture), and pesticides and sulphur in mantou (to increase the chewiness and whiteness of the steamed buns).

In my mind, if I travel to the Middle East, there is a very small chance that I will be killed. If I travel to China, there is 100% chance that I will have to breathe the air and eat the food, thus ingesting and/or inhaling potentially dangerous chemicals and carcinogens. I'm trying to figure out if I just have a mental block because of all the anti-Taiwan sentiment in China, or whether it's reasonable for me to fear visiting China?

(This topic came up because I was looking at some amazing photos posted by a Shanghai-born friend who recently returned to China.)

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