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The FloQ

Travel Insights Blog

Travel to Asia in America: Part 1, West Coast

Jan 15, 2024

Katya Lopatko

Tips & Tricks

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18 min

Want to travel to Asia without leaving the country? In honor of Lunar New Year, discover some of these top spots to experience Asian culture on the West Coast.

View of Mount Fuji / Unsplash / Weiqi Xiong

From stunning views of Mount Fuji to the beautiful beaches of Thailand, the Asian continent is filled with popular bucket list destinations. For many Westerners, Asia represents a chance to step outside of our familiar everyday and discover new cultures, flavors, sights and sounds. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Asia has seen a boom in popularity with post-pandemic American travelers, who are tired of staying at home literally, but also culturally.

While there’s much to learn from societies different from ours, we should resist the urge to project our fantasies onto Asia, casting it as an exotic great unknown. There’s a long tradition of Europeans romanticizing Asian cultures without knowing much about them, from the Orientalism trend in 19th-century Western Europe to more recent New Age craze for all things related to “Eastern spirituality” — and yes, your local yoga studio is probably guilty.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with curiosity and admiration for foreign cultures, in the case of Europeans looking at Asia, we’ve tended to construct an imagined, idealized version of “Asia” that represents everything we feel is missing from our own culture, whether it’s sensuality and sexual freedom, strong community and family values, a more balanced and healthy lifestyle, or even a more liberated, authentic spirituality.

These may seem like positive values, even if exaggerated, but unfortunately, when we imagine other people as radically different than us, it becomes easy to devalue and dehumanize them when we disagree with their beliefs, turning them into “savages” or “barbarians.” As explained by renowned scholar Edward Said, this form of thought divides whole cultures into boxes: “East” and “West,” foreign and familiar, self and Other, so that “the East” becomes the opposite of the West in the Western imagination — its “surrogate and underground self,” a strange, backward, barbaric land, steeped in mysticism and danger. And as the wave of anti-Asian hate in North America during the Covid-19 pandemic showed, the prejudices that come from creating a mental divide between “us” and “them” are unfortunately not a thing of the past, as many of us would like to believe.

Unsplash / Conscious Design

Many Asian religious and spiritual practices have recently been “discovered” and embraced in the West, which risks losing the traditional meaning and intent of the practices. This is often called cultural appropriation.

Because of this, in today’s Western world, learning about Asian people and cultures becomes a social, political and ethical question. That sounds like a big responsibility, and it is, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating or overly difficult. To begin, we can start by questioning our assumptions, asking new questions, and listening to the responses. We all have certain associations with the idea of “Asia,” depending on our past experiences, some of which may be true, and others maybe not. For one thing, Asia is immensely large and diverse, with around 30% of the world’s landmass, 60% of its population, 50 countries, hundreds of languages, and dozens of religions. There is no “Asian culture,” but there are countless Asian cultures, each rich and fascinating in its own way. Whether you travel physically or not, as you explore, be sure to stay critical. Ask: Where is this information coming from? How do they know what they claim to know? Look for people and sources who are native, or have deep knowledge and firsthand experience of a culture.

It’s a common cliche that traveling to a destination is the best — and maybe even only — way to truly learn about it. Of course, as travel aficionados, we’re not here to argue. But at the same time, hopping on a flight isn’t enough; it matters what you do when you get there. It’s all too easy to get trapped in the notorious “tourist bubble” and miss out on the local perspective, especially when you travel somewhere with an unfamiliar language and culture, making it harder to navigate without a guide or group.

So, ironically, jetting off to Japan might not be the best way to learn about Japanese culture — at least not at first. Before you spend your savings on a trip to Kyoto, consider doing your research closer to home; that way, you can take full advantage of the opportunity when you do go. For starters, there’s a lot you can learn from the comfort of your own couch. When browsing for books, films, videos, and other content, be sure to keep in mind the author’s identity and perspective; who they are, and where their information and experiences come from. This will help you evaluate their perspective and make sense of a huge array of sometimes contradictory information. Travel content can be great for making you want to book that flight, but if it’s coming from a fellow tourist, you’ll be getting an outsider’s perspective on the society, which could lack important context.

Once you’ve done a little virtual browsing and are ready to dive in IRL, you still don’t have to cross the whole Pacific for an authentic glimpse of Asian cultures. North America has a long (if not always rosy) history of immigration from Asia, so there’s no shortage of communities of Asian heritage, especially in major cities. Because of geographic proximity, the West Coast typically has the biggest Asian communities, but big cities like New York, Toronto, and Houston also have significant Asian populations.

Chinese Lion Dance costume at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. The display is part of an exhibition to welcome Chinese New Year 2021 / Unsplash / Scribbling Geek

With the Lunar New Year coming up on February 10, kicking off two weeks of parades, festivals and holiday events in Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Vietnamese communities, it’s the perfect time to experience these cultural practices first-hand. Read on to learn more about the Lunar New Year celebrations in several large North American cities, as well as the museums and cultural centers you can visit year-round to learn more about Asian culture on this side of the Pacific.

Vancouver, Canada

Known for its significant Asian population, Vancouver hosts Canada’s biggest Lunar New Year celebration, the Vancouver Chinatown Spring Festival Parade. You’ll find even more festive vibes at LunarFest, with interactive art installations, lantern displays, live performances, workshops and more. And don’t miss Vancouver’s famous night markets, which stock up with traditional treats for the New Year, and keep an eye out for other events around town at temples, cultural organizations, museums, restaurants and markets. You’ll discover delicious dishes like dumplings and rice cakes, traditional performances of Chinese opera, martial arts, music and more.

A pagoda in the Classical Chinese Garden of Vancouver / Unsplash / Ronin

Year-round, check out these spots to learn about Asian culture and heritage in the Vancouver area:

Chinese Canadian Museum: The first Chinese Canadian museum in the country, the CCM opened its doors in July 2023 in the historic Wing Sang building, the oldest building in Chinatown. You’ll find one-of-a-kind historic and cultural exhibits, including the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown and Chinese immigrant population.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden: A serene spot in Chinatown, the oldest Chinese classical garden outside of China, offering guided tours and events designed for sharing gardening traditions and philosophy.

Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre: In the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, this cultural complex includes a museum and a garden, and is dedicated to telling the stories of Japanese Canadians.

Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver: A center with multiple locations, housing a museum devoted to the history of Chinese Canadians in the area (with free admission!), as well as walking tours, community classes and other events. In their permanent museum exhibits, you’ll learn about the daily life of Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, as well as the military history of Chinese Canadians.

Seattle

Moving down the coast, Seattle is home to a vibrant International District, also known as Chinatown-International, a multicultural neighborhood with a significant Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese presence, in addition to Chinese. For the Lunar New Year, catch the annual Chinatown-International District Parade, featuring colorful floats, lion and dragon dances, martial arts demonstrations, traditional music and performances. Around Chinatown-International, you’ll also find Chinese opera performances, dance shows, and music concerts, food and lantern festivals, temple ceremonies, special museum exhibitions, and holiday markets galore.

Chinatown-International District / Unsplash / Kush Dwivedi

To experience Asian-American culture year-round, head to the International District, and don’t miss these spots:

The Wing Luke Museum: The only pan-Asian Pacific American community-based museum in the US, this Smithsonian affiliate is one of the most prominent museums of Asian culture in the country, and hosts regular exhibits in a historic building in the International District.

Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington (JCCCW): A hub for the Japanese American community in Seattle, this center offers language classes, an on-site museum, a speaker series, cultural events, and even a donation-based resale shop for one-of-a-kind “Japanese treasures” with a reasonable price tag.

Panama Hotel: Built in 19210 by Sabro Ozasa, one of the first Japanese architects in the country, as a single room occupancy for single Japanese men working in America, the Panama Hotel now houses the Japanese American Museum of Seattle, a tea and coffee room, and the Hashidate-yu Japanese bathhouse, the only remaining one in North America, closed in 1963.

Hing Hay Park: In the heart of Seattle's Chinatown, the park’s name literally translates to “Celebrate Happiness Public Park" and figuratively means “Park for Pleasurable Gatherings.” It’s popular for martial arts practice, quiet morning meditations, and community events and festivals, especially during the Lunar New Year.

Danny Woo Community Garden: The largest green space in Chinatown-International, this community garden, named after a beloved community leader, is tended by neighborhood residents and features an outdoor kitchen, a chicken coop, a fruit tree orchard, and a children’s garden. It’s a calm, peaceful place where locals and visitors alike can take part in growing their own food, or just enjoy a little time in nature.

San Francisco

San Francisco Chinatown / Unsplash / Kevin Vision

Hopping down to California, San Francisco's Lunar New Year celebration is one of the most vibrant and diverse in the US. The highlight? The annual Chinese New Year Parade, one of the oldest and most celebrated outside of Asia, featuring elaborate floats, traditional lion and dragon dances, martial arts shows, cultural troupes, marching bands, and diverse community groups. The weekend before the holiday, a Flower Market Fair pops up in Chinatown, decked out in flowers, plants, and traditional New Year decorations, like lucky red lanterns, blooming flowers and potted citrus trees. Wander around the city and you’ll find street fairs with food, arts and crafts stalls and live entertainment. Keep an eye out for a Dragon Dance, which traditionally brings good luck and wards off evil spirits. Topping off the weeks of festivities are grand firework shows, showering the crowd with joy and excitement for the new year.

In addition to Chinatown, don’t miss Japantown, which hosts the annual North California Cherry Blossom Festival in April. Other can’t-miss spots to learn about Asian culture in the Bay Area include:

Asian Art Museum: One of the most prominent institutions dedicated to Asian art and culture in the US, this museum holds a collection of Asian art spanning over 6,000 years, with pieces from China, Japan, Korea, India, Southeast Asia, and other regions. It also hosts rotating exhibitions from ancient to contemporary, including the “Murakami: Monsterized” exhibit wrapping up in February, dedicated to Takashi Murakami, one of Japan’s most renowned living artists.

Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (CHSA): Chinatown’s CHSA Museum focuses on the history and contributions of Chinese Americans in the US, featuring exhibitions, archival materials and oral histories on topics like immigration, discrimination, and cultural preservation. Currently on view: exhibits on Bruce Lee, California’s Chinese American Women’s fight for equality, and miniature sculptures by Frank Wong.

Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC): San Francisco’s JCCC branch, located in Japantown, offers a range of programming, like classes and events, and houses the Legacy Center, which preserves the history and experiences of Japanese Americans in the Bay Area.

Manilatown Heritage Foundation: To preserve the history and culture of San Francisco's Filipino American community, this center offers cultural events, workshops, and educational programs that celebrate Filipino heritage, including walking tours of the Manilatown neighborhood.

Korean Center, Inc.: Located in the Richmond District, the Korean Center promotes Korean culture and heritage through classes, workshops, and cultural events. They also have a resource center for local residents and offer Korean language courses. In the fall, it hosts the Annual Chuseok Festival, San Francisco’s Korean culture festival with food, performances, vendors and more.

Los Angeles

Chinatown, Los Angeles / Unsplash / Riccardo Tuninato

For Lunar New Year, the annual Golden Dragon Parade draws hundreds of spectators to Chinatown to see the colorful floats, traditional dances, bands and other performances. Just like in the Bay Area, you’ll find flower markets and festivals popping up around the city, as well as cultural performances, temple and shrine celebrations, food festivals, fireworks and more.

Year round, head to Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Thai Town in East Hollywood, or Chinatown for shops, restaurants, museums and cultural centers offering a glimpse into diverse Asian and Asian-American cultures. A few spots to check out:

Japanese American National Museum (JANM): Located in Little Tokyo in downtown LA, JANM is a key museum dedicated to the Japanese American experience. The museum features a range of exhibitions and programs that explore the history, art, and culture of Japanese Americans, particularly focusing on their internment during World War II.

Chinese American Museum (CAM): Housed in the historic Garnier Building, the oldest building in Chinatown, the CAM highlights the history of Chinese Americans in Southern California.

USC Pacific Asia Museum: Housed in a historic building in Pasadena, the USC Pacific Asia Museum showcases the arts and cultures of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Its collection includes a wide range of Asian art, textiles, ceramics and more.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens: The Huntington boasts an extensive collection of Asian art and artifacts, including Chinese and Japanese art, rare manuscripts, and botanical gardens with Asian-themed gardens. Plan a whole day exploring the collections and relaxing on the gorgeous grounds.

Bonus: Honolulu, Oahu, Hawai’i

Unsplash / Zetong Li

To be fair, Hawai’i doesn’t exactly count as West Coast, much less North America. This tropical archipelago might be best known among tourists for sun, sand, surf and sushi, but it also has a rich cultural history involving indigenous Hawaiians, as well as immigrants from Asia and North America. After the beginning of European and American settlement in the late 1700s, the indigenous population fell rapidly, mainly from foreign diseases. But by the early 20th century, around half of the Hawaiian population was of Asian descent as immigrant laborers arrived, mainly from Japan and China. Today, in addition to native Hawaiians and white Americans, Hawai’i is home to a significant population from mainland Asia, including Filipino, Korean, and others.

Lunar New Years celebrations are concentrated in Honolulu, Oahu, the capital of Hawai’i. The Chinatown Cultural Plaza hosts a variety of events, and many businesses celebrate with decorations, seasonal products, and special promotions. You’ll also spot traditional Lion and Dragon dances, put on by local martial arts groups and community schools, for good luck. The annual Narcissus Festival, which includes a parade, pageant, banquets and more, begins around the Lunar New Year and stretches throughout the whole spring season, showcasing Chinese culture on the island.

During the rest of the year, check out:

Chinese Cultural Plaza: In the heart of Honolulu's Chinatown district, the Chinese Cultural Plaza features statues, plaques, and architectural elements that celebrate Chinese culture and heritage, making it the hub for cultural events and festivals. You’ll also find shops, restaurants and other businesses related to Chinese culture.

Honolulu Museum of Art: The Honolulu Museum of Art features a diverse collection of Asian art, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian works, which you can see in the Asian galleries. You’ll also find timely exhibits about local and global cultures from Asia and beyond. Currently on view: 100 years after the American-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, contemporary artist Kapulani Landgraf unveils a powerful installation that speaks to Hawaiian collective and national identity.

Hawaii Plantation Village: Situated in Waipahu on the island of Oahu, the Hawaii Plantation Village is an open-air museum that tells the story of Hawaii's plantation era, when many Asian immigrants worked on sugar and pineapple plantations. The village includes restored historic homes and structures from various Asian cultures, providing insights into their daily lives and traditions.

Bishop Museum: The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, located in Honolulu, offers a wide range of exhibits and resources on Hawaiian and Pacific Island cultures, including Asian influences on Hawaii's history. You can explore artifacts, artworks, and exhibits related to Asian immigration and cultural contributions.

Filipino Community Center (FilCom Center): The FilCom Center in Waipahu serves as a hub for the Filipino American community in Hawaii. It offers cultural programs, events, and exhibits related to Filipino heritage and contributions.

Hawaii Korean Cultural Center: Situated in Honolulu, the Hawaii Korean Cultural Center promotes Korean culture and heritage through classes, cultural events, and exhibits. It offers opportunities to learn about Korean traditions, including language, dance, and cuisine.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii (JCCH): Just as in Seattle and San Francisco, the JCCH is dedicated to preserving and sharing Japanese culture, history, and heritage in Hawaii. The center includes a historical gallery, resource center, and cultural programs that explore the Japanese immigrant experience in the islands.

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