Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

I was at the United Airlines lounge at the San Diego airport with plenty of time to kill. I hadn't been aware of how close the airport was to the city, and I wanted to be prepared for the security queues.

Every traveler from Asia to the U.S. has this expectation of heightened security at U.S. airports based on media and word-of-mouth accounts. As it turned out, the San Diego airport was a breeze, and it made me realize what a great gateway this could be to Asia.

There are direct flights to Tokyo from San Diego on Japan Airlines, which means I could enter the U.S. via this small, user-friendly airport and avoid the Los Angeles or San Francisco airports, which have longer lines. That was a thought I filed away for later.

I listened in on a conversation across the way from me, two women, I guessed to be in their 60s, discussing their weekend of golf and shopping in San Diego.

"San Diego is great for 'rewirement,'" one laughed.

"Yeah, who wants retirement these days?" the other responded.

In many ways, San Diego reminded me a little bit of Singapore -- tiny and compact, lots of easy-to-do things within a small area, well-planned marinas with retail and dining, bike lanes, walking paths and lots of parks for outdoor activities. The weather is better though, cool and dry, never hot and humid like it gets in the tropics.

You can see why it would be popular with folks wanting a change in life's pace and being able to do the things you want to do, not need to do. Rewirement, not retirement.

Indeed, I was visiting a couple whom I had known from my days living in Hong Kong. The husband had held a high-powered CEO job, and when it came time for them to choose a more leisurely pace of life and do the things they've always wanted to do in their golden years, they chose San Diego over Singapore.

The apartment block they were in housed celebrities and such. I could tell from their sunglasses and "rewired" gait.

During the weekend I was there, I was shown the sights, ate along the shore at Coronado and shared my meal with the biggest seagulls I've ever seen -- I always forget how big American portions are -- and shopped at Fashion Valley, which reminded me of Robertson Quay, a retail and dining area in Singapore, only quieter. Much quieter.

It takes time for me to get used to the space you find in America. No wonder people feel their world is big enough. In tiny Singapore, we have no choice but to look at other worlds because ours is so small, and we know we need others to help us along.

I binged on Mexican food. It's one of my favorite cuisines, but it's hard to find authentic versions in Asia. Just as Chinese food in America tastes different from what we are used to, Mexican food in San Diego tastes very different from what we find in Singapore.

The Mexican influence is much more evident in San Diego than in Los Angeles, where I had been earlier. It's only 20 minutes to the Mexico border from San Diego, and my American friends had teased me that I shouldn't cross the border because I might not be allowed back in.

Such was the color of the post-presidential election jokes, and even in Asia we had heard about the possible border wall. After all, we are no strangers to walls. The Great Wall of China is the greatest structure ever built, said to be the only man-made thing visible from space.

I wonder if the Mexican wall, if built, would be bigger and if it would ever become the tourist attraction that the Great Wall is today.

But that's for the future. Now, I was in the U.S. at a time of great political and social change. It reminded me of being in London two days after the Brexit vote, when I found it to be greatly changed in spirit. The city felt gloomy, and Londoners were walking around with heads down, in a state of shock.

I sensed the same feeling in Los Angeles. Walking along the Santa Monica and Venice beaches -- two places that epitomize cool and that we know from countless movies -- I felt like the air had gone out of them. I was invited to an art exhibit at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, apparently the last show to be held there because the building is being demolished to make way for a train station.

Artwork by Roy Lichtenstein on display at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Artwork by Roy Lichtenstein on display at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon

I wanted to talk about the art. There was a Roy Lichtenstein piece on display, and there were some really interesting works made of words and shapes. But all anyone wanted to talk about was Trump.

At the Phocuswright conference in Los Angeles, there was also talk of Trump, onstage and offstage. Phocuswright surveyed 1,500 European travelers from Nov. 12 to 14 to gauge their sentiments about travel to the U.S. and the potential impact of the election. The results: One in five travelers in the U.K. and France and nearly one in three German travelers said they are less likely to travel to the U.S. Across all three countries, women are also significantly less likely than men to visit the U.S. -- 27% vs. 19%.

As a woman, I guess I should feel less inclined to visit the U.S. for leisure, but you know what? Answering a question when you're removed from the reality on the ground and answering a question while you're on the ground is very different.

In my 10 days in the U.S., I explored Los Angeles and discovered how its downtown area is being revitalized. I enjoyed the different eating experiences; I ate a lot of Japanese, Spanish and Italian. My one Korean meal was forgettable, but I appreciated getting to know Koreatown.

I walked along Santa Monica and Venice beaches, enjoying the wide stretches of sand, the space and the smell of marijuana wafting through the air (yes, weed is the new breeze since being legalized in California).

And as I got "rewired" in San Diego, I realized that sentiment is very different from reality and that as a traveler, the experiences to be found in the U.S. are no different post-Trump than they were pre-Trump. We travel to experience diversity, and in California there's certainly no lack of diversity.

The trouble is, sentiment influences travel decisions, and the U.S. will need to do an even better job next year of getting travelers from Asia to actually experience reality on the ground. Because just as media shapes perceptions of countries in Asia and influences sentiment of American travelers, it shapes perceptions of the U.S. throughout the rest of the world.

And that's reality.

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