Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The End is Nigh!

If You Just Look to Your Left. . .

As soon as I'd gotten into the swing of things, I had to become a tour guide for my pals Emily and Wade. I led them around my favorite sights, back to Lamma Island, and around the Avenue of Stars leaving plenty of time to rest from the oppressive heat in various cafes. At night we watched the stupid, stupid light show where these buildings flash to EPCOT Center-esque music.

We went up the Point in a cool little trolley (the gears to which looked straight off the set up Wicked) and ate Bubba Gump's shrimp while enjoying the panoramic views of Victoria Harbour. We did not however enjoy good photography from me as evidenced by the shadowy figures in this photo's foreground.
Emily and Wade had planned to go to Tibet, but totally unfortunately for them and me it was closed to foreigners due to feared protests. So instead they headed on to Japan leaving me with a list of 11 possible places to go after my apartment contract ran out. Here you can see a less shadowy picture of Emily and Wade getting fancy drinks at Hong Kong's most expensive hotel.

Strange Randos

I've collected strange friends while in Hong Kong. I met all of them by chance either by wandering into their restaurants or tea stands or by literally running into individual people. I actually don't think I've literally run into any buildings . . . yet, I should say. I'm knocking on wood.

Besides Jia Jia and Ying Ying (the pandas to the right who insisted I pay them a visit) I have met an Italian Sommelier who for some reason is working in Hong Kong and an Argentinian cantor who works in a Jewish Temple in Hong Kong and knows tons about music theory. Then there are the locals who always give me updates on their extended families as I wait for my order to be ready. When I get my bubble tea, I usually find out about one woman's son Henry who gets into fights in school. Henry is 22.
I haven't asked for further explanation. When I wait for my noodles, I usually find out about the latest weather in Houston because the man who works there has a nephew studying political economy in the States. And I continued to hang out with Jafi and his friends. Here he can be seen getting way too excited at the arcade.
I can't explain how nice it is that Hong Kong no longer feels like a city full of strangers.

The Butterfly Lovers

The crowning moment of my time in Hong Kong was seeing the violin concerto Butterfly Lovers (based on what is often called the Chinese Romeo + Juliet) be performed by Lu Si-qing himself!!! His version is one of, if not the highest, selling traditional Chinese recordings of all time. There are also hilarious dialogues that exist where people who play Western music congratulate him on bringing Chinese flavor to the violin and then people from the Chinese tradition vehemently argue that he is bringing Western flavor to Chinese music.

I arrived late to the concert and was totally disheveled and frustrated with being so lost, but the performance was beyond any I'd yet seen. It was just so damn good, and after this whole year of concert going I can honestly say it was my favorite musical performance I’ve ever seen. Here’s a link to a version where he’s backed by a western orchestra which just doesn’t do it justice at all. There’s also something very compelling about seeing Lu Si-qing live that doesn't translate to video. I think his presence doesn't come across but maybe it's something else.

We gave him four standing ovations before he finally gave in and played an encore. After the performance I cued up to speak with Lu Si-qing and managed to actually talk with him. His interest was peaked because I knew the other concerto artist as she was Gao Hong's classmate at the Beijing Central Conservatoire. She owned the disturbingly expensive restaurant that our group dined at in Beijing. She asked, "Hey, what are you doing here? You are Gao Hong's student, right? You play Chinese instruments, right?" Then Lu Si-qing looked at me and asked in very nice English, "Wow, do you really play Chinese instruments?" I explained my dealio briefly and he told me I should talk to an ethnomusicologist in Heidelberg because she was working on the same issues I've been looking at. After I said a quick good bye I skipped out of there. I can't remember even going home but I do remember the feeling of being ridiculously, face-numbingly happy.

Hong Kong was an interesting experience. People were very friendly and the environment was reminiscent of Singapore, but there are a lot more arts events. I also didn’t play in any ensembles the entire time, mainly due to my hand injury. I think this was actually beneficial. I hung around a lot more talented or "professional" musicians and listened more. I also began composing a lot! Somehow after hearing all of this music this year, stuff is starting to come out, and I really like it. Though it sounds totally Western to me, everyone keeps telling me it sounds Chinese. . . hmm. . . .

Return to Wienerland

On my way home, I went the other way around the world and decided to revisit my friends in Vienna. The entire Taiwanese community was gathering to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. There was a special guest: Taiwanese born criminologist Henry Lee. I'd never heard of him, but he worked on such infamous cases as OJ Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey. We bonded over living in America, but I didn't mention to him that he seemed to work on cases where things didn't seem to work out very well.

I sang in the choir in Taiwanese and German. The shock at feeling comfortable doing these things now caused me to become all reflective. I’ve really changed so much. I used to dread meeting new people and speaking in foreign languages. But that old fear of embarrassment has been conditioned out of me. I feel more confident and less apologetic for being an incompetent idiot. I guess being abroad for a year has made me more American. When I talk to people I feel interesting, and, actually, I think I kind of am interesting now.

When I was writing my Watson proposal I wrote it in the mindset of, alright, this is what I would want to do if I were good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough. But you know what? I don’t need to pretend to be someone else anymore, and that is so liberating. But now the Watson conference is looming and I'll have to figure out how I stack up next to the other fellows. And I'm actually quite nervous about heading home. It'll be so strange to go back when everything just went on without me.

Right before leaving Hong Kong, I saw this ominous warning that seemed more like a fortune cookie for my emo soul than a warning of physical danger.

Before leaving Austria, I saw these guys enjoying sheesha/hookah midstream. The meaning for this is less clear to me, but definitely optimistic.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

When It Rains, It Pours

Lamma Island

A lot of Watson Fellowships take Americans deep into the wildernesses of third world countries, far from the luxuries of modern living, challenging urban dwellers to cope without indoor plumbing or electricity. Whereas my project has had the opposite effect on me. While I usually do have to squat unless I can find a Western style toilet, in Hong Kong my greatest challenges are hunting elusive open seats in airconditioned free wifi cafes. I'm a little bit confused as to whether I love living abroad or just in cities. I mean, I guess I could also enjoy public transportation and Starbucks in America; I've just never had the chance before. To the right is a shocking example of the local standards of hygiene.

But recently I grew weary of city life and took a 20 minute ferry ride to Lamma Island. It's a sleepy little island that takes only a strenuous 2 hour hike to traverse. It has lots of really cool restaurants and shops that sell handicrafts and freshly caught seafood, irrespectively. Many expats live on the island because it is cheaper than living in the city and also much quieter. And unlike local Hong Kongers they are unconcerned with the prestige of living in a good location. The brightly painted buildings and chill vibe also come off as oddly Caribbean. (Bonus: I just noticed that in this photo upove there is a dog peaking out of a backpack!)

I passed through the one road that leads through the northern village, through some hills which featured lovey-dovey graffiti commemorating honeymoons. Pictured below is the meanest public defacement I could find. After a 15 minute hike I got to the first beach, plopped down on a bench and began reading when a girl my age asked me if she could sit next to me. She then scoffed at the other people on the beach. I looked up from my read and noticed a pattern. There were roughly two dozen couples and they ALL consisted of a youthful Asian girl who looked good in her two-piece and an obese white dude with more hair on his back than on top of his head. I made a face and told my benchmate, "Yeah, that's pretty gross."

"The worst part is that those guys don't realize that most of the girls are Vietnamese immigrants looking for a green card. Ugh. Don't look now, they're snogging." I didn't want to look but like Lot's wife or the Four Tops, I couldn't help myself. I paid the price for my curiosity, my eyes burned like lasik gone bad.

"I'm Ling. I'm also hungry. Do you want to go get some organic vegan food?" How could I say no? I had eaten more than my fair share of chicken feet in the previous week so I was keen to escape meat and the gross couples. We passed by the water (which is supposed to be safe because of the shark net but the fact that one is needed kind of freaks me out) to get our feet wet but decided against it since the water was filled with plastic bags and bottles. This plastic manufacturing plant is the main source of the pollution.

While eating beans on vegan toast at the Bookworm Cafe, Ling told me that she was from Suzhou (about an hour from Shanghai) and was traveling to Hong Kong for holiday. She is an English major and after finding out I was American, switched her vocabulary and accent accordingly. I was thoroughly impressed since I still can't do a British accent and English is my native language. But I'm inspired by Ling and Amy Walker to keep trying.

She, Ling not Amy Walker, confessed her fanaticism for comic books so we headed off to the discounted movies to see the new X-Men movie, only mildly concerned that we looked like the couples we had previously mocked. Here' Ling on the scenic hiking trails on Lamma Island. In the picture of me you can't directly see it, but my shorts are being held together with about a foot and a half of ducttape.

After the movie, I told her it was my turn to suggest a geeky event and we went to Zhongying music concert. Zhong means Chinese and Ying means English. It was a concert in a park done by senior citizens. They played traditional Chinese folk tunes on western instruments. Violins for erhus, guitar for plucked instruments and saxophone for bamboo flute and suona. I was impressed with their ability to get extremely authentic Chinese sounds from their extremely not Chinese instruments.

Keeping My Composers

The next week I went to an amazing concert where almost all of the pieces were world premieres. They were introduced in either Cantonese or Mandarin by the composers in person! There were 10 pieces which ranged in size from a comical duet between erhu and pipa, depicting an argument two travelers have on the road, to pieces for the entire Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Not all of the pieces were knockouts but what some lacked in realization, they made up for in ambition. Every piece involved novel ways of making sounds on instruments. One piece, a trio between flute, sanxian (a three stringed cello-type instrument), and pipa called for the pipa player to pretend to hack up a lung. She was thoroughly convincing.

The best part of the concert was that afterward the composers were to linger in the foyer to mingle with the plebes. The two composers from Beijing looked lonely so I went up to them and introduced myself in Chinese which always gives people way too good of an impression on my Chinese abilities since I've thoroughly practiced my spiel of who I am and what I'm doing and it involves lots of obscure vocabulary. But I soon had drawn a crowd around me of mostly gawkers who were pointing at the whitie speaking Mandarin. But since the rest of the composers were carrying on in Cantonese, the three of us Mandophiles kept up our conversation. They both were postgraduates at Beijing Central Conservatory in composition. For one of the composers this was his first time composing for non-Western instruments so we discussed the different challenges of composing for Chinese orchestra.

Then they announced that the composers would go out for drinks and I got invited along. Yes! Some of the other composers looked at me and asked in an 80% joking sort of way, "Are you old enough to drink?" Sigh. I have been for 5 years in Hong Kong. At the bar, I discovered that composers are very serious about their music and possibly even more serious when it comes to drinking. But I'd learned my lesson from my previous encounter with Mongolian musicians in the Swiss Alps and nursed my one drink while the others had 6 rounds. Once the slurring of words began to affect my comprehension of my inebriated friends, I got email addresses for the Beijingers and escaped before things got too out of hand.

Another Near-Death Experience (辣肚子)

Jafi decided to take me to a place that has a spicy food eating competition. He had had enough of me complaining about food not being spicy enough and was ready to shut me up for good.The noodle shop in question has a contest; if you eat their spiciest noodle bowl in 10 minutes then you get it free. I was starved and ready for the challenge. Jafi ordered me the "Star Challenge Spice Bowl" and ordered himself a bowl of the least spicy noodles. The waitresses teased him in Cantonese so I couldn't understand the words but the drift of it was clearly, "You pussy."

The noodles came and I took a bite and the waitress started the timer. My first thought was, "Huh, it's not that bad." On my tongue the spice was totally tolerable but my face immediately flushed a deep crimson and my stomach gave an audible turn before I'd even swallowed that first bite. My eyes sprung tears like I was watching the Notebook which ran down my face and converged with a steady stream of snot that was shooting down my upper lip. I tried to breath in cooling air, but my lungs seemed to have seized. I just panted for a minute. I couldn't breath and wasn't convinced I had control over any of my orifices so I did the only sensible thing; I took another bite. My symptoms doubled instantly and I began hiccoughing obscenely. My body was rejecting this food and telling me it was poison, but my psyche said, "Don't lose face!" which was pathetically unrealistic since most of my face was melting in a gathering puddle of sweat, snot and saliva on the tabletop. I rushed to the bathroom setting some sort of digestive landspeed record. This is definitely TMI but how could it already be spicy coming out?

With the poison emitted from my body, I returned to the table covered in sweat and 10 pounds lighter than when I left. Jafi was also covered in sweat but his perspiration was guffaw induced. The waitstaff would have none of this though. They scolded him and asked him how he could treat a guest like this and how he could really be from Hong Kong and enjoy such bland noodles. Just then the buzzer went off and I waved my white flag and paid for my noodles defeated more completely than I would have thought possible.

Pictured right is my favorite mode of transportation in Hong Kong. On Hong Kong Island you can take this double decker trolley. The wind blowing on your face is a great way to recover from a near fatal dose of peppercorn.

The Death of Hobbies

After weeks of playing email tag, I finally had meetings with all of my musician and ethnomusicologist contacts all in the same week and everyone had very similar things to say. It's interesting how Hong Kong manages to be simultaneously similar to Singapore, Taiwan, and the Mainland in different facets.

It's similar to Singapore in that it has a strange mix of British and local culture. It's also similar in that it's sort of one big city with lots of people that are very work oriented. This stinks for the music scene because, as almost every random person I meet in Hong Kong tells me, they used to play piano, violin, or even Chinese instruments, but then had to give it up when they started high school because the academics were so rigorous. As an American, where high school seems set up to accommodate extra-curriculars, this seems totally bizarre. Also, as one ethnomusicologist preached to me with intense eye contact that contained unsettingly few blinks, "People work so hard that they just collapse when they get home. They definitely aren't going to spend that money, let alone the time on a hobby like a musical instrument."

Hong Kong is similar to Taiwan in that it is sort of part of China and sort of not. It's not disputed like Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special administrative region which means it enjoys such privileges as free speech, but the Chinese government still has its ways of controlling its denizens. One local told me about the exodus in the 90s that occurred when Hong Kongers realized that they were going to be under the control of the same government that was responsible for the student massacre at Tian An Men. One quarter of the population left, heading to the USA, Australia, and especially Canada.

Finally Hong Kong is actually part of the People's Republic of China and you can now take a train straight to Beijing. There are tons of Mainlanders working in Hong Kong trying to save up money to make a triumphant return back home. One ethnomusicologist told me his idea for why traditional music is in decline which I can't quite wrap my head around. He said the problem with traditional music in Hong Kong is everyone is too impressed by it. And it's true. When people heard I played zhongruan, they would say, "Wow! You are so clever. I couldn't appreciate that kind of music." So apparently there's too much reverence for it, so it's dying out. Does that make sense to other people?

Marketing Misnomer

I bought a CD of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra which was called Music for Tranquility. This struck me as bizarre because it was full of lively pieces like Golden Snake Dance and Dragon Boat Race. It also heavily featured gongs, guanzi, and suona, an instrument that rivals bagpipe for its ability to imitate nails on a chalkboard. But I suppose it's hard to advertise Chinese music as music to get you pumped! with all the techno and heavy metal floating around out there.

Korner Karma

The other day I was carefully moving about the apartment disaligning right angles when I realised that I was suffering from the very same compulsions I had previously been mocking. I had developed an obsession with sliding chairs, napkins, towels, toothbrushes slightly askew. At first, it was just to marvel at the thoroughness of my roommate's inspections. Even if I turned the salt shaker in the cabinet it would inevitably be corrected upon my next inspection, but I wasn't so sure of my true motivation anymore. After 20 days in the apartment, I had to seriously question my sanity. I explained my predicament to my landlady who immediately instructed me to practice Taichi. I figured it couldn't hurt and joined the elderly in the park near me for the rest of my time in Hong Kong.

Up Next!

A visit from Emily and Wade forces me into the tourguide business.

I see the best concert of my entire life.

I meet strange expats including an Italian sommelier and an Argentinian cantor

and I discuss my continued struggles to reclaim my sanity.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Week in the Life

Getting My Act Together

Wow, there's so little to tell after just a week. A lot of my time has been spent prepping the last of my Watson plans. I'm incredulous at the idea that there are only two months left and then I'll be back in the US after 13 months of exile.

Unfortunately I waited minutes too long to buy my ticket back to America. The prices suddenly doubled as you can see from the screen capture below. But most fortunately, it looks like I will coast out of the Watson having spent exactly the amount I was allotted. That's good because it would be too painful to be underbudget and have to give the money back.

I'm also working on the back and forth of attempting to go to Tibet. I originally thought I might return to Kyoto. Then the possibility of seeing a new place and the ever-alluring promise of altitude sickness tempted me to move inland. But just today I've discovered that Tibet is closed. There are expected protests in late June/early July and the Chinese government doesn't want foreigners witnessing unrest, so I may end up going back to Japan after all. It's all up in the air. But I'm all for the suspense and random changes in plans. It usually leads to exciting adventures.

A Previous Engagement

Last Saturday I went to two concerts. The first was in the afternoon and featured solos by the "young musicians" of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. They were all amazing virtuosos on their instruments and I managed to speak with three of them after the show. Two replied that they did this because they were good at it. It was a job, not who they were. The third, who was the only one who spoke Chinese with me, was very different. The best way I can describe her is "eagerly alive." When she talked about why she played music, an aura of passion radiated from her. I know it sounds all mimsy pimsy to say things like radiating an aura of passion, but even just reminiscing about being in her presence forces me into using such language. It was obvious that she did this because she loves the music, the culture, the history, and her role within it. We were getting along very well and she invited me to go to dinner with her afterward. I winced and she felt badly like she had totally overestimated the level to which we were getting along. I tried to explain, "No, it's just I have a. . a. . a. . a previous engagement." I didn't want to tell her that I was going to see a Maroon 5 concert since she had just bashed popular and rock music, but this covering of the truth came off as just generally deceptive. She thought I was lying to get out of eating with her. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she looked seriously bummed. I took down her email address, promised to arrange a meeting with her later, and headed off to see Maroon 5 with Tree's sister's ex-boyfriend, Jafi.

Jafi studied in England so his English is excellent. He's a classic fool for the ladies. He waited a year between high school and college for a girl. Then they broke up. After graduating university, he waited another year in England for Tree's sister, Mandy. He put his economics degree to good use, making his living performing diablo and Chinese juggling sticks for primary schools. Then he and Mandy too broke up. I asked him what he wanted to do next, and he said go to Japan. Why Japan? Japanese girls. . .

We met his friends (all female, of course) at the concert, the ticket for which cost more than all of my other concert tickets in Asia combined. I justified this by claiming that contrasting Westerner pop concerts in Asia with traditional concerts was necessary to get the full picture. Despite the pain in my wallet we had a blast mocking the crazy antics of the other concert goers juxtaposed with somber-faced security guards wearing red berets. Maybe it was just my sobriety amidst the boozed up fans, but it seemed like everyone else was dancing especially idiotically. I joined in, mocking them at first, but at some point my "dancing" became sincere.

The Marooned 5: Walking After Midnight

After the concert Jafi, his three friends and I went to eat at an area by his house and I tried a few local dishes which were supposedly spicy, but nothing in Hong Kong so far has seemed spicy after Singapore, though I've been told I might be getting the white man treatment. Damn you traveling Minnesotans ruining white-spice-tolerance reputations abroad!

After eating and chatting I tried to head home but the MTR, the subway, was already closed. I talked with an attendant for awhile and tried to figure out how to walk home. Hong Kong is totally walkable. It's a small place, but I keep accidentally taking really circuitous routes everywhere. This doesn't bother me because I have plenty of time and every time I walk from my apartment to the station I encounter new food stands and sights. But when it's after midnight and you are tired and afraid of being attacked by the Triad, it's kind of an issue. I kept walking past groups of Indian men who would silence their talk as I approached, eye me menacingly, and then burst out laughing after I passed. This happened at least 6 times. It was all thoroughly creepy as I thought about how long it would be before anyone realized I had been captured, tortured, and murdered. After 2 hours I finally found my way home and I now finally know the area. I'm saving so much time now! If only I had somewhere to rush off to. . .

Linguistic Barriers

This sign, especially with the picture, makes me think that cars should be afraid of pedestrians with superpowers and not the other way around. But I'm new here. Maybe that's the way they do in HK.

When I get food it's super awkward to guess which language to speak. People usually understand Mandarin, but depending on their age they may have been well educated in English. People educated before the British handover know English well. Then Mandarin became more important in education. Young people typically know English, but the ones who work in restaurants typically aren't very studious. I haven't copped out and gone to McDonalds (although for the first time I'm tempted because a value meal there is sometimes cheaper than food at more authentic places) but if a restaurant is called Tastes of Taiwan, Shanghai, or Beijing then I eat there knowing that they'll speak Mandarin. But this means I'm missing out on Cantonese cuisine!

Hong Kongers are the fattest Asians I've seen. I suppose it's possible they were subject to British rule for too long, But I prefer to think that Cantonese food must be awesome. Delicious things I've tried have included pan-fried noodles, rice noodles (河粉), seafood soups, deep fried fish balls, and congee (rice porridge) with a century egg for protein. All of the flavours [sic] of sauces are all vaguely familiar too, because Cantonese stuff it is usually the authentic variation of the food in American Chinese restaurants. It's like I'm tasting the real food instead of the shadow cast on the cave walls. Pictured above is another odd combo of a traditional junk for tourist in front of very modern skyscrapers.

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra: Blown out of Proportion

After getting a taste for the HKCO at the last Chinese concert (figuratively, not literally, I'm not a zombie!), I finally saw the full ensemble. I snapped this bad photo right of the empty stage right before being yelled at. Enjoy. On the floor of the stage, to the left of the blurry person, you can see the gehus. The HKCO instrumentation is very different than the orchestras of Singapore or Taiwan. Each of the three sections is made up of different variations of the same instrument family. This seems to be in an effort to create a theoretically elegant ensemble, but it loses something in the nitty gritty of reality.

For the bowed instruments, they have tried to emulate the string section of a Western orchestra. They use the entire huqin family for this. So for first violin they use gaohu, the screechy, higher-pitched cousin of the erhu which fits better as an occasional solo by the lead erhu player (like a picolo to a flute player) than as an entire section for the strings. The second violins are the erhu. The violas are the zhonghu and the cellos are gehus (an instrument with which I have previously expressed my beef). Finally they use the bigger version of the gehu, the diyingehu(低音革胡) as a double bass.

One interesting thing to note is that the HKCO has gone ecofriendly and no longer allows any of their instuments to be made of snake skin. They say they have found a synthetic substance that is just as good. I think it's great that they no longer have to kill a couple dozen pythons to make gehus, but I did notice that a few of their drums used by the percussionists looked like they were still made of snake skin. And after hearing the result, I think they have let their ideals lead them away from something that creates a better sound.

The plucked section had the entire ruan family. Of course there was the typical zhong ruan and da ruan but they also opted for the seldom used xiao (little) ruan instead of the much superior liuqin. There were also pipas, two guzheng (zithers) and two yangqin (hammered dulcimers), and one of the gaohu players jumped up from her seat for one piece to play a miked guqin.

Their wind section was truly bizarre. There were soprano, alto, tenor, and bass versions of both suona (Chinese oboe/trumpet) and guanzi (a double reed instrument with a short tube body). I'd never seen these variations before.

There were also three different types of flutes: bangdi (which I think should only used in operas because they‘re so shrill), qudi, and the xindi. Sometimes the xindi had problems blending when it played with the other flutes which I guess had something to do with its being the only flute without a bamboo membrane.

Finally there were the typical variations of sheng, which are the uber cool free reed mouth organs, pictured below.

Overall the concert was fine. There were old favorites and new compositions. It was the first time I'd seen gender neutral uniforms for any orchestra. The audience were small and old and nervously tried to help translate things the conductor said before I assured them that I could understand the guy's slow, deliberate speech. But to be honest, the HKCO was not up to the standard I expected. I know they are all excellent musicians, and there were terrific solos on the concertos: erhu, oboe, and violin, but the instrumentation of the orchestra is not as successful as I've seen elsewhere. I think a large amount of this had to do with the synthetic snakeskin instruments. They sounded too smooth, a little Western even, and this upset the balance of the compositions. And when the full, overly bloated wind section played, it totally blocks out the string section.

Walking on Waterfront

Later, while walking along the harbor front and enjoying a fish cake that I hoped wasn't made from a fish caught in the polluted Victoria Harbour whose vistas I was enjoying, I happened upon a middle school wind ensemble playing outdoors. They played stuff I played in high school. They were realllllly good. Way better than the cuddlefish cake.

My daily life in Hong Kong is maybe the best it's been anywhere. With the exception of how expensive everything is, stuff is also convenient. There are beautiful beaches, parks named after dead white people, delicious moderately spicy food, and plenty of concerts to see. I'm even going to suffer through some Chinese operas to see if I can acquire a taste for them.

It turns out that the Avenue of Stars is actually named after the celebrity hand prints in the sidewalk further down the avenue than I originally traveled. Don't tell my granny since it's bad luck, but I copied all of the other tourists and spent a happy hour comparing my hand size to famous celebrities like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Chow Yun Fat. Is this what people do in Hollywood outside of Grauman's Chinese Theater?

Hmm. . . I claimed to have little to report but this blog post has grown so long. Maybe I'm only capable of posting long blog posts and this more frequent method of blogging only waters down the content. Any strong feeling either way, faithful blog readers?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fragrant Harbour or Stinky Port?

Three Quarter Assessment

This is the first in an experimental weekly blog. Shorter and easier to digest than my former once a month monsters, comment on whether you prefer to consume your blog posts like a mammal or a reptile.

I sent in the final of my three required quarterly reports to Watson last week. It's so weird that the Watson "journey" (as it is always dramatically referred to on the website) is mostly over. But looking back through my photos, journal, and blog entries, so much has happened. It seems to have gone by quite quickly, but at the same time it seems like being in America was a lifetime ago.

The fourth and final report is a 10 minute presentation at the Watson conference which, luckily for me, is at Carleton this year. This makes for all sorts of nice symbolism about beginnings and endings that I can't quite articulate, but I know exists. We even stay at Watson dorm (named after a different Watson) where I stayed as a freshman at Carleton. So many weird symmetries.

Packing up my life again was very interesting (at least to me). I took an inventory of my clothes and after discarding anything with multiple holes, embarrassing food stains on the crotch (from slurping ramen), or that had rust, would spark, and had caused me to bleed (i.e. my electric shaver) I had the following items:

tech: a laptop, an iPhone that only works in America, 3 pairs of headphones all of which have only one functioning earbud, a flip video recorder, a Kindle, and a Buddhist chant playing machine

music: a zhongruan, a mandocello, a bamboo flute, an irish whistle, lots of scores

clothes: 5 shirts, 3 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of jeans, 1 belt, 3 socks (no matching pairs), 4 pairs of underwear, 1 pair of running shoes, 3 baseball caps, and 1 mismatched pair of tennis shoes

misc: 2 pens, 1 notebook, 1 ceramic cup, 1 keyring, 1 wallet, 1 passport, half roll of duct tape

But before I get too proud of myself for traveling light, I must remember that technology makes this notion of traveling light really deceptive. In my computer I have thousands of music and video files and in my Kindle I have another hundred books. Really my possessions are just slowly moving over to the digital world. (Because I said Digital World, this is now stuck in my head.)

My original backpack had burst two packings ago (Singapore to Japan) when I had more cold weather clothes, and was still carrying my kaput clothing. I decided that instead of duct taping my backpack together for a second time I would just buy a smaller everyday pack that I wouldn't feel ridiculous lugging to a rehearsal or a cafe. I hope my new little backpack will last long enough for me to use in real life (the Watson is not real life). Also, I guess before I go to Oxford I'll have to buy some more clothes so I look like a real person, but it's fun to just wear down the clothes I originally brought to rags. Ah, the pretend life of a vagabond who also can afford plane tickets.

Walzing for Sangria

Anywho, after I packed up my shrinking inventory of earthly belongings, I made my way over to Little Europe to perform at a pizzeria. Emily Walz, the former Carl I mentioned in the last post, joined me and we sang outside of the place to an audience of her foreign friends. We did stuff from Fire and Rain to a bluegrass version of TLC's Waterfalls. We only played for a little over half an hour and made the equivalent of 30 US dollars. Sure, it was paid in pizza and sangria, but I decided to calculate this as I made 30 bucks an hour (double for one hour, then divide by two to split with Emily). Suck it, minimum wage! Also the owner liked it and invited us back anytime. Too bad I had a plane to catch in twelve hours.

From Fire and Rain to Hydro and Pyro

After saying a final good bye to Emily and co., I rushed home, mando in tow, to make it back by 10 because Tree's mom said I HAD TO be back by 10. She was dressed in a nice qipao, so I suspected trouble. I was sweaty from carrying my mandocello across town, but before I caught my breath she exclaimed, "Get in the car, we're late!" But then remembered herself and we each chugged two glasses of water before heading to the garage, my stomach audibly sloshing. We parked in a dark alley and entered a wheat packing plant. We went up a rickety ladder into what looked like an empty living room with a soap opera playing on the TV. We went up another ladder and arrived in a (secret?) Daoist temple. It turns out that I was to be baptized into Daoism, specifically a branch that encourages mystical hydrology. They took down important facts like my Chinese name, my birth date and my cell phone number. These digits were calculated and a secret message was written on a piece of parchment. I recited a prayer which I didn't understand and then stared at the flame above a Buddha statue as a priest burned the parchment in my hands. Startled, I tossed the flaming paper at an ash tray and the priest and his assistants nodded their approval. What? Then they told me they would test my faith. They prayed and flicked a lit incense stick between my eyes. I smelled some hair singeing but I decided it was probably best to burn off any unibrowage that was growing there anyway. My lack of reaction, mainly due to shock at where I had ended up, convinced them that I was a very devout Daoist.

Then they gave me the three treasures. The first was a secret hand position that I can use to protect my heart and soul in times of trouble, though I think Kevlar probably works better. The second treasure was the password to heaven which I am NOT ALLOWED TO REPEAT TO ANYONE!!!! In fact I can only say it in my head, never aloud. But when I die, I can be sure that the Gatekeepers will ask for it. The third treasure was a membership card which is actually quite useful because it can get me free housing at any of their associated Daoist temples (now accepted in over 70 countries!).

I sighed on the drive home. This forced, unexplained baptism really wasn't the way to go about things. But I complied to make Tree's mom happy who was now sure that I could now travel the world without fear of harm. I talked to Tree later asking if he had ever been baptized by fire into mystical hydrology. He said, "Yeah, of course." But on the ride home he had tossed his membership card out the window.

I Am Magic

I didn't sleep the night before leaving Taichung so I could cry more easily at the airport to get my zhongruan through. I also purposely bought my ticket last minute from Eva Airlines, despite my previous issues with them, since they have the cheapest tickets to Hong Kong by far. They have flights every 2 hours to Hong Kong and they rarely fill up, so I hoped that I wouldn't encounter their full flight policy issues. I encountered no resistance at the check in desk, but I remained on high alert, all too aware of how one agitated stickler can ruin my airport experience.

At the gate, a recording played on repeat, "Do not line up. We are not boarding at this time. Please have patience." Despite the trilingual transmission, people were cued up around the corner. I was sitting down, trying to comply with the man, when an attendant approached me. "That's a large instrument you have there, sir. . . We are worried it won't fit." I felt tears hit my cheeks. Wow, this response is getting ridiculously automatic, but he wasn't done yet. "Would it be alright if you boarded first so you can look for a place for your musical instrument? Sorry for the inconvenience." I dried my eyes and assured him that I would be fine with this inconvenience. I was guided passed the hoard of hissing Hong Kongers. I could only think one thing as I walked onto the empty plane, I. Am. Magic. I stowed my instrument, fell asleep instantly, and awoke in Hong Kong.

Hit the Ground Running

I wonder if I've taken some of the joy out of traveling by doing too much Google Maps research before going to a place. I like to make it look like I magically know the route to take. I also feel like this helps me avoid people who want to pickpocket me or try to sell me a fake Rolex or prostitute (I'm opposed to prostitutes in general, be they real or fake). But as with many things, making it look effortless takes a lot of work. I spent the whole night before leaving, researching exactly how to get to my destination. When I landed I bypassed all of the lost new arrivals craning their necks looking for signs and walked to the nearest 7/11, bought a SIM card, called my contact and told him I would be at Hung Hom Station in an hour. I walked to the ticket counter, bought my bus ticket and headed for bus A11 with a bored look on my face as if I did this commute every week. I scoffed at some lost looking Australians as they passed by me. Pshh, tourists, I tutted. I was playing the role of a snob, but at what point does it become real? Eek! Maybe it's better to be a victim of crime than have these condescending thoughts. The bus reminded me not to expectorate lest I be fined. Below is a sign which I didn't have to look at in real life since I'd already seen it on Google Maps.

So I got to the station and met Rui's cousin who lives in Hong Kong. His coworker has a son who has a friend who needs a flatmate. Once again for those of you keeping score at home, my former classmate's cousin's coworker's son's friend was to be my new flatmate, so I can definitely trust him, right? I think I may actually be one degree closer to Kevin Bacon.

Emma, Not Sue

Rui's cousin, Jack, led me to the apartment. It would end up costing about half as much as staying in the cheapest hostel, so I wondered how disgusting it might be. It turned out to be by far the best place I've stayed yet. It's on a food street and always smells like dim sum, sushi, or calzones depending on the hour. It has a guard downstairs, an elevator, and upstairs: AC, wi-fi, and a washing machine. I get my own room, but I have a flatmate who is a monolingual speaker of Cantonese. I figured there must some issue with him if he is subletting so cheaply. Using Rui's cousin to translate, he said I would be a fine roommate if I promised to be clean. "Clean is very important!" I know nothing about him except for his compulsive cleanliness. I told him that between 8AM and 10PM I might play instruments. That was fine with him and we shook on it. He washed his hands with a wet nap after the shake.

Since I paid him for the 2 months, I have seen him only once. It was 3AM and I went to use the toilet, which he was scrubbing. I gestured and used Mandarin, which he can kind of understand but not speak, to indicate that I could help clean the apartment too. He understood and then his eyes went wide. "Nooo! I must clean!" Then he mustered a polite, "Thanks though," in Mandarin. I realized from his demeanor that he is a nice guy, but just straight up OCD about cleanliness. This works fine for me. Although I have been experimenting with the towel next to the electric kettle. I move it 45 degrees to the right every time I make tea. When I come back the next time, it is always moved back. As you can see from the photo above of my room, I do not suffer from OCD.

The food street outside has lots of tasty foods. So far I've had sashimi, pineapple fried rice, calzones, fried dumplings, spicy noodles with eggplant, and hot pot. My plan to lose the weight gained in Taiwan = failed. Right next to the International Hot Dogs Cafe is a pet store full of dogs. It's a little disconcerting.


Hong Kong, Xianggang in Mandarin, means fragrant harbor, but to be honest, the harbor kind of stinks these days due to sewage, pollution, and general sea stank. Nonetheless, the skyline is beautiful at night. There is a show every night at 8PM called the Symphony of Lights along the harbor-side walkway called the Avenue of Stars. The light show is possibly the lamest thing I've seen on my time abroad and that includes Germans trying to rap in English. The light show has a 10 minute preamble for all of its sponsors, then it is 3 minutes of half a dozen buildings flashing green lasers to really corny synthesized Chinese music. I think the light show would have been impressive when the first Tron movie came out, but definitely not now. Everyone who had gathered there walked away seeming disappointed. I don't think anyone ever sees this nonevent twice, so I guess you could accurately say it is a once in a lifetime experience.

Coming Up:

I'll report on living in Hong Kong, my first concerts, and the weird influences of English culture here. Earl Grey Milk Tea? Crazy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I, Expat


Let me start off this post by apologizing for the last post's incorrect link.

This link will treat your ears to a one minute snippet of an
extremely beautiful chant. And thanks for all of you who brought this to my attention.

Farthest Flung

It turns out that I'm not the only Carl in Taichung! On
Facebook I saw that Emily Walz had entered the Carleton Alumni farthest flung competition with Taichung, Taiwan (although she ultimately lost to someone in Singapore). I apologized for my web creepiness, friended her on Facebook, and we met up at the night markets. She was two years ahead of me but we had both played french horn in band together. She's here on a scholarship from the Taiwanese government to study Chinese language. Her boyfriend accompanied her and found a job teaching English.

I asked Emily what she had been eating, since eating is pretty much the number one (read: only) thing to do in Taichung. She said that she'd mainly been cooking at home since she had a kitchen. Unacceptable! I made it my mission to take her around to my favorite food stands and forced her to eat things like stinky tofu which she attempted to claim to like through a wrinkled nose, teary eyes, and a deliberate gulp. I tried to add more spice to her tofu to cover up the stank, but this only caused her more pain because she is from Minnesota. Pictured here is a more friendly food that stinky toufu, a "French pizza wrap." As the sign boasts on the stand, it is "delicieux."

I was more successful at showing her tea stands. Pictured right I am enjoying/choking on a sip of bubble tea. And you have to try bubble tea here because Taichung is its birthplace. According to unverified legend, way back in the 1980s a store began adding the pearls or bubbles, which are usually tapioca, to cold milk tea. Add a thick straw and you get a delightful gulp of milk tea with some tapioca beads in your mouth to chew over. The first time I had bubble tea, I thought I was going to choke, but now I can't get enough. My other favorite at the tea stands is grapefruit juice mixed with green tea and drinkable yogurt. The shorthand they use to mark the cup is QQ, meaning roughly "cute." I translate this though as "chick drink." I don't care if the drinkable yoghurt items are generally for little kids or hormonal women, I gulp it greedily and gladly. I claim I need more dairy than regular people because I'm from Wisconsin when actually I’m borderline lactose intolerant and must endure gastrointestinal cramps equivalent to those seen in the Alien movies to enjoy the taste of my yoghourt drink. I may have a problem actually.

I took Emily and her boyfriend, Wade, to Taipei to see the Chinese orchestra concert featuring Mongolian artists that I mentioned in the last post. It was good to be back in (I want to say myhometown but that’s not the right word) Taipei. I felt confident and relaxed back in the familiar MRT, to see the Ximen Ding pedestrian walkway where there’s tasty food and cool stuff being sold everywhere. But it was also refreshing to see how little I knew. I showed them my favorite eats in Ximen, but when stinky tofu, wheat noodle soup, roasted corn, and curried egg cakes weren’t to their taste I was at a loss for what else to eat there. Touring other people around forced me to realize what a creature of habit I am. I must make sure I don't get stuck in too many ruts, though that is preferable to being hit by cars.

Ex-Pat on Your Back

Back in Taichung, Emily introduced me to a whole community of expatriots that I had no idea existed. They were English teachers and Nike factory workers. Both groups generally didn’t know any Chinese and function in Taichung by eating in Xiao Ouzhou, Little Europe, a series of streets, which cater Italian, French, and Greek cuisine. Everyone who works at these places is fluent in English to accommodate the typically monolingual clientele. Hiring skilled English speakers is easy because they can be paid more as the food at these places is ridiculously expensive. Meals often cost 10 or even 12 American dollars! And since these are bored Westerners they typically order at least double that much in alcohol. In short, the restaurants make a killing.

I don’t know if you remember this or not loyal readers, but I have a major problem with racism in Asia. When I see other white people I typically become disgusted with them and imagine that they know nothing about the local culture and cannot speak any language but English and their attempts at using chopsticks resembles a myopic nurse's vain search for a vein. This is, of course, frequently untrue. So I was nervous as I entered the Londoner pub to join Emily and Wade for the English language trivia. But when I actually chatted with the other whities I realized, rather reluctantly, that they were people too. Mainly though it has been interesting to see this other way of living abroad. And really it’s the way that many Chinese abroad live in America. They just take their culture to the new country and build their own community to live in. Actually the biggest hypocrasy is that I searched for these Chinese communities in countries like Japan, France, Germany, Austria, and to some extent Singapore, but when I see my own people do it, I felt repulsion.

After trivia we went to an Indian restaurant called Bollywood. The prices here were also too damn high.

Emily and Wade live in a house with other foreigners: a British couple and a South African. There are many white South Africans in Taichung who claim that their native language is English (although it’s really Afrikaans) in order to get the cushy job of English teacher. Taiwan’s standard of living is higher than South Africa, and Afrikaans is super closely related to English, so it’s a good deal for everyone.

One of Emily’s friends goes running/jogging/walking in the countryside every weekend with a group of people. After the exercise they treat themselves to a scenic kegger. Last week though they, for reasons as equally confuddling to me as the hundreds of Taiwanese who witnessed it, all dressed in red dresses and ran from bar to bar, having a beer at each place before sprinting to the next location. Men and women revealed much skin and many donned neon green and purple wigs. There were also piggy-back rides and chicken fights. (Why is it when we carry each other we reference animals?) I followed the group for a bit, but felt awkward since I didn’t have a red dress on. Emily had offered me a red dress but I, surprised at my own prudishness, politely declined. The whole time I saw rampaging red dressed ruffians, I couldn’t help thinking, Westerners are so effing weird.

The Real Nike Wives of Taichung

I mentioned earlier that many of the foreigners in Taichung work at the Nike factory. They are designers and engineers mainly. Many of them are men who brought their purposely unemployed wives with them. These ladies spend their days beautifying their luxurious apartments with stainless steel appliances and being driven (they all have drivers!) around to their various appointments. One of these appointments is a book club which Emily belongs to. She reports back about their lavish lifestyles. The women all ask if she followed her boyfriend here, but she, proclaims as proudly as possible that her man followed her.

Singing for Slices

Wow, I'm blogging about something recent now! Such a weird feeling. It's easy to recall details. Like right now I'm in a bit of pain from being sunburned. I slept in until 10 this morning and was burned by the sunlight coming in through the window. I. Am. Pathetic.

Anywho, last Monday Emily and I were dining in Little Europe and enjoying pizza and an enormous jug of sangria when the owner of Salud, a middle-aged Taiwanese woman who speaks English enthusiastically came out to shoot the breeze with us. She had asked us our ages when we ordered the pitcher (did I mention it was enormous?) of sangria and was shocked at the high numbers we responded with. She came back again and asked us where we were from. We said, "America." She said, "America?! But you look so young!" I didn't follow the semantics of that 'but,' but we assured her that despite our nationality we did appear youthful. When I told her I studied music she asked if I would play in the bar. I agreed to play my mando and sing with Emily. The owner agreed to give us pizza. So Emily and I have a paying gig! Sure it is in slices of pizza and pitchers of beer, but the pizza there is really good! Emily wondered if a world tour need to have multiple stops. Hmm. . . I guess first we need to work out our set list.

Back to the Present and the Future

I leave for Hong Kong on Monday. My time in Taiwan has again been amazing. Before my accident I was playing with a traditional nanguan ensemble. When I couldn't play, I supplemented my Taiwanese friends with a trip to a temple, a glimpse into the lives of expats here in Taichung and got to make a new good friend in Emily.

Now, my hand has finally healed enough to be able to play again. My injury also delayed my departure from Taiwan because I wasn't strong enough to carry both my instruments through the airport. My hand is still numb along the index and middle fingers due to severed nerves, but it moves almost as good (Should I say "well?" That sounds so weird.) as new, so no complaints. I'm looking forward to my month and a half in Hong Kong. The last month may be spent in Tibet. I'll keep everyone updated!