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