Monday, September 24, 2007

Cambodia

Blog is on hiatus for just over a week as I wander through Cambodia with the Hot Perfections.


Planned highlights include: Angkor Wat (pictured above), a cruise up the Tonle Sap River, snake wine, ant salad, the Heart of Darkness, the killing fields, a hotel built like an Ewok village, a national park, a beach on an island populated by 7 families, and whatever else we can see, drink, and eat over the course of a week. I never would have predicted that 7 nights would feel like too little for Cambodia, but the more I read, the more that seems to be the case.

See y'all on the other side.

Things that made me angry today (abridged version)

- The middle-aged woman sitting next to me on the subway to Kowloon, who had the makeup of a prostitute and the body of a john, squawking in shrill Cantonese past her cell phone and directly into my ear for three stops. Thanks, lady, for showing me the downside of cell phone access in subways.

- The 91 bus which (1) drove right by me at its origin spot at the Central Bus Station, forcing me to run after it in my flip-flops and catch it in the station driveway (to the driver's credit, he opened the door and let me in); (2) after picking me up, failed to move a single inch for seven full minutes because the driver was yielding to every other car, bus, and tumbling piece of garbage on the road; (3) made 3 consecutive stops averaging nearly 30 new passengers per stop (I counted), at one point letting on 20 passengers, closing the door, and failing to re-enter the flow of traffic for so long that the driver re-opened the door and let on 10 more people; and (4) took 35 minutes to run a route that normally takes about 12, which is really more the fault of Hong Kong rush hour traffic, but I am an unforgiving jerk.

- My "Diesel" messenger bag from Kuala Lumpur, purchased for US $10, which managed to survive less than two weeks of use before suffering a broken strap, a broken zipper, and a half-torn laptop partition. Honestly, shoddy workmanship and cheap materials ("metal" clasps with the consistency of playdough) alone cannot possibly account for this. I was not doing anything remotely taxing with the bag. This was not wear and tear due to poor construction, this was a cruel Malaysian trick, a series of booby traps installed to spite Americans, and perhaps damage their electronics in the process. I am convinced that whoever produced this bag actually produced it at a greater cost than was necessary, in order to include these little pitfalls for the unwary buyer. Bah.

If my superpower is willing myself to be happy, then rain must be my kryptonite

Cappuccino in hand, I stared through the window of Craftsteak, a fancy-ish Soho restaurant that I figured was either run by Tom Colicchio, or by a trademark infringer with enough savvy about international fine dining to make it seem like his restaurant was run by Tom Colicchio (it turned out to be the latter). The sound of the driving tropical rain filled in the rhythm section for the blues music lilting from the house speakers. I drew my cup to my lips and took a long, slow sip of the chalky, flavorless drink.

"I wish I had a cigarette," I mumbled to no one in particular. "I don't even like to smoke."

"It's because of the rain," Marie observed, tracing her fingers through the patch of steam on the window to find that it was on the outside.

"Mmm," I grunted impassively. "I also wish this cappuccino was any good."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

RIP Siemens A50

I develop emotional attachments to material possessions that are so much a part of my lifestyle, they follow me everywhere. See, e.g., my Rainbow sandals, which are the only item of clothing I've never not taken on a trip, anywhere.

Today, I retired the phone that has followed me around the world. When I studied abroad in London, I didn't know that I'd have to change the band settings on my cell phone to get a local signal, so I just bought a cheap new one locally. That phone was the mighty Siemens A50:


Basically obsolete even when it was purchased in early 2004 and sporting embarrassingly long load times, sticky buttons, an unintuitive menu system, and a sexy blue exterior, the noble A50 served with distinction in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Repubic, Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, and more recently in Hong Kong and Malaysia. Recently, something has gone wonky with my longtime companion, and my conversations have ranged from slightly staticy to completely incomprehensible. Today, I unlocked my American T-Mobile phone to accept my local pay-as-you-go SIM card, and will be promoting it to the starting lineup.

Farewell, Siemens A50. I'll always remember holding you to my ear while being questioned by Welsh police as a potential suspect in a robbery in Cardiff, while my English friend who warned me not to go to Wales listened to the incident unfold and laughed uncontrollably.

For your convenience

Because of the increasingly inappropriate volume of postings emerging in this space, I've decided to add a "Hong Kong Highlights!" section to the bar on the right. The good news is, if you want to limit time invested in keeping up with this blog without missing the highlights, now you can just look for new links in that box. The bad news is, those tend to be the longer postings. Do what you wish. And if you read a post you think is a highlight, but it isn't listed as such, I'd appreciate it if you left a comment telling me to fix that.

Hurtling through the looking glass: high-table dinner

This post is long, but I promise you it's worth it.

Tonight was the first high-table dinner of the semester, and the only one I'll be attending, as the other two will find me either traveling through mainland China or in Los Angeles for my sister's wedding. A high-table dinner is a formal dinner for all halls, in which every student dresses up, eats together, and listens to a speaker. As I understand it, the dinners here are designed to emulate the ones traditionally held at Oxford and Cambridge, if Oxford and Cambridge held theirs in 1970s-era cafeterias with Formica tables, plastic chairs, and Stauffer's microwave dinners. Or like Hogwarts, if you take out the magic, wonderment, and likable characters. If that is the case, then this high-table dinner was executed perfectly.

The first step in the process was getting dressed. As I (correctly) predicted that my hallmates would all be dressed in ill-fitting dark-gray-to-black suits with conservative white or blue shirts and modest ties, I opted for light gray slacks, my incredibly bright light green and blue striped shirt, a blue polka dot tie, rolled sleeves, and no coat. As someone who is not only a slave to the man, but is actively striving to effectively become the man, things like this are my way of engaging in mild rebellion. Also in this category: never turning off my iPod when my plane is coming in for a landing, but discreetly leaving in the one earbud that faces away from the aisle. Sometimes, I turn on the iPod when it wasn't previously in use, just out of spite. Anyhow.

Because it was raining, we decided to take cabs and buses to the dinner, which I was surprised to learn was actually being held in the Student Union on campus rather than at a nice restaurant, or a bad restaurant, or any restaurant. It seemed silly to require us to wear ties to the Student Union, but I ran with it.

We filed in, and upon arrival, were required to scan our student cards at the door to confirm our attendance. This was strikingly reminiscent of what I've been told about Scientologists, who apparently carry little scannable membership cards they must present at events, so that they can be harassed by the powers that be if they aren't being participatory enough. The principle at work here at Morrison Hall was largely the same, which is always terrifying, when your life in any way mirrors the Church of Scientology. I shudder, but proceed.

After things quieted down, everyone was asked to rise while the guests of honor entered. Normally, high-table dinners involve a guest speaker, but for the first one of the year, they decided to keep things internal and have people talk about the hall. So the honored guests were the Warden, some staff, the President of the Students Association, and the like. Then everyone chimed in a rousing rendition of the Hall Song, which I've made mention of previously, but never given you the amazing lyrics to:
Morrison mighty, honour your glory.
From far we gather with joy and harmony.
Deep in our hearts we treasure our brightest memories.
May unfading spirit drive us forward eternally.

Long live to Morrison, aspire for dignity.
Among us are formed bonds of lasting unity.
Together in our minds we strive to earn your honour.
Rekindling your glorious fire, let us triumph in our endeavors.
Since I'm on the topic, even though it wasn't performed, let me give you the Hall War Cry, which is notable in its second verse for taking a well-known expression of sportsmanship, playing with the grammar, and turning it into a cry of self-aggrandizement. That, I can respect:
One two three, three two one,
Morrison, Morrison, easy won!
M-O-R-R-I-S-O-N, Morrison!

Two, four, six, eight,
Whom do we appreciate?
M-O-R-R-I-S-O-N, Morrison!
After everyone was seated, the Warden of the hall (a remarkably apt title for the alumnus who lives in the hall and serves as an adviser/supervisor of sorts) took the microphone to welcome everyone and to encourage the students to be proactive in their hall lives and take advantage of the various clubs and teams that are available. He began his speech by asking, "Since some of you arrived after our Hall Orientation, for how many of you is this the first time you've ever seen me?" Although I had not seen the Warden before, my view of the dais was completely blocked by a large pillar, so I kept my hand down, because I still wasn't seeing him.

After his remarks, we dug into our meals, which proceeded from individually-wrapped buns (fresh!), to microwave dinner-style miscellaneous chicken dish and steamed vegetables, to a chocolate mousse with a consistency resembling dried Nutella. As it progressed, I thought to myself, Okay, this is weird for me, but this isn't objectively weird. Just because USC residences didn't encourage this strong sense of identity doesn't mean no one does. Look at the Oxbridge schools, or even Yale and Harvard. I may have been unfair.

Then dinner ended, and we went hurtling through the looking glass.

The featured speaker was the President of the Morrison Hall Students Association, who opened his address by informing us that he was sad and stressed, not because of his workload or responsibilities, but because he had heard reports that Morrisonians were passing each others in the hallway, in the elevator, and on campus without saying hello to one another. This, he said, was a serious problem. As a half-concerned, half-chuckling murmur stirred through the crowd, El Presidente became increasingly agitated and raised his voice.

Sharing an experience of passing a fellow Morrisonian on campus who, as he approached, pulled out a cell phone and started playing on it to avoid stopping and exchange pleasantries, he demanded, "At Morrison Hall, we are family! Would you treat your mother like this? Would you pass your mother in the street and not say hello?" Calming himself a bit, he encouraged us all to carry ourselves with dignity and mutual respect, particularly when we were wearing our Morrison Hall t-shirts.

The mention of these shirts, however, sent him into another crescendo of near-shouting rhetoric. He bemoaned how many hall residents had declined to purchase a Hall shirt, either because they didn't wish to pay for it, or because they were unhappy with the design, cut, or size (I declined for both of these reasons, as well as my staunch refusal to show hall pride that doesn't exist). "We are not selling fashion," he insisted, and made clear that aesthetic concerns would no longer be regarded as sufficient reason to avoid the hall shirt.

Turning his attention to what he regarded as the failure of most residents to get sufficiently involved with hall activities, so that they might better learn from one another and their mutual experiences. "What are you here to learn?" he asked in a cold, demanding tone. "Are you just here to learn how to make excuses for doing nothing?" Turning to the masters to drive home his point, he suggested that we should "Ask not what our hall can do for us, but ask what we can learn from our hall." I briefly pondered whether looking for things our hall could teach us wasn't just another form of asking what our hall could do for us, but my thought process was interrupted by another barrage of questions.

"Why are you here?" he demanded to know, again emphasizing the need to take advantage of the hall experience and to learn from it. "It's not just because you come from somewhere far away from the university!" On that point, I couldn't agree with him more. It's also because of the outrageously low cost of living here!

Demonstrating an acute sensitivity to current events, he announced that he was very disappointed to see that, during the recital of the Hall Song, several students were not singing, and several others were even openly snickering (not me...I just stood quietly in wonderment). El Presidente reminded us that, at future high-table dinners, we would have guest speakers from outside the hall, and that if those speakers ever saw such a disgraceful display, it would bring great shame upon Morrison Hall and all it stood for.

He concluded with a call to action, declaring decisively that, "The SA [Student Association] is not the most important resident of Morrison Hall: the most important resident is each one of you! And also the Floor Committees. And also the clubs. And also the sports teams." To prove it, he went on to announce the name of every Floor Representative, Club President, and Sports Captain, each of whom stood up to brief and polite applause.

The President was seated, and we all thought ourselves spared. A few rote announcements were made about scheduling issues, upcoming events, and a surprisingly warmly-received invitation from the President of the Chess Club to join their noble ranks.

Then, just when it seemed that dinner was over, the President of the Students Association retook the microphone. But he wasn't going to be all negative tonight, oh no. He wanted to thank and recognize all of the hard-working students of the Orientation Committee, who had made the Hall Orientation before the school year such a stirring success. He called out each one by name and room number, and each again received brief and polite applause from the assembled masses.

But if praise was to be received, then criticism was to be borne. There were, it seems, some students who had shirked their responsibilities in the organization and execution of Orientation Week, and El Presidente wanted to encourage everyone to, in the future, fully honor their commitments to the hall. To emphasize this point, he identified the name and room number of each student who had not fulfilled his or her Orientation Committee duties. Those students did not receive brief or polite applause, nor applause of any kind (I was tempted to try a slow clap, but thought better of it).

After another brief call for us to be the best hall residents we could be, the President took his seat and the staff manager of the building complex where our hall is located took the microphone. With no further pleasantries, she drew the ceremony to a close.

"High-table dinner is end."

South Bend blues

Joining Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan on the list of public meltdowns I'm morbidly fascinated with observing is the Notre Dame football program, under the leadership of Charlie Weis, whose great head coaching accomplishments include losing to USC by less than was expected and receiving a 10-year, $35 million contract extension after a whole seven games.

Their loss to Michigan State dropped them to 0-4 this week (for the first time in their 119-year history), but I was especially fond of this blurb, which ran on ESPN.com after then-0-2 Michigan's mercilessly 38-0 beating of Notre Dame during week 3:
The NCAA rankings are probably enough. When one sees that Notre Dame ranks dead last among 119 Division I-A schools in scoring (4.3 PPG), offensive touchdowns (0), rushing yards (-14), total offense (115.0 YPG) and sacks allowed (23), one can come to the conclusion that the Irish offense is, well, not so good. But a little comparative perspective might be needed to truly appreciate how bad it has been for the Irish.

Perhaps a trip to Charlie Weis' home state of New Jersey would do the trick. That's where you'll find former longtime punching bag, Rutgers University. There was a time -- let's say from around the late 19th century to the early 21st century -- when even uttering the words Notre Dame and Rutgers in the same sentence was rather ridiculous. Then this weekend came along.

Against Norfolk State, the Scarlet Knights scored a Big East-record 42 points on six touchdowns and 277 yards … in the second quarter. As fellow ESPN researcher Adam Reisinger so deftly pointed out, that one quarter of offense sure matches up quite favorably with the 12 quarters of "offense" produced by Notre Dame this season.

Want some more perspective? How about this: On Saturday alone, 17 quarterbacks in Division I-A produced more yards of total offense than the entire Notre Dame offensive unit has put up this season. Ouch.
Tee hee.

When I'm bored, I can look to my dorm elevator for entertainment

I'm sure this would be much less funny if I knew who the men in the pictures were. But because I don't, I'm heartily amused:

Friday, September 21, 2007

What I'm missing in Boston

Boston authorities have an exaggerated response to a faux-terrorist scare based on legitimate artistic or commercial behavior?

Come on, that never happens.

Must write this down before I forget

I woke up to the sound of my phone ringing at 7 am this morning, just 3 hours after I had gone to bed. A judge had left a message on my parents' phone, which I've been using as my contact number in my do-I-want-to-or-don't-I clerkship hunt, and they were calling to pass on the message. The judge's clerk said to call back before the end of the Hawaii work day, so after doing some research on the judge (and on sunny Honolulu) and talking to his clerk, I finally got back to sleep around 9 am.

At which point, in a series of start-and-stop sleeping sessions that were interrupted by my preset alarm, my moving roommate, and the ever-present sound of ringing in my ears from my last night out, I proceeded to have one of the weirdest dreams in recent history, which proceeded unbroken even though I woke up so many times. My dream logging has fallen off a bit in the last few months, but this bears writing down.

< insanity >

I'm in Los Angeles on a week-long respite from Hong Kong, and I'm hanging out with family, friends from LA, and friends from Boston all at once. We decide to go some strange, unknown play in a theater that's only about 2/3 full, which is based on an unusual audience-participatory game show concept (in the neighborhood of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). The show is being held in a theater that's in a hotel, and after the show, my parents go home, and my friends and I stay to meet the cast and gallivant around the hotel. The cast is fun, but bizarrely quirky, and the "host" of the game show that made up the play - also the writer and director - is a strange mother figure to the late-teens/early-20s cast.

All of my friends and I are partying with the cast, bounding from hotel room to hotel bar to hotel room to hotel bar, and flirting shamelessly. As we go around, my mouth starts hurting, and I find that I'm mumbling my words somewhat. I ignore this. As we're standing in a group that includes a Boston friend who recently came out of the closet, I'm about to make a comment that references his sexual orientation when he looks at me with a "not another word" stare and shakes his hands "no." I pull him aside and say I'm confused, that I figured it was fine to talk about it since he had updated his Facebook profile about it and everything. He tells me I'm a bad friend and walks away. I walk back to the group to resume the conversation, but I feel bad, and my mouth is hurting more.

I get a phone call on my Hong Kong cell phone, which is prone to terrible static, and answer it to discover it's from a legal headhunter who has discovered me via his "comprehensive facebook." Without letting me know any specifics of the job he's offering, and totally unfazed by the fact that I'm a third-year law student with no work experience beyond my summers, he demands to interviews me on the spot, and I struggle through, finding myself increasingly inarticulate and unable to enunciate clearly because of my aching mouth. When the interview is over, he reveals that a representative of the firm that he was recruiting me for was listening on the line the whole time. The static gets too bad and I hang up, and instantaneously, there is a long text message on my phone from the recruiter, informing me that I scored low in most categories, and that the hiring partner felt that I was regarding the job opportunity, which I had no details about, as "just another job" that I wasn't sufficiently excited or honored to be offered, and I should be grateful that a firm like Shearman (and Sterling, the first I hear about the employer) would even want to talk to me.

I put away my cell phone and return to the festivities, where one of the female cast members, a short, attractive black girl, has taken quite a shine to me. I talk to her and her less-attractive Latina friend, and discover that she is 17 years old, grew up in one of the ghettoest parts of L.A., and was rescued from that life by the writer-director of the show, who recruited her and pulled her out of that environment to come perform. I start pondering how the relationship of the writer-director with her casts seems stranger and stranger, when the girl suggests that we leave immediately and that I join her and her (equally underage) friend at their apartment in the ghetto for a threesome. I politely decline.

I return to my L.A. friends, and tell them about my botched interview for god only know what job, my mouth hurting even more and my speech so slurred now that I'm barely comprehensible. I look in a mirror on a wall in the room and see that my top row of teeth is severely yellowed and is jutting out visibly past the bottom row. Startled, I bring my hand to my mouth, and when I feel my teeth move, I take hold and remove the entire top set of teeth, gums, palate, and all, and hold it outward as a unit toward my image in the mirror. The sight is a striking parallel of the creepiest thing I've ever seen in a movie, an image in Event Horizon where someone with cuts all over his body is holding his own eyes out toward the camera and intoning in Latin, "liberate tutemet ex inferis" ("save yourself from hell"). You can see what that looks like here, but I warn you, even in a poor-resolution still frame, it's really freaking unnerving. Anyhow, I see my reflection in the mirror, and the world goes black.

When I wake up an indeterminate amount of time later, I'm in a bed in a hotel room at the same hotel, fully dressed, with my palate and teeth apparently surgically restored. I trace my tongue along the top of my mouth and can feel two small bolts, but no pain, and everything else looks and feels right. I head back down to the party, exchange pleasantries with some of the male cast members from the show (we are still hanging with them), and get a call on my cell phone again. It's the legal recruiter. He has called to say that the interview went poorly, but he thinks he can convince the hiring partner at Shearman to give me another chance. It turns out the job involves traveling from city to city in Europe with a band, doing their legal work and hanging out with them (i.e., my dream job on several levels). When he hears me speaking normally, clearly, eloquently, he gets very excited that he'll be able to make it work, and promises to call me back. I turn my attention back to hanging out with the cast members.

I wake up.

< /insanity >

I suppose in some ways, it's an easy enough dream to analyze. I'm a bit anxious about the clerkship hunting thing for any number of reasons. I don't know if I want to do it, I don't know what I'm supposed to get out of it, I don't know if I'd regret doing it or not doing it. I'm afraid of losing a certain opportunity that's available to me at one of my potential firms if I clerk, afraid of losing long-term opportunities if I don't. I'm mixed about the geographical issues. Even though I'm lately thinking I don't want to clerk, I resent not having gotten more calls from judges, even though that also makes sense because my resume does say I'm going to be in Hong Kong for the Fall 2007 semester (in hindsight, should have left that off). I resent the judges who have called me not being more flexible about doing phone interviews (the one whose clerk I talked to today was the only one so far who agreed to it, but the judge wants videoconferencing, which worries me as well because I've never gotten videoconferencing to work with less than an hour of troubleshooting). And studying abroad, of course, comes with the usual set of social concerns and relationship-building. All in all, I can only assume that the dream was triggered by the morning's events, combined with general delirium-by-sleep-deprivation.

But hell, seeing yourself holding out the entire top half of your mouth toward yourself, with a pleading look in your eyes, is haunting.

Strategic alliance!

Thanks to the keen editorial eye of HL Record Editor-in-Chief Andrea Saenz - proprietor of the famous Peanut Butter Burrito, and still the only person who I have ever been introduced to via mutual blog readership - excerpts from the recently-named Begging the Question will now be published as a weekly column in the HL Record (which is available online, but so is this, so big deal). Given how much I've been writing since getting here, the only way this changes my life is that now I'm getting paid to do it. Absurd.

This marks my triumphant return to university journalism publication, after my 3-year stint as Assistant City Editor, Opinions Writer, Music Columnist, Lifestyle Columnist, and general Office Bitch at the Daily Trojan. I think my mom has still saved a clipping from every article I ever ran there.

The HL Record, of course, is famous for publishing the several thousand-word long manifesto "How I Was Niggerized at LaGuardia." I'll introduce it to you as it was introduced to me by a friend: the author "starts by mentioning Rosa Parks and, several thousand words later, concludes a stirring tale of how a family with kids got on a plane before him and he went batshit insane. Worth a Google. Amazing." My favorite line in the piece, hard as it is to choose: "The family was moving very slowly, but I waited for them because I am polite and nice, and because I prefer to avoid confrontations." I would make a comment about how the article is grandiose, overwrought, self-indulgent, and hyperracializing, or maybe note ironically that the writer's allies in the civil rights movement would surely be moved by his struggles in boarding his first-class flight, but I would probably be branded a racist oppressor. Oh wait...oops.

In recognition of this strategic alliance, I have updated the official blog photo to better reflect my Hong Kong existence, although in that particular respect, I suppose it's not much different from my Cambridge experience. I can now tell you with full confidence that the little gray line under "Your Host" is 213 pixels long, as I spent several minutes meticulously resizing the photo to match it perfectly. This hideous, almost crippling expression of neurosis was needed, because earlier today I broke with custom by putting cash into my wallet without ensuring that all bills were oriented in the same direction. I still made sure that the bills were arranged in order by value, with bigger bills in back, because if I didn't do that, I'm pretty certain a meteor would crash into the earth and destroy us all, and I don't want to be responsible for that.

A game for the morning after

One of the things I did to will myself into happiness last night was resolve to go out, and to have fun doing it. Unsurprisingly, this involved alcohol, as we found ourselves at Club 9, a posh club in Central, and probably the only bar, lounge, or club I've entered in Hong Kong where I didn't see a single white face that wasn't part of my own group. It ended up being more like one of those "look at your digital camera the next day and go 'ohhhh, yeah'" nights than one of those "look at your digital camera the next day and go 'what was THAT?'" nights, which is nice.

Still, there were some opportunities to play my favorite morning after game, "What I (Don't) Remember." Basically, you consider what you can recall, and then ponder what piece of information is missing that would explain it. Observe.

What I do remember: being gently escorted from the club by a bouncer somewhere between 3:30 am and 4 am. What I don't remember: why.

Modesty in advertising

The Hong Kongese have interesting commercial practices when it comes to the advertising of undergarments.

For men, conspicuously large and awkward packages:


For the ladies, attractive models in granny panties:


Still not sure if, as cultural quirks involving advertising go, this beats Kuala Lumpur's monorail, where every stop is sponsored (generally by major banks and telecommunications companies) and the announcement for each stop includes the name of that sponsor. Even the maps display the sponsor's logos alongside the stops. Let no advertising opportunity go to waste!

Tell me somebody else does this

When you're doing red-eye reduction on your digital pictures, do you ever stop after fixing one eye and look at someone and imagine they're a cyborg?

No, just me?

Climbing the Wall

Yesterday, I posted about the Three-Week Wall, and hitting it at full speed. Immediately upon clicking the "Publish Post" button, I got tired of the feeling and resolved, I am going to will myself into happiness.

I listened to music that makes me happy.

I put on clothes that make me happy.

I went out determined to be happy.

And ever since then, I have been sublimely, deliriously happy. Jubilant would not be an exaggeration.

While I was at it, I solved all of my travel-related problems. I realized that the problem wasn't that I was being overly self-indulgent, it was that I was being overly self-indulgent in all the wrong ways. So I traded in my mopey attitude for some unilateral decision-making. I realized that I actually know someone who lives Phnom Penh, and it would be downright moronic not to take advantage of that. I picked a simple itinerary that makes me happy, and said that anyone who wanted to come along was welcome. Unsurprisingly, everyone immediately jumped on board. Tickets are bought.

The feeling has carried over into today, mild alcohol-related dehydration be damned (more on that later). I realized, this is like the greatest superpower in the world. I must hone this, develop it. Did I have this power all along? To look at myself, point, and intone in a stern, fatherly voice, be happy, and to obey? Unfortunately, I don't think it would work for everything. Let's see...

Do the work you're supposed to do instead of staying up late and blogging.

Hmm...nope.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Three-Week Wall

When I studied abroad as an undergraduate, I discovered something I called the Three-Week Wall. The Three-Week Wall is built down the street from Homesickness Mart and around the corner from the Culture Shock Condominiums.

Basically, it's when the honeymoon period for studying abroad is over, the comfortable sense of true residency is still about two weeks away, and you are stuck in limbo, obsessing over all of the now-glaringly obvious flaws of your new city, new friends, new situation, life, etc. It's also characterized by a sideways sense of homesickness, not for any particular place, but simply for the concept and feeling of "home."

It is, of course, fleeting. Even when it's happening, you realize this. But that doesn't mean you can do much about it.

In the case of Hong Kong, I feel hypersensitized to every distraction and annoyance. The viscous quality to the pollution-ridden air. The always-startling thud sound the door of the #28 minibus makes when it slams open violently at every stop. The way people seem to know a tantalizing amount of English, so that you can get your hopes up about communicating with them really effectively, before you realize that there's still a haze between you (unrelated to the pollution).

And this place can really stress you out...it's a feeling that I've only experienced this badly in Berlin and in Moscow (though in Moscow, it is much much worse, as the problem isn't just the city, it's the fact that everyone there is a humongous asshole). I wondered why Hong Kong was getting to me so when New York never did, and that's when I realized that the reason New York didn't stress me out is because I usually refused to travel north of 35th Street. I couldn't stand spending too much time in Midtown because, well, it was apparently too much like all of Hong Kong (not that I knew it at the time). My Californian soul aches.

And none of this is helped by the fact that I spent the entire day today, from waking up until dinner, dealing with travel accommodations for what was our trip to to Cambodia and Laos, and is now either our trip to just Cambodia or to Yunnan Province in mainland China, or who knows where the hell else. It is one of the little ironies of my life that travel might be the thing I love most in this world, and travel planning might be the thing I hate most. I already retired from planning vacations for nine, and I may now be retiring from planning vacations for anything but two completely like-minded individuals with comparable resources and priorities, one of whom must be me.

I spent most of the day moping openly about all this, though I did openly admit the absurdity of said moping. And passing a homeless man on the street who had a crew of city workers with jackhammers set up shop next to his sleeping spot helped put the ridiculous white collarness of my problems into perspective. "Oh no, Muffy! I've already grown weary of Hong Kong, so soon after returning from Malaysia, and now the local holiday is making it just impossible to plan my next excursion! Whatever shall I do? And when will my imported artisinal olive oil from Italy finally arrive?"

Sigh. Now I need to give $10 to a monk again just to feel like less of a douche.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

If it's still International Talk Like a Pirate Day where you are...

Go hornswaggle some drivelswiggers with your scurvy words. Give 'em a case of the davies. And for god's sake, say something more original than "shiver me timbers."

What the Lonely Planet leaves out in its descriptions of tourist destinations

Asia smells. Sometimes it smells wonderful, often it smells terrible, but it very seldom spells neutral. The whole continent is something of an olfactory adventure, and just trying to pick apart the smells and discover what's underneath can be a fun game. Just imagine the following combinations hitting you as you walk down the street...

- Durian, Anywhere: Rotting flesh, onions, roadkill skunk, and an athlete's foot-afflicted foot after one week in a hiking boot in a tropical climate. If you don't know, durian is a (supposedly delicious) tropical fruit that looks like a pineapple on steroids/medieval weapon, filled with pulpy butterscotch pudding. I could smell this from a block away. Someday, I will muster up the courage (and intestinal fortitude) to hold my nose (literally) and try it. My time in Malaysia was not that day.

- Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
: Dried fish skin, sun-baked fresh-kill seafood, saltwater and vinegar, dried herbs, and shirtless day laborer sweat. This is also one of the more visually impressive streets in the so-called Chinatown area of Hong Kong, with its enormous jars of dried mussels and shrimp, and tremendous dried shark fins (which, presumably, were once attached to tremendous sharks). There's a reason why this stretch of road is commonly known as Dried Seafood Street (an adjacent area is called Bird's Nest and Ginseng Street).

- Outside Any Major Bakery, Hong Kong: Steamed dough, fresh-baked flaky crust, fragrant pork with barbecue sauce, and slightly overused cooking oil. Overall very pleasant...and exciting, because it means the possibility of steamed pork buns.

- Puduraya Bus Station, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Pepper, smoke, and disinfectant, carried on a breeze of aerosol paint.

- Golden Triangle, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Spilled oil, gasoline, rotten sulfurous eggs, generic but mutant high-strength sewage, and urine. You can generally find some variation on this near any sewer grate or subway vent in Hong Kong.

- India Market, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Curry powder, coriander, saffron, and fresh-cut starfruit. Fantastic.

- Shangri-La Hotel Lobby, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Too-conspicuous floral perfume, combined with slightly musky cologne for a "19th century French brothel" effect. And apparently, every Shangri-La Hotel lobby has this same smell, so that it "feels like coming home" wherever you are in the world. Uhh...great? Marie's take (via her by-invitation-only blog, so I quote): "Well, it did smell like coming home every evening... home to a brothel. The lobby smelled like your grandma, if your grandma were a two-bit whore. Incredibly strong overly floral sneeze-inducing insecticidal fog about sums it up."

- Back Seat of a Certain Cab, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: At least one showerless week in a subtropical climate.

- Central District, Hong Kong: Rather than theorizing about what could be creating the thick, sludgy feel to Hong Kong air, I have consulted Hong Kong's official Air Pollution Index online. I can now tell you that the smell is a unique combination of nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon, lead, bromide, and hydrocarbons (from cars); silicon, aluminum, calcium, manganese, and iron (from construction activities); vanadium and nickel (from oil-fired combustion); cadmium and hydrocarbons (from incineration); sodium, chloride, magnesium, and potassium (from marine aerosols); and nitrate, sulphate, and ammonium (from secondary pollutant formation). It's like a heavy metal salad bar out here. Delish.

In case you're worried that my blog doesn't take enough of your time

I've also uploaded all of my Hong Kong pictures thus far to Picasa, put the link in the "Other Ways to Stalk Me" section, and will continue to keep it updated. Eventually (soon), even Google will run out of space and I'll have to drop the older pictures, so if you're one of my fellow HKers (and it's for your benefit that I'm doing this), I'd download the pictures you want in a timely fashion.

Life as a follower

Normally, when I'm outside the United States, I'm a, or the, de facto leader of whatever company I travel in. This is the inevitable result of having (1) travel experience, and (2) the capacity to read a map.

But all of a sudden, I find myself traveling with other experienced travelers, all of whom can competently read a map. Marie is mistress of the guidebooks and always has an incredibly strong idea of what she wants to do. Britt is the Hong Kong veteran with knowledge of the streets (and several other exchange students I hang out with range in Hong Kong experience from "well acquainted" to "hot shot insider"). I'm still capable of leading the group...I just no longer have to, and more often than not, I don't. At our best, we are a leaderless society of equals, a socialist ideal. So here I am, stuck without my usual travel identity. Who am I now and what am I to do?

Guess I'll have to settle for being the pretty one. Le sigh.

Malaysian nationalism

I've always been somewhat fascinated with nationalism as a social phenomenon, and Malaysia makes for an interesting test case.

August 31, 2007 marked the 50-year anniversary of Malaysian independence, and the country was covered in flags and celebratory banners. Some of these appeared in obvious contexts. Government buildings, like the one here, were either draped in enormous national flags over one wall, or smaller flags over every window. This particular one went for the "gaudy monstrosity" school of nationalist decor. That is no surprise.

But Malaysia is the only country I've ever been to where more private homes and business are flying national flags than in the United States! Consider this photograph of an apartment block in M(a/e)(l/ll)a(cc/k/q)a, a.k.a. Melaka:


Yes, every single apartment has a Malaysian flag hanging on the balcony. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, and it seems unlikely to me that the government would mandate flag-waving, and particularly unlikely that they would choose to enforce the mandate selectively, on one apartment building in an entire town. That said, all of the flags in this building are quite uniform in size and production, as are most of the ones you see around town.

So my question is, what's the mechanism at play here? Is flag display somehow enforced by the government? Is it not mandated, but encouraged and subsidized? Does the government provide national flags at discounted rates? Hand them out for free? Do they charge full price but have a monopoly on their production? Are people truly that patriotic, or are they required to be, or do they pretend to be to keep up an appearance for their peers, the authorities, whoever?

An entire country is covered in flags and I want to know how and why it got to be that way.

Obligatory Malaysia travelogue

There are a few quirks about the Malaysia trip that I still want to dedicate specific posts to, but I'm inevitably going to have to write a general Malaysian travelogue to cover some of the sights. Yes, have to. It's not even a choice at this point.

Batu Caves

I had no sooner plopped down on my comfortable hotel bed (a stark contrast to the brick on which I usually sleep) when Marie emerged from the bathroom and declared, "To the bat cave, Robin!" While I questioned why I had immediately been pigeonholed as Robin, Marie was the bearer of the guidebook, and as a result, probably had rightful claim to the Batman mantle.

So off we went to the Batu Caves, a series of limestone caves 30 minutes outside Kuala Lumpur. Climb 272 steps, next to a 43 meter tall statute of Lord Murugan (which was apparently unveiled in 2006...I feel deceived), and you reach a Hindu table built into one of the caves. The temple itself is rather underwhelming, but the caves themselves are more impressive than you'd expect, featuring multiple chambers, stalactite and stalagmite formations, and openings to the sky. Actual quote: "Why is there an office desk in a Hindu cave temple?"

Beyond that, the Batu Caves were remarkable for two reasons: the prevalence of macaque monkeys at the base of the steps (first wild monkeys I've seen, though not as up-close-and-personal as my Morocco experience), and the strangely realistic physique of Lord Murugan. For a Hindu god of war, he has quite the paunch! His gut hangs out over his belt, and his love handles are worse than mine. Damn, it I like my deities impossibly perfect! Actual quote: "I think the statue's nipple is as big as my head. This makes me uncomfortable."

Forest Research Institute of Malaysia

My battery-dead camera did not capture any pictures of this place, which was a pity. A rainforest preserve/research station just outside Kuala Lumpur, near the Batu Caves, it was like stepping into the Dharma Initiative complex from Lost. There was a school, a cafeteria, a gym. There was a whole village commune feel to the place, with buildings that looked like barracks, and residents wearing matching t-shirts all going on hikes and runs against lush rainforest backdrops. It really did seem like a self-contained mini-society that was totally separate from Kuala Lumpur, totally separate from Malaysia, could have existed anywhere. Idyllic. There must have been a murderous underbelly.

Golden Triangle

The central district of Kuala Lumpur is known as the Golden Triangle, and the focal point of the skyline is the Petronas Towers. Although this picture doesn't convey it, there are two of them, side-by-side and identical, and connected by a bridge about halfway up. And at the bottom of it is...a mall! How Hong Kong-like! Our hotel was located in the Golden Triangle, but I didn't spend a whole lot of time there. Kuala Lumpur is quite metropolitan, surprisingly so. But I'm already living in an insanely metropolitan city, I wanted a chance to see something different. That's why I went to...

Melaka

Also known as Malaka, also known as Malacca, also known as Malaqa. We have one picture of a bus counter sign that uses 3 different spellings of the name. They just can't decide. Whatever it's called, it's a port town in southern Malaysia, closer to Singapore. At various times it was owned by the Chinese, the Portugese, the Dutch, and the British, and was an important port of call in the old spice trade. It was a welcome change of pace from the megalopolis lifestyle, with a quaint Chinatown area that wasn't so overwhelming bustling that it killed the small town feel.

You can find churches, down the street from mosques, across the street from Confucian temples, and around the corner from Buddhist and Hindu temples. Everyone's had their hand in the Melaka pot and everyone's left the mark. The historical buildings in the town center all reflect some kind of revision that the next band of conquerors brought to town. The city was touristy, but was swarming with Singaporean tourists rather than western ones, so I didn't feel bothered by it. We went wandering, covering the historical parts of the cities, but also the regular parts of town where people actually live.

It cost all of US $3 per person each way to get to and from Melaka, a 2-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur. On the bus ride back, the four people in our group were the only passengers on the bus (unless you count the driver's buddy, who was hanging out up front). While we were somewhat depressed about our massively disproportionate carbon footprint, and slightly concerned that the bus company was actually losing money on the trip, we did enjoy the ample space to sprawl out and take naps.

World's Largest Pork Bun!

People in this region seem to really enjoying using superlatives, even if they have to include like 4 subordinate phrases as qualifiers. I don't know if these were truly the world's largest pork buns, as claimed. But does it matter? Finding this bakery when I was still disgustingly full from lunch is one of the great culinary tragedies of my life. If I could do it all over again, I'd have fought through! Or at least horded it for days, tried to smuggle it back into Hong Kong with me. What a wasted opportunity.

Market Madness

Indian Market. Chinese Market. Other Chinese Market. Malaysian Market. Any street food product, knock-off luxury good, or ridiculous tourist chatchky you desire can be yours!

National Mosque

It would have been nice if the guidebook had warned us that the National Mosque is closed to non-Muslims. Or that it's totally modern and generally visually unimpressive from the outside. That would have been helpful information. But the visit wasn't a total waste of our time. First, we got a sweet picture of (6 out of 9 total members of) our travel group in front of a decent-looking fountain, which featured Britt and myself on the ends replicating an absolutely stunning pose we discovered on the cover of Malaysia Airlines' Temptations in-flight catalog. But even better, just after our nice Korean tourist/volunteer finished taking our picture, five more of his companions started taking pictures of the group on their own cameras. Apparently, we are some damn entertaining westerners. And when Britt and I thought they were done and dropped the pose, one of them slumped his shoulders disappointedly and implored us to strike it one more time. Who were we to say no?

Monkeys!

I have heard all kinds of horror stories about wild macaques in Southeast Asia. When aggravated, they're known to attack humans. And they're smart enough to realize that humans often carry food, so when they're hungry, they'll steal people's bags and start rummaging. But the macaque population of Kuala Lumpur is apparently very well-behaved. They're quiet but friendly. They're very calm, and cautious around humans, but not afraid. And they know how human-monkey relations work, because as soon as Marie so much as looked inside her purse, they swarmed, emerging from the trees to look for a meal. For a while, we thought they were going to get aggressive...a few actually darted around behind us and had us surrounded. But then they just sat and waited patiently, looking at us with pleading eyes.

And it just so happened that Marie did have fruit in her purse, some borderline inedible Saudi Arabian fruit we'd purchased in the KL bus station the day before, and a couple of complementary mangoes from our hotel room. We expected that when we started distributing fruit, the monkeys would start fighting for it, but they were quite deferential to one another. If we threw a piece, whoever reached it first picked it up uncontested. And when we started handing the monkeys pieces directly, they would just sit down and eat it rather than running away to horde. They didn't share, but they didn't fight.

And they're freaking monkeys. It was awesome.

Islamic Museum

We spent a substantial amount of time in the Islamic Museum. I know precious little about Islamic history, to tell the truth. We studied the history of the Middle East in my 7th grade Social Studies class, and I think 10th grade World History didn't even bother (way to go, Edison High School). So it was interesting to get a refresher course, and one that I have to say was quite objective and non-ideological. The museum featured exhibits on Islamic art, weapon and armor design, tapestry and fashion, architecture, and bookmaking (illuminated manuscript style). But the best work of art in the museum was the building itself, which had several rooms with tall ceilings that opened to elaborately-painted domes.

Orchid Garden

After our visit to "the world's largest covered bird park" was scuttled by the ridiculous price of admission (US $10!), we regrouped and went next door to the Orchid Garden, which rang up at a far more reasonable US $0.30. They weren't particularly special orchids, they were just orchids. In a garden. So the name was quite accurate. And I am almost sure that I got my money's worth. Even if it wasn't the height of excitement, though, the visit was a nice, relaxing end to the weekend (which was subsequently undermined by my 2-mile rain-jaunt through a residential neighborhood). And it allowed me to totally overuse the macro function on my digital camera, as you can see here.

In Conclusion

Reactions to Kuala Lumpur in our group were mixed. Britt said that the $0.30 Orchid Garden was an analogy for Kuala Lumpur on the whole: didn't cost much, didn't do much for him, not a big loss. I was more positive about the place. Sure, the low cost is a big part of the appeal (roundtrip airfare, 2 nights in a luxury hotel, and all of my entertainment, food, and souvenirs for 3 days came to a total of $450). But the people are really friendly, and the place has personality. I don't know if I can say you should give up other places in the region so you can go to Malaysia (ask me at the end of December), but if you have a chance to go, why not?

I am a tired, wet, dirty, bedraggled American

When we passed a crowd of small Malaysian children as we walked down a small residential street, desperately trying to reach our hotel in time to check out and catch a cab to the airport for our flight back to Hong Kong, they excitedly waved and yelled "Hi!" Twenty minutes later, as we passed the same crowd of Malaysia children after discovering that our 1-mile walk through the rain had reached a dead end and that the best place to catch a cab was back where we started, they excitedly waived and yelled "Bye!"

It's like they knew.

Our last day in Kuala Lumpur, we decided to stop in the Malaysian Market for a quick lunch. Thirty minutes and $1.80 per person later, we were full of delicious curries and ready to start back to the hotel. Our group of five walked through the market, hoping to catch a cab at the other end. When we reached the end and saw a snarled mass of traffic and market stalls, a fateful choice was made. Two of our company decided to walk back to the other end of the marketplace and take a cab back to the hotel. The remaining three (myself included) looked toward the landmark Petronas and TM Towers and thought, we can walk. It's just this kind of wide-eyed idealism that makes travel adventurous and fun.

In this case, however, our wide-eyed idealism made travel rainy, wet, and late. Our route toward the hotel was blocked by a highway with a tall dividing wall that never opened up to allow a crossing. We followed it for about a mile, well out of the way of where we were going anyhow, before hitting a dead end that forced us to return to the marketplace where we started, pick up a cab just like our two friends had, like, 45 minutes earlier, and drive for 3 minutes in a straight freaking line right back to our hotel. Oops.

Every traveler has a moment when they're at their worst. For some, it's when they're tired in the morning. For others, when they're hungry and their blood sugar is low. Some people get frustrated when waiting for others to make decisions, and others respond very poorly when they learn that an attraction they're interested in is closed. For me, the feeling that I am going to be late for a flight, train, or bus is when I'm at my worst. I realize this, and I just shut my mouth to make sure I don't say something so snarky that I have to spend the next three days apologizing. I just walk fast, get a grim look in my face, and wait for the crisis to pass.

Of course, not everyone has this particular neurosis. As I was peeling the wet hair off my forehead and consoling myself with the thought, "At least I'll get a good story out of this," the better-prepared and unfazed Marie walked under her umbrella 20 yards behind, smiling beatifically as she paused to pet every stray cat she encountered along the way and exchange pleasantries with locals.

Of course, as always, I stressed for nothing. Our cab driver was a master behind the wheel and got us to the airport before a group of our friends who left nearly 10 minutes before we did. The airport was a model of efficiency, and we were checked in for the flight so far ahead of time, we made stops at the duty free just to pass the time.

But I did get one glorious, miserable picture out of it. In my warped value system, that makes it all worthwhile:

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

If you didn't believe me about the halls

Maybe you didn't believe me when I told you there was a hall song and a hall war cry for every hall. Not only was I telling the truth, but there are also hall marches and dances. And not only are there hall marches and dances, but they are publicly performed in competition with other halls.

This video is a perfect representation of the Hitler youth fascist mentality that seems to be expected of hall residents. They are apparently completely oblivious to the obvious Nazi parallels, but rest assured, I am not. The shaking of the camera in this video is me, laughing at the absurdity of what I see. And if you listen closely when the first arms go up, you can hear Britt in the background exclaim, "Whoa!" By the end of the video, as you'll hear me announce, my blogging duty on this was clear. I should also mention that a local student who stood with us and observed the spectacle insisted that we were watching two of the tamer and less spirited halls in action, and that several of the other halls had far more complex choreography and better timing.



To further illustrate the hopeless cluelessness of this students, this semi-fascist demonstration is being staged on a road that is hand-painted with Chinese characters that memorialize the 1989 Tienanmen Square incident. Bravo.

It has been suggested to me that I redub this video with audio of a Hitler speech, German march music, and the like. It has also been suggested to me that, were I to do this and post it on the Internet, and were the university to discover that video on the Internet, they would likely fail to find the humor in my social commentary and expel me. Much as I'd love to be the test case for First Amendment values in post-return-to-China Hong Kong, I'm a lover, not a martyr.

Amusing Hong Kong photos

Sure, there are plenty of normal pictures of me, and my friends, and the scenic...er...sights...of Asia. But I prefer to share with you the macabre and the bizarre.


The 88-story IFC tower at a 45-degree angle. I must have spent at least two full minutes rotating this picture in a circle in Picasa. I settled on this perspective for its strangely disconcerting effect.


Oh, the glory of Wan Chai. On a street full of girly bars, Cockeye has got be the best-named of them all. And look how many taxis are lined up outside!


It's the Asian William Shatner. God help us all.


Breaking news from the South China Morning Post.


Still-living sea creatures that have been grown inside of water bottles, because a short and ignominious life of confinement will apparently make them tastier when I eat them.


After a series of ugly contractual disputes, ABC was forced to replace the entire cast of Lost for season 4 with the Fall 2007 exchange class of the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.

In hunger, unity

One of the particularly interesting elements of visiting Malaysia was the fact of being there during Ramadan. Although there is a very large Indian/Hindu population, it is nevertheless an Islamic country, and the majority of locals were fasting every day. In watching this, it was immediately clear how much cohesion people can find when they're all hungry together.

Jews are generally familiar with this phenomenon. We call it Yom Kippur, otherwise known as the Day of Atonement, otherwise known as the 24-Hour Diet. The Reform approach to Yom Kippur, which I subscribe to, generally involves distractedly engaging in responsive prayer for forgiveness for sins, while exchanging furtive glances with the other people in the temple that say, dear god I am hungry. You're hungry too? We are now friends. Break times typically involve commiseration over mutual hunger, discussions about what food you'll be using to break the fast, and trying to figure out who the hell is the brat 3 rows up who's sneaking M&Ms out of his coat pocket during prayer. For the record, when I was 11 years old, I was that brat.

Similarly, in Malaysia, there was a real sense that everyone was in it together. Our first night in Kuala Lumpur, we hired a cab driver by the hour to take us touring. Sunset that night was at 7:11 pm, so that's when the fast would end. Around 6:55 pm, as he was driving us back into town and toward our hotel, a car with two young Arab men pulled up beside us. At a red light, the men motioned for the driver to lower his window and asked when the fast would officially end, and our driver gleefully informed them. He dropped us off at our hotel at precisely 7:11 pm, and he and the doorman exchange a smile as they pulled out bottles of water to take their first drinks of the day.

The next day, we caught a 6:30 pm bus from Melaka, a port town in southern Malaysia where we had spent the day (more on this in a future post), back to Kuala Lumpur, which was about two hours away. Around 7:05 pm, our driver unexpectedly pulled off the highway and into a convenience store parking lot in the middle of nowhere, where a small crowd of locals was already pooling. Like everyone else, he secured a water bottle and a snack, and from our seats we could look out the window and see the whole crowd of men raise their water bottles in unison when the appointed time struck. We stayed in the lot for about 12 minutes in all, with the bus driver and his companion pulling out bowls of rice and calmly breaking the fast together. In America, this would never happen. The driver would have a Nutrigrain bar and a water bottle ready to go, and when the clock struck sunset, he'd drive with one hand and stuff his face with the other. In Malaysia, if only for five minutes, everything stopped so that the fasters could enjoy their first tastes of food and water, together. We didn't begrudge the driver the stop, and we made it back to Kuala Lumpur in record time.

I've always questioned the religious utility of fasting. The official line varies from religion to religion. The way I understand Yom Kippur is that, by ignoring our bodily cravings and eliminating other luxuries from our lives (bathing, leather, sex), we become more spiritual beings that are closer to the angels and closer to God. Lent has been explained to me as removing a distraction from one's life, to both simulate Jesus's suffering in the desert and to allow one to focus more on one's faith. I think Ramadan is based on much the same principle (minus the Jesus bit). Perhaps it is because I am definitely a bad person, but in denying myself mortal pleasures, I do not increase my spiritual awareness. I decrease my spiritual awareness, because I am too overcome with thoughts like, oh man am I really thirsty right now, to worry about spirituality or salvation. It's like telling someone, "Don't think about pink elephants!" See?

But as a community building exercise, the fast works. And as Malaysia shows, it works on a grand scale.

A scarier perspective on pollution

Today was a particularly hazy and pollution-filled day in Hong Kong, one of those days when you go to the harbor, breathe in that nice harbor breeze, and proceed to cough and spit to get the taste of industrial emissions out of your mouth. If you grew up in the Valley like me (okay, it was the San Gabriel Valley, so it was a Valley more than it was the Valley...whatever), you remember smog alert days like this in the early 90s, where school was optional because going outside would "take 5 days off your life."

That never scared me. My attitude has always been, "Great! Take off 5 of the crappy days at the end!" For example, I've never understood people who refuse to feed their dogs people food, to supposedly give them 1 or 2 extra years of life. I think my dogs are happier with 13 gluttonous years than 14 jealous ones. And historically, my overindulged pets live to at least 18 years anyhow. This is also consistent with my general philosophy on life, which allows me to smoke a little, over-drink a little, overeat a little, and the like. In effect, I engage in excess in moderation.

But my Hong Kong compatriots and I have developed a terrifying new way to frame the issue. No longer does the pollution take 5 days off our lives. It turns 5 good days into 5 bad days.

That scares me. That is a deterrent.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Why Asian people are skinny

Since getting to Asia, I have been struck by the near impossibility of finding non-fried food. Whatever their stances on politics, religion, art, and tradition, every culture in this region seems to in agreement on one thing: oil and breading are awesome.

This, of course, is at odds with your (well-founded) stereotypes of the locals as being exceptionally skinny. Coming from a country where 64.5% of adults are overweight, and 30.5% are obese, coming to Hong Kong has involved a few moments of realization where I look around the room and think, "my god, there are no fat people here" (apparently, they are regarded as romantically unsuccessful around here). And if you think that Americans have the most unhealthy body images in the world, you have not seen advertisements for Hong Kong gyms, which typically involve a large photo of an emaciated-looking Asian girl, with an inset photo of the same Asian girl looking healthily thin, the suggestion being that the former is somehow superior to the latter. Emaciated Asian girl certainly always looks happier than healthily thin Asian girl, is usually dancing awkwardly or dressed fancifully, and often has a vaguely blank look on her face, like she's blithely contemplating her terrifying jutting clavicle bones.

So what gives? The obvious answer is that people walk more here than they do in the United States, which is true. And the terrain is hillier than anywhere I've been in the U.S. other than San Francisco, which would help. But it really isn't enough to make up for the frying of everything, or the broad availability of delicious treats at Chinese bakeries on every corner. The food's too good! People should be fat! I was struggling with the gap, until Marie offered a satisfying theory.

People here are not skinny in spite of the broad availability of delicious food, but because of it. When they're eating something that tastes great and they feel full, they can stop without worrying that they'll be stuck eating mediocre food for a week until the next delicious thing comes along. Because the next delicious thing will be available wherever they are, whenever they want it. There just isn't any reason for people to stuff themselves unnecessarily.

I submit to you that if Americans were more demanding of good taste at all levels of the culinary marketplace, they'd develop some healthier habits (and some shrinking waistlines). As it is, we're stuck with the worst chocolate in the world, disgustingly inferior sugar, and somehow we're managing to convince the rest of the world that they should drink our pathetic excuse for coffee.

Making a withdrawal from the karma bank

My Breakfast of Dignity ran long, and right after my fellow omeletteers and I started our leisurely stroll toward the gate, we noticed the "Final Call" message on the departures board and called an audible to the "sprint for your life" play that is a staple of any traveler's playbook. I pulled up to the gate, passport and boarding pass in hand, determined that if I had to be the last person on the plane, I was at least going to look prepared for that one little moment in time.

I handed my documents to the gate attendant, who asked, "Do you have your return ticket?" I was caught off-guard by this question. In the dozens of times I've boarded a plane, that has never been part of the script. I adapted. Actually, I BS'd.

"Uhh, I think I just handed it to you?" Clearly false.

"Actually, you dropped it," revealed the saucy minx in the Malaysia Airlines uniform. "Somebody found it and brought it to the gate."

I thought about the prices I had seen for last-minute tickets on Malaysia Airlines between Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, on the order of HKD $20,000 (about US $2,500). I contemplated my lovely little $400 plane-and-hotel package for Malaysia ballooning to $3,000 in one fell swoop, the horrified pallor that would have swept across my face when I realized that my ticket was gone, probably not until I was back in the Kuala Lumpur airport three days later. But here was my ticket, safe in hand. Crisis averted.

The ticket had my name on it and was for a return flight from Kuala Lumpur, so it's not like it would have been worth much to someone else. But still, that's a serious karmic boon that somebody went out of their way to turn it in to the appropriate gate and everything. Next Buddhist monk I see gets US $10.

The low, low price of dignity

I have a blanket rule against setting foot in a McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or comparable American fast food chain when I am outside the United States. Starbucks currently occupies a nebulous zone, where I'm not certain whether or not it's subject to the American brands ban. Because there is a Starbucks on campus here, I may be forced to resolve that issue soon. Since establishing this rule, my international consumption of American fast food has been limited to the ordering of a Royale with Cheese and a beer at a Paris McDonald's (because I am a pop culture whore). Over time, the thing has gotten out of hand. I won't even enter a McDonald's to use the bathroom, and if someone else does, I'll wait outside. It's gone far beyond any rational bounds, but that's just how I roll.

Anyhow, at the airport in Hong Kong, preparing to leave for Malaysia, we stopped in the food area for pre-flight breakfast. Pickings were slim, and it looked liked I was being put in the unenviable position of deciding between Burger King, Popeye's (!), and going hungry. And just when I was preparing to resign myself to my ignominious fate, I caught sight across the way of Wildfire, a major American-style, but Hong Kong-based pizza chain with a breakfast menu.

At HKD $78, my delicious Spanish omelette, toast, and coffee breakfast rang in at just HKD $6 more than the HKD $72 Burger King Whopper Value Meal that so many of my compatriots opted for.

HKD $6. US $0.75. The price of dignity.

Quotes that happen when, as of 10 am, you've been awake for 4.5 hours

During our Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, we were treated to a short video advertising the merits of their Temptations in-flight shopping line.

In that video, an attractive enough western woman is suffering the affections of the jolly-sized Asian man across the aisle, complete with splotchy facial hair and a Hawaiian shirt, when she notices a handsome Asian man a few rows up (with, I should add, spectacular hair). She attempts to tune out the noise from her plus-sized companion and get the attention of the hottie with the empty seat next to him. Suddenly, she has a chance. He looks back down toward the aisle and waves his hand. She waves back...a connection is made!

But no, it turns out he was waving to the flight attendant in the aisle just behind the woman, who is carrying a bag of fantastic Malaysia Airlines Temptations merchandise. Our heroine is mortified and buries her head in her hands. Even the tubby motherfucker across the aisle gets a laugh at her expense. When all hope is lost, a chocolate bar suddenly drops down on the tray table in front of her. Our lady looks up to find that Asian hottie is standing over her, smiling beatifically. And they all lived happily ever after.

Except my friends and I wondered about what became of the other suitor.

"The poor fat guy," one of our company lamented. "He gets nothing."

"It's just like real life," sighed another.

A third among us was decidedly less sympathetic. "That's what he gets for being fat," he snarled.

Here's betting he was playing World of Warcraft

Man dies in China after three-day Internet binge? Maybe I should print it out and leave a copy on my roommate's keyboard.

Never has the "internet addiction" tag been so appropriate.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dorm life

Who steals someone's shampoo? Seriously? Gah!

Returned!

Blog updates will be coming hard and fast tomorrow. In the meantime, I merely wish to mention that Malaysia is apparently populated by a breed of super-mosquitoes that sport the itchiest bites in the world, but that the full extent of the itch is only activated when one enters Hong Kong. Really specific, isn't it? But that's my only explanation.

Also, Malaysia is apparently the center of the dengue fever world. Glamorous.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cultural observations

I have yet to set foot in an elevator with a Hong Kong native who didn't furiously push on the "door close" button every time the elevator door opened, stray limbs and straggling passengers be damned.

Wealth is wasted on the rich

One thing I never discussed was my flight over here. By spending 110,000 out of my 113,000 frequent flier miles on American Airlines, I was able to obtain a round-trip business class ticket for my trip on Cathay Pacific Airlines. This represented my first foray into the world of the fabulous, wealthy, corporate, and frequent-flying.

Well, corporate and frequent-flying, at least. The fabulous and wealthy were up in first class, and I must say, the feeling of exclusivity that I was hoping for in business class (and to which I had no real entitlement, having gotten there on miles) was rather undermined by the vastness of the section, which was in turn a function of the enormity of the plane.

Lack of exclusivity aside, I can best summarize my reaction to flying business class as yes, please. By playing on the sympathies created by my then-well-sprained right ankle (and the extra-exaggerated limp I adopted in the presence of airline employees), I was able to get a window seat in a bulkhead row. As I beheld my seat for the first time, I was nervous. What was this splotchy green upholstery, which looks like it was conceived of by a designer in a drug-hazed hangover in the late 1970s? Where was my finely-appointed black leather? I traced my finger along the seatback skeptically...seemed comfortable enough. Realizing the absurdity of my concern - and the fact that I had no choice anyhow - I sat down.

Into resplendent comfort. Whatever misgivings I might have had about the design choices involving the seat's exterior, there was no question that this overstuffed, over-wide beast was designed for one purpose and one purpose alone: to cushion the human ass. Lush, but firm. Like a well-trained geisha, at once subservient and proud. And then I realized, perhaps the seat was not quite so perfect...perhaps it was just the best seat I'd ever used on a plane. This would be the theme of the night.

Relaxing at last, I glanced at the surprisingly complex recline controls. "Back down, legs up," I observed to myself. "And what's this button? This little man appears to be laying down in a totally horizontal position...that can't be... I guess I'll have to push the button."

Back went the seat and up went the legs. I was already more reclined than I'd ever been in coach.

Back went the seat and up went the legs. This would be good for elevating my sprained ankle, come to think of it.

Back went the seat and up went the legs. Little icon man was no liar.

I pushed the button to automatically return to the fully upright position, and not a moment too soon, as a flight attendant arrived with a tray of flutes bearing champagne, orange juice, and water. Champagne or water, I asked myself, which should I have? Oh why not, I'd just have both! As I reached for the tray, both hands outstretched, I looked over my shoulder and saw the masses cascading into the coach section behind. Oh, how often I had been one of those masses, and oh, how often I would be again. As I leaned back into my seat, double-fisting my flutes, I resolved to enjoy this flight to the fullest. I took a long, pensive drag on the champagne, quickly reminding myself that I don't actually like champagne. Nevertheless, I was resolved to take full advantage of the experience. To facilitate my drinking in light of the somewhat unpleasant taste of the (undoubtedly cheap, but what did I care) champagne, I gulped it down faster.

Another flight attendant approached with a tray of more flutes, and I reached for my empty, which rested on the small table built into the window-side armrest (ensuring that, even with my tray table securely stowed for takeoff and landing, I would not be without a flat surface on my disposal). Oh no, she stopped me. Someone would be coming by for the empties later. Would I like a second?

Yes, I would. And there appears to be an unusual plug for laptops in my seat. Could I get a converter?

Of course, sir.

The flight itself proceeded smoothly from there. There was much reading, much sleeping, and a selection of literally dozens of in-flight films (note to self, fly Cathay Pacific more often). I chose 300 and Blades of Glory for my in-flight entertainment. When dinner came, I examined the various options on the menu and selected the salmon sashimi salad, beef stew, and raspberry cheesecake, followed by a dark chocolate candy of my choice. When I my dinner arrived on a lovely tablecloth that the flight attendant set down in front of me, I discovered one of the enduring truths of air travel. Even in business class, airline food is airline food. The piece of dark chocolate aside, the quality of food was comparable to, say, British Airways, another high-quality airline (and one that I've only flown coach). But everything came on a real plate, next to real silverware (chilled), and the drinks in real glasses. In everyday life, this would, of course, be entirely unremarkable. But on a plane, the chilled metalware feels special and sturdy, pleasantly cool to the touch. As I sipped from my glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (estimated retail value: $1.25), I made a specific effort to conceal the reflexive cringing of my facial muscles and the sub-mediocre wine. Yet somehow I enjoyed every sip, a seemingly perfect complement to the beef stew.

In the end, was it worth it? Because I paid $25 in airport tax for my ticket, I think the answer is a resounding yes. And it was the perfect time to do the business class thing. The flight was nearly 15 hours long, the time difference was extreme, rest was important. And I was able to stay off my ankle and keep it elevated for so long, it felt markedly better by the time I got off the plane.

But really, business class (and I assume first class) is only worth it when you never fly business class. Business class derives 99% of its value from contrast with economy class. The seat is amazing because it isn't actively and injury-inducingly uncomfortable. The food is amazing because it's being presented more palatably and sans-humidified shrink wrap. In objective terms, it still sucks. You are stuck in a chair for 15 hours, sitting next to a stranger, staring at a tiny monitor with poor resolution, breathing recirculated air, and even having your freedom to use your beloved electronic devices restrict for seemingly arbitrary reasons (I never turn off my iPod...I just take out the earbud that's closer to the aisle and keep the iPod itself in my pocket, and none of my flights have crashed yet). But especially with the more attentive service, you just feel like you're being afforded marginally more dignity through the ordeal than the shlubs sitting 10 rows behind you. If you don't know what that's like, then you have no basis for knowing why you should be happy.

But of course, just like driving a $500,000 Ferrari that can't possibly be 5 times better than a fully-loaded Mercedes SL550, let alone 25 times better than a Toyota Prius, people fly business class just because they can.

Or because their bosses/clients are paying for it. From now on, that'll be my way.

At this rate, I will know approximately 23 phrases by the time I leave

On Saturday, I will have been in Hong Kong for 2 weeks. And in that time, I have learned 4 distinct phrases. It was 3 until today, but I decided to finally ask someone how to say "hello." Haven't gotten to "goodbye" yet.

- Mm goi: thank you/please/get waiters attention
- Char siu bao: steamed pork buns
- Diu: fuck
- Ne ho: hello (though the Internet suggests this actually means "how are you"...looks like I only know 3 1/2 phrases)

I should probably learn some more. But honestly, "mm goi" and "char siu bao" are pretty much all I need on a daily basis.

Intellectual property law for middle-schoolers

As much as I mock Harvard, and as much as I question whether the education I receive there is worth the tuition I pay, I have to admit that I miss the quality of pedagogy there.

Part of the problem is linguistic. I certainly appreciate the fact that classes here are taught in English...if they weren't, I couldn't come. And there's a rational basis for their decision to use English, beyond its nominal status as an official language in Hong Kong. Internationally, it's still the most important language in the world. Cantonese isn't even the most important language in China (that'd be Mandarin). But it's one thing to have students who are learning in a second language. It's another thing to have teachers teaching in a second language. Several of the professors seem visibly uncomfortable conveying technical information in English. Some of them have trouble finding the words they need to convey a certain point, and (with a couple of exceptions) even those who seem to have a stronger overall grasp over the language still have their speech so riddled with pauses, both silent and "um"-filled, they're hard to follow. I trust that these professors are genuinely smart, and I suspect they're a bit self-conscious about their inability to communicate themselves as cleanly as they would like. Which would go toward explaining how much they chronically repeat themselves. Even their inflections are weird and unnatural-sounding in a lecture context...the effect is not unlike listening to a particularly grating monotone, even though there is tonal variation. I don't judge these people personally, I certainly couldn't teach a class in Spanish or Russian. But I'm not trying to.

You know that professor you have who's 170 years old and speaks at an average rate of 15 words per minute, so that you can scarcely keep yours eyes open, let alone absorb anything that's being said? Like that. With everyone.

And really, the problem goes far beyond language issues. The classes here are definitely taught to the stupidest person in the class. Our first day of copyright class in the U.S., we were shown a photograph of a boat and asked if it was copyrightable. The right answer involved a serious discussion of whether the photograph possessed the requisite originality to be protected, what were the circumstances of its taking, etc. Here, if you were shown that same picture and asked if it were copyrightable, the correct answer would be "Yes. It is a photograph. Photographs are copyrightable." I realize that the increased scope of the class necessarily means a sacrifice on detail, but that is so intellectually unstimulating, it makes sticking my finger into the electrical socket next to me seem like an attractive way to actually get a neuron or two firing.

Another example, unfolding right in front of me. In my International and Comparative Intellectual Property Law class, we are all staring at a Powerpoint slide that is titled "Characteristics of IPRs" (note: IPRs is their preferred acronym for items of intellectual property), and lists Intangible, Creative, Monopoly, and Territorial (with explanations of each point). The professor just asked us, "What are some of the differences between IPRs and other forms of property?" The answer she was looking for was "IPRs are intangible, creative, monopolistic, and territorial."

My saving grace is that I don't have to pay attention, because the grades in all 4 of my classes are based entirely on research papers, so I'll just teach myself whatever I need to know. And then I'll write about it in gorgeous, florid English that will totally obfuscate the incredible paucity of actual content. Like that.