Swedish Thor and the Quest for Water

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thor-cookie-jarSometimes, when traveling, one encounters a person with a name that is impossible to pronounce. In the Philippines, there was a guy from Finland that everyone called “Rusty” because his real name was too challenging; in Paris, there was a Turkish gentleman that we all, quite cleverly, referred to as “Turk.” The same thing happened to me in Hong Kong, where I met a young fellow from Sweden whose name was as hard to say as some Ingmar Bergman films are to make sense of.

“Just call me Thor,” he sighed, mercifully, after I’d butchered his name badly, leaving it disemboweled and beheaded.

“Thor?” I asked, wondering if that was really any better than calling him “Swede.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, Thunder God,” I said. He looked down at the floor, as if by shifting his attention, he could erase the bad joke from ever having happened.

It’s a little known fact that Hong Kong, a small sovereign island off the southern coast of China, is actually the second most expensive place in all of Asia to visit (the first being Japan). The cost of living in Hong Kong, believe it or not, is higher than that of New York City. Thor and I met because we were both staying on the 7th floor of the Chunking Mansions, block D, the cheapest place in all of Hong Kong to stay. At fifteen bucks a night, we’d found ourselves in a room about the size of handicapped bathroom stall, with two bunk beds, one power socket, and two other men who, like us, did not possess enough money to stay anywhere better.

There was little doubt that all of us were broke. Early on, I’d decided that I’d save money by eating only ham and salami sandwiches, storing my modestly priced sandwich meat in the otherwise unused communal refrigerator that sat in the hallway. The others ate cheap curry sold on the first floor of the building. One day, Thor entered the room excited, a bottle of water in his hand.

“Hey guys!” he said. “There’s a water fountain in Kowloon Park. We won’t have to pay for water anymore! We can fill our bottles up for free!”

It was brilliant. I quickly headed over to the park with two empty water bottles of my own. I’d heard the park was lovely, filled with things to see, but I didn’t care. I was there for the free water. I rushed past a group of Chinese people doing Tai Chi, down a walking path lined with statues of famous Anime characters; I blew by a scenic pond populated with tall pink flamingos. None of it caused me to take pause. All I was focused on was the elusive water fountain. I’d been searching for around forty minutes and the only water I’d seen was being slurped up by flamingos. I felt like grabbing someone by the shirt collar and yelling, “I’ve been told of the free water! Where on earth are you hiding it?”

Then quietly adding, “Thor sent me.”

Thankfully, I found it, right outside the restrooms, where I would steal toilet paper to use as tissue. “What’s happening to me?” I thought. It was like I was turning into my depression-era grandfather, who used to steal napkins from McDonalds and magazines from the dentist’s office. Upon returning to my room, I found the rest of the guys lounging around, drinking from their water bottles.

“How was the park?” one of them asked, taking note that I had two water jugs stuffed under my arms. The four of us laughed, as though we’d discovered some magical oasis, Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Penny Pinching. Once in awhile we’d meet a new person in the hallway and we’d always nudge each other, nodding, telling the person of our secret water supply.

Then one morning I awoke to discover that someone had eaten all of my salami. This was a nightmare come true. The community fridge had been raided. “That motherfucker!” I said out loud to the empty hallway. “What kind of bastard steals a poor man’s salami?” To add insult, the person had left the empty package there, not even having the manners to throw it out. The ham was untouched, which confused me. “Who takes the salami and leaves the ham? I’ll tell you who – a fucking fool who doesn’t know how to make a proper sandwich, that’s who!”

I sat down on the bed in despair. My efforts to get by on as little as possible had been wasted, destroyed by pilfered lunch meat. It seems that for every cheap person in the world, there’s an even cheaper person; for every guy swallowing his pride to take water from the public park, they’re someone shamelessly stealing that person’s salami.

A few hours later, Thor and the others checked out. I looked at the twenty full water bottles we’d accumulated. “I’m not telling anyone about this,” I said to myself. “Those bastards can thirst to death for all I care.”

Or, I suppose, they could pay.

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Censorship? Censor This!

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Like a concerned parent, the People’s Republic of China cares about what its citizens are looking at on the Internet. This is obviously a good thing. We all know that information can be a dangerous – hence the coining of the phrase “TMI.” China’s Golden Shield Project was put into place to stop this, by blocking harmful websites, including such menaces as Facebook, YouTube, and WordPress.

Yes, that’s correct – you are now reading subversive, highly sensitive material. It feels good, doesn’t it, a little naughty, like the first time you looked at an adult website or found your ex-girlfriend’s new address online and then parked your car outside her apartment for two days (not that I’ve done that numerous times or anything). I know, this blog doesn’t seem like something that would have to be smuggled through a super firewall, but, alas, it is. Just by writing this, I’m putting myself in danger, bringing you material that’s not supposed to be available to the public, sort of like the founder of WikiLeaks or Perez Hilton.  

Ah, I jest. It’s true, though, that I had to email this to my girlfriend and she had to put it up; even with a proxy, China rejected this post like it was a basketball and the PRC was Dikembe Mutombo. It’s also true that The Golden Shield causes me slight paranoia, as if a future post entitled “8 Things About China that Bug Me” might provoke the authorities to lock me away in a prison cell or soy-sauce-board me, which is like waterboarding with an Asian twist (be on the lookout for my next post, “8 Things I Absolutely Love About Wonderful Fantastic China”).

On the other hand, having to smuggle posts through a firewall makes me feel kind of cool. I’ve always wanted to smuggle something. Every time I go through customs at the airport, I get nervous that they’ll search my luggage, locating the “I Love Bangkok” t-shirt I didn’t declare on the form, like I’m in a spy movie, sneaking microfilm across the border. I get all sweaty and nod to the customs guy, then laugh nervously as I hand him the little card. That’s right, I’m declaring nothing. It’s similar to the end of Argo, except instead of American diplomats, I’m sneaking out shot glasses and refrigerator magnets.

I’ve also fantasized about smuggling drugs from one place to another. Not that I’d ever do that, but it’s fun to try and come up with the perfect plan. I think that if I was going to smuggle cocaine or something, and I had to get past a K-9 Unit, I’d get my own dog and hide the drugs in his rectum. Then, when the K-9 dog sniffs his butt and starts going crazy, I’d coolly explain the situation to the police. “My dog is clean,” I’d say. “He just has difficulty making friends.”

Say that explanation somehow didn’t fly. No worries. I’d only have to throw my pet under the bus to avoid punishment (not literally, although that might work too). “Listen,” I would say, shaking my head, “I had no idea that he’d gotten involved in this. It’s the Snausages – he’ll do anything for them. In fact, I’ve noticed him hanging out with some Chihuahuas lately…who knows what cartel those freaky little bastards run with. Anyways, I think it’s pretty clear to all of us that the dog is acting independently.”

So, my point is, this whole Internet censorship thing, to some extent, satisfies my smuggling fantasy. Nothing, not even Operation Golden Shower or whatever it’s called, can stop this blog from lumbering on. I’m really happy to be in China, and although the Internet censorship will probably be a bit irritating, it’s nothing more than another obstacle for a blogger to overcome, not much different from having to proofread your own work or the nightmare of posting through a slow Internet connection.

And, um, just in case anyone from China’s government happens to be reading this, I would like you to know that I’m planning on having an awesome time here. So don’t be worried. I’ve always supported China. In fact, I’ve been buying products made here for ages.

 

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Did You See the Modern Art, Or Were You Too Busy Having Sex?

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blog artAt some point in my life, I made the decision that I would buy into modern art hook, line, and sinker. It didn’t matter what the genre was – abstract or pop, land art or performance art – it would inevitably knock my socks off and have me screaming “genius!” from the rooftops. Pollock, Breton, Ernst, Man Ray – these men were all masters, even better than those old people from Italy. Later I would discover conceptual art, and it would put my mind in a perpetual state of blown.

This is the story of how I visited the MUseum MOderner Kunst – or MUMOK – in Vienna, Austria, and had a profound experience there. Yes, it centered around horny teenagers, but it was profound nonetheless. Its memory still echoes in my intellect whenever something reminds me of art, like someone says a word that begins with “neo” or “post” for instance.

blog mumokIt only took about two minutes inside the MUMOK for me to be impressed. There was brilliance, brilliance everywhere! One painting hung on the wall at the height of my knee; the description next to it explained that the purpose was to challenge the way people view art, our expectations, the assumption that paintings must always be displayed at eye-level. I nodded, approving. That was excellence, right there, adjacent to my kneecap. Another piece could best be described as a monitor on the wall, a black and white image flickering on it, showing some random items. Again, I turned to the description. This artist was also challenging the way galleries display art. He had gotten permission to bury his artwork under the floor of the museum, and was broadcasting it in via video camera.

“Holy shit!” my internal voice shouted. “That’s ingenious! I’m looking at the art, and at the same time, I’m STANDING ON IT!”

But it was at a different exhibit where the truly profound incident would occur. I found myself standing at the entrance to a pitch black hallway, loud sounds bursting from within.  I was a little bit afraid, scared to enter, as if some artist was waiting in the shadows, ready to leap out and yell “Dada!” But the description of the exhibit sounded interesting, something about projected images together with non-synchronized sounds, and so I walked down the dark hallway, until I reached a small room where a projector cast bright pictures onto the wall opposite.

There was a man standing in the corner of the room, and he caught my attention. He was in his mid-forties, and he looked anxious and uncomfortable. The man glanced at me, then quickly turned his head away. I wondered why he was in the corner, and why he seemed so awkward. I shifted my attention to the front of the room, and that’s when I saw it.

There were two teenagers, probably highschoolers, a boy and a girl, sitting on the bench in the front of the room, making out heavily. They were really going at it, attacking each other’s mouths, their tongues twirling together like colors in a candy cane. I looked back over to the other guy, just in time to see him flee the room. There was no way anyone could assess the art with this going on. They were impossible to ignore. It felt embarrassing to be in there, the two lovebirds were so into each other they were oblivious to any onlookers, and suddenly I felt like a peeping tom. It was as if I was the one behaving inappropriately, a dude in his thirties, standing in the back of a dark room, trying not to stare at two kissing kids and failing.

So I did what my predecessor had done, and I shuffled myself out of the exhibit. It wasn’t until later that the magnitude of it hit me. By coincidence, I had experienced something incredibly singular. Of all the people that would view that exhibit, how many would encounter the same thoughts and emotions that I had? Instead of analyzing something about the congruence between sound and picture, I had undergone a real life experience. So many things went through my head, about age, love, intimacy, innocence, envy, curiosity…those fuckers and their hormones had taken that art piece and shaken it up, flipped it on its head, replaced something cerebral with something purely evocative. They might not have known it, but clearly they were brilliant.

blog light mumokNow my mind was going. Every second, anyone in that gallery had the ability, if they wanted, to alter the reaction to the works on display. What if I stood next to one exhibit all day and just danced, did the electric slide or something? That would change perspective, wouldn’t it? The sensibility of the viewer, break the connection between person and idea. Especially if the artist put me there, if it was the artist’s idea for me to moon walk around their sculpture.

I left the MUMOK convinced that there was great meaning to what had just happened, although I wasn’t sure what. As I walked away, I wondered if the couple was still there in that dark room. I imagined going back, stepping inside, finding them curled up on the floor together, sharing a cigarette and discussing baby names, while random pictures and sounds spread out all around them.

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8 Uncool Things I Won’t Miss About Korea (Cause They F**kin’ Suck!)

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blog drunk koreanKorea really is a great place. That said, all great places have uncool elements. Think about Oz for instance: awesome midgets, very colorful, flying monkeys. Those were all great things, but then there was the wicked witch, and she sucked. In essence, every place on earth has its own wicked witch. Korea is no exception. Here are 8 things from the Land of Milkis and Kimchi that I certainly will not miss:

blog cab driver1. Cab Drivers – Not as if cab drivers in other countries are the bees knees, but I particularly disliked the cabbies in Korea. They’re all old and grumpy, and if you’re with your friend and having a nice pleasant conversation in the backseat, the cabbie will pump the radio up really loud because he doesn’t dig English and is trying to tell you to shut up. Also, cabbies are so nice, they treat foreigners (when they’re desperate enough to stop and pick them up) to the lovely scenic route to whatever the destination is. On the meter, of course. Which makes for more conversation, and hence louder Korean traditional music.

blog cass2. Cass/Hite/Max – Korea has three staple beers, and they all taste like watered down versions of Coors Light. What’s that you say? Coors Light tastes like water to begin with? Exactly. Just imagine drinking Coors Light, urinating it out, then drinking the Coors Light-urine-toilet-water mixture. That is about what Korean beer tastes like. Perhaps that’s a bit of a gross analogy, but if it frightens anyone away from Cass, then it’s okay because it’s served a greater good.

blog breaking news3. Breaking News at Work – In Korea, any information at your job is always breaking news, delivered at the last possible minute. Have an extra class added? They will tell you this two minutes before it begins. When will winter and summer camps be held? Don’t bother asking, nobody knows until the answer is ‘tomorrow.’ Korean schools just really, really love surprises. Especially when they involve you getting extra work.

blog plastic4. Plastic Surgery – Call me old fashioned, but I just can’t get behind plastic surgery. It’s very common in Korea, where advertisements for it are ubiquitous. For every subway car in Seoul, there’s at  least one plastic surgery advert. And forgive me for liking ugly people too much, but I find the idea of plastic surgery icky and depressing. Yes, she looks better in the after picture than the before one. I don’t care. I don’t want to sleep with the post-op transsexual, and I don’t want to kiss any lady who runs the risk of transforming into Korean Joan Rivers.

You don't wanna read! You want rockin' abs!

You don’t wanna read! You want rockin’ abs!

5. Han’s Deli – I could rip on Han’s Deli because the food is inedible and it’s one of the worst restaurant chains in the universe (it makes the 7-11 hot dog kiosk look like fine dining). However, I choose to go a different route. I loathe Han’s Deli simply because it is not a deli, as its name would suggest. They serve spaghetti and pork cutlets. Where are the sandwiches? Where’s the pastrami and the mesquite smoked turkey breast? Nowhere. It would be like if I opened up a store called “Bill’s Book Store,” and I only sold Taebo DVDs. Please, somebody take Han on a trip to New York, so he can learn what a deli is.

The ice toilet is pretty cool though.

The ice toilet is pretty cool though.

6. Ice – Currently, all of Seoul is covered in one thick sheet of ice. Korea seems to have no idea how to handle ice. There’s no salt, sand, or kitty litter being used to combat it’s slippery power. Instead, there are hundreds of girls in high heels falling. And if they aren’t gorgeous, men won’t help them up, but instead will give them a great shove, so they will slide in the direction of the nearest plastic surgery center.

blog bip7. Having an Alias – Yes, names can lead to cultural confusion. When I received my Alien Residence card back from immigration, I was a little concerned that I had been registered as “William Robert.” Robert is my middle name, but, as it would turn out, pretty much all Korean institutions would make the same mistake, believing it was my last name. Bank account – William Robert. At the doctor – I was again the singular Mr. Robert. Not Roberts, with an s, like Julia or Bip. Robert. It wasn’t a big deal; I took it as Korea’s revenge against the western world for thinking they all have ‘Kim’ for a first name.

blog gangnam8. Gangnam Style – I know, I know, it’s inescapable everywhere. Gangnam Style will go down in history as proof that North Korea waited to long to drop its nuke. Sure, it would’ve caused misery and devastation to many…but if it rid the world of that song and that ridiculous horse dance…just press the red button and make sure Psy isn’t in a bomb shelter.

Ah, Korea, I shall always love thee. If I could marry you, the whole country, I would. Without any doubt. I would be proud to have you on my arm, my one and only Kim Robert.

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8 Cool Things I Will Miss About Korea

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korea milkisThis coming Tuesday, I will get on a plane and leave South Korea, where I’ve spent the last 2 1/2 years. All in all, they’ve probably been the most important years of my life, as I’ve grown into a better, stranger person, and I’ve met all kinds of interesting and unique people. Looking back on my time here, I compiled a short list of 8 essential things that I will most certainly miss when I leave the land of Milkis and Kimchi.

korae pomato1. Pomato – Pomato is like a little Korean fast food chain with restaurants all over Seoul. It’s awesome. For four bucks, I can get a wicked bowl of tofu soup. Pork cutlets, kimbap, pig intestines – you name it, Pomato got it. Plus the staff of unfriendly middle aged ladies gives it a good atmosphere.

korea smoking2. Smoking – Despite violent anti-smoking protests like the one pictured to the left, there’s smoking all over the place in Korea. Everybody smokes and cigarettes are super cheap. In December, an anti-smoking ban was passed, outlawing smoking in certain places (like large establishments), but I was out last night, and as I chain smoked in the warmth and comfort of several bars, I saw no difference between now and the way things were pre-smoking ban. That’s good, because it’s really cold and I would not want to go outside and compromise my health.

korea heated toilet3. Heated Toilet Seats – They might have these everywhere, but I never experienced one before moving to Korea. It really is like sitting on a thrown, and the feeling of having your badonkadonk warmed is vastly underrated. I hope everyone one day gets to use a heated toilet seat – as soon as I realized my school had one, I knew exactly what I was doing during break time.

korea dong dong ju4. Dong Dong Ju – This is a Korean liquor that is served in a big cauldron with a scoop.  It’s quite strong and tastes a bit like Milkis (carbonated milk drink). They make it from rice and a white person like me gets to feel hip and cultured drinking it while sitting on the floor in an Asian establishment.

korea animal5. Korean Animal Words – Knowing how to say the names of animals in another language is fun! “Go yang ee” means cat; “Kang a gee” is puppy. “Saja” is lion; “Nakta” means camel. My favorite is “Toki,” which means rabbit. Furthermore, cats go “yowng yowng” instead of meow, and dogs say “mung mung.” On another note, Jesus is not called Jesus, but “Yay Su.” That’s good to know, in case you’d like to use the Lord’s name in vain in multiple languages.

korea black noodle6. Korean Chinese Food – It’s delicious. Absolutely delicious. The typical Chinese dish consists of noodles in a black bean sauce served with sweet and sour pork. Odd sidebar: There’s “Black Day” in Korea, which is like Valentine’s Day for single people, and the tradition is that people eat Chinese black noodles to celebrate how miserable single life is.

korea bunny bow7. Ridiculous Head Ware – Korean girls like to coordinate. Super short skirt? Check. High heels? Check. Bunny ears? Oh yeah. Check mate. Bows, ear hoodies, lamb hoodies – these are the tools Korean girls use to find a man and avoid having to eat the dreaded black noodles.

korea north korea8. North Korea – Just because they’re funny.

That’s today’s list of awesome things that I will miss. Tune in next time, when I will present my grouchy list of things that I will be glad to escape!

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