30 Seconds at Stonehenge

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blog stonehengeOur bus was stuck well outside of London. An hour earlier, I’d been standing at the foot of the Roman Baths, looking down into the murky green water and seeing my silhouette floating on the surface like it was a rubber duck. That was neat, but now I was sitting in the window seat of a bus, right next to an older man from the States, a vet from the Korean War who had a camera dangling around his neck the same way rappers used to wear gold chains. I’d use the word “trapped” to describe what it was like being on that bus, only I actually liked the war vet sitting next to me and so I refrain from using such rhetoric, as to not offend him should he ever read this. Our conversation was pleasant, his stories interesting, and so, instead of saying “trapped,” I’ll instead use the phrase “charmingly immobilized.”

I looked at his camera and thought about how it, in its small digital cartridge, held exactly the same images that I did in my memory. The halls of Windsor Castle, with their grand excess. The city of Bath and its lovely medieval charm. But what we were waiting for, all three of us – me, the vet, and his camera – was the last stop on our guided bus tour, the mysterious monument known as Stonehenge.

stonehenge spinal tapIn truth, I’d wanted to see Stonehenge mostly because I’m a big fan of the movie This is Spinal Tap and any mentioning of Stonehenge makes me giggle. This was my motivation. Not to see an ancient monument shrouded in mystery, but instead to see the thing Nigel Tufnel drew too small on a napkin and some midgets almost knocked over. While we sat motionless in traffic, I kept myself excited by repeating the lyrics to the song in my head.

“Stonehenge/Where a man is a man/And the children dance to the pipes of Pan.”

The man running our tour was a handsome English chap around the age of sixty named Owen. He wore a bowler hat and made clever jokes, which is exactly how I assumed the British people would act. Thirty minutes into the Bath traffic jam, Owen got on the bus’ PA.

“Yes, it seems we’re a bit stuck at the moment,” he said, “but rest assured, we will be arriving at the great enigma that is Stonehenge within the next hour or so.”

Then, two hours later, he was back on the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am relieved to inform you that we’ll be arriving at Stonehenge shortly. Regrettably, we’ll be arriving approximately fifteen minutes before the park closes. So please, be quick, enjoy the monument, take your pictures, and move swiftly towards the exit.”

Soon the bus pulled up at the entrance to Stonehenge and Owen rushed us off. People were literally running from the bus door to the entrance gate, the staff at Stonehenge looking woefully displeased at our arrival.

“We close in ten minutes,” one of them shouted. “Take one picture and go!”

And so this would be my experience at Stonehenge. I walked rapidly down the roped path, stopping now and then to snap photographs of the tall grey stones. My mind raced through thoughts of druids and sun dials and Michael McKean in a blonde wig. The sun was setting and the Stonehenge staff ushered our tour group in a large circle around the monument. I thought of rituals, ancient ones, the druids gathering around Stonehenge and doing whatever the heck they did, and then I thought about how lame our rituals have gotten, going from spiritual and mystical to just plain reasonable and economical, the ritual of clearing out the last tour group from the Stonehenge site so that the workers can go home without having to get paid overtime.

blog stonehenge vacationBack on the bus, I looked through my photographs. There it was, Stonehenge, locked in my camera, only a hundred or so pictures after a shirtless selfie I took of myself in the hotel. I’d only spent about seven minutes at Stonehenge, and while I felt as though the place required more time…maybe it didn’t. I mean, what else was there to do? What would I have done there with, say, an hour? Try to climb the rocks? Stare at them more? Knock them over in dominos fashion like Clark Griswold?

Perhaps, despite the weight of the place’s name and reputation, a few minutes was all one really needed to grasp the complexity of Stonehenge. Maybe this place – while iconic and world famous – required less time to take in than an episode of Saved by the Bell.

Stonehenge was a quickie. A satisfying quickie. I thought of other things, tried to make a quick list of everything that takes longer to enjoy than Stonehenge. A Starbucks coffee. A hot shower. Listening to one Grateful Dead song or three songs by the Ramones. Scratching an itch that’s been driving you crazy, located somewhere in the middle of your back.

I thought about how people say life is short and, as I did, Owen got back on the PA and apologized, saying he wished we had had more time.

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A Spirited Debate: Soju vs. Baijiu

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blog baijiuAs a teenager, I can remember hearing people in movies talk about brewing “moonshine” and thinking that was so bad ass. There was this sort of back-woods, law-breakin’ appeal to moonshine that I admired. Then, some twenty years later, I moved to China and found that moonshine is basically available everywhere and is the drink of choice around here. You know how there’s widespread popularity for Bacardi Rum and Absolut Vodka in the USA? Well, that’s the kind of mass appeal that moonshine has in China. Only they call it ‘baijiu,’ and you can buy it for basically nothing at any store that sells things.

blog sojuBut before we go on into baijiu further, let’s stop for a second and address South Korea’s drink of champions – soju. Soju is kind of like baijiu’s wimpier kid brother. It’s not as strong, not as mean, and seems quite substantially more refined. Soju is sold everywhere in Korea and everybody drinks it. College women, old men, kids in fifth grade. Everybody. It comes in green bottles and apparently compliments everything from barbeque to beer extremely well. Koreans even judge each other’s worth based on how many bottles of soju they can drink. A real Korean can down around ten bottles, or claims to at least. I’m highly skeptical when Koreans reveal how many bottles of soju they can drink. Especially since ten bottles is enough alcohol to kill multiple frat boys.

So today I’m pitting soju up against baijiu in a battle of national liquors. May the best poison win!

Contender #1: Soju

blog soju adWhat is it? – Soju can be distilled using almost anything. I’ve most often heard that it comes from rice, although apparently it can be made quite easily from wheat or potatoes too. It’s colorless and tastes kind of like watered down vodka. Soju is almost always taken as a shot. Sometimes people will sip it but that’s weird. Another common way to drink soju is to pour it into your beer (‘mekchu’ in Korean) – a devilish elixir referred to as ‘so-mek.’

Strength – Soju ranges from 16 – 45% alcohol by volume. 20% is the average.

Fun fact – Jinro Soju is the top selling alcohol brand in the entire world.

Personal experience – After being challenged by a Korean colleague, I successfully drank three bottles of soju by myself. This led to possibly the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my life. And a higher degree of respect from my colleague.

Contender #2: Baijiu

blog sorghumWhat is it? –  Baijiu is made from sorghum. What the hell is sorghum, you ask? It’s a kind of grass…just look at the picture. Unlike soju, there are seemingly a million different kinds of baijiu, and the quality can vary depending on the price. Baijiu comes in cool looking bottles, often cased in neat boxes, and appears to the untrained eye to be a rather fancy product. Baijiu is over 5000 years old and tastes exactly like how I would guess rubbing alcohol tastes. Similar to soju, baijiu is most often taken in shots, although it also can be mixed in cocktails (by westerners who are desperately trying to mask its hideousness).

Strength – Baijiu ranges from 40-60% alcohol by volume.

Fun Fact – The word baijiu literally translates to ‘white wine.’ Despite that, baijiu bears little resemblance to Riesling.

blog baijiu bottlePersonal Experience – Yes, I have gotten quite heavily intoxicated from baijiu on multiple occasions. But having said that, I’ve never gotten too enormously ripped off it. I think this is because baijiu is so strong, one is always conscious of its power and knows better than to mess with it. Baijiu is kind of like an enormous maniac with a tattoo on his neck. You just don’t push it too far. Soju, on the other hand, is more like a skinny guy trained in martial arts. You think you can take him, but in the end he whoops your ass.

Winner – Soju

It was tempting to pick baijiu, since it’s so extreme and I feel manly drinking it. But given the choice, I would much, much rather drink soju. Even if soju sneaks up on you like a ninja and knocks you out dead in the middle of the street (or on the Seoul subway), at least it’s a pleasant experience up to that point. There is nothing pleasant about baijiu. Drinking baijiu is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer until you feel warm and fuzzy. All while gargling nail polish remover.

So there you have it. The winner of this round is soju.

And the loser is my liver

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The Chopstick Delusion

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blog chopsticks miageLiving in China, there are certain things one hears over and over again. A short list of commonly accepted phrases would include:

“Do you like Chinese food?” – this is usually asked by someone when you are enjoying a large plate of Chinese food, or if you’re speaking to a Chinese person and neither of you has anything interesting to say.

“Wow! You look just like _____” – insert actor or actress you look nothing like.

“Oh, you are very good with chopsticks!” – a compliment every foreigner receives at some point and, in a way, a right of passage.

Yes, today’s topic is that common compliment, the one about chopsticks, and what it means. On the surface, it’s sort of goofy and perplexing. I mean, chopsticks really aren’t that hard to use. Why wouldn’t I be good with chopsticks? What kind of god-awful motor skills do you think I have? Like, because I’m American, I’m only capable of stabbing things with a fork?

It’s also a bit awkward because it draws a clear distinction between whoever says it and the foreigner receiving the compliment. It would be sort of like if I walked into a McDonald’s in America and saw an Asian guy eating a hamburger and totally freaked out about it.

blog hamburger head“Holy crap! Do you see what’s happening here? He’s Asian and he’s eating a hamburger! A hamburger! I thought he’d be eating rice or something, but nope! It’s a Big Mac! This guy is wild!”

Perhaps a little overboard, but the chopsticks compliment is in essence divisive. Trust me, I’m aware that I’m very other. We don’t need to point it out yet again. It’s only slightly better than when I say some basic thing in broken Mandarin and am given the thumbs up for it.

blog chopsticksBut all that is minor. The truth is, the annoying aspects of the chopstick compliment are nothing when compared to the importance of it. It’s an acknowledgement, a sign of approval. I believe it signals that I have arrived. That despite my awful Mandarin and the fact that none of the shirts here fit me, I have mastered something that helps me fit in here in China at least a little bit. Chopsticks. I may never be fully accepted as a part of this society, but at least I can pick up a noodle.

Chopsticks have been on my mind a lot lately, ever since the new semester at my school began. See, in the past, the school cafeteria only had chopsticks, and every teacher used them whether they were adept at it or not. This year, however, a tray of forks and spoons suddenly appeared. I was aghast. It was a kind gesture, I suppose, to supply the new foreign teachers with the cutlery of their homeland. Yet, at the same time, it saddened me, especially when I noticed the new teachers were largely opting for the fork and spoon instead of the chopsticks.

blog chopsticks with fork“I can’t use chopsticks,” some of them would say. And that made sense. If you can’t use chopsticks, that could lead to a messy lunch. Although at one point in time I was new, and I sort of got initiated into chopsticks by fire, and I guess I think everyone should kind of do that. In my mind, I tried to imagine being a foreigner living in Asia and never getting the chopstick compliment. It would be like, I suppose, moving to America and living there for decades without ever getting the finger.

You just really couldn’t call it home, I don’t think.

Which brings us to The Chopstick Delusion. This is the idea that forms in the mind of a western person living in Asia that, due to competence in a few areas of daily life, they have been assimilated into the culture that surrounds them to at least some degree. I can use chopsticks. I can order food in a restaurant. I am able to read some signs. I know how to count. Therefore I am not an outsider but someone that belongs here. I can one day feel at home in this country.

And that might be true – if the person continues to work at it. To learn the language, understand the customs, count past ten. But what I see a lot – especially with myself – is that once those basic things are conquered, The Chopstick Delusion sets in and you think you’ve got it made. Why am I judgmental against the new teachers who insist on sticking with the fork? Because I feel they won’t be deserving of their delusion, I think. By giving up the fork, I’ve made a choice to go with the flow, to do like the Romans. And it annoys me to think that the fork people will eventually have Chopstick Delusions of their own without ever having mastered chopsticks. The same way, I guess, people who have learned to speak Mandarin view me.

Because that’s probably how it works. The hierarchy of expat adaptation. For every foreigner who can’t speak the language, I’m sure there’s some other foreign shaking his head, just like the chopstick crowd scoffs at the fork people, and I suppose the fork people, eating their rice and their kung pao chicken, might feel a tad superior to the foreigners sitting in KFC eating fried chicken with their fingers.

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All My Coworkers Are Dirty Pigs

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blog dity pigWorking in China is a unique experience. It’s something I think everyone should go through for at least a year, just to see how different the mindset here is from other parts of the world. Take, for example, what happened two weeks ago, when my school conducted its annual fall apartment checks.

The new employees here are always baffled by the apartment checks. Heck, I was baffled too when I fist started. As soon as the school sent out the staff-wide email about the checks, one of the new teachers, a nice guy named Jesse, came to ask me about it.

“Bill,” he said, “can you explain the email we just got?”

“Well, on Monday the school is going to check your apartment.”

“Yes. But what does that mean?”

“That means that while you’re at work on Monday, your boss is going to go into your apartment and see if it’s clean.”

Jesse needed a second for this idea to settle.

“Why are they doing that?”

This was a question I could not answer. I really don’t know why my boss would care to go into my home and inspect it for cleanliness. You would think the boss would have better things to do. Or that she would see how people not originally from China would be more than a little uncomfortable with the whole thing.

“What if they don’t think my apartment is clean?” Jesse asked.

blog hoarderesAgain, I wasn’t sure how to answer. All of the foreign teachers here at my school are housed in the same place, a big ugly apartment building on the far end of the campus. And every year, our boss comes into our apartments periodically to see if anyone has disgraced the school with sloppiness. If behind these ubiquitous brown doors, there are scenes of chaos and havoc, settings reminiscent of the TV show Hoarders.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told Jesse. “It’s just what they do here. They want to look in your room.”

“But I don’t want them to look in my room. What right do they have to look in my room?”

“None. But they’re going to do it anyways. So just throw out the trash in the morning and try to pretend it isn’t happening.”

The day after the apartment checks, the school sent out another staff-wide email. This one was from the boss, and it congratulated us on our general neatness. It also said that one particular teacher, who went unnamed, had an unacceptably messy apartment and was being spoken to privately.

“I wonder who they busted,” Jesse thought out loud.

In a way, I wished it was me. Just so I could tell them that they’d made the mistake of employing a filthy bastard who was proud of being a filthy bastard, and that it would be appreciated if the next time she entered my place, the boss would clean it up a little.

*

One Night in Russia with a Bunch of Damn Crazy People

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blog executive loungeI was only supposed to be in Moscow for three hours. This was my connecting flight – from Seoul to Moscow, from Moscow to London. I wasted time eating candy bars and trying to fix my hair in the bathroom mirror, unaware that I would end up getting stuck in the Moscow airport forever, seemingly living there like Edward Snowden.

A mere twenty minutes before my flight, I got into the queue, looking at my watch and wondering why we’d missed the scheduled boarding time so badly. There was a short American girl in front of me with long brown hair. “I heard somebody say that the flight’s been canceled,” she said, shaking her head. “God I hope not.”

I agreed, as I’m sure everyone else would have too if they heard her. I highly doubted there would be anyone who’d say, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind it. Today, tomorrow, next Wednesday, whenever. I’m in no rush. Not like London’s going anywhere!”

Some more time passed and then we were all led away from the flight deck and into a large empty waiting area. We were told that there was a problem at Heathrow and all flights had been canceled. So that was that. We would be spending one night in Russia, in a hotel next to the airport. There was a process though that would take some time, because they had to give us special visas or something to that effect, make sure we weren’t secret agents sent in from the West to find and rescue Pussy Riot.

“This is ridiculous!” the girl with brown hair shouted. “How long are we going to be stuck in this waiting room?”

Hours, it turned out. The Russians collected our passports and disappeared with them. We were told that we had to stay in the waiting area and, as the name of the area implied, wait. Time ticked away and little by little everyone started losing their minds, yelling at the poor blonde lady working at the desk or voicing their displeasure into the empty air.

“This is incompetence!” some dude hollered. “Either get me to the hotel or let me out of this waiting room!”

“Where is my passport?” a lady complained. “Where did he go with it? I am so unhappy right now! I want my passport back!”

Tension filled the room like the smell of rotting vegetables constantly fills my apartment. People’s moods got worse and worse, their faces drenched with sweat and hatred. It was like being stuck in the control room of the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only not with Kennedy, but with a bunch of lunatics who didn’t know what the heck to do except complain about the Russians.

“This is the worst airport I’ve ever experienced!” someone announced. “I’m never coming here again!”

Well, why would you? Suddenly a voice came over the loud speaker, originating from a new airport worker, a tall man standing behind the counter. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we apologize for the inconvenience. As a token of our apology, we will be offering free passes for the Executive Business Lounge to our passengers bound for Heathrow. Please come up to the desk and claim your passes.”

In the blink of an eye, the rage evaporated. People rushed to the counter to get their passes to the Executive Business Lounge located inside the airport terminal with the sort of enthusiasm I would have had if they were offering free shots of vodka. Furious frowns disappeared. Shouts of hatred ceased. The Executive Lounge had turned this angry mob into a bunch of bizarrely happy and content individuals. The waiting area, in an instant, had become Whoville on Christmas.

"Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!"

“Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!”

“This is great!”

“I’ve never been in the Business Lounge!”

I stood there and stared. What the hell was wrong with these people? Is that all it took, some passes to the airport business lounge, to appease them? Five minutes ago they were ready to loot the place and hang the blonde desk woman from the rafters, and now they had huge smiles on their faces, as if they were going to break into song and dance. For some reason I pictured them singing “It’s Raining Men” of all songs. Hallelujah. The passports came back and we were given a choice of going to the hotel or spending the night in the business lounge. I went for the hotel while others filed out, dancing their way to the lounge.

The next morning I returned to the airport and saw the girl with the brown hair.

“Did you go to the hotel?” I asked.

“No, business lounge.”

“How was it?”

Her hair was all messy and there were bags under her eyes. “It wasn’t anything special.”

We boarded the plane and headed off to London. I hoped that the stewardesses had some upgrade passes to First Class, just in case somebody tried to hijack the plane and had to be persuaded not to.

*

Turkey Lo Mein – A Thanksgiving in China

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chinese thanksgiving oneThree days after Thanksgiving, I sat down on my computer and typed “why are there no turkeys in Asia?” into Google. This had been bothering me a lot. For the last two years, my Thanksgivings have been filled with odd turkey substitutes, strange stand-ins, as a Butterball turkey has become about as rare a delicacy as foie gras or steamed caterpillars. Last year, my girlfriend cooked me a fatty duck steak; this year, my Thanksgiving dinner was headlined by leg of lamb.

But that wasn’t all. Earlier in the week, pizza delivery had helped me understand the true nature of Thanksgiving. Nestle (pronounced like the chocolate) – my boss at the school in China where I work – had called a full staff meeting on Monday. “We know that Thursday is Thanksgiving,” she said, “and that this is an important holiday for our foreign teachers. To celebrate, the school will be getting pizza delivered for lunch.”

It was an awesome gesture on Nestle’s part. True to her word, there were six large pizzas waiting for us in the break room on Thanksgiving, all nicely laid out the same way I imagine the pilgrims set up their spread of corn, apple pie, and canned cranberry sauce. The Chinese teachers seemed excited, smiling graciously as we all greedily snatched up chicken wings and slices of pepperoni pizza. Miss Wang, who supervises the foreign teachers, snapped picture after picture, as though she was documenting something that would one day appear in a Chinese history book.

chinese thanksgiving twoChowing down on my third piece of pizza, I stopped to notice what was going on. All the Chinese teachers were there, drinking Coca-cola and munching pizza alongside the teachers from America. It dawned on me that this, as odd as it may sound, was what Thanksgiving was supposed to be about. It was just like the corny stories we’d been taught forever, the Native Americans and the pilgrims all sharing food and celebrating. The same thing was happening before my very eyes, and it wasn’t even going to end with one side massacring the other and taking their land. Two races of people had become bonded, side-by-side, a big happy family, enjoying life together and gaining weight.

A Chinese woman with a huge smile on her face appeared, holding a digital camera. “Wow!” Miss Wang said. “We need to all pose together. This is the woman who runs the school website. She will take a picture of us.”

Focused on my fourth piece of pizza, I slammed the crust into my mouth and chewed on it while the website lady took a bunch of pictures. Part of me felt bitter about this, the photographs making me feel other, an outsider. Look at the foreign people eating their pizza, how precious! I mean, you don’t see me following Miss Wang into a Chinese restaurant and photographing her eating Kung Pao Chicken, do you? I started to wonder if this was in fact a real Thanksgiving or if it was just a photo op, something the school would use to promote itself. Were the smiles real or fake? Was the intention to graciously provide for us, or simply to create promotional material that would, possibly, help the school recruit better teachers who would, in turn, take our jobs?

I shrugged. The intentions didn’t matter – this was about people and everyone was having fun. Maybe the story of Thanksgiving is really just the narrative version of a photo op anyways, and if there were cameras back in the day, that first Thanksgiving would’ve been full of posing and posturing as well. I felt thankful that this wasn’t the case. All the old photographs I’ve ever seen of Native Americans make them look tough and mysterious. My impression of them as a people just wouldn’t be the same if there was, in existence, a snapshot of Sitting Bull with a big chunk of green bean casserole stuck in his teeth.

That doesn’t exist on the Internet, and neither does an explanation for the whereabouts of the turkeys in Asia. All my Google search brought up was a bunch of pages telling me why a turkey, as in the bird, has the same name as Turkey, the country. It’s because the British bought the birds from Turkish merchants, and believed they had been imported from Turkey (although they were actually from Madagascar). So it was all a stupid mistake on the part of the white man, exactly like calling the Native Americans “Indians.”

I guess a name is only a word, and its significance is what you make of it. Just like how Nestle and Miss Wang could happily call a bunch of pizzas in the break room “Thanksgiving,” or how I could call all the people eating beside me “family” without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

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She Dreams of Snakes and Bites Herself

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snake-AmyZhung Zhung comes to work with a swollen lip.

“What happened?” I ask her.

“Last night I had a bad dream,” she says. “It was horrifying. In the dream, I was crying. And then when I woke up, it was very sticky around my eyes. So I must have been really crying too, just like I was in the dream.”

“That must’ve been a very upsetting dream,” I say. “What was it about?”

“Snakes.”

“Snakes?”

“Yes. They were attacking me and biting me. Now my lip is puffy. I must have bitten down on it during the dream.”

This interests me because I’ve never had a dream like that. I’ve never been attacked by snakes or spiders or a pack of dingoes, nothing. I’m not sure what it says about my subconscious. Maybe I subconsciously trust animals, like dogs instinctively trust humans. Or maybe I just feel very safe in life, out of harms way. I find myself stupidly envious of Zhung Zhung.

I want to be attacked by animals in my dreams, too.

Later, she tells me more. “In a dream,” she says, “a snake is a metaphor.”

“For what?” I ask, although I think I know the answer (penis).

“A baby,” she tells me. “People say that snakes in dreams represent babies. That’s why I was very happy about my dream. It could mean that I will have a baby soon.”

“That’s interesting,” I say, nodding, positive that a snake in a dream does not represent a baby.

“But my roommate,” she continues, “says that a snake in a dream is really a metaphor for something else. She says that the snake means there is somebody that has a crush on me. I think that could be true. There could be somebody with a crush on me.”

After some more talk on her dream, I shake my head and say, “Really, though, isn’t the most important thing about your dream…isn’t it that these snakes were attacking you? Isn’t that even more important that what exactly they represent?”

“Why?” she asks.

“Well, it means either you’re going to be attacked by someone who has a crush on you, or you’re going to give birth to a baby, and it’s going to attack you.”

Zhung Zhung looks at me funny. She doesn’t say anything else, just thinks sullenly about her impending doom and bites back down on her swollen lip.

*