Awkwardness at the Meetup Event

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blog meetup sticker“Have you ever gone to a Meetup thing?” Cooper asks me. He’s trying to put together plans for the weekend, figure out something for us to do.

“No,” I say. “What’s a Meetup thing?”

“It’s when you go someplace and a bunch of strangers go there too and you socialize. The point is to meet new people.”

“So it’s the same as going to a regular bar, only you don’t have to come up with an excuse to talk to people.”

“Basically,” he says. “Everybody at a Meetup thing signs up before hand and you wear name tags.”

“Where did you find out about this?”

“On the Internet,” he says. This is no surprise. The Internet seems to have been created to help strange people meet each other. “Anyways, there’s a Meetup thing in Seoul Saturday night. It might be interesting.”

“Right on,” I say. “I’m in.”

How I remember it looking.

How I remember it looking.

A few days later Saturday rolls around and Cooper and I hit up the Meetup event. We arrive an hour late. Enough time, we feel, to seem cool. As soon as we walk in we realize the place is packed. There are tables full of people, all talking to each other. The Meetup organizers are in the front and we pay them a cover fee, then get name tag stickers to place on our shirts like we work at Staples.

“Okay guys,” the Meetup organizer says. “Now go around and meet people!”

This is easier said than done. There are no empty tables and everyone seems to be locked in conversation with whoever they’re sitting with. Cooper and I go to the bar and buy beers. Then we circle around the place two or three more times.

“We should’ve come earlier,” he says. “There aren’t any tables.”

“Should we go and sit with someone?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Have you ever come to one of these things before?”

“No, man.”

“I think we’re supposed to sit and talk with people,” I say, looking around. “Who do you want to talk to?”

“Nobody, bro,” Cooper says.

“Dude, why did we come to this if you don’t want to talk to anybody?”

“I have no idea. Do you want to talk to anybody?”

“No, not really.”

We go outside and smoke cigarettes. About fifteen minutes have passed since we arrived.

blog meet new people“You want to check out someplace else?” Cooper asks.

“We just got here,” I say. “We’re going to look like the two most anti-social people in the history of Meetup.”

“I don’t care. This sucks.”

“Well, let’s just go back in and talk to somebody. One person. I don’t care who it is. I feel like we paid the cover so we should at least say something to one other person.”

“Cool,” he says. “Then we’ll leave.”

Putting our cigarettes out, we open the door and go back into the Meetup event. We decide to stand in the corner. Eventually a Korean girl comes over and talks to us for a few minutes, then leaves to go talk to people who are actually friendly.

“She was cool,” I say.

“Whatever,” Cooper says. “This place is whack.”

Right as we’re about to go, a big Korean guy comes over to us. He’s young and speaks a little English and he begins asking us questions.

Q1: “Where are you from?”

Q2: “Do you like Korean food?”

Q3: “Do you like kimchi?”

The Meetup event has now become torture. I mean, yeah, the guy is nice and everything – super friendly – but I just don’t want to have this conversation. A few times I elaborate on my answers and he becomes lost, unable to understand things when they drift too far from the short answers he expects.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I say. “But we have to go.”

I look at Cooper and nod my head towards the door.

blog is never good for you“Okay,” the friendly guy says. “What is your number? I will text you.”

“Um,” I say, “I just got my phone. I don’t have a number yet.”

He looks at Cooper.

“Yeah, me too,” Cooper says.

The friendly guy smiles, totally unfazed.

“What is your Kakao Talk ID?”

Cooper and I exchange glances. We both mumble the same thing.

“Yeah, sorry man, we don’t have Kakao Talk.”

Obviously it’s a lie. We’ve both been on our phones half the night. I hope the friendly guy didn’t notice this.

“I see,” he says. “I will friend you on Facebook.”

“Oh, shoot, we don’t use Facebook.”

It’s awful. Downright shameful. We shake the guy’s hand and slide by him out of the place. Afterwards, I can’t help but feel really bad.

Here’s the deal – it’s one thing to reject someone’s romantic interests…but to blatantly reject someone’s friendship is way worse. We’d basically just told that guy that we had absolutely no interest in whatever he had to offer. No interest in chatting. Hanging out. No interest in getting to know him. No interest in merely having each other on Facebook and never communicating apart from liking some status updates. None of that. No, we’d rather lie and make up stories than enter into anything resembling even the slightest of friendships with this guy.

And all this was at an event where the purpose was to make new friends. I felt terrible, maybe worse than I’ve felt breaking up with someone.

“I think we just failed at Meetup,” I say.

Cooper shrugs. We go to another bar, one where the people stand there silently ignoring each other, and everyone seems comfortable.

*

You’re Stunning, Mr. Cabbie! No…I Mean It…You’re Literally Stunning Me!

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blog donkey in cabLiving in China can be bizarre. In the three years that I lived in South Korea, I thought that I existed in some strange parallel universe that only vaguely connected to the rest of the world. Silly me. Compared to China, South Korea feels like one of the quirkier states in the US, like how I imagine Portland or Louisiana being. Weird but with a certain degree of charm. China, while absolutely possessing charms of its own, is not really like that.

That’s because China has an overall ambience of lawlessness and disorder that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Everyone knows that China is a “communist” country. I knew that. But it turned out, when I got here, that communist countries aren’t all how I imagined them being. For starters, there’s not much in terms of propaganda in China. I’ve been here over a year, and I still wouldn’t be able to tell the president apart from some guy working in a corner store. There are no huge pictures of the blog kim jong unpresident plastered across buildings the way North Korea dresses the country up in Kim Jong Un. Likewise, there’s no sense that people are ‘sharing the wealth’ here, not the way my high school history teacher taught me communist countries are supposed to. No, just like in America, a few people here appear to be really rich, and everyone else is broke as hell.

Especially cabbies. Or, in reality, older guys with cars. Because that’s what most cabbies are. You see, China is so extremely deregulated, almost anyone can do whatever job they want to do. Have no training but you own a pair of scissors? Great! You are now a hair dresser. Want to run a restaurant but you’re worried about inspections and getting a good sanitation score? Don’t sweat it! As long as you don’t kill anyone, nobody is going to bother stepping foot in your kitchen. And even if you do kill someone, just stop serving whatever dish they ordered and I’m sure things will work out fine.

By the same token, owning a car is all you really need to do in order to become a cabbie. Yes, there are real cabs here that have meters and a thing on the roof that says ‘taxi,’ but they’re vastly outnumbered by what are generally referred to as ‘black cabs.’ Getting a black cab is easy and can result in a truly exciting experience. Instead of generalizing, I will instead illustrate this with a quick story:

It was about three in the morning, and I was ready to go back to the hotel. My friends were still out, drinking and partying in Sanlitun. But I was tired. So I made my way to the street and hailed down a cab. I knew right away that it wasn’t a legal cab. I did not care. After some confusion regarding where I needed to go (don’t expect an illegal cab to have things like translation or a GPS), the cabbie put the car in drive and we hit the road.

blog cab gullable touristAbout ten minutes later, we were at my hotel. Thinking back, I knew I should’ve bargained the price before we set out. I hadn’t done that because I wasn’t in the mood and also because I didn’t have a good idea of how far away the hotel was. Anyways, now that we had reached the destination, I turned to the cabbie and asked him how much he wanted for the ride.

“100!” he loudly stated.

I almost burst out in laughter.

“100 RMB for a ten minute cab ride? That’s insane! I’ll give you 20.”

This did not please him. The cabbie was probably in his sixties, an old man with thin arms and a bald head. He gave me the look of death and shouted out his next price.

“50!”

“Now way, man!” I said. “25.”

We argued a little more and then, although he spoke only in Chinese, I could tell that he was threatening to turn around and bring me back to Sanlitun.

“Fine, bring me back,” I said. “I’m not paying 50.”

He yelled in Chinese and started turning the car around. Then he stopped and began negotiating again.

“This is stupid,” I said, and I turned and tried to open the door. It was locked. I moved my hand to the lock and pulled it up.

blog stun gunYou’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to leave the cab. My bad. The next thing I knew, his bony little fingers were yanking at my collar. I turned to see him reach under his car seat, remove a stun gun, and proceed to stick it in my face.

“What the hell, man?” I said. “Are you serious?”

He was so elderly. I figured I could’ve easily taken his wrist and snapped it in half, then beaten him with his own hand. But I’m a nice guy. I instead offered another price.

“35. Okay?”

“Okay!”

He still had the stupid stun gun in my face.

“Dude, I’m not paying you shit until you put that thing away! Put it away!”

The cabbie returned the stun gun to its spot under the seat, I paid him the 35, and he let me go. I went to my hotel room and found that my friends had somehow gotten there first.

So what’s the point of all this? That illegal cabs are bad? That China is crazy and unsafe? Nope, that’s not it at all.

The point is simply to say that people who are firmly against government regulation of the business world might not understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Deregulation is fine in theory, and even in practice, actually. As long as you don’t mind fighting with cabbies from time to time.

Or getting bad haircuts.

Or being served fake tequila in bars.

Or having a restaurant cook your food with reused oil.

Or having the air so thick with pollution you can barely breathe.

Just think about it. As shady as the beef at Taco Bell is, it could be shadier.

*     

How Thai Curry Helped Me Conquer My Fears

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blog funnier plane crashI’ve never been good at flying. In fact, every time I step onto a plane, I immediately transform into a crying little baby. Everything about flying terrifies me – the sounds and the movements and the existence of phrases such as ‘shoe bomber.’ Whenever the plane makes a loud noise, I panic and crotch down, assuming the crash position while everybody else quietly naps. If the plane hits a patch of turbulence, my hands shake and I start praying to God like I’m the Pope or Kirk Cameron or someone. And on landings I’m a total disaster, allowing my mind to envision images of wreckage and wondering if my chipped tooth will help the authorities identify my remains.

So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on what would be about nine hours of flying, from Japan to Singapore, with a layover in Kaula Lumpur. This was on the Scoot airline, which I’d never heard of, and whose goofy name inspired about as much confidence as the phrase “Directed by Alan B. Smithee” does appearing in the opening credits of a movie. United Airlines? Air Asia? Now those don’t sound like airlines that would crash. But Scoot? It’s bound to go down. Let’s just say for a second that these airlines were stocks: who on earth wouldn’t choose to invest their money in American Airlines or Air Asia over Scoot? Investing in Scoot would be ridiculous, like pouring all your savings into a company called Boners Inc.

blog flying cartoon not confidentAll that’s to say, I was a nervous wreck the second the plane took off. I tried to stay cool, flipped through the airplane magazine looking at the pictures, and then I just waited for them to come around with the drinks. And then I waited some more. And some more.

See, Scoot is what’s called a “low cost airline.” That means that all the stuff you expect the airline to do for free – like checking your bag or giving you a thimble of orange juice – is not free anymore. This is how low cost airlines make their money. The tickets are mad cheap, but then you have to buy everything. That’s their clever racket.

“There’s no meal with this flight, right?” I asked the flight attendant, already knowing the answer. “Like, I mean, I have to pay for it.”

“Hahaha, of course!” the flight attendant said, laughing at my foolish question. “There’s a menu right in front of you. We take Japanese yen or Malaysian ringgit or Singapore dollars or credit cards or gold or kidneys or anything else that has value, really – whatever’s most convenient for you.”

I sighed. If only I wasn’t so tight with money, then maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. But I’m cheap, or ‘frugal’ as I like to say, and so this meant that I was going to try and make it through the nine hours without eating, and save money and to spite Scoot and their games. I figured if people can make it through periods of fasting, like Ramadan, then I could get through one flight.

As it turned out, I was wrong. My commitment to frugality didn’t last long. Yes, if this was Ramadan, a mere five hours would’ve passed before I threw in the turban.

“I’m starving,” I said to myself. “I can’t take it anymore. Scoot has defeated me in our war of cheapness.”

blog thai curryDisappointed, I called the stewardess over and ordered the curry meal listed in the menu. She disappeared into the back, then returned only to tell me some bad news.

“It’s going to be about twenty minutes. Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s fine.”

As it would turn out, by ‘twenty minutes,’ she really meant ‘an infinite amount of time that cannot be measured.’ Twenty minutes went by with no sign of the curry’s arrival. I was dying, wiggling around in the chair and staring helplessly at the back of the plane.

'I thought we'd never break through those clouds!'And then, what had been my worst fear began to come true. Suddenly, the entire plane jerked. It was sharp enough to produce an audible gasp from the crowd. The jerk was followed by another jerk, then another. Within seconds, the seatbelt sign went on and the pilot was making an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve turned on the seatbelt sign,” he said. “We just hit a pretty rough patch of turbulence. All passengers and crew please be seated.”

blog shatnerNow, normally this would be a complete nightmare. Normally, I would have been screaming and freaking out like Shatner in the Twilight Zone. But this time, while the plane bobbed and weaved, all I could think about was eating.

“This better not affect the curry,” I thought, looking at the seated flight attendants. “They better get their asses up and go get it. I don’t care if we’re crashing.”

It was probably the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced and yet I had no anxiety whatsoever. My fear had been displaced, my thoughts spiraling all around the hunger I felt. I began to realize that maybe I’d stumbled onto something brilliant. Maybe fear could be replaced by other things – hunger, thirst, a need to go to the bathroom, the physical discomfort of tight underpants. Minor physical sensations that could work as a distraction, could displace neurotic anxiety, sending one’s focus onto an alternate outcome (eating curry, obtaining water, etc.) that would assist them in achieving the original desired outcome (making it through a flight, robbing a bank, etc.).

The plane was still unsteady when the curry arrived. I couldn’t have been happier. I knew I’d done it – I had conquered my fear, and I’d even gotten a side of brown rice to go with it.

*   

Destiny Can Be So Overrated

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blog hippie guyI might not have noticed them had he played guitar better. There were three of them, sitting together in the hot sun. This was on the island of Gili Trawangan, about an hours boat ride off the coast of Bali. I was there with my girlfriend, S___, while the three strangers sat about fifteen feet from us, the sound of the guitar and their voices coming together into some sort of off-key musical jamboree.

I like the way you walk,” the girl sang. She was white with braided brown hair that sat on the top of her head like the trays of fruit the island women carried. “I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk, oh Susie Q.”

blog bali woman thing on headThe dude playing guitar had blonde hair and a blonde beard, a tan body and the type of posture that suggested he’d spent his life abstaining from laziness. The other guy had all the same features as the first guy – blonde, beard, no slouch to read into – but lacked the first guy’s charisma. They were like two photographs of the same person. The first guy was the picture in which the subject is smiling and has his eyes nicely opened, while the second guy was the picture in which the subject’s mouth is woefully crooked and the eyes have just shut, making the subject look drugged.

“It must be the guitar,” I figured, trying to determine what exactly made the first guy more charming.

Whatever the reason, the brown-haired girl seemed to agree. If she was a moon, she would clearly have been in his orbit and not the other guy’s. She continued to sing as he haphazardly plucked away at the guitar strings.

Give me one reason to stay here,” she sang, stopping now and then when the guitar player screwed up, making it sound as if she was singing while having the hiccups. “And…I’ll…turn right…back around.”

Gili Trawangan photoMore time passed and I wondered why I was drawn to watching them. They were really bad, the guitar and vocals all over the place, and yet they appeared to be having a blast. The girl had this huge smile on her face. The guy with the guitar beamed at her. And the other guy drummed away on his thighs with his fingers and nodded his head like he was witnessing a Lennon/McCarthy songwriting session.

“How cool,” I thought. “They don’t give a shit. They truly don’t. They just dig the vibes of the beach and the island and the music. I think I love them.”

It was about then that S___ turned to me and said she was hungry. She’d spent the last few days eating fruit and island coconuts while I gorged on hamburgers and beer, sort of providing a hint in case any of our waiters were wondering which of us would die first. The sun was starting to go down anyways, and so we got up and went back to the hotel, showered and dressed and assessed the severity of our sunburns.

The whole time, I kept thinking about the trio we’d seen on the beach. I wanted to know more about them. Where did they come from? What did they do? Were they really as free and divorced from the working world, the paycheck world, the non-island world, as they appeared to be?

blog adorable kittenS___ and I walked back down the beach, looking at menus and dodging stray cats. That’s an important part of the story. All her life, S___ has been terrified of cats. They fill her with an irrational sense of terror, similar to how Anne Coulter fears soccer. Every so often I’d point and shout ‘cat!’ and S___ would duck behind me so that an oncoming kitten wouldn’t brush her leg with its adorable head.

Anyways, we ended up eating at a place called Ocean 2, right by the water. We ordered our food and that’s when I looked to my right and saw them, the same trio of people from earlier on the beach. They were seated at a table diagonal from us, the girl sitting next to the guitar player. She was still smiling, he was still shirtless, and the other guy was still there. I ordered some Thai curry and a beer and began wondering if there was more to this than simple coincidence. If maybe, just perhaps, they’d popped up again for a greater purpose, something deeper. To any extent, I definitely enjoyed spying on them.

blog hippie loveThe girl was so drawn to this guy and yet he seemed oblivious. Wait, no, not oblivious, it was more that he was extremely cool about it. He just kept doing his thing, drank his water, chilled out, didn’t desperately try to return her flirtations. I liked the dynamic he’d created. They were obviously going to sleep together but there wasn’t anything sleazy about it at all. They weren’t using each other for pleasure or for ego. This was more real. More natural. They were two people simply being together for one specific moment in time, making a connection.

I drank my beer and secretly nodded in appreciation, although I still wasn’t sure what greater purpose their presence suggested. A few minutes later, I heard the loud, conspicuous cry of a beach cat. Since we were at an ocean front restaurant, it wasn’t unusual for the beach cats to wander around the tables begging for scraps of food. The cat cried again and I saw S___’s eyes widen with horror.

“Where is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, sure that it was close.

blog scary catIt cried again. We both knew exactly where it was.

“It’s under my chair!” S___ shouted. After that she screamed. “Aaaaaaaaagh!”

The whole restaurant turned to look. Some people laughed. I took S___’s hand and told her to breathe, that she was okay. And then it happened.

Fate stepped in.

blog fate is sealedThe shirtless guitar guy calmly leaned over and held his hand out. He made kissy sounds with his lips. The cat slinked its way out from under S___’s chair, over to his fingertips. He dropped some bits of fish down on the ground for the cat to come eat. While it did, one of the restaurant staff picked the cat up and bounced it out of there like it was an unruly drunk ass customer.

I was stunned. There it was, my proof that the trio had indeed been brought into our lives for a greater purpose. That purpose being to save my girlfriend from a kitten.

“That’s it?” I thought, a bit disappointed and let down. “That was the greater purpose? To distract a kitten with fish?”

blog coincidenceThen I thought that maybe that’s how fate works. Maybe we all want fate to appear in ways that will change our lives forever, when actually fate just does things so miniscule it’s barely noticeable. Maybe all the great big things in life come about due to hard work or knowing the right people or just plain coincidence, and all the small bits of shrug-worthy minutiae, maybe those are fate.

Met your future husband at the pizza place?

Coincidence. 

Had some guy pick up your sunglasses after they fell out of your pocket on the bus?

Fate. 

The next morning I saw them again at breakfast. It was only the two this time, the guitar guy and the girl. She still smiled. He still avoided shirts. They both still beamed at each other. Like a couple in love. Like two people that were free from everything.

I guess that’s what their significance was. Just to be there, and to not look like everybody else.

*

A Sentimental Journey, Somewhat Lacking in Sentiment

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blog split pantsIt was the middle of July, and I was back in South Korea.

For the previous six months, China had held me like a (somewhat abusive) mother, kept me close to her heaving breast. But now I’d broken free from her, fled back to Daddy South Korea. That might sound goofy, but it’s how I viewed the two of them. My second life had begun inside Daddy South Korea; I’d formed inside his scrotum and was eventually shot out into Mother China, somehow penetrating her Great Wall, which, in this analogy, I suppose would represent a diaphragm. Yes, it was all an accident, just like when my actual parents conceived me one sunny afternoon in the 1970s.

It felt good, being back in Seoul. Sitting around a deserted restaurant, eating dongkas by myself, I realized that it had blog dongkasbeen an amazing five years since I’d first set foot in South Korea. That was back in 2009, when I worked at an English Academy for the summer, before I returned to the USA and completely blew my life up. I came to Korea that summer with a wife by my side and a house back in North Carolina. One week after returning, the summer about to end, I had neither.

Suddenly, while savoring my delicious dongkas, the significance of those last five years seemed enormous. Meaningful. I could feel the wicked
pointer finger of nostalgia poking at me – nostalgia, that most awful of emotions, more prevalent in Americans than in others, the desire to relive one’s past through pictures or objects or stories. Nostalgia is almost blog blow up dollpornographic in a way, masturbatory, both sometimes revolving around home movies or toys, substitutions for a real something. I knew it was happening yet I couldn’t stop it. I wanted so badly to go back to my first apartment in Seoul, just so I could look at its façade, as though it was a kind of ancient ruins, standing there as a symbol of an era that ended long ago.

blog nostalgia comicYes, I could picture everything. All the images I’d snapped in my head five years earlier. There was that big fountain by the subway station, the one where thin arcs of clean white water would shoot up from the ground as if by some miracle the concrete was spraying out champagne. Then there was the apartment building where I used to live, old and exhausted, my former place on the second floor, sitting on top of a pig meat restaurant. And finally there was the building where my wife – prior to ex status – used to live, an all-girls dormitory, the place in which she sat and decided she didn’t care for Korea (her feelings alone) and didn’t like our marriage much either (that one was mutual).

So I went back. I got on the subway and traveled to Sinjeongnegeori Station, walked out of exit number three and, stepping into the sun, I immediately knew exactly where I was. It was weird, sort of like seeing a movie for the second time, remembering most of it, filling in the details that hadn’t seemed important the first time around. I easily found the all-girls dormitory, the pig meat restaurant, and the fountain where I used to sit and chill after work. All the locations were close to each other geographically, exactly as they’d shared the same space in my memory.

Now, I’m not totally sure what I expected to feel. Awe? Wonder? Anxiety? As it turned out, I felt very little of anything. I looked at all the stuff and kind of shrugged. Said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” in my head. Really, it’s probably
the way I’d react if my guardian angel came and transported me anywhere in my past. Replacing George Bailey with me would significantly lessen the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I would go through my past vaguely interested, bored, and then, at the end, jump off the bridge.

 

To heck with Christmas.

To heck with Christmas.

Undistracted by emotion, I sat down by the big fountain, opened my journal, and wrote this. I’d gone back in time and realized that nothing had really changed, although I don’t mean that in a negative or cynical way. The locations were the same, the people seemed the same. I was still writing in journals with a black pen, still amusing myself with my own thoughts. I was still in Seoul, even after all that time had passed. But more than all that, and most importantly, I still felt all the hope that I’d felt sitting on the same bench half a decade earlier. The belief that I could make my life better, create this brilliant new start to things. I thought about the future, just as I had before, and again it seemed beautiful, filled with limitless possibility.

The past is not a pretty place to get stuck in. I’d taken a sentimental journey there only to find it lacked sentiment, and for that I couldn’t have been happier.

*

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.

*

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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