America: The Land of Milk and Honey and Paperwork and Really Big Pizzas

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usa13599872_10205017958448416_7142705830357970127_nWhen you spend six years living in Asia, coming back to the USA becomes both an exciting and a frightening proposition. Yes, I felt amped up thinking about the things I missed. Decent live music and Applebee’s and Taco Bell. Things like that. There’s also the worry that everyone will be armed and dangerous and your Chinese fiance will get elbowed in the face by an angry Trump supporter who heard her say ‘ni hao’ and flipped. What you find is that things are pretty good here, somewhere in the middle of what you anticipated.

In other words, Applebee’s isn’t that great, and no one is threatening to shoot or elbow your girlfriend.

But a lot of my friends have asked me what adjustments I’ve had to make. So I thought I’d write a quick blog post, where I’ll briefly touch on a few things that have surprised me since I’ve come back to The States.

talkative-people1) People Like to Talk to Each Other – The other day, I was in Walmart, waiting in line, and the lady behind just started talking to me. Struck up a random conversation. It was nice, and it got me thinking about the people in South Korea and China. I started to ask myself, did I ever see people talking to each other while in line? I don’t mean to me – I didn’t speak the language – but to each other? I don’t believe I ever did. Likewise, at the bus stop here in Vegas, someone ALWAYS starts talking to me. But at the bus stops in Asia, everyone always stood in silence and waited solemnly.

Personally, I like the perception that a stranger is your friend, and I like the frequent little conversations I’m having. I’ve concluded that the USA is chatty, and it’s kind of fun.

512oyetfnpl-_sx258_bo1204203200_2) The USA is Obsessed with Sports – Man, there are sports everywhere here. The NFL, the NBA, college football, college basketball, high school sports, fantasy sports. I turn on my TV during the weekend and I’m bound to find sports on. It’s amazing how Asia isn’t like that at all. Sure, Korea had it’s baseball league and that was popular. But other than the KBO, there wasn’t really much, and I don’t recall seeing many people dressed up in the jersey of their favorite team. Not like here, where half the men I see apparently still have fantasies about playing for the Cowboys. Thinking back to China, I don’t believe anyone cared at all about sports, apart from, I guess, their rampant love for playing ping-pong. The emphasis on athletics is amazing in the USA; whereas in Asia teenage boys and adult men seem to get their excitement from video games and drinking large amounts of alcohol.

064aeb7d5bbaad36e818e90cec3c25033) Advertising is Ingrained in our Souls – Jingles. I only remember one in Asia, which was for HomePlus in Korea. Otherwise, commercials consisted mostly of attractive people using the product and looking attractive. Here, commercials are inescapable and far more sly. They play brain tricks, and people seem to love them. Hanging out with some friends, a commercial for Jeep Grand Cherokee came on and everybody started happily signing Cat Stevens’ song “Free to Be.” In my classroom at a middle school in Vegas, we were about to start watching something on YouTube when a Capital One advert starting playing; when I went to skip the ad, the students all cried “no!” like their hearts were breaking and then sat transfixed while Samuel L. Jackson talked about interest rates. Our programming is apparent and kind of sad. Whereas in Asia, you just buy what the sexy person tells you to buy.

USBULA United States Bureau of Unnecessarily Long Acronyms4) Bureaucracy Is Everywhere and Is Expensive – A few months ago, I sauntered into Lens Crafters with my glasses. I told them I wanted to buy some contacts and I handed the lady my glasses to scan. That’s how I did it in Asia. Hand over the glasses, they scan it with some machine, then they sell me contacts that match the strength of the glasses lenses. Takes five minutes. But here, not so much – I was told I needed a doctor’s perscription in order to buy my contacts. The vision test would take 2-3 hours and cost $110.

This is America. Everything needs a document, every document costs money. To get fingerprinted for my new job, I had to 1) pay a fee online 2) go to fingerprint place with receipt from the online fee and get printed 3) go to office of employer with form from fingerprint place saying I was printed in order to get another form giving the fingerprint place permission to share the fingerprints 4) go back to fingerprint place to give them the permission to share form. It took forever and, of course, cost money. But that’s the procedure. There are battles from wars that have less documentation than my fingerprinting did.

lilipizza13686597_10205087521987461_41481060401218504_n5)  The Grocery Store is Great – In Asia, about 50% of the grocery store is comprised of cheap sausages. There are sausages all over the place, and the chicken breasts sit out in the open and are as warm as urine by the time you get them home. Meanwhile, the grocery stores in America are true examples of American greatness. Want a giant pizza that will feed your entire apartment building? You got it. Want tomatoes? We’ve got six different kinds of tomatoes. Feeling in the mood for some Middle Eastern food? Well we’ve got Falafel and pita break and tahini sauce. In Asia, I couldn’t even find olives.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Need to stop writing. Got a big day ahead of me here in America: gonna watch some football, enjoy the advertisements, and eat a pizza the size of an ice skating rink.

 

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The Jesus Napkin

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jesus-main-626779There are a lot of crazy people living in Las Vegas. If you’d like to verify this, the easiest way of doing so would be to ride the public bus during the daytime. I’ve heard people say “the freaks come out at night,” and that might be true. But the real freaks come out around noon, and they’re all riding the Las Vegas public transportation system.

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The Fiance 

Back in late August, my fiance and I had a memorable run-in with one of these colorful characters. Yes, that’s right, I have a fiance now. Her name is Fang Deng and she is a little Chinese woman. I brought her over here with me, packed her in my suitcase hidden inside a Chinese lantern, and later when we got off the plane she popped out of it like an Asian version of the Trojan Horse. Actually, none of that is true. Fang Deng just came over to the States with me on a tourist visa, met an eccentric man at a bus stop, and now she’s back in China.

Anyways, I digress. Fang Deng and I had to catch the bus going north on Boulder Highway that day. We walked over to the bus stop and there was this dude sitting there wearing black sweatpants with a long-sleeve black sweat shirt. This was odd, because it was 110 degrees outside. Sometimes it’s hard to describe a person, but the guy sitting at the bus stop was very easy to describe because he looked exactly like Neil deGrasse Tyson. So just imagine that after filming an episode of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson is exhausted and disheveled and that he dresses down into a sweatsuit and sits on a bench outside in the sweltering heat, and that would pretty much paint the picture of what Fang Deng and I discovered at the bus stop.

neil-degrasse-tyson-today-151123-tease-01_3f81ad672979df8eb616d15515636051-today-inline-large“Hey,” the guy said to me. “Hey, you.”

I pretended I didn’t hear him. In my head, I started praying that the bus would just materialize out of nothing and we wouldn’t be alone with this guy anymore. But my fantasies would not come true, and the man called out to me again.

“You! Come here!”

Fine. I walked over to him. “What’s up?”

He didn’t say anything. Instead, he reached his hand out and gave me a brown napkin. It was folded up as though he’d been carrying it around for awhile.

I opened it. On the napkin, he had written the name “Jesus” maybe two billion times. I’m not exaggerating. The napkin was litterally covered in Jesus, like this:

Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus

why-did-jesus-fold-the-naptkinI wasn’t sure how to react. I nodded knowingly and handed the napkin back to him.

“I gotta catch the bus to Michigan,” he said. “Can you give me five bucks?”

“Um, let me see what I have,” I said. I opened my wallet and gave him two dollars.

“All right,” he said.

“It’s all I got,” I told him apologetically.

When we got on the bus, Fang Deng was livid. She looked at me like I was the crazy person.

“Why the hell did you give him money? What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “He had this Jesus napkin. It freaked me out.”

“That’s ridiculous! You should’ve told him you have no money!”

“But…you always say we should give money to the homeless.”

Fang Deng shook her head, her black hair bouncing against her shoulders. “Not homeless people like him. Crazy guy with a napkin.”

For the rest of the ride, we watched as the man would walk over to the other people on the bus, one by one, tap them on the shoulder, and hand them the napkin. They would all open it and stare at it for a second, and then hand it back to him. No one else gave him anything. He eventually got off at the same stop that we did, with only his napkin and my two dollars to show for it.

“God bless you,” he said to me as we parted ways.

“God bless you too,” I said.

And then he walked away into the suffocating heat.

I wondered if he thought this was Michigan.

 

 

The Passenger Seat of a Stranger’s Car

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NEW YEARS FIREWORKS OVER LAS VEGAS STRIPThe fireworks have just ended and I’m standing by the side of the road with my hand out. It’s only fifteen minutes into the new year and already I feel hopeless. Cabs zip past me without stopping, people slumped over drunk in their back seats. I’m on the Vegas Strip with literally thousands of other people, all of us trying to flee for our homes. Apparently as soon as the clock struck midnight the Strip stopped being the place to be, and everybody just wanted to go to bed.

A black truck pulls up in front of me. The window rolls down and the dude driving it sticks his head out.

“Where you going, man?”

“Twain and Arville.”

“Twain and Arville?” he repeats, as though he’s asking himself if he wants to drive there. “Okay, I’ll take you there. Forty dollars.”

nye2012-07I look around the place. There are so many people and the streets are mostly empty, only a few cabs around. My phone (Samsung G4, a total piece of shit) is dead and it wouldn’t even matter if it wasn’t, because the guy at the Uber tent (yes, there’s an Uber tent, with a bar and loud dance music and a bunch of Uber drivers parked outside) told me that T-Mobile (my carrier, totally shitty) isn’t connecting to Uber for some reason. And since they won’t drive you if you don’t request on the app, I’m out of luck. But I do have exactly forty-two dollars in my wallet, which means I can afford a ride from this random stranger.

“Forty bucks?” I say to him. “Let’s do it.”

He motions towards the passenger seat and I get in. We make a quick u-turn and almost immediately get stuck in traffic.

“Fucking New Year,” the guy says. “Everything is gonna be like this. Let’s see if we get around it.”

He drives the truck into the lane next to us – you know, the one for oncoming traffic – and bypasses about fifty cars stuck at a red light. We reach the light and he butts his way in, cuts off the car in front, and now we’re leading the pack. After a minute or two, we get stuck again.

“Forty bucks,” he says. “I should charge you two hundred.”

We start to talk. His name is Isaac and he’s from Eritrea, a small country located in Northern Africa. His hair is black and puffy; he looks middle-eastern, wears glasses and has stubble all over his face. He tells me that he’s lived in Vegas for almost twenty years. Has a wife and a three-year-old kid. He constantly mentions how English is his second language and he doesn’t speak it well, even though I think he sounds perfectly fluent.

“What about you?” he asks. “Where are you from?”

Oh, where to begin. I tell him I’ve lived in Asia the last six years. First South Korea, then in China. I tell him that I’ve just moved to Vegas to start a new life. It sounds corny, and I worry that he might see this as an opportunity – I’m new and I don’t know anybody and he could easily kill me without anyone figuring it out for at least a few days. But that doesn’t seem to occur to him. He asks me why I came back to the States.

“I don’t know, man,” I tell him. “Just felt like it was time to come back.”

web1_photoeditor-1483288501023-1-_7700234Isaac drives like a madman. He weaves in and out of traffic, cuts down back alleys, honks his horn at any cars in his way. It’s a lot like being back in China, actually. It takes a half-an-hour to get onto the highway, and from there we’re set. The drive from the Strip to my place is actually only ten minutes or so, but most of the roads are closed for the holiday, which means we have to circle around. And so Isaac and I end up taking a little tour of Vegas, talking about language and culture and what it’s like to live in a country that isn’t your own.

“Do you think you’ll ever go back to Eritrea?” I ask him.

“No, no, no,” he says. “This is where I want to be.”

He drops me off at the apartment complex where I’ve been living the past three months. I open my wallet and give him the forty-two bucks. We shake hands. It’s after one in the morning and my apartment complex is dark and quiet. Isaac turns the truck around, gets onto the road and takes off. Maybe he goes home, maybe he goes back to the Strip to make more money. I just walk through the buildings until I reach mine, and after I get inside, I go out onto the balcony and smoke a cigarette.

It turned out okay. This is what I tell myself. I’m home and I’m safe, and it’s 2017 and everything is going to be fine. I realize that a lot has worked out so far, a lot has gone right, and that’s why I’m standing here on this balcony in Vegas. Looking at the bright lights in the distance, ready to start the brand new year.

I can see the Palms Casino, the neon glow of its colorful sign. I wonder if the lights ever go out there? Something tells me they never do.

An Audience of One Too Many

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right back at chaThe Courteous Intro

Happy New Year! Wow, it’s 2016 – time for fresh starts and new beginnings. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! 2016! TWO THOUSAND SIXTEEN!

The Acknowledgement of the Obvious

So, I haven’t posted anything on here since November 3, 2014. Yeah, that’s a long time. In fact, it’s a year and three months ago. That’s not last week. That’s awhile ago.

The Sad Ending to 2014 and How It Changed My Life

Well, here’s the thing: 2014 turned out to be, perhaps, the worst year of my life. Nothing too drastic happened, but still, it wasn’t good. I’m still alive and relatively healthy and there are no major injuries to report. I still live in China. I am not in prison there (although sometimes it feels like I am). I have not killed anybody and I am not on the run. I have not been kidnapped by ISIS and I have not perished on a Malaysian plane.

So in that respect, things are good. But 2014 wasn’t so good. Let’s talk about it. First, my grandfather died. That was depressing, but it wasn’t that depressing, because he was really old and everyone could see it coming. I mean, I’m not sure if something qualifies as being tragic if you can easily predict it. Still, it put a bit of a melancholy spin on things. He was a good guy and it’s always sad when someone like that passes.

Secondly, my mother got cancer. That really hit home. I never wrote much about my family, but we are not close at all and I haven’t seen my parents since 2009. It’s one thing when the mother you see all the time gets sick, and I’m sure the pain and confusion that stems from that is enormous. But when your estranged mother who you haven’t even spoken to in ages gets really sick, well, it’s pretty heavy. You start to wonder if you’ll ever see or speak to her again. Like, if she’s going to die without saying goodbye because, you know, that’s what she wants. It’s tough. And even if your mother is essentially a stranger to you, thinking that a day could come when she’s not on this earth…it’s a tough pill to swallow. All that’s to say, when I found out my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, my life kind of ground to a halt.

But wait! Things got worse! My girlfriend of over two years – the lovely Korean girl I wrote about so very often on this blog – broke up with me. Although it may sound as though I’m a petty person who lacks perspective (which is likely true), the end of our relationship was by far the most devastating of all. I really, truly believed beyond a shadow of doubt that I was going to marry this person and spend the rest of my life with her. That was the vision I had of the future. And then that all got shut off, like a sitcom that gets cancelled after the first season because of bad ratings.

It’s weird. You have this idea of what things will look like, and then the other person comes along and tells you that your idea is all wrong. It’s almost they she said, “Hey, you know all that stuff you think about? About the home together and the family and everything? Well, you need to stop thinking that. I don’t know what you’re going to think now, but think about something else. Think about, I don’t know, basketball. Put more thought into your hairstyle. Just stop thinking about us. Got it?”

So What the Hell, Man? You Were in Pain – You Should’ve Written!

After all this stuff happened, I realized how odd a forum a blog is. I mean, I enjoy writing about myself on this blog, obviously, and I’ve rarely held back from being open and honest. But suddenly after the break up, I just didn’t want to ever write anything on here again. I felt like the break up wasn’t only an end of the relationship – it was an end to Topiclessbar as well.

I looked over the last year or two of this blog. It really became sort of a love letter to her. So many of the posts are about her or at least feature her. It seemed wrong. To suddenly start writing about dates and being single and trying to find someone new. All wrong. Especially since I knew she’d be there, reading it. I had strangely gotten an audience of one too many, and I imagined in anguish my new ex reading everything and feeling hurt by it. True, she had ended our relationship, but there were still a lot of deep emotions involved. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt her. It’s still the last thing I want to do.

I told myself it was more important to not hurt her than it was to keep on writing a blog. And so I stopped.

But You Didn’t Stop! You’re a Liar!

Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that.

Please Wrap This Up, Buddy, It’s Going on a Bit Long

Okay. Updates. My mother had a mastectomy and, after a couple other operations, I’m thankful to say that she is currently cancer free. We still have not seen each other, but we communicate via email regularly. It’s not great but at least we’re talking again.

I couldn’t make it a year without writing anything, so I started up a new blog and have been occasionally posting on there. It’s called “Parking Space 37,” and absolutely nobody reads it. I’m not kidding – it literally gets 0 hits a day. Which is actually kind of good and what I needed. It’s somewhat freeing to just write and know that there’s no audience whatsoever to judge you. Here’s a link to it, in case anyone wants to start judging:

Parking Space 37

I’m quite a bit better now, recovered from the evil 2014. My ex is doing okay, I think, and we talk from time to time. I miss her a lot still but things don’t hurt as bad as they did. At first it’s all regret and you sit around wondering what you could’ve done differently that might have made everything turn out better. Then as the months go on, that regret starts to change into acceptance. Not all the time – there are still spells of sadness and wishes that I could’ve fixed things – but when those down times happen, the acceptance eventually comes back in and things feel okay again. You start to realize it will probably always be like this. The regret will never really go away, and you’ll have to live with that in your heart forever. It becomes a part of you, and you try not to be bitter about it.

I have a new girlfriend and life is happy. Going forward, with the new year upon us, I plan to write here sometimes and sometimes write on Parking Space 37. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I want to put a book out and do so much more. It’s going to be a good year, I think, or at least an interesting one.

So there it is. My heart on a platter. A little bruised, but still pumping.

China Bans Halloween and Steals My Ties

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blog china bans halloweenIt’s been a hectic week here at Topiclessbar, as the Chinese government has stepped in twice recently, prohibiting me from taking public transport in a Halloween costume and from wearing a nice stylish tie. That’s how China rolls sometimes. While other, more intelligent writers can document the massive, sweeping oppressions of the Chinese government over its people, I shall instead document two instances of relatively minor oppression that are more odd than infuriating.

Let’s start with the ties.

When shopping for ties in Beijing, one basically has two options. Either you can pay a ridiculously high price at a department store, or you can go to a black market and haggle. Now, personally, I absolutely hate haggling, so that’s out of the question. I’m just very uncomfortable with it. Even when I do successfully get the price I want, I still somehow feel as though I’ve been ripped off. Anyways, I needed ties and the two methods I just mentioned seemed unappealing. So I ordered ties online, which I thought would be an easy alternative.

Yeah, not so much.

Thanks to UPS tracking, I’ve learned that my shipment of five ties and two pocket squares has been detained at customs. Why? Well, perhaps China has something against pocket squares that aren’t pre-sewn into the suit. Or, more likely, they just want to milk more money out of me and my imported ties, as there’s a message on the UPS thing about how I need to pay some sort of fee to get my ties out of detention. My ties have been held hostage in a warehouse for almost two weeks now. Whether or not I ever set them free is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, I’ll stick to sweaters.

Now on to Halloween.

For years, the Beijing expat community has famously held its “Halloween Subway Party” on Line 2 of the Beijing subway. The idea is fun and simple: people dress in costumes and meet up on one particular subway platform, and then they sort of take over the subway car and have a costume party while riding the public transportation system. Line 2 is a loop, and eventually everyone gets off and the party continues. This has become something of its own tradition and there have never been any incidents of lawbreaking or disorderly conduct. But Halloween costumes are frightening, and so obviously the government had to step in and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Here is the (somewhat confusing) statement that was released Friday prior to the subway party:

“Beijing transit police crew, tonight is Halloween to western traditional festivals. In order to avoid panic caused by subway, Beijing Subway will ban the costume or terrorist makeup in the passenger station. {People who} refuse to correct and thereby causing serious consequence may be detained.”

The news of the Halloween costume ban spread quickly. I’m not sure if anyone tried to get on the subway anyways, but I decided to stay away, as going to jail for dressing like Luigi from Mario Bros wasn’t how I wanted to spend my Friday night. I didn’t hear any stories of mass arrests the next day, although I did find this amusing photograph posted on We Chat. It’s a guy in a panda outfit getting taken away by a police man.

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Why ban Halloween costumes, you ask? Who knows? Because they have the power to, I guess. And, you know, who wants any kind of chaos on the Beijing subway? Cause usually it’s pretty low key and orderly.

blog chaos on subway

Okay, that’s all for now. The two lessons to take away from this blog post are as follows:

  1. It’s hard to buy ties in China, so just wear your D.A.R.E. or your Coed Naked Golf t-shirt to work.
  1. Halloween costumes (especially pandas) are scary and synonymous with terrorist activities. Be on the lookout for Isis members at your local costume or party store.

Hope everybody had a great holiday! See ya!

(Credit to Beijing comic Frank Monday for making the panda meme)

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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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