Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Hood Rats Thoughts on Beijing

Beijing really blew my mind. I came in with no expectations, other than the city was smoggy and had the Great Wall. Even with the smog indeed being unbearable at times, I still loved Beijing. How unbearable was the smog, you ask? A friend told me that teachers get paid 50 percent more to live in Beijing than elsewhere in China because of the smog. I already covered Saul the Smog in my last blog, so let's talk about something else. First and foremost, there is a crazy energy that you get in China. I think the energy is a mix of hope and fear. China is growing really fast and there is a lot of opportunity for the middle class. They're major consumers now, which is something that is relatively new and very pervasive (Malls, Malls, Malls - sung to the tune of "Girls, Girls, Girls" by Motley Crue). One example of this phenomenon in action - as recently as 15 years ago, if you wanted to buy a washer, you would need to enter a lottery to get a ticket to buy one. Now, you can simply go to the store and buy it (and many, many people do). There are still some restrictions on purchasing power, particularly around cars. You can easily buy a car, but there is a bit of a wait to get your license plate. The government is doing this to cut down on pollution. There seems to be, at least on the surface, the ability for folks to move up the socio-economic food chain. However there still seems to be a healthy degree of simmering fears just underneath the surface. Information is not freely exchanged, and people who were raised during the ill-fated Cultural Revolution, in which Mao essentially tried to purge the country of all Western influence, still carry painful, vivid memories of that traumatic time. Sorry to start it off so darkly, let's get back into Beijing. Again, there is so much growth here. About eight years ago, there were only two subway lines in Beijing, now there are up to fourteen and they are expanding rapidly. Same with the train system. There are a ton of new high-speed rails that were created two years ago. BART, please step up your game. People have been incredibly friendly to us here, and many have asked to take pictures with Matt. Yes, Matt! I have been pushed out of pictures on more than one occasion. There are a great deal of historical relics in Beijing, each of which have been beautiful to see and well worth it. If you guys want me to describe in more detail the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, just let me know and I will do a more detailed post on it. China also takes karaoke to the next level. My friend invited us to a karaoke night with his friends. We went to a huge palace-type complex. Prior to entering the karaoke room, there was a grocery store where we got our beer and snacks. Matt quickly found a friend who loved rock music. His name was Rock. They sang Sweet Child of Mine and Don't Want to Miss a Thing. Actually, Matt sang most of the song. Usually you exchange the mic, but Matt really is a solo act. Also for those of you thinking of venturing to China, you must go bargain shopping. In Beijing the big market is called the silk market. They have everything you want and more and they all try to trick you into paying too much. Luckily, I was with Matt who fancies himself a connoisseur at bargaining. At first I was a little skeptical of his claim, but let me tell you, the man has style. At one of the shops the woman bargaining with Matt got all huffy and yelled, "Why you so tough?" Telltale sign that we had won that round. Moral of the story? When in Beijing, if you leave a vendor close to tears, it means you were not screwed.

Pictures of food... And a beautiful gorge

I plan to send more pictures, but currently four is all this internet can handle. Matt and I just finished a two day trek in the Yunnan Provence. The trek takes you around Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is a contender for the world's deepest river canyon and also the primary tributary to the upper Yangtze River. The river has a legend, which involves a tiger... Apparently, many moons ago, a tiger jumped across the river rapids to escape from hunters. The rapids are daunting. A friendly English lad told us that in the 1960s a few expats tried to raft the river. They died. Damn hippies. The first day, we hiked for about six hours - straight uphill. We arrived at a hostel and spent the night. It was the first time that I have seen stars in China. It was also freezing. I wrapped a towel around my head and wore it all night. The same friendly English lad asked me what I had on my head. I simply said, "heat." English people = not intuitive. On our second day, we got up with the rooster and trekked to the magical tiger rock. They carved the path onto the mountain and it was a straight climb down and up - one slip and you are dead. They had plenty of ladders that you could climb as short cuts. These ladders scared Matt shitless. As always, I calmed him down and we made it safe and sound. Below are a few pictures of the gorge and some Boa tsi (steamed bread with pork). We eat this almost every morning for breakfast.

The Etiquette of Karaoke

Back when I lived in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, my friends and I would occasionally go to Karaoke. Although my set of friends in San Francisco is the most elite and posh group the city has to offer, we usually decided to leave the royalty of the W to grace our gold plated shoes upon the vomit and beer stained floors of Market street.


Cheap drinks and old bartenders who had nothing to lose… If you have to question the latter of the two, maybe we should sit down over a nice beer and talk about the state of ‘desperation.’

But back to the topic: Karaoke.

My friends and I would go to this real dive on Market, I believe it was called “Moores’ or some Irish name. Every bar in my neighborhood was named after an Italian or Irish family. Did I mention I lived on the cusp of the Tenderloin, one of the most dangerous districts in San Francisco? I also lived on the cusp of the Castro, which is the gay district. I felt like my neighborhood bars had the blend of rough hooligan homosexuals. I know this may seem like an Oxymoron, but they do exist and I shame you for stereotyping.

Occasionally on Wednesday nights I would go out for drinks with my friends and inevitably we would end up at this bar. Some of my friends would go home preparing themselves for their 'big job' on Thursday, but I was an intern with no mortgage. I thought it was either now or never and I only needed five hours of sleep to be a functioning adult; I need at least eight to be a functioning child. Now maybe it was due to late nights out or the state of the economy, but when I became ‘fun employed’ or as I told the Unemployment Office ‘a desperate job seeker,’ I went to the Karaoke joint more periodically with my ‘self-employed’ neighbor.


He always bought the drinks.

Once inside the warm and musky smelling bar, my friends and I would sing the likes of Snoop Dog and occasionally our friend Katie who knows how to sing would belt out a rendition of “All that Jazz” to the delight of the bartenders and the Karaoke fanatics (Yes some people go to Karaoke eight nights a week and treat it as a second job)…

Now if you have never been to Karaoke and if your voice is below par it is always necessary that you pick a song that everyone knows and can sing to. Nobody wants to hear a bad singer and the elightest Karaoke peeps will boo you off the stage or talk really loud while you are trying to sing, “Come to My Window” by Melissa Ethridge. Side note, nobody came to my window that night.

The real challenge of Karaoking is finding the songs that the crowd is going to like. Unless of course you have an amazing voice like Christina Aguilera and can blow the audience out of the water with your God given talent, but this only comes along in a blue moon and if you think you have a good voice, just Karaoke one night and you’ll know if your hidden talent is really a talent. kiss. That being said, if you are like 99.9% of America or the world for that matter your voice is probably bad, thus when you go to Karaoke you need to pick the crowd pleasers, not the ones that will showcase your cat-like voice.

As I travel across the world and go to many different Karaoke joints this idea of singing the crowd pleasers holds the same note. Although in different countries and even regions the songs change drastically. Here in Korea, the crowd pleasers are old Korean songs that have really high squealing sequences or surprisingly ABBA, more specifically Mamma Mia theme songs. Just like the Castro back at home, Momma Mia was a hit!!!

Koreans call Karaoke joints Noribongs and they are not like your average Karaoke facility. Instead of a large room with strangers Noribongs are private and just amongst friends or foreign hooligans who have met and bonded throughout the night.

Each person picks his or her ‘Go to Song’ and then they sing it to their friends. Usually, everyone in the room sings the songs together and people can share the stage. This isn’t always the case. I have had a few nights where microphones have been punched out of my hands. Some people are just spotlight hogs and let me tell you these are never the people that you want to Noribong or Karaoke with as they have in fact lost the essence of Karaoking: Togetherness.

I have also had my ‘Go to Songs’ skipped, this happens quite often when I am Noribonging with a certain character who will remain unanimous until I leave Korea. I fear that my Noribonging privileges will be taken if I announce the culprit via the internet.

In Japan I did a few Karaoking sessions. One place that I went was similar to the Korean Noribongs, but another one was the American style Karaoke with strangers singing together in one big room. I would like to give a Japanese perspective of my experience, but each time I went I was surrounded by a strange nationality called Australian. I figured these chaps would love to sing songs like, “I Come from a Land Downunder” or be all up in arms over Kylie Minogue, but there mouths salivated to Billy Joel and “Creep” by Radiohead.

As a side note, “Creep” is also an underground Karaoke song. Almost everyone and their mother knows that song and it has great climatic stages to get the audience really ‘in it.’ It also boast simple, but true to life lyrics like, “I wish I was special. You’re so fucking special!”

Now, I’m not trying to stereotype the Australian musical choices, people were throwing out lots of great songs not just Billy Joel (not to say Billy Joel isn’t an amazing musician because he is…), I was just surprised by their choices. I guess… I just felt like an outsider looking into classics that I grew up on. It was as though they were singing their national anthem… as though there was a hidden message to these songs that I had just not heard before… as though the song was originally played in the key of G, but for some reason because of the equator the Australians always knew the song in the key of C. And while I sat there sipping on my wasp vodka (yes a wasp was in my vodka) I couldn’t help but think, “Do my Korean friends feel the same way when my American friends and I sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at the Noribongs?”

Maybe I felt this way because of the etiquette or should I say essence of Karaoke, ‘the knowledge of your audience.’ I didn’t know if the Australians went on long road trips with their parents and sang such classics as “In the Middle of the Night” by Billy Joel or if my Korean friends turn on the radio station with their girlfriends and belt out in unison “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler…

I guess Karaoke just makes me miss home. It makes me miss really bad radio music and the 90s. I don’t really know the moral to my story, but hopefully it will inspire you to head to your local Karaoke bar and indulge in bad music and hominess.

Karl the Fog vs. Saul the Smog

Karl the Fog vs. Saul the Smog For those of you that are unfamiliar with San Francisco, let me preface this by saying that San Francisco is a foggy city. It is surrounded by cold waters (the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay), and to the north and east are climates that stay relatively warm. The cool waters mixed with the warm inland weather make for an ideal breeding ground for fog, especially in the summer months. Fog is so pervasive in San Francisco that it has been personified. We call him Karl the Fog, and he has his own Instagram and Twitter handle. To me, Karl is a wet blanket sort of friend. He crashes a sunny birthday party at Golden Gate Park and ruins it with his gloom. You were just starting to feel warm and fuzzy at Dolores Park, and then Karl rolls in to tell you that he's having the worst day of his life because his fish died + his Netflix queue is all screwed up. Your warm and fuzziness ceases to exist and you have to packup your blanket and go to bed because Karl's depression has left your bones chilled. He can be a bit obnoxious at times, but he can also be incredibly beautiful. When I lived on Nob Hill, I would sometimes walk to Grace Cathedral at night and at the top of the steps before the door, I would turn to look at the city and it would just be a blanket of fog. It looked and felt as though I was sitting on top of a cloud. It was just me and Karl up there, and our conversation was sweet and melodious. Since being in Beijing and Xian, I have met another grey matter that lurks just below the skyline - and also in the lungs. I have named him Saul the Smog. Saul is the type of friend that shows up to the party way too early, smokes the entire night (even when the host has asthma) and doesn't leave when you ask him to. He is like a drunk uncle that lingers in the house with a cigarette always lit, and with his hands in his pants. He gives the babies dreadful coughs and makes the adults as a addicted to tobacco as he is, because, hell, if you are already dying from cancer through secondhand smoke, you might as well get a buzz while you fall to the grave. There are no redeeming qualities to Saul, and since entering Beijing - and Northern China as a whole - he has not left. I do not know if it is because of Saul, but I have noticed a lot more people smoking in Beijing, and also hacking massive, mucus-filled loogies that can be found everywhere: on the bus seats, on the toilet and sometimes even on my shoes. Saul is a pain in my ass and has left my virginal lungs with tar. Okay, he hasn't. I did live in San Francisco, where the fog prompts many folks to smoke another type of substance. Sans Saul, Beijing has been an amazing city that I will write more about in my next blog. Till then, good day!