Monday, December 18, 2006

Are you new here?

Some recent finds that have put me in a good mood.

This is "All Over This Town" by The Upper Room. They're a bit of a throwback to the days of jangly guitars, sway-inducing bass lines and asexual lead singers. Yeah -- they conjure up memories of The Smiths and Morrissey. If you happen to remember The Railway Children, then you can use them as a referent as well. I'm getting all nostalgic now. So nostalgic that I'm listening to The Sundays. And I'm swaying. With a smile.

This is "Back to the 101" by Albert Hammond, Jr. He's one of the guitarists for The Strokes. A while back, I read an article in New York that described him as not knowing where he fit in with the band. At the time, I assumed that the writer was commenting on Albert's insecurity with respect to his musical talents. But that can't be right, because he sings and plays quite well. His album won't be released stateside until March.

This is "Burning Benches" by Morning Runner. I discovered them on London Live, which is a wonderful live music show from the U.K. that's broadcast on INHD. It showcases some big-name acts ("big-name" in a European sense). More interestingly, it also features many up-and-coming acts (also in a European sense, which means acts that are several months removed from U.S. shores). I don't think that Morning Runner's album has been released stateside yet. Quite a shame, because it's very good. They sound a bit like Coldplay, but often louder and angrier. (Coldplay gets loud every now and then, but they never get angry. Forlorn maybe, but never angry. Gwyneth must have quite the effect on Chris.)

This is "Out of the Question" by Mumm-Ra. I also discovered them on London Live. They look to be barely out of high school, but they sound plenty mature. At times, their songs get to be a bit spastic, perhaps because their lead singer is a bit spastic. But "Out of the Question" is damn catchy.

Of Sand and Snow

I was reminded in a conversation yesterday about an unusual sight that I'm still very anxious to see: snow on the beach.

There's something strangely appealing about such an incongruous mix of particles. I've mentioned this to a few people, and some of them have insisted that it doesn't snow on the beach. Sure, I've never seen it happen, but I'm pretty sure that they're wrong. What's so magical about the air above a beach that would prevent snow from falling? (I may be an atypical Asian in that my science skills are virtually nonexistent, but I did pay some attention during earth science class.) Besides, haven't you see
n Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? (One of my favorite movies, by the way. Meshes well with my notion that every experience is a good experience simply by virtue of being an experience.)

Yet another reason to prefer East Coast beaches over those on the other coast.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tears on Bleecker

A few years ago, while a couple of friends and I were driving along Bleecker to go to Magnolia, we saw a rather overgrown kid crying as he held on to a topping-less pizza. We're not talking "weh-weh, I'm hungry" crying. We're talking "firetrucks screaming to a five-alarm fire" crying. I mean, he was crying so hard that he looked to be in physical pain.

My friends laughed, and then I laughed along. (It sounds mean, I know. But it was much more good-natured than it seems. Really!) And we just kept laughing -- to the point where we were in physical pain.

We picked up our cupcakes and headed across the street to eat in the park. As we ate, we mused about the reasons behind the crying. It was like being asked to come up with a caption for a bizarre still frame from a movie that we couldn't see. Did he get separated from his mom? Was he upset that the toppings had fallen off his pizza?

So that's the set up for this bit. A few days ago, I sent this link to one of those friends because I knew he'd appreciate the humor. (It's an article titled "So This Manatee Walks Into the Internet," and it's about the Horny Manatee sketch on Conan.) The following is the e-mail thread that ensued.

Friend: I finally read this (late night procrastination). It's freaking hilarious. I immediately did a check on and it appears to be available. Opportunity?

Me: Let's get it and encourage people to send in their sightings! Maybe then we can finally track down crying man child and ask him whether it was because his toppings fell off.

Friend: Dude. We should so buy that domain name. [Other friend] can set up a site on his server. I think that we can get [him] to draw a caricature of a crying manchild with some messed up pizza and have that as a placeholder until we figure out something better. I'm in love with this idea.

Me: Man, that must be some hard plowing you're up against at the (home) office. But hey ... I like whimsy! I'll get cracking on a poem.

Friend: It just doesn't get any better than this.

Me: Oh, man child, why do you cry? / Is it mommy, or is it your pizza pie?

Friend: oh my. I'm speechless.

It's amazing how creative you become when you're exhausted and annoyed about being at the office.

Where have you been all my life, Jantzen?

While in Hong Kong, I was finally initiated into the world of custom-made clothing -- and there's no going back. My friend took me to a place called Jantzen Tailor, and I was like a kid at the Pokemon store. There were swatches everywhere, and I couldn't decide what to get. It took me so long to choose that one of the owners of the place began to tease me. (He also teased me about my nationality. When he asked me about it, I told him that I'm Taiwanese. He looked at me befuddled and said, "Are you sure?" Yet another person who thought I was Korean. Eventually, he started calling me "Taiwan-tzi." Funny guy.)

When it was all said and done, I ended up with two suits and seven shirts. I went in there only thinking about getting a couple of shirts. I had absolutely no intention of buying a suit, particularly because I rarely have to wear one these days. But, again -- I was like a kid at the Pokemon store, and I just couldn't control myself. (Pathetic, I know. Maybe this isn't the best time to mention that, after the flight back from Seoul, I've now seen The Devil Wears Prada three times.)

It's amazing how much better clothes look when they fit perfectly. If you're ever in Hong Kong, you definitely shouldn't leave without getting at least one shirt made. It only costs US$40! And you can flip through swatches online to order more when you get home because they keep your measurements on file! It'll be a challenge not to go overboard.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Duck, Duck ... Turkey?

I got to Hong Kong, and the scenery changed dramatically. Going to Hong Kong from Seoul is like having your subscription to Vogue revoked and replaced with Seventeen. The sight of my 40-year-old cabbie with purple hair reinforced that notion (as did the sight of knee-high boots with tights and shorts, which no longer looked so strangely interesting).

The ride from the airport to the hotel was a real pain in the ass. After we passed through the last toll plaza to get onto Hong Kong Island, my cabbie started pressing the "extras" button on the meter and didn't stop until it hit HK$140. I'm not sure what about me gave him the impression that I was a bumpkin. (Maybe he heard that I went looking to buy food before going to the airport lounge.) But I wasn't paying HK$140 in tolls when a sign in the cab clearly stated in English that I was required to pay much less. So I called him out on it, and he pretended that he couldn't understand me. Eventually, he realized that I was reading the rate chart. Right around then, he pulled over to the curb at some random spot in the city. He got out, unloaded my luggage onto the sidewalk and pointed at a nondescript building across the street to suggest that we'd reached my hotel. Again, I'm not sure what about me gave him the impression that I was a bumpkin. I sat in the cab and told him that I wasn't getting out until we were at the entryway of my hotel. After getting honked at relentlessly by the other cars he was blocking on the road, purple-haired cabbie relented and took me to the proper destination. And he also knocked HK$100 off the fare. I had a feeling that I probably wouldn't be as enamored with Hong Kong as I was with Seoul. (BTW -- As I later learned, it's not a very good idea to cab it into the city. Take the Airport Express instead and cab it to your final destination from the train station.)

Fortunately, salvation awaited me at my hotel -- the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. Aesthetically pleasing in every way.

See what I mean? That's a pretty good approximation of what I'd like my apartment to look like.

I settled in and then met up with friends for dinner at a sushi place. Yeah, my first meal in Hong Kong was at a sushi place. But that's not such a crazy thing. One of those friends is now an associate at my firm's Hong Kong office, but we started in New York together as summer associates. Back when we were first years, he asked me one day if I wanted to join him for a sushi lunch. Two and a half hours and $85 a person later, I wondered what the hell happened.

The meal was great, and the restaurant provided an appropriate setting for me to present my friends with a nifty gift -- chocolate sushi. Yup. Chocolate. Go here if you want to get some for yourself or your sushi-obsessed friends.

I spent the next couple of days at the office working and getting to know my Hong Kong colleagues. Quite the nice bunch. Thanksgiving was spent at the American Club. Felt strange eating turkey in the land of roast duck.

Wrapped up the trip by going over to my friends' fancy apartment for a barbecue. (Yeah, it was a very hazy day, especially way up on the 67th floor.)

I don't think Hong Kong is my kind of town. It's a lot like New York, but very different in distinct ways. More crowded, less diverse and even more obsessed with the attainment of wealth. But I'd go back, if for no other reason but the next entry.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Cultural Learnings of Korea for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of America

I headed out to Seoul on Friday, November 17. As usual, I had to scramble to get to the airport. Work never cooperates when I'm trying to get out of town. I got home from the office late the night before, and I woke up around 4:00 to wrap up an agreement before packing and making a mad dash for JFK. Turned out that my flight was delayed, so there wasn't any need to rush.

I was flying business class, so I had access to the Korean Air Lounge. Before heading to the lounge, I toured the food court trying to find something good to eat. Fortunately, I didn't see anything appealing. Being the bumpkin that I am -- I'd never flown business class nor accessed an airline lounge -- I didn't know that there was free food in the lounge. Silly me.

I got into Incheon International Airport around 7:00 on Saturday night and took the KAL bus to the Grant Hyatt. (Only US$13. Quite efficient.) My initial plan was to stay at the minimalist Park Hyatt (definitely more my style), but, as a Korean colleague put it: "That Saturday night is precious." He was referring to the fact that the fabled J.J. Mahoney's is situated downstairs at the Grand Hyatt. And, you know, he knew what he was talking about. Saturday night was an entertaining introduction to the aesthetics of Seoul.

The next day, I headed over to Insadong to have lunch at Dolkemaeul Tofu House -- a jigae place recommended by my Lonely Planet travel book. Dee-licious. Then I ventured to the area around Hongik University, which was my favorite spot during the visit. The neighborhood has a distinct Village feel about it.

For dinner, I met up with a junior high acquaintance. He took me to a barbecue place in Apujeong, where I stuffed myself silly with kalbi. Unlike kalbi that I've had elsewhere, which typically comes on the bone or in chunky cubes, the kalbi here was sliced thin as bulgoki. Again, dee-licious. We hit a bar/cafe next, where I was introduced to bek seju. My friend described it as soju, but sweeter and without the aftertaste, which is about right. I'll definitely lobby for bek seju in place of soju the next early morning I find myself in Koreatown.

We had an interesting conversation at dinner. I told him that it felt good to be surrounded by yellow people, and he asked me why. I responded that it gets to be a bit tiring sometimes being Asian in the U.S., and, without hesitation, he said that he knew exactly what I was talking about. As he put it: "Here, if someone doesn't like me, I know that he just doesn't like me."

Monday was rather uneventful. I wandered about the city before heading back to the hotel around 6:30 for a pre-dinner break. But jet lag got the best of me, and I fell asleep involuntarily for a good six hours. I was starving when I awoke, and I remembered a few friends telling me about a couple of markets with food courts that are open all night. So I ventured to one of them -- Doota -- but the food court was closed. I figured that I may as well do some shopping and just wait to eat the next day. The food court was on the 9th floor, and I paced downwards floor by floor until I got to the basement at around 3:00. Lo and behold, there was a KFC there! Fried chicken never tasted so good. (But the guy gave me all white meat. Must've mistaken my command of English for my being essentially white. What true Asian prefers white meat over dark? I sure hope someone's already working on a genetically-engineered chicken that only has thighs and legs. And speaking of the ying and yang of chicken parts ... it was a very sad day for me when McDonald's jubilantly announced that McNuggets would consist only of white meat. As if that were actually something to celebrate. At least they still mold some of the white meat into dark-meat-like blobs. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? There are the round, breast-like blobs; and then there are the squiggly, leg-like blobs. I always savor the squigqly blobs more, as if white meat molded into the semi-likeness of dark meat acquires the taste of dark meat. Wow ... quite the digression here. This is what happens when you edit at 1:27 in the morning while your mind is fighting hard not to drift into oblivion at the office.)

Tuesday rolled around, and it was time to leave for Hong Kong. I'll definitely be back in Seoul soon.

Some random observations:

• Most every guy has long hair; I felt a bit out of place
• Knee-high boots with tights and shorts is a strangely interesting look
• Elderly women can and likely will cut in front of you
• Drive on the right but walk on the left

Friday, December 1, 2006

I've Missed You

Feels good to write again. I've been out of commission for a while because of that annoying thing called work. Actually, work was only part of the problem. I visited my firm's Hong Kong office last week and stopped in Seoul along the way. Tiring, but enjoyable.

It feels great to be anxious to write. I've been looking forward to this since my plane ride out to Seoul. And I would've written a few entries on the plane had the in-flight wireless Internet service been functional. Yup -- Korean Air actually provides in-flight wireless Internet service, but there was a glitch with the system on my outbound flight. (Great airline, by the way. Extremely courteous and responsive flight attendants.)

I spent the whole time in Asia thinking about writing, but I was either too jet lagged or preoccupied with work to be in proper writing mode. Anyhow, it's good to get the fingers clickin' on the keyboard because I want to and not because I have to.