Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Delicate Sense of History -“Scooting” to Enlightenment

Most of us go through this phase of trying to figure out who we are where we are and where we are going. I was told by Mr. Diconti, my 10 grade English teacher that if we could answer those questions we would have a philosophy of our own in which to filter the world. Well being here I’m not so much trying to find out who I am but rather trying to find out who they are. I mean I think I know me and I thought that I was opened minded, but then why can’t I just accept my surroundings as they are. I mean when I’m getting pushed, shoved, yelled at and constantly profiled should just deal with it? It’s their country not mine…right?

Well, I had a break through. It’s been a little over a year but the catalyst to my epiphany was on my little electric scooter. Riding this thing day in and day out I’ve become pretty good at dodging old ladies, rusted bikes with Styrofoam piled high, erratic taxi drivers and huge buses with drivers that are clueless. You know what, there is a method to the madness and I think I’ve figured it out. There are so many elements to the madness that I’m only going to deal with one, which is this Shanghainese concept of spatial relationship. Lesson one: There is none, space I mean! So as a person that optimally functions with a 3 foot radius are him, I have to learn to function with no space. If I can get over that (which I think I have) I think I get it!

Watching cars, buses, pedestrians, bikes and anything else that has moves navigate itself in Shanghai is like watching a ton of marbles being dumped into a maze. Anyway if you tilt that maze the marbles will arrange themselves in the most optimal position to get through a small opening to the next adjacent space. Now imagine a bigger maze and throw in larger rubber balls and even larger soccer balls. As you shift the maze in different directions the balls always go to their optimal position. The only criteria for this all to work are that two or more elements make contact and one gives way.

Now imagine a much bigger maze and throw in buses, cars, scooters, etc.. you see where I’m going with this… once I gave up my 3 foot radius and realized that it’s OK to “bump” someone, a whole new world opened up. I finally understood the ebb and flow of shanghai. Communism and lack of open area has given the 85 lbs old grandma, the 200 lbs electric scooter and the 20 ton bus the same right of way and who ever gets there first simply has to hold their line. If bumped, give way because when you bumped someone else they’ll give way. In some sick convoluted fashion it all works!!

All I had to do to find this out was to “scoot” to enlightenment.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Do you really have to YELL?

Nico, our poor Chinese language teacher is always getting bombarded by knuckle head questions from us Lao Wais (foreigners). Especially now that our rag tag group has instituted beer drinking during class time. This week the question was why the hell do Chinese people speak so load especially on their cell phones. I mean literally it’s like they are always yelling into the phone.

Then there are the business meetings. Here the “yelling” in monologue is ridiculous. Unlike most “discussions” and brainstorming sessions that I have participated in, the Chinese business meeting usually consists of one person on a nonsensical rant going though all the emotion and inflictions as if in a heated discussion, except that no one else in participating in the conversation (unless they are on their cell phone taking to someone else -no joke). These sessions go on for hours at a time with so many contractions from one monologue to the next until finally the main guy, usually the CEO, has his chance to pontificate. In the end, everything that was said by the others means nothing. Only the CEOs word matters.

As a designer you can’t question or disagree with any of the convoluted rants even if they are riddled with contradictions. This way no one loses “face” (this is definitely another topic because I just don’t get it). All we can do is simply compile all that was said and decipher as best you can and come up with something that is close to what the last guy said.

Anyway, I totally digressed and just lived a “moment” that happened a few days ago. Back to the cell phone thing. Nico’s explanation is that the Chinese (especially the older generation) were used to using such bad quality telephones that they always had to yell. Good Explanation but I don’t buy it. The reason I don’t buy it is because not only are all the kids frickin’ yelling into their phones but everyone old and young has their ring tone put on the highest volume setting. It’s fucking annoying!

Personally I think it’s an amalgam of things all which seem very contradictory. First I think it’s the “Look at me” syndrome. Look how important I am, I’m on the cell phone…yippee! I really believe that the Chinese view cell phone like Los Angelinos view their cars. It’s an extension of who they are. A manifestation of their personality and some sort of convoluted self perception.

Then I think there’s this self entitlement that stems from the Cultural Revolution and one of its resultants: the one child policy. The one child policy is very evident as social policy that backfired. In fact, the local Chinese themselves admit that this is a major problem. Most feel that they are raising a generation of spoiled uber-brats!

The one child policy might just be China’s Achilles heel. I mean, when a 30 old man still lives with his parents and refuses to drink milk unless his mother opens the carton and pours it in a glass for him (true story BTW) you know that there is a serious problem here. This same 30 year old man has asked his parents to come out of retirement so they can help him buy a house. I mean’s it’s ridiculous but it seems like the norm here.

From a socio-economic perspective, there’s this issue of having an overpopulation of men and not enough women. There are so many intrinsic issues here that I’ll have to address this when I’m not writing about cell phones. The one child policy has also created a reverse bell curve of not having the population to generate the man labor and the tax base to support an aging yet rapidly growing country.

I know I went so many directions in this blog (ala “attention deficit” Vic) but it all comes back to that individual that is literally screaming into the phone or being so self absorbed in a business meeting. Personally every time I hear a LOUD cell phone ring or someone opens their mouth, I see it as a cry for self definition in a place where no one perceives themselves as an individual. Its either that or it’s a population of frustrated undersexed spoiled brats trying to reign in the fastest growing economy in the world? I see Big Trouble in Little China…..

Friday, October 10, 2008

Damn Mouse!

Everyone that I’ve spoke to that is from another country but living and working in Shanghai said the same thing when we first got here. Everyone agreed that Shanghai is an amazing city but if you don’t get out of dodge every quarter, this city will drive you crazy. The hustle and bustle and shear amount of people in Shanghai will inevitably drive you batty.

Christina and I were at that junction last month. Well, I should clarify that more; Christina was way more ready than I to get outta dodge than I was. She wanted to get as far away and to a place as polarized from China as we could get. Being the super genius that I am I initially chose another Communist (well former Communist) country in Russia. It’s probably a good thing we couldn’t get our visas in time because that could have been a disaster if it turned out to be similar to China.

Anyway, we opted to go to Prague. The choice could not have been a better one…..oh my goodness the city is beautiful! For those of you that have never been there and want to take a vacation and seem like you are in another world, The Czech Republic is the place to visit.

You see Prague (Praha) is one of the very few cities that was not destroyed in World War II. As I understand its history; after the meeting in Munich in 1938, the Allies pretty much threw the Czech Republic to Hitler as a gimme. Hitler in turn fell in love with the city that he never destroyed it. In addition the Allies never got around to bombing it (I guess they used all their bombs in Dresden). A few decades after the war, The Czech Republic falls into the hands of Communism via Russia.

It seems that all its misfortunes have somehow become blessings. By not being destroyed in WWII and being preserved by the State during Communist rule, The Czech Republic and more specifically Prague has ironically retained much of its original charm via culture, art and architecture. In fact, there are movements in art and architecture that never made its way out of Eastern Europe because of its closed society. The city is an eclectic combination of Medieval Castles and Churches, Art Nuevo and Deco buildings with random structures from esoteric movements like Rodo-Cubism. It all works well though. Everything is so beautiful and it is all linked with these charming pedestrian cobblestone streets. Combined with the beautiful colors of the fall foliage the city feels like you are living in a fairly tale. Not to mention the people are beautiful too.....just like princes and princesses! The best part though is that they drink like fish. I believe they consume the most beer in the world per capita!

The pictures I’ve attached best represent what I thought Prague was but I think Christina would beg to differ. The pictures however do no justice to really how beautiful the place is. There is one thing that kind of ruined everything for me (just a bit). Disneyland! You see walking along the narrow meandering cobblestones streets with the spires of the Castles and Churches in the background and cafes with cute flowers on the window sills at every turn, all I could think of was the damn Magic Kingdom in Disneyland!

Damn Mouse!!!…..I curse the Mouse!!!!!....sorry Rich….

pictures are worth a 1000 words...

I took a series of random pictures on vacation and as I was going through them many of them reminded me of my family & friends. Here they are and you figure out which one you think is you.

For Larry (part 1)

This post is dedicated to my friend Larry who has a blog called E A T with Larry.

There are these hot dog stands on the streets of Prague that probably have the best sausage hot dogs I’ve ever had in my life! Maybe the flavor was enhanced a bit because I would have one after a late night of drinking (or afternoon…hey I was on vacation) or in the morning after a wicked hangover. At any rate, they where amazing!

There would be 4 types of dogs on the grill and each time I wanted to try a different one my nose and tummy would always lead me to the spicy sausage (ala Uncle Larry).

The bun was a baguette. This lovely ensemble of flour and yeast was soft and warm from being just freshly baked. The aroma of the bread alone was enough to lift you off your feet and whisk you away into food heaven. The crust was light and flaky and would crumble into wafer like flakes if you held it with the wrong hot dog holding technique. The inside of the bun was dense and doughy and a little sweet. It is the perfect consistency to soak up the wonderful grease and juices of the spicy dog and the perfect sweetness to balance the flavors of the sauerkraut.

Now the coup de grâce was the hot dog itself. This amazing concoction of molded pork bits, parts and spices would bring any carnivore to their knees. I mean it was perfection packaged in a thin intestinal lining.

At first bite my canines would penetrate the dog and create a “SNAP”!!!…then all these ineffable flavors would come cascading unto my palette and all over my fingers. The grease and spicy juices would mix with the sourness of the sauerkraut and soak into the baguette to make the perfect food…..I mean what more can you ask for…..mmmm…I know…another Pilsner!

Item # 3 -unchecked

I grew up with my formidable years in the 80’s during the heady days of détente between the US and the late Soviet Union. The Cold War was in full effect and the former Soviet Union was the dominant “red” threat to our ideology. I guess being yuppies and preppies and a product of the decadent 80’s I always viewed Mother Russia as representing everything antithetic to our lifestyle of wayfarer sunglasses, Sperry topsiders and Le Tigre shirts (collars turn up of course). I mean, come on, who wouldn’t agree that the Material Girl, Boy George and Devo weren’t the enlightened ones.

Saturated with the obsession of uber-capitalism and superficiality, the idea of Communism seemed evil. I still feel the same way at times now that I’m living China and I realize what a wonderful experiment the US is. The US definitely has its issues but even with all its faults I still think it is the greatest country that ever was! We are declining though, and fast. I promise to share thoughts on this because I feel it completely relates back to everything that manifested in the 60’s and made its mark in the 80’s.

It was then that I placed Mother Russia as one of the places that I needed to visit before I die. Most people want to stand in front of the Taj Mahal or frolic on the beaches of Bali but not me. I wanted to go to Moscow walk along the Moskva River make my way up to Kremlin and stand in front of it take a picture with my hands raised over my head in victory (maybe even ‘flipping the bird”) and repeat those infamous words uttered by Reagan, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

With the fall of Communism and Christina and I living so close to Russia, I finally had the chance to accomplish item #3 on my list of things to do before I die. Plans were fashioned, plane tickets purchased, hotels and transportation reserved. All that was left was the visa. Simple enough, we had friends from the US go there with no issues.

With a week left before our flight, I finally got back my passport from the Chinese government (every year you have to register with the government and they hold your documents until you interview with them to get it back). Christina and I stayed up all night putting all the documents together that were required for the visas.

Let’s see......application-check, bank statements and assets-check, international medical insurance-check, verification that we are not experts in explosives and fire arms – check (not joking), hotel verification letters of everyplace we will visit- check, someone to vouch for you-check, passports, tickets, blah..blah..check…check…check….and finally copies of everything in triplicate!

Flawless…we had everything. It was going to be a slam dunk! The next day at the Russian Consulate there was a Finnish lady and an Italian guy in front of us in line. We could over hear them discussing what a pain in the ass it was to get a Russian Visa. We joined in the conversation and discovered that they had been there multiple times and have been turned down.

We had to enter the Consulate one by one so by the time Christina and I got there we saw the Finnish lady sitting in the corner crying. We asked her if she was ok and all she said back was: “I hate Russia….I hate China…I hate Communism…why the hell do they make it do damn hard to enter their god forsaken countries”. Needless to say she wasn’t able to get her visa.

To make a long story short we couldn’t get our visas and trust me it was no lack of effort either. We tried everything including calling in favors from friends that have friends in the Chinese Foreign Affairs. Well, actually we could get the visas but it would take some time because the US and their Allies are supporting Georgia in their little Civil war.......but I filled out the damn application and explained that I couldn’t build a bomb and I wasn’t an expert marksman…wasn’t that enough!

Anyway, we cancelled everything, choked down a grand in penalty fees for flights and hotels and booked a trip to the Czech Republic and had a great time.

So I had to “uncheck” item # 3 on my list …..but I’ll get there someday. The irony is that to get to Prague we had a stop over in Moscow. In the picture I don’t quite have my hands over my head but that’s not a peace sign either. It’s my politically discrete “victory” sign….and oh, I’m not really smiling…I’m pissed off!