Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You Don't Say....

So, for those of you familiar with online memes, surely you will have heard of/come across the now world-famous Nicholas Cage "You Don't Say" meme. However, for those of you who have not, a brief summary: The "You Don't Say" meme is a comic taken from the 1988 film "A Vampire's Kiss", starring none other than Nicholas Cage. The film was presumably terrible, as it involved both Nicholas Cage and the 1980's, however the meme taken therefrom has gained a lot of notoriety, generally used in a situation where someone is stating something incredibly obvious. For example, in the photo at right, you can see the very obvious "Do Not hold the wrong end of a chainsaw" on a warning label, accompanied by Nicholas Cage sarcastically saying "You Don't Say?" . Simple enough? OK then, let's move on.

Since moving back to Shenzhen, and in my last month of living here in 2012, my roommate Scutt and I have watched a lot of movies. These movies generally fall into one of several themes--British comedies (Four Lions, The Inbetweeners film, etc), documentaries (Inside Job, the Enron Film, and a variety of Ted Talks), or "crappy movies with crappy actors and loose plots centering around Thailand". The last category would include, but not be limited to The Beach, The Hangover II, and perhaps most importantly Bangkok Dangerous, a film so terrible, so badly put-together, and so wholly unbelievable and unrealistic, that it would be correct to say the only reason we ever watch it is because both Scutt and I have an unhealthy obsession with the city of Bangkok, and with laughing at bad acting (particularly the bad acting of the lead actor, Nicholas Cage). So, within our apartment, Nicholas Cage has become something of a cult hero, with the "You Don't Say" face taking a place among the pedestal of quasi-religious iconography in our incredibly sarcastic lives.

Taking this a step further, Scutt and I have trademarked a facial expression of rolling one's eyes into the back of one's head and looking slightly horrified whenever someone proposes something worthy of that expression. Given Scutt's excellent (read: better than mine) skills on Windows Paint, he decided to make some slightly changes to the Nicholas Cage "You Don't Say" meme to reflect this facial expression. See at left. So, for example, when the other day we saw some 4-ish year old kid walking around in the street completely naked, while his (presumably) father laid in a hammock being supported by two traffic columns---boom! Nicholas Cage face.

So, now that we have covered the Nicholas Cage face and the subsequent changes made by Scutt to reflect our lives seeing an increasing influence from Kurt Vonnegut-esque style humor, let's talk briefly about the picture at left in more detail.

Firstly--notice that the app we are using is likely unknown to anyone reading this blog outside of China. The app is called Wechat (Chinese name is Weixin, 微信). For anyone looking to do any sort of e-business in China ever, Wechat is a hugely important tool for getting word to people about anything and everything. For some further information on Wechat from an unbiased and interesting source, check out Quartz' take on them. 

Add photos, get likes, write
comments....sound familiar?
And now for my take--firstly, what exactly is Wechat? I would liken Wechat to something like Facebook Chat, with a sort of primitive "timeline" feature (see photo at right). And also, it's a lot more "rapisty" for lack of a better word. What the heck do I mean by "rapisty", you ask? Well, basically, on Wechat there is a feature called "look around", which lets you do just that--you look around the area near you for other users on Wechat. Anyone else using that feature at that point and time is visible to you, and you to them. So, for example, I can find out if there is a fellow 24 year old dragon-year born Chinese girl within 200 meters of me right here and now, find out what she looks like (based on posted photos, of course), where she is from, and can send a greeting trying to start a conversation. Creepy? Certainly. Socially acceptable and as common as black hair is in China? Yes, that too. So, there's that feature. The app also includes a "shake" feature, whereby you can shake your phone and it pairs you up with others shaking their phones nearby. Dangerous? In India, absolutely. In China, surprisingly not so much.

Furthermore, as it turns out, I am far more addicted to Wechat than Facebook. For example, a few weeks ago I lost my phone. I bought a new one later that day, and immediately was able to access everything because it was backed up to iCloud. Except!!! Wechat! I needed to wait 48hrs (in addition to the 12hrs between my losing my phone and my buying a new one) to access my account, because my account was linked to my old Korean cell phone number, which I no longer have. Let me tell you, that was an excruciating 48hrs. Why is this app so important, one might ask? Why, after a week of going cold-turkey on biting my nails (a proposal initially brought up by Scutt, who said he stopped biting his nails the day he came to Shenzhen, because his fingers spend all day in China), did I crumble and start to absolutely go to town on my newly-long and healthy-looking fingernails, the moment I found out I would have to go another 48hrs without Wechat? Well, a number of reasons, I guess. Namely:

1) I use Wechat to keep in touch with everyone in China. For example, I never end up exchanging phone numbers with a lot of the people I meet here--we just add each other on Wechat. So, once that goes down, my ability to contact most of the people I want to contact in China goes down with it, unless I have (unlikely) acquired some other form of communication with them (such as another Chinese social app like Momo, or maybe something like Whatsapp).

2) I use Wechat to keep up with the places I like to go. Bar I go to is running a special? They message me on Wechat. Starbucks is having a deal on Frapuccinos tomorrow? Starbucks China will most certainly send me a message informing me of this development.

3) It's more important to me now than Facebook. Now, don't get me wrong, I do miss all my friends back home, and I enjoy keeping in touch with them on Facebook. However, Facebook is NOT A FACTOR HERE AT ALL. Obviously the main reason for this is it's being blocked entirely in mainland China. Regardless, though, Facebook is just not a thing here. I never once have looked up someone I've met here on Facebook, and I don't use Facebook to keep in touch with anyone here. So, while going a few days to a week without using Facebook (which is no longer an issue for me) can be inconvenient for keeping in touch with the people 8,000 miles away, going a few days to a week without Wechat can be inconvenient for keeping in touch with the people 8 minutes walk away. Big difference in the relevance and overall utility to my everyday life, here and now.

So, now that we've all learned about the Chinese social app known as Wechat (and if you haven't clicked on the link to the Quartz articles by now, you should. Really. Interesting freaking stuff!), let's go into some other assorted musings:

1) This weekend I took my first foray into the Shenzhen live music scene. Through a friend that I've met recently, I found out about a show taking place in OCT Loft, an artsy part of town where they basically took a bunch of old factories and warehouses, and rather than destroying them, built them into art studios, cafes, and other such cultural things, perhaps in an attempt to rid Shenzhen of its "business city with absolutely no soul and less artistic sense than Blaine Curcio" reputation. Anyway, so went to a concert there on Saturday night. And an interesting concert it was. Some major takeaways:

  • The concert was sort of a rock/DJ/trumpet type band. That is, they had an Australian drummer, a British DJ, a guy from the US playing the trumpet, and a "token Chinese man" (their words, not mine) playing an electric keyboard. So, not like anything I'd ever seen. As such, it was kind of a surprise to see....
  • The number of children under the age of 9. The place had maybe 70 people there in total, of whom roughly 5-6 were small children. This was, as far as I can tell, a rock concert on a Saturday night. The musicians were swearing on stage. And yet, sure enough, the place had a handful of random small children dancing dramatically to the beat of a trumpet playing alongside an electronic mixing board
  • Overall, it was a really good show, and a welcome surprise compared to what I'm used to in Shenzhen (that is, the fact that the "business city with absolutely no soul and less artistic sense than Blaine Curcio" reputation is, by and large, true).
2) I've been taking Shenzhen busses lately. Interestingly, despite being old, decrepit-looking, generally crowded, bad-smelling, and otherwise unpleasant, they are, in fact, faster than the metro in many instances. For example, from my apartment to the office would involve a 10-minute walk to the metro station, 6 minute metro ride, and 5 minute walk to the office. Whereas by bus, it involves a 2 minute walk to the bus station, 6-8 minute bus ride, and 2 minute walk to the office. All for a magnificently cheap $0.35 or so.

Apart from that, not an overwhelming number of updates since the last blog post. Meantime, will hopefully continue at least 2-3 days per week moving forward, so more updates to come as they develop. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Return to the Pearl River Delta (Again)

I just can't seem to get enough of South China. Which is quite interesting, given that I hate the temperature, hate the humidity, and hate the fact that, when on an escalator in a subway station, people adamantly REFUSE to STAND ON THE RIGHT AND WALK ON THE LEFT (they just stand on both sides like philistines taking up the entire escalator) . But, for all its minor faults, South China (or more specifically, Shenzhen), really is the place to be. I left this maddeningly interesting place back in November 2012 after a year of living here, and have since bounced around the Korean peninsula for a month on two separate occasions, spent some time living with old friends in Kuala Lumpur, spent a month living in a tiny dump of a bedroom in Central Hong Kong (for about $800US per month rent, no less.....), and sprinkled in stopovers in Chicago, Zurich, and Washington D.C. for good measure. I also ended up getting quoted in Yahoo Finance, which was pretty sexy.

But in spite of the busy-ness (I was going to write business, but realized this was not in fact an adjective to describe busy, but was in fact the word business....), or perhaps because of it, my mind was constantly wandering back to this blossoming megacity located in the delta of the Pearl River, just over the border from the manic and overcrowded (but still lovely) Hong Kong, and just far enough south of the manic and overcrowded (but still lovely) Guangzhou. Somewhere in-between--not quite Hong Kong, not quite China, just a weird hybrid of free market economies, Communist propaganda, wide boulevards, a blooming art scene, more parks than you could visit in a year (as I found out firsthand), and fleets of Ferraris, Rolls Royces, and Bentleys existing hand-in-hand with armies of downtrodden people earning less in a lifetime than the cost of any one of those cars, Shenzhen really is a city of contrasts and contradictions (a note on the previous 2 links....yes, living in China does make you slightly more Communist). Maybe that's why I found the place so darned interesting (anyone who can name the film from which I lifted that line will get a beer next time I see them).

So, anyway, having given an overly artistic and abstract account of Shenzhen, let's get to the facts and events that led to my coming back to this city. I ended up flying into Hong Kong on May 18th, with the intention of renting a short-term flat in HK, getting a China visa (and praying for multiple-entry, so that I could enter/exit China as I pleased without having to buy a new visa frequently--a $140-150 expense which adds up quickly!), and then moving over the border to Shenzhen. Easy enough. So upon arrival in HK, I met AlanKey--a regular character in this blog, and old friend from exchange in Hong Kong--near his flat in North Point. Alan is from Adelaide, South Australia, but has a certain propensity for all things Asian. He's also very good with making the most of an iPhone. Alan currently works as a tunnel engineer in Hong Kong, working on expanding their public transportation system, the MTR. He is perhaps the most resourceful and well-connected person I know, and as such I had full faith in him that he would be able to help me find an apartment without haste. What I didn't know at the time was how tremendous the lack of haste would be. That is--after landing in Hong Kong at about 5:00pm, I was signing a one-month lease on an apartment in Central by about 7:30pm, arranged by none other than the AlanKey. The apartment was, in short, a dump. A tiny room in a small flat in the center of the most expensive real-estate market in the world (or among them, anyway). Complete with 2 roommates--one of whom a French model, and one of whom a British wine salesman--I was settled in my temporary one-month abode--or at least as close to settled as one can get when the smell of mold permeates every square meter of your flat, and the space between your bed and the wall is roughly the length of your knee to your foot. But anyway, for $800US per month, it was a bargain worthy of the Price is Right!

So, that was that, and I was settled in Hong Kong for a month. During the month, not an overwhelming amount happened. I worked, I slept, I ate a lot of Pret a Manger, met a lot of really great people who I still keep in touch with, and I visited Chungking Mansions a lot. And I drank an obscene amount of Starbucks. I also miraculously acquired the mythical 6-month multiple entry China tourist visa, which was a huge victory. Other highlights included taking weekend excursions with the AlanKey to explore more remote areas of Hong Kong, including Tai O, random parts of Kowloon, and even the occasional border crossing to Shenzhen once my visa came through.

So, on June 19th, after 1 month and 1 day in Hong Kong, it was back over the border to Shenzhen. And here are the circumstances under which I returned to this crazy city--

My best friend from a year of previously living in Shenzhen, John Scutt (Scutt from here), is still living in Shenzhen. He recently returned to find a job, and got a good sales job with a computer-type company that manufactures components for tablets and that sort of thing. And his lease was just about to run out on his apartment. So, we got a 2-bedroom place in a more Chinese part of town (relatively's still quite western, with a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut within a 3 minute walk, but then again, anything is more Chinese than our previous accommodation--the Sheraton Hotel). So, with the help of my old co-worker, Lisa "the nicest and most helpful person in existence" Liu, we were able to find a nice flat for a decent price in a safe part of town that was convenient in terms of public transport and relation to other interesting areas. So there you go. The new apartment has a balcony, 2 bedrooms, a nice sitting room with a 3D TV, and a nice bathroom. It also has s full kitchen, which is already being put to good use--the refrigerator is currently home to a bottle of Tsingtao beer, 2 bottles of Chinese rice wine that neither of us can stomach, but which we bought for <$1 each just in case of a horrible bodily injury, as the stuff is a brilliant disinfectant, and a package of grapes. There's a very nice pool downstairs, and our neighbors include an 80 year old Chinese woman who cannot understand a word I am saying, even when I speak to her in Chinese. So there's that. Further, just outside of our apartment is the world famous "Super Market Greatly" (yes, that is the name of the supermarket), as well as the curious convenience store who's English name is simply a gigantic "E". Conveniently, there is also a mattress store just next door, which made finding a mattress less than difficult. After an IKEA run (yes, they have IKEA in China, complete with a Swedish woman living here as the store manager!), our apartment has come together quite nicely, and in addition to the fat buddha statue that the old owners left, we now have an assortment of posters, paintings, some cool lamps, and a wooden man scattered around the place (photos to come in the next post).

On the work front, I have lately been working from my old office in the CBD of Shenzhen. It's been going well, with me being able to do my new job around my old coworkers, and combining the convenience of having people with whom to banter, with the convenience of being able to not go to the office any time I want, and just work from home.

In other news, because this blog post has been extremely dry thus far, let's cut to some bizarre scenes I have seen since my return to China:

1) I was walking through a very central part of the city the other night. Keep in mind this is (arguably) the most developed city in China, and further, the central part of the city should, in theory, be quite developed. So, while walking through this area, I encountered one of those maybe 4ft tall cylinders which are built to keep cars from swerving off the road onto the sidewalk. The cylinder is made of concrete, with a diameter of maybe 8-10 inches. So picture this sort of concrete cylinder on the side of the road. Atop this cylinder, supported by his (presumably) father, was a 4-ish year old boy, proudly urinating off of the cylinder into the street as though this was the most normal and socially acceptable thing in the world. Welcome to China, circa 2013 folks.

2) Some friends and I were in a very expatty-bar (hence the name xpats) the other week. We were about to leave, but before doing so, I went to say goodbye to another friend sitting at the bar with some guy I didn't know. And here is how that went:

Me: "See you later Bob, nice seeing you"

Bob: "Yep, you too, have a nice weekend"

Unknown 50-ish year old man sitting next to Bob: "Do you have a name card (business card) for me?"

Me: "Actually, I'm sorry but I don't have any at the moment"

Guy: "Well then get out of here, you're useless!"

Me: "Sorry?"

Guy: "You heard me, you're interrupting our conversation, and you don't have a name card, so get out!"

Bob: (who, it should be noted, is the most laid-back, casual, easy-to-get-along-with Californian you could ever hope to meet) "Well wait a minute, he was just coming over to say goodbye, they're not interrupting anything"

Guy: "No, they're useless, get out of here"

Me: "Bob,  is this guy serious?"

Guy: "Get out of here kids" (or something to this extent)

At this point, we left the place, only to come back an hour later, see that the guy was urinating outside the bar, go inside and find out that he was apparently molested by his father at some point (or so he had said at the bar), and thus was mentally not quite all there, or some garbage like this. To that, I would say, well, you should probably do one of two things:

1) Get over it (obviously this is much easier said than done)
2) Learn to handle your liquor sometime between the time you start to drink alcohol and the time you reach 50 years old.

Anyway....the people you meet in Shenzhen. Note: I realize that it is at best distasteful and at worst horrific that I mention the man's previous sexual abuse, but frankly speaking, when you go around a bar telling people how bad they should feel for you because you got molested by your father, that information becomes public knowledge. So, if anyone really took offense to that, I am more than willing to listen to why, and if the reasoning is compelling enough, I can remove it (that's a lie).

3) Some current obsessions lately:

  • Quartz--a brilliant news website that I have been using literally every day to get my daily dose of macroeconomic, business, financial, or otherwise interesting news. I even used it to steal the idea for having a "current obsessions" section to this blog.
  • Improving my Chinese--it is wonderful to be back in a country where I can go out any time of any day and practice Chinese. It's been improving pretty quickly, so that's nice.
  • The Ashes--a massive cricketing match between England and Australia which alternates between the two countries. Currently we are in day 2 of a series of 5 tests. Brilliant thus far. 
  • Teaching English--I am not a teacher. I generally don't care for teaching. I like getting up and talking in front of people, and am very comfortable doing it, but being asked to teach someone else at their pace of learning, which is generally incredibly slow, is really unpleasant. However, my old Chinese boss has asked me to tutor his daughter for 2hrs per day in English, in preparation of her going to the US for school. And in fact, it's been kind of enjoyable.
  • The TV shows The Newsroom and Entourage--I don't watch much TV, but lately have been watching these shows at the flat, and find them both to be well-written and generally entertaining to watch.
  • Expanding my consumption of different Chinese street foods. Lately has included 凉皮 (cold rice noodles)肉夹馍 (“Chinese Hamburger”),and various organ meats. Living the dream, I tell you.

So, with that, I apologize for the dry and generally unenjoyable nature of this blog post. It is intended as more of a transitionary blog post--basically I had to let you all know why I'm now writing from China and not Korea. I will be writing more regularly from here on out as I'm more or less settled in my current location, and will hopefully be able to bring back some stories from the last 6 months as I traveled across the world in search of a place that I like better than Shenzhen, only to come up empty-handed. Until next time, lay off the organ meats--they're definitely not as good as the Chinese hamburgers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2 Months and 2 Continents. A Tale of Absolut Vodka and Bombay Gin

So as it would turn out, I'm writing this blog post from Korea. How did we get here, and what happened during my last 2 weeks in China, you ask? Well, let's find out!

We left off with a retrospective of the 18 months of my life centered around China, culminating in about 13 months of in fact living in China. At the time of last writing, I was just finishing up my last few weeks of working for Shinerich in Shenzhen, and getting ready to move myself out of my beautiful apartment in the Sheraton Hotel Shenzhen, and fly back home for the holidays. And so I did.

However a (not at all) brief aside--it occurred to me that I never did share the story of the night that I got my new job. So it was a Friday night, the 9th of November. Because my company is based in Boston, they are 13 hours behind Shenzhen. A friend of mine was over, and it was around 11pm or so, when I received an email from the company president. The long and short of it was, "we'd like you to quit your intellectually unfulfilling job (OK so maybe they didn't call it that) in China and come work for us as an analyst". It took every ounce of restraint to not email him back immediately and say "You sir, have yourself an analyst". But I decided that might come off as desperate at 11pm on a Friday night local time. So instead my friend and I decided it was time to go out to Coco Park, the Shenzhen bar district. My good friend John, who's been written about in this blog many times (my personal favorite being here), was already out and about there at a newly opened club called LAX. To give you an idea of the magnitude and attitude of this club, at their grand opening, they had lingerie models walking around in....lingerie. Bizarre place.

An awesome place to celebrate with bottles of Absolut...
Anyway, John knew every bartender there already (this was about week number 3 of being open.....madman), and so I texted him just saying, and I quote, "I got the bloody job. Let's get some bottles". And so we did. First bottle of Absolut Vodka was gone in around 9 seconds. Second one lasted slightly longer. And then the other aforementioned friend I was with, a Chinese girl of about 5' 5" who had had enough drinks to where she could barely stand, informed us she wanted to put her name on the list for games of pool at this club's pool table. After exchanging humored glances, John put her name on there, and we waited a few minutes for her turn. When her turn came about, the person she was playing had won about 6 games in a row. He was a beast. Had the look of a pool shark, and had made everyone up to this point look disgraceful. And she racked him (I believe that's the term for knocking in all 7 of the opponents balls, plus the 8 ball, before they knock one in). Needless to say, neither John nor I could believe what we'd just seen. Beginner's luck? A miracle of God or science? We'd had just that much to drink and weren't seeing reality? None of the above....because she proceeded to win the next 6 games in convincing fashion. Unreal. Anyway, as the night progressed, the pool shark friend of ours did indeed have enough drinks to where she could not stand, and ended up indeed falling over, but that's not the point. The point is, this was like something out of a movie. And a couple of weeks later I left this magical place to fly back to the country with debt ceilings, insane levels of gun violence, and Rick Santorum....

Flying home via Frankfurt went as smoothly as it possibly could have. Having checked Lufthansa's website prior to departure, I was furious to find out that I was going to have to pay $75 for an extra checked bag. Why so serious (furious), you ask? Well, if I would have been United Airlines Premier Gold, I would have had a 2nd checked bag for free. OK, well, my fault, right? I'm not premier gold because I didn't fly enough. Not so fast! I had previously booked a flight on Lufthansa from Frankfurt-->Hong Kong back in September (which would have earned United Miles by virtue of being Star Alliance, thus putting me at Gold). But THEN, Lufthansa decided to go on strike, so we got rerouted from Frankfurt to HK via Helsinki on Finnair. Fine. But NOT Star Alliance. So basically because Lufthansa striked and inconvenienced me, I was going to pay an extra $75. But amazingly, at the airport, as I was there checking in, waiting for the hammer of God (or perhaps Angela Merkel) to come down upon me in the form of a $75 charge to my debit never came! The guy never asked for any money. So that was awesome.

Anyway, long story short, I got bumped to economy plus both flights (both very long flights, might I add.....11ish hrs followed by 10ish hrs...), and slept like a child after a handful of Strongbow Ciders during the first flight.

Upon arriving home, I was horribly disappointed to find no snow, and in fact the first week of my being in Chicago (in December, mind you), it hit like 70 DEGREES! (For my non-US friends....~21 degrees). A record high for Chicago in December. My month at home was decidedly uneventful. I started my new job at Northern Sky Research as an Analyst covering the satellite telecommunications market, and was immediately put onto 2 major projects (annual market research reports on energy market and global satellite manufacture/launch markets), as well as a consulting project. Really interesting stuff! Both challenging and rewarding, and making my own hours and working anywhere is pretty great.

Rather than going into detail of my month at home, though, I'll just give some of the highlights:

Christmas: obviously, the Christmas season was great, particularly as I spent Christmas 2011 in China (which was fine, just not very...Christmas-ey). Was really really nice to see family and friends and finally be of an age and of an income level where I had money to spend on proper gifts for people (which my family can certainly attest based on the new big screen HDTV, kitchen pots, huge haul of Japanese foods/drinks I bought my sister, and the various small gifts I got my grandmother).

My two favorite New Zealanders! (Note: I do in
 fact know more than two New Zealanders, so
 that is saying something! I actually know 3)
Meeting up with the Kiwis: Got to see 2 of my old friends from my days at University of Hong Kong, Oliver and Cindy. Briefly--Oliver is an economic juggernaut. He is attending (arguably) the best economics program in the world, the University of Chicago, for his PhD, and I have no doubt he'll do remarkably well. He stayed in Chicago for Christmas (apparently PhD students don't make enough money to fly to New Zealand for a few weeks.....shocking), and his wonderful girlfriend of many years, Cindy, came to visit him there. I went with some friend's to Oliver's "Ugly Sweater Christmas Party", on the South side of Chicago (for those who aren't familiar, picture an active warzone). That night happened to fall on the birthday of Sir Benjamin Hibbert, a great friend of both mine and Ollie's who is living in Adelaide, South Australia, and so as one can imagine, as the night progressed there were many a "here's to Benno, the greatest drinker HK has ever seen" (and how he was!) At the end of this night, I was driven home by a friend who remained sober. Ollie had given me a belated birthday present--a bottle of Bombay gin. A wonderfully generous gift. However, there was a problem--I had forgotten the bottle at Ollie's (apparently I'd had too much of it before leaving....) The next morning, my dad asked how the party was...

"Yeah it was great, had a lot of fun. Bit upset though, I accidentally left a nearly-full bottle of Bombay gin there that had been given as a gift"

"Really? Well then where the hell did the bottle of Bombay gin in the garage freezer come from"

"Ohhh.....well, at least I didn't forget the gin"

So there was also that.

A toast to Benno! Because it would be rude not to
Several days later I met up with Ollie and Cindy in Chicago, where we went to the Christkindelmarkt, and walked around the city for awhile. This was Cindy's first time outside of a reasonably temperate climate, as she was born in South China and had thus far only really lived there, NZ, and visited HK and a few other warm-weather needless to say she was not having fun (this was NOT the aforementioned 70 degree day....more like 20 degrees fahrenheit)

Bringing my sister to the Japanese Market: So nearby my house in Chicago is a really cool Japanese supermarket. Me being a fan of all things Asian (not that you'd ever know based on where I've been living on and off for the past 3 years.....), and having never been to this market, really wanted to check it out while I was home. I went and scoped it out with my dad and brother one day, though we could only stay briefly, and my sister was really upset that she didn't get to go. Consequently, one of my last days at home, and being the marvelous (on occasion) big brother that I am, decided to bring her, basically walk into the store, and say "your Christmas present anything you want. Any number of items, any type of items. I don't care what you buy". Fortunately, she didn't abuse the system, and in fact only spent around $50 (which, remarkably, bought around 25ish items varying from Japanese soda pop to candy to various noodles), and it was really enjoyable seeing a 17 year-old walking through this Asian store as though it was the greatest place ever (note: I do think it's one of the greatest places ever, but so much of the stuff there has completely lost its novelty to me since I've been living in various parts of Asia, so it was nice seeing someone perceive it all as novel and cool and unique. Reminded me of a certain writer of this blog about 3 years ago.....) Anyway, so that was a really enjoyable trip.

Catching Up with Old Friends: Not an overwhelming amount of detail to talk about here, basically was just really nice to catch up with old friends while I was at home.

And so just like that, having arrived home on November 30th, December 28th came along very soon, and I was off again, this time to Seoul, South Korea. I was asked (reasonably so) many times "How long will you be in Seoul?? Why Korea??", to which my two answers were "Until I get bored", and "I don't know, Chicago is kind of boring". So as I sit here writing this blog, I would like to establish once and for all that after 18 days in Korea thus far, I am far from bored. In fact, I am loving it here. I fell into an awesome situation within about 30 hours of landing.

To elaborate--when I arrived in Seoul, I had 1 friend in Seoul, an old friend from Hong Kong named Sophie. My 2nd night in Seoul, about 30hrs after arrival, Sophie let me know that she was going to an all-you-can-eat/drink thing with some friends of hers at a bar near the Gangnam (yes, that Gangnam) area of Seoul. I was horrifically jet-lagged, didn't know what day it was, and didn't speak a word of Korean, but at the same time, I also had 2 options--go out, or sleep. And as any of the alumni of the HKU 2010 exchange can tell you, you sleep when you're dead. Not when you've just arrived at Seoul and an all-you-can-drink event is proposed.

And so I met up with Sophie and off we went. Upon walking into the room, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that, among about 15ish Koreans sitting around a table, was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, extremely not Korean-looking girl (Note--I love Koreans. Their food, culture, and history is amazing. But it's also nice, when it's your 2nd day in Korea, to meet a fellow foreigner). Anyway, so the non-Korean girl ended up being Genine from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her Korean friend Angie also spoke perfect English, so I was thrilled, as I know that Korea/Japan tend to not have as high a level of proliferation of English as the major cities in China do. And so as we got to talking, I mentioned that I'm currently living in a hostel and have no plans on how long I'll be staying or where I'll be living.

"Well, I have a friend who happens to have a place where you can stay! But the thing is, he's only looking for someone for like two-ish months or so, then he has someone else moving in. How long do you think you'll be in Seoul for?"

"Well, I just got here yesterday, and will be here until I get bored. So that sounds just swell. How much is he looking to get in rent?"

"Around ₩500,000 per month."

" 500,000 won? I have that much money! Cool!"

Now for those who don't know, South Korea has a crazy exchange rate with the US$. About 1,080 won per $1, in fact. So for a bit less than $500 per month, I had a lease that I could basically cancel on less than a month's notice. How absolutely perfect.

To celebrate this amazing coincidence, the three of us proceeded to drink a staggering amount of Bombay gin and wine. Here's a picture of the place (with my thumb in the way)

Note the gin....
And so that was that. My 2nd night in Seoul, and my apartment situation had sorted itself. A few days later I met Brian (Genine's aforementioned friend with the room), and he and I got along quite well (he's a fellow Yank from Milwaukee), and I moved in a few days later. Here's a picture of my new room:

Note the fact that within 3 days of arriving in Seoul, I had already discovered the nearest Uni Qlo, hence the bag on the desk. Pointed out to me by the always lovely Miss Madlien Schenker
And so now I'm settled there. I've been working from home and from various coffee shops over the last few weeks and have been loving it. I've already met a handful of new friends here (including a lot of Chinese people, unsurprisingly). Also should be noted a funny little side note--I live about 7 minutes walk from a US/Korea joint-owned army base. So basically, I moved 7,000 miles away to live literally a stone's throw from US soil. Thus far I've found my way around the city, been able to tell my roommate and his friends a few cool places that I've found that they didn't know about, and been told a hugely larger number of places by them that I didn't know about. I am not yet bored, nor do I anticipate being bored anytime soon, so I guess I will be here awhile.

Some things I've noticed about Seoul:

Most things are cheap. Coffee is not most things: I pay around $4-6 on average for a meal here if it's just me eating. I pay about $4 for a cup of (horrible) coffee at a local shop. But I go anyway, because I sit there and use their (universally excellent) wifi for 3 hours in the process. But again, meals are quite cheap. At right, an example of Korean "Fast food"--tteokbokki (terribly misspelled I think), which is basically like a Korean gnocchi, tempura, and some soup. One might think that when a meal costs 5,000 of a currency, it would be expensive, but as we've already mentioned, I'm a millionaire many, many times over in Korea, and that 5,000 amounts to just under $5US.

I in fact do speak OK Chinese: when walking around the touristy districts of Seoul, I've found it very interesting to be hearing these garbled meaningless sounds that are Korean, having it all go in one ear and out the other, and then out of nowhere.....中文!!I hear Chinese, and it is music to my ears! I understand it, and it makes sense, and I feel cultured for knowing an East Asian language (yes that was an attempt at self-deprecating humor....albeit a poor one). 

Koreans love donuts: something I learned last time I was here. They have Dunkin Donuts, Mr Donut, and about 513 kinds of different bakeries on every corner. They have 4-story Dunkin Donuts, Dunkin Donuts in metro stations, Dunkin Donuts across the street from Dunkin Donuts. I also have a sneaking suspicion that my upstairs neighbor is opening a Dunkin Donuts in the near future. Crazy how popular donuts are, especially given how healthy Koreans tend to be.

I have some interesting stories about the weird sort of reverse culture shock (actually I have a new type of culture shock that I'd like to propose), but that would be a huge amount of writing, and this blog post is already insanely long. Consequently, I will save that for later this week! (That's right, 7 readers! I will be writing multiple blogs in the same month again, what in the heck is happening here?!) So anyway, that'll be all for now, anyone who's read this insanely long post, my thanks and a tip of the hat to you. I will leave you all with three things:

1) A photo of the main street in my neighborhood:

Telephone wires. Lots of telephone wires. And 1 Namsan. And 1 N Seoul Tower

2) A sensational TedTalk by Yochai Benkler on everything open-source. Topics include Apache, Wikipedia, and general awesomeness. Hugely, hugely recommend. 

3) In a shameless bit of self-promotion, my blog post from my last visit to Korea. Just in case you want more Blaine Curcio-written, Korea-related content. 

And with that, a good night or good morning or good day to you, depending on where you are in the world. Thanks for reading, more to come this week about things relating to me being eccentric. Until then, stay hungry, stay foolish. And don't eat the yellow snow.