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 card....it 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 places....so 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 is....buy 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.