Monday, March 16, 2015

Dargars 2015

Well, well, well, spring is beginning to spring, "awards season", as it's called, is long over with, and it is time once again for the Dargars (a portmanteau of "Darian" and "Oscars"). As most of you know, it has become a tradition within our erudite little crowd to recap our favorite films of the year and engage in rich film discussion. I admittedly did not start this tradition, but I aim to keep it going. So here are the Dargars 2015, a recapping of my favorite films of 2014 (and some of 2013). But before we begin, watching this will help get you in the mood, and perhaps bring about some teary-eyed nostalgia if you're like me.

2014 in film took a shape that is beginning to be pretty standard: a slow spring with maybe a few gems gives way to the summer blockbuster season. This summer movie season, however, was particularly bad, with very few good popcorn chompers to write home about, save for one (see #5 below), and it technically came out in the spring. But as fall arrives, the Oscar contenders start marching out, and by winter, the season of "good movies" and Oscar buzz is in full swing. Although I might prefer to spread things out a bit, I've really begun to embrace this reality. It seems like winter has just become the season of good movies, with practically every weekend featuring the release of another acclaimed movie that aims to win awards and that I can knock off the "to see" list. But upon the arrival of the Academy Awards, the wave of "good movies" go back into a slumber, waiting for next award season to see the light of day. I realize I'm probably too much of an Oscar sucker and generalizing a bit, but so it goes.

On that note, one brief aside about the Academy Awards themselves: they were as dull and boring to watch as ever this year, but I was pretty surprised by the amount of art films the show featured and how little mainstream movies were nominated. The highest grossing movie discussed by far was American Sniper, and that didn't win anything. I often end up being an Oscars apologist, and one argument in my camp is that they still refrain from catering to a mainstream audience/teenagers. They are not the Grammys of film, and they still at least try to award innovation and skill, even if they feature loads of politicking bullshit.

But anyway, let's get to the movies. Here are my top films of 2014:

Top ten:
1. Boyhood
2. Whiplash
3. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
4. Inherent Vice 
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
6. CitizenFour
7. Ida
8. A Most Wanted Man
9. The Drop
10. A Most Violent Year

Honorable mention (some of these are from 2013, but saw them in 2014 and wanted to recognize them):
The Imitation Game, Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mr. Turner, Rush, Philomena

Conspicuously Unseen by me:
American Sniper, Guardians of the Galaxy, Selma, Theory of Everything, Still Alice, The Babadook, Force Majeure; Two Days, One Night

Now, a little blurb about each of my top ten:

Boyhood: A brilliantly crafted coming-of-age film for the 21st Century. Some have been saying that it could have been just as good without the 12 years of filming, and that may be, but the film is certainly not dependent on the gimmick (if you call it that); it is a great movie from beginning to end. It manages to capture so well many of those strange, painful, awkward, joyous, and revelatory moments we all experience in youth, and that's easier said than done. For example, the tremendously painful and awkward moments of discovering your mother is the victim of spousal abuse. Or the light and carefree sensations of adolescence (Linklater has demonstrated he is a master of depicting that period of life before). And it is a candid and real depiction of being an unplanned pregnancy in lower-middle class America. The story therefore feels quintessentially American, and yet I think people of any culture can see something of themselves in the film's protagonist, Mason, as the greets the many exacting forces of growing up, despite the fact that he is a white male. It didn't win Best Picture, not that Linklater cared, but I bet it will probably be the most enduring film of the 2014 year.

Whiplash: Because of my background in jazz music, this one hit close to home for me, and thus it ranks high on my list. Though that's not to say it doesn't deserve it on its own accord; it is a sharp film, excellently edited, performed, and directed, making great use of jazz as the score to express the intensity of the character drama. Much attention has been showered on the two leading actors, and they deserve it; JK Simmons has been a fabulous character actor for decades, quietly stealing every little scene he pops up in (though he's not quiet in this movie), and Miles Teller arguably has the more difficult role, carrying the movie on his back and holding his own to Simmon's tour de force. Others have pointed out that the movie is something of a sports film, as it asks a fundamental question of what price is one willing to pay personally for greatness and the praise of society at large. It's a salient question that anyone who has dared to be great has asked themselves, but the film's story does lose touch with reality along the way. Though band directors in competitive music schools can be intimidating, none of them who want to keep their jobs and not garner lawsuits would ever strike or verbally abuse a student. Nonetheless, the movie certainly ranks of one of the year's best.

Birdman: I think in the not too distant future people will look back and be utterly shocked that this kooky, avant-garde dark comedy starring an actor who hadn't done anything noteworthy in decades won Best Picture. Maybe that speaks more to what I was saying before about the Oscars than anything else, but I did really enjoy this film, even though I'm convinced most people did not, of the very few who even saw it. And I'm still not even sure myself what the movie is saying thematically. It is no doubt deliberately ambiguous, but also undoubtedly making a critique of the perverse drive for affirmation of the fragile ego. Indeed, this award winning movie is actually making a pretty blatant criticism of the entertainment business itself! But you don't have to think about it that hard to enjoy it. You can just laugh at its dark wit, enjoy some amazing performances (the scene where Keaton and Edward Norton are rehearsing the play with each other for the first time is a showcase of two masters at work, and Emma Stone steals the show at times), and not worry too much about what exactly the film is saying with the appearance of the Birdman alter-ego. I also like its elemental score of solo drum set, and the way the movie is made to appear as if it is one long, continuous scene, though I don't think this necessarily adds that much to the experience. Anyway, odd as it is, I believe Birdman is a great cinematic achievement, and I'm just glad we got to partake.

Inherent Vice: This film went largely unheralded in award season, and I can see why. Though it displays the remarkable craft and technique of the mighty PTA, it lacks the gravitas and self-importance of his earlier films. Instead, it is light and whimsy, and therefore one of the funnest movies of the year for me personally. Much like a Robert Altman movie (and, as I understand it, the original book by Pynchon), the film's twisting, convoluted plot is of little consequence in the end. It is merely a mechanism to carry individually crafted scenes between an array of wacky characters. I would single a few of them out as my favorites, but I can't, because they're all so well cast and acted. But you probably won't get too emotionally involved with any of them as they come and go so often (except for Joaquin as Doc). As I say, this one is a lot of fun and memorable, but not to be taken too seriously, like a happy cult film in the making.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Those of you reading this who know me well, and that's all of you, are probably wondering what the hell a big-budget, comic book movie is doing on this list. Well I had no reservations about putting this movie in my top ten. I thought it was badass and very well made, to the point that Captain America has sort of become my new favorite super hero. The film sures up the vague powers and identity of "Cap," a virile character with a conscience who kicks some serious ass, too. I particularly like its grounding in 20th Century history (the scene where Cap and Black Widow encounter the dated-technology incarnation of Arnim Zola is especially cool), its strong match of a villain for Captain America (well, him and Robert Redford), and an engaging and even topical plot. I downloaded it and have found it has excellent re-watch value as well. I'm telling you, this film is the real deal. It even has me very excited for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (though also because I like James Spader). Though that movie won't be made by the same people and probably won't be half as good.

CitizenFour: This film is kind of on the list more for its topical importance than its cinematic craftsmanship. I have seen better-made documentaries. But this film is something everyone in America should probably see, and I'm still not even sure how I personally feel about the debate it raises. The film has a tone of deliberate, ominous paranoia, like the sensation you feel when you're worried your every move is being watched. Though that tone is appropriate for the subject matter, I think it's a little forced. What most enlightened me though were the conversations with Snowden himself. I was unsure of what to think of Snowden before seeing this movie, but now I am convinced that he is an honest, extremely intelligent guy, who took a stand for what he thought was right, and nothing more. He knew what the consequences would be, and he was not seeking fame or fortune. That's why this movie is on the list, and I encourage you to see it if you have not.

Ida: A Polish film and the winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film. The film is shot with beautiful simplicity in black and white, and tells an equally simple story of a young girl raised as a nun in a convent who in 1962 discovers she is actually Jewish and was hidden in the convent during WW2. It's sparse on details, but you will feel for the very human characters of Ida and her aunt who try to cope with the past tragedies of WW2 and living in Poland under communism.

A Most Wanted Man: Released early in 2014, this film is something of a sleeper. But being the Germanophile that I am, I rather enjoyed its setting of contemporary Hamburg, and casting of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German spy (his last lead performance). It too features a poignant and topical plot, as the battle against terrorism ventures into many grey areas. All in all, it is a compelling drama, and very sadly, the last from one of the greatest actors of our generation.

The Drop: This film, also a sleeper but from later in the year, may not be the best New York crime thriller of all-time. But it is worthy of some praise for some smart directing, a strong cast, and a new take on what is a thoroughly explored genre in New York crime dramas. I would describe it as having "blue collar intrigue," where a lot of shady characters engage one another, and you're not sure who to believe or if the characters truly mean what they say. Sadly, it too features one of the last performances of one of the greatest actors of our time in James Gandolfini.

A Most Violent Year: Rounding out the top ten is another New York crime drama, set in New York's year of record crime rates, 1981. It tells the story of a self-made man, a Latino immigrant, as he struggles to build his business empire with honesty and propriety, despite being in a system dominated by crime and deceit. Oscar Isaac shows he has real acting chops as his sense of internal conflict and struggle is palpable to the audience. Oh, and I typically like anything with Jessica Chastain.

And that rounds out the Dargars for 2015! I admit that my word on movies is not definitive, and if you have objections with this list or comments to make, I'd love to hear them. It's also clear I still have yet to see what are likely some very strong movies from the year. But all in all, I got my money's worth in 2014 movies, and I hope you did, too. Here's to what's to come to cinemas in 2015!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mighty China: The Return

Almost two years to the day after I left China to return to living in the United States, I got on a plane and went back once again, this time with a great friend. Right back to the cities I have spent so much time in, that I know so well: Hong Kong and Shenzhen. This time, the visit also included a stop in Sichuan Province, where I had never been before, and therein, a brief flirtation with the grand Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

Thus, the following post is not a play-by-play history of our trip, but rather reflections on the major themes of each destination. In all, it was a great joy to be on the road and carefree once again in what has become one of my favorite world regions, and something of my home-away-from-home.

Hong Kong: The Great Pearl of the Orient

Eternally vibrant, the great modern jewel of Asia rarely disappoints. It has its rough edges, like damp alleys where bamboo scaffolding prop up partitions of crumbling sixties apartment complexes as large cockroach scavenge in the rain-soaked garbage, but Hong Kong always amazes me for its modern feats of sheer audacious engineering. The city is literally built on the steep slopes of a subtropical island that was not long ago covered in the lush green foliage of rain forest. Its ultra-modern subway connects seamlessly to its many razor-sharp skyscrapers and massive shopping malls filled with high-end brands. Outdoor walkways connect most of these malls, and can even take you halfway up Hong Kong island's peak in escalators. I returned to that peak again with my friend for this trip, and wondered to myself how many times now I had been up there, snapping photos of that eternal skyline like a giddy tourist, time and again.

Indeed, it won't surprise you to hear the city is damn expensive, especially compared to the Mainland in terms of the cost of food and lodgings. All that opulence and public amenity does come at a price, like it does in all the great metropolises of the world. But that was always something that struck me particularly about Hong Kong, this visit more than ever: how uppity it truly is. The designer brand malls (though there are plenty of great street markets, like the Night Market at Mong Kok) and fancy restaurants, wine bars, and bistros seem to be taking over. My friend and I walked past the fancy storefronts and wine bars, around the area of Lan Kwai Fong, and felt very out of place in our grungy, backpacker appearance. I don't know how anyone who wasn't a rich, western banker clad in Marks and Spencer apparel wouldn't feel the same. So we drank a couple beers that cost about 70 Hong Kong Dollars a piece (that's 10 USD a beer!) and then left, seeking a place to hang that was a bit more down to earth. Alas, despite trying the well-known expat bar named Carnegie's in the seedy Wan Chai district, we could not find one. Though we liked the tone in Carnegie's much better, at the stroke of 11pm it quickly degraded into a nightclub-type atmosphere with rainbow strobe lights and strange people dancing on the bar top. That may not seem so bad as I write it, but good ole Midwestern boy types like myself and my friend just wanted something a little more down to earth.

In my own style of making the self-effacing caveat, it should be noted that these observations come from a guy who prides himself as seeing the value in the 'salt-of-the-earth' type things, and who would rather spend his time working with the downtrodden as a social worker, than working to make rich people richer as an investment banker or something. So if all the highbrow life of Hong Kong appeals to you, by all means, there's nothing wrong with it. Hell, I can appreciate the joy of browsing in a Marks and Spencer as much as they next guy. And perhaps Hong Kong has historically been this way. But to argue it's not just me, I'm quite certain Lan Kwai Fong has appeared a little less fancy and more universally appealing in the past (and cheaper, I might add). But things seemed to have changed. Now, I really felt out of place there. But as I say, all that opulence comes at a price. And I'll always love Hong Kong. I just have the luxury of not having to live there.

Shenzhen: The Pearl of the Southern Mainland

Ah, Shenzhen. My home for almost 1.5 years and Southern China's shining economic powerhouse. Not a typical destination for those less familiar with China, and known more as a gateway to the Mainland via Hong Kong.

As I have written in posts before, many are critical of Shenzhen, saying that it lacks culture, feels plastic, and is purely a city that works its people, with a colorful shell of an exterior hiding a much less refined, third world type of existence. And they're not entirely wrong. Shenzhen is a largely new city, and as I have confirmed with various Shenzheners themselves, was sprung from ideas rooted in jealous pride: it is no doubt the Mainland's attempt to rival Hong Kong. The Mainland Chinese were clearly making a statement with Shenzhen, saying you think you know commerce and engineering with your western influence? We can do it, too. Perhaps that is reminiscent of a culture driven by the concept of face, in which so long as outward appearance is preserved as virtuous, the inner details can be spared. I believe that is not a bad metaphor for all of modern China, and Shenzhen may be the best example.

But I, for one, will always defend Shenzhen's charm (See: this old post or this GoNomad article). Though it is no doubt a mega metropolis, it feels less cramped and stuffy than Hong Kong. It's cheaper to live in and visit than Hong Kong (at least in terms of eating, sleeping, and drinking) and still doesn't seem to be a huge drop off in terms of amenities or living standard: Shenzhen has an ultra-modern subway, nice buses, plenty of great restaurants, bars, nightclubs, lush parks, modern malls, a massive, super-modern airport, and some of the tallest, most advanced skyscrapers in Asia. But if you so choose, you can escape all that, diving into
many of the less refined parts of town, like a slew of street food stands, or a traditional seafood market in what feels like a slum (I won't be so bold as to say that Shenzhen has slums the way some developing countries, like India, have slums, but it surely has its poorer areas). Shenzhen does not have all the world-class hotels, hospitals, schools, designer stores, or overall developed standard that Hong Kong has, no. After all, for all its progress, China is still a developing country where many people are still quite poor. But as my friend and I dove into an epic seafood meal on Shenzhen's Le Yuan Lu, accompanied by one of my best Chinese comrades, surrounded by the light and sound and passersby of the busy Shenzhen street, I didn't care. I was breathing in the sea air, the smell of fried fish, and the cigarette smoke of laughing diners around us. What more could you want in a visit to China? Yep, I'll always have a soft spot for Shenzhen.

Sichuan: Southwestern China's Promised Land

Sichuan was the final major destination of our trip and its apex; it would be the deepest we would travel into the Mainland herself. After reaching our hostel in Jiu Zhai Gou, we retraced our steps exactly, back through Chengdu, Shenzhen to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong to the West.

We hit Chengdu via Shenzhen after a long-delayed flight (typical in China - although our return flight to SZ was right on time like clockwork). As I mentioned, I had never been to Sichuan, a pretty marquee place in China as Sinophiles would know, but I had been to southwestern China before with a visit to Yunnan. So therefore, in my naivety, I expected Chengdu to be a place not unlike Kunming: a major city, yes, but a smaller feel to it than the massive Chinese megacities, clean air, less traffic, views of surrounding mountains, and a sense that you were on the Chinese frontier.

Chengdu was sadly not this at all. It was another sprawling, smoggy, densely populated, loud, and trafficy Chinese megacity. Not that I don't think these cities have their charm, as I have been explaining with Shenzhen. But Chengdu did not seem as dynamic and tidy. It had the worst smog I think I've ever experienced with the exception of maybe Shanghai, it had no views of surrounding mountains, and it did not feel like a frontier city in the slightest. Instead, I felt right in the thick of modern Chinese urbanism. Perhaps I should have done more homework on the place.

But of course, the visit was not overall a bad experience. Once established in our fun little hostel, we paid
our respects to the famous Chairman statue, hung out in some beautiful parks drinking tea among relaxed Chinese retirees, ate some deliciously spicy hotpot (on my birthday!), stopped briefly at the largest building in the world, and yes, saw the famous "panda base" home to close to 100 great pandas. We also bumped into an old chum of mine who works in Chengdu with the US Foreign Service who treated us to some homespun hospitality and showed us around on Chengdu's riverside bar strip. While hanging out there, I got slapped in the mouth by a monkey. But that's a story for another time.

But the coup de grace, the real reason we ventured to Sichuan, was not to hang in smoggy Chengdu, but to visit Jiu Zhai Gou national park (literally "Nine Villages Valley"). Stunning pictures of Jiu Zhai Gou (like the one above by yours truly) have begun circulating widely, and though relatively unknown a few years ago, the park has become a major travel destination in China. And why not? Tucked in a remote, mountainous destination on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the place has a striking natural beauty to rival any natural park or preserve in the world. It was seeking this beauty that drove us halfway around the globe and deep into the exotic Min mountain range. It took 11 hours on a winding bus just to get to Jiu Zhai Gou from Chengdu (though it took a lesser 8 hours on the way back down). We had come all this way, and were expecting a place of great beauty, serenity, and peace.

In fact, Jiu Zhai Gou, is also very Chinese. It is not at a loss for beauty, no, the pictures do not lie, and one feels among a great natural wealth when there: within an ancient forest, gazing at sapphire blue alpine lakes, and wondering if the distant white-capped peaks are the start of the Himalayas themselves. But it is also not at a loss for people, either, Chinese tourists to be more specific. All the paths and boardwalks, which one is forbidden to venture from, were crawling with tourists, snapping their photos with their iPhones and iPads. Despite our best attempts to avoid them, they were everywhere, even in the park's most elevated and remote parts. And a busing system that takes visitors around the park was a vicious adventure itself: boarding was a free-for-all mosh the likes of a Cannibal Corpse concert. But we just joined in and had fun with it, bowling our way through the people who tended to be smaller than us. Although I would have liked to feel a little more solitary and serene without as many people in place like Jiu Zhai Gou, what are you gonna do? It is the most populous country on earth, and at least people seem to value the beauty of the park. (Actually, our second day there we hiked up from the main entrance instead of taking the buses, and this kept us nice and solitary for several hours on our own, so it should be noted.)

In retrospect, I still know I viewed a pretty special place in Jiu Zhai Gou. How many people alive get to visit a place like that? (Though the number is growing, as one can plainly see.) But if there is a moral to the story here, I would say that it's this: I hoped that our trip to Jiu Zhai Gou would feel more wild, have more of a mythical quality, and really feel 'off the beaten path', a la a Peter Mattiessen journey or something. And although we felt like outsiders the further we delved into China, the ceaseless tourists and developing attractions around the park did not seem to say we were that far from civilization or off the beaten path at all. Alas, the commercialized world is becoming too interconnected for that; everywhere on the planet is well documented, explored, and achievable, and word of a new attraction with commercial potential spreads like wildfire. And with technological innovation so ubiquitous, people from nearly all walks of life around the world will learn about and visit the destinations that become notorious, permanently changing these destinations in the process. Not that this is overall a bad thing, nor do I wish to go back to what once was. It's a fantastic thing that more people can visit the great destinations in the world; natural beauty like Jiu Zhai Gou should be cherished by all. I'm just making the point that with each wave of development in civilization some delicate things are lost, a point that has been made time and again by nature and travel writers before me.

But hell, I got to visit China for 16 days with one of my best friends. And what a joyous trip it was, one whose memory I will cherish till the day I die. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On Virility and Art (and Commerce)

First, let me say that it is a new year, and, well, happy New Year 2014! This is the first post of the new year. If you can believe it, the Gier Spot actually turns five this year! Considering I only have about ten posts, that means I only average two posts per year... and I kid. But every year I aspire to post more. We'll see if it finally happens this time around.

Also, in case you're wondering, I did complete the Paleo Challenge! I went 30 whole days without eating grains, soy products, dairy, legumes, processed sugars, or drinking any alcohol. All told I lost about 18 pounds. Not bad for 30 days of dieting.

But, let's get to the main idea. A post on Virility and Art and Commerce:

I recently attended a special holiday concert at my institution of higher learning, Loyola University Chicago, featuring the jazz band, wind ensemble, and several choirs. It was called JOYOLA (thus the pun) and it was a festive affair. I enjoyed it very much.

A few weeks prior, I attended another cultural event at Loyola, this time a student production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. It was definitely student theater, but I also enjoyed it very much. As you may be able to tell, I try to attend little events of art and culture like this as much as I can. I think they're worth it. In fact, I believe they make work worth it. What's the point of living and working so hard if you can't be merry and enjoy the fun part of life, the arts?

But that's actually another point for another time. What brings me to my point is that in attending these events, I gazed around the rooms to study the audiences. I'm horribly inquisitive and easily distracted, though incessantly observant, and I don't tend to forget things. The audiences in both cases were dominated by women, often aging women. Men were definitely a minority at each function. In fact, at the Shakespeare play, women were such the majority that I struggled to find in the room another male about my age, though there were some. (I of course don't have any exact figures from these events, you'll just have to take my word for it. But I assure you I'm not exaggerating.)

OK, la-di-frickin'-da! So there were more women at these cultural events than men. That probably won't surprise anyone and makes hardly an original point. The Fine Arts have had feminine connotations for hundreds of years. As Billy Elliot was taught, "Lads do football, or boxing, or wrestling. Not friggin' ballet". Luckily the crux of that movie is that they can and should do ballet, no matter what your average, mildly abusive, working-class British male gargles at you when you're a kid.

But I just worry things are getting worse, that we're going the wrong direction in a time when we should be becoming more accepting. The United States has become a tremendously polarized place in our time, that's no secret. We're set apart by politics, social class, race, ethnicity, and gender. The growing income gap and speedy increases in ethnic diversity are the two most salient drivers of this polarization, in my opinion. But without a doubt gender dynamics are being affected and things are changing between how men and women relate. And I'm actually more worried about men. And it goes beyond their lack of passion for the fine arts, as I'll explain.

Women no doubt have their issues, too. They face immense pressure within our media-driven culture to look good, and are constantly judged by their appearance, even though many of them are brilliant and talented and making great strides in a variety of fields. But though it still continues to struggle for ground, women have a movement to call their own. They have made great progress over the last century and a half, and advocate well for themselves. Now they are about as likely if not more likely to be employed than men. In relation, men are struggling to define themselves; they appear stuck in an antiquated mold, clinging to a set of values and careers and an outlook they believe appropriate, and are unable to venture into the appreciation of anything outside their strict perceptions, such as any form of art that is isn't mass produced and male-centered, as just one example.

An older photo, actually from early January 2013, but appropriate because it's taken in front of an American cultural hub. 
Perhaps it's only logical to struggle against it: men have dominated in social power for likely the entirety of human history, but for once they feel their dominance may be slipping, and don't want things to change. They're happy to stay where they have been for pretty much all of time: right on top (that's not a sexual innuendo, but it's cool with me if the thought crossed your mind).

Indeed, there is a crisis of masculinity upon us. And it can be observed in young boys, adolescents, and adult men. Boys and male teens struggle to show emotion or even recognize their true feelings. Our society has feminized this expression. (By the way, where is a great place to express yourself if not the arts?) Perhaps it's one reason why many teen boys designated with an anger disorder are actually depressed; they just don't know how to show it. And men seem unable to mold their identity to the changing world. They refuse to venture away from profit-driven careers that fit the antiquated male archetype, like business, sales, and finance, even though those aren't the fields which are in demand any longer or expected to grow in the coming decades. Men are, perhaps now more than ever, hung up on status: one must have the highest paying job, the best car, the nicest clothes, and most physically attractive girlfriend or wife. Perhaps we see it as the only way to express our dominance anymore. We have to prove our worth to ourselves and to others.

And, men seem to have no time to appreciate the arts. That is, after all, the main example I cite in this post that leads me to how and why are men are struggling. They likely see art as a feminine pursuit, like attending the opera, symphony, theater, or museum. This observation has been made before, of course, and perhaps I'm over generalizing. But I just want to know, why does it have to be a weird for a male to like classical music or jazz? Why is strange to find a young guy who digs opera? Why go to see an arty film and you'll find a vast majority of women in the audience? I just have to wonder.

OK, so I'm probably talking about a few different things here. Gender, yes. But also many of the fine arts, like opera and symphony, don't have many followers among younger generations in America of either gender, and their leaders are fearful that there will not be a sufficient following to sustain them in the not too distant future as their patrons die off. Also, many of these art forms do take some education to be able to appreciate. They tend to be much less accessible to the common person than the pop music and film and TV shows that are constantly dumped on us by the mass media. Even I may struggle to appreciate some opera, which I've been told one must be educated on how to understand, but once you've learned its basics, you'll be addicted.

And again, if my sentiment doesn't seem that original, it is not. There are many who have dealt with the issue of a crisis in masculinity since the very start of the 21st Century. Films such as American Beauty, Fight Club, and American Psycho all address it, and all came out within the window of about one year. Even American Psycho's antihero, Patrick Bateman, is a devout music lover and is chastised for it in the film (although this certainly doesn't warrant the retributive violence against women he commits, or thinks he commits, in the film/book). It has also been addressed in recent documentaries and books, such as The Mask You Live In, a documentary film by Jennifer Siebel Newsome, and a recent book by Hanna Rosin called The End of Men: And the Rise of Women.

Thus, the point has been made, but things still continue on the same path. How do we change them? One way struck me after a good male friend said something highly poignant on the subject to me on the phone today. That is, men are often afraid to pursue fields that are seen as typically un-masculine and "chick jobs" because they are afraid of what other people, particularly men, and especially their fathers, will think. I mean just look at Gay Focker and his relationship with his soon to be father-in-law when he found out he was a murse; men of previous generations often do not see these new career paths as appropriate jobs for men and what they intended for their sons and grandsons, even though they are becoming the more viable options for employment as the economy changes. And they also probably don't teacher their sons to appreciate the arts if they don't appreciate them themselves. Even my father hasn't seemed to quite come around to the fact that I'm becoming a social worker, though he has been supportive at times (though I'm very lucky he has taught me a lot about music, and he and my mother a lot about appreciating movies and other art forms).

The point is, changing our perception of masculinity and men's relationship to art will take a vast shift in the meanings and symbols of many of the most fundamental systems in our society (i.e. the family). It will not happen over night, but if women can make progress on how society views them, why not men? Why not, something of a men's movement? Perhaps calling it a 'men's movement' is too combative, and would only serve to widen the gap and animosity between the sexes. At least that's my idiosyncratic take. Whatever we call it, it will take the work of counselors, mental health professionals, thinkers, philosophers, authors, public figures, and parents. I'd like to be something of all of those in my life, so maybe that's what qualifies me to write this post.

Anyway, these are just thoughts that have been recurrent to me as I try to live my life as a culture buff. Remember, it all started with just taking in some Shakespeare. If I can just change the perceptions of the very few who actually read this by sharing my thoughts, it'll be worth it. Because hey, there's nothing wrong with being a guy who likes taking in a little Shakespeare. And no one should think otherwise.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Just Call Me "Caveman"

In order to better myself and drop some weight I've been wanting to shed for the past couple years, I have started the "paleo" or "caveman" diet. This includes no processed sugars of any kind, no alcohol, no grains (including corn and rice), and no dairy products.

These fad diets never seem to be all they're cracked up to be. I've tried others before, including the "slow carb" diet prescribed by Tim Ferriss himself. But goddamnit I intend to finish this one. It's tried and true and if done right can change your life. It's the type of diet human beings evolved to eat. And I intend to utilize the mental techniques necessary to achieve to my goal, such as exactly this, journaling about the experience, and also surrendering desires for "comfort food" to medicate and reward myself, and learning to love the food I'm eating and not view the experience as a chore.

I'm only on Day 4, and though I keep thinking about it, as if there is some kind of invisible shell around me preventing me from eating what I want to eat, it hasn't been too challenging. I've bought a lot of produce and meats from our favorite, Edgewater Produce, and I've cooked and prepared all my own food. I went to a bar one evening to watch the first NFL game of the year, and just had a soda water. As it stands, I'm halfway through the first weekend I've had on the diet, and I believe weekends may be the more challenging times during the diet, but so far I'm standing strong. As the website for the diet says, you never HAVE to eat anything (or drink anything) you don't want to. No one ever forces you to do anything. So I intend to spend time with friends freely, not letting the diet get in the way, and enjoy myself and continue to eat what I should on the diet.

Tomorrow is only Day 5. I want to stick with it. But as the wise men say, I should take things one day at a time. So if you're reading this, wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

You Travel Abroad, You May Notice These 5 Things

There are no doubt many who have traveled far, far more than I have (See: This Guy). But compared to your average American, I've been around the block a few times and counting. While I travel, I try hard not to be some mindless American tourist scumbag who does the touristy things in places, snaps a few photos, and leaves. I try to be a worldly traveler; I try to experience places on their terms and in their spirit; I try to have experiences; and I try to philosophize on those experiences when I'm done. That's really what this blog is all about, and I hope to be of some help enlightening others on this subject, rather than just writing for my own sake.

What you should picture as you're reading this: Me, thinking deeply over some cured meat, cheese, and bread. 
On that note, I've compiled a short list of observations, things I've learned from my stints living and working abroad. They are vast generalizations, and there will always be exceptions, and hell, I may be dead wrong about some of them, and if you as a reader object, I'm not afraid to admit where I'm wrong. But travel has been more than a hobby for me; it's a passion, a vocation, not a passing phase that someday I'll "grow out of". I've spent a fair amount of my life doing it, reading about it, and thinking about it. And here are five things I've learned along the way:

1. People don't care so much about what country they live in; they care more about what standard they can live at.

For some this may seem obvious, but many sheltered Americans could probably learn from having it pointed out. America is a rich, developed country (well, actually one in four Americans lives in poverty, but we won't go into that at length at the moment). For most of its history, it has been renown for presenting plenty of economic opportunity and continual strong economic growth. Americans born and raised here have rarely ever had to consider traveling abroad to find work (they may move around to take jobs within the US, but not abroad); instead, people from other countries often want to come to the US for work, even if it's shitwork by middle-class American standards, it may seem like heaven compared to how they used to live. 

In other western countries, such as Canada and the UK, it's almost strange not to seek work overseas at some point in life or to never work abroad. The reason for this is that the economic opportunity abroad is often better than prospects back home. I've met plenty of British and Canadians who have settled permanently abroad, mostly in East Asia, because there they can live at a higher standard, have a better apartment, more disposable income, and more financial security than back home. This has rarely been the case for many Americans, and if you meet one living abroad, particularly in East Asia, they will probably have a really good job, like head of the company, if they plan to be there permanently. But if they want a really good job that is permanent, a big house, nice car, etc., they have a better chance of getting that in the US. So why work abroad? 

Now, thanks to the Great Recession that the United States now finds itself in, this has changed to some degree. A lot more young Americans, like their British and Canadian counterparts, are seeking work abroad, mostly in China and South Korea, where there is opportunity. I was one of these myself, and I'll admit it can be hard to leave once you're settled in with a job, your own apartment, and a steady income. But they are still a small percentage compared to other western countries who send many of their young abroad. Most Americans, even now, still wouldn't consider working abroad if they couldn't find adequate work back home. They'd be more likely to take a menial job in a service position, or move around within the US, before they sought work abroad. Or at least this is my observation. 

It can't go unmentioned that economic migration usually does go the other way: most people in developing countries strongly desire to move to developed countries for even the lowest of jobs there. I can't tell you how many times I had a Chinese person in China tell me how they couldn't believe that I would leave the US for China, and that they would give anything to emigrate from China to America (even the richest Chinese would say this type of thing). Even a lot of Europeans are happy to move to the US if it means a better job, more money, and a bigger house. The exchange rarely goes the other way around (Americans settling permanently in Europe, that is), though it does happen at times.

Anyway, all this goes to affirm my point. People will move to where they can live the best, across borders, oceans, or halfway around the globe, and even if it means going from a developed country to a developing one. One's personal living standard often matters more to them than culture or nationality. 

2. Americans don't travel. Except to Europe.

While traveling in East Asia, there are plenty of times when I've rolled into a hostel, introduced myself around in the common room where people were chilling and drinking beers, and slowly realized that I was the only American there. It was a common occurence.

I've read other travel writers who have had this same experience and made this same point, and there are a number of theories as to why it is the case. I believe the answer is really a combination of several things. For one, Americans don't tend to have the "gap year" experience so ingrained in their culture. People do it, like Peace Corps and other programs, and probably now more than ever as good jobs have become scarcer and people are prolonging adolescence through the end of their twenties. But it is not as ubiquitous as it is in other developed countries, like Australia, where it seems like everyone goes on a world trip when they turn 20. The other obvious reason, and this is connected to the first, is that most American college graduates have tons of debt when they get out of school. They want to quickly get into the labor market to start paying it back. Though I think many could still easily use some of their allotted forbearance (as I did, though I don't have the same lenders as all people) and take at least a year to travel around. Nonetheless, it's another mental obstacle to getting abroad.

But the biggest reason to me is not financial. Instead, it's an aspect of the national American psyche: America is a very self-centered country. That's not a judgment, just an observation. Americans believe all the best TV, cinema, music, pop culture in general, comes from right here, within its borders. This is what we export around the world, and the rest of the world aspires to be like us. Ask a non-American a question about the USA, its history or geography for example, and chances are good they'll know, because they've seen countless movies from the US, know our pop stars, music, and TV, and have implicitly been educated about the US times over. Ask an American what the capital of Indonesia is (...You're asking yourself what it is right now, and probably didn't know that it is Jakarta), and they won't know. Why? Because they've never watched a TV show from Indonesia or heard an Indonesian pop song, never felt that an important new discovery or piece of technology came from there, or believed a highly relevant political event that concerns them occurred there. Basically, they've never had to know, they've never had reason to learn. The point is that Americans think they're at the center of it all. Most people around the world would kill to move to the US. So why should Americans leave their country? It's the biggest, the richest, and the best, and it's where everything's happening, right?

There is one place that captures Americans' attention, where they believe is relevant: Europe (and maybe Japan, too), two places you'll find many Americans want to visit, be it for backpacking, studying abroad, or teaching English as a foreign language. These places have relevant cultural contributions in the eyes of Americans, like movie stars and bands from the UK, and video games and technology from Japan. And perhaps it goes without saying, but there's also the aspect of developed vs. developing country to this. People from developed countries are rarely interested in developing ones, and you can't blame them, as I touched on during the first point. It just doesn't occur to many Americans that there may be interesting and important things abroad, outside of Europe. They're pretty convinced that it's all right here inside the borders of the good ole US of A.

Footnote: Yes, many Americans do travel to Latin America, too, as many learn Spanish in school and it's much closer in proximity and easier to visit, than say, Australia. But the truth remains: Americans just aren't that curious about getting abroad compared to some. It's a cultural thing, and it stems from believing we're at the center of it all.

3. The greatest travel virtue is magnanimity.

The thought of travel for most people is very inviting. It means escape, relaxation, novelty, and fun. But unless you have the resources to travel at the highest luxury, in reality it often turns out to be none of those things. It's hard, stressful, uncomfortable, awkward, and even at times dangerous. To have an interesting and rewarding international trip for a decent price usually requires diligent research and planning, in other words, it requires a lot of work. But the real key to having a good trip is attitude.

If you require comfort and security at all times, if you're unhappy getting out of your zone of familiarity, if you can't handle it when little things don't go your way, and let those things ruin your time, then travel is obviously not for you. Nothing goes completely right on a trip, ever. You sometimes have to make changes and deal with adversity on the fly. This adversity is usually quite small, and usually entails nothing more than waiting for long periods of time, not having access to hot water, not liking the only food that is available to eat, or other slight luxuries that must be sacrificed when traveling long distances. Nonetheless, a few of these slight inconveniences added together can be enough to ruin a trip for many westerners. And that's a darn shame.

The truth is many of these inconveniences can even be avoided with careful planning, such as having extra money for things you didn't budget for or having a contingency plan for what to do when things don't go as planned. But your greatest asset is still your attitude. Be flexible when things don't turn out as you planned. Be magnanimous if you have to deal with slight adversities. Realize you're not the only person on the globe, and that sometimes your needs may not be met immediately. Making this realization and living with this attitude will help legions along the road less traveled. But it will prove excellent help on the road of life, as well.

A great international travel experience can be the stuff that daydreams are made of. But that experience will come at a price, so make sure you have the outlook to get there. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not."  

4. Tourism has sadly wrecked many things it sought to honor.

This may be the least poignant of things I've learned, as it's commonly accepted that tourism has bad connotations and 'tourist' has become a bad word. But I'm still in awe of the way some communities and even nations have been so changed by the influx of tourism. It frankly boggles my mind.

Let's take two obvious examples: the city of Paris and the nation of Thailand. In each, tourism is a vital part of the local economy. They each attract millions upon millions of visitors each year. This has had a significant effect on the culture of each destination, where if you're looking for something that is authentically Thai or Parisian, it can be hard to find. Many aspects of culture and custom, like museums, store fronts, cuisine, transportation services, parades, shows, fashion, are all in place to accommodate the immense load of tourists. This influx brings money to local business and economies depend on it (Hell, the US economy depends on tourism and gets the 2nd most visitors annually after France), but it washes away that which is truly a local specialty and is authentic to the culture. Looking for a unique visit to Paris or Thailand, meeting with locals and doing what the locals do? Sadly you're just one of millions of tourist-visitors to these places, so go wait in line with the rest of them for your taste of what is prepared not at all just for you.

I feel I'm opening a can of philosophical worms with this opinion, as it raises questions of why we even visit foreign places in the first place and why we spend so much money doing it. Are most people even actually looking for something authentic, different, or culturally enlightening? What joy does trying to appreciate a famous painting in a museum even bring? Or are tourists just looking for a good time, something they enjoy, and something that they can easily believe is local culture, but don't really care whether it is or not so long as it fits their preconceived ideas of the place. And so things get changed. Local businesses make money by tailoring things to how guests want it. Most tourists don't seek authenticity, they're just seeking a good time as they desire it (and thus 'tourist' has become a dirty word).

Again, I think I've only scratched the surface of the greater discussion here on why people do travel and what we're actually in search of. As a sort of culture war among international travelers, there is now a debate about the favoring of being a "traveler" (an open-minded, backpacker type) as opposed to being a "tourist" (an insensitive, thoughtless person who is swayed by commercialized destinations in poor taste). More on all this later. But for now, just recognize the sad truth that tourists change their destinations in ways they may not even realize. 

5. Many lifelong ex-pats are running from something back home.

I've deliberately saved this one for last as I've been somewhat dreading writing it. But in my observation, it is the truth.

Everyone is different, and there are certainly some perfectly healthy people living abroad, but it seems to be that most lifelong ex-pats are trying to escape an unwanted situation back home. This may also not seem so surprising; who else would want to seek out a new life with the assumption that things will be better far away in a new culture than someone unhappy with their immediate surroundings?

Many are trying to escape a lack of economic opportunity, as we touched on earlier, but many are also attempting to hide from intimate, personal problems. Perhaps it's parents they resent, or a family situation they can't handle, or a failed marriage or relationship, or just the simple fact that they were losers in their hometown and abroad they're finally somebody (we often called this the "white guy in China" syndrome when I lived there). The point is, I've seen it many times over and it's all too common in ex-pat communities.

I don't mean to make a judgment of these people, as we all have our issues. And to be real, I myself certainly fit this mold for a while, though I'm trying to come to terms with it and work through it (and writing this blog helps me process these things). I'm merely pointing out what seems to be true about the interesting people you meet living abroad.

The funny thing is many of these people are pretty miserable abroad, too. But when confronted with the idea of coming home, most are even more fearful. Putting yourself at a tremendous distance can be very protective. Many remain unable to face the life they left back home. And so a year becomes years, and years become decades, and the next thing you know you've spent most of your life abroad with a comfortable buffer zone protecting you from the harsh reality of whatever you were trying to escape back home.

And so I'll close things with a thought that I've shared with people often since coming back home: How was living abroad? they ask me. It's actually pretty easy. It's coming back home that's hard. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guilin: Day 3

The ancient campus at Jingjiang Prince's City. 
I feel I should clarify a couple of things at this point that I should have mentioned earlier. When I said that after the bamboo presentation we had to walk through aisle after aisle of winding display of crappy gifts, and that we had to do this after leaving each tourist attraction, it should be duly noted. Not that you didn't believe me the first time, I just wanted re-emphasize. After each attraction, as we were spit out at the end of the designated pathway, we had to walk through winding aisles of souvenirs on sale, anything from seeds, spices, herbs, hot sauce, to jewelry, t-shirts, and more. The winding was clearly to maximize the amount of display area that could be used in each room, and sometimes it seemed everlasting. This is of no real importance to the attractions, but of course, it is essential to the experience. I guess that meaning, for-profit capitalism has found its way into China's natural tourism industry, ending in mixed results.

One other thing that happened, and sucked, also came to fruition the previous night (Day 2). The contract for the trip had mentioned some things were not included in the flat-rate price for the trip, such as the traditional boat ride on the off-shoot of the Li river, entrance to Banyan Tree Park, and I was informed I'd have to pay more to have my own room (which I was more than happy to pay to assure some peace and quiet). But it turns out there was more: I guess each one of these little tourist traps we visited in Yangshuo, the caves, the caveman village, etc., cost an additional fee. Our guide, Mr. Gong, assured me he had explained all this in the beginning of the trip, saying something to the effect of 'You don't have to go into each of these places. If you don't want to, you can hang out in the car and chat with me' in Chinese. So all these little places were adding up, about 100 yuan each. I actually did kind of figure this was the case, but I told myself, well, I'm here, I'll quite possibly never be here again... I have to go in, don't I? So I did, and in the end, I had racked up an additional cost of about 750 yuan to my trip, everything totaled. That's like and extra USD 125, which of course didn't make me feel that great spending, considering I hadn't really enjoyed myself that much, but the deal was done. After some awkward conversations with Mr. Gong, I told him I'd pay him as soon as we found an ATM that worked, which eventually I did after visiting several machines that were out of money first.

But hell, it wasn't too much money in the long run, and I was determined to not let it ruin the last day of my trip. I was excited to be back in Guilin, and tired of being a grouch. I'd seen some pretty great stuff, in retrospect, and today would be much better than yesterday.

Day 3

Frog-like statues (below left) and the water wheels at Liu San Jie Park.
The day started out with the usual wake-up, bad Chinese breakfast, and hopping on the bus to go God knows where. Our first stop had something to do with Liu San Jie, a famous movie in China about a woman from Guilin who sings. I wish I could tell you more than that, but that's about all I know. The movie is from the 1960s, and in Yangshuo there's even an 'impression', a cultural show based on the original film directed by Zhang Yimou which our tour group frequented the first night in Yangshuo, but I actually surpassed (I love Zhang Yimou, but I had already seen his 'Impression Lijiang' and just needed some time away from the tourist zone. Plus it too cost some significant extra money.)

We got to the Liu San Jie park and filed in, and were swept up in the usual touristy, fake attractions. Some statues here, a water wheel there (that was kind of cool), and we also got to bang on some Buddhist inspired drums. Soon, calls were being made for us to come quickly into an auditorium for a rehearsed cultural show. I vaguely remember it, and although the Chinese around me seemed to like it, I could not get into it.

I was relieved to be out to there, because after the typical lunch of poorly made Chinese food, we were dropped off for the rest of the afternoon in Jingjiang Prince's City in the center of Guilin. We were to get a guided tour, then fend for ourselves for the rest of the afternoon until the bus came back to pick us up at the designated rendez-vous point.

And I was just ecstatic to be there; it seemed like the romantic, historic Guilin I was all along hoping to see. It was picturesque and had lots of historical relevance, there were other foreigners there having a gander, and most of all, it was peaceful and serene, all while still being the home of a functioning Chinese university, Guangxi Normal University. It would be the zenith of my visit to Guilin, literally.

The obelisk statue in Prince's City. 
Me and the Canadians took a guided tour in Chinese, but I was not the only foreigner in the group. The others didn't seem that friendly, but it felt good to be back in a place that was at least internationally somewhat attractive (there were no foreigners in sight at most of the previous tourist traps in Yangshuo). We passed through a great gate, and into the courtyard-style campus with several temple structures inside. Meanwhile, current students of the university could be seen lounging on the quad, playing on volleyball and basketball courts nearby. I even found a group of guys sketching different buildings on campus. This functioning normality of the place put me at ease.

Prince's City or Prince's Palace has a history of over 600 years, dating back to the start of the Ming Dynasty. It was the home of the great-nephew, Zhu Shouqian, of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuan Zhang, and housed several royal Chinese families in its history. Prince's City also served as a school and examination hall for the finest minds in China, a sacred shrine for Buddhism in its grotto, and the birth place of poetry that extolled Guilin scenery. I believe I saw all these famous things along the way, and here's what I can recall:

Through the main gate, into the courtyard campus, and inside a central hall, we were led by one of those tour guides with the little portable mic. I didn't understand everything, of course, but the history here was great, as I already mentioned. Out the back of the central hall (which wasn't too grand, otherwise I would have elaborated) we found ourselves at the base of great karst tower. Behind the karst tower, on what was truly a moat (they're not just in Europe), were some ancient statues and a great obelisk-like structure. After snapping some photos there, we were led beneath the karst tower into the grotto cave, made into a Buddhist shrine over 600 years ago. Carved into the walls, there seemed to be a demigod or sage for each birth year to pray to. One was supposed to find their birth year and honor it, leading to good fortune, and leftover incense and flowers indicated that this was still a deeply religious place for many people even today.

Behind me the door to enter the grotto cave beneath the Prince's City karst. 
Leaving the cave beneath the karst, we went into the school part of the compound, and were a given a written test in Chinese to see who was the best student among us. (I couldn't read it, but I believe it asked test takers to fill in gaps in ancient poems and well known sayings.) I took a copy, went into one of the small, individual, test-taking cells, and scribbled on my paper with the small paintbrush and black paint provided. Some Chinese got a kick out of this, and wouldn't you know it? I didn't win the competition. But two people in our group actually did, and were honored for it. They won some prize or something. Great for them.

Honoring the winners of the 'test' at Prince's City. 
With that small gift giving presentation, our group tour ended, and we dispersed. Of course, I had my eye on climbing to the top of the karst, which me and the mom and daughter combo from Canada undertook with me. It wasn't a very tough climb at all, though some steps were steep, and the path was narrow. At the top was a sweeping view of Guilin, town and country where the Canadians assisted my in taking some photos while holding up a flier that said in Chinese I had reached the top of the karst. Perhaps I was assigning more meaning to the moment, but the beauty of the place finally hit me at the top. Beneath the layers of new founded tourism and industry, beneath the dust from construction, development, and expansion, this was truly an amazing place, with truly amazing scenery. The best in the world, so the Chinese poets had written 600 years ago. Perhaps they were, and are, right. 

At the top of the Prince's City karst. 
After the climb I treated myself to another Dove chocolate ice cream bar, and hit the streets to do some shopping and, my favorite, street food sampling. We still had a couple of hours to kill, and a central pedestrian artery was right down the way. 

I separated from the Canadians and did my own thing, getting some fried chicken and dough balls from a stand that appeared to be quite popular with the locals, judging by its line, and awkwardly fended off some Chinese guy who encouraged me to look at his art gallery (you may know from reading about my adventures in Beijing that this is a common scam on foreigners in China). The guy claimed he would be a visiting art professor at NYC soon. I mean, I know he's just trying to make a living, but sheesh, what American is really gonna believe that.

With some new small souvenirs in hand, I met up with the others for our bus trip out of there. Mr. Gong had changed clothes and looked refreshed. I envied him for this. He took us to another crappy Chinese meal, and then I was to head to the airport by myself in a taxi he prepaid. One of the Canadian Chinese girls asked me during the meal if I enjoyed myself on this trip. I thought about this for a while, and then said, "Yes, but I don't think I'll take a guided tour like this again". Ain't it the truth.

Mr. Gong and I said our fairvwells right after dinner, even though my flight wasn't till much later in the night. I couldn't really decide how I felt about the guy. I think he was a fine, honest guy, I just was never the right fit for a guided tour like this one.

On the way to the airport, we picked up another passenger, who was in an awful hurry, getting me to the airport even quicker when I didn't need to be there. But luckily they had an internet cafe that I was able to kill some time at, basking in the nourishing white glow of the information super highway. I listened to Radiohead, drank a bottle of water, and read Was it really so great to be back to civilization, to some degree? I guessed so, though I was unsure.

It being quite late (around 12:00 am by the time we finally boarded), I passed out on the plane ride home, even though we flew through an intense monsoon, and the lady friend was there to greet me in the airport when I landed in Shenzhen. She was a beautiful sight.

Well, I said to myself, I have done Guilin, for better or for worse. Glad to have seen it, and glad to be back.

Monday, July 2, 2012

At the Old State House in Boston, Mass

I must be the best, worst travel host on the net: