Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rough landing

I'm finally getting around to writing about my recent vacation to Kuala Lumpur and Bali. Here is the first post in what is sure to be an epic series.

I started my vacation on no sleep. No sleep. Two nights before I left, I got liquored up to hell at a work function. The night before I left, I didn’t drink a drop and tried to go to sleep at 11 for my early trek to the airport. I can’t sleep at 11. I go to sleep it 5 most nights. Between 3 and 5, I probably stole five minutes of sleep. My alarm was set for 6:45. I got up an hour early. Didn’t sleep on the airport bus. Didn’t sleep on the plane - but then again I never do.

I landed in Kuala Lumpur a pile. I left my headphones on the plane. I realized it on the jetway, but I’d come to far to bother retrieving them. I didn’t like them anyway. For some reason, it took me two hours to get from my gate onto the hotel shuttle bus. 5% of it was unfamiliar airport, another 5% was airport inefficiency, but 90% was fatigue retardation. I kept wandering into random wings of the airport for some reason that had escaped me by the time I got to the wing I wandered into.

I headed for the Concorde Hotel near the airport, where I had a reservation. It cost $70 a night, which would prove to be over triple the price of the second-cheapest hotel I would stay at on this trip. I didn’t care. It was 5 minutes from the airport. It had beds. Sold.

I ate dinner at the hotel. I’m not one for eating at business hotels in foreign countries, but I was too beat to bother looking for anywhere else. I dined at around 7:30. The restaurant was largely dead. It was packed when I walked by it at quarter to 6. There was a three piece band. There were festive decorations. There was all kinds of promotional literature about events at this restaurant. Yet, Friday night at 7:30 - empty. This made me like the Concorde more. The Concorde, despite its outmoded 70’s style architecture and decor, desperately wanted to be a hip hotel. The whole place had the ambiance of a party that nobody showed up for.

After dinner, I headed to the hotel bar. I was beat, but still wanted a beer. As much as I appreciated the restaurant’s depressing failed-party scene, I had to move on. Plus, I love airport hotel bars, maybe even more than I love airport bars. The airport hotel bar, of course, was as dead as the airport hotel restaurant. More so. Only two Brits sat at one corner of the bar. I sat in the other corner. I was too wiped to talk about lories or lifts or allumminnum. I just wanted a beer.

A girl walked in. I saw her from the mirror behind the bar. I watched her walk through the door and walk toward the bar. I’m pretty sure she saw me in the mirror too. The place was chock full of empty seats, but I watched her walk to the barstool next to mine. She sat down. She was local, if not Malaysian than clearly from this part of the world. Attractive, of course. If she wasn’t, I can’t imagine I would be telling this story.

She started singing along with the American song being played over the PA. I ignored her. Why? I’ve been in Asia awhile. This was the start of my 6th trip to Southeast Asia. This was a cute girl going out of her way to sit next to the only dude who was alone at the bar, a hotel bar, an airport hotel bar. She was further calling attention to herself singing. It didn’t take me long to do the hooker math. There was no way this girl wasn’t working. She started singing louder and moving around a bit, touching my knee with hers. I stared daggers directly into my beer glass.

Two more people came in, Malaysian, a dude and a chick. They walked to the stage area. I recognized them as two of the three band members from the restaurant. The girl next to me got up. I saw her in the mirror walking toward the band. I turned around. Fuck. I knew this girl. She was the third band member. I saw her singing in the restaurant 20 minutes ago. She wasn’t a hooker at all. She may have even legitimately liked me. Other dudes came in. It was too late now. Actually, it was 9 p.m. On the first night of the trip, that was late enough. I went to my room and slept. I had to be up by 6 for my flight to Bali, after all.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


My grandma Anne died last weekend. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, she was 92 after all, but then again it was a total surprise. Every time that I’ve seen Gram over the last few years, I always knew there was a possibility that I would never see her again. Then again, I always thought that she may well live to 146 and outlast us all. Gram was like that.

Gram, like all of my grandparents, was born and raised in Chicago. She spent her entire life on the South Side. Her father, Joseph, known to all as JVL, moved from Sicily to Chicago when he was young. JVL was the immigrant American dream, and became fabulously rich, literally a millionaire at a time when that meant something. He had a mansion on the South Side, a large property in Michigan, and a beach house in Florida. He also had his own train car to travel between them. Fabulously rich.

Gram likely could have married a pro baseball player or the son of an industrial robber-baron. She fell for my working-class Grandpa instead, which was fairly key in my eventual birth. Grandpa, wisely, went to work for JVL. In 1950, Gram and Grandpa bought a house in the Beverly neighborhood of the South Side. They sold some stocks and paid with cash. Children of the depression weren’t too keen on mortgages.

JVL had five daughters and one son. Predictably, the son was the youngest of the kids. Sicilian to the bone, when JVL died, he left the business and pretty much all of the money to the son. The son is still fabulously rich, upgraded the train car for a plane, and lives down in Texas. This is where I got my not-so-false sense of entitlement.

Grandpa died young, well before I was born. He died nearly forty years ago, and Gram never re-married, never even dated. She decided that that part of her life was over. To this day, her phone number in the Chicago phone book is listed under his name.

Gram took on the role of matriarch. She had,four grandchildren at the time of her husband’s death. This would ultimately balloon to 12. Gram became the center of a large family. Throughout the 80s, the family would meet for a week each summer at JVL’s old Michigan place. Everyone would come - Gram, her four kids, all the grandkids, all the spouses, plus grandparents and relatives from other branches of the family. Gram was the unifying force behind it all. Gram had two primary jobs at Michigan - she looked after the various babies, and she made the salad before dinner every night. Nobody was better with the us kids, and the Waldorf Astoria doesn’t serve a better salad.

Things changed a bit in 1990. The family lost Michigan, thanks to a shady Texas land deal. Gram was 72, had given up driving a couple years before due to her horrific eyesight, and gave up flying as well. She began, or maybe ramped up, her long process of checking out. I began feeling that each time I saw her could be the last, a feeling that proved to last 20 years. It’s quite possible that after 1990, Gram never left Chicago or its suburbs ever again. With Michigan gone, Gram’s house on the South Side, the one that she moved into in 1950, became even more of the family’s home base.

Though Gram became even more of a homebody in the 90s, she was still sharp as a tack. When in town with my family, we’d stay at her house. I’d stay up with her watching Johnny Carson and talking to her about girls, sports, and travel, generally the same stuff I talk about now.

In 1999, I went to Europe. It changed my life in one or two ways. I flew Air France from Paris CDG to Chicago ORD when I returned to America. My scheduled connecting flight back to Kansas was on American, ORD-MCI. American didn’t run the flight, they were too chicken to fly in the storm. I had a credit card and nine American dollars. As I did not have enough money to take the Tri-State bus to the South Side ($14), I had to spend $90 on the credit card renting a car. I drove, of course, to Gram’s house.

I talked to Gram for a couple of hours. She told me how I should do my best, even if I’m just sweeping up after the party. The next day, I had a Southwest flight to Kansas City. As I was leaving, Gram gave me a $50 bill. Gram and my buddy Daniel are pretty much the only people in history that carry around $50 bills. I had a 2 pm flight. My mom called me at 1, because in my jetlagged state I had thought that my flight was at 3. Mom told me to leave now, my flight was leaving soon. I told Gram that I had to go. Gram asked, “Oh, is that the airline calling?”

It wasn’t. Clearly. Still, I want to live in a world were the airline calls you.

Later, I heard wind that Gram had called my mom about the money she gave me. She was worried that she had given me a $5 dollar bill, and just wanted to make sure that I had gotten enough money to deal with the airport.

In 2002, I moved to Chicago. Gram had definitely started to lose it by this point. I went to her house to visit her (and do laundry) every couple of weeks for the first two years I was in Chicago. She could still carry on a conversation, but she gradually began repeating herself. She would ask a question, then ask the same question again two minutes later. It was difficult to witness. She was quite cognitively aware of her growing senility, which made it even harder on her. She knew that she didn’t know.

When I was in my early days in Korea, Gram got sick. Everybody thought that it was the end. Gram may be under five feet and no more than 89 pounds, but she was still tough as nails. She came out of whatever it was. She stopped dying her hair. She was happier. She no longer knew that she didn’t know. The dementia had taken over. When I visited her when I was home from Korea, she no longer asked the same question over and over. She didn’t have to. She probably thought it was 1956.

Gram gave me so much. Of the 12 grandkids, I always felt like I was the favorite. The other eleven all felt the same way about themselves. When I was a little kid, my family’s two hour drives from Rockford to Chicago to see her molded me into a map nerd. She gave me all of her cool 60’s era maps of Chicago. Michigan and Indiana Beach trips were the best trips of my young childhood, and those trips all began or ended at Gram’s place on the South Side. Gram’s place was THE place for holidays, always made all the better by playing a game called “Awards” with my brother and cousins in Gram’s basement bar. Early 90s trips to Indiana Beach were the best of my adolescence, and those all started and ended at Gram’s. Gram’s house was the destination of my first major road trip, a Kansas to Chicago run with my buddy Daniel when we were 17. Gram’s house was the first place I went after my college study abroad in Europe, the best trip of my life. In my early days in Chicago, when I had few friends and zero money, holidays at Gram’s meant the world to me. I went to Gram’s the night before I moved to Korea. I went to see her a week after I came home from Korea, in December of 2008. I made what proved to be my last trip there, in August 2009, a day before coming back to Korea. It’s been tearing me up, but I can’t go back there for her funeral. The timing and logistics and minutia of trans-Pacific flights on short notice has more to do with it than the hefty cost of the ticket. Then again, it’s not Gram’s house anymore. It’s just another house on the South Side.

Gram influenced me in so many ways. And here we go with sports again, because I’m better at talking about sports than I am at concepts like love and death and home and the human heart. I follow Notre Dame, the Chicago Bears, and the Chicago Cubs because of Gram and her branch of the family. Apropos of this week, I’d like to think I had a small influence on her too. I’m sure I went to a KU game or two in the early 80s, but the first Kansas basketball game that I have a vivid memory of watching on TV was, not surprisingly, at Gram’s house. It was the Duke game in the 1986 Final Four. A loaded KU team lost, and I instantly started hating Duke. Kansas basketball had been the most important sport in my life ever since. Gram had a Jayhawk statuette in her house after that, and I’d like to think that she started following Kansas hoops, at least a little, because of my brother and me. So yes, the Hawks are playing for Gram now. Sherron Collins is from Chicago too. He’d understand.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bracket Takes

Bracket Takes ’10

It’s that time of year again. Time for my longest-running gimmick post, and everyone’s least anticipated annual event - my takes on the NCAA bracket. Optimally, I like to write this during the selection show, but being in Korea seeing the selection show is impossible. Instead, I will write my first thoughts upon viewing the bracket. I still haven’t looked at it yet, and the anticipation is killing me.

A word of warning - you will not find worse predictions than here. In last year’s post, I predicted that North Carolina would not make the Final 4, and in fact got all Final Four picks wrong. Last year, I also had the advantage of actually watching college basketball, I wan in America for much of the season. This year, I’ve seen a game and a half on extremely choppy streams that were of such poor quality that I eventually gave up trying. At least CBS streams the tournament, so I can watch games again starting this week.

On with the show:
Kansas is the overall one seed. No surprise here. I think we probably earned that regardless of the outcome of the Big 12 Tournament, and beating K-State was the gravy that made that a sure shot. We play Lehigh. I know two things about Lehigh: Lee Iacocca went there, and they are arch-rivals with my buddy David’s alma mater. The game will be live at 11:30 a.m. on Friday in Korea, presuming CBS still does their feed internationally. I will be watching.

On to areas that I know less about: Not Kansas. Presuming we beat Lehigh (and we goddamn better) we’ll get UNLV or UNI. UNI is apparently Northern Iowa, which I had to google. Michigan State or Maryland would be our likely Sweet 16 matchup, so revenge is a factor either way. The other half of our bracket allows for potential match-ups with Oklahoma State or Tennessee, the only two teams that beat us this year. The big dogs on the other half of out bracket are Georgetown and Ohio State. I know absolutely nothing about either this year, other than THE Ohio State is always a sham in basketball.

Syracuse gets Vermont. Syracuse lost to Vermont in the first round in 2005, but that definitely won’t happen again. Not as a 1 vs 16, and not in Carrier Dome West. Good to see Murray State back in the mix. I’m fine (elated in fact) to have a tournament without North Carolina and Arizona (and what the hell, UCONN too), but the Big Dance needs Murray State. K-State gets sent to Oklahoma City as a 2, which also seemed to be a no-brainer. I don’t like the way this West Regional shakes out though. If KU is the overall one seed, the West Regional should have the overall 4 Seed. I also don’t like the potential K-State-Syracuse regional final. I wouldn’t know who to cheer for here. I mean, I hate Syracuse and I want them to lose every game, and generally I’d want our little brother to beat them. Then again, I want no part of a fourth KU-K-State game. We’ve beaten them three times, winning a fourth would be tough. Plus, for revenge purposes, I’d much rather take out Syracuse.

In the East - Kentucky doesn’t get any favors early. A lazy Texas team fell to an 8 seed, but they have enough pure talent to beat anyone on a given day. Wisconsin is 4 there, I have no idea if they’re good. The two major positives of no longer living in Chicago are: 1) no Chicago winters, and 2) not being forced to watch Big 10 “basketball.” Temple is a 5, the only thing I know about them was that KU murdered them early this year. Missouri could actually be a frisky 10 seed, but as per usual I wish them nothing but ill will.

In the South - wow, what a surprise, favorable match-ups for Duke, even though they must be the overall 4 seed. Somehow they get the play-in winner. Amazingly, they open in Jacksonville. I don’t think Duke has ever played an opening round game outside of the state of North Carolina. Purdue could be a tough out for Duke in the Sweet 16, or Texas A&M could be especially tough in Houston. Baylor got a 3, good for them. They were literally the worst major conference basketball team a few years ago, and were rocked by scandals involving drug dealing, hush money, murder, and cover-ups.

Now I suppose I’m going to need to look at my bracket and make picks. I suppose I really can’t do worse than last year, when I inexplicably sent BYU to the Final 4 (they lost in the first round, of course). My quick and dirty Final Four right now - Kansas, Syracuse, Kentucky, Baylor. Kansas beats Kentucky and that cheater Calipari to win its second title in 3 years - and I’ll again have the privilege of watching the game feed and then Lawrence party on an internet feed, alone in my apartment in Korea at an odd hour of the morning.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Japan Thing

It’s hard to write about Japan without going with the usual “Japan is weird” angle. Everybody’s seen “Lost in Translation.” Everybody knows about the weird shit you see, like pigeon-toed mini-skirted 20-something girls carrying around large pink teddy bears for no apparent reason. Robots, game shows, 4-story 24 hour arcades, capsule hotels, and anime porn; they’re all there, and they come to no surprise to anybody. Japan is different.

My relationship to Japan is also different than that with most countries. Keep in mind, I’m no weeaboo. I don’t watch anime, I don’t read manga and I’m not into any otaku bullshit. Yet, when I’m there, I think a lot about what Japan means, what it is, and where I fit into it during my short stay. My consideration of the Japanese ethos never ceases throughout the duration of the trip. I’ve spent time in a lot of countries, and when I’m in, say, Belgium or Singapore or Spain or Thailand, I don’t fret so much about this kind of thing. I’ve been to Bangkok twice, and I was certainly bewildered the first time, but the second time I landed there, I felt like I knew it, I owned it, and I sold my Lonely Planet my first day back. My recent trip to Japan was my fourth, and the third to the city of Fukuoka, but I still spent the whole time halfway lost (the lack of street names doesn’t help) and pondering the idea of “Japan.”

I presume this level of introspection comes from my familiarity with Korea. My first trip to Fukuoka was only three weeks into my Asian sojourn, so I didn’t recognize a great deal of difference between the two countries. My friend CC was living in Fukuoka at the time, and she kept me under her wing to some degree. While talking with her, it came up that a lot of the strange idiosyncrasies of Japan exist in Korea as well - society frowning on women smoking outdoors, mini-skirts in cold weather, amazing multitude of convenience stores, people dressing their dogs, karaoke being in a small room with friends rather than at a bar, and others. Plus, at this time, I couldn’t speak or read a word of Korean, so both Korean and Japanese were total moonspeak to me.

My second trip was to Fukuoka as well, three months later. Much like the first trip, I was in town for one night to get a Korean visa. This time, armed with an extremely rudimentary understanding of the Korean language and the ability to read it, Japan suddenly seemed vastly different from Korea. Plus, an extra three months of Korea under my belt accentuated the difference between Korea and any Asian “other.” Suddenly, I noticed the cleanliness, the quietness, the less oppressive architecture, and the markedly more expensive transportation. Japan and Korea were nothing alike. I could read a menu in Korean, and I could order food. Again, I was under CC’s wing, but less so this time, she had to work more so I explored more on my own. My school had booked my hotel and paid in advance, so all I had to do was show up. When circumstances for the first time dictated that I had to find a meal on my own (between a couple meals with CC and free hotel breakfast, this only happened once), I copped out and headed to the dreaded Mac. The notion of Japanese menus and total lack of language knowledge was too much for me. I’ve eaten local in plenty of countries where I didn’t know the language, but its a lot easier to figure out, say, a German or French menu written in letters than completely indecipherable Japanese script.

My third trip to Japan was to Tokyo for five days. Tokyo is an international city. Like New York or London, it’s the capital of the world. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not that hard to figure out. I mean, New York is a challenging city to deal with, but some random Sri Lankan dude who doesn’t speak English would have an easier time dealing with New York than, say, Cincinnati.

This brings us to my most recent trip to Japan, again Fukuoka, again for a visa. This time, CC was no longer there, and the school didn’t reserve a hotel. The boss gave me a couple hundred bucks for expenses, and I was on my own. I did my usual trek out to the Korean consulate, a path I know all too well, before searching for lodging. I originally planned to stay in a capsule - they are cheap, and would make for a good story, but then it occurred to me that it would just be another “Japan is weird” story, so I headed to the only hostel in town in hopes that they would have a single room available and that there would be some cool people to meet, since I was on my own. Score on the first portion, they did have a room so I could skip the communal bunks. Miss on the latter point, after napping in my room for a bit (I was on no sleep), it seemed that nobody hanging out in the hostel’s common room had any interest whatsoever in leaving it. Not me, I had company money to spend. That, and Fukuoka is widely known for its ramen. I wasn’t about to repeat my previous timid Mc-mistake, I was getting world-class ramen, language barrier or no.

Japanese people are widely reputed to be shier than Koreans, but this is not the case regarding the language. Koreans that work in restaurants often are reticent to speak to foreigners in Korean, and try to use the four or five English words that they know, even when it is apparent that the foreigner in question understands some Korean. This is not how things work in Japan. At the noodle shop that I ate at (reputed to be the best in town, and it was fantastic), the wait staff always spoke to me as if I were fluent. At the pachinko parlor I went to later (stupidest game in the world, pachinko, I’ve never had less fun losing 10 bucks gambling) I ran into the same situation, the worker who taught me the game spoke the same way (then again, pachinko parlors are so loud, he could have been speaking English for all I know). It grew to the point where I was embarrassed about not knowing Japanese, although I was only in town for one day. Again, this doesn’t happen to me in other countries.
Maybe the reason I focus so much on Japan and it’s Japan-ness while I’m there is because it is the most similar place to Korea. The only other country I’ve had such a hyper-awareness of what country I’m in at all times is Canada. Canada is almost exactly the same as the US, except for the amazing multitude of differences that I can’t help but focus on every minute that I’m there. Is Japan Korea’s Canada? Well, pop-culturally and socio-economically, it would have to be the other way around. Maybe that’s why Japan perplexes me so. It causes me to think of myself as an Asian Canadian. Yikes.

note 1 - this originally appeared in "The Point," Northeast Kansas' finest weekly paper. If you haven't seen last month's issue, than this is new material.

note 2 - lots of Bali/Malaysia stuff coming, but I'm still kinda backlogged on putting it together.