Filed under: Big Bang, Fotorama, Huarong Home, India Be Trippin', Laos Be Trippin', Nepal Be Trekkin', Operation Engrish Prease, Razorcake Columns
From Razorcake #57, the one with Noam Chomsky on the cover!
The eyes are restless from the fatigue of resting them upon an unmoving landscape. The legs itch, muscles twitching in between the tibia and the upholstered surface it leans against. Its wanderlust simmering and the only cure is to give in, to strap that pack to your back, put one foot in front of the other and let your eyes drink in every dashed yellow line in the middle of the road.
I blame my legs. These non-proportionate stumps that move me around. They loathe when I sit around too much and love it when I push them too hard. Wanderlust is insatiable, and my legs gobble it up. One in front of the other, marching forward because they know no other way. In all my travels, there has been some epic adventuring but I’ve also faced my share of tribulations. Since sharing is caring, I would like to tell ya’lls about some of my low-lights so can you can learn from my own misadventures with these travel tippies.
There’s the obvious:
Pack a pair of flip-flops, as un-punk rock as they may be, will save you from cooties in shared showers and cool your toes when you wanna relax. Don’t worry about bringing a pillowcase for hostel beds, resting your head on one of your t-shirts will save you room in your pack. I always bring issues of Razorcake to read on the road and leave them in hostel lobbies or music shops in places where I know they’ve never seen it. And I never leave without a passport pouch that I tuck into my jeans next to my sweaty crotch cash.
If you’re traveling the People’s Republic of China, don’t buy souveniours that you can buy at your local Chinatown USA (which is most everything). Bargain at every chance, most shop-keepers will give you an opening price that is at least twice of much as it worth, if not more. But know that there’s a fine line between being fair and being brutal, because chances are that if you’re reading this magazine you’re better off than a street vendor in Mui Ne, Vietnam and you spend $3 for a pint of beer all the time so what’s it worth arguing about it with a shop keeper. (Though, hypocritically, some of my proudest shopping moments have been when a shop owner has angrily begrudgingly agreed to sell something to me. [Though, in my defense, living on volunteer salaries in developing countries will drive you batty and make you feel entitled.]) And speaking of monies, always check the big bills you get in return to make sure they’re not counterfeit.
Street food will make you sick, but it’s worth it. Check bottled water caps to be sure it wasn’t shoddily soldered back on after being refilled with dirty tap water. A small squeeze tube of hand sanitizer will ease your mind and you’ll get used to that medicinal smell and start to think it makes your food taste better.
And there are the travel scars that have left me wiser and with a couple good stories to tell:
Laos is the only landlocked country in southeast Asia and is usually forgotten on itineraries. It’s tourism industry is still growing its legs and learning to stand on them and the easiest way to make money is to give the kids what they want, and that’s usually stuff that’ll fuck them up.
Ironically, even though Laos is landlocked, it’s the only country I’ve traveled to where I’ve gone tubin’ down a slow moving river. It’s a lot like basking in the sun with my limbs draped over an inner tube floating along the Sandy River in Portland, except in Vang Vieng there are middle-aged Laotian women squatted on makeshift mini-docks hawking Beer Laos at your lazy drifting body. Naturally, Vang Vieng needs to offer a hearty post-tubing recreational substance abuse.
Every restaurant had a not-so-hidden ‘Special Menu’ that had three mainstays:
Happy Shake with whiskey and fruit
Magic Mushroom Shake or Tea
Then further down the same sheet, scrawled in loose handwriting it offers:
Magic Mushroom Pizza
I especially love how the menu devolves and gets straight to the point at the bottom where it reads:
A bag of weed
A bag of mushrooms
A bag of opium
There’s something beyond sketchy about buying a bag of illegal substances off a menu, so I opted for Magic Mushroom Shake. I could taste the small flecks of mushrooms that had been blended into my banana shake and sat back into the loungey restaurant stall and waited.
The high was weak and gave me a headache. I crawled into my hostel bed and hoped to sleep it away. I felt fine the next morning when I boarded a bus to the capitol city, Vientianne, but was soon burping up a rotten egg smell and knew immediately that traveler’s diarrhea was about to commence.
Our Vientianne hostel felt like a three story building that had been haphazardly converted into a five-storied guesthouse with narrow and steep stairways and wobbly landings. There were only two toilets in the entire building and our room was nearest to the first floor bathroom that housed a toilet without a toilet seat. I had never wished for a squatty toilet so much in my life.
Lesson learned: If you’re going to order off the ‘Special Menu’ make sure a) you don’t have a five-hour un-air conditioned bus ride the next day and b) book a room with its own toilet (and toilet seat).
I am a moderately fit person with very sensitive joints. I was reminded of this on a 45-mile trek through the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal when I wanted to rip out my left knee at the end of the four-day hike. Every step I took during that last morning was painful, it felt something akin to being stabbed in my knee every time I took a step. I started to lag behind and teared up at the thought that I would have to endure it until the sun set again.
Even though all I wanted to do was to curl up into a ball right on that trail, I refrained from collapsing and asked everyone around me if they had Ibuprofen. I must have had about a dozen to get through the day before collapsing in a van and ingesting more sleeping pills to numb all the other parts of my body.
Lesson learned: If I were a smarter person, I’d say that the lesson learned from this trip was to know and understand your physical limitations. But fuck that, because if I let my own physicality limit my movement, I’d go nowhere (have you seen my stumpy legs lately? Instead my lesson learned from this trip was: Pack painkillers. If you neglected to do so, ask everyone you encounter if they have any. Ask directions to the nearest pharmacy, because even if it’s a hole in the wall and looks like a shoddy American swap meet stall—they will have some generic Ibuprofen to numb your pain away.
Hong Kong during peak season is nowhere to be if you don’t have money. Every cheap hostel was booked up and short of sleeping at bus terminals or in neighborhood parks, we had no idea what to do. That’s when desperation went into overdrive and we found ourselves haggling for rooms at places that I’ve lovingly dubbed as ‘hooker hotels.’ These are small rooms that are rented out by the hour, but might sometimes offer a nightly rate with check-in at 10 PM and check-out is sharply at 8:00 AM. It may not seem so bad in hindsight, but when you’re exhausted from working to find a room all day, and when you finally do find one, all you wanna do is to lay in it. Instead, you have to busy yourself and think of all the people who are fucking in it before you can even check in to sleep in it.
When you’re finally laying in your heart-shaped bed, try to ignore the condoms on the counters, the mirror on the ceiling, the stream of 80’s porn on every other television channel and the moaning and hollerin’ of the other patrons. You may also be awakened throughout the night from the ring of the doorbell as, you know, the other rooms are being rented by the hour.
Lesson learned: Even establishments that rent rooms by the hour might offer nightly rates, you should inquire with the management.
I’ve got a few more low-lights that might help ya’ll out, but it’ll have to wait for another time. And to be honest, even the down time during trips can be awesome stories in and of themselves if you handle it right.
And by “handling it right” I mean: always bring a small package of tissue paper, it’ll save you ass literally and metaphorically.
Filed under: Big Bang, Cali Mucho, China Be Trippin', Fotorama, Huarong Home, Operation Engrish Prease, PDXcitement, Travelzies
More than a year ago, I began a daily photo project of self portraits for all 365 days of the year. It was completed on the eve of the Bangladeshi New Year in mid April, from 4/13/07 to 4/13/08. Here’s a small sampler, of two dozen days, from the past year. It begins with me in China, then back to the States and onward to Bangladesh. (See the full year here.)
Year two is underway, and a theme has already developed:
Filed under: Fotorama, Huarong Home, Meet The Kids, Operation Engrish Prease | Tags: students
An e-mail I sent to my group of fellow volunteer teachers:
Just wanted to share my service project with everyone because my kids and I worked our yellow booties off.
I made zines (pronounced “zeen,” an independently published “magazine”) for my students.
20 different zines for 20 Senior 2 classes.
Over 300 contributions (stories, poems, comics, drawing).
2 covers drawn by students.
1, 350 issues.
Almost 10,000 pieces of paper.
Delivered from Changsha to Huarong.
Super thanks goes to Amy Kirch and Dana for their awesome helpies.
I couldn't believeI did it, even while I was standing in front of my kids as they were all flipping through their own class zine. It's a magical feeling.
I gave a few copies of the zine to my liaison and explained that all of the content was written/drawn by students.
“Wow,” he said. “I did not know the students can do this.”
He was even more surprised when he saw the poems, “They write poems in English! Maybe I will teach this next time too.”
It's amazing what Chinese students can do when you don't make assumptions of their capabilities.
Filed under: Fotorama, Huarong Home, Music Junk, Operation Engrish Prease, Razorcake Columns
From Razorcake #38.
Survival of the Punkest
It's been more than a decade. More than ten years of sweatin' it at shows, flipping through bins of vinyl and inundating my eardrums to maxed-out amps and speakers. I've been addicted since I was 15-years-old, constantly on the prowl for my next auditory fix, trying to recapture the intense high of discovering a new band.
It's like a first kiss. Your heart beats impossibly fast, gushing blood to every square millimeter of your body. Your skin tingles and you step lightly, like you've grown wings. Everything glows as if life had been dipped in a radioactive haze.
The more time spent chasing this intoxicating euphoria, the easier it is to fall into the trap of cynicism. Everyone knows that jaded old punk dude, who's fed up with the lack of good music and won't stop reminiscing about the good ol' days. I was worried that I was crawling down that path in my geriatric stage.
Eventually the same power chords and songs about girls just don't cut it. Everything sounded the same and bands were touring through all the time. I was spoiled on music and nothing less than Greg Cartwright would suffice. I'd whine about not wanting to go to a show because I might have to take two busses or the bike ride was going to be more than 30 minutes.
Then I found myself in a developing rural Chinese town.
Folks still haul buckets hanging from a sloping pole across their shoulders, like the old man who comes by every morning hollering, “Toe–fah.” He sells tofu out of two small dangling wooden shelves. His deep and scruffy voice carries in between the buildings and up into my third story window, toe-fah, and it's the only live music I hear daily.
Daniel called, instead of a hello he said, “Four six nine eight.”
“Four six nine eight. Si liu jiu ba.” Jiu ba, depending on your tones can mean either the numbers nine eight or bar. Daniel continued, “It's the Four six bar.”
“Okay?” I was puzzled.
“Or you can flip it around. Ba jiu liu si. Eight nine six four is 1989 June fourth.” It's an infamous day in Chinese history involving something that starts with the letter “T” and ends in the sound “quare.” Look it up.
“What's this mean?” I asked.
“It means you're coming to Changsha and we're gonna go to this place because it's supposed to be a punk bar.”
That was all I needed to hear.
Door-to-door, from my place to Changsha number one middle school, it's a five-hour ride on busses and motorbike taxis. I made the trek without even knowing what band was playing, or even if a band was playing. Just the prospect of live music was enough to have me endure the ass-numbing trip. In the past seven months, I've caught two shows in China- both of which were in cities that are plane-rides away. When you're starved, you'll go to great lengths to eat.
Changsha is a developing city wanna-be mired in old school China dilapidation. The well-known bars in town blasts Top-40s from five years ago and Chinese folks only go to the clubs to get shitfaced on cheap liquor and then vomit all over the sidewalk. I had never heard of a place to catch live music.
Daniel knew the owner of the club, but he didn't know he knew. Fang Yao is one of the IT guys at the same school that Daniel works at. The punk rock double-life doesn't just inflict those of us who had buttoned-down office day jobs in the States, it's an universal secret superhero identity. They were surprised to see each other across the bar.
Fang Yao is an unassuming and eager dude, who opened the Four Six Bar a year ago. When asked about why he decided to start this club, he strained through his limited English vocabulary and uttered a great understatement, “It's my hobby.”
Setting up a punk club in China isn't like collecting stamps or kite flying. It is an endeavor not to be taken lightly, especially in a country with state-controlled media that euphemizes social unrest and government corruption, and that's when it reports it.
Remember when punk rock was dangerous? Like you were worried about your livelihood and the welfare of yourself and your family because of the music you listened to?
Nope, me neither. I haven't been around that long. I wasn't even born yet when mohawks were sprouting across the heads of the socially disenfranchised.
Being called a weirdo and a freak because you had green hair in high school doesn't count, especially since punk rock has been dolled up, comodified by tattooed rockers on MTV's TRL and sold back to us by clerks with heavy eyeliner at Hot Topic.
Dangerous? Not unless you fear choking on your own vomit after a long night of chugging Sparks and eating shrooms at the Fest.
But in the Four Six Bar, there was a flicker in the air flashing below the dim lights and within clouds of cigarette smoke. In a country where you're constantly surrounded by a mass of people, we found solace at an underground club with a couple dozen punk kids who were seeking the same escape. It felt like a secret, a place for like-minded folks who were all there for the music and the message, and it overwhelmed me. I felt like I was 15-years-old again, touched for the very first time.
“This is a shitshow!” Daniel hollered at me over the choppy drone of buzzing guitars. We watched a group of shirtless dudes flail at each other while the hardcore band, Last Chance of Youth, blasted through their set. I had never been so stoked to see a pack of sweaty yellow bodies running into each other, like their sanity depended on how hard they could mindlessly jerk around. It was punk rock poetry in motion.
I had to talk to Fang Yao about this came to be.
I've written about how laughable it was when friends back home would ask if I've seen any good shows because, in Huarong, k*ds still defecate in the streets and that's as good of a show as I get. China isn't one to disappoint, while I interviewed Fang Yao on the dry lawn across the way from his club, a 5-y**r-old g*rl squatted five-feet from us and sprinkled the grass with her p*ss. She reminded us of where we were.
Even though we just watched a band calling for revolution with a record titled Kill or Be Killed, we were still in a communist country where you watch what you say and to whom.
The preface: Fang Yao is an awesome dude, but there was an undertone of reticence in his answers, which I could sense even through a translator. It's understandable considering that speaking with me might jeopardize the future of his club. He didn't know who I was and simply took my word that I wrote for a punk zine.
It began years ago, Fang Yao was an 18-year-old university student when he discovered Nirvana, which was a gateway band to Green Day, The Ramones and the Sex Pistols. His friends shared a love of music and together they delved into the underground scene that was seeping out of Beijing.
My students are singularly obsessed with contemporary pop, Chinese kids have been born and bred to think alike, so how did he deviate from this?
“Pop music is shit,” Fang Yao's replied. He confessed he was also a victim of the pop-listening populace, “but there are many Chinese students that will listen to different music but they don't talk about it.”
Was it difficult to open the club? What types of obstacles are there?
“It is difficult. It's expensive. But I like it. It's my passion.” We were surrounded by a small groups of show-goers who spilled onto the lawn, nursing warm beers as an elderly woman waited nearby to collect the empty Tsingtao bottles. “So many people love pop music. Only a little people like punk music, so it's hard to get people to come. It's too underground.”
He feels that the direction of punk in China will continue to grow “because the music belongs to the world. Because they will be more free to listen to it. The Chinese people will get to know more music.”
When asked about the name of the club, the historical political implications of it, all he said was that it sounded good and “you can think whatever you want.” He was holding back.
Lots of Americans enjoy punk rock for its message, what about him?
“I like good music and the message of peace and love. I'm against war.” I pried a bit more and mentioned that the majority of punk music is anti-establishment and he replied, “I know there are a lot of punk bands that are against the government, but there are many types of punk music.”
We also talked about Brain Failure, a Chinese punk band who worked with a jeans company in an advertising campaign. I explained the notion of selling out and how in the States there are lots of punk kids who feel that it's a bad thing.
“It's just for survival,” he explained. “In other countries they have money, but we don't.” When a punk band in China gets plucked out of obscurity and a multinational company (who uses sweatshop labor in their country) wants to throw money at them to use their song, it's praised as an accomplishment. This ought to give first-world punk kids a pause for thought, that perhaps the notion of selling-out is based on privilege and inane scene politics.
I felt so young and naïve, scribbling notes beneath the orange glow of the streetlamp, while Fang Yao struggled to express the attitude and essence of our collective punk music collection in English. It was and is about survival, but the message wore thin, like a threadbare band t-shirt, as I grew older and more content with my discontent.
But punk rock is still a threat. Just read Fan Yao's final words.
“Punks not dead,” he declared.
If you're into a publication that was once described to me as the Reader's Digest for the feel-good left, you might find yourself enamored with The Utne Reader.
I had never heard of the magazine until a few months ago when they asked to reprint my column. When you flip open the September/October issue and turn to the “Mixed Media” section, you'll find my story about discovering a punk club in Changsha, Hunan.
I'm pretty stoked about being published in the Utne, even though they edited out the part about the significance of the club's name, re-titled the story “The Prodigal Punk,” and that the subheadline says “Visiting a Chinese club revitalizes a jaded scenester”. I've never been called a prodigal scenester before, and it doesn't feel that as bad as it sounds.
In addition, apparently I have a very authoritative voice when it comes to the topic of punk rock in China. As a companion piece to my story, I was interviewed for the UtneCast, where I sound like the premiere expert on all things China, loud and fast. Like woah!
Daniel says that I sound like a foreign correspondent on the front lines. Front lines of what? you ask. Front lines of hanging out with the Chinese! Cause they's dangerous.
The audio is pretty intense because Leif and I spoke about my experience for almost an hour and he had to condense it into a 10-minute segment. He cut and spliced and sped me up. I assure you that I was not tweaking out during the interview. Maybe.
This is a public service announcement to let ya'll know that there is a trove of Engrish material in my Flickr photoset: Engrish So Manies.
Check out the many mutations of the English language like this gem:
(I wanted this shirt so badly, but my bulbous beer belly refused to fit within its confines.)
Filed under: Huarong Home, Meet The Kids, Operation Engrish Prease, Vids | Tags: student
The latest hullabaloo surrounding the Chinese educational system involves a grainy video clip shot from a student's cell phone. In less than four and a half minutes, a few students at a middle school in Beijing's Haidian district disgraced the nation with their utter disrespect, bordering on contempt, for their teacher. The video ends with one of the students slapping the lao shi.
The “Beijing Boy” clip begins with the kid defiantly walking up to the old man and flipping off the teacher's baseball cap. It also features a walk around the class, showing us all the varied activities that students can partake in while ignoring a lecture: throwing water bottles at your teacher, checking out your painted nails, sleeping, not giving a shit, etc. Finally, it culminates with the same hooligan, from the beginning of the video, bitch-slapping his lao shi.
It isn't a full-on blow, some might even regard it as playful, but in a country where teaching has historically been revered and respected to the highest degree, this act was nothing less than blasphemy.
I'm not surprised by the number of Chinese people who are floored and embarrassed by this video. They call these kids a national disgrace and that they are just a few bad seeds that do not represent the hundreds of millions of Chinese students. But to say that they are a very small minority, a shameful example of of the lowest echelon of Chinese pupils, is hyperbolic. I doubt that the Chinese people are completely ignorant to what really goes on in their crowded, under-stimulating classrooms. China is all about face, and when this clip surfaced online internationally, they lost tons of it.
I've read that these students attend a vocational arts school, which is basically a babysitting facility for all the hoodlums and kids who couldn't test into a real school. The Chinese have explained the students' behavior by saying, “That's how they are. They can't learn. They're scum.”
But I teach at a Number One Middle School, the highest ranking school in the county, and I've encountered my fair share of students who can only be described as assholes.
Like the one kid who snuck into the broom closet at the back of the class and smoked a cigarette while I was teaching. When I asked the class if they smelled smoke, they all said it was coming from outside. After class, that obnoxious boy came up to me and sneered, “Do you smell smoke?” It was a practice of zen-like self-restraint to keep from lopping off his head.
It isn't about what school these students attend, there are just kids who are jerks- they exist in China just as they do in the rest of the world. The video shows a class of less than 30 students, but I wrestle with an average of 70. Some are excellent students, others are just biding their time until the bell rings. Some have been nothing but completely courteous to me, others look at me like their shooting daggers from their slanty eyeballs. They're teenagers. This is how they behave. China isn't exempt from this.
It makes me wonder if this mini-clip will cause educational reform. Or if it'll get lost in the shuffle, like the kids in the video.
What could be more apropos than visiting the birthplace of the cultural revolution on May Day?!
Amy Kirch and I signed up for a day tour without really knowing where we were going except that we would visit Shaoshan, the town that birthed Chairman Mao. The tour began in Changsha, Hunan's provincial capitol, and we were on the bus for no more than 15 minutes when we got off at Martyr's Park. I've been to Martyr's Park before, it's a pleasant place to escape to during hot, humid summer nights when it seems half of the Changhsha population is there practicing ballroom dancing. The park is also home to a ferris wheel, a man-made lake with scenic pagodas and a small minority village. I was unaware of the latter.
Chinese people like looking at natives, or at least some effed up Chinese tourism version of it, and nestled inside the park was a small village inhabited by savages who wagged their tongues and wooped like the Indians we saw in cowboy movies. The first thing that greeted us were three fabricated totem poles, so out of place as they stuck out in the middle of a Chinese city.
After being led through the village strewn with painted cow skulls and thatched huts, we were treated to a monkey show by the “minorities” where I saw a dude put fire down his leopard print pants.
We boarded the bus, and after an hour-long ride we ended up at the birthplace of Liu Shaoqi, another famous communist leader from Hunan, and got to see his digs. The dude published a book or two and had interesting rooms.
We were beginning to wonder if we actually signed up to visit Mao's house when we got back on the bus again. Finally, after another hour, we were in Shaoshan and were ushered to bow at the feet of a towering bronze Mao statue where people laid bouquets of fake flower at his feet and bowed. I chose to take a self-portrait with my favorite Fuck shirt (courtesy of Dyanne, Gus's mom, circa 1970s) with Mao in the background. Communism is spelled wrong, which makes this an amazing American Engrish shirt.
We were taken to a gift shop, where we stood around for 15 minutes as they hawked Mao tchotchke at us. I's love me some communist economy! When we actually got to Mao's house, Amy Kirch and I were ready go home because Mao's old kitchen looks like any ol' dinky old school Chinese kitchen, but nary an iron bowl in sight.
Our day of touring didn't end at Mao's house and we were taken to the peak of Shaoshan via a mountain/ski lift that let us look over the entire town! This was a highlight for me, and I was all giggles and giddiness before getting scooped up into the rickety, rusted orange bench. As we left the park, we were treated to one of the finest examples of Engrish ever via an “I NSTRCTION” board.
I'm finally using the cheesy movie option on my digicam to present to you a tour of my fabulous accommodations here at Huarong Yizhong. The video's a bit dark, but you get to see my shoilet in all its gleaming glory.
Take note of the “Related” videos bar which includes the following clips: Eminem -Criminal Live (UP IN SMOKE TOUR), Jamaican Tour Guide, Super Paper Mario -Wii Tour Video, and A Tour of Earth – Part One.