Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why I Don't Like Haircuts

I got my hair cut today, which is something that I’ve always been bad at doing.  I am not talking about cutting my own hair, which I’ve never tried to do.  Perhaps I’d be brilliant at that, but what I’m talking about is going to a salon and paying for a haircut.  When they ask how I want my hair to be, I never know what to say.  They don’t like it when I answer, “I would like you to cut it well”, but this is my only preference.  A stylist in the US once scolded me when she asked if I wanted my sides to be a two or a three and I couldn’t answer.  She expressed frustration and amazement that I had been getting my hair cut for my entire life without actually understanding how it was being cut, but this is exactly why I go to a salon.  So I don’t need to know these things!  I understand how the manual transmission in my car works, but don’t know what two and three mean in relation to hair length.  This seems right to me.  When she gets her car fixed, I wonder if her mechanic yells at her for not understanding how engines work.

Hair?  What hair?
Don’t get me wrong. I love having nice hair!  I can’t stress that enough!  However, I hate taking care of it.  I should be thrilled to have such lovely hair at my age, but I just can’t figure out how to make it look good.  I’ve tried everything, but I’m hopelessly bad at styling it, and usually just end up having to take a second shower just to wash out any gel I may have tried to use.  It is especially difficult for me here in Hong Kong.  My bathroom was designed for somebody at least a foot shorter than me, and to even see my hair in my mirror I have to bend down uncomfortably far.  I guess it has become an “out of sight out of mind” situation, and I sometimes just forget that it is there.  

Because of this, getting a haircut isn’t something that crosses my mind until my girlfriend gets frustrated with it and orders me to have a large portion of it removed, which usually happens about every 3-5 months.  I am very thankful she does this, because without her I’d probably look like a caveman, and after a few years be crushed under the weight of my out of control and unkempt hair.  After all, it is her that has to look at my hair every day, not me.  I only ever see it on facebook and occasionally when I bend down in front of my mirror to check if it is still there.  As my hair guardian, she informed me about a week ago that it was time for me to get a haircut.  She would usually go with me, but was much too busy with her job and studies, and suggested that I find somewhere near my house and go by myself. 

I went to a nice looking salon, had my hair washed, and sat down in one of the chairs.  In front of me was a stack of Japanese magazines filled with pictures of men with Dragon Ball Z-esque hairstyles my flimsy pathetic western hair would never be able to pull off.  Eventually my stylist walked over and we had a short and confusing conversation, which concluded with us agreeing that my hair should be “shorter”.   After a minute or so of thinking, she started to clip away at the front.  Almost immediately small pieces of hair drifted through the air and stuck themselves all over my face. 

This day had been very humid and my skin must have been a bit greasy, because in no time there were tiny hairs tickling every exposed skin cell on my body.  I tried to find a way to get my hands to my face, but they were under two big robes, which I was now sitting on.  It would have been impossible to get them out without some serious movement.  With scissors violently massacring the hair in front of my eyes I decided it would be a bad idea to move around too much.  I tried to think of how to say my face itches in Cantonese, but don’t know how to say “itches” or “face.  I tried to curl my bottom lip and blow up at cheeks, but as soon as I tried the stylist cut off a large chunk of my hair, which I ended up blowing right up my nose.  At this point my nerves exploded.  It was too much!  I started wiggling like a crazy person and pulling at the sides of my robes until I managed to free an arm and send it wiping frantically at my face.

It felt damn good to clear the hair from my nose, but as soon as it was gone, I started to miss the itching.  I had been sitting in this chair for much longer than I would have liked, and it was my only form of entertainment.  Without it I was left with only the soft sound of clicking scissors and Cantonese pop music in the background to keep me occupied.  I was bored.  I couldn’t even look at anything because my glasses had been removed.  I spent a few minutes staring at an odd looking blur trying to figure out what it was, when it suddenly moved.  It must have been a person, confused about why I wouldn’t stop looking at them.  Quickly looking away would be a nonverbal admission to staring, so I kept looking and pretended like I was looking at something interesting behind them, which there very well may have been.  Eventually I let my eyes drift up to the lights.  After a few seconds I closed them and watched the phosphenes where the lights had been dance around in my retinas.  I was so very bored. 

I opened my eyes again and tried to focus on my blurry reflection.  My mind drifted, then drifted away from where it had already drifted.  I thought about how much of a problem it is that I let my mind drift so far away when I’m bored. I reach a state of comatose, where my eyes are open, but my mind is so distracted that I am no longer aware of my reality.  I thought about this so deeply that I completely slipped out of reality.  My haircut was now only a faint whisper in the back of my mind, one that I could no longer connect with anything.  Why was I thinking about haircuts?  I hate haircuts.  I decided to think about why I hated haircuts. 

I guess it all started when I was a baby and my father would cut my hair.  Very early in my life I remember being terrified of electric clippers.  It is hard to explain to a 3 year old why something that can cut your hair won’t also cut your entire head off.  At that age I saw no difference between hair clippers and chainsaws.  The few times that I was calm enough for my father to actually use them, it would all quickly end with tears the moment they touched the skin on my head.  I still hate the vibration that runs through my whole skull when clippers touch my head.  I remember thinking it would liquefy my brain and shake my teeth out.  It was because of this irrational fear that my father was forced to cut my hair with scissors.   

The problem with this was that I was not a patient or particularly well behaved child.  Even today, I’m often scolded for being unable to sit still.  I should probably still be required to use safety scissors, but I even cut myself with those once trying to see if they were really safer than normal scissors.  Anyway, I remember one haircut where I was being especially fidgety.  My father went to clip some hairs on the side of my head just as I twisted around to look at something.  He ended up chopping a bit of my right ear off.  At this exact moment I traded my irrational fear of hair clippers for a perfectly rational fear of people putting sharp objects near my face.  The memory of my ear being cut sent chills through my body and made me literally jump back into reality, where the hairstylist almost cut my ear as a result of my sudden twitch.

After a few more clips of her scissors she walked off to grab a mirror and show me the final results.  While she was gone I took out my phone and checked the time.  She had been cutting my hair for an hour and a half!  I reached for my glasses and looked at myself in the mirror.  My hair was more organized around me ears, but otherwise, looked exactly the same!  What the hell had she been doing all of this time?   I thought about asking for it to be shorter, but at this rate it would take days to get it to the length I wanted, and I would probably starve to death or die of boredom before they finished.  I decided that the best thing I could do was pay them to let them release me from this chair so I could go home. It felt more like paying for my release than paying for a haircut.  I hate this. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Soaking Walls

One late night in October 2007 after a long day of work followed by an evening band practice I came home and opened my front door and saw something I didn’t even know was possible.  It was raining in my house.  I turned around and looked up at the clear sky, holding out my hands just to make sure no rain would strike them on this dry starry night.  I then turned back to the house.  I stood in the doorway, exhausted and confused, as my cats glared disapprovingly from the drier areas of the room at the water dripping from my sagging ceiling and my dogs playfully rolled in puddles and splashed about.  Something was definitely wrong.

Imagine trying to straddle this while you take a dump.
A pipe had broken in the upstairs bathroom, flooding the top floor.  The water eventually leaked through the floor and flooded the ground level, then leaked through and flooded my basement.  To make matters worse, it was hot water, so the entire day I had been paying to heat the water that was flooding my house.  For the next week had no bedroom and if I wanted to use the bathroom I had to do so next to an enormous dehumidifier.  Getting distracted and diverting my stream a few inches to my left could potentially end my life.

For the next few crisp October mornings I woke up early and walked out to my back yard to pee.  Since the flooding only destroyed the part of my house with the bedrooms, I was still able to sleep on the big cozy lazyboy chair in my living room.  My kitchen was a mess, but despite it being a bit chilly outside I could still use the grill in the backyard to heat up my frozen pizzas.  On the weekends I got away from the mess by spending time with friends who had spare bedrooms.  It was a great opportunity for me to connect with nature and spend time with friends, and it even sparked great relationship with a friend that I hadn’t seen in many years.

A few months ago I noticed a small water leak in my house here in Hong Kong.  It was slowly leaking through my bathroom wall and causing the paint by my bed to bubble and fall off. A week ago I finally got tired of cleaning paint chips and asked my landlord to repair it, which she agreed to do. 

Having lived through the experience of having the majority of a large house completely destroyed by a water leak, the one week repair of a small leak seemed like no problem to me.  I figured they would cut out a bit of drywall, patch up the pipe, repaint my wall, and be done.

On their first day or work, 3 polite and friendly (I think.  They didn’t speak English) men knocked on my door while I was getting ready for work.  One sat on my chair and started talking on the phone, another sat on my floor and started reading a newspaper, and the third man picked up a huge saw and started cutting my bathroom in half.

My small apartment was immediately consumed by a swell of dust as the man ripped apart the tiles in my bathroom.  I scrambled to cover as much of my house with plastic as I could.  I put my toothbrush and everything else I could think of in my refrigerator, wrapped the gaps around my closet doors with tape, and pushed as much of my belongings as I could fit my bedroom, which was the only part of the house with a door I could close.  But after a few minute it was more than I could handle.  I was coughing and gagging from the dust, as the two other men sat comfortably reading the newspaper and chatting on the phone.  I left my house and arrived at work earlier than I had ever been.

11 hours later I came back to my house.  The air was thick with dust and everything was covered in a thick layer of white grime.  Half of my bathroom was completely gone, and the rest of it was filled with tools and supplies.  My bathroom mirror was so filthy I couldn’t see my reflection in it.  Unlike my large house in the US, I had no other rooms I could escape into and no friends with spare bedrooms I could mooch off of.  The cleanest of my rooms was my small bedroom, but I had propped my bed up vertically against the wall to make room for my belongings.  My entire life was confined to one 32 square foot room, filled with furniture.

I laid down on the floor, my body twisting around the various items in the room.  I desperately wanted to poop and take a shower.  Both of those seemed impossible.  After a minute or two I got back up and walked to the gym, where I reluctantly confronted the superfluous agglomeration of wrinkly old man butts and needlessly exposed genitals as I walked through the locker room to the showers.

After one night of sleeping in a dusty room in which I clearly did not fit, my lungs felt like they were about to go on strike and I decided I had to find somewhere else to sleep.  Thankfully, I have a girlfriend who was willing to let me stay in her house.  But with no car my weekday round trip commute is about 4 hours, and there just isn’t enough space in her house for both of us to fit.  I have time to wake up, go to work, eat dinner, and go back to sleep.  I miss my big lazy boy chair, only having to climb over a large machine to use the toilet, and having friends with extra bedrooms.  One small leak has caused me more frustration than my house getting almost completely destroyed.  Now when I hear the ubiquitous drilling and hammering of Hong Kong I feel sympathetic and wonder how the person whose house is being repaired is surviving. 

I know I should be thankful for even having a place to live.  But what can I say, I’m spoiled and like having a bathroom and breathable air.  I like having extra rooms for large recliners and a yard big enough that I can pee in it without the neighbors calling the police.  But most of all I like having a private, quiet, and clean place that I can call my own.  Hopefully this construction will be finished soon so I can get back to my normal life!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Kicking Babies

A few days ago I was having so much fun playing Dead Rising and Forza on my xbox360 that I completely lost track of time.  I was supposed to meet my girlfriend in central for dinner that evening and by the time I finally glanced at my clock I was already 10 minutes late!  Not only that, but I had 20kg of laundry that I had to carry across an extremely crowded shopping mall and drop off at the cleaners before catching my bus!  I had to hurry!!

I threw down my controller, grabbed my phone, put headphones on, grabbed my giant bag of laundry, and ran out the door.  Earlier that day I had been listening to music with my regular open air headphones but was now using my in-ear isolation headphones.  In my rush I neglected to account for the volume difference between these two pairs.  At about 3/4 volume, I now had Trivuim blasting at a near deafening volume, and with no free hands to turn it down I was stuck with it.

I'm not sure if it was because of the video games, the loud metal, or that I was in a huge rush with a giant heavy bag I wanted to get rid of as quickly as possible, but I was in no mood to tolerate the wall of people occupying every inch of the mall between my house and the laundromat. 

I charged through the crowd like a maniac, weaving between people, taking every opportunity to pass, and intimidating those I couldn't get past with the giant puffy battering ram I had between my tired arms.  All was going well until I got stuck with a wall to my right, a slow fat woman to my left, and a tiny woman walking the opposite direction directly in front of me.  I thought about what my next move should be.  The fat woman to my left was unlikely to move, and barring some divine intervention, It was even more unlikely that the wall to my right would be going anywhere.  My bet was that the woman in front of me, who unlike me had plenty of space around her, would see that I was unable to move and go around me.  I watched her to see what she would do when suddenly our eyes met!  This was the perfect opportunity for me to solve my problem!

Since moving to Hong Kong I've developed a lot of creative tricks for getting through crowds.  I've used fake hacking coughs, air drumming to music, and skipping, but by far the most effective weapon I have is eye contact.  If I want somebody to get out of my way all I have to do is get them to look at me.  Once they do, I open my eyes as wide as I can and I stare, not at them, but behind them or slightly beside them.  No smiling, no blinking, no emotion.  Just two giant empty eyes.  Everybody reacts the exact same way.  Immediately after our eyes meet, they look away.  After a few seconds they look again with their eyes, not turning their head, to see if I'm still looking at them.  I am!  They repeat this maybe 2 or 3 times, then eventually turn their head and look directly at me, as if to say "oh, you want to have a staring contest?  bring it on!"  I hold my unwavering blank expression.  After a few seconds of this I abruptly switch from looking behind or slightly beside them to looking directly into their eyes, and give them a "why are you staring at me" expression.  At this point they realize that I wasn't actually looking at them, but at something near them!  Suddenly THEY are the asshole, and feeling foolish for having been staring at me for the last few seconds they step out of the way and let me pass.  It works every time!

This woman, however, was different.  When I shifted my eyes and stared directly at her over my big bag of clothing she just kept staring back at me!  She had absolutely no reaction to what I had done.  Was she trying to use my own trick against me?  I INVENTED that trick and there was no way I was going to let some lady beat me at it!  With no free hands for air drumming and the bag covering my mouth and keeping me from coughing I had no choice but to take evasive action.  But what could I do?  I was blocked from every angle, while she still had plenty of space to move!  It was as if she expected me to stop, press myself against the wall, hold my bag over my head, and wait for her to comfortably pass me.  Unfortunately for her, this was not happening.  She had to be moved.  If I couldn't defeat her psychologically, I would defeat her with force!

In the last few seconds before we collided my relaxed pace drastically changed to long and exaggerated steps.  I firmed up the bag in front of me in preparation for our impending collision and kept my eyes locked directly on hers.  I was sure this would make her move, but we just kept getting closer and closer, her path unchanged!  Eventually we got to the point of no return.  Our eye contact was broken as she got close enough that I couldn't see her over the bag in my arms and I braced for impact.  I took my last steps with excessive force and confidence, and as I threw my right foot forward it suddenly struck something a bit sooner than I had expected.  I moved the bag to the side to see what I had kicked.  It was a stroller.  Oh my god, I just kicked her baby!

I guess there is a first time for everything.  I never ate sea cucumber until a few weeks ago, and until this day I had never kicked a baby.  My mind spin wildly trying to figure out what to do next.  In my defense, with the thick crowd and the large bag in front of me, I really could not see the stroller.  Was this my fault?  What kind of a parent uses their child as a cow catcher?  I could think of hundreds of more ethical and responsible things she could have used to push people out of her way, but she chose to use a baby.  I thought parents were supposed to protect babies, not use them to push people!  What kind of mother was this? 

But no, I just kicked a stroller while intentionally walking at full speed.  There was no excuse for this.  I reluctantly stopped, pulled my bag to my side and prepared to attempt an apology in Cantonese when I took a closer look at her child.  There was a mesh cover pulled over the stroller, but I tried my best to look through it and see if the baby was ok.  As soon as I got a good look I realized that there was something very strange about this baby.  It was a Zara bag!

This lady was using a stroller as a shopping cart, no doubt with intentions of getting people to move out of her way in fear of kicking a baby!  This was even better than my staring trick!  Relieved, angry, and somewhat disappointed that somebody had developed an even better way of cutting through crowds, I resumed my pace and forced my way to the laundromat.  Thankfully I won't have to add "kicking babies" to the list of new experiences I've had since moving to Hong Kong!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Reptiles, Chickens, and Crazy People

For my first two months in Hong Kong it was easy to forget where I was.  The majority of my past year or so had been filled with empty meaningless days, and sitting around job hunting felt the same no matter what country I did it in.  However, since moving to Tuen Mun and working full time my life has gotten much more interesting.  Every day I am forced to confront the reality of living in a country where I am perpetually lost and confused.  Tasks like ordering a cheeseburger have become a frustrating game of charades, and figuring out where I am or where I’m supposed to be going has become downright futile.  To make matters worse I have had very little time to acquaint myself with my strange and bewildering surroundings. 

Today was the first day in over a month where I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, and an abundance of free time.  I decided that I would spend this time intentionally getting even more lost and confused than I normally was, so I packed my bag with enough snacks and drinks to sustain myself for a day or so in the likely event of me getting hopelessly lost and set out for an adventure.

I started my exploring by exiting my building and bravely turning right.  This immediately took me out of my comfort zone because until this point I had only ever turned left after leaving my building.  It had always been open door, turn left, repeat.  I had no particular reason for avoiding the right side of my building; I just knew where things were on the left side and when I was hungry or walking to work I never wanted to deal with any uncertainty.  But today was my day and I was feeling wild, so to the right I went!

After walking under a highway, past a group of people with umbrellas that yelled at me for a reason I will never understand, and through an open square full of old men doing slow motion karate, I found an interesting looking wet market.  As soon as I walked inside I literally ran into a row of chickens.  There was wrapped chicken meat on the far left , whole chickens hanging from hooks in the center, and live chickens in cages on the right.  I had never seen living chickens so close to chicken meat.  I stood there watching them flap about nervously, trying to connect where each piece of packaged meat came from on their bodies, when an old lady snuck up behind me and started shouting in Cantonese and pointing frantically at the chickens.  I think she wanted me to buy one!  I tried to give her my best “I don’t understand a what you’re saying” face, but she just got louder and more energetic.  This made it difficult for me to concentrate on piecing together what little Cantonese I knew, but finally I said what I thought was, “I would not like to buy a chicken”.  She stood quietly for a few seconds and smiled.  Then she walked over to the cage and grabbed a chicken!  I panicked!  Had I accidentally told her that I would like to buy FIVE chickens??  My Cantonese is unintelligible enough that “five” and “would not” probably sound about the same!  I desperately tried to think of something else I could say, but my limited Cantonese was failing me.  I did the only respectable thing I could think of for a situation like this.  I ran away!

By the time I ran to the produce section of the market I figured I was far enough away to relax.  To redeem myself for using Cantonese so poorly I practiced by walking up to each vegetable stand and asking for the price of something, repeating the price, then asking them to confirm that this was correct.  After annoying every vender in the market and feeling pleased with my sufficiently inflated bilingual ego I left the wet market.

My next stop was Tuen Mun Park.  My house looks over this park, but I had never taken the time to properly explore it.  Despite looking like a large and attractive collection of foliage, it was actually the sounds that came from it that made me curious.  All day every day I heard what sounded like at least a dozen terrible concerts happening simultaneously.  There was always singing and music, but so much of it that it transformed into an eerie white noise of Chinese vibrato. 

Once I got to the park I found rows of tents spanning as far as I could see, all filled with old people, tambourines, and keyboard players.  This was outdoor karaoke for old Chinese people!  As I walked through the park, people started staring at me like I was on fire.  At first I was a bit self conscious.  I checked to see if my pants were properly zipped then felt the rest of my body and hair to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be.  I even briefly glanced at my reflection in a pond to make sure I wasn’t actually on fire.  Thankfully I wasn’t.  Then it dawned on me.  I was actually the strange one in a large crowd that I found very strange, so I quickly moved along and started exploring emptier parts of the park. 

Out of nowhere I found a reptile house.  What a random but pleasant surprise!  They had turtles, snakes, lizards, and even an alligator!  I thought about how strange it was to have a reptile house in the middle of a park, but I guess it was no stranger than having me there.  Satisfied with my adventure around Tuen Mun I waved goodbye to my new reptile friends and started walking home.

While crossing a walking bridge over Tuen Mun Heung Sze Wui Rd to my home I wondered why anybody would give a big road such a long name.  I can’t imagine it being any less exhausting to say for fluent Cantonese speakers.  My philosophy on road names is that the more relevant the road is, the shorter the name should be.  It doesn’t even make a good acronym.  TMHSW.  If somebody asks for directions to my home I don’t thing I’ll ever be able to tell them because I know myself well enough to know that I will never remember the name of this street.

My concentration was suddenly broken by a tall man jumping in circles around me saying in clear English “hey hey hey, can you do 20 in 200?  Can you do 20 in 200?  In 200?”  I quickly tried to make a facial expression that would indicate that I’m French or German and don’t understand English, but in the moment all I could do was frown and blink while he hopped in circles around me.  Eventually he ran off down the bridge, started doing cartwheels, then exposed his genitals to a group of women walking the other way who gave him the finger as he ran away.   Suddenly I didn’t feel so weird.

I also honestly didn’t know the middle finger had any meaning here.  I always thought this was only done in America.  During a European vacation with a few friends in high school I remember us throwing the middle finger everywhere.  We thought it was funny and that nobody would care that we were doing it.  If it turns out that this is an international thing I’m going to feel really bad about ruining so many European travelers vacation photos. 

But this strange encounter was the first thing I had seen since turning right out of my house that I thought seemed normal.  I imagined that if this happened in Philadelphia, people would have reacted the same way.  I guess crazy is universal!  It is amazing what makes me feel like home!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fast and the Furious: Hong Kong Minibus Racing

Why do people like roller coasters? I’m sure a psychologist or pathologist would ramble on and on about adrenaline, synapses, etc, but it just seems strange that we’ve evolved to crave and enjoy a certain degree of fear. I understand that evolution works in complicated ways, but this particular trait seems very counterintuitive to me. I would think our ancestors carrying the hunger for fear in their genome would have been eaten by tigers or toppled off cliffs. I can understand that the people who took the biggest risks may have reaped the biggest rewards and therefore been the most viable mate, but I doubt this characteristic was part of the evolutionary arms race for humans. The majority of those who didn’t grab that brass ring surely met their untimely demise.

I’ll be honest; I love roller coasters. I like them because they make me feel safe. Statistically, it is more likely for me to be hit by a bus while walking to the grocery store than it is for me to be killed on a rollercoaster. These are machines specifically designed to be safe as they carry riders around the air treating them to beautiful views and a nice breeze in their hair. Even sitting on a park bench there is always a risk of getting mugged or injured by a falling branch. During a massage somebody could be stealing your wallet, or during a nice relaxing dinner you could choke on a piece of chicken or get sick from chefs not properly washing their hands. I can’t think of a safer and more relaxing scenario than sitting on a chair high in the air with everybody around you locked to his or her seat.

But for those of you whom are adrenaline junkies and are thinking about visiting this part of the world, it would seem as though Macau is the place to go. They have bungee jumping off buildings, high stakes gambling, and exotic shows and experiences all geared to get your blood (and money) moving. Hong Kong on the other hand has much more relaxed and family friendly fun. Yes it has crazy parts, but these activities aren’t sold to tourists as publicly or abundantly as they are in Macau. Needless to say, I like Hong Kong!

But what can tourists in Hong Kong do if they need an adrenaline rush? Two words. Red minibus.

The Hong Kong minibus network has its roots as an illegal form of transport. Vans registered as taxis or goods carriers reacted to customer demand and an insufficient transport network by running unregulated service along corridors where climbing into the back of a stranger’s dodgy cargo van seemed like a pleasant alternative to riding on a public bus. The government initially turned a blind eye to this, but in the late 1960’s the growing popularity of minibuses began to pose a threat to regulated bus service. In 1969 the government finally acknowledged the presence and relevance of this illegal activity, but instead of enforcing and stopping it they opted to legalize and regulate it.

Today there are two types of minibuses, green vans and red vans. Green vans have government regulated schedules, routes, and fares. These busses operate just like a normal bus and run consistently. The red vans on the other hand have no set routes, no set stops, no set fares, and no schedule. They go wherever they want whenever they want. Their only goal is to get people in and out of the bus as quickly as possible while wasting the least amount of time and money covering gaps in service and latent demand.

Last Friday after a night of karaoke and a few drinks I found myself stranded in Tsim Sha Tsui at 2am with no bus or train service home. My only options were a taxi, which would cost about $250, or finding a red minibus, which would only cost around $20. The choice was obvious. I went looking for a red minibus.

Even though these busses usually don’t operate from proper bus depots, they are still relatively easy to find because somehow they know when you are looking for them. It is as if one of the qualifications for being a red minibus driver is psychic ability. While we walked down the street the appropriate bus pulled over, doors open and headlights flashing, with the driver calling for us to get in like a pimp luring lonely men into his whorehouse. We obliged, and the moment the majority of my body was inside, the bus accelerated down the street as quickly as possible, doors still open and me still clinging to the bars at the entrance step.

As I entered the minibus my first thought was that it looked and smelled like a mobile shed. The driver had bags of personal belonging, piles of dirty shoes and clothing, tools, boxes of random electronics, and a few brooms and cleaning supplies that clearly had not been used piled in the front of the bus. The seats were all wrapped in uncomfortable sticky plastic, the kind old people stereotypically put on their couches. After I sat down my first thought was to buckle my seatbelt. Where I expected to find a seatbelt buckle I instead encountered a large deposit of mysterious slime. I tried to wipe the slime off of my hand by rubbing it on the wall of the bus next to a sign warning that not wearing a seatbelt was illegal and may result in a fine, but this only made my hand dirtier. I then realized that the seatbelts had been wrapped under the plastic. Since accessing them was out of the question, I started thinking about where my head would go if the bus made an abrupt stop or was involved in a collision.

About 10 inches in front of me was a metal pipe, with an L shaped joint pointing directly towards the center of my skull. I assume this pipe was there to comfort passengers by letting them know that if the van was involved in a serious accident they wouldn’t have to worry about injuries or suffering because their head would immediately be split open by this strategically placed metal joint of death. In the very front of the bus hung a large red screen displaying the speed. According to the law, the maximum speed this bus was allowed to travel was 80km/hour, and at any speed above this the meter would start flashing and beeping loudly. It only took a few seconds for our meter to beep, and once it did, it never stopped.

This ride was a full sensory experience! I had the smell of burning engine and tires so strong I could taste it, the contrast of the lugubrious bus interior lit only by flashing red numbers with the brilliant neon lights of Kowloon flying past my window, the sound of a punished and tired vehicle trying to scream out warnings of its impending death over the high pitched beep of the speed alarm accompanied by the occasional chorus of screeching tires, and the G forces sliding me across the slippery plastic seat as the bus sped around corners with autocross intensity. I was scared! My heart was beating wildly and my sticky hands were shaking. I closed my eyes and tried to relax myself by pretending that I was on a rollercoaster, but it didn’t help.

Finally, on an empty back road near the gold coast, the bus came to a sudden stop at a red light. For the first time in about 20 minutes I could breathe! I looked around expecting to see a bus full of shaking and terrified eyes glimmering in the dark, but was met with one of the most bizarre sights I have ever seen. Everybody else had fallen asleep! Even my girlfriend had dozed off on my shoulder! How could people be scared of roller coasters but not of this minibus? Unlike a roller coaster, I was convinced that this bus ride was actually going to kill me! There were no bars or straps fastening me safely to my seat, instead pipes positioned specifically to destroy me. No attempts to adhere to safety rules had been made, and the mechanical condition of the vehicle had been clearly neglected.

But for now I felt safe and relaxed, breathing heavily at this red light. Then, from out of nowhere, a second minibus came to a sudden halt in the neighboring lane. Instead of waving a friendly hello to his fellow minibus operator, our driver glanced over with a scowl on his face. The other driver turned to face us and unleashed one of the most impressive scowls I’d ever witnessed. I guess having fantastic control over your forehead and eyebrows must also be requirements for minibus drivers.

At this point I had a stunning realization. This was not the end of my rollercoaster ride. It was the apex! Right now I was dangling over that big drop getting ready to fall. Whichever minibus was in the front would be the one to pick up the passengers ahead, and both drivers knew this! Suddenly our driver snapped his head forward to face the winding road ahead of us, grinded the minibus into 1st gear, and started accelerating as hard as he could before the light even had a chance to turn green. We jumped ahead off the line, but the other bus was close behind. Our driver ran 1st gear until the entire vehicle was shaking then quickly mashed the gear lever into second. When I looked to the right past my still sleeping girlfriend the other minibus was right next to us! No matter how hard our driver pushed they were neck and neck! Neither bus could pull away! This was no longer a drag race; it was a game of chicken! The busses just kept accelerating, our speed meter beeping loudly as the numbers crept higher and higher. Even around turns the busses just kept pushing harder, with speeds climbing well into the triple digits and tires screaming around turns as passengers sleepy heads bobbed back and forth.

Finally, the other driver decided he would rather miss the next few passengers than crash his minibus and plummet off the steep cliff beside us into the ocean, and abruptly slowed down. We had won! I felt an overwhelming sense of excitement and victory and almost started cheering, but quickly remember that everybody around me was still asleep.

A few minutes later we finally arrived in Tuen Mun and I exited the minibus as quickly as I could, still shaking. Before both of my feet could hit the ground the minibus was accelerating violently away from me. No roller coaster could have ever prepared me for the sheer terror of this ride. It really is one of the most exhilarating experiences in the world. Why would anybody pay to go to an amusement park or for bungee jumping and gambling in Macau when they could ride a red minibus for a fraction of the cost?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Feeling Surprisingly Normal

I'm typing this on my phone while riding a TurboJet boat in the middle of the night from Macau to Hong Kong. That sentence makes my life sound much more exotic than it actually is, and I like that! What did you do last night? Oh, I just hung out under the starlight in the middle of the ocean in Asia on a TurboJet speedboat! Anyway, this has been a very exciting week for me, and not just because of the fancy boats I got to ride on!

I'm happy to report that after over three months of living in Hong Kong things are finally starting to get more normal for me in many different ways. One of the biggest changes is that in about an hour I will finally be in Hong Kong legally! I now have a work visa and should even be getting my Hong Kong ID card soon!

In America we always hear about illegal aliens and the “trouble” surrounding them. I never thought I would be in those shoes. I always pictured the life of an alien as being much more precarious, hiding from the authorities and sneaking to and from work in the dark trying not to get caught. But it turned out, at least in my case, to be surprisingly easy. I just went along with life as if nothing was different. I shopped, went to restaurants, and have even asked police officers for directions.

I’m not saying my life here has been all smiles and sunshine. I have had a crushing amount of stress these last few months. Whether I would ever find a job, if me arriving in the country too early would threaten my chances of getting a work visa, what I would do when my bank account turned red, and just what the hell I was doing here at all haunted me every second of every day. I can honestly say that the first two months in Hong Kong were probably the most miserable and stressful of my life. Being unemployed in the US was hard, but this was a serious test of my mental stability. A test I came close to losing.

But now that my work situation is more stable I am also feeling better mentally. The next step is for my body to adjust to a normal life in Hong Kong. Part of coming here with no job and no direction meant also having no money for food or furniture. For the first 2 or so months I lived in somebody else’s empty house with only a folding mahjong table, a small stool, and a cheap bed on the floor. In the kitchen I had one cup, one bowl, one spoon, a water boiler, and a pair of chopsticks. No refrigerator, no pots, no pans, and no microwave. My diet consisted of cup noodles, tea, crackers, and peanut butter. Every single day was spent job searching from morning to night, and I would only leave the house if I had to meet Leona for dinner or if I ran out of cup noodles and crackers.

During this time I lost about 20 pounds. I think this could be the next Atkins! For those of you trying to lose weight, all you have to do is give me all of your money, cut out all nutrition from your diet, mentally destroy yourself with stress, and move to China. It’s that easy!

There is one more element missing from this diet plan, but I think it may be specific to me. When I travel I almost always end up getting, very much against my will, a tour of the many bathrooms throughout whichever country happen to be visiting. I know this isn’t a nice subject to talk about, but this is my reality. Maybe I'm allergic to rice, maybe it is the stress, I don’t know. If only they marketed shirts that said "I went to (insert country name here) and all I got was diarrhea".

I had to deal with this every time I went to Europe, when I went to Australia, and even when I moved back to the US. It usually lasts only a day then goes away, but in Hong Kong it lasted for 3 months. Yes…MONTHS! This brings me to another problem. One of the most exciting parts about moving to Hong Kong was being able to travel to other nearby countries that I would otherwise never get to see. What will happen if I go traveling somewhere like Mainland China or India, both notorious for their spicy and bowel disrupting cuisine? Food in Hong Kong is generally clean, safe, regulated, and cooked very well. To be honest I've loved almost every meal I've had since moving here, even if they haven’t love me back, but if it treated my body this badly I can only imagine how sick I would feel in some of the other countries around here!

As if this problem wasn't troublesome enough, the countries that are most likely to give me food poisoning are also the most likely to lack amenities I've become accustom too like toilets and toilet paper. Kind of ironic, don't you think? Maybe this isn’t as big of a deal as I am making it out to be, but as a spoiled American I have always believed that it is a persons inalienable birthright to have life, liberty, and a plentiful supply of toilet paper in public bathrooms. I am actually offended when it isn't offered free of charge and in great quantities to me every time I need it. Never in my comfortable life in America or Australia did it occur to me that such a thing might actually be considered a luxury. What a humbling realization.

But I'm not here to ramble and speculate about the quality of international bathrooms. When I finally build up the guts to travel I'm sure I will, probably against your wishes, post about it at great lengths. For now I am just thrilled to finally be feeling more normal again. I can eat almost twice as much as I could a month ago, my diet is healthy, I’m exercising regularly, and my pants are finally starting to fit again! Looking back I guess I should be grateful that I went through this stressful and sick time of my life in a place with laser motion sensors on the toilets. It is nice to be able to relax and look forward to getting my visa stamped instead of wondering what the bathroom situation will be like once we dock!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Crossroads and Cookies

I’ve traveled so much these last few years that I rarely feel far away from home. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing. On one hand it is nice to not have to deal with homesickness, but on the other hand I’ve been thinking more and more that maybe I no longer have a home to identify with. West Chester, PA will always be my hometown, but it isn’t my home. Here in Hong Kong I guess Leona’s house in Ap Lei Chau is the closest thing I have to a home, even though I have never and will never actually live there. I rent a house in Tuen Mun, but haven’t been there long enough to get that comfortable “I’m home” feeling from it.

But tonight for the first time in my life I actually felt what I could only assume was homesickness. I accidently fell asleep on a bus going back to Tuen Mun and missed my stop. Using very sleepy logic I decided to immediately exit the bus fearing that staying on it would only take me farther away from my house. I probably shouldn’t have done that. I was now standing by myself in what looked like an industrial park in the middle of the night somewhere in the New Territories. My first thought was to wait for the bus to come back the other direction, but I had taken one of the last busses out of the city and it was unlikely one would be coming back the other way until early morning the next day. I tried to use my iphone’s GPS, but couldn’t get it to work and I knew that nobody that could help me would be awake this late. At this point I could only think of one thing to do. I put on my headphones, picked a good podcast, and started walking in a random direction.

As I walked along empty streets and past closed factories I yearned for the comfort of all of the places I’ve called home over the years. I missed being able to navigate my way though Sydney so flawlessly, the constant flow of busses and taxis through Ap Lei Chau, and the security and freedom of my life in Pennsylvania. I missed being so acquainted with an area that I knew every backstreet and dead end. I suddenly appreciated all of the times I was able to read street signs and identify buildings. All I could do was walk, with Dr. Novella and the rest of the gang from The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe speaking softly in my ears about gamma ray bursts and the foolishness of UFO conspirators. I looked to the sky to see if anything was up there, but was met with only the ubiquitous haze that haunts the Hong Kong skyline. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so alone in a country so densely populated.

As I was walking I started thinking about my childhood. Maybe I should have joined the Boy Scouts. I remember my decision to not join so vividly. I was given the option of either going home and playing video games or staying at my school to make birdfeeders out of pinecones and peanut butter. My whole life I always wondered why any child would be crazy enough to stay after school to join this group, but I had also never been in a situation where I needed survival skills.

Then again, what survival skills would be useful in this situation? I wasn’t camping in a forest; I was lost in an industrial park. Even if I could make a birdfeeder I can’t think of any way for it to be useful. Plus I don’t even know if Hong Kong has pinecones, and last I checked I was fresh out of peanut butter.

Before I go on I want to point out for those of you reading this who actually care about my wellbeing that I’m fine now. Your life is probably stressful enough without having to worry about me, so I’m ruining the suspense for you. Right now I’m sitting comfortably in my apartment in Tuen Mun. I even stopped at a store on my way back and bought a delicious cookie! So don’t worry. For those of you who don’t know or care about me I’m sorry to ruin the ending, but not very sorry because I probably don’t know or care about you either.

Back to the story, since I couldn't build a birdfeeder my only option was to make a note in my iphone to buy more peanut butter then try to think of other knowledge I’ve gained over the years that could be applied to this situation. I have a degree in transport management, maybe that could be useful. I started thinking about urban design and street layouts. I decided to turn only at intersections where the perpendicular road was larger than the road I was currently traveling. This very quickly led me to a rather large road, which after only two blocks had a grade level railroad crossing. I assumed this was part of the light rail public transport network and started following a small path along the side of it. After a few minutes of walking my assumption was confirmed when a small commuter train passed by me. Not too much later I arrived at a rail platform and quickly boarded the first train I could. I wasn’t sure where the train was going or how I was supposed to pay for it, but figured I could ride it to a major interchange and figure it out from there. Luckily I didn’t even have to do that, because after 6 stops I could see my house! Hooray! My master’s degree was finally useful!!!

Looking back, this entire situation could be a metaphor for my life. When I get lost, I pick a direction and walk. Sometimes the road leads me where I want to go and sometimes it doesn’t, but if I keep moving I always end up finding something beautiful. In the last few years I’ve wandered so far away from the paths I intended to take that I don’t think I can ever go back. Instead, every few months I’m stuck standing at metaphorical (or actual in this case) crossroads wondering how I got there, where I should go, and why I didn’t take a path before that would have made me prepared. I can’t say I’ve made the best decisions in my life, but at least I’ve walked along some interesting roads. I also got to enjoy a delicious cookie!