Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Damaging" Hospitality

Out of my 6 days in Busan, Korea, I only managed to get myself one souvenir - a Starbucks mug that prints the original script of Hunmin Jeongeum/訓民正音 ("The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People").

And out of my 6 days in Busan, I only managed to steal one 30-min break from the endless meetings, conference sessions, eat-outs and drink-outs. And it was the only 30 minutes out of the whole trip where I had no company insisted upon me, no random chit-chats to attend to, no mental confusion over which language to speak in - Chinese, Japanese, or simple English - and no need to put up a composure or facade. I walked out of the campus compound, went across the street, browsed at some of the shops and eatery places, poked my head in one of the side alleys, and then, it was time to go back.

Even the Starbucks mug was bought in a hurry during one of the friendly "exchange" times over coffee with 2 professors. In retrospect, I am so glad that I didn't hesitate to buy it at the moment or let that - well, I'll just grab it later - kind of thought won over me.

Again, blown away by Korean hospitality, for both good and bad reasons.

I first arrived at my destination thinking that I was going to attend one conference, make one presentation, and undergo some initial discussions on an cross-campus exchange opportunity.

Wrong - I arrived realizing that I was going to attend 3 conferences, make 3 presentations (all on different topics of course), and undergo a serious discussion on the exchange program.

Worst of all, the whole "3 conferences/3 presentations" deal wasn't revealed all at once. The 2nd conference and 2 presentation was discovered on the morning of the 3rd day when I had sit myself comfortably in the lecture hall and finally got a copy of the full conference schedule.

"4:10-4:30 ..." I saw my name and the title of my presentation printed right there. And I literally thought my eyeballs were bulging out like some crazy cartoon characters.

Then of course, the 3rd conference and 3rd presentation had to be informed to me only 2 nights before.

"By the way, we've scheduled you to talk for half an hour on Monday afternoon. The conference will start at 2pm so please speak at 2:30pm after so-and-so alright?" - in that casual, having a light pad put on your shoulder, type of way.

So one precious lesson learned - never bring your travel-size laptop with no previous power point presentations stored. Otherwise, expect an all-nighter till 5am while a phone call could still wake you up at 9:30am just to tell you that a sudden lunch meeting is scheduled just 3 hours away (in other words - you better get up right now to finish whatever that you couldn't finish at 5am).

"What in the world is going on?" I had screamed quietly yet numerous times during this 6-day trip when another phone call or another pad on the shoulder type of thing informed me of yet another last-minute schedule change, a sudden lunch/dinner thing, a meeting that I absolutely have to attend even though just a few hours ago, I was told that I had the entire morning free.

"What in the world is going on? Well, I can only tell you that it happened to me all the time whenever I went on business trips to Korea. There's few prior scheduling effort or checking to see if the other party is comfortable. Even if there are prior arrangements, well, they are bound to change. You thought you are going to visit client A but on the way there, they called, no one answered, so they turned around and said, 'oh well, let's go visit client B.' You chase after them to confirm tomorrow's schedule; tomorrow comes, they seem to have forgotten what they said the night before ..." my friend shared, laughing hard at whatever "grievances" that I claimed to have during the trip.

Then there's the drinking thing ...

In one sitting, the Koreans can go from having the first toast in beer, the 2nd toast in soju, the 3rd toast in beer and soju combo, the 4th toast in makkori (rice wine), then the 5th toast back to straight soju or beer, to the 6th and 7th toast staying with makkori or makkori and soju combo.

And I'm only talking about the 1st round of drinking.

2nd round, at a different restaurant with a whole set of dishes or delicacies decked out, another round of drinking begins. This time, they probably just avoid beer all together and start with straight soju and makkori. "Add some soda into makkori! It dilutes the taste so you can drink up more easily!" They told me.

Oh yeah, did I mention that "cheers" = "bottom up" here?

3rd round, they proudly present the "bomb drink" (for that's literally how they call it) - beer and whisky combo. With 5 beer glasses fully filled at the bottom and 4 whisky shot glasses fully filled on top, "Professor Shaw, bomb the drinks now!" they urged me. So with one shot glass of whisky in hand, I hit the rest of the 4 into the beer glasses in a domino-effect fashion, and poured my whisky shot into the remaining glass of beer that hadn't been bombed. "Hurray!" They yelled and clapped. Then the bottom-up rituals began again.

Hence my very first puking experience from drinking on my very last night in Busan. Other than vaguely remembering sitting on the floor of some random public bathroom falling asleep post-puking, everything else went like a blur.

The good thing was, I did manage to wake up on time in the morning so that I could still make it to a morning coffee invite at 9:30am before heading out to the airport. I even managed to take out my contact lenses and change into PJ the night before even though I had no recollection at all.

"Can't they just leave some personal time and space for their guests? I mean, I'm perfectly fine with eating alone sometimes and walking around the city alone," I complained.

"Did you recall seeing anyone eating alone in any of the restaurants that you'd visited?" My friend asked.

Ok, I got your point.

"They think they are taking good care of you, really." My friend reminded me.

"But seeing their guest puking in a public bathroom? Don't they feel bad about what happened?" I contested, still feeling so incredibly embarrassed for what happened.

"Feeling bad? Well, tell me, what was the first thing that they asked you in the morning the next day?"

I had to scratch my head a bit. "The next morning ... They only asked if I'd had breakfast ..."

"There you go. Did that sound like an apology to you? Why should they apologize for having done such a good job entertaining their guest and having a good time together?"


The day after I got back from Busan, I got this email from a Japanese professor whom I met during this trip:


韓国でのダメージから回復なさいましたか??? 私はしばらくは

In essence, this Japanese professor was shocked to see the energy of the Korean people and was wondering if I'd recovered from the "damage" in Korea ...

Well, I could only tell him that after this trip, I caught a terrible cold and am still not fully recovered yet.

At least I'm a lot more prepared for my next trip to Korea - in less than 2 weeks.

梅ちゃん at 12:49:00 AM


Friday, October 22, 2010

Blown Away by Hospitality

For some odd reason, I always get blown away by Korean hospitality.

Today just a few minutes after settling in my seat, waiting for the plane to take off, this Korean mid-aged lady next to me started a little chat with me.

"Are you Chinese?" She probably guessed that from the fact that I was browsing Shanghai Airline's in-flight magazine.

"Eh ... Yes. Well, I'm originally from Taiwan." - Yeah, for some reason, to say a straight-out "No, I'm not Chinese" sounds odd, but adding no further clarification like "I'm originally from Taiwan" is equally unsettling.

"Oh, Taiwan! But you speak English so well!"

"Well, I was born in the U.S. and also went to the U.S. for college and grad school ..." As I was about to explain, I noticed that she probably didn't understand very much what I was saying.

"You know - America, young," I stretched out my thumb and my index finger apart, trying to make a visual aid, "then Taiwan," another stretch, "then America again for university," finally, a third stretch.

"Oh~~~ I see~~~" She happily nodded, then repeating the same stretching gestures that I had just created. "You know, I also lived in America for 11 years. Then,2 years ago, back to Busan."

Her English doesn't really sound like someone who's spent over a decade in the U.S., so I asked - "Really? Where did you live?"


"Oh, my brother lives there too!" Immediately, I was reminded of the many many nice and cute Korean mom's that I had met in Seattle.

"And my daughter, she is at Smith College!" She said, beaming in smile.

Later on, due to a change of seating, this nice Korean mom moved to the row behind me and next to me sat another Korean couple. This time, the mom only smiled at me, apparently not confident enough to exchange words.

As I thought the rest of my flight was gonna go into napping and quietude, the light meal arrived. Each time, when the flight attendant tried to hand out something to me, the Korean mom quickly took it over before passing it to me with a big smile again. Then in the middle of the meal, as if suddenly remembering something terribly important, she fished through her purse and finally pulled out a gigantic fruit, getting around to cut it with that flimsy plastic in-flight knife.

A pomegranate! For a few seconds I couldn't believe myself, trying hard to hold my laughter. But before I knew it, boom, there it was, half a chunk of that gigantic pomegranate was placed on my tray.

"Oh, for me? No no no, you really don't have to!" I was honestly surprised, acting totally like a polite Japanese out of reflex.

Again, no words, but big smiles. She moved her hand and gestured me to eat it.

So there we went, she and her husband and I, sitting in one row, picking up the little promogranate seeds one by one, sharing something sweet and juicy in the midst of total silence. She even offered to take my trash after the flight attendant forgot to come back for a second pick up.

What is it about different cultures and people that some feel like it's the most appropriate thing to keep their mouths shut and one another's privacy intact, while some others feel like it's best to be vocal and smiley even if there are less than 5 words that the 2 people share in common?

It was like last time I was simply sitting on a bench waiting for the subway to come in Seoul, and two mid-aged Korean moms overheard my phone conversation in Chinese and later tapped me on my shoulder wanting to figure out who I am. To the Japanese, some might have the curiosity, while some might just assume my identity and bother no more to investigate further. To the Chinese, if the situation occurs with me engaging in a phone conversation in English, they might simply regard me as "one of thse ABC's" and equally move on.

But the Koreans, they tend to like to ask, with true curiosity revealed so vividly on their face.

I couldn't stopped smiling after the first conversation and after the pomegranate was offered. After so much "politeness" and "proriety" from Japan, I so happily embraced such "curious probing" and "unspoken understanding" from Korea.

梅ちゃん at 12:53:00 AM


Thursday, October 21, 2010

The World of Opaque Truths

Today Brother emailed me a news link about the sudden cancellation of China's invitation to the Osaka mayor for visiting the Shanghai Expo. Later on, in a skype conversation with a friend in Japan, I learned that the Japanese mass media has been covering the recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in four cities in China.

"Did you know about that? Is that even reported in China?" my friend asked.

I've only been back to Shanghai from Tokyo for less than a week, and already I'm on my way to Korea tomorrow. In the midst of all the flying and traveling, I honestly haven't been too up-to-date with the news. But I have been keeping the TV and the news channel on while doing work in front of my computer, and I don't recall seeing any reporting on the anti-Japanese demo's here.

So after hanging up the phone, I did a quick search on Nothing, I found. Then a quick on Asahi Shimbun online and immediately a few headlines popped up:

"中国旅行ツアー予約、10〜12月は大幅減 大手7社"

"伊勢丹、中国・天津への出店延期へ デモ影響か"

"中国で反日デモ飛び火 若者ら1万人 日系店襲撃情報も" - This one I gave it a more thorough glance:





"Why is it that the Chinese people have to go as far as crashing the Toyota cars and smashing the windows of Ito Yokado? What do they intend to achieve by doing that?" my friend asked again, with all sincerity.

Last night, at another dinner conversation, another expat friend of mine who has been living in Shanghai for almost 7 years told me that, when hanging out with the young 20-something-old-year, he is constantly struck with their sudden flaming of nationalistic comments.

"Like in what context or about what issue?" I asked.

"It can be something as trivial as there is a reporting about a Korean doing something bad on TV, then suddenly my friends are all about bashing the Korean nation and Korean race," he said.

This reminds me of another conversation that I had with this Chinese professor in my department. In his mid-50's, this professor hit the Cultural Revolution when he was a teenager, and was sent to a remote farming village outside of Shanghai for close to ten years. Having undergone hardships that I perhaps could never fathom, this professor, surprisingly, is extremely calm and level-headed the past and believes that forgiveness -- though not forgetting -- and efforts towards reconciliation are the only keys to resetting the wrongs of the past.

"Yet, nowadays when I teach my students, I am often shocked by and deeply worried about their state of mind. It seems like they now believe in the 'nation' so much more than we used to do. And with China on the rise, this fervent 'faith' or confidence in the nation prevents them from seeing things from a more objective point of view," he said.

In this increasing open and developed city, where the spirit of "nothing is impossible" and "tomorrow will only look better than today" fly high in the sky, I still had to resort to purchasing a monthly package via an open VPN vendor in order to write up this blog, check my friends' updates on facebook, or satiate my nostalgia towards Japan by watching random CM/TV clips on YouTube. In fact, I suppose I could even live without FB, Blogger, or YouTube and just resort to the Chinese versions of them, which are equally popular and easily accessible. But when I typed in words such as "日中共同世論調査" or "日韓歴史共同委員会" on google and was puzzled for a moment to find nothing listed, followed by a quick realization that the VPN thing wasn't turned on and once on, wow, a whole new world of listing popped up, I got this weird sensation of both relief yet spookiness running through my body.

Which world of truths am I living in, where all of its clarity or opaqueness easily appeared and disappeared according to that one simple click of "on/off" that I do on my little VPN window?

梅ちゃん at 12:51:00 AM


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Montage of Contradictions

Living in China is like seeing a montage of contradictions - every, single, day.

In my department, there is this professor who has gone out of China, worked overseas for over 2 decades, seen the world and come back, deciding that he'd like to devote the rest of his career to improving academic infrastructure in high education. Then, there is this admin lady, who - also out of her close to 2 decades of living in Shanghai - has never been to a stylish bar, a Western cafe, any non-Chinese restaurants in town. She has not even heard of this thing called "Fedex". But day after day, this professor works side by side with the admin lady. The admin lady helps the professor get through the mundanes of bureaucratic work, clearing all the hurdles on the thousands of paperwork road map. The professor, as a token of appreciation in return, treats the lady out to a nice meal from time to time, urging her to for sure order a cup of hot red dates tea, and reassuring her that a cup of 22-RMB tea really isn't all that expensive because in this fast growing city, there are tea houses that charge a cup of hot dates tea for 220 RMB.

Then in the neighborhood that I am temporarily crashing in now, there are many beautiful, brand new apartment complexes that form the glittering skyline of the night, while rows after rows of (I think) migrant workers' houses form the street line of the day. Inside my gated apartment complex, flowers are blooming, trees and bushes trimmed, even the lights lining next to every garden path are well-lit and well-maintained. Yet outside the gated yard, food, fruit, pet wastes and of course human spits scatter around every street corner; food stalls, eatery stands, mom and pop stores selling all sorts of daily supplies cramp up to form a fascinating scene of noise, motions, and odors on route to the subway station. Interestingly, nothing beats the fascination of finding a kid who pees in the lobby of my beautiful (and 高级) apartment complex - under the encouragement of the parent, of course - or breathing in unbearable cigarette smell in the elevator that never goes away despite how hard that old electric fan installed inside blows.

Yesterday on the way home, I had another moment of fascination. On the sidewalk next to a cart of pirated DVD's, there stood a cart of pirated books. As I shouldered my way through the surrounding crowd (yes and gosh, I am doing this already), trying to take a peak at the latest pirated titles, I was shocked to find titles that normally only boring academics like me would be interested in -- Mao: The Untold Story and 《失落的一代:中国的上山下乡运动》, just to name a few. Next to them, I also found biographies on Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and certainly the popular 《大江大海》by Lung Ying-tai, many of which are published in Hong Kong or Taiwan yet banned in China.

"Do you have another copy of 《失落的一代》?" I asked, for I was concerned about the damaged cover. "No lady, this one goes fast, don't you know? I got a few copies yesterday and this is the only one left today!" "No more coming in tomorrow?" "Hard to say, lady. But why don't you read this one on Mao instead? This has been the long-standing best-seller!"

As if she really has read through them all and can even tell the difference, I was just about to murmur. "Every time I go get new stuff, the factory would only get me 10 copies of them!" she suddenly added, as if she had read my mind.

Today, at a stylish Western salad/sandwich shop, I found this group of white-collar office workers crowding around a small coffee table, apparently trying to take an important business phone call on skype. "What did you say? Can't hear you!" one of the men yelled. "Fuwuyuan, turn down the music! It's too loud for us to hear!" I heard this very soon after. The fuwuyuan nicely obliged, even going as far as shutting the glassy front door to ensure a better sound quality. Then went a full hour of skype business talk right there, with practically every detail of the business deal clearly and unavoidably heard by every other Mandarin speaker in the room, including myself.

At last, on the way home tonight, as the cab glided through some of the hottest districts of bars and night clubs in town, I suddenly came across this strange, neon sign that flashes the following words:

"听党指挥,服务人民,英勇善战" (= listen to the party, serve the people, and be brave on the battlefield)

Ok, I get the "listen to the party" and "serve the people" part. But "be brave on the battlefield"? What war or battle are we talking about? And what day and age are we living in?

I stretched my neck trying to see through the dirty cab window what sort of governmental bureau or office would set up such a huge propaganda sign on the rooftop:

"浙江xx商业银行" (Zhejiang Commercial Bank) - I'm pretty sure that was what I caught.

Is there something that I'm missing here?

Or is it just China, with all of its contradictions - sometimes humorous, sometimes provocative, and sometimes intensely philosophical - that I haven't fully figured out?

梅ちゃん at 1:31:00 AM