Sunday, April 26, 2009

Germans, Concerts, Soccer, & Awkward Silences

Last night I went to see The Living End in the Gloria Theater in Cologne. I've gone to a whole bunch of concerts since living here, but it only occurred to me last night that Germans turn everything into a soccer game. Well, I suppose they turn everything into a soccer game only if there is chanting and large groups of people involved. Certain cheers don't really transfer well from the soccer field (err, football pitch?) to a concert environment. For example, "Olé, olé, olé, olé, olé, olé." I'm sure you've heard it if you've ever seen or been to a soccer game, but seriously, people. How does that cheer work for a band?? It doesn't.

Additionally, Germans love to clap. I may have mentioned this before, but they'll clap to a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Whether it's your "typical" German music, what's called Schlagermusik (here's a link to an example and you can actually hear the clapping with it), pop music, or in the case of last night, punk, clapping can be heard. Of course, they even clap in sync with each other at soccer games. I don't know what it is, but clapping is everywhere except at the university. Instead of clapping after a lecture is done, students knock on the desks. But back to last night...sure, there are points when the band encourages clapping in sync to the beat, but then other songs where there really isn't a beat to clap to, Germans manage to somehow clap. I've heard the excuse for this is that parents will clap out syllables for their kids to learn new words because German words are so long (like Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung, meaning speed limit, which is actually longer than the longest English word, antidisestablishmentarianism). So, for the word meaning speed limit, they'll clap out "Ge-schwin-di-keits-be-gren-zung." I'm not sure if that has to do with listening to punk music, but sure, why not.

What was also funny about last night that doesn't necessarily have to do with soccer is the crowd itself. It was so strange because every time the Living End would finish a song, people would clap and cheer for about 5 to 10 seconds before stopping completely. And then it'd be kind of quiet while everyone waited for the band to start the next song. I thought this was a little awkward because almost every other I've been to, people will continue clapping and cheering until the next song starts or the band says something. Even the lead singer/guitarist Chris mentioned it, saying the last time they were in Germany, the crowd was a little rowdier and noisier. Funny enough, everyone booed to this comment (I cheered because I was glad that someone said it), but I wanted to say, people, it's your own fault!

I think this might have to do with the fact that Germans are ok with awkward silences. I know as an American, it's kind of weird if you meet someone for the first time and then there's a lull in the conversation. It's almost as if you're saying, "Well, we don't have much to say to each other, so that's why we've run out of things to say. Therefore, we probably won't be great friends." Or in the case of a date, you probably think you've run out of things to say and you're not compatible. So as an American, I thought it was strange last night to have a break in cheering and clapping. It was almost as if the crowd was saying, "You're good, but not good enough for me to keep showing my appreciation for you." However, Germans are ok with awkward silences when you're talking to someone for the first time. They don't really think anything of it. I was thinking that perhaps the audience last night wasn't not appreciative, they just deemed it not necessary to have to exaggerate or anything like that (if that makes sense).

A video of The Living End rocking out.
Not sure if it was improvised, but very awesome nonetheless.

Although I've been here in Germany for almost 3.5 years, there are still things I will never quite get and will still laugh at. I suppose as much as I am well-integrated (or like to think so, at least), there are still things where I'm super American.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Asia Trip Week 3: Singapore

The final leg of our trip was in Singapore where we stayed with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the heart of the city near River Valley Road. Considering that Beijing had been hardcore culture and Hong Kong hardcore shopping with a touch of culture, Singapore was a week of relaxation and enjoying the sun (which we don't have too much of in the winter in Germany).

The last time I was in Singapore was in 2000 as a 15-year-old that didn't eat much besides typical American cuisine. This time around, I was psyched to try (almost) everything. I still don't eat seafood at all, but we went out with my aunt and uncle to get some Sri Lankan crab and other seafood for Christian. I got some tofu and lamb instead which was also delicious. One day we went out for lunch at a hawker market, which is very typical Singaporean. It's pretty much like a an outdoor food court with a bunch of little food stalls serving various dishes between $3 Sing and $10 Sing (about 1.50€ and 5€). I got some laksa, which is best described as a curry noodle bowl with a coconut milk based soup, but Christian, my aunt, uncle, and their friend Robert got a whole slew of other dishes: oyster omelet, crispy pork, some noodle dish, some sort of sandwich, and Singaporean shaved ice which is a hell of a lot brighter than American shaved ice.

Singaporean shaved ice

Some stalls at the hawker market

One day we also went out for high tea at the Shangri-La Hotel. I think I had been there 9 years ago on my second trip to Singapore, but again, I was more keen this time around to try different foods. My aunt said that you could definitely see signs of the recession because the buffet there was scaled back a bit. Additionally, there weren't very many people there in general, whereas a year or two ago, it would've been packed.

We did some typical tourist things for Singapore: the Night Safari, the Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, a day at the beach on Sentosa Island. The Night Safari was probably a highlight because we saw tons of animals prowling around. The last time I had been to the Night Safari was back in 1994 when it had just opened. I remember Lannie and I were more fascinated by the geckos at the tram stations than any of the animals because a lot of the animals weren't actually visible (kind of like the dinosaurs on the dinosaur tour in Jurassic Park). Fifteen years later, the Night Safari really has expanded a lot and there were animals everywhere. I also really liked how they urge visitors to be mindful of wildlife and how they are trying to get people aware of threatened and endangered animals. I think Jurong Bird Park also expanded in comparison to the first time we were there 15 years ago, and again, the park is done really well and for the most part, the animals have enough free range or run around free (er, fly around).

It was a nice week being able to relax and enjoy the sun and recharge our batteries. We also did a little shopping (more like Christian did), went to the movies and saw Fanboys, and basically, enjoyed our last week of vacation. Though it was my third time visiting, I still think I couldn't live in Singapore because of the climate. It's still hot and humid and probably will always be and it's just not my favorite climate at all. If you want to see more pictures from Singapore, you can see them as a Flickr set here. (And there are a lot of food pictures!)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Asia Trip Week 2: Hong Kong, China

I've been really terrible about updating my blog about what happened on our Asia trip...but here's what happened in Hong Kong:

We stayed with my friend Derek (who I think I actually starting talking to more post-college than during) in the heart of the city, Causeway Bay. The first impression of Hong Kong was that it is definitely more westernized than Beijing and the people are more, well, sophisticated. I got the feeling that the majority of women there only wear heels and rarely wear flats and definitely not sneakers (even ones that might be considered "fashionable" like Converses). Derek's guess was that the women are short and therefore feel like they need to compensate for their height deficiency. Additionally, the women are just plain fashionable and I felt out of place in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt, which in most other places is just kind of neutral. Not in Hong Kong. The men there aren't noticeably different than in western countries, but in comparison to Beijing, men weren't spitting on the floor everywhere. Lastly, in terms of sophistication, everyone there has the newest, sickest, most modern cell phones possible. Christian and I thought that cell phones there are more of a status symbol than anywhere here in Germany. The iPhone is everywhere and most likely all are cracked, but cell phone technology seemed more prevalent in HK than it did in Beijing.

I really liked Hong Kong because I felt like it was one of the few places on Earth where I felt like I truly fit in, in terms of way of life. It's this strange mix of Chinese and Western culture and the majority of Hong Kong people speak a mix of Cantonese and English. So if I didn't know a word in Cantonese while speaking it, I just threw it out in English, but people didn't hesitate or give me a second look. The attitude was more, "Sure, whatever, I get what you're saying." For example, we got ice cream at Ben & Jerry's and I know how to say, "I want one..." but I didn't know how to read or say the flavor (coffee, coffee, buzz, buzz, buzz). I just said, "Ngoh yiu yut goh coffee, coffee, buzz, buzz, buzz." And it worked. (And I apologize if my Romanization makes no sense to anyone who can actually read the Romanization of Cantonese.)

The symbol of Hong Kong at a flower show in Victoria Park

Additionally, I started picking up words and phrases really quickly and making connections between things I had never done before. For example, everywhere you go, there are warnings to mind the gap, mind your head, mind the wet floor, etc. In Cantonese, they just say "siu sum" which I always thought to mean "be careful," which it does. However, translated literally, it means "little heart" and I hadn't associated the words "siu" with little and "sum" with heart (which is also the same "sum" as in "dim sum"), even though I know both "siu" and "sum." I'm not sure if my explanation makes any sense whatsoever, but I've never thought about what "siu sum" literally meant. I guess the best way to explain it is the word "Frühstück" for Germans. It means breakfast, but the two words "früh" and "Stück" mean "early thing," but Germans never think of it as an "early thing," just as "breakfast."

In terms of tourism, Hong Kong doesn't have nearly as many historical and cultural sites as Beijing. Notable things were the Victoria Peak (where all the British colonists went when the heat got unbearable because it's cooler there), the Tian Tan Buddha run by the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, and some of old colonial buildings leftover from the British. A lot of people say that the New York skyline is impressive and don't get me wrong, it is, but the Hong Kong skyline keeps on going for what seems like forever. We went up to the Peak at night and the skyline is really a sight to see. There aren't really words for it, so I'm just posting a picture.

We also went to HK Disneyland (which is also out on Lantau Island) for a day because I've been to the two in the U.S. and the one in Tokyo, so I figured, hey, I just need to go to Euro Disney and HK Disney to have been to all of them. The park was rather small and we did it in a half day, but it was still fun and just nice to be able to not really do anything super intense. I actually convinced Christian to ride Space Mountain (which is more modern than the Space Mountain in Orlando). He doesn't like roller coasters at all and when we got off, his hands were shaking and he just kept saying, "Nope, I am NOT going on it again!" HK Disneyland is definitely more for little kids than it is for people of all ages like Disneyworld in Orlando and I don't think I'd go back.

The main thing to do in Hong Kong, however, is shopping. Hong Kong people love to shop and an attestation to this is the copious amount of malls and stores. We did a good amount of shopping ourselves in some outlets out in Tung Chung, around Causeway Bay, and the Times Square Bazaar. When we went to the Times Square Bazaar, there was an outlet sale of Diane von Fürstenberg and Kate Spade stuff, so I got some really good deals on some DvF dresses. However, there were these "bazaar" sales all over for HK. We also went to one for "young fashion," where they had stuff like Miss Sixty and Carhartt (the fashionable stuff) for cheap. If you ever go to Hong Kong, you just need to look out for signs for them.

The Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak

The other thing to do in Hong Kong is eat. We had dim sum a lot because it's not readily available here in Germany, plus it's fun just to see the carts go by and order what you want. There were some restaurants where you have to order everything on a piece of paper and it'll be brought out, which for me was sometimes difficult because I can't read anything. I know in one restaurant I told the waiter in Cantonese that I can't read Chinese and he laughed in his puzzlement. That day, Christian was also sick and didn't eat anything, so I ate three little plates of the dim sum and 3/4 of a noodle dish by myself. The same waiter proceeded to tell me he was super impressed about how much I ate and wondering why Christian wasn't eating. He asked if he was a picky Westerner, to which I told him what was wrong. And all in Cantonese. Again, I was impressed about how much I could say and understand.

We also went out to Macao (also spelled Macau) on our last day. It was really crowded leaving HK and went by boat. The ride was about an hour and once we got to Macao, we had to go through Macanese customs. All I can say is: What a pain. We waited in line for an hour and had to deal with mainland Chinese shoving everyone and getting into fights with the Hong Kongers about who was in line first, etc. Once we got to the city, we went to see São Paulo's Cathedral (or the remains of it) and the old Portuguese fortress at the top of the hill. But other than that, the only other thing to see in Macao are the casinos (useless for us since we don't gamble). The city isn't exactly what I would say pretty. There are corners where there is a clear mainland European influence as opposed to Hong Kong and everyone has a scooter like a Vespa, but really, Hong Kong is much better and more interesting.

I think all in all, Hong Kong is definitely a place where I can imagine living and definitely more so than Beijing. It's a high-paced city like New York and we were lucky to have good weather. It's not overly expensive (though in comparison to say, Berlin, it is), the quality of life is good, and it has a lot to offer for the people who live there. Here are more of my Hong Kong/Macao pictures on my Flickr page.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Asia Trip Week 1: Beijing, China

During the month of March, Christian and I took a three week vacation to Asia and the first stop was in Beijing, China. Rather than detailing everything we did since that can be found on Wikipedia, I'm just going to write my impressions of each place. In Beijing, we stayed with my friend Zach from college, which was really great since he was able to show us places where we wouldn't normally go and ordered very local dishes. The first thing he actually did was give us a roll of toilet paper, saying, "First rule of living in Beijing: Always have a roll of toilet paper with you. You're going to need it and you'll be grateful that you have it." This wound up being very, very true and we were thankful that he had given us the tip. Many of the public restrooms don't have toilet paper in them at all, even at some of the more touristy spots.

Our first day was mostly dealing with bureaucracy and getting the correct paperwork to register at the local police station, saying that we were residing with a friend for a week. All visitors to China are required to do it, but if you stay at a hotel, the hotel usually does it for you. Afterward, we walked around a little bit around his neighborhood where there are a lot of embassies, as well as Russian businesses. It was interesting because where he lives is almost like Little Russia; the Russians are the biggest minority in Beijing and all of their businesses have Cyrillic writing on them. We decided to take the first day easy since we were jet lagged, but it was also good just to get a sense of what the city is like.

The next day, we woke up early and went out to get breakfast with Zach. He got us these things called "jian bang," which was a crepe-like thing with (maybe) hoisin and a spicy sauce on it, a crunchy bread thing, an egg, some sort of seeds, and cilantro all freshly made and wrapped up for a mere 6 RMB for the two of us, about 0.60€. It was so delicious and cheap that we ate this almost every morning and realized that Zach was right: eating out in China is so cheap that it's not worth it to cook for yourself. The three of us could go out and eat a full, well-made meal for about 100 RMB (about 10.80€) and that would be considered on the expensive side. Most of the time when we ate with Zach, it definitely cost less than 100 kuai (that's like saying "bucks" or "quid" in China) and we of course had no qualms about it.

The highlight of being in Beijing was probably Wednesday when we went on a hiking tour with the Beijing Hikers to the Great Wall, Jiankou to Mutianyu. Zach works for the company and suggested we do it, even if the tour was rated a level 4 (more difficult). I had brought my running sneakers for the occasion, and man, was I glad! We started out in a small village, hiked up the side of a mountain (or extraordinarily steep hill) where we had some great views of the surrounding area, and finally reached the Great Wall that was about 1100 meters above sea level. The part of the Wall where we began was completely unrestored, overgrown, and wild with trees and grass poking up between the crumbling bricks. After taking a break at a lookout, we hiked along the Wall to a part called Ox Horn's Ridge that was super steep, almost a 90º angle, then had to climb down the ridge. To say the least, it was good that we had hiking sticks from the Beijing Hikers, though they weren't much use on the way down because the steps were worn away and it was more helpful grabbing onto sides of the crumbling Wall (I slipped and fell on my butt). At some point, we finally reached a restored part of the Wall called Mutianyu which made things a lot easier, though there were still tons of stairs to climb down.

Along the restored parts, there were locals selling drinks to tourists, consistently asking, "Beer? Coke? You want drink?" One man stopped us, asking where we were from, and Zach, as tour guide, conversed with him. The old man asked specifically where Christian's from and laughed upon finding out he is German. He said that Christian looked too "stupid" ("saw" in Chinese) to be American like the rest of us there at the moment because he didn't look like he would vote for Bush. It turned out that the old man was a Bush supporter because he believed Bush did a lot of good things for China, whereas Obama wouldn't be good for the country. So to him, Christian didn't look smart enough to vote for Bush.

By the end of the 12 kilometer (8 mile) hike, our legs were tired and we were hungry for lunch. Everyone paid to take the tobaggan down the mountain, which was super fun. I tried to make a video of part of the way down, but at the same time, I didn't want to be so involved making the video that I would miss the ride. Afterwards, we took a short bus ride to a small restaurant still in the countryside where we had everything pre-ordered for us. Though the restaurant was outside and very unassuming, the food was great (not to mentioned included in the price of the tour). I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Beijing to do a hike with the Beijing Hikers because it was something we wouldn't do normally and we saw things we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

Other than that, Beijing is at times a modern time city where it's a free-for-all with traffic, but at the same time, still sort of backwards. Then again, "backwards" is a bit subjective. For example, I had been told that little kids run around with slits in their pants so that they can urinate and defecate easily in the street when necessary. I thought this couldn't be true, but we saw this in action at the Summer Palace when a little boy with said slit was allowed to pee on a tree in the middle of the path. Additionally, squat toilets are common, which I have no problem with. It's when there is no privacy between the holes in the ground that's problematic. Even worse is when there are stalls with doors on them and then women pay no regard to the doors, squatting down and going. I was appalled that this actually happened, but their attitude towards this sort of privacy is completely indifferent.

Beijing is also very polluted and we were lucky to have good weather while there. There were one or two days when we couldn't see buildings in front of us because of the smog, but when we looked directly up, the sky was blue. The day we went to the Forbidden City was incredibly windy, which made visibility very clear, but also the day was really, really cold. I got a bit of a sore throat from the air, as well as a rash from the undrinkable water. Though it sounds much worse than it really was, it's apparently normal when people move to Beijing and get a throat infection within the first month of living there. All in all, however, the city was definitely incredible to visit and there is so much cultural stuff to see. The food was great and cheap, the people friendly (though they tended to laugh once they figured out I couldn't speak Mandarin), the public transportation easy, and in general, the city was also cheap by western standards.

And, as I said earlier and because people often say that a picture is worth a thousand words, you can check out the 365 pictures from Beijing I took as a set on my Flickr account.