Thursday, January 20, 2011

Almost Heaven Korea

Kimchi and Fish heads--way too much food

  This week has been my first and hopefully not last trip to Seoul, Korea. Everything has been great with a beautiful modern airport on landing, an efficient mass transit system, the food and the wonderful people.  As I drive thru the city, you could envision this as a any bigger city in the US. Going past the basketball arenas, baseball parks, Olympic stadium, organized traffic(both heavy and not), a beautiful city, a horizon lit at night like a year around Christmas season, it was a very comfortable country to visit.

     The real reason for this post was to relate a story concerning my first night in Seoul. I met up with some business associates for dinner who both happened to be from Ann Arbor and big Univerisity of Michigan fans. We were discussing the recent UM football coaching changes, which I mentioned multiple times that I was a WVU fan, and that I was not that disappointed that UM was having difficulty. They attempted to poke the normal sterotype fun at me for being a WV fan, which they had no real ammo with the UM situation. In the Hyatt Hotel was a house band who was a Korean band but singing everything in English, mostly US pop music. As we were leaving dinner, the band started a new song which could not have been timed more appropriately. They sang a beautiful rendition of "Almost Heaven, West Virginia".  I could not have been more in my glory at this time. Both Michigan men started groaning, accusing me of setting that up, but I just called it WV karma. I made them stand there and listen to the song before getting on the elevator.  Imagine my first trip to Seoul, Korea, living in Hong Kong, missing home and I could not have a better welcome to Korea. Almost Heaven Seoul, Korea.   link to video of Almost Heaven in case you have not heard it or just miss it

Handicapped Urinal in Seoul Airport which adds to my collection of restrooms around the world

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Keyboard Mashup

I stopped by the grocery store to pick up stuff for beef stew  and was checking out the meat counter. Of course items are labeled differently - I can find "Stew Meat" in the U.S.  Here the labels say things like "beef top tips" or "round beef sirloin" - what part of the cow is that? I stopped reading labels and started looking at the actual cut.  Eventually I found something that looked like beef stew meat and it took a me a few minutes to decide to buy it as I was unsure of this label, "Australian Orfanic Beef."  Several meats had the same label and I hesitated because in a foreign culture, words that sound even slightly different can be intimidating. I hemmed, hawed, looked around, thought about it, and then spied this label on another piece of meat, "Australian Organic." Oh! Someone had mistyped a bunch of labels and, God bless him, rather than redo all that work, he just went with it and put the misspelled labels out there. With joy and confidence in typos, I bought the "Australian Orfanic" stew beef and headed home to start finner.   

Monday, January 10, 2011

Everything I learned I learned in Kindergarden?

    Several years ago there was a book written by Robert Fulghum and published “Everything I know, I learned in Kindergarten”.   So what the book does not address is what happened if you did not go to kindergarten? Heck I could not even spell it correctly in the title.  I am now discovering that people expect me to know things that I do not know.  I cannot believe that just because I did not go to kindergarten that I am punished for the rest of my life. Maybe I should have paid attention during the rest of my schooling of elementary, secondary and college years, because I am finding I am missing some pretty basic things.

Joss Paper offering at Temple

    Let’s begin with the temperature. People told me that Hong Kong is warm.  I like to believe people and when I arrived to Hong Kong it was hot, Africa Hot and so humid that I was carrying an extra shirt to change due to sweat just to make it from the door to the cab. No one ever told me it got cold in Hong Kong.  No buildings have heaters and we packed all our turtlenecks, sweaters, winter coats and gloves into storage back in the states where we will not see them again for years.  So the last couple of weeks it has been cold. Ok, not cold that most of you are experiencing back in the states, but cold here. It has been in the single digits here at night for a couple of weeks and in the teens during the day. OK—so this happens to be Celsius, but it is still cold. If I am back in WV, OH or Pa and someone told me it was going to be in the teens, I would be bringing in the firewood, turn up the heat and get ready for some popcorn in front of the TV, nice and warm.   The whole metric system I do not think was taught in kindergarten, it could have but I did not go to Kindergarten and I remember several classes trying to teach it, but I did not understand why we had to learn another way when we had our old reliable Fahrenheit.   Now as man who still likes to learn but only simple things, I know that if I multiply by 2 and add 30, I get my estimated conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit.  SO it is supposed to be 6 degrees Celsius tonight, which would be around 42 degrees Fahrenheit ((6X2) +30).  Now I feel like a genius except for the fact that in the US, 42 would have been a warm day and I am cold here.  I walk around and see people in winter coats, mittens and wool hats. I plan on stopping by Joss paper burning at Temples just to get warm.  Next week I go to Korea, where I am told it is really cold, but guess what, I have no winter clothes and no one carries my size. I went to a dinner party this weekend where my shoes that I took off at the door were admired by everyone as some sort of Godzilla footprint discovery.
     Sometime in the 80s or 90s someone in the US government came up with the idea that everyone in the US was going to convert to the Metric system.  There was a countdown and warnings that all road signs would be converted. I believe I saw a couple of road signs and then I think most people just sort of said, this is stupid and we like miles, not kilometers.  I believe that there a minor revolt down by the Department of Highways and it did not happen. We just said this is too hard and I do not want to change. Well I wish I had learned this in Kindergarten because now as I travel or attempt to figure out how many miles my wife ran today, I need a calculator to convert miles, kilometers, yards meters, centimeters, inches, liters and gallons. OH please stop the madness.  So 1 Kilometer = 0.621371192237334 Miles.  If I knew how to do this I would understand what pie is other than something to eat, which I would kill for a piece of apple pie. I know if I was in Kindergarten, they would not deny me pie.  So I know now that every 10 miles is about 16.1 Kilometers. To keep it simple I make sure everything I do is around 10 miles, which makes for some longer trips. I believe that the US is the only country in the world left who uses miles.
     Another item is the world currency system. I get paid in US dollars, must wire it to my bank in Hong Kong. I get a fee in the US, a fee in Hong Kong and I get an exchange rate/loss. The Hong Kong dollar is around 7.75 dollars to every 1 US dollar.  And since I travel to other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, India (Rupee), Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia (Rupiah), the Malaysian (Ringgit) and others, I must figure out the conversion, take a hit on exchange rates and be able to think in terms of that country’s currency.  I must be able to convert their sales into US dollar sales.  One of my first trips to Australia they kidded me endlessly everywhere I went as the Australia dollar had just become more valuable than the US dollar. I just felt lucky as it was only a couple of cents more valuable and in my kindergarten mind, I just called it even.  The extreme to this was a recent trip to Indonesia where at one point I was carrying around 1.4 million Indonesian Rupiahs. I was amazed and felt Howard Hughes (Bill Gates) like to have hundred thousand bills. I would go down the street feeling like a hole burning in my pocket with 1.4 million. However, this was just around $155 US dollars, and it may cost 500,000 dollars for a bag of ruffles potato chips.  So everything is confusing and money may be money or just pieces of paper with a lot of numbers printed on it.  I have never been so happy as I was on a recent visit to Guam, a US territory.  I looked forward to the trip because I got to use US currency and shop for familiar needs at K-Mart. I never thought I would ever say I was happy to shop at K-Mart.  Yes, I got to use US currency.
      Now let me tell you how many US dollars we have lost not in monetary currency but in electrical currency.  We have lost two space heaters, a Wii, five kitchen appliances, a DVD player, and a vacuum cleaner. When I say lost, I mean they burned up.  They teach you in kindergarten not to put your finger in the electrical socket but I do not remember anything about this plug does not work in this outlet.  You would have thought after we lost the first item, we (I say we but I believe no one stopped me time after time) would have learned, but we just kept hoping that if we plugged it in, the miracle of electricity would flow smoothly and everything in the world would be fine.  Now I know that this is not true and we must either get a converter (most of time expensive and a learning experience) or just buy a new item here in Hong Kong. Let me tell you that you would think since most of the stuff we get in the US says “Made in China” it would work, but this does not mean that it will work in an electrical socket here in China. Those Chinese are tricky. I have different plugs and converters for every country now. In most hotels they provide adapters and the only socket that is truly universal for the most part is the shaver outlet in the restroom. I believe this is because too many hard headed Americans kept trying to plug in the hair dryer in a foreign country and blowing out the hotels outlets.

      I know that they teach you what time it is in Kindergarten, but I am pretty sure I would have gotten an F on this as I am constantly confused as to what day it is, what time it is, what country I am in and most importantly, what was the room number of my hotel room.  I keep on my laptop and my iPhone several world clocks going to help me in this transition. I really get confused on the weekends as I write this it is Sunday night in the Eastern US but Monday morning before I go to work in Hong Kong.  And since Mary Barbara and I watch the slingbox on eastern US time, this only confuses me further.  Examples are watching Mike and Mike in the morning in the evening in the US or watching Monday Night football on Tuesday morning from my office or before I go to work on Tuesday.
      So what I missed by not attending Kindergarten, I must now learn to train my mind to think in terms of currency exchange, metric system and is it really cold or hot.  If I could add an important message to kids now in the US, it is pay attention in Kindergarten otherwise the world may be passing you by. Don’t worry about “Don’t do Drugs”, just learn the metric system.  Or you just have to work harder as an adult to figure it all out.  The biggest lesson learned is that if it is cold in Hong Kong, you plug in your favorite US popcorn popper, it will burn out. And for some reason, finding a popcorn popper anywhere (I MEAN ANYWHERE) in Hong Kong is impossible.  So when it is cold, I cannot even sit in front of my slingbox and enjoy a bowl of popcorn, unless I make it the old fashion way.  They do not teach that in Kindergarten.
     Robert Fulghum book is really relevant in Hong Kong, my travels, and I do follow his basics when I am in the world and must give him credit for pointing out the items below. I know when I hold Mary Barbara’s hand the world is good and when I finally find that popcorn popper for Hong Kong.--Mark

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.
These are the things I learned:
  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don't hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don't take things that aren't yours.
  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all - the whole world - had cookies and milk at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.
And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
[Source: "ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN" by Robert Fulghum.  See his web site at  ]

Monday, January 3, 2011

Dumb and Dumber

(For my buddy Jeff and Drew--who have spent time waiting for the porti john at WVU Games with me)

           I spent the week in Beijing which was something I could never imagine doing. I saw all of the Olympic venues, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and a good bit of all 6 rings of Beijing. It was clear enough the first day you could see the Great Wall, but the last day the pollution was so bad you could hardly see three blocks. However, I feel compelled not to blog about the city as much as something else that I believe only a man with a 13 year old mentally could appreciate, which includes most of my friends and myself.
             My wife and I have this conversation quite frequently about what is humor to men and what is humor to women.  I remember sitting at a dinner in Columbus, listening to our friends Jeff and Becky tell about their first date. Jeff took her to see Dumb and Dumber. Within minutes all the men at the table were rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter remembering the bathroom scene in that movie, while the women were I think amused at their little boys laughing. Sometimes we never grow up.
            So that being said, I feel it necessary to discuss what we have experienced in the range of restrooms in the first four months. We have seen a wide range with some that we have still not figured out how to use.  Apparently some of the Asian culture does not see it as being sanitary to sit on a commode that others have been using, so there is no seat or commode.  I must also tell you that overall the Asian culture has some unbelievable great sanitation from masks, washing of hands, cleaning the streets and sanitizer everywhere. I told my wife that more men wash their hands in the Asian restrooms that in the states.  All which is a good thing. A new survey in the US based on restroom observations found that 93 percent of women wash their hands in public restrooms, while only 69 percent of men do. And that's an improvement over 2007, when only 66 percent of men did.

        So I will start with the best that I have seen. I was in Beijing and my hotel room had the most modern toilet I have ever experienced.  It had a sensor on it that raised the lid when I entered the room. There was a full functioning remote control on the wall that guided you thru whatever you needed. Of course the heated seat was great.  I only used the buttons for raising and flushing but it had the ability to target specific areas with different levels, and a dryer after those were used. Below are a couple of pictures. I was so impressed that I spent a good bit of time discussing, reviewing and admiring the whole process.

Seat automatically rises as you enter, then you have a remote control. What a life!

The opposite side of this is the commode that in my mind is nothing more than a hole in the ground. Even the pictures do not do it justice. Just the balancing that is needed is beyond my comprehension.  So in men’s public restrooms, they have urinal troughs.  Basically a maintained ditch that runs the length of the restroom. Most men have used worst and it would not in the least bother anyone. Anyone who has attended a sporting event has at one time or another used a group urinal. However, it is not the urinal which I need to explain,  it is the commode that is very complex. I have included two pictures which is nothing more than a commode at the floor level. They are called the “Squat Toilet”  Granted they are not everywhere, but in a lot of public restrooms and older buildings. I believe these are going away with the new buildings being put up. Most of the apartments we have looked at all have the more modern version of the commode.  However, this hole in the ground requires a balancing act that I could not pull off. My wife wants to ask someone to show her how to properly use.  Below are the instructions which are most graphic but complete.

I cannot even bend over to pick something up off the ground How do I use this?
 Rule One: Exhaust all other possibilities.
If you are truly in need and condemned to use the squat toilet, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are several thousand miles from friends and family. No one has to know.
Proceed as follows:
Most stalls do not have toilet paper. This is the best time to realize this. Either take paper from the general dispenser in the bathroom area or preferably bring your own as it will be made of tissue and not rough sandpaper.
Approach the squat toilet apprehensively and make sure it's not covered in anything. If it is covered, choose another stall. If another stall is not available, accept the cards that have been dealt you. This is a good time to come up with a title for your experience such as My One and Only Time or the Child’s book “Willy Makeit”
Close the door to the stall, knowing full well the handle has more germs on it than the entire Stanton Island trash dump.
Place your feet on the appropriate foot grids, assuming they are not covered. If they are covered, place your feet on the least fouled space you can find, being careful to maintain balance.
Unfasten and drop your trousers and underpants, making sure that they do not make contact with the covered surface area.
Grimace and ask yourself if a country with such a toilet can or should ever be a superpower.
Assume a squatting position like a competitive ski jumper. Stick your butt out.  This is a good time to pretend you're not a miserable tourist with your pants around your ankles, squatting over a hole in the ground trying to be the ultimate bombardier.
Use your right hand to prevent the soiling of your trousers and underpants by holding them off the ground and pushing them forward, away from any Danger Zone. This is perhaps the best time ever to be a kilt-wearing Scotsman.
In your left hand should be the assortment of paper/wipes/anti-bacterial sheets you intend to use after you are finished with your production.
You would think you would want your left hand to brace your squatting self against the stall wall. However, the stall walls are not always the most sanitary. At any rate, if you are a man you will need your left hand for guidance anyway.
For the men: Use your left hand to aim it away from your trousers and underpants. Point it backwards between your legs - as if it were a rocket engine designed to propel you far away from this alien hole. At the same time be sure not to drop any of the objects in your left hand as they will be rendered horribly irretrievable should you do so.
If you are not a man, use the left arm to balance yourself - waving it around wildly rather than touching the walls or filthy support bars (if any).
If you are able to maintain balance for several seconds, you are ready to begin evacuation. At this point the bulk of your focus should be towards the quick evacuation without soiling your clothing, missing your mark or - God forbid - losing your balance and falling.
For aiming purposes keep your head tucked between your legs - like a bombardier on a very unpleasant mission assigned by General Colin (Powell).
If your aim is true you will have the pleasure of watching (yours) drop down a deep, dark hole to a resounding ploot. If it's not true, you will have the pleasure of watching it come to rest on the floor between your legs hopefully not in your pants around your ankles.
After you have completed your evacuation, DO NOT STAND UP. Remain squatting and miserable.
Continue using your right hand to prevent contact of your trousers/underpants with restroom contents. Place your tissues and wipes in your left hand on top of your underwear/trousers and select the items you need for wiping.
Wipe and curse culture simultaneously, all the while maintaining the squatting position.
Do not drop soiled tissues. That would be too easy. Sadly, the 16th century plumbing can only handle evacuation. Soiled tissues are to be placed in the bin behind you. Without leaving the squat position, twist your body in order to see the bin and make a good throw. Don't worry if you miss, as it's obvious from the sheet pile on the floor that even the squat-tastic natives are no Michael Jordans.
Once sufficiently wiped, humiliated and traumatized, you may stand and re-underpant and re-trouser yourself. This is a good time to reflect on your life and also a good time to try blacking out these last ten minutes.
The filth-covered flush button is behind you and may or may not work.
Open the door to the stall, again knowing the handle has an infinite amount of germs
Exit the stall and never, ever, ever get yourself into a situation where you have to do that again. But first, wash your hands until they are raw.
1.    It's really not that bad once you get the hang of it.
2.    A note on the trough. As hideous as this sounds, there are places where there are still troughs in public bathrooms. In these types of public toilets, there are usually door-less stalls facing up to a long trough with water running down from one end to the other. Folks back up and squat over the trough and everything floats away. These types of toilets are going the way of the dinosaur, but consider yourself warned.
3.    China's reputation for horrible public bathrooms used to be well-deserved, but these days, the government is doing a lot to improve the state of the facilities. You'll often find public toilets rated with stars. There's a lovely 4-star public toilet on the Sacred Way outside of Beijing, for example. However, for older Chinese, they do not understand our toilet with a seat. My one asian friend tell me how her mother still to this day will stand up on our modern sit down with a seat and squat. She tell how she walked into the restroom and saw her 75 year old mother’s head above the stall.
4.    Have a few coins (1-2rmb) with you for use in public restrooms. There's usually a charge and toilet paper will be given with the fee.
5.    Try not to freak out about the squat toilets. Likely as not, you won't have to use one and if you do, it's all part of the experience.

Most of us old enough have used an outhouse at one time or another. I can remember the white bucket kept in each room of my Grandmother’s house that got emptied each morning. But the squat toilet is tool which I hope no one ever has to use.  However, can you imagine that scene in Dumb and Dumber had it been a squat toilet. We would still be laughing, or at least the men.