Tag Archives: experiences

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

Cinematic Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, I went and saw the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. It was a memorable trip, even overlooking the movie itself. See, for the first time, I opted for the D-BOX experience: motorized seats that vibrate and move in correspondence to onscreen action. Fast 8 turned out to be the perfect movie for the system, as every rev, every crash, every explosion reverberated through the chair to my very core. It was so much fun. I was giddy – and sold – from the opening sequence.

I’ve loved movies ever since I was a kid. I suppose a part of that was due to me growing up in Los Angeles. I couldn’t help but be immersed in the culture of Hollywood. I’d go to the mall and it would be where they filmed Terminator 2 (Glendale Galleria) or Back to the Future (Puente Hills Mall). I’d recognize “fake” newscasters in any number of films as the real newscasters on my local television stations. When I was in middle school, my sister even took me along to be an extra in a crowd scene for a forgettable Billy Crystal movie.

But my love for the movies outstripped that of fellow Angelenos, perhaps a product of circumstance. My folks were working six, seven days a week, and I found myself with a fair amount of time to kill going as far back as my elementary school years. My cousin and I would roam the streets in our suburban neighorhood regularly on Saturdays, and we’d invariably end up either playing arcade games at Subway or stopping by the local multiplex. The employees there were lax about movie-hopping; it became a habit.

By the time I reached high school, I was a full-blown addict.* I loved everything about the theatrical experience. I loved seeing the marquees out front when we drove past, back when the only other recourse to find out what was playing was to telephone in or buy a paper. I loved seeing the giant posters and fancy cardboard displays that accompanied new and upcoming releases. I relished seeing a movie with one friend Saturday and another with someone else Sunday, or just going alone for a double- or triple-header. Once, I even stayed for four movies.

*I’d even read book adaptations of things like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Little Big League; it was absurd. I’ve outgrown that, but even now I’m still drawn to stories that become movies.

It didn’t hurt that I simply liked movies. Even as I watched my fair share of awful new releases, I never walked out on any, and just about never regretted seeing anything on the big screen (though spending $22 at the San Francisco Metreon for the abysmal Men in Black II comes to mind). Every experience offered something worthwhile – a good line, a silly laugh, a striking shot: moments of novelty and genuine inspiration I held onto. I never considered myself a movie expert and certainly not a movie connoisseur; no, I was always a fan.

It was in college that I began to gain a greater appreciation for cinematic history. I took just a single film course – “History of the American Motion Picture” – but fell in love in particular with The Gold Rush (1925) and It Happened One Night (1934). They opened my mind to the timelessness of the medium. Conveniently, this was during the heyday of Netflix’s home delivery service. I kept a steady stream of DVDs flowing in my apartment, taking full advantage of my three-at-a-time plan, all in addition to my regular trips to the theater.

There was so much out there for me to discover – films of all eras, and eventually all languages. After a friend recommended The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I went on a long run of spaghetti westerns, then shifted over to regular westerns. I’d get to The Magnificent Seven which would lead to the original Seven Samurai which would then take me down Kurosawa lane. Or I’d crush on Audrey Hepburn and watch from her collection, then Marilyn Monroe and hers. I was learning without the structure of a classroom.

The fact that I was at UCLA also meant I was a short walk from the historic movie palaces in Westwood. It added another dimension to my fandom. On weekday afternoons when the crowd was scarce, it’d be me and a scattershot of senior citizens and the self- or perhaps un-employed in any number of beautiful, cavernous halls. The well-worn cliché of being transported to another world for a couple of hours had immeasurable value for my state of mind, being depressed in college. The theatrical experience had evolved into both hobby and therapy.

After college came graduate school, and ten minutes down the road from the university I attended in Irvine, California, there existed a real, honest-to-goodness, 70 mm IMAX theater. It changed my life. Movies had always been an event, but broadcast on a 90’ by 65’ screen – roughly the size of a seven story building, they became more. Everything felt immersive, exhilarating, simply overwhelming.* I watched summer blockbusters in awe, my brain reeling from the stimulus, my heart full. IMAX was a high of an experience that I have never been able to replicate.

*Watch any of the Transformers series on a real IMAX and try not to feel like a kid. They’re objectively terrible movies; I’ve enjoyed all of them nonetheless.

Graduate school was a fantastic time for my movie fandom overall. With a little bit of pocket change and a great deal of spare time, I averaged 80 trips to the theater a year, cranking it up to 100 as I shifted from coursework to dissertation writing. I developed a regular rotation of five or six local theaters, my individual trips determined by showtimes or discounts or membership perks. My mom swam in free tickets and concessions. I maintained a blog exclusively about movies for a year; I even created and taught a course on “International Politics and Film” one summer.

Moving from Southern California – and later, the United States – has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for film. Of course, as was inevitable, I even wrote a garbage screenplay of my own. But it has been fascinating to witness movie cultures abroad as an expat and traveler. To stand for the Thai royal anthem before the previews begin, to climb awkwardly over Japanese audiences sitting through the entirety of the end credits as a sign of respect, to wrap my head around three rows of subtitles (English, French, German) onscreen in Switzerland. They’re indelible memories.

Movies comprise a significant part of the tapestry that is my life. I can draw upon so many memories – good and bad – of childhood and adolescence, friendships and relationships, profound moments of self-realization to utterly unremarkable days, that are inextricably linked to films and film experiences. Granted, I will never in my life again movie-hop two or three screens every other weekend. But whether I’m in an uncomfortable chair in a last-run theater or a state of the art “motion system” on opening night, I will forever remain captivated by the wonder, the spectacle – the magic of cinema.

(Photo by I, Sailko, GFDL, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Whole Wide World

In the midst of my grandmother’s final days, I couldn’t help but think about how different her life had been from mine, how everything she had been through had made things possible for me, my sister, our cousins. I received the news of her passing in Porto, on New Year’s Day. It pained me to be on the other side of the world, away from family in both the US and Hong Kong, away from friends even. Yet at the same time, I thought about how far we had come, as a family, that I was able to be there, a spur of the moment trip to Portugal over my holiday.

My grandmother never left China, never left Hong Kong really. Growing up, even after my parents moved with me and my sister to the States, our vacations were rare, and quite modest. A few road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, once to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Our big getaway was New York and DC – to deal with immigration paperwork. That was the extent of it. My parents always provided for us, and I never was left wanting of anything. But luxury was unknown to us: we rented instead of owned, moved around a bunch to save. And we rarely traveled.

I was at a museum in Paris when I received what turned out to be my last call from my grandmother. I was spending the holidays there with my best friend – she a half-Spanish French native whom I had met in Tokyo. About a week later, I reflected on the moment, the trip, and I thought too about my last couple of months working in Geneva. I had been to Brussels and Rome, spent a weekend with a good friend over in Barcelona. I didn’t think about this in a self-indulgent way. Rather, I thought about the fact that I was able to see so much, and experience so much, on behalf of my grandmother, on behalf of my parents.

I never once took for granted what I had gained because of my family’s move to the US. Still, I don’t know that I ever envisioned what my life was going to be like when I grew up. Until the point of graduate school, I never really thought about what my life could be like. Even as my personal travel expanded, it never quite seemed like real life. Things only felt different, I think, when it was my studies – my work – that opened up the world. Conferences in Chicago and New Orleans, in Seoul and Berlin. Field work in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The world simultaneously became bigger and smaller, less bounded but more accessible.

I have admittedly struggled with expat life at times, as has been well documented on these pages. These recent weeks in particular have provided plenty of triggers. Missing the holidays, the milestones, the passings. Just watching La La Land this past weekend, and seeing the spirit, the hope and beauty, the melancholy of the city I grew up in, captured onscreen – it made me yearn for life back “home,” for the experience of being there. But I don’t think I would prefer that alternative, don’t think that I would be happier being in LA, or even the US. In fact, at this stage of my life (however long it may last), I can say resoundingly that this is not the case.

Perhaps it has to do with my tendency to settle, to be comfortable. Even in Japan, in a shoebox apartment with a modest fellowship stipend, with no hope for professional progress and almost no love life, I was a little too content. Maybe the inherent discomfort of being an expat is the very thing I need then. A friend suggested once that expats are people who are in search of something, who lack something in their lives. I suppose I’m still  searching. But what I’ve found so far has propelled me a bit in my life, has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived.

The people I’ve met – they’re the core of it. I have learned so much, from one-off dates and fleeting encounters, but especially from the kindred souls I will forever hold close to my heart. I have a friend in Hong Kong who still tells me regularly she misses our days as graduate fellows in Boston. A Japanese friend in Singapore who checked in on me every time he was in Tokyo, even if he had to meet with luggage in tow. The couple who I spent a full week with in a studio in Paris, nonstop, on their holiday; the aforementioned best friend who took me to all her family functions. They are in my life because of a confluence of coincidence*, but also fundamentally because I moved from comfort.

*”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”

When I told my mom about my trip to Rome, she asked how long the flight was from Geneva. She asked a few more questions about Italy  – something my sister and I both picked up on. They, along with my brother-in-law, were to visit me in Switzerland later this year. After the conversation, my sister put Rome and Venice on their itinerary too. I think about that, and the hundreds of places my sister has been to in her life. I think about my mom, a homemaker until we moved to the States, who then – and to this day – would have to wake up before the crack of dawn six days a week for her blue-collar job. And I think about her being able to see Italy and Switzerland and France and Japan.

I think about my grandmother.

Leaving Los Angeles was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being an expat continues to be the privilege of my life. I know it. I just have to remind myself of it sometimes.

(Photo by bm.iphone, uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

So This Exists: A Night at the Robot Restaurant

Stereotypes about Japan are ubiquitous for a reason. They’re true. Now, as with all stereotypes, they’re not 100% true, nor are they applicable to the whole of society, nor do they say anything about the whole of society. However, the sheer size of the population in Japan – and Tokyo in particular – means that there’s likely some representation of, some truth behind just about every stereotype if you look around hard enough. I mean, there is a giant statue of a robot. There are cosplayers wandering the streets. There are girls who really want to fuck white dudes.

I suppose then the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo embodies a collection of the most exaggerated stereotypes of Japanese pop culture. Scantily clad women, dancers in animal costumes, laser light shows, and of course – robots of all varieties, and plenty thereof. The website alone is almost enough to induce seizures. No, this isn’t what Japan is like. But in some ways, this is the Japan you imagined in your wildest fantasies, your worst nightmares. This is the Japan for tourists, crazy and exotic and impossibly foreign, more theme park than country.

Last week, some friends and I headed into the heart of Kabukichō – Tokyo’s red-light district, and one of the few places in Japan your government warns you about, curious as to what the fuss was all about. The restaurant / cabaret show had a sparkling 4.5 star average on Tripadvisor, after all. As a frame of reference, I thought about Medieval Times, the corny dinner theater show in the States. No, Medieval Times wasn’t quality entertainment. But it was a blast*: we screamed for our knight, heckled the competition, laughed at our own over-enthusiasm. It was the kind of place where you had to buy in. And that was my mentality for the Robot Restaurant.

*The alcohol helped.

Even the entrance of the restaurant could not seem to help itself. Our senses were immediately attacked. Giant video billboards adorned the hallway, while the storefront resembled some sort of pachinko parlor, only with more screens, more LED lights, just more. It was Xzibit’s wet dream. We were quickly whisked into a tiny elevator that would not be out of place in a disco. Gaudy would be an understatement; the restaurant literally outshone any locale Tokyo might have to offer, Las Vegas for that matter. Early for our show, we headed to the third floor waiting room, already overwhelmed. That was just the beginning.

The elevator opened into a stupefying display. It was as though all of the lights in Shinjuku had managed to be transported into a modest-sized lounge. A rainbow basically vomited everywhere. Chandeliers, mirrors, and video screens glowed, while extravagant chairs – thrones, really – lined the room. I somehow managed to miss the robot band playing smooth jazz until I walked right by the stage. That the vast majority of the crowd waiting appeared to be foreigners did nothing to detract from the experience: this was clearly no longer about authenticity, about Japan, or even Earth.

We waited in the room for a good half hour. I struggled to maintain eye contact with my friends, to keep conversation afloat. Instead, my eyes darted around, my brain struggling to comprehend my surroundings. I kept giggling every so often at the absurdity of it all. The theme of the lounge, of the restaurant, seemed to be robots, dragons, and women: clearly the manifestation of a hyperactive teenage boy’s imagination. Video screens teased us with what was to come. Finally, the announcement came to take our places. To the basement we went, via a garish staircase, surrounded by butterflies, flowers, brightness.

I was taken aback by how small – almost astonishingly so – the stage area was. It was this relatively thin strip of real estate, flanked by three rows of seats (fitting roughly 150 people total) and of course, two giant video screens. Because my friend had the wherewithal to make reservations, our seats were in the splash zone. We grabbed some beer and popcorn and settled in. Judging from the nondescript bento resting in front of our neighbors, we had made the right decision to skip the meal, “restaurant” be damned. The excitement in the room was palpable.

The first floats emerged from the side, giant taiko drums in tow. The performers stared ahead. The drumbeats began, methodically, ritualistically. The whole thing was hypnotic. There was almost a religious quality about it… if it weren’t for the risqué outfits, the elaborate light displays, the moving platforms. The show kicked into full gear, and immediately the world ceased to make sense. I  saw go-go dancers and giant tarantulas and flying monkeys. I saw robot boxers and neon motorcycles and glittery unicorns. The show was essentially a series of vignettes, each as over-the-top as the next.

Presumably there was some sort of storyline, some sort of common thread, but I was too busy trying to process all the visuals. I still am. The energy level emanating from performer and audience alike remained high for through the 90 minute show (with two short breaks), culminating in a epic finale replete with glowsticks and fembots. I’m not doing the experience justice, but how does one describe the indescribable? When it was over, we filed back up the colorful staircase, and found ourselves again on the alleyways of Kabukichō. The world seemed so different in that moment, so much darker, so much quieter.

No, I’ve never done drugs, but I’ve been to the Robot Restaurant.

The Second Time

The first time I sat in the back of a police car, I was 11 years old. That’s a severely misleading sentence; I wasn’t there in that way. I sat in the back, door open, comforted by an officer while waiting with my sister for an aunt to pick us up. My parents had just been arrested; they would be detained overnight. The cops had somehow pegged them as the masterminds of a counterfeit clothing ring, set up a fucking sting operation and everything. Only my folks weren’t the manufacturers the cops thought they were, or anything close – they had just been buying knock-offs in bulk from places in LA and selling them for a marginal profit. They ended up getting fined and put on probation.

Myself, I never got in trouble much. A friend approached me for advice once with the rationale that I was the “most moral person” he could think of. It was an absurd claim. Still, I really don’t have it in me to be anything other than vanilla; my naiveté perhaps an Achilles’ heel. A cop stopped me once outside the Angel Stadium box office after I inquired about seats on behalf of a shady character. The guy had watched my stuff for a moment, and I stupidly felt compelled to return the favor, even taking his cash for the would-be purchase. Okay, so I’m crazy naive. But the tickets turned out to be unavailable, and I returned his cash. Of course, I told the cop everything when he asked. Nothing came of it.

My actual transgressions too have been limited. An officer approached me, my cousin, and his friends when we were waiting for a ride in front of the local high school (I was 13 or 14): someone had accused us of throwing rocks at cars. In fact, I had been chucking pebbles at a nearby road sign, though it occurred to me that the cop might not appreciate the distinction. I stayed quiet, being the youngest, the semi-guilty, the scared. My cousin vehemently denied any and all wrongdoing on behalf of the group. Eventually, the cop let us be. That, a stop sign ticket at 17, a warning for speeding at 26 – that’s been it.

But I do have one more story, perhaps more interesting than exciting.

About 18 months ago, I drove across the country from Boston to Los Angeles, in order to leave my car and stuff at my mom’s place before moving to Tokyo. My friend Roger joined me in Chicago for the rest of the trip, and we maneuvered north from there to stop and visit my cousin in Williston, North Dakota. He and his wife were restaurant entrepreneurs; they had previously spent time in Casper, Wyoming, and recently shifted to Williston to ride the wave of the ongoing fracking boom. It was an incredible scene: construction, 18-wheelers, and temporary housing all ubiquitous sights.

Anyway, on our way out of Williston and towards the interstate, Roger and I crossed the border over to Montana. We drove through a couple small towns, and I – somehow unable to locate a McDonald’s for breakfast – hopped directly aboard the on-ramp, probably a few miles above the speed limit. The flashing blue lights appeared in the rear-view mirror maybe a mile down the road. It’s an almost indescribably shitty feeling, of course, to know that the day is already ruined, the trip suddenly far costlier than anticipated. I pulled over. The guy – highway patrol, I think – approached my window, took my license and registration.

From there, the officer asked us a few questions. Where we came from, what we were doing, where we were going, what was in the car. He checked Roger’s ID, asked about the car owner (my mom), and wanted to know if we had any cash on our persons. Of course, he was professional, though conversation enough not to make me nervous, or at least more nervous than I already was just interacting with a cop. Eventually, he returned to his patrol car, taking my license and registration with him. He suggested he would let me off with a warning. Roger and I sat there, waiting, quasi-celebrating quietly. Eventually, he came back round.

This time, the officer asked me to step out of the vehicle, said he wanted to chat with me. I was weirded out, naturally, but obliged, stepping onto the road as Roger sat firm. He then suggested that we go sit in his patrolcar. I asked nervously if I was being arrested, but he assured me this wasn’t the case. He asked for permission to pat me down for weapons and did so; then we walked over to his car. There, he noted a box of assorted electronics was taking up the front passenger seat, and directed me towards the back. And that was the second time I ever sat in the back of a police car.

As the officer ran my information, he engaged in more chatter – asking me questions about the circumstances under which Roger and I were in Williston. I eventually mentioned the move from Boston, and he said he had spent time there. Slowly, he revealed more about the situation. He was part of a interstate task force, he said. Williston – thanks to the boom – had seen a rise in crime, drug activity, trafficking, and so forth. He had pulled us over for speeding, but we had enough red flags to arouse his suspicion: my California plates, my Massachusetts license, Roger’s California license, a third party car owner (my mom kept her maiden name), all my shit in the backseat.

I felt like I spent a good 10 minutes in the car. Because he was upfront with me, because he said he believed me, because he remained friendly, I wasn’t too anxious – or at least, more anxious than I normally would be sitting in the back of a police car. Eventually, everything checked out, as of course it did. He came around back and let me out, thanking me for my cooperation. Mentioned I at least had a story to tell. I chuckled, shook his hand, headed back to my car. Roger and I went on our way. Didn’t even get a ticket for speeding.