Home sweet home…

After living here the better part of a year and a half, I’ve reached the conclusion there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Guangzhou.  I mean, it is old, dating back over 2200 years.  It is HUGE, ranked the largest metropolitan area in the world if you count the entire Pearl River Delta (120 million if you count Shenzhen, Dongguan, Hong Kong, etc….), and ranked 8th largest within the city proper at just around 13 million inhabitants.  It is new, or at least the area around where I live in Zhujiang New Town, replete with shiny new parks, shopping centers, and 3 of the tallest structures in the world.  It is rich, with a per capita GDP more than double the China average – within a short walk of my apartment one will notice  Bentley, Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, McLaren, Ferrari, dealerships along with any other luxury marque you can think of and they actually sell cars despite a nearly 200% price compared to if I were to buy the same car in the US.  It is very international…just my school has students from more than 60 countries, Guangzhou houses the largest African diaspora in the world (over 300,000), and is home to the Canton Fair, a major international trade event held a few times each year.

Okay, so that does sound pretty remarkable now that I read it back, yet there are some things missing from that picture I’d like to point out.  Let me tell you what Guangzhou isn’t.  The first and most obvious disappointment that most foreigners will agree with is the food.  It’s bland, oily, plain, and ubiquitous.  I’m pretty sure there’s one flavor profile involved with Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine.  My girlfriend cooks many dishes and they all taste exactly the same…soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and enough oil to power a large boat.  Sure, the city has many gourmet grocery stores and even grocery delivery services where I can order anything I want online, myriad international restaurants where I can find pretty much everything, and some great local ‘wet’ markets for fruit, produce, and really fresh meat for me to cook myself.  Yes, the locals tout the ‘natural’ and ‘original’ flavors of the cuisine…I am forced to call bullshit.  Even among the international restaurants in the area (of which there’s a hell of a lot), there is no culinary GLORY to be found, save for a few non-cantonese restaurants from other regions like my happy Harbin BBQ or my favorite Korean chicken and beer joint.  I also know the people here have the same opinion of our usual dishes, complaining we mix too many things together or that our dishes are ‘so-so.’  Some have more extreme opinions than others

Another glaring anomaly compared to my former home (Seoul) or other major Asian cities…no bars.  There are bars, of course, but they’re clustered together in predominantly foreign neighborhoods and they’re expensive.  The Chinese in this part of the country don’t seem to drink much and they only seem to do so in restaurants.  Few women I’ve noticed even drink at all yet, despite the horribly humid/hot climate, continually drink hot water.  Many people even drink beer warm here…ugh.  I’ve adopted the Thai style of ‘on the rocks’ when really cold isn’t available.  This brings me to the topic of beer…

Much like the staple American shit beers, China has a few slightly better ones.  Harbin, Zhujiang (Pearl River), and Tsingtao seem to be everywhere and Snow is the number one selling beer in the world.  Many restaurants feature girls in costume extolling the virtues of “Ba Wea” (that’s Chinese for Budweiser) but here it has a more upscale feel.  Hell, I managed to get a few bottles of the $50 PBR…no shit…really Pabst Blue Ribbon was marketing $50 a fucking bottle beer to the Chinese.  I got mine free at the China Southern Airline first class lounge.  Craft beer, on the other hand has become a very BIG thing and a likely business venture in the not so distant future.  An article on that will follow soon…

Now…I don’t want to insult the people of my host country that so graciously grant me the privilege of teaching but…Chinese people are, without doubt, fucking stupid.  Yes, America will not be the only victim of my ‘fucking stupid’ moniker.  While Americans are blatantly and passionately happy to appear dumb to everyone, reveling in every opportunity to demonstrate cluelessness, I might say the Chinese are generally oblivious to their surroundings, two-dimensionally singleminded, humorless, shockingly boring, and altogether selfish (look forward to my upcoming article on how collectivism is way more selfish than individualism).  Now while this does apply to a LOT of people I encounter on a daily basis, it has come to describe most of humanity in general.  Hell, the love of my life is a Chinese woman and I find her to be the funniest woman I’ve ever met, incredibly intelligent, etc…the very opposite of what i describe above.  The aberrations…the diamonds in the rough do exist, if not in abundance.  We thrive each day upon a never ending string of generalizations and pre-conceived notions.  Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason…

If I’m comparing this place to Seoul, it’s basically the same aside from the weather, Korean food being WAY better, and lots more alcohol.  The people are not so passionately nationalist (***read narcissistic), the Chinese don’t go around all the time ripping off other countries’ inventions as “Korean traditional” whatever, and unlike the Koreans, the Chinese either really have no idea what history is or are completely unwilling due to indoctrination to discuss it.  Lots of Japan bashing still goes on in both countries but Koreans look upon the Chinese with disdain…not as the ‘red terror’ as Fox news would have you believe, rather they view the Chinese as ‘dirty monkeys,’ or otherwise lower life forms.  If anything, Chinese have far better manners than the Koreans, when they choose to exercise them, of course.

The pure reason I choose to live here is because it makes everything else so accessible.  I can be in Hong Kong in two hours or Macau in less.  I’m within a few hours flight of more than a dozen countries…Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, etc…I’ve been to most of them already and MUST keep visiting more.  I plan to write a few posts from Panglao Island in the Philippines next week…..

Suffice to say, I’m happy here and have no intentions of ever returning to non-expat life again…ever, ever, ever…I wish some of my dearest in the US would grow a pair and get on a plane.  I made the remark earlier to someone that in all my 8 years of expatriate life, I’ve managed to coax FOUR people from my former life to visit Asia.  That’s it.  Pathetic, really.  Maybe I’m just that much of an asshole.  Maybe Americans really don’t take vacations abroad.  Maybe they’re too lazy to get a passport, maybe they’re scared.  Take it from me…the only fear is the possibility of waking up and realizing how stupid you’ve been all along…I know I did…..

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Hello to the circus from the peanut gallery…

I’ve reached a point in my life where i do my best to avoid reading the news everyday.  Not because I have some particular aversion to current events or the happenings of the world, rather the prescient knowing I am to run across American news which invariably puts a damper on my otherwise usual positive mood.  As one might infer from the title, the ‘circus’ is what I see in the American media and I’m here to be your heckler.

One cannot help but to be inundated with a non-stop barrage of overly-sensationalized bullshit media stories and maybe it’s just me but it seems like during my 8 years of expat life a few things have become increasingly apparent.

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1.  Americans have become a whole hell of a lot more religiously polarized and far more vocal about it.  Look at the news cycles of bullshit centered on this idiot court clerk who refused to issue a marriage license.  She went to jail for being found in contempt of court…now she’s out and is being used as a martyr puppet for the extreme right.  Bottom line, no one should give a fuck who marries whom and too many Americans do, leading me to my next assertion.

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2.  Americans are fucking stupid.  I know this is a gross generalization and many/most Americans don’t fall into this category, despite their proclivity to actually dwell within the country, but at the very least one must concede just how uninformed and apathetic an increasing number of people are proud to be.  I find myself often being asked why I choose to live in China in lieu of the US.  While it would be impossible to discuss without a common frame of reference, I’d liken the answer to explaining to a dog exactly what it’s like living on Mars.  If you think I’m being unfair here, you’re not entirely wrong but beyond the dismal numbers academic performance (the US ranks 14th out of 50 according to Pearson), there is another, far more subversive element at play.  Our culture has come to glorify, adore, and place on a pedestal our worst. I’m thankful I lived in Korea during the whole Honey Boo-Boo and Jersey Shore thing but those are just two of the most visible examples I can think of to illustrate my point.  How about our current circus of GOP presidential candidates.  I really thought it was an Onion article when I read that Donald Trump was the front-runner to secure the nomination.  Then I looked at the other performers in the troupe and realized “Holy shit!  this is serious.”   I’m not entirely certain how many times he’s run over the years but how can we be considering an outright, unabashed, media whore for the top job in the nation?  I assumed he was just a democratic plant to lure the dumbest of the dumb away from the GOP for the third party declaration later.  I assumed wrong as of this writing…

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3.  Americans are in denial as to what constitutes freedom.  There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind, I have far more freedom living here in China, a communist nation, than I ever dreamed of having as a resident of the United States.  No, I’m not simply referring to my ability to walk down the street drinking a beer (although that part is fun) or my job with an income many times larger than that of normal Chinese people (per capita GDP of China is still hovering in the $8000US/year range as opposed to my $50kish), or even the fact that I enjoy 4+ months of paid vacation (how do you like those 5 days a year), or any number of reasons that escape me at present.  Take the most blatant example of the growing police state to which all citizens are party:  Cop murder is rampant – seriously, more than 700 people have been killed by US police officers this year alone yet no one seems particularly concerned as if this is merely status quo or some form of benevolent attrition.

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4.  Americans are horribly racist and it isn’t directly their fault.  This Muslim kid who built a clock and was arrested under suspicion of terrorism stands as a great example.  I personally don’t give a shit if Dawkins or Palin calls him out as a fraud, what idiot teacher or school administrator can’t tell it’s a fucking clock?  Would I have drawn the same scrutiny?  Of course not because the media will have you believe all Muslims are terrorists and only good white Christians are safe.  Fuck you.

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5.  Americans are fat and wasteful slobs.  The first thing I noticed upon a return visit to the states after a few years away was, aside from the HUGE people I saw at the airport, that the portions sizes of most meals were unbelievably huge.  I couldn’t finish a meal.  This of course leads me to the next disgusting fact, that despite the millions of Americans living with some sense of food insecurity (1 in 7), a staggering 40% of all food produced in the US is thrown out or wasted.  I.have.no.words…

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In the interest of ‘I have better things to be doing right now’ I’ll draw this one to a close.  I suppose I wanted to lend some answer to the questions I receive on a regular basis as to why I’m here and not in my homeland.  Perhaps I intend to vent my frustration of watching my once beloved country swirl down the toilet.  It might be from that sense of shame associated with the facts above or that the sheen has worn off our once great hegemony.  I would say I was most influenced today over another realization that most of what I was taught as a kid (particularly in regard to history) is complete and utter bullshit.

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Dining in Darkness…

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There are fine dining restaurants, then there’s Alchemy, a dining concept unlike anything I’ve yet encountered.  Picture this…you arrive in the foyer you see here, an old fashioned apothecary with shelves adorned with glass jars and enter through the somewhat concealed door on the left.  You are greeted by the manager, Jackie Chan (no, not THE Jackie Chan obviously – not even correct gender) , and are led into a comfortable lounge area reminiscent of an old-fashioned parlor.

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You are given menus offering 3, 4, or 5 courses with optional wine pairing.  I highly suggest the ‘mystery’ cocktail for $90HK…I forgot to ask what it was but I know it was good.  We opted for the 5-course and must have wine pairing and were led into what I can only describe as ‘sensory perception overload’ dining.  Yes, as the title of this article suggests, Alchemy is a restaurant where you are invited to dine in complete darkness while being served by ‘visually impaired’ (read – blind) servers.  You are not told what you are eating until the post-meal briefing (yes, they ask about allergies/food requirements so don’t be concerned you’re pissing off your deity or harming tasty…ahem…poor defenseless animals)…

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What I’m not going to do here is describe the meal at all.  Suffice it to say Chef Pascal Breant made his bones in the Michelin Star world of French fine dining so that should offer some hint as to the flavor palate you can expect.  I will say each course was brilliantly executed – mixes of familiar tastes/textures with the occasional ‘what the hell was that?’ moment.  The food was portioned perfectly and all of it was relatively easy to eat.  If your experience is similar to mine, I’d recommend thoroughly washing your hands before dinner as you’ll end up touching pretty much everything on your plate despite  having a knife and fork.  The service was absolutely exemplary, on par with that of any fine dining establishment.  Our server, Michael, was nothing short of superb.  I can only imagine being visually impaired on a daily basis.  I sincerely compliment his service methods, as a former fine dining server myself.

At this point I’m just going to say, don’t ask questions.  Go prepared for something entirely new, something incredibly exciting, and something just a little bit scary.  While we were waiting to be seated a couple returned from the darkness – the woman said it was ‘too dark’ – I was thinking to myself ‘no shit, that’s the point’ but once I was immersed, I could see somewhat of her point.  It is truly DARK.  The only visible light I was able to see came from a small infrared camera mounted near the ceiling and a tiny sliver of light near the ceiling leading to what I imagine to be the kitchen.  Beyond that, one must rely completely on the non-visual cues to enjoy the meal.

I always say you can’t put a price on good food…it isn’t the least expensive place on earth, but very reasonably priced for the quality of the ingredients, the service, and the outright thrill of attempting to guess at all the dishes & wines.  I look forward to returning – even if I don’t venture into the darkness again, the bar/lounge/restaurant on the main floor had a menu to die for.  Huge bar selection, particularly for the rare and obscure.  Just go already…

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