A Night in a Chinese Karaoke

We left a restaurant called The Love Room at 10 and walked under a pulsating LED screen, a teeming river of light in the murky night sky. Karaoke was calling our names.

In Korea, regular visits to the noraebang were a consistent part of my life. I knew their rhythm, knew their menus, knew their song books. I always knew where to look for a tambourine, knew exactly how to work the controller, even as it was swathed in Korean words I never quite learned. I had the 5-digit number for Bad Moon Rising memorized permanently, its consistent coding across all karaoke rooms bringing to mind some deep uniting truth underlying the whole of our universe. I knew exactly how many songs it would take before I could no longer belt out a high note, and how many more songs before I could no longer sing at all. Liquor was beneficial, not necessary: I could scream and sing dry, if the situation called for it.

That I had been back in Asia for two months with no songs to sing felt like a weight on my back, a badge of dishonour on my travelling feet. Was it not my mission in life to walk all the roads, eat all the things, see all there is to see, and sing like a madman the whole way through? Some part of my soul ached, like a piece had torn loose somewhere high above the Pacific and got carried away in a strong wind. I wasn’t really alive if I wasn’t periodically screaming Bohemian Rhapsody into a tinny microphone at midnight.

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The Every-Asia and the Ghost of the 7-11

The path

Good old Anywhere, Asia. Right?

My street was lined everywhere in convenience stores. Two were physically inside of my apartment building, I could see another three from my window, and the luxury convenience store with the wide picnic tables and the jovial, buoyant staff was at the corner. They were all gleaming, well-groomed affairs: shiny shelves; shiny floors; shiny, moderately-enthused smiles. Triangles of kimbap arrayed neatly, unceasing displays of drinks in various sizes, and snacks in such plentifulness and variety that the bounty of man should surely have offended the gods.

Most of Korea reminded me of my neighbourhood, my tiny shimmering neon hamlet. Family Marts and love motels, coffee shops and karaoke rooms, the constant and effervescent hiss of fluorescent lights, wafts of dumplings and sausage and bubbling vats of oil. The truck that barrelled down my street every morning at 6 a.m., caterwauling about the quality of his oranges, seemed to be a predetermined and omnipresent facet of the Korean universe. This orange truck was the same truck that surely trawled every street in Korea, much as Santa Claus must blast across whole continents and reach every house at staggering velocity.

Wherever I went in Korea, I saw visions of my wedge of the country. Cell phone stores and cafes reconfigured in placement and number, barbecue restaurants occasionally were replaced with stew restaurants. A dumpling cart would be selling fried chicken would be selling rice cakes in piquant red tar. Family Mart would disappear and a 7-11 would take its place. Puzzle pieces were moved, shuffled around, reassembled to slip comfortably into local cartography. And underneath the same heart beat, the same comprehensible rhythm.

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The Singular Joy of Being Invisible

Inwangsan Route

On strange streets, far far away, no one can see you at all.

My university campus was crawling with causes and vigorous young people supporting or decrying them, as most university campuses are. It was impossible to walk anywhere between St. George and Bay without being accosted by earnestness, without being molested by ideology. Everywhere there were plights to be consternated over, things to be enraged at, passions to fill your heart and empty your wallet.

Have you heard about the oil sands, and what various parties want to do to them? Did you know that a politician once said a thing? How about those abortions, and the current number of them, which was not very satisfying? I couldn’t emerge from a subway station without leaflets appearing in my hand as though through sorcery—eager, deeply-feeling youths who didn’t shave would somehow slip their pamphlets and brochures into my unwilling grasp at a rate that astounded my senses and resistance.  Periodically they would invade classes, make heart-felt announcements to lecture halls full of people, their voices quavering with yearning, with emotion, with fire. Cartoon hearts pumped ludicrously in their chests, bounded out through their rib cages and their fashionable cardigans, exploded outward for everyone to see.

As a commuter the number of things I gave a shit about was perilously low. Rush-hour buses and subways drained absolutely all ability I had to care about much of anything, and being 18 siphoned off any remaining ardour. I had assignments and readings and plans to succeed, and combined with two hours of daily rides through busy underground public transit, I simply didn’t have it in me to care. My apathy was deep and oceanic and incomprehensible to the impassioned philanthropists, to the fledgling Marxists and the proto-demagogues and the neophyte neocons. There was a black hole where my fervour organ should have been, and to them I seemed like an abomination from a far-off dimension, betentacled and terrifying and outside of the realm of understanding. They looked upon me and despaired, as I did to them.

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Chronicles of Culture Shock: The Internet and the Tortoise of Freedom

Sometimes in life, you move to Asia. Sometimes in life, you move to Asia twice. Chronicles of Culture Shock continues the series detailing my adjustment to life in Canada by looking at my adjustment to life in China.

The tortoise drum

Scoot forth! Into the great beyond!

Brigitte needed a copy of PowerPoint. Apparently it was all the rage in Korean pedagogy, and people at the orientation were already preparing introductory slideshows about themselves, their nations, their interests and hobbies and families. Everywhere around us people were on the Office crackpipe, mainlining delirious helpings of star wipes and flashy, 1980s music-video dissolves. We all sat in a mind-bendingly tedious presentation, so she took to the hotel wifi and purchased a copy of Office, and began the download, thinking she might be able to begin the install some time around lunch.

Something strange was happening on her computer. A thin strip of grey was gradually filling up with blue progress, ticking along with an alarming speed. People began to gather around, marvelling all the while.

“That whole program downloaded in under a minute,” we cooed. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

What was this devilry, this witchcraft? What had this country sacrificed to the gods of the internet to allow for such unholy download speeds, for unlimited bandwidth, for constant, omnipresent wireless connection with five gleaming bars of full signal? What gods from the depths were summoned, what demons from beyond were called upon for such unfathomable agility and electronic prowess? I imagined a Korean Andromeda, chained to the rocks, the personified anima of the internet devouring her alive, cackling as he slithers back into the ocean, the boon of high-quality broadband and and impressive wireless routers left in his bloody, rupturous wake.

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Gluttony in Motion: Livecast of All-You-Can-Dim-Sum

Xiaolongbao

Bring more, and don’t stop.

A fledgling tradition, a mutual love of face-stuffing quick set into ritual. Dim Sundays were birthed when a friend noted that she had the connect for a cheap smorgasbord at a nearby fancy hotel. We all piqued: with the ease of access to foreign foods, it was simple sometimes to forget the delights and variety available in Chinese food (particularly those parts of China or not-China not terribly close to us).

Immortalized here are the happenings of one such Sunday, my words drenched in soy vinegar and soup dumplings as they are.

-0:14 We arrive early at the hotel, taking a taxi from our apartment complex, which is a thirty minute walk away. A well-dressed hotel staff-member opens the door for us, beckons us inside. I already feel embarrassed at the deference with which I am being treated. I maybe regret wearing flip-flops.

-0:06 The first Dim Sunday, we arrived nearly half-an-hour before the proceedings technically began, and the eternally patient waiters allowed us to sit while they scuttled around us, furiously setting up for the coming onslaught of food, saying group prayers and hoping not to be devoured with the meal. Today we wait outside, our patience tempered only by the knowledge of how much we will consume.

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Existential Conundrums in a Chinese Supermarket

Trinket town

This is the Buddha head selection station. The Buddha head buying station is around the block.

I clutch the most boyish thermos I could find amongst the sea of shiny pink and purple aluminum. A Chinese mall thrums around me on all sides, and this one particular sector is dedicated only to mugs and coffee containers. A young saleswoman hovers around a laptop, scowling every time I turn her way, knowing our interaction will involve a lot of pantomime, frustration, and tedium. She awaits my dull, Mandarin-less grunts with dutiful stoicism.

When I move towards her and indicate that I have found my desired item, she asks me a few questions, to which I answer yes, as it is one of the few words I have learned thus far. She taps away at the laptop and then begins scribing an enormous, hand-written scroll of instructions and numbers and arcane glyphs, which I assume I will need as incantations to summon Pazuzu. She hands me the slip of paper, clutches my thermos loosely and waves me away with my desired possessions gripped possessively in her talons.

I stare around my surroundings, pondering my next step. Everywhere there are desks, laptops, angry and tired-looking staff waiting at the ready, taking things away from shoppers. I am more than a little dazed. I wonder if I need to go on some sort of scavenger hunt, if I am being summoned into a hero’s quest and will need to bring this woman back the Golden Fleece. Perhaps I will need to answer a troll’s riddle? Or slay a dragon. Or maybe this is an Ikea situation, and my theoretical thermos was only a floor model, and my little slip of paper was actually a map, a guide, a thorough set of instructions on how to spelunk the depths of the storehouse below us to find the shrink-wrapped and ready version of my cup.

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Adulthood and Meatballs: My Independence Begins in an Ikea

ikeapic

Two sacks and a basket full of grown-up, please.

The delivery man squinted. If he didn’t recognize my address, he was definitely beginning to recognize my face, and this had been the third time I airlifted food into my apartment that week. My beautiful, spacious, ramshackle and unfinished apartment had no knives. It had no pots or pans, except for the single frying pan given to me by the school, which came sans handle. My apartment had no towels, other than the travel towel I had slipped in my bag for emergencies. My apartment had no mats, no coat hangers, no spices, no sheets.

Of course, confronted by this sort of situation, I usually adapt comfortably. The bachelor lifestyle suits me like a velvet glove, and I can easily subsist in an apartment with a bed, two chopsticks, and a decent internet connection. That my new home had a couch and a television and a spare bedroom and working air conditioners was already beyond my expectations, accoutrements I barely knew how to fathom, let alone care for. Give me a barren concrete block with fewer things to clean and I will live my life in perfect, monastic peace.

Of course, the state of my living space was of some concern for the people whom I worked with, and for my friends. There was the growing concern that I was not eating properly, or not eating at all. Other humans heard the stories of my deliveries and imagined me splayed out on the hard tile, scooping fistfuls of pork and rice directly into my mouth and then, with no towels or water or anything to clean myself, simply smearing the leftover sauce in my hair, which as you know is nature’s towel.

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