Monthly Archives: April 2010

Famous people. And not the Big Brother sort.

I have tickets to go see Philip Glass in concert, playing “Music in 12 parts” with his own ensemble, in two weeks, here in the UK at the Brighton Festival. Anyone who has been following this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a musician by hobby, nearly by trade (I started out as a double major at University, music + engineering, and have a few professional music recordings under my belt) and so I’m pretty excited about this in my usual geeky manner. I was chatting about the concert tonight with one of my fellow-concert-goers, and an interesting question came up. Relative to others we’ve seen, where does Glass rate in terms of the most influential, eminent, important, dare I say famous, person that either of us have seen in real life?

For a musician, Glass is definitely one of those for me. I see him as a 20th century Mozart or the like, and I’m pretty excited to see him in his 70s but still performing his own compositions. But an interesting discussion arose: my fellow conversant and I were trying to weigh seeing Glass in concert against things like meeting a Nobel-prize winning scientist. Or even just seeing them speak. I feel like there should be a points system somehow, including how important the person is in their field and how close you got… seeing Glass in concert will not be a personal experience but I suspect it will be a transformative one. An opportunity to see someone who is really a genius doing what they do live in person with a few thousand others (when the global population is billions). In a culture soaked with celebrity of the infamous sort, I’m only interested in people who have made a demonstrable contribution to history and society–no Jade Goody sightings would make my list here.

Since being in the UK, the ante has been raised for me. I personally know Sirs and Dames on a first name basis. Several of each. Which is odd. I’ve also bumped into British royals twice on the street near my office, but I don’t count that as transformative. Heck, I’ve also bumped into Stephen Hawking on the street, in his wheelchair. Which is just strange. And surreal. I have not been to see him speak, but that’s been a conscious choice. I could have.

So, readers, I ask you now: who is the most “important” person that you have seen live and in person? Concert, random meeting, whatever. Hopefully you’ll get from this post that I’m hoping they will have had some lasting influence on society, and not just be an internet celebrity of the moment. I’m interested in people who made a big contribution in whatever field they were in: music, theater, dance, science, art, whatever. I’ve been to quite a few jazz concerts, but I think Glass is still going to top that list. And I’m not sure that any of the rock-star scientist types that I’ve seen or met would quite meet that bar in terms of lasting legacy. What about you?

Scenes from China, part 4

The scene: a nice hotpot restaurant in Nanjing. We had already been out for hotpot once before, at a more fast-food like place in Nanchang. Hotpot restaurants, for the uninitiated, are where you get a boiling kettle of soup on the table and a stack of uncooked ingredients to deal with on your own. Not to be confused with Korean Barbeque, when you get a stack of uncooked ingredients to deal with on your own and a live grill with charcoal in the center of the table. Totally different. (Ahem.) In either case, you cook your own food, and that is a good thing IMHO.

But as a pescetarian who eats vegetarian much of the time, I was feeling a need for protein in my second round of hotpot, and I had this lovely mental image of small (salad-sized) shrimps that would cook to a lovely pink and be eaten. I was thinking in the manner of someone who lives in England, and finds small pre-cooked shrimps in a package at M&S. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when we ordered some small shrimps for our hotpot and they came in a bowl. Swimming. Alive.

I had been trying so hard to be all “when in Rome” about the food in China, and I had tasted many things that were new to me, like glutinous rice balls.

And I had been drinking Great Wall Red Wine.

But I could not contend with the living shrimps. I balked. I admit it. I could not drop them in the boiling soup to die and to be eaten. Especially with their shells and feet and antennae, which apparently the Chinese spit out. On the table. In the manner of fish bones. Another story there, for another day.

I told my sister that I was balking and tried to just eat hotpot with the vegetables with the live shrimps over on the side in their bowl, never reaching the boiling soup. It was all fine until they started jumping to their doom. Two of the shrimps made it out of the bowl of water and were flailing around on the table near the burner where the hotpot soup was cooking. I could not take it any more. I had to ask my sister, with her proficient Chinese, to get the waiter to take the live shrimps away and to save me from this mess.

It was embarrassing. And expensive. We paid a lot of money for those small shrimps that we never ate. My enthusiasm for hotpot has not diminished, but I do think that I’m quite happy with cabbage and tofu and the like in the manner of vegetables.


I have more to post from the China adventure, but I’ve been a bit low since my return and I’m just starting to feel calm enough to admit it. I can’t quite place my finger on what went wrong to throw me headlong into such a low mood, but I can guess at a few things. There’s always a letdown after something, like a huge trip to a foreign land, that you’ve been anticipating for a long time. I had the same reaction after coming back from Australia (the first time), and I was similarly quiet on the blog and relatively quiet overall in terms of distributing the photographs and stories from the trip. So that’s one thing.

But I suspect more than just post-trip anticipation let-down in this case. China was an awesome 12 days spent with my sister. My sister who is repatriating from China back to America this summer. My sister who is moving to Baltimore, part of the greater Washington DC region that I consider a second home (second to Minneapolis) in America. My sister who will be looking for an apartment and buying a car and lots of new fun furniture at Ikea and the like. And I think deep down I’m just really jealous. That sounds like fun. Fresh starts, new beginnings, new jobs, new homes. And all of it in America. Hmmm.

I’ve always joked that this feeling is part of the reason that people have children. They get past the whole high school-college-wedding stage and realize that life in your thirties is actually pretty dull compared with what you’ve experienced so far, you work at a job with nothing to look forward to the way you had anticipated high school or college graduation or the pomp and circumstance of a wedding. Babies come with the chance for more parties (in the form of baby showers and then child-centered birthdays and holidays for years). And provide a necessary distraction when your life otherwise becomes just about a job.

I’m also now about the last one standing of my friends not to have kids or kids on the way. We’re all 35ish now and I’m sure you know what that means: dire warnings about what will happen if we do not procreate quickly. I plan to stay standing in this little club of one with no kids of my own. But it does mean I need to come up with something else to anticipate now that the China trip is over. My next big trip plan is Egypt in early 2011, so that’s something to start thinking about. I’ll go places in the meantime, of course, to the continent for work and to America for work and for the beach.

Of course, in phrasing my thoughts in this manner, I’m neglecting to mention the fact that it’s probably not just the anticipation of big change and new things that’s making me melancholy when I consider my sister’s big move this summer. Being an immigrant during a British election focused on keeping ‘British jobs for British workers‘ has been interesting. Looking ahead to my own 35th birthday has made me think a bit about planning for the future. It’s easy to not worry too much about saving for retirement when you’re 25 or 30, but as you start to head towards 40, it becomes harder to ignore this particular elephant in the room. And at some point I’m going to realistically have to decide that I want to be here in England indefinitely, or that I need to get back to the US and start paying into Social Security (probably less importantly) and 401(k) accounts (probably more importantly). Thinking about my sister’s repatriation has me in a big pile of melancholy as I try to think about the future and where I should put down roots. Because there’s no question, in my current circumstances–in a work-owned flat in England with no closets and no shower, still formally on ‘probation’ for my job and with the expiration of my work visa looming, along with the need to apply for ‘permanent’ residency–I’m feeling pretty discombobulated and unpermanent. And unsettled. So I’m in a funk.

I am not a rock star

But I went to see one this week. We can thank the volcano gods, them that prevented me from going to Switzerland when I was supposed to, and them that put on a really crazy fantastic Amanda Palmer + friends show at Koko in London on Thursday night.

I still don’t know what quite sent me to central London (Camden) to see this show alone. My Amanda Palmer obsession, perhaps. A full review of the show is here. I agree nearly completely. I am, in the short time since the concert, completely obsessed with Bitter Ruin. They, and Melissa Auf der Maur were amazing. I totally did not get the Robots act. I’ll skip that and just stick with the things I understood.

I’m in the following photo, but I feel that it does not compromise my anonymity.

Scenes from China, part 3

The scene: The gift shop at the Summer Palace, Beijing. I saw this t-shirt and busted out half snorting and half laughing, and grabbed my camera. My sister says that the girls behind the counter were talking about it, wondering “Why do the foreigners always laugh when they see that shirt?” They clearly had no idea. Too bad I couldn’t think of a young guy with the right sort of frat boy mentality to buy it for.

Dear So-and-So, post-China edition

Dear Chinese taxi drivers,

Some of you were lovely. But overall, riding in your cabs was terrifying. That thing where you swerve into oncoming traffic to try to get ahead a few cars in the queue? Not cool.

Glad to be alive, NFAH

Dear Chinese traffic authorities,

How the heck is it that there is no discernible enforcement of any sort of traffic law in all of China? Speed limits, pedestrian right-of-way, cars driving into oncoming traffic, none of these deserve any attention? Really?

Again, glad to be alive, NFAH

Dear stomach,

We have been back in the UK for nearly 96 hours now. Could you please stop rebelling against this return to normalcy? I know China was full of different and interesting foods and the whole thing was a bit of a shock, but we’re home now. Please start acting like it.

Tired of feeling a bit off, NFAH

Dear Cheese,

After a nearly perfect dairy-free 12 days with my semi-vegan sister in China, I thought I could quit you. It turns out, I was wrong. More mozzarella, please.

I know I’m weak, NFAH

Dear Beijing hotel,

I know I was supposed to be on vacation while I was in China. But the fact that you had no hot water in the shower on the one morning I was to do a half-day or work, that was not cool. Not cool at all.

Still shivering at the memory, NFAH

Dear Chinese silk store,

I can’t help it, I found you irresistible. Now that I’m home, I don’t know where to put all the little silk wallets and iPod cases I bought… any interested readers, speak up! I can bring some to the May expat blogger meet-up!

Drowning in brightly colored prettiness, NFAH

Scenes from China, part 2

The scene: China as a shiny disco nightclub.

Typical night-time scenes from China (Shanghai around East Nanjing Road, Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district, Nanjing near the Confucius Temple):

Scenes from China, part 1

I returned last night, feeling a bit sick after the very long day (flight plus trip back from Heathrow landed me at home at 2:30 am China time after having been up since 6 am China time). The trip was amazing and I don’t really know where to begin. I have over 1500 digital photographs to sort through, not to mention souvenirs, laundry, and oh yes a full-time job to return to. There are so many stories I could fill pages and pages, but I’m going to skip the blow-by-blow travelogue and try and report a few snippets in the form of scenes that captured for me the essence of my China experience.

The scene: The back of a Beijing taxi-cab. My sister and I had just left our hotel for the night (sleeper) train from Beijing to Nanjing. The cab driver spoke no English, but my sister was chatting with him in Chinese. He seemed to like her, given the views I had of his crinkled up smiling eyes in the rearview mirror. (NB this was about a 50-50 crapshoot with cab drivers, some seemed happy to have us in their vehicles and chatted with my sister in Chinese in a very friendly fashion, and some seemed very resentful–perhaps at us being foreigners? Hard to tell.) After some small talk he asked if we minded if he put some music on. My sister said “no, of course not” and some Italian opera started to play. The cab driver sang along a bit, and asked my sister why she was not singing and she responded that she didn’t know the words. The song ended and “Unchained Melody” came on. Bingo. This one we could do, and we started to sing along, timidly at first but growing in volume as we heard the driver singing along too. At one point, we were stopped at a red light and my sister and I looked over into the cab sitting at the light next to us, and we were being stared at by the driver and passengers alike. Music, the universal language, had brought together three people with no single common spoken language, and we were all animatedly singing at the top of our lungs. I could not look at my sister or I would have busted out laughing. I will also never be able to hear that song again with a straight face. The song ended and the three of us–my sister, me and the Chinese cab driver–burst into a round of spontaneous applause. He turned to my sister and said “Our time together is too short, we are nearly at the station.” We arrived at the station all singing Celine Dion’s “My Heart will Go On” from Titanic.