Friday, May 28, 2010

Happy Memorial Holiday

Anybody who has experienced the New York City subway system would be no stranger to the men (sorry, for some reason it is almost always a man) who talk incessantly to themselves, the content mostly incomprehensible. I would even to say that there are more people talking to themselves in the NYC subway than any other metro/ rail systems in the world. I wonder why.

This afternoon, on my L train journey to Brooklyn, I sat next to a middle-aged man who sang continuously to an empty ladies' shoe box for my entire journey between 8th and Bedford Avenues (c. 15 minutes?). He was not asking for money. He appeared to just be singing to himself.

I sometimes wonder if life would be more interesting had we lived it like it were a musical-- with people spontaneously breaking into song and dance. Well, this man on the subway has given me a glimpse of what that'd be like-- and I like it. My memorial day weekend is made rather memorable, because of him.

I'm afraid I can't recall his words verbatim, but here are most of it and hopefully you'll get the drift.
I hope he, too, has a happy memorial day.

Oh young girl,

You walked into the shoe store

where I was a salesman on the floor

You wanted white shoes, forever white shoes in a size 6

Oh young girl,

with small feet.

I found you shoes, forever white shoes, and put them on your feet.

I am a man who sell shoes.

Oh young girl,

You had fifteen dollars in your pocket book

So I sold you the shoes for fifteen bucks—

those forever white dancing shoes, ma’am

without tax. I paid your tax, even though I am just a salesman.

Oh young girl,

You gave me a kiss on my face

And your teeth were pearly white

like the dress you have on for the night.

A night of dancing

in those forever white shoes.

Oh young girl,

I hope you will stay young

Forever young and white like the dress for the night.

They call me Buddha delight

The Buddha is a fat Chinese man with a bald head

and a big belly and is always jolly.

They call me Buddha delight

but I would have to shave my head.

Happy Memorial holiday

All the single men out there

should be aware

there will be lots of single women at the bars

in the town, to play

during the Memorial holiday.

But all you single men out there

should behave

because there will be bouncers at the bar.

You don’t want to end up getting bounced around, up and down,

like a rubber ball.

And the women would want to eat vegan cookies and

drink wheat grass.

There’ll be granola cookies, and chocolate chip cookies, and gluten-free cookies

but they will be small, tiny little cookies

because the women like to watch their waists.

More so than the men.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The cool factor

Most of us find it really important to be cool. I wonder why. And I wonder what are the objective definitions for “cool”.

Mullets? No longer cool. But MacGyver is still cool.

“Hillbillies” get a bad rep. But chatting with said individuals on the weekend, at the farmer’s market, is cool.

Here I am, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. The epicenter of cool-apparent. I’m learning. I’m trying to decipher what it is that make Billyburgers “cool”.

3pm on a Thursday, at a coffee shop on Bedford Avenue. There are 9 tables, plus a workbench with 4 stools around it. I count the number of laptops in the place. 12. Sorry, 12 Macs to be exact. The one person with a VAIO is taking his coffee outside. What can they all possibly be working on? But wait. Facebook, Facebook, Twitter, Twitter, and finally, someone who looks like he’s writing codes.

A man walks by the window in a flannel shirt and skinny jeans, wool hat, and oversized plastic frame glasses. Another man walks by in an eerily similar outfit. Then a woman walks by. She is wearing tights instead of skinny jeans, and she has a leather jacket. Then someone skateboards down the street. It takes me a while to figure out whether that’s a he or a she, and now all I can see if the back of someone wearing—gasp, some pretty skinny jeans and Converse high-tops.

I’m yet to see someone past the age of 40 within a 100yard radius of me.

Triteness is not cool. But cool also demands a certain homogeneity. There is a dress code, and if you want to remain one of the cool kids, you’d better not stray too far away from it.

Or, can “cool” be what we strive to be, when we are not sure what we ought to, or want to, be?

I like this definition of “cool” according to “Cool: A word to use when you don't know what else to say, or when you are not that interested in the conversation. Sometimes, it can be used when you do not have any knowledge of the subject, yet you want to act as if you know-it-all”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Rush Hour

To experience rush hour is to feel the pulse of a city.

Rush hour is a little different everywhere: in most Chinese cities it’s rush hour even when it is not—you can hear the noise and breathe in the urgency even if it’s Saturday morning and you are just checking out what’s on offer in the neighborhood market; in London the tubes are packed and the sidewalks are jammed with people, yet it is always surprisingly quiet—no one talks, no one honks; in Bangkok rush hour is greeted with a certain poetic calmness-- the streets are in total gridlock and nothing moves, and there people are, leisurely going about getting their morning routines of saccharine-filled coffees, chilli-dipped fruits and breakfast treats in smoldering heat, and no one is the least bit surprised to see an elephant walk by with flashing rear lights.

All the huzzle and buzzle in preparation for the anti-climax: the moment rush hour is over, when everything returns to “normal”, and the buzz is over, the adrenaline and stress levels come down, and one might begin to wonder, “what was that rush all about?!”

Cities everywhere, their inhabitants are experiencing their very own, personal rush hours, too. Self-imposed or not, we go from rush from one deadline to another, as if the second we stop rushing, the pulse would stop.

As babies, our mothers were anxious to potty-train us so we could enroll in kindergarten (or is this unique to Chinese mothers?)

Then rush to our sweet 16, to the driving test.

Then made rush to college, sorority/fraternity “rushes”, and a mad dash to the finishing line that is graduation.

Then to our first job, our first promotion.

Then the rush to get married before the big 3-0.

Then onto the first mortgage, the first taste of permanence.

Then the urgency to do something great in our “Jesus year”.

Then the baby-rush.

Then our babies go through the routine all over again.

Then what?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

House (spouse) hunting

The ritual does get old.

But, however much we dread and complain about it, there is always that glimmer of hope, that sliver of excitement about the search. Fair enough, we all start off with an ideal, with that image of perfection, with the life ahead of us all planned and figured out. In the process, we get disappointed and even frustrated. But, there are pleasant surprises along the way as well. After a while you start to give in, and you start to relax your search criteria and you lower your expectations. You wonder if you’re settling too early, if you should wait it out, aim higher, take a little break. Then you take a leap of faith and go for it. You wonder if the positive feeling is mutual. Would s/he return your call with positive news? Is the offer going to be accepted? Let’s face it, this has happened to most of us—whether you are house hunting-- or spouse hunting-- in the urban jungle.

In London, and I dare say in most big cities of the world in this day and age, finding a date and finding an apartment (of quality) appear to take up more of one’s time and effort than seemingly necessary. The two processes are surprisingly similar if you think about it, and it would be an entirely fascinating social experiment to see how people’s house-hunting and spouse-hunting behaviors correlate—does the fact that you can only sign up for short-leases with short-term break clauses say something about your ability to commit? What is the first and most important thing that you look for in an apartment and what does that say about your priorities in a relationship context?

These days, conversations tend to gravitate towards one or both of two topics: home-ownership and home-making (a.k.a. getting hitched). The two, of course, go hand in hand.
A professor of economics used to tell me that in the long run, it doesn’t really matter whether you buy or rent—as a matter of fact, most people underestimate the cost of home-ownership. I believe he is right. But sometimes I wonder if home-ownership is easier just because it saves us from the agony of having to go through the annual/ bi-annual routine of apartment-hunting, or ever-so-often having to worry about the landlord cranking up the rent or selling on the apartment, and so on, and so forth. And maybe, there there just something fundamentally satisfying in knowing that there is something which you can call your own, something that you can fix up, build up, and grow old in?

I wonder if the same can be said about marriage. Can the same be said that in the long run, it doesn’t really matter whether you are married or just in a long-term committed relationship? And do people in fact underestimate the “cost” and effort that goes into a marriage? Or is there just something fundamentally reassuring to know that there is someone who can be there to fix you if you are broken, stand by you, and grow old with you?

The question then becomes (ok, so maybe there are more than one question here): when is a renter ready to own? And can someone who has never signed a lease beyond 12 months take the leap of faith and—gasp, settle down and into something that is intended to last forever, and build on it, and grow into it, and grow old in/ with it?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Love in the time of Credit Crunch

Nowadays, you cannot wake up without hearing the words “credit crunch”. Somehow they manage to creep up in all topics of conversation; it has taken over every aspect of our lives. Just as the C words have shaken up the economic landscape of our time, I wonder how they would affect our emotional world as well.

My hypothesis is that while the crunch has left us financially depleted, it is potentially Cupid in disguise.

Apparently, sex workers in London’s Canary Wharf aren’t doing so well these days, as financiers and bankers are increasingly “tightening their belts” due to the recent string of events. Does a downturn in commercial sexual activity lead to domestic/ relationship bliss?

Take a walk in the main streets of America and western Europe and you may notice that people are not shopping as much, eating out less, and watching fewer movies in the theatres. According to a trustworthy source, consumer spending in the U.S. has halfed (which is what differntiates this recession from the last on in 01). Winter is quickly approaching. Despite a recent drop in gas prices, it won’t take long before households around the world start turning the heat down a notch, leaving fewer lights on, etc., in order to keep utility spending at bay.

Now that we’re not shopping, not eating out, the lights are off and the evenings are cold, what better thing to do than… er… cuddle up and enjoy the one thing that makes us happy and-- are you ready for this—is free? What is the one thing? I’ll leave it to your good imagination.

And if the media is right, and that the apocalypse is quickly descending upon us, then what better time to love? Is now the time to enter that crash-and-burn relationship? To tell him/her that it’s now or never? To love and to live with extreme fervor, as if there were no tomorrow?

Not only is it time for love, it’s also time for marriage. These are times where true love is tried and tested. For the bankers and financiers out there, these days they don’t quite have to worry so much whether their partners are in it for the money. And I bet you can get a pretty good deal with hotels and restaurants these days. And with the Pound quickly devaluing and with stocks and bonds turning into monopoly money, treating your friends and family to a nuptial bash seems like just as good a way as any to spend/ invest your fortune.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the babies, too. With unemployment rising, the household opportunity cost of having a baby actually goes down. Look on the bright side. You may have lost your job or an income, but at least now you don’t have to fret over childcare.

Love, I think, is a Giffen good.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Sim Life

If you are a self-respected migrant worker slash globetrotter these days, then chances are you have a stash of cell phone sim cards tucked away somewhere. These are the evidence that differentiate between you and the regular traveler.

Sure enough, we all own cell phones with multiple Gs attached to the model description, and have signed up for convoluted contracts that allow us to call whether we are thirty thousand feet above ground or away from the nearest phone booth. But really, being a multiple sim-card carrying member of society in our deluded state of being gives us a certain guilty pleasure—as if having a local number is an acceptable proxy to having a base, of being temporarily grounded and by extension, a sense of belonging.

In an unlikely way, these tiny little plastic chips have become pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that has come to represent life (or, at least my life in the past year). One day, should my collection of sim-cards be excavated (and should the technology still exist to read them), one will find a truly random collection of pictures—mostly of food, dilapidated buildings in grim light and close-ups of faces, with some very distinguishable, yet more very generic, backgrounds. They will see telephone numbers against name after name, but belonging to people from different generations, persuasions, and worlds. Strings of numbers of various lengths, it will be a rather lengthy forensic exercise to decipher to which country each one belongs. The best part still, are the conversations recorded in the SMS compartment. Disjointed as they may be at first glance, these text messages- with spelling mistakes, SMS-isms and the wrong choice of predictive text, have the potential to one day become the building blocks of an epic novel. Because these small parcels of bits and bytes have somehow become our channel for empathy, want, dread, excitement, love, hate, boredom, … our impressions of life.

Forget about time capsules. Sim-cards are the way to go. They are the archives- the scribes, of the modern day migrant worker.

Oh, and here’s a product idea for you clever ones out there: a snazzy sim card wallet to hold onto these precious memories—or that much needed sense of belonging, of that feeling of groundedness.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Survivors Sandton

Is it possible that I am part of a very very cruel social experiment?

I traversed the equator three weeks ago. I finally touched down on Africa. I developed a taste for biltong and fed on crocodile carpaccio. And that’s when everything stopped looking so good.
Welcome to my world.

I have been in Sandton, South Africa for almost three weeks. And all I’ve seen of the place are the mall (its claim to fame being the biggest of its kind in the southern hemisphere—whatever that means), the office, and the apartment, all within a one-mile block. I would’ve liked to venture out, walk around, explore. Except I was explicitly told not to. By security experts (I’m certainly curious as to how someone ends up being a security expert. Have they been mugged and carjacked so many times that they have become pros? Or are they professional criminals, as it takes one to know one?) I would have driven myself around town, except there are only three cars among 10 of us. And not that we have time, given we are working 20-hour days. All of us, in one room. All of us, at one table. Everyone can hear, see, and smell everything that everyone is doing. In those remaining 4 hours, we carpool, eat together, and share apartments.

If I were not in the situation, if my fellow colleagues were minors, I would have reported this as exploitation or child abuse. Except we’re all consenting adults, despite the miniscule hourly wage considering this has turned into a 24-7 job. And I’m sure we all signed some piece of paper a while back giving up our rights to, say, privacy. I believe it’s situations like this that drive people to enter an office with an AK-47 and start shooting.

So, as it turns out, the greatest danger of being in Jo’burg is not carjacks and armed burglaries, but the loss of our sanity.

I will survive. That's what I've been singing in the shower every morning.