Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Stateside Once Again

Wow, it has been a long time since I last touched this... well, my excuses are half-valid; I wanted to surprise people about my return, so I didn't think it would be wise to update my blog; or, what else would I talk about?

I have also been catching up with friends and eating a lot of the foods I missed while over in China; yeah, despite how delicious Chinese food can be, they still lack some of the best dishes, like chicken fried steak!

Well, I my return to the U.S. began with spending time up north in the Chicago/Wisconsin area. The first night I got back, Lily and I drove up to Milwaukee from Chicago, where we met up with her host family. The following day was somewhat hellish, because Lily's host family was in the process of moving and I felt somewhat obliged to help; I think it was good for me, because I need to be less selfish/spoiled sometimes. After all, her host family allowed us to stay with them (for free), and they have helped Lily out in the past.

After spending a few days with them, Lily and I ventured down to Milwaukee, staying with Lily's friend, Sarah. I felt somewhat lame during this part of the trip, because I had been severely suffering form jet-lag. Each night, when the clock struck between the hours of 8:30 pm and 9:00, I became a zombie; nothing felt better than resting my head on a pillow. I understand that it is the worst when you come back from a country that is across the Pacific Ocean (the time zone crossover in this part of the world); that day I flew, I had relived the same day twice.

So, my New Year's was very lame; I think I went to bed sometime around 10:00 pm (lame). Well, it doesn't bother me too much that I'm trading off my experiences and good moments; I had so many great moments in China that one bad night of New Year's didn't phase me. Still, I felt bad for Lily, because she sacrificed her night of fun for me just the same. I keep telling her that she should be more selfish.

However, things sort of picked up once we went back down to Chicago, which was the last leg of our Midwest trip. Here's how it went:

Just as quickly as I flew into Chicago, I was blown back out. Really, my 4-5 days in the windy city was as fast as a heartbeat, subway hopping and walking from one district to the next. It was my second time in Chicago, but Lily and I were both able to enjoy just the same as the first time.

This time, we made our efforts to cover more ground, venturing outside of the “loop” and into some of the various ethic spots. We visited such places as “Greektown,” “Little Italy” and we made our way over to Pilsen Village, where you can experience a little of “mexicanidad.” This is a new term for me, one that I learned at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in Chicago. Basically, it is a term which tries to encompass everything that is “Mexican” – a type of identity with which most, if not all, Mexicans and Hispanic people can relate.

I spoke to a woman who works at a tea shop in the area and she said that it is quickly becoming a “hip” spot, meaning that the neighborhood will most likely undergo a lot of changes in several years to come. Much like Wicker Park, Pilsen (the largely Mexican neighborhood) will soon become “home” to yuppies and bohemian artists who have a lot of money to spare. As is the case for many urban neighborhoods with an artistic “image” and interesting historic background, Pilsen will be swallowed up by wealth and consequently evict its current residents – a phenomenon known as “gentrification.” As the tea shop lady put it, it’s a catch-22; that Pilsen should undergo more development, but subsequently force longstanding residents to leave due to rising real estate.

We really enjoyed our time at the museum, reading up on the treatment of Central America’s indigenous people; from the continual oppression they face to their syncretic religion and somewhat successful immersion into mainstream Hispanic society. Like other indigenous people, along with Africans, the Aztecs merged their polytheistic religion based on nature gods with that of the “saints” found in Catholicism.

As for Greektown and Little Italy, we found some worthwhile restaurants which served their respective foods; Lily and I had Italian subs from a mom-pop store in Little Italy – wasn’t too bad. I think the most interesting cuisine experience was an Ethiopian restaurant we found near the Green Mill. The Green Mill is a well-known night pub, where you can watch and experience live performances, ranging from poetry slam to organs and big band; they say Al Capone visited this place from time to time.

It was the first time that both Lily and I tried Ethiopian food. Not sure what to do, we began to break up what seemed to be sourdough bread and dipped it into the two dishes we ordered; one was some kind of beef and the other was a premier Ethiopian ritual choice for chicken. The chicken drumsticks were bathed in a kitchen-made sauce full of different ingredients. We both noticed that Ethiopian meals largely consist of sauce-based foods with which you can dip your bread in. We weren’t super crazy about our Ethiopian cuisine experience, but it was interesting nonetheless; actually, there’s a Moroccan place we really enjoy in Lincoln Park.

However, probably the best experience we had in Chicago was getting to see “Wicked,” the musical. Wow, I really don’t even know where to begin with describing it. Many times, I found the hair on my back standing up, with a tingly feeling running down my entire body. The music was both catchy and emotionally charged, with breathtaking stage designs and effects. The score for the musical had various contrasts between the singers and the instrumentation which really brought out the vocals and also my emotions with inside.

My favorite part of the musical came before intermission, when Elpheba and Glenda perform “Defy Gravity.” In this scene, Elpheba (who is the “Wicked Witch of the West”), discovers that the Wizard of Oz is not as grandiose, amazing, nor as virtuous as she had once thought. In fact, in the musical, the wizard takes on the antagonist role, rather than the witch; this is Wicked’s main twist of the original “Wizard of Oz” story. There are many other interesting connections between the original and the reworked version, which makes the musical not only intelligent, but fun and interesting.

The best part of it all was that Lily and I got to sit front row! They have been doing a regular drawing before every show, where they will pick a group of names out of the hat for a chance at front row (orchestra) seating; although the seating is not free, it is the same cost as balcony seats. The interesting side to this story is that Lily and I almost forwent the drawing so we could enjoy a deep dish pizza at Giordano’s; well, the interesting part to this is that I clearly remember telling Lily, “We’re not going to win this, we never win…”

Here’s a YouTube clip of “Defying Gravity,” probably the best song from the Wicked score:

Friday, January 4, 2008

Christmas in the Far East

I “celebrated” Christmas by living any other day of my life in China. I woke up, checked email, chatted with mama and baba in Chinese and then was rushed off for lunch with friends/family. Being 6000 miles away from home, I sort of expected a change of routine in my life, especially with American holidays.

However, China has quickly changed its habits and practices with the onset of Western integration into Chinese society. This, I feel, is both a blessing and a tragedy around the world. Wherever you go, as a Westerner, you never feel too far from home. For a person who is homesick, this is quite comforting. On the other hand, for the soul-searching adventurer, it is somewhat upsetting that you can’t entirely escape the grasps of Western consumerism and business. Likewise, for the Anthropologist, differences in culture become somewhat blurred and you are no longer dealing with an isolated group of people.

With that said, nothing will ever exactly be replicated. When the Chinese celebrate Thanksgiving, they do so with a different bird other than turkey; I celebrated my Chinese Thanksgiving with pigeon. At the same time, outside the realm of business and such places as Pizza Hut, most Chinese families still do not overtly celebrate such holidays as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Most Chinese people will agree that it is more of a youthful thing to embrace American holidays. As I mentioned in my email, going out to the pub for a drink, or meeting up with friends at McDonald’s is a simple, yet pleasant way to feel “American” for a moment.

Now that I have mentioned the obvious, I can say that I did not miss Christmas at all. I don’t want this to cause offense for anyone, but I feel that “gifts” and the presence of God (Jesus Christ) – for those who believe –are ever around me. Each day I breathe and live, these are my precious gifts. Likewise, I celebrate the “birth” of Jesus by embracing this life and opportunity with great passion. So, whether I am stepping foot on the Asian continent, or walking along the ocean of Fernando de Noronha, I try to remain enlightened. This enlightenment comes with the knowledge of knowing that life is short, yet in life, nothing is short at all.

Sure, our physical abilities have limits, but our mind can reach great depths. We can never go hundreds of years back in time to witness the decline of the Ming Dynasty, but our imagination can bring to life the pages in a history book. Likewise, when I put on my headphones and allow the music to flow, I can ponder creation, the origin of the universe and my purpose in life.

I agree, such things as poverty, one’s natural disposition and one’s environment can place limits on the mind’s ability to exceed. With this in mind, I look upon the opportunities I have had in life with extreme gratitude. I also attempt in every way to extend my life-given opportunities to others. I believe others have enough problems to understand and realize the struggles of life; they do not need me to “remind” them. However, I can remind them of the good things in life. This, I believe, is the “Christmas gift” I try to give to everyone, each and every day.