Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Living a Diverse Life

Professionally, I spend a lot of time working with data, mostly from physical events like pipe inspections.  There's a machine learning technique called clustering that identifies groupings of observations, finding those that are along multiple variables more similar to each other than to the rest of the population. Usually the data I look at does not lend itself to neat clusters.  Most data contains variables along a continuum without clear demarcations. It might look something like this:
Applying a clustering algorithm like I did essentially draws an arbitrary border through a mass of points. The spots near the center could really be in any of the clusters.

Our society however, is not shaped like that.  If each dot represented a person, and we clustered based on socioeconomic variables, interests and how people spent their time, we might be able to plot something like this:


The clusters are quite distinct. If you know which cluster a point is in and where it lies on the x-axis, you can reasonably guess where it lies among the y-axis. Only a smattering of points are not in clear clusters.

Many aspects of the physical world are messy. It's not easy to tell which part of a pipeline will rust and which part won't, necessitating the collection of tons of data points and the use of sophisticated algorithms. But in our society, we humans routinely and subconsciously guess people's background, such as religion or economic standing, based on a handful of attributes including name and appearance.

The more of the world I experience, the more I notice the clustered nature of our world.  "Clustered" can be replaced by "segregated." This word has strong racial connotations, intentionally, but is not limited to that. We are segregated by socioeconomic status, by geography, by ideology, by language, by vocabulary, by common cultural and knowledge bases. Technology, which can overcome or deepen this segregation, lately seems to be doing more of the latter. We have folks absorbing different news sources, getting targeted different advertisements, and seeking out those within their own cluster with more precision than ever.

This has perhaps always been true in the history of civilization. Ancient Rome was so class divided that there were essentially two separate languages. The educated folks spoke and wrote in the Latin we study now, and the common folk's language was called Vulgar Latin, from which modern day Romance languages descend. 

What's changed in 2020 includes the globalization bringing many disparate peoples into the same towns.  Additionally, technology allows us to form social circles that span great distances, rendering geographic proximity less relevant than ever. Thus even if one's surroundings are "diverse", one's social circle might not be. Thirdly, many of us are now inundated with so many more opinions from social media. We react, often emotionally, to opinions and often have our beliefs crystallized and strengthened through many iterations of catered social media views. When two people have widely different social media experiences and engage in discussion, it can feel like they are starting from page 500 of two different books.

How often are our clustered existences the source of conflict in our society? How many of our problems stem from people not understanding those in other clusters? It's the reason dumb niche ideas like the Juicero are conceived and funded, the reason why people write tweets that they don't realize are offensive and get fired, and a reason why white cops arrest and kill innocent black people at disproportionate numbers.  Sure, some people do bad things because they are rotten in their core, but most people who disagree with you do so because all the evidence they gather in their very different life experience leads to forming a very different opinion.

Exacerbating this is how separate are lives are. Again historically, the urban - rural divide has always been massive.  Everything from housing sizes, means of transportation, job opportunities to demographic makeups are dramatically different between cities and the countryside.  In addition, our world is structured to literally divide us with borders. Even between countries of similar language and culture, these borders are real. Anecdotally, I know more people who move from Boston to Seattle or from Montreal to Vancouver than between Boston and Montreal. We are perhaps even evolutionary disposed to cluster, to stick to our tribes for safety. Our world is not set up for us to experience a cross-section of society.

I think it's easy for people of color in America to underestimate the degree of difficulty for their fellow white citizens. People of color must learn a lot about white people just to survive in this country. There is a system incentivizing the understanding of the culture, history and mannerisms of the white majority. They, being the majority, lack this incentive. There's no boost to your college application for being woke, no additional points to your credit score for having black friends. And yes, it is natural for people of color to feel infuriated at this imbalance, and bitterly mutter well they should put in the effort, and yes, they should. But it's still worth examining how a white person growing up in a white environment, without much social or economic incentive to truly understand the minorities in their country, may not really know how to learn. Yes, there's plenty of anti-racist literature available to read, plenty of inspiring speeches on YouTube, but those aren't necessarily enough to empathize with the daily reality of someone familiar. They might not necessarily be enough to give someone confidence to ask the right questions or even have standing to get involved in racial justice issues.

I don't want to come off as a white people apologist. I'm angry too. I wish it were mandatory that everyone learn how to pronounce pinyin, or know that Hong Kong is not in Japan, or at least not accuse COVID-19 of being concocted by the CCP. But I do know that it's hard for anyone to live a diverse life, and particularly hard for those in the majority in their societies. It's not an excuse, but it should be recognized. And if we truly are all in this together, then we need to start bringing in people together. We need to deliberately seek out new perspectives, including in dramatic ways such as living in neighborhoods of a different ethnic background, learning a completely unrelated language, or volunteering at a charity that doesn't directly help your cluster. It goes for everyone - even the wokest people do make ignorant comments about situations they're not familiar with.

I know there are those who will instinctively resist this viewpoint. I've heard black people express the frustrations of being integrators/explainers their whole lives and a desire to just be left alone. I happen to love being an integrator, but I get it, maybe I wouldn't if I had 10x the explanations demand. It's true, there should be plenty of safe spaces where people can just live their best life. But unfortunately, we also can't make progress without the majority and those with access to power on board, and some of them might need some handholding on the ramp.

Being an Asian American male has allowed me to play different cards sometimes.  I'm definitely not white, and face a lot of minority-specific issues, but there are many issues I don't need to worry about including being killed by the police. Many Asians here are able to tap into white societal power structures while rarely getting called out for perpetuating them. Being a minority provides a useful defense when facing an accusation of racism, but being a minority does not mean you too don't need to do the work of living a more diverse life.  I myself strive for this goal, but it's been a difficult one to attain alongside the many other goals I have in life. Almost by definition, the neighborhood that would most shake up my world is not the best neighborhood for me to get to my job or hang out with my friends. And it's never been a good idea to seek out friends because of the color of their skin. But I try to be self-aware of my place in the world, and my understanding of it. I try to be intentional about what I absorb, where I travel, what I support. I find this to be a virtuous cycle - when you learn about new domains, you are usually able to connect with more people, who then introduce you to more new domains. There's no "diversity target" - this is a guidance for life.

Lastly, while we may be firmly defined within our clusters, we generally still have weak connections to people outside them.  Technology also allows us to glimpse into these other clusters, without supplementing the context that comes with true familiarity. We see videos or tweets espousing views we find radical and have to make assumptions as to what led to these views. It's a toxic environment of billboard communication that results in each cluster just flipping more pages along their disparate books.

So in the wake of the racial justice protests that engaged so much of America in June 2020, I hear a common question being asked, "What next?" In addition to entering politics, reading up on anti-blackness, donating, volunteering, leading further protests etc., I would posit one further: Live a more diverse life. I doubt that there's anyone who couldn't find some way to expose themselves to new viewpoints. Watch more Bollywood movies. Listen to a podcast by transgender hosts. Read more books from before the 20th centuries. Spend more time in places without a cell phone signal. Without running water. There is no person who cannot have their ideas challenged through a new perspective and continue to grow. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Reamed in Reims

The passenger next to me on the train to Reims was clearly an English-speaker and affiliated with the World Cup. She had a serious face and one of those IBM ThinkPads and was going through some instructive PDFs. "Are you working for FIFA?" She nodded, and responded, "And you must be supporting the Americans." We were clearly on the same train of thought. She had been with FIFA for many years, working U17 and youth events before getting her chance organizing security for the Women's World Cup. It was a 5 week sprint of a job with almost no days off.

Reims is a fairly random city for a World Cup match, a  town of 180,000 with a grand cathedral where kings of yore were crowned. I was extremely excited to be in a real French city not spoiled by excess tourism, for the chance to speak French and learn more about the country.

The ride was a disarmingly brief 45 minutes. Emerging from the train station, I added to a mess of disoriented Americans. The taxi line was quickly overwhelmed. Hotels had been well-booked, and so I had found an AirBnB way out of the city, a full 50 minute walk from the stadium. With the help of a physical map and passable French direction asking, I took a public bus filled with high school students into the suburbs. This neighborhood could've housed the French Harry Potter growing up on a Privet Drive. Stepping off onto the quiet sidewalk, the normality of the place jarred me during such an abnormal time in my life. I rang a bell outside the gate to a modest stone house.

"Bonjour! Je suis Cal." I greeted the woman who emerged."
"Elcome! Et vous parlez français ouais!"
"Ah bien sûr! Merci pour votre hospitalite sûr Airbnb!" I stepped inside.
"Comment êtes-vous arrivé ici? Par voiture?"
"Ah non, par bus."

With the host I had my first real French conversations out of necessity in years. I was surprised by our level of communication. I had not put any concerted effort into French since high school. The last couple years I'd been learning Spanish, but on this past trip in Basque country, I'd used to Spanish to get by and nothing more. Upon crossing the border, I'd had to suppress the instinct to say "si!" or "por favor." It was bizarre to discover I could have Spanish instincts, as if discovering a new crease on the back of your hand. And yet now French was flowing out - not as fluently as Mandarin - but good enough to have a real conversation. I learned that my hosts Mireille et Hervé have six adult children - three living in Lille, two in Paris, and one in Ankara, Turkey working as a professor. They'd been getting a handful of guests since they started Airbnb a year ago, and now were receiving exciting volume from the World Cup. Hervé expressed surprise that I'd come explicitly for this match, and I had to clarify that no it's a longer story.

Hervé drove me into town where I maneuvered to meet future teammates. I was picking up with a team in Windmill Windup in two days, and knew only two of my teammates, but our shared GroupMe had allowed me to connect with two stranger teammates who'd also be at this match. Lauren and Mo were part of a group of 4 who were eating dinner before the 9pm match. When I did find them upstairs at a restaurant bar, my awkward insertion into their evening was somewhat reduced by my recognizing one of their friends! Glenn had coached the Georgetown team after I left but I'd met him at alumni events.

For global time zone reasons, World Cup schedules can result in some strange match times, and this match started at 9pm. Even stranger, at 49 north and the middle of June, it was still very light out. Walking over a bridge towards the stadium, we were quickly immersed into a very American crowd split between blue jeans and soccer jerseys. There were the USA-USA cheers that might come out of a college football tailgate, but intermixed with a staidness that comes with an international footballing match on French territory.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Notification from the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA)

A few weeks ago, the Greater Boston Legal Services reached out to me. I had volunteered there as a translator last year during a bout of unemployment, and now they were asking if I could help Cantonese speakers apply for unemployment insurance (UI). Having used the Massachusetts unemployment system twice, and whereby encountered deep levels of frustration, I was uniquely well qualified to help. This task could only be more in my wheelhouse if it required generating a chart and a pun, attaching them to a disc and flinging it all across a river.

www.mass.gov/dua houses the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance program. Hopefully many of you readers are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of unemployment assistance in America (although I suspect that is less and less true). The principle asserts that taxpayers who have paid into state coffers and find themselves suddenly unemployed can assuage their situations by receiving weekly payments in proportion to their tax contribution, until they find a new job. It is limited to state residents and state earned income, and not eligible to people who have voluntarily left their job or been fired for cause.

My frustrations with the system encompass both its design intentions and its execution. A pall of antagonism against "government handout takers" hovers over every new page of inane questions - I sense that the designers would rather ten worthy UI seekers be denied rather than one cheat take advantage of the system. When combined with a user interface design from the early 2000s without any sophisticated "user research", and you're left with a system that has nearly reduced me to tears on multiple occasions. I've needed to show up in person to the offices twice and still lost out on 2 weeks of legitimate claims - and I speak English and use the internet well! Imagine how hard this is to navigate for older immigrants, who empirically comprise the bulk of claims in Boston?

So you sign in with your social security and click submit - but of course you have to first check that camouflaged box on top that says you agree to a bunch of government legalese. Then the application process consists of approximately 10000 questions - no but legitimately there are 30 pages. The first question asks, "Did you work part-time last week?" If you didn't work at all last week, you are supposed to answer.... yes. What they mean is "were you eligible for unemployment last week?" The system assumes that you are applying on your first full week of unemployment, not taking in mind that quite a lot goes on when you unexpectedly lose your job, and a filing with the government might slip a few weeks. So if three weeks go by since your layoff date, can you apply for all three weeks? Yes you are eligible for full benefits, but the system only lets you apply for this week and the past week. If you want to get that third week, you have to call the state or visit in person - neither of which are options at the moment.

Another logical breach occurs with the following 1-2 punch of questions:
1) How would you like to receive your correspondence? Electronic or US Mail
2) Is English your primary language? Yes or No

Corresponding via US Mail makes me shudder, but if you choose Electronic and not English, the system tells you that Electronic correspondence is not available in other languages - although it actually is. You LITERALLY cannot proceed unless you change your response to indicate English is your primary language. A representative government is a government that forces you to lie.

The system requires choosing most applicable job title amongst a list written in the late 90s (I waffled between Research Statistician and Computer Informatics) for no real discernible reason. Further questions include:
  • Are you considered working on-call for this employer?
  • Are you a member of a corporation or a shareholder in this company?
  • Are you customarily laid off?
  • Are you required by a court order or other government agency to pay child support?
Lastly, you are required to look for work 3 days/week and fill in a Work Search Activity Log. This includes interviewing, attending training workshops, networking, going to the career fair. Is it an efficient way to show you are looking for work? No.  Does a legitimate job search require spending 3 different days each week doing these specific tasks? Some weeks almost certainly not. Does anyone actually ever check? No.

If you remain on unemployment for 8 weeks, you have to attend a Job Center workshop, to learn to find work, otherwise you stop claiming benefits. Does it matter if you went 7 weeks without a job then landed one with a start date in 2 weeks? Still need to attend. Does the state have any resources even remotely helpful to a data scientist? Rhetorical. I took the bus into a training center in Roxbury only to find out the session information was inaccurate, and had to shuttle to a session later that day in downtown Boston where I sat bored for 2 hours.

But the worst part are the numerous critical, time-sensitive correspondences between you and the DUA. Do they email you? Kinda. Does the email say anything? Never. It merely links to the department website, where you then need to log in just to read the message. The message isn't even a message, it downloads a PDF, which is always by default blocked by browsers. The platform is not accessible outside the US, and is frequently down for maintenance.



God forbid you forget your password. The password reset system is legitimately bugged, as I walked clients through the process and entered the exact right verification codes and the exact right security question answers only to get denied. If you need that password, the key to everything including even reading correspondence, you have to call the state or visit in person - neither of which are options at the moment.

I lost two weeks of claims because I didn't read a notification and respond within the assigned 10 days. I filed an appeal, which was denied with no explanation provided.

The people I help are all from Guangdong province, China. They range from 40-70 years old, worked as restaurant waitress, home care aide or masseuses, with educations ranging from 5th grade to finished high school. All of them are literate in Chinese, except for the one who is Viet Hoa, and speak standard Cantonese, except for the one whose Taishanese I understand maybe 60%. Many of them worked at restaurants I've frequented, meaning I've likely interacted with them before, but never gave much thought to their lives outside the restaurant. For my first "client", I tried to walk her through the website, directing her to the login link. As I struggled to figure out how to say "login tab" in Chinese, she told me she wasn't seeing what I was seeing. "Um, do you see that blue part underneath the light yellow part, above the white part, above the picture with the woman?" "No." The client finally sent me a picture of what she was seeing and I realized she was accessing on her mobile. I wouldn't even have conceived of that option for myself, but having now worked with 8 clients, none of them own a computer. Most of my clients have not figured out how to open the PDF messages on their phone.

When I first saw the estimated weekly payout value for my client, I thought we'd made a mistake. Only $120? I looked at her wages, did some quick math, and sat stunned wondering how anyone could survive in Boston on $20K a year. None of my clients make more than $35K of taxable income - here's a reminder that the tips-based economy really hurts in this situation. All of my clients live in the metro area and I can usually hear children in the background. Every single person I talk to needs this money, and none of them are realistically capable of applying for it on their own.

Good News: Unemployment Claims Soar Past 6 Million This Week ...

I know that building an unemployment claims system is hard. There are so many different types of workers, so many bad actors to account for, so many permutations of unemployment seekers and job discharges. And I did get paid a sizable chunk that covered my rent and expenses, twice, bringing me much relief in times of stress. To be further complimentary,  Massachusetts has waived the required waiting week period and work search activity requirements in this COVID-19 period. They've poured resources into keeping this overwhelmed system afloat, but fundamentally they're patching a broken system.

*****************

I learned that the DUA online platform was created in the early 2000s, when state governments were given federal dollars to invest in digital infrastructure. Invariably the decision makers didn't know how to make the best technical decisions, and the lowest bidding contractor they hired used some front-end and back-end technologies that quickly became obsolete. This is similar to how New Jersey has ended up needing COBOL programmers in this time of crisis. As time passed, only that contractor could maintain the system, no one could really add to it. I'm sure no product designer at the time was thinking about the experience of Haitian or Chinese immigrants. Mobile internet didn't even exist yet. Federal money has not been earmarked for state digital infrastructure in the same way since, and that poor decision in the early 2000s haunts us to today.

It's not fair to blame the programmers for their lack of multi-decade foresight, or the program manager who approved these fateful choices. What I encountered with the DUA was the product of a systematic defanging of US government depriving it of crucial expertise. A trend pushed by Reagan1 but picked up by all subsequent administrations has seen more and more work outsourced to private contractors. What has suffered has not been so much the quality of the product - I'm sympathetic to the argument that the private sector may do specialized work more efficiently - but rather the gradual erosion of expertise within government. As skilled government workers left for higher paying equivalent roles in the private sector, an "unvirtuous" cycle was created with less skilled employees training less and less skilled employees. The crisis of the federal talent pool was identified as early as 2000 in this Brookings article which stated:
Government must provide challenging work and the opportunity for growth. It is irresponsible to recruit talented graduates only to squander their commitment in a dead-end job with no chance to make a difference.
With all due respect to my friends who work in government, I see a lot of truth in this. When combined with the overly restrictive government GS pay bands, which limit all federal employees to below the salary of a second year Facebook developer, government is rarely seen as a desirable job for America's best and brightest.  As a result you have program flops like the Job Center I was forced to visit, which I was delighted to find panned in another article:
For example, the Department of Labor’s One-Stop Job Centers were intended to be an all-in-one resource for employment seekers, providing job seekers with career counseling and connections to both job opportunities and education and training programs. Unfortunately, they have failed to live up to their promise. ... What’s needed, according to the Brookings research, are performance measures that encourage cost-effective One-Stop programming that leads to higher wages, more tax revenue, and less taxpayer spending on unemployment insurance.2
It doesn't need to be like this. Civil service is an honor in many countries, where the best and brightest do hope to end up. Singapore is the most obvious example, where a variety of factors such as the Singapore Government Scholarship (free international tuition in return for years of service), higher wages and greater overall trust in authority has created a country where government actually works, and people want to work in government.

With regard to tech in American government, the salary difference might pose too high a barrier without substantial reform. But can we get creative? Can we not create a secondment system for burned out Silicon Valley workers? A three month semi-sabbatical lending your node.js or pandas expertise to federal programs? Can the FANG firms not scrape together a fellowship to instill some mid-career product managers in a 1 year position redesigning a decrepit state program? Surely there are better uses of societal capital than throwing $200,000 at  a senior software engineer to improve the backend data ingestion in adtech.

************
I'm glad the Greater Boston Legal Services in conjunction with the Chinese Progressive Association, Viet Aid and others have created a network providing service to underserved immigrants that is able to scale up in times like these. It's been quite stressful fielding texts and calls in Chinese, often with frustrating issues that I'm unable to resolve, between taking meetings at my real job, while ambulance sirens inexorably blare outside.  However, I'm grateful for my experiences and ability to help out those in need, while I keep my job. But if coronavirus teaches us anything, government is important. We need a way to collectively help each other out when disasters strike. We need a deep rethink of how government operates and equally important, who operates government.

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/the-federal-outsourcing-boom-and-why-its-failing-americans/2014/01/31/21d03c40-8914-11e3-833c-33098f9e5267_story.html
2 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/the-us-department-of-talent/404428/


Sunday, March 15, 2020

Covid, the viral Roman poet

COVID-19 is devastating because it's already killed ~6000 people worldwide and counting, halted economic activity, and pretty much affected all of our lives. I personally know one friend who got it, know of one person who lost a family member to it, and know of dozens who have had trips and events cancelled. The whole plague sucks.

For the vast majority of people who are not infected and practicing self-quarantine, one of the major effects of the disease is that there's not just nothing to do, there's nothing to talk about. Well, there's one thing to talk about, but there's nothing really to say about it. Coronavirus is all anyone can think about, and we all have the same opinions / experiences. "Flatten the curve", "social distancing", "not enough testing kits", "wash your hands", "I hear they'll be shutting down so-and-so" - there's only so much to say. We all are going through this very unusual, very disruptive, very uncertain times together, and we have NOTHING ORIGINAL TO SAY.

There's no new sports games, no new James Bond movie, no new trip stories, just everybody asking each other how many masks, groceries and rolls of toilet paper they've accumulated.

That's all. Coronavirus is not my muse.

Stay safe.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Tech Debt

Insomnia kept me tossing and turning, and sometime after two in the morning I caved and walked to my couch and got on my laptop. I'm not sure how I got to it, but I ended up thinking about past jobs and job applications and Googling "Jana Boston." I had applied to the Boston-based startup Jana in 2016, and now I was seeing on Crunchbase that they had raised a $57 million Series D round in 2016.  Having moved from Hong Kong to Boston a few months before, I was desperately trying to land a data scientist position and ideally at a place with an international reach. I had come across Jana from job boards and read about their work providing digital access to the developing world, mainly rural India. The main product was a platform that enabled users in areas where mobile data was expensive essentially to trade ad views for free data. Everything seemed incredible - mission-driven smart people using software and data science to fight global inequality, all from a cool Downtown Crossing office with glass whiteboards and ping pong tables.

It did cross my mind that in recent memory, internet accessibility had increased dramatically in rural China without Jana's platform. But surely this fancy cool well-funded startup had already succeeded, and would be an amazing place for me to learn data science. I reached a final round interview before getting rejected. I later worked as a data scientist for GE and CiBO, getting laid off from both.

It was irritatingly difficult to find any news about Jana since 2016. There were a bunch of mixed reviews on Glassdoor, the historical funding information on Crunchbase and little else. On a hunch, I then googled "Jana Boston layoffs" and I came across some Boston Globe articles behind a paywall. At 2:30am I became a bostonglobe.com subscriber. 

It turns out that mobile data indeed had gotten a lot cheaper in India. Jana which had raised around $90 million overall had died an ignominious death. Our  $30m CiBO disaster looked like a fender bender compared to this train wreck. The tech startup world was a cruel one. I thought about the number of employees who had bought into the mission and ended up disappointed. I thought about the hundreds of thousands of lines of code that have been painfully written, tested, edited, deployed and discarded.

I came out of that wee hour search rabbit hole pretty jaded. I had very much bought into the story of Jana and was only now discovering that I'd have cast a losing wager. As I had done at CiBO. The following Thursday, February 13th, I learned that a company I nearly worked at, Wayfair, laid off 350 people in the Boston headquarters. What is it with all these layoffs? What did it portend for my current mission-driven tech startup? If these company failures are so common, how does anyone in tech make any money?

They say startup founders can go from feeling like they're creating a unicorn to worrying they'll go bankrupt in the same week. I seesawed similarly - about our financial success, our environmental impact, and my personal impact. What scared me the most was my willingness to ignore skeptical safeguards. Optimism had obscured my sensibilities in the past, and it could be doing so again.

There were ways for me to rationalize the macro view.  I could take the odds view, that the venture capitalists behind these companies were making bets hoping that 1 out of 10 might win - my work effort was a part of that calculus. 9,999 cancer researchers might fail to find a cure, but society needs them all to work hard for the 1 researcher who does succeed. I could think about the work that these startups do accomplish, which even if aren't directly built on, prove out a direction to either follow or avoid. Then there are the lessons learnt for everyone involved that potentially could help guide future endeavors.

Ultimately there are so many factors outside of your control that it becomes illogical to base too much of your sense of self-worth on the company that hires you. Job-seekers are rarely in a position of power, and though I tried to be extremely judicious in my last job search, I ended up needing to take the best position available to me. There's a fine line between being passionate and dedicated about your career and letting your company's success and impact define your dignity. Work hard, earn those wages, be realistic about what you can accomplish and influence what you can influence.

In another post sometime I'd like to dig deeper into the deluded nature of thinking we can solve world hunger from a computer screen in America. For now, I'd like to note that I find it far healthier to feel grateful for all that I have gained from my past jobs instead of dwelling on the lack of sustained impact.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hong Kong 2019

I felt a little ridiculous walking with the face mask on, passing by people out walking their dogs on a bright, normal Sunday afternoon. It was only until I was in sight of other face masks and black shirts when I glanced around for hidden Chinese cameras, and quietly slipped on the face mask. In the middle of Astor Place, New York, I joined a crowd of 300 odd strangers, and started shouting slogans in Cantonese. Some of them I knew - others I pretended to know. Together we sang the new adopted Hong Kong anthem 願榮光歸香港. We all had to look up the lyrics, no one pretended to know. A bunch of speakers involved in the Hong Kong democracy movement spoke, headlined by Denise Ho, the singer turned activist banned in mainland China. She was in town for a concert the next day, and despite not knowing any of her songs, I bought a ticket right there. 

Her concert took place in Town Hall, a proper venue near Bryant Park capable of seating 1500.  That Monday night, roughly 600 Cantonese speakers occupied the hall.  The lights dimmed, but an awkward 5 minutes elapsed without anyone taking the stage. Then, a male voice pierced the nervous chitchat - "光復香港!" (Reclaim Hong Kong!) What might have been taken as a rude heckle was instead immediately responded by several hundred "時代革命!" (Revolution of our times) Then a female voice from the other side of the balcony shouted "五大訴求!" (Five demands) and the crowd enthusiastically shouted "缺一不可!" (Not one less). I joined in earnestly, having learned all the chants the previous day. As the spontaneous cheering echoed sporadically for several minutes, and I couldn't help but beam with delight.  Denise Ho finally came on stage and opened with Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." There were several more 光復香港 calls throughout the night. When a guest Taiwanese pianist gave a speech of solidarity and then launched into 願榮光歸香港 on the keys, everyone immediately stood up and started singing. Here in this Hong Kong bubble on 43rd and 6th was this passionate, collective political energy in the air that I had never felt before - and I was at Obama's 2009 Inauguration.

*****
This is probably the hardest post I've ever written.  As someone with strong ties to Hong Kong, the United States, and mainland China, the protests in Hong Kong have pulled me in a number of directions. However, I've been trepidatious about expressing my feelings for several reasons. Firstly, I'm aware that this is not my fight - I haven't lived in Hong Kong in nearly 4 years, and I carry an American passport. I'm not on the ground, dealing with the tear gas and the train delays.  Though I've grown my Chinese vocabulary to include 林鄭下台,被捕,黑警察,騷亂,光復, 示威,變質,暴徒 and  屌你老尾大台, I still struggle to read the Chinese news which is often cycles ahead of the English news. Ultimately, though I am deeply personally invested, I recognize this is not my fight.

Secondarily, even the limited sentiments I've expressed on social media have received hatemail. Numerous mainland Chinese friends have thrown me uninformed arguments and distaste. Like many, my family is split, with aunts, uncles and parents on either side of the conflict. Even in this divided age in US politics, the vitriol surrounding Hong Kong protests had affected me to new levels.  It is so much easier to just ignore it all.

Furthermore, I know that not being on the ground divorces me from the realities of the conflict. My view of these protests would likely change if they'd caused me to miss a flight.  I don't intend this to be a referendum of the aims or tactics of the protesters, or the emotional clashes with the police. There's enough back and forth already out there and I don't want to get involved in that.

Lastly, scary anecdotes have convinced me that by putting this out in the web, there is a non-zero chance that I will be banned from entering China. Or thrown into a Chinese prison upon arrival. It's a very low chance, but at this day and age, non-zero. I still love China, and I very much don't want to spend the rest of my life not being able to return. I really would like to see 張家界 Zhang Jia Jie and 九寨溝 Jiu Zhai Gou.


Laurel Chor - Vice News

It's perhaps my love for China that's made me uneasy. In years past, I've mostly been irked by anti-China coverage in Western media - nearly every New York Times article about China shades away from conveying the requisite China context, and instead leads toward painting a skewed dystopian attention-grabbing picture. Whether it is understanding how little Chinese citizens worry about privacy or how poor the country was in the 1960s, I have occasionally found myself reluctantly playing the role of China apologist. Even the South Park episode "Band in China" that came out this week (and I very much enjoyed) bristled me at first - South Park seemed to be punching down.

My time in the mainland forced me to reckon with my stereotypes and I became more sympathetic to a lot of PRC perspectives. I do believe that too many "international" institutions are just Western institutions. I see clearly the hypocrisy steeped in many Western critiques of modern PRC policies, especially those in Africa. It infuriates me when Americans shame other countries while lacking perspective of their own imperialism and genocide. Discussions I've had with mainlanders have convinced me that democracy is not some magic political panacea to societal ills. Educational dogma blinds most Americans from being introspective about this. At a time when American and British democracy are legitimately failing, it is not a good time to preach.

And I definitely believe that the PRC should be proud of the 300+ million people lifted out of poverty. The high speed rails, the QR mobile payments, the skyscrapers, the wind turbines - these are all awesome achievements. Not to mention the karaoke, the food, the millennia of history. Nowadays Beijing/Shanghai boasts a quality of life that I find comparable to New York, and I seriously considered moving there this year. In addition, I have so much respect for the hardships that nearly ever PRC citizen has endured. From the migrant workers to Shenzhen who toil in the factories to the Gaokao survivors now overeducated and underemployed, most mainlanders are tough.

The injustices carried out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have hovered over us my whole life.  There is a cognitive dissonance to knowingly that this same government processing your visa is simultaneously repressing Tibetans and Uyghurs, performing forced abortions, and detaining political dissidents without trial. It's the sort of dissonance that one must maintain to have to stay sane and function in modern society. I don't believe that living in or working with China need be an endorsement of CCP policies.

With all those caveats out of the way, I intend to be very critical of the CCP, with a target audience of Americans without ties to China. I want to spread awareness of the protests in Hong Kong. I want people to be aware of their fundamental makeup promoting the will of the Hong Kong people and rejecting the CCP. I'm resigning myself to enraging many people.

The part that has surprised/infuriated me most is the angry and vocal reactions of mainlanders with no connection to Hong Kong. Seemingly apolitical acquaintances have suddenly come out and expressed outrage at Hong Kongers, whether or not the protests directly affect them. In Chinatown, NY in early August, protesting Hong Kongers were surrounded and outnumbered by people wearing red and waving the red and yellow flag. I had not thought that Chinese immigrants to the US would maintain this party line. Clearly I had underestimated the endurance and diffusion of the CCP-constructed nationalism. I did not engage directly with the counter protesters then, but there are two main anti-protest points that I would like to refute here.

The first is the quickfire accusation of "foreign interference." This shot, always unaccompanied by evidence, echoes the claims of "northern agitators" made by the segregationist Southerners during the Civil Rights movement. I could accuse these accusers of being agents of the CCP with just as much evidence. It's a lazy, and frankly offensive, point to dismiss the movement as artificial and take agency away from the Hong Kong protesters. Sure, there are many reasons for Western governments to root for unrest in Hong Kong, but this movement is very much homegrown. It's clear that these young activist leaders have done their homework, reading up on Gandhi, MLK, the Baltic Way and other non-violent movements. The demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong were not drummed up in some US consulate boardroom - they matured in City U student group meetings in the 5 years since the Umbrella Revolution, exacerbated by the actions of Carrie Lam's government. The "foreign interference" accusation is mere willful ignorance of the true extent of the divide.

The second is even more offensive: the attack that Hong Kongers have been corrupted by "Britishness." Mainlanders claim colonial rule instilled an inferiority complex in Hong Kongers, making them ashamed of their Chinese heritage. The problem with that argument is that Hong Kong is not particularly British. Hong Kongers do not sip tea like the British, do not care about cricket, do not have panel shows, and do not cook bland food. While here is not the place to unpack the skewed social dynamics created by colonialism, the most important outcome of 150 years of British rule was not to make it more British. Rather it was to insulate Hong Kong from the Communist takeover and keep it a part of the global community. While mainland China was closing borders and smashing ancient treasures, Hong Kong was both competing with Taiwan to preserve "authentic" Chinese culture as well as welcoming international influence.  Alongside the British and Chinese,  Jews, Parsis, Armenians - with names like Sassoon, Mody and Catchick - helped shaped the city. They remain memorialized in street names and descendants.1  In modernity, the notable influence of Indians, Nepalese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Japanese, and Koreans amongst others distinguishes Hong Kong from any mainland city. It is the success of this international city with a Chinese backbone that most upsets the CCP, and thus they in turn try to spin this strength as a weakness.
Laurel Chor - Vice News


This has made me realize how integral unity is to the Chinese nationalism preached by the CCP. It is an insecure nationalism, one propped up by propaganda instead of naturally inspired. The refusal of the Hong Kong Chinese people to buy into this nationalism undermines its entire existence. CCP leadership must think, "Our country is so great now! Why don't you want to be part of it?" They legitimately cannot understand how after all the high speed rail and economic growth, why Hong Kongers don't want in. Especially after so many CCP officials suffered so much in their lives to not have freedom, they feel bitter at these spoiled Hong Kongers who haven't suffered so much and don't seem to understand patriotism.

The CCP only knows two ways to instill patriotism - propaganda and force. This is a party founded by a man who said "槍桿子裡面出政權 - Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Winning the war of ideas, is not their modus operandi. It is one matter to get your citizens used to the cards they've been dealt, and quite another to get people to choose to give up their right to free speech. Chairman Xi and the CCP have chosen not to engage in this sort of debate. I see this Hong Kong protest not as a protest for Western systems, not as a protest against Chinese culture, not even as an expression of economic anxiety in a brutally unequal society - fundamentally this is a refute of the Chinese Communist Party and the ideals it stands for.

If the CCP really believed that Hong Kong was an inseparable part of China, then they should approach Hong Kong as partners. Instead of coming in with simplified characters and Mandarin speeches and treating the directorship of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office as a rotational bureaucrat role, they should allow Cantonese from Guangdong to handle affairs and emphasize the deep cultural ties. The actions of the CCP reveal their true beliefs: Hong Kong is not an inseparable part of China, Hong Kong is a subservient part of China.

Xi Jinping's CCP is not Mao's CCP or even Hu Jintao's CCP. Chairman Xi has stepped up the extreme nationalism and authoritarian oppression. Tibet and Xinjiang are not able to stand up to this CCP. Hong Kong is luckily in a better position, and should fight hardest, not just for her rights but also for the rights of Tibetans, Uyghurs and the more oppressed. Not only is it the moral approach, but it's the logical one - we are all fighting to allow for our identity in the Chinese nation. It is a fight against the CCP's iron-fisted approach at converting every citizen of the PRC into the same linguistic and cultural creature.

*****
I think I get why mainland Chinese are so worked up. In explaining Hong Kong's status to Americans, I have previously used Puerto Rico as an analogy. But a better analogy might be a situation where democrats won the presidency, and Texas tried to leave the nation. Liberals would be justifiably outraged. "Who do these Texans think they are?" Jurisprudentially, this is a terrible analogy, but it demonstrates the level of pride mainlanders have invested in this situation. "You are delusional to disagree with us. You cannot survive on your own."

****
This is an amalgamation of several conversations I've had recently in Mandarin with mainland Chinese (MC) immigrants in America, who don't think I look Chinese.
MC: 為什麼你會說普通話?Why do you speak Mandarin?
CAL: 因為我是中國人。Because I'm Chinese.
MC: 你不像中國人。 You don't look Chinese.
CAL: 可能你有道理。我是香港人。 I guess you're right. I'm a Hong Konger.
MC: 香港是中國不可分離的部分。Hong Kong is an inseparable part of China.
CAL: 所以我是中國人嗎? So I'm Chinese, right?
MC: 但是你不像中國人。But you don't look Chinese.

I think this encapsulates what's so wrong with Chinese nationalism. Humans don't fall neatly into ethnic national buckets. You can't build a society by suppressing ethnic, religious and linguistic differences. You have to embrace our humanness because that's the basis we all share. That is what the Hong Kong protests are fundamentally about. It is about a vision of the world that respects human dignity and difference.

1 Some of these descendants moved around the world and now write blogs about the Hong Kong protests.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Singapore 2047

Recently I've been listening to Billy Joel's 1976 song "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)", almost on repeat. His song imagines an apocalyptic ending devouring Manhattan.  Though now it comes off as alternative fiction, when he wrote the song in 1975, New York was verging on bankruptcy and crime was rampant. The title of the song refers to him moving to Florida in this dystopian future, and telling future generations about the destruction of New York. The September 11 attacks and the collapse of the Twin Towers brought renewal and new meaning to the song.

I've been listening on repeat because the song invokes similar sense of despair of a dystopian Hong Kong. I have rewritten the lyrics to localize it to Hong Kong. It is titled Singapore 2047 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Causeway):

I've seen the lights go out on Causeway
I saw the IFC laid low
And life went on beyond New Territories
They all bought Xiao Mi 9s
And left there long ago
They held a concert out in Tsuen Wan
To watch the island bridges blow
They turned our power down
And drove us underground
But we went right on with the show
I've seen the lights go out on Causeway
I saw the ruins at my feet
You know we almost didn't notice it
We'd seen it all the time marching down Admiralty
They burned the temples down in Tin Hau
Like in that Spanish civil war
The flames were everywhere
But no one really cared
It always burned up there before
I've seen the lights go out on Causeway
I saw the mighty skyline fall
The boats were waiting at the ferry pier
The union went on strike
They never sailed at all
They sent a carrier out from Hainan
And picked the LegCo up for free
They said Kowloon could stay
And blew Lamma away
And sank the Island out at sea

You know those lights were bright on Causeway
That was so many years ago
Before we all lived here in Singapore
Before the 黑社會 took over Tseung Kwan O

There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
To tell the world about
The way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive

Monday, September 9, 2019

Going down the wrong Hemingway

It's been a long while since I wrote a proper trip recap blog. My Colombia and Brazil trips were probably deserving of writeups, and the Panama/Guatemala New Year's adventure certainly was, but I didn't have the energy at the time and now my primary source memory is depleted. I figure then that I should get out this June 2019 Eurotrip before I get similarly busy.  A good chunk of that trip, especially its coinciding with my job saga, is documented in this post. Here I'll try to go through the travel and linguistic components about the trip.

The main goals of the trip were to 1) catch up and travel with my Brazilian friends who recently moved to Basque country, 2) explore France after an 11 year absence, 3) see the USA Women dominate in the World Cup and 4) attend Windmill Windup, the most famous European ultimate tournament.

A fantastic credit card decision and its signup bonus allowed me to turn a $2800 trip into $300 + points. I'm not sure how that worked but I'm glad it did.

19:15 - Flight takes off from Boston Logan (LOG)
06:45 - Land at London Heathrow (LHR), 5 minutes ahead of schedule
07:00 - Apparently this plane can't find a jetbridge
07:15  - Finally leave the plane, turn into accelerated mode
07:45 - Immigration at Heathrow took me nearly an hour last time. For some reason, we fly through in 10 minutes this time
08:00 - I find the counter selling tickets for the National Express bus transfer to Gatwick. I thought that airport transfers might be free, especially in socialist Europe, but no, this costs £25! It's #727 and will come in ten minutes.
08:10 - The national express bus supposedly arrives.
08:15 - A bus named 727 arrives, tells us we can’t get on, the bus we want will be here shortly
08:35 - The bus arrives
9:30 make it to London Gatwick Airport (LGW)
9:35 - My goodness, this is really the working class version of Heathrow isn't it? Should I be pronouncing Gatwick with a Cockney accent?
9:58 - Made my way through security, and I spot what must be Gatwick's only saving grace - Wagamama. I think I have time for this.
10:22 - Ok I barely have time. Gotta run.
10:24 - Woo at the gate....and I can't find my ticket. It must have come while running. Why must they be so awkwardly sized?
10:25 - This gate has another security check - for extra frustration - but they do allow me to ask the desk to print out a new ticket. This has happened to me before, but instead of printing out new boarding passes for the remaining two legs of my trip, I get a normal paper printout of my itinerary. The airline staff underlines the current boarding time with her pen.
10:28 - Boarding begins with an Englishman announcing, "Group one, grupo uno only please" in the most gringo way imaginable.
10:31 - "Group two, grupo dos." Surely this is not helping anyone.
15:00 - Land in Madrid. Exit the gate completely disoriented, and somehow have to pass through an EU checkpoint to get to the interesting bits of the airport.
15:10 - Try to get into priority pass lounge, they won’t let me in without a boarding pass. Insist I get it from Iberia desk
15:20 - Get in line at Iberia desk. Take one of those slips of paper with my ticket number like it’s a fucking DMV
15:50 - Take another slip
16:37 - Finally get another sheet of paper at the boarding desk. Toss the waiting ticket and earlier sheet into recycling portion labeled papel 
16:55 - Give up and run to the gate
16:57 - "Lo siento, pero yo perdió mi boleto." I try to explain my plight to the man now at the gate, and he points me back to the Iberia office. "No!" I exclaim back in terror.
17:00 - The man, who does have access to a computer, finally prints me a new boarding pass
18:15 land in Bilbao on time and I’m genuinely surprised to avoid serious disaster

As it so happens, Antonio is also flying into Bilbao from London, with his flight landing about an hour after mine. I sip espresso by the terminal exit while I await his arrival. He arrives, we hug, and he gets into his rental car and we're off.

The road wraps through evergreen valleys all looking gorgeous in the high evening sun. A sign soon welcomes us to Araba/Álava, where Vitoria-Asteiz is capital. The slashes and dashes are indicative of the interesting status of this region - the Basque Autonomous Community. Basque is famous amongst linguistic nerds as the biggest language mystery of Europe, one of only a handful of languages in Europe that don't belong to the Indo-European language family (others being Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian). No one knows where the Basque people or language come from, nor do they know any other language related to Basque. I believe the elevated mystique of Basque really speaks more to the lack of linguistic diversity in Europe. Asia and Africa consist of numerous ancient language families interspersed with undocumented isolates. But for Europe, it is cool to see/hear very white people, virtually indistinguishable from Castillian Spaniards, speaking this incomprehensible language full of x's and z's.

Raquel awaits us at their lovely apartment overlooking a small plaza. I drop my stuff off and we quickly go for a walk and explore this ancient, very Europeanesque provincial capital, filled with cobblestoned streets, tiny alleys and bars overflowing into the street. The unusual plot points of my job interview that night are explicated in that other post, and while I felt the ticking clock of my Urbint future hanging in the balance, I did try to manage my beating heart and immerse into this romantic European setting. We find our way to a bar with wine and pintxos, which are essentially Basque tapas. Various grabbable plates, often little sandwiches or croquettes or toothpick equipped items, are just laid out on the bar for the taking. It'd be a heavy week of meat, cheese and bread. I rushed back for my interview and then slept like a jetlagged log.

The next day we planned to drive to Bilbao, but began the day with cafe con leche and huevos fritos at a nearby cafe. Upon finishing, I suggested going for a leisurely walk around the city, as the previous night had been rushed. The walk through the cobblestoned-lined hilly streets eventually led us to the Cathedral of Santa Marta, which casually dates back to the 14th century. The Gothic arches tower over the city, and upon discovering that a tour had only just begun, we decided why not and joined in. The tour was entirely in Spanish and was my first real language test of the trip. I strained my ears to pick up architectural words but found myself completely lost while Antonio nodded, laughed and exclaimed "oooh." It turns out that while I was scattering my brain for Gothic terminology, the guide was focused on the engineering marvels behind the recuperation and preservation of this cathedral, which had been falling apart.

In the main church space, the guide pointed out the "Arcos de Miedo", or Arcs of Fear. She pointed out stone blocks comprising the massive Gothic arches, how they used to run parallel, and how now many had visibly slipped up to 15 degrees. I started to feel the fear of the Arcos de Miedo collapsing. Taut metal wires swept up through the ceiling vaults, trying to shift blocks back like braces on a giant set of teeth. The tour took us up wooden staircases (I couldn't help but think about the Notre Dame fire) to a tower that might have been the highest point in the city.

The tour ends on the ground floor with a slide show on a once painted mural. The mural had in fact been painted numerous times over the centuries, presumably by the town's best artists, but restorers in the 1970s had mistaken the layers of priceless paintings as inauthentic and removed them. Whoops. So now we have a slide show to recreate what those paintings showed. Technology.

We're finishing up the tour when we realized that we're way behind schedule, and barely made it to the rental car place before our time slot was up. We then repeated that scenic drive back to Bilbao.

The Guggenheim museum is the headliner in Bilbao and one that holds great lore in my family. My dad is obsessed with the architect Frank Gehry and my brother built a model for his 9th grade Western Civilization project. We had visited in 2000, making this 19 year gap possibly the longest gap between city visits in my recorded memory. 

As an adult who has worked in building engineering, the Gehry's masterpiece has much more meaning for me. His crumpled style devoid of straight edges could be dismissed as wasteful - an architect friend has accused him of not playing the same game as architects designing useful spaces - but I enjoyed the sheer number of interesting angles. Each turn of the corner excites. The design plays with interior and exterior space, seamlessly melding the two. Exhibit wise, a bunch of enormous metal parabolas set up by Richard Serra reminded me how much I enjoyed learning the formula for an eclipse in geometry class.

Our exit from the museum took us to its beautiful patio, adorned with a giant spider, and up a large bridge with a gorgeous view of the Guggenheim set behind the river. The rest of the day included a tour up a century old funicular, randomly walking into an outdoor symphony orchestra concert, randomly returning back to our hotel to find a performing string duet, riding a surprisingly well developed subway, before posting up at an American bar selling craft IPAs. It was there that I accepted one job offer minutes before my job offer from Urbint came in.

With that job kerfuffle behind me, the three of us continued bar hopping. One bar had some corporate promotional immersive experience where we entered a dark booth and voices in Spanish tried to make us imagine we were in a prehistoric period. To be honest, I didn't understand much then and I remember even less now. I do remember asking the promoter "¿de donde piensas nosotros estamos?" mostly referring to Raquel, who is Brazilian of Japanese descent. "¿Tailandia?" she guessed, to Raquel's uproarious laughter. 

At a later bar, Antonio told me the group next to him were Portuguese. "Go talk to them!" I said. "Nah, not my style," Antonio responded. So I went up to the group, asked "Fala Portugues?" They replied "Sim!" At that point I couldn't think of any other Portuguese palabras, and gestured with two hands at Antonio and Raquel and stepped away. They hit it off comparing Portuguese and Brazilian differences. I then found myself talking to a bunch of rather obnoxious middle aged Englishmen on a stag do.

Bilbao is a lovely town to go out in. The nightlife has the pedestrian-friendly density you'd expect from an old European town, big enough to have entertaining city action and small enough to have few American tourists. Freed from my job drama, I practiced ordering vino y cerveza at the bars perhaps una o dos veces demasiadas.

The next morning wasn't a great one. Our plan was to extend the hour long drive to San Sebastian into a more epic roundabout that would include a transit of the rio Nervion - Nerbioi via the Vizcaya Bridge and the monastery at Gaztelugatxe. The Vizcaya Bridge is unique as the world's oldest transporter bridge, where the bridge does the actual moving instead of the cars. The entrance of the bridge was devilishly difficult to find amongst curvy one ways on steep river bank roads. Once on the bridge, surrounded by other cars, the experience was fairly odd - it just felt like a slow moving boat, terrible for my hangover, with the river view obstructed by other cars. Still it was cool to drive (sit) through one of just a handful of these bridges in the world.

On the other side, we stopped at the side of a playground to recalibrate the GPS. I stepped outside for some fresh air, and realized I needed a bit more than fresh air.  Noticing a dumpster a dozen yards away, I staggered towards it. I didn't quite make it, instead pivoting and retching deep into the hedges next to me. I remained in full vomit mode for over a minute before I could look up, and found a bunch of Spanish kids playing merrily along, their wide-eyed parents staring me aghast. They turned away quickly, as if they were the ones ashamed for peeking. 

The coastal drive was lined with stunning seaside views - or so I was told. My view from the fetal position in the backseat was not ideal. I was upright though when we passed by a mysterious castle. There were no flashing lights, there were no signs, there were no armored guards - there was just a castle casually hanging out within view of the road to San Sebastian. The castle was no large mansion, it featured numerous turrets, and the lack of tourism infrastructure made me suspicious. But there was no trick, this castle dating back to the middle ages was inhabited by Basque nobles. The interior was locked, but we got to walk around, admire the weathered masonry and pretend we were trying to scale the walls. This completely unplanned castle stop was a keeper. 
Tourism infrastructure did not lack in Gaztelugatxe. A lonely hermitage built in the 10th century on a peninsula jagging into the Bay of Biscay is made accessible via a scenic stone staircase snaking along the rocks, as well as hundreds of filled parking spots. What would otherwise be a charming but localized attraction exploded in popularity when HBO CGI'ed a castle behind those steps and called it Dragonstone on Game of Thrones. The steps were where Jon Snow and Davos Seaworth had many conversations. Admiring the incredible steps leading up to coastline views of lapping blue waves and grassy mountains - it reminded me of the west coast of Ireland but somehow Spanish - I felt fortunate to visit Gaztelugatxe. It's isolation precludes it from many a Eurotrip.

Another notable pitstop was in a Basque beach town where the Spanish language disappeared - at least in written form. Everyone still spoke Spanish, but when visiting the bathroom at the local pub, I had to guess between Gizona and Emakumea. We later drove straight through the town of Guernica, subject of a famous anti-war Picasso painting, but were too starved for time and tapas to stop. The road journey was an embarrassment of day-tripping riches.

Late afternoon we rolled into Donostia - San Sebastian, an instantly a new atmosphere was palpable. It felt festive and monied and distinctively non-American. Boasting an incredible beach but well off the path of a Madrid or Barcelona-centric voyage, San Sebastian seems to be where the French, Spanish and other Europeans go to party away from Americans. It was also one of the cities in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, which I had read just a couple months before. In honor of that, I will attempt to write my San Sebastian recap in the style of Hemingway.

Our hostel exit made us pass by an outdoor bar. Real damn teaser.  The group desired to get tight in the city though, not in a hostel which could be damn well anywhere. We were blocks to the beach, La Concha, and walked along the promenade until the promenade elbowed away from the beach. A gelateria was well-positioned at the elbow bend.  The promenade was a lovely scene, with trees down the middle and clean black tiles on either side, full of pedestrians, skateboarders and mirth. We took one of the first side streets coming out from the bend Calle Mayor and were instantly rewarded. We could see the street terminated at a gorgeous cathedral, lit at that moment by the pinks and oranges of a setting sun. Four or five blocks before us gave way as we edged towards the cathedral as if pulled by a magnet hidden within its naves. The mirth increased until it reached pure cacophony.

The church was a stellar one, with wide staid columns and flying buttresses. But it was another church, not a place to get pintxos or get tight.

"How about this bar?"
"It's really crowded."
"They're all crowded."
"Do we want to do a sit down or just grab pintxos standing?"
"Let's get a drink standing first, and then decide?"
"Ok."
We walked down a thin side street into another thin side street. There Raquel and I were able to order 3 generously round glasses of wine. Ham and cheese sandwiches were just sitting there while the wine was poured. We grabbed pintxos standing.

The thin streets opened up into a wide plaza. Antonio exclaims, "See Cal? Every city in Spain has a plaza de Espana."

The night saw us get tight, but not as tight as the previous night, for we were too old for consecutive hangovers.

San Sebastian is known for its fine dining.


We got up early to walk along the Concha towards the funicular, our second of the trip. The funicular led to a mountain with a sweeping view of the bay - it reminded all of us of Pao de Azucar in Rio de Janeiro.

At the end, the sideria may have been too good, because by the time we were in the car, Antonio had 13 minutes to do a 21 minute drive. I had personally been lapped by Antonio in a Cincinnati go-cart facility once - maybe twice - so I knew he could make up time. He made up enough of it for me to see my train slowly exiting Hendaye station. There's not much more to it then that - I exchanged my ticket for the next train 4 hours later, and sat next to an old French woman who was a retired English teacher from Bordeaux.''

There was a Cafe Iruña in San Sebastian, but it was not the same Cafe Iruña mentioned many times in The Sun Also Rises, which is in Pamplona. Later in Paris I would visit La Closerie des Lilas, which he habituated in A Moveable Feast, where I ruefully spent 7 euros on sparkling water.

Paris with another GE friend Valeriy I will skip, because Paris is Paris and I could not do it justice in just 1 full day even taking 40,000 steps, nor can I do it justice here without adding 40,000 words. I'll merely mention one encounter from the morning I left Paris. Searching for a Parisian bakery experience, I found a placed called O Coffee with flat white on the menu. I thought about how to say this in French, before realizing surely if it says flat white on the menu, flat white must be the French name. Before I could even get a word out, the barista asked me, "What would you like mate?" I sputtered out, "Je vou...je...I'd like a flat white please." The barista smiled and passed the order behind him in French. I stepped sideways in line, paused and asked, "Are you Australian?" The barista gave a bemused grimace, said, "Yes. Well bit of a mix really. Greek, French." 
"Did you know I was an English speaker?"
Slight nod.
"How?"
The barista shrugged. "You don't look French mate."
The flat white was terrific.

From Paris I took the train to Reims for a World Cup match. That match and my tournament in Windmill Windup will have to get its own post.