Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So in case you were wondering. I'm still alive and I'm doing fine. Shortly after arriving here, I pretty much completely stopped writing these blogs. It's been getting harder and harder to find time to actually write because:

1) I'm working ~65 hour weeks. (Six days a week X 10~12 hours a day). It's not fun. Trust me.

2) I'm working out 4 days a week. So after a long day of work, I get home and head straight for the gym. I'm determined to not come back to the US fatter than when I left.

3) I'm still going out every weekend, but now Hong Kong and downtown Shenzhen are an extra hour away. Making the trip is just exhausting, but I refuse to hang around my Dongguan all weekend. Ugh.

So basically I'm having trouble keeping up. You just keep putting it off and it never happens.

In any case, I've got about 2.5 weeks before I come back to the US. Yay!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

6 days down ... 55 more to go ... (I know it's way too early to start counting down days, but I can't help it.)

With my first week of work drawing to a close, it's time to decide whether things have overall gotten better or worse:

Environment:   Old Job
I was spoiled at my old job because we didn't really align with the company culture. I think our department was too small and new. In hindsight, things were a bit more lax than at the other factories. During my first day at the new job some random person came up to me during lunch:

Guy:  "Are you a Taiwanese worker?"
Me:  "No, I'm an American..."
Guy: "Well tuck in your shirt. It's a company regulation."

I wasn't offended, just surprised that it mattered enough to come up to me and mention it. Before at my old job no one really cared about that kind of stuff. Some days, I would just show up to work in a t-shirt and jeans. Now I have to wear my tucked-in company polo shirt uniform everyday. I didn't think it was possible, but I things feel more prison-like here. (And not having internet is definitely killing me. My cell phone is racking up those internet data charges. And my computer at work is still running Windows 2000; it seriously crashes on me like 3 times a day)

Cafeteria Food:   Old Job
Old job's cafeteria wins hands down. You know, I used to eat at a V.I.P. buffet that offered 6 types of dishes, 2 types of soup, salads, fresh fruit, and some deserts. (They had this special restaurant because of all the customers that would come to visit that factory.) I may not have liked every dish, but I could always manage to find something.

Now when I first got to China, we all joked about how I was going to stave because I'm such a picky eather. I've managed to survive for the last 10 months, but I don't think I can handle the food at this new place. My first meal here was breakfast. From that point on, I decided to just eat breakfast at home every morning and I haven't been back since. And as for lunch, let's just say that I'm drinking a lot of soup and eating a lot of rice to fill me up. UGH. It's gross.

Coworkers:  Old Job
This is probably a really unfair comparison. After all, I spent 10 months bonding with my old coworkers. I should give it more time, but I just don't exactly feel like I fit in very well here. I'm not integrating very well because no exactly knows what my role is within this organization. So I'm not actually working with anyone here and people just kind of ignore me. Plus, we moved into a new building and my desk is in the very front of the office with no one next to me. This all would be a lot easier if my Chinese were better so I could make small talk. (I think my US boss told them not to speak any English with me.)

Work Assignments:  Old Job
This isn't really a comparison at all since I actually don't have any assigned work. At least I had responsibilities and work at my old job. (I may not have enjoyed my work, but at least I had something assigned to me.) I'm supposed to have a training program at this new job, but no one's really approached me about it. Everyone's busy with their own work, so training me isn't exactly the top priority. I've basically been spending all my time hanging out in the production lines trying to learn as much as I can about PCB design and manufacturing. I've only been at work for a week, so I also should also give it some more time before deciding that I don't like my work.

Dormitory:  New Job
My new room is at least twice as big as my old room. But that's not saying much considering how tiny that old room was. It's nice to actually be able to walk around my room. And I've got a window with a 16th floor view! So even though I live in an apartment with 3 other guys, it's still an improvement on before.

Housing Neighborhood:  New Job
At first I was sad about having to move here. (I'm now living in a town called Chang'an in a city called Dongguan. It's located just past the border between Shenzhen and Dongguan.) After all, I'm about 30 minutes further inland away from downtown Shenzhen and Hong Kong. And I used to go downtown or to HK every weekend.

However, despite all that, this new neighborhood is my favorite part about this new job. I'm living on a pedestrian road with plenty to do and see! Malls, stores, and restaurants line the both sides of the street. In fact, there's a Wal-mart and McDonald's located right downstairs! Plus, Chang'an Square and Chang'an Park are both located within walking distance of my apartment. But the real reason that I love this place is that I found a gym within walking distance. The equipment is like ancient but I don't care; that place is still like heaven.

All in all, it seems that my initial impression is that everything has gotten better but work. Good thing I only have 55 days left...right?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

If you haven't read my entry about "public" restrooms, then you should check it out here first.

So there I am, standing there in my apartment building lobby waiting for the elevator. Standing in front of me are two woman and a young boy. (He was probably like 5 or 6 years old.) All of the sudden the mom pulls down the kid's pants, and lifts him up in the air to let him pee into the trash can...

I'm dead serious. I've been living in China for 10 months now, but that was mind-blowing.

Meanwhile I'm awkwardly standing there trying not to stare. But I just can't help it. I mean for chrissakes the woman was helping her kid pee into a trash can! Inside the lobby of the apartment building!

~shakes head~

Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's getting late and I'm burning out, so I'll make it short and sweet:

  • I only had to go to work for 2 hours to take care of a few things. It was nice to just have some time off to finish packing and stuff.
  • I said my goodbyes to my coworkers. I'm terrible at goodbyes. It was totally awkward.
  • I'm working in a town called Songgang (located in Shenzhen city), but I'm living in a town called Chang'an (located in Dongguan City). They're only about 10-15 minutes apart from each other.
  • The apartment complex seems nice. The surrounding area seems to be a step up from the area where I was staying before. There's a McDonalds and Walmart located right downstairs.
  • It's Labour Day tomorrow, but I still have to go to work :(  Come on, it's China.  If anyone was going to be big on this whole Communist International Workers' Day thing, it should be them!
That's it for now! Tomorrow I'm moving again to another apartment upstairs. Then I can unpack and take some pictures. (They only have a squat toilet here...UGH)

Some things never always change. That pretty much sums up my chaotic life these past two months. Every morning I come into work and immediately check my email, hoping for some sort of update. People have been making decisions for me and my plans have been changing on a near daily basis. I’ve had to learn to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. Needless to say, it’s been really hard to stay motivated and keep working in this constant state of uncertainty. But all that is about to change…

If I haven’t talked to you recently or you haven’t been catching up my blog, then you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. So let me get those of you up to speed:

My product division has merged with a new business group (BG). The problem is that my old BG and the new BG both decided to let me go. (As an American worker, my salary is just too costly, especially compared to local Chinese and Taiwanese workers.) Now that doesn’t mean I’m being fired; I’m just getting reshuffled and sent off to another BG. And so my HR department has been scrambling to find a next assignment for me. So I’ve been busy interviewing, touring facilities, and waiting for job offers.

But like I said earlier, all that is going to change very soon. Yesterday I received and confirmed a job offer from a new BG. Today the logistics were finalized for transferring to this new group. Tomorrow will be my last day of work at my old group. And the day after tomorrow I’ll start work with my new group. Safe to say it’s going to be an insane week.

So what’s up with this new group?

  • They basically manufacture interconnections and PCB for cell phones and other consumer electronics.
  • I’ll need to move to a new dormitory and work in a different location, but their factory is still located in Shenzhen. (They’re just about 30 minutes further inland.)
  • The new training plan will have me work about 1-3 more months in China. After that I’ll head back to the US and I’ll be working in Santa Clara.
  • I’ll be working as an FAE (field applications engineer) with a long term plan to transfer into sales or account management in a few years.
Anyway, on one hand, I'm kind of sad to be moving on. It sucks to get settled and have ten months of training under your belt, only to be reassigned to a different group. Tomorrow I have to say my good-byes to my coworkers. But on the other hand, I'm excited about having a new assignment and an actual training plan that has me return to the US.

P.S. If you heard rumors that I’d be home next week, I’m sorry to say that plan’s been scrapped. My contract guarantees a training break every six months, so I’ll probably see you all in early July? I’m hoping to home before my birthday :/ Please don't ask for an exact date; if I knew, I would tell you.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Yesterday I spent the day in Hong Kong attending a public lecture on Molecular Gastronomy as part of the Le French May Arts Festival (法国五月). I know it sounds like a pretty random way to spend your Saturday afternoon.

To be honest, I'd never even heard of Molecular Gastronomy before. I was scanning through the Hong Kong Event Calendar trying to find something to do because I sure as hell didn't want to spend my entire weekend hanging around Shenzhen. I came across this public lecture titled Can Science Contribute to the Improvement of Culinary Art? Science + Cooking? Sign me up!

I should probably explain what the hell that even means. Molecular Gastronomy is like the study of how cooking works from a physical and chemical point of view. That probably sounds like some sort of pseudo-science, but I have to admit that there's a great deal of actual science and mathematics there is to it.

The lecturer was Hervé This, a French physical chemist who actually helped officially create the field of Molecular Gastronomy. It's kind of funny because the guy doesn't consider himself a cook. He said that he's a chemist first and foremost. His work has mostly been investigating old wives' tales and exploring existing recipes. But it's more than just experimenting; it's also about discovering the why. Here are some of the experiments he talked about:
  • Boiling an Egg: He studying boiling eggs at different temperatures. The consistency of the egg depends more on the specific temperature than the cooking time. The heat causes the proteins in the egg to denature (i.e. fall apart and unwind). But what's really interesting is that he helped discover that there are multiple proteins that all denature at different temperatures. Thus buy controlling the temperature, you can greatly control the consistency of the egg. (Apparently this knowledge can also be used to "unboil" an egg.)
  • Color of Carrot Soup Stock: One of his students is working on how to determine the color of carrot soup stock. As you boil the stock longer and longer, the color will change from orange to brown. The interesting part is that they discovered that the process depends on lighting conditions. The process speeds up if there is more light. And they actually looked at the biochemistry to find the component that causes this effect. Yay for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).
  • Roast Suckling Pig: Oh this one was my favorite. There's an old wives' tale that the skin of a roast suckling pig will crackle more if you chop the head off right after roasting. Now here's the level of detail that goes into these studies. To ensure that the pigs brought up in the same environment and had similar genes so they had to raise a family with four pigs. And also conducted a blind taste test with over 300 participants. (Oh and the saying is true by the way.)
All in all, it was really interesting. I know it sounds really frivolous and kind of pointless, but I feel it has practical applications. I just want to quote his partner in crime Nicholas Kurti,the other co-founder of Molecular Gastronomy:

"I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés."

Maybe I need to re-think my major and career path.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

So for the entire week I've been mulling over my offer from Group C. (You know, the long term assignment where I'd probably be placed in China for years?) Anyway, outta nowhere Group B has re-entered the picture. Suddenly things have gotten even more complicated.

Today I had my second round interview with one of the Senior Directors of Group B. From my research, the guy has had a very distinctive career in sales for the electronics industry. At the young age of 37, he won a top sales achievement award while working for HP! Anyway, to make a long story short:
  • I'm probably going to get the offer. They can't guarantee it, but he said it was very likely. Decisions will be finalized in a few weeks.
  • The interview was mostly conducted in Chinese. Geez, that was tough. By US interview standards, I did pretty horribly. I'm still not sure why he said it was likely that I'd recieve an offer.
  • This group manufactures flexible printed circuit boards and interconnectors for mobile and computer applications. I have some fabrication lab experience but I don't know much about PCB manufacturing. It was still pretty cool though.
  • Their factory is also located in Shenzhen, but further inland. We're talking about ~50 km away from downtown. (As opposed to where I live now, where it's only ~20 km away from downtown.) Their factory is basically in the middle of nowhere.
  • The plan for me would be work for about 3 more months in China. I would learn about the technology and develop my business, sales, and account management skills. After that I would return to the US and work as a FAE (field applications engineer) for a few years before transferring to sales or account management.
Anyway, the final offer won't be made for a few weeks. That puts me in a awkard situation because I'm supposed to head back to the US on April 30th. I was hoping to have this all finalized before then, but it looks like I don't really have a choice.

My current plan is to:
- Continue working in China until April 30th
- Take off about a week to visit Shanghai and Beijing
- Return to the US
- Finalize my decision for my next assignment
- Return to China for work

Dates obviously still need to be nailed down.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Today, I realized that I've been in this country for way too long:

"I see that you've been studying Chinese people."

"Hmm? I get it..." (Did I hear that right? Man, I really need to work on my Mandarin.)

"Oh, never mind."

"Okay..." (Unless he meant...oh shit.)

Without even realizing it, I had just spit right in the middle of the street. I'm turning into a local.

I'm not sure if I've written about it before, but people here spit anywhere, anytime. My favorite example would have to be at the last year's annual end of the year banquet. People were spitting on the restaurant floor. That's just dirty. 

Spitting is a disgusting habit and I remember how much it grossed me out when I first got here. So I'm kind of sad that I've picked it up. I'd hadn't really realized how natural it had become until my coworker pointed it out. I really need to break this habit before I get back to the US.

Although, at least I'm not peeing/pooping in public. 

*4/20 8:44 P.M. - Post now updated with picture!*

Yesterday I got home from work early, but I left my messenger bag at work. So without my keys, I was forced to sit in outside in the courtyard and wait for my apartment-mate to come home. Now I had about an hour or so to kill before my coworkers would come back. I decided to sit on a bench just people-watch the housewives and their children walking around.

I'm sitting and I notice this cute little boy hobbling down the path. I look down at his pants...

"Is that...a crotch hole? What the hell!?"

There was a big hole in the crotch of his pants. We're talking full frontal nudity here. [I'm dead serious.]

I quickly diverted my eyes away and noticed a mother and child squatting awkardly. The mother was squatting over a drain and the child was sitting on her lap. I'm staring at them trying to figure out what's going on. And right then a golden stream gushes out into the drain.

The crotch hole allows kids to easily pee in public.

Now obviously we're talking about really young kids. Still slightly distrubing though. There aren't a lot of public restrooms here, so I guess when young children gotta go, they just go.

That's not even the craziest thing I've seen. During my first month in China, I saw a mother helping her child take a shit ... in public ... in the street. And then after he finished, she wiped for him. Now that was mind blowing.

And in case you don't believe me, here's the picture proof. I caught this yesterday at Guangzhou as I was coming out of a metro station:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

For my previous interviews with Group A and Group B, see my previous post.

In less than 24 hours, I had two last-minute interviews with Group C. The first interview was with one of their department managers the other night at 10 P.M. You can imagine my shock when I received a call from him that afternoon asking:

“Are you free to interview tonight?”
“Yes, that will be fine. What time?”
“Well I have a business dinner with customers, so around 9 or 10 P.M. Is that too late?”
“No…that’s fine…” {Meanwhile I’m wondering what the hell is going on.}

Talk about being eager to meet with me. Then the guy called again the next morning asking if I was available to meet with his boss. And as if that wasn't enough, after that interview they asked if I wanted to join them go to KTV with some customers. (I had to politely turn down that offer; I presume that they were bringing the customers to special KTV.) It's obvious that they really want me to join their group; I basically have an unofficial offer on the table.

To be honest, their offer is extremely tempting. I'd be working sales and project management for stand alone television and monitor displays. They anticipate another 3-6 months of training in China, and after that I'm on my own. After training, I'd have an incredible amount of flexibility to travel and visit different customers around Asia and Europe. It's an unbelievable opportunity to quickly move up the corporate ladder and get some valuable experience.

Sounds pretty awesome right? But there's still one major problem that I just can't look past:

I'd have to commit to working in China for an indefinite period of time.

They currently don't have any customers in the US, so I wouldn't be able to return back to the US and work from there. I'm still not exactly sure how I feel about that. "Indefinitely" is a long time to be away from my friends and family in the US. When I initially signed my contract and agreed to take this job I figured, "Okay Alan. It's just 6-12 months abroad. Work hard, put in your time, and then you can come back home." 

I wonder whether I can ever learn to call China "home." I've been living and working here for these past 9 months, but I still feel like a foreigner. I may be Chinese-American and this may be my ancestral homeland, but I don't really feel like I fit in or I belong here. You know, this is the first time I've been in Asia, let alone China. I wasn't born here and my parents weren't born here either, so I wasn't exactly brought up in this culture.

We've already began some discussions regarding the terms of the contract and it's seems like they want me bad enough that I can almost get whatever I want. I'll still be able to recieve my relatively expensive American worker salary without a pay cut. My housing costs will still be covered by the company. And most importantly, I'd get to come home for about a week every three months. In fact, my boss would be flexible and open to the idea allowing me to move dates around and come home when necessary for special occasions.

One of my best friends told me, "Alan, you should take it. If you asked 100 people, 99 of them would take it in a heartbeat." For me, there's a long list of pros balanced by one significant con. I still need to spend more time considering the offer. And let's not forget that there's still a number of other groups that I've been interviewing with as well.

Hopefully that all made sense. I'm thoughts have been a bit scrambled lately.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

And so the search for my next assignment has officially kicked off. In the last two days, I've interviewed with two new groups. I'm really surprised by how quickly things are moving along.

For the first interview I got a call at 6:00 P.M. asking if I could interview that night. Talk about being hot to trot. I wasn't able to interview until 7:30 P.M., but they were willing to wait! And if that wasn't crazy enough, the entire interview was conducted in Mandarin. Granted he only asked me a few, simple questions (like "Tell me about yourself." and "Where are you from?"), but still it was pretty unreal. This group, which I'll call Group A, manufactures cases/enclosures for a major desktop and laptop computer company.

This morning I had an interview with one of the customer account manager located in the US from Group B. We chatted in Chinese for a few minutes before he learned about my background. When he learned that I'd been in China for 9 months and my parents never taught me how to speak Mandarin, he just laughed. And then he said, "You know we can just continue the interview speaking English, right?" Anyway, this group manufactures PCB and interconnectors for all of the major mobile phone suppliers.

I'm probably still have another round of interviews before actually getting selected by either of these groups though. I'm just hoping someone hires me before I head back to the US. It would be nice to have a job to come back to.

On an unrelated note, my supervisor wants me to stay in China until April 30th. So I guess I won't be back in the US until mid May. Again, still subject to final approval, etc.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Warm nights are great except for one thing: It's brings out all the mosquitoes. And recently I've been under relentless attack. I must have really delicious blood or something because I've always been especially prone to mosquito bites. Growing up, my family would always go camping the Labor Day Weekend before school started. I hated showing up to school that first day and having to explain the bumps all over my arms, legs, neck, and face. Damn my delicious smelling human body odor.

Anyway, I've just finished an un-intensive and unscientific evaluation of bites from the last two nights and I've compiled the following data and conclusions:

Conclusion #1: Mosquitoes in China are much more likely to feast upon my arms than any other section of my body.

Conclusion #2: Mosquitoes in China are twice as likely to feast upon the right half of my body.

Conclusion #3: Mosquitoes in China are rather indiscriminate about which part of my right arm they prefer to feast upon.

Silly or not, it's true. And I'm serious about all of those bites occurring within the last two days. The worst one are the bites on the bottom of my foot and the bottom of my palm though. UGH. Luckily, I found and killed one of the buggers this morning. It was rather disgusting just how much blood was in that little mosquito.

I've actually been getting so many bites that I haven't had a good sleep these last two nights. I kept waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of something buzzing in my ear. And then I think every once in awhile I'd wake up, scratch, and then go back to sleep. Talk about "sleep scratching."

I'm trying to figure out how to deal with this. One solution is to just stop exhaling (Apparently mosquitoes use exhaled breath to track victims down, especially when sleeping or exercising.) Somehow though, I don't think this is a viable optional. At least for now, I'm going to try leaving the air conditioner on while I'm sleeping.

I guess I should be thankful that the mosquitoes here don't have malaria...mosquitoes can't carry SARS or avian flu, can they?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

In many ways, today was a pretty uneventful day. I didn't have any crazy adventures. I didn't go sightseeing. And I didn't take any pictures. I just went to play basketball and have dinner in Hong Kong. And yet, today was also one of the most difficult days for me.

In case you haven't heard, there is a very good possibility that I may be heading back to the US sooner than expected. (And I say "possibility" because nothing is ever promised tomorrow, today. Plus there's a lot of decisions that still haven't been finalized.)

I have a little over a week left to get ready to leave Shenzhen. The most pressing matter for me right now is informing my friends and coworkers here in China. I've always known that this day would come, but I never imagined that it I'd be leaving so soon and so suddenly. I just haven't had time to mentally prepare myself to break the news to them. I'm still trying to process everything myself.

Today, I told my friends the good/bad news. I didn't want to put a damper on the whole day, so I waited until after eating to make the announcement. I answered the usual bajillion questions about my situation. It was difficult, but it had to be done. It makes me sad to think that this may be the last time I see some of them. 

I don't have a lot of friends here in China. When you can barely speak enough Chinese to hold a conversation, it's hard to get to know people. And when you're working six days a week, it's hard to get out and meet people. Thus, it was really unique that I was become friends with these people grew up and went to school in the US. I may have only known them for about a month and a half, but I have come to trust them.

I remember the first time I met them: I was at this Shenzhen Young Professionals exchange event with one of my American coworkers. We both felt so out of place because the average age was like 30. Everyone else was networking and exchanging business cards; we didn't even bring any business cards. Two of us are standing there getting ready to leave when we spot these other two Asian guys across from us. We're all looking at each other probably thinking, "You don't look like a local Chinese person. Are you American?" It gave us the courage to introduce ourselves, and the rest is history. 

Tomorrow, I have to tell my coworkers. Imagine having to tell people you that you've seen 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for last 9 months.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I know that I've been ignoring this blog lately, but things have been busy.  I've been working through editing Macau pictures, setting up my website, and doing some writing on the side. But there's been a recent development that I just have to blog about...

I will (probably) be coming home at the end of the month!

In case you haven't heard, my product division has been undergone some recent restructuring and merging. My old group and the new group both do not have plans to keep me. (Labor costs are apparently too high for American workers in China.) To drop me from the payroll asap, my groups in China want to send me home right away. If I wanted to, I could probably leave as soon as early next week. The company still wants to retain me, so I haven't been "fired" per se: My HR is just in the process of looking for alternative opportunities and placement.

My tenative plan is as follows [Note that all of these dates are still pending further approval and finalization]:

I'm going to stay on in China until April 20th to help wrap up an important customer visit. (I'd feel kind of bad if I left before then and bailed on my coworkers.)  After that, I'm going to take some time off (maybe 10 days or so) to just travel and see other parts of China.  (China's an enormous country and all I've seen of it is Guangdong in the south). Then I'll head home and I should be back in the US around May 1st. 

Again, nothing has been set in stone; it's not like tickets have been booked and dates have been set. So to be honest, I'm not sure exactly when I'll be coming home. Plus, shit happens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"It is very difficulty for me to write this mail to you. I have to inform you that [we] can not continue on this program, even I can see your potential to become an excellent PM to US/EURO customers ... I valued the time we spend in PGM. Hope someday we can work together again."

"I am sorry that we have to let you go eventually. I hope you have gained valuable knowledge and experiences during the past 9 months ... Thanks for all the assistance in the past 9 months!!"

"Now that this picture is clear we will quickly move to plan 'B'. We have your profile, we will work on the timing of your repatriation to the USA and next role."

Wow, talk about bombshells. After a wonderful three day weekend of sightseeing, gambling, binge eating, and working out in Macau, I came back to work today well refreshed. I turned on the computer, opened up the email, and then found that my fate has been determined:

My new group doesn't want me. My old group doesn't want me.

So where does that leave me? Honestly, I have no idea. Now that the picture has become clearer, my US HR department is going to execute plan "B," i.e. find some other group that will take me. Other than that, I'm not sure what's going to happen. At this point, there's really no telling when I'll be reassigned. In the meantime, I just have to keep working. It's hard so hard to concentrate though when I know that I'll be leaving soon. It all feels so pointless.

Right now, my worst fear is that I'll get another extention in China beyond July. If I get reassigned to another group, maybe they'll want to re-train me. They might want me to stay in China longer to study/work at their factories and learn about their product lines. Working in China is a grind and I never imagined myself having to be here beyond 6 months, let alone 1 year. Coming home once every six months just isn't enough for me I suppose. I'm not sure what I'l l do if they want to keep me another six months/one year.

Then again, maybe have an immediate need for me and send me back to the US early! [Yeah right, I'm doubting that one, but it's nice to pretend like it's going to happen.]

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Continuing from the last entry, here are some random pictures that I wanted to post:

The Blue House is like the South Korean version of our White House: it's the executive office and official residence for the President of the Republic of Korea. It's Korean name Cheongwadae literally translates to The House of the Blue Roof Tiles. (The only reason threw it together with these places pictures is because it's located accross the street from Gyeongbokgung Palace):

Yeongyeongdang is a private house located within Changdeokgung Palace. Built in 1828, this house was built "in commemoration of the honorific title Prince Hyomyeong gave to his father [King Sunjo] in order to praise his kingly virtue." However, the tour guide made it sound like the prince built it to help his dad adjust to a "regular normal life" as the monarchy began to lose its political power. So this house is where the king could get away and live like a typical aristocrat.  Thus the architecture decorations are relatively bare compared to that on other buildings in the palace grounds. This is the main gate to the house:

This is a western wall along Jagyeongjeon, the living quarters built for the Queen Dowager Jo in Gyeongbokgung Palace. This wall is decorated with blossoming plants and Chinese characters to wish for health and happiness. I just like the colorful bricks and decorations. Different is good. (Can you tell I really thought the palace architecture got repetitive?):

Seonjeongjeon Hall is where the king dealt with state affairs at Changdeokgung Palace. In fact, the meaning of Seonjeong is "to carry out good politics." The building is also notable as the only remaining building on the palace grounds with a blue-tile roof. (Parts of the palace have been rebuilt many times because of numerous fires and invasions.) Sadly, this was about as close as I could get; the area was closed off for preservation purposes:

And this is Seokjojeon from Deoksugung Palace. (No, that wasn't a mistake; this is some of the interesting Western architecture that I wrote about last time.) This stone building was used for receiving foreign envoys during the Great Korea Empire. Now it's used as part of the royal museum:

Jeonggwanheon is the resting and entertainment place of Deoksugung Palace. This is where King Gojong would come to listen to music, drink coffee/tea, and hold banquets for foreign envoys. It also has an interesting mix of Korean and Western features and it was actually designed by a Russian architect:

(You also may have noticed that all of my pictures from Deoksugung Palace were taken at night. The place is actually open till 9 PM. How cool is that?)

Finally there was the changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace:

They must have incredible stamina because I have no idea how they can stand still for so long. And at the same time, they've got to deal with endless obligatory photo ops with tourists:

Yay for windy days:

All of my photos from churches, shrines, and palaces in Korea can be found below:
Korea (Album II - Temples/Shrines/Churches)

Friday, March 27, 2009

And so the final countdown begins. 4 more blog entries of Korea and then I'm done!

Much like with Rome, you could make the argument that Seoul is also like a outdoor museum. From the historic gates of the city to the temples and shrines, Seoul has a great offering of historical sites located right within the city. Of these cultural relics, the most frequently visited are the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty.

As the last royal and imperial dynasty of Korea, the Joseon Dynasty has had an significant influence on modern Korean society. Go figure, more five centuries of rule (from July 1392 to August 1910) ought have that kind of effect. With consolidated control of all Korea, the country reached the height of classical Korean culture, trade, science, literature, and technology. 

It was also during this time that Hangul, the native alphabet of the Korean language, was established so that commoners could also learn to read and write. (Prior to this, Chinese characters were used and trust me, Chinese characters are not easy. FYR, literacy in China is defined by someone who can read/write 1,500 Chinese characters. College graduates are required to know 7,000 to 10,000 characters. Think about that.)

Anyway, the Joseon Dynasty built Five Grand Palaces within their capitol of Seoul. I guess that when you're the King, you can never have enough places to live in. Out of these five, I only had a chance to visit three of them sadly. I'm not sure how I spent a week in Seoul and wasn't able to see all of them. Anyway, it's not really a big deal because all the palaces started to look the same after awhile anyway. Rather than writing about each palace individually, I decided to give a basic overview using pictures from all three places:
  • The Gate
Every palace has to have a main gate right? The main gate in the following picture (called Geunjeongmun Gate) is from Gyeongbokgung Palace. This palace served as the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty and it's considered to be the grandest. There's a lot to see there considering that the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum are also located on the palace grounds. I ended up going here on Lunar New Years Day. Yay for free admission!

  • The Throne Hall
Located not too far from the main gate is the throne hall used for official ceremonies, such as celebrations by royal subjects and receptions for foreign envoys. The throne hall in this picture is Injeongjeon Hall, the "greatest building" of Changdeokgung Palace (at least that's how the brochure describes it.) Now if you compare this building with the main gate from above, you might notice a striking amount of similarities in the architectural style (double tiered roof, same colors, etc). Pretty much every building in every palace looks like that:

Now if you look closely at the previous picture you might notice two rows of stones markers on each side. These are the court stones that indicated where important officials were supposed to stand during meetings of state affairs. One row was for the civil officials and the other was for the military officials. The closer you stood to the front, the more important you were. Below is a close-up of the 6th court stone (taken at Deoksugung Palace):

Deoksugung Palace was actually my favorite of the three that I visited. It's really interesting because it's the only one of the Five Grand Palaces in corporate Western architecture. (I'll have more pictures of that later.) Anyway, this next picture is a close-up of the facade of the throne hall:

  • The Throne
These next two pictures are of the interior of the the throne hall. The throne is always located in the rear central part of the building between the pillars. And they sure love that yellow/red/green paint job, huh? Apparently this color combination was reserved for royalty:

Now behind this seat is a folding screen with a picture of the sun, moon, and five mountains. (And this was the same picture at each palace.) I've read that it's symbolic of the king "becoming the pivot of a balanced universe," because when the King sat in front of the screen, he literally became the central point of the composition:

  • The Shrine
Okay, so I've thrown an extra one in here. In addition to the Five Grand Palaces, there was also a Jongmyo Shrine, a site dedicated to the memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. Jongmyo is the supreme shrine of the state where the "spirit tablets" of the royal ancestors are enshrined. (The spirit tables are markers indicating where a person's spirit dwells.) When a king or queen died, mourning would continue at the palace for three years after his/her death. After then, these spirit tablets would be moved here to Johnmyo and enshrined. 

Jongmyo is also known as the located of the Jongmyo Jerye, the Royal Ancestral Rite. This rite for worshipping the late kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty in is held every year at the first Sunday of May. (That totally makes me want to go back and photograph the ceremony.) The rite is usually accompanied with the court music playing and dance.

This is a picture of the Jaegung Area where the king and crown prince made their preparations for the Royal Ancestral Rite. They would enter through this main gate and stay here to purify their minds and bodies before heading to the main hall of Jongmyo:

And this is Jeongjeon, the central building of Jongmyo where all the spirit tables are enshrined. As you can tell, the overall architecture here at Jongmyo is simpler. There isn't that same lavish adornment seen in the palace architecture. I guess it's supposed to exhibit the dignity and solemnity of the place...or something like that. Anyway, this particular building is the longest independent building in Korea. And obviously as the number of enshrined kings and queens grew, they had to keep expanding the facility. Currently there are 19 spirit chambers with a total of 49 tablets:

Anyway, that's it for now. I've got one more entry about palaces and then a couple about Lunar New Years in Korea!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Yesterday, I went to the Hong Kong Flower Show. Spending a Sunday around orchids, tulips, and cosmos may not sound like an ideal weekend adventure, but I enjoyed myself in spite of the unfavorable conditions:

  • After a long night of drunken singing at KTV for my friend's birthday, I was left exhausted the following day. I'm still not sure how I managed to wake up so early and get myself out to Hong Kong for the flower show.
  • The event was smaller than I expected and jam-packed full of people. That's what I get for going on the last possible day of the show. And I'm a guy who despises being stuck in crowded areas.
  • The weather wasn't exactly uncomfortable: it was incredibly hot and humid. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts didn't do much to keep me cool. It probably didn't help that I was lugging around about 10 pounds worth of camera equipment.
  • Despite being there for about 5 hours, I ended up not even having lunch. Come to think of it, all I had while I was there was some sports drink. None of the real food looked appetizing to me so I just didn’t eat.
Like I said, I had a great time despite all of that. Things have been pretty stressful lately and it's been taking a toll on me mentally and physically. Photographing the flower show on Sunday was the type of break that I've been needing. I won't deny that it was also great just to get out of China and head to Hong Kong. But mostly, I've needed to get out and spend some serious time shooting. In those five hours of taking pictures of flowers, I was re-reminded of one of the main reasons why I love photography so much.

Taking pictures just takes a load off my mind. All the crap that I've been dealing with at work and in my personal life just temporarily disappeared during those five hours. When I get into the zone and start hitting my stride, there’s no better escape. And when it comes to macro photography and flowers, it's even better. Flowers don't move and you can't give them direction or tell them how to pose. It’s pretty much just going to sit there prettily. So it takes more concentration from the photographer because you can't control the flower, but you can really control the camera. Thus for me, it requires me focus even more to figure out the right angle, composition, depth of field, exposure, etc.

And that's one of the main reasons I love photography. I love that I can become so totally engrossed in taking a picture that I forget about what's bothering me. I know it's not a long lasting permanent solution, but sometimes all I need is a break, even if it's only for five hours.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

So I ran into an old "friend" today. I don't like the guy and I've just been trying to avoid him lately. I've knew eventually I would have to face him again, but I didn't think it would happen so soon. I was getting off an MTR (Mass Transit Railway) train in Hong Kong and there he was. Before I even had a chance to react, he said with a devilish grin, "Glad to see me again?" It was like taking a swift punch to the gut.

DAMN YOU HUMIDITY! (The humidity is supposed to be at 90~95%. Seriously.)

During the last couple of months, it's been great; the weather has been pretty cool and dry. Shenzhen is in the subtropical part of China, so we don't have freezing cold, snowy winters like in Beijing. But lately it's just been getting hotter and more uncomfortable here. I've had to turn on the AC in my room everyday this week; I can't remember the last time I had to use it before then. I know that Spring/Summer are coming, but it's only late March! Come on, gimme a break.

That means it's time to start rolling up those sleeves and stop wearing jeans. It's back to showering twice a day so I don't feel disgusted with myself. The hardest part is going to be re-teaching myself to just accept being sweaty and feeling sticky. There's nothing you can really do to escape the humid, hot summers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"So why isn't your hair yellow?"

Yellow? Did I hear that right? I'm pretty sure 黄色 means yellow. Unless she meant ... but, but ... there's no way she meant that...

"You mean like golden colored, like ... blond?"

"Exactly! You know because Americans all have blond hair. Did you just dye yours hair black?"

I can't believe this girl just asked me that. She actually thinks that my natural hair color is blond. I don't even know how to respond to that. Where do I even begin?

"Um...well I'm Chinese. I was just born in America."

"Oh you're Chinese!? I thought you were an American all this time."

Ugh, to be an ABC in China. I really need to figure out how to say "Chinese American" in Mandarin. It would make it a lot easier to explain my background.

"Well I'm American too. My parents were born in America and my grandparents were all Cantonese..."

"And your grandparent's parents and their parents and their parents were all born in America?"

Man, this girl just doesn't understand. I guess people don't understand the concept of being Chinese American (or even Asian American for that matter). I guess you're either one of us or one of them. How can I convince her that I'm still Chinese?

"Well actually my grandparents were all born in Guangdong [aka Canton]."

"Oh I see."

This is just getting awkward now. Time to ABCsee myself out of this conversation

"Well, I'm going to head back to my office now. Bye."


That's a real conversation that I had with a security guard at work today. In her defense, the entire conversation was conducted in Mandarin (so maybe I didn't fully understand what she was saying). 

But still, me with naturally blond hair!? Gimme a break. Did she think my eye brows were dyed black as well? And that I wear color contacts?? And she's thought this the last 8 months that I've been here??? 

Hands down, this is the best question I've been asked so far. Waaaay better than the question about whether all black people can slam dunk.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Take a look at the photo below and tell me what you think:

It's pretty huh? I don't wanna toot my own horn, but I like it. In fact, I'd love it if not for the fact that this picture cost me $450. It's probably best I explain from the beginning...

I spent the day at Splendid China, a miniatures amusement park in downtown Shenzhen, China. It's similar to Window of the World, only this place focuses solely on China. This park is filled with miniature versions every major tourist attraction in China: Great Wall, Forbidden City, Terracotta Warriors, Tiananmen Square (without any tanks), etc. They actually had a sister theme park in near Orlando, Florida too, but it closed within a year of opening.

Anyway, I'm there sitting beside this miniature Alishan, trying to take pictures of some blooming lotus flowers. (FYI, Alishan is a mountain in Taiwan famous for its hiking trails and high altitude tea plantations.) So imagine me sitting on the ground, leaning over the water's edge, carrying a sling bag full of lenses. Now my macro lens is somewhat short (105mm), so I really have to lean over to get close to the flower. So I stretch out my arms and reach forward, just a little further...

FWOMP! (Did I mention that my bag was partially unzipped?)

I immediately look over and watch something roll down and plunge into the pond's murky depths. Air bubbles rise to the surface as my telephoto lens takes it's last gasps for breath; I've just sent it a watery grave. I thrust my hands into the muck and blindly fumble around, searching for my lens. I manage to find the lens and I quickly rip off the lens cap, back cap, UV filter to survey the damage.

So how bad is it? Well the back cap seems to have sealed out any water pretty well, but there's still a shitload of water stuck inside the front element of the lens. See for yourself:

I'm most worried about how dirty that water is. The bottom of a lotus pond is known for being incredibly murky, smelly, dirty, and mucky. (Thus it's rather inspiring that such a beautiful, successful flower is able to make its way out of this muck.) Unfortunately though, my lens just so happened to crash land in this muck. So even if I find a way to dry out the lens, there's still going to be a lot of dirty and gunk in there.

Check out my snap-on lens cap. It's fully dried out, but it still makes grinding sounds when I squeeze it. In fact, you can still kind of see the dried specks of mud:

I tried to dry the lens right away by leaving it out in the sun, but I think I made it worse. It seemed to just evaporate the water and make it spread through out the lens even faster. And since the lens is weather-sealed, the water is pretty much stuck in there. As you can see, it spead to the to the focusing distance window:

It seems like I'm going to have to take it to a Nikon service center...except there aren't any in China. Which means I'll have to take it to Hong Kong one...except they aren't open on Sundays. DAMN YOU, 6 day work week. Think they'll let me take a day off? I'd say this counts as an emergency!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In case you couldn't tell by my rambling entry from yesterday, my mental state is rather fragile right now. I just have had a lot of pent up frustration with my work situation. This whole restructuring effort has put a big question mark on my future. I know it's pointless to worry about things you can't really control; in the end I'm just going to have to wait it out. It's just that amidst all of these organizational changes, no one is really looking out for my best interests. I currently don't have a concrete plan, and that worries me since I'm supposed to go home in July. My worst fear is that they'll say, "We're going to have to extend your training. We just don't think you're ready yet. Given all this restructuring, we think you need more readjustment time here." 

Speaking of a possible extension, I actually got some "good" news today. I was chatting with a fellow coworker who came over with me from the US at the same time. Apparently they want to extend his training beyond a year and so he's been dealing with China work visa issues. There's a requirement that you need a minimum 2 years of work experience to qualify for a work visa. And that's a problem since he just graduated last year. (So in a way, we're in the same boat: if my training ends up getting extended, I'm going to have to deal with this as well.)

It's funny because all this time we've been staying here legally, but working here illegally. I mean we don't have a work visa; we just have a tourist visa. Technically we could be deported at any time! (And I didn't realize this until today when I took a closer look at the visa in my passport, LOL.) Thus it seems like extending or reapplying for another tourist visa is not a viable option.

So what does this all mean for me exactly? Well I'm assuming this means that I won't be able to acquire a work visa and thus my training won't be extended beyond July! I know that my friend's situation is not a guarantee, but I'm going to pretend like it is. Deep down, I just want to believe that my training won't be extended. I know this approach is nonsensical, but I need to pretend like it's the case to ease my mind. And at this point I'm willing to forego logic to cling on to something as simple at this.

I was reading through some old blog entries and I came across this tidbit:

"I know that when I come back in December I'll have NO regrets about my decision to take this job and come to China. I have no doubts about that. Right now though, I'm having trouble seeing through the fog and I'm just overwhelmed."

(Coming back in December? Yeah right! Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine my training being extended another six months.)

The reason that I quoted from this old blog entry is that I'm amazed by how I find the last sentence to still be so relevant ...

Eight months ago it was tough...real tough. Honestly it was probably the hardest time of my life thus far. Fresh out of college, I was dealing with being an adult, living on my own, and taking care of myself. For a lot of people this transition is hard enough, and I was doing it in a foreign country where I could barely form a sentence! And at the same time I was trying to deal with some serious homesickness, culture shock, and loneliness.

And somehow, working six days a week at the factory didn't make things any easier. It wasn't even really about the 60+ hour weeks. It was the fact that I have NO idea what my job actually was.  I didn't even really understand what my hell my department manufactured. I couldn't understand why they sent me half way around the world because I felt like I had no purpose here. Everyday I would dread coming to work; I was always worried about not finding enough tasks to keep me busy. And I didn't even know what my long term plan was, i.e. when I'd be coming back and where my final placement would be. It really was like being lost in a thick cloud of fog.

I've come a long way since breaking down and crying in that bathroom stall. I feel like I've matured considerably since then. (Except for losing my wallet,) I've been able to take care of myself fairly well here. I'm learning to depend less on my parents and even manage my own finances (even if my Roth IRA mutual fund has dropped 12% since opening the account). I've also become quite accustomed to the lifestyle, food, and culture of China. In fact, I've reached a point where I can get around the city on my own with local transportation using only Mandarin. And as for work, I'm beginning to understand my responsibilities and role as a project manager. The best part is that I'm actually being given work. Although it's not much and I still have to find stuff to keep myself busy, it's better than nothing I suppose.

But at the same time I wonder about how much things have really changed. Sure I've become accustomed to working and living in China, but I still feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. And while I may be used to the lifestyle here, that doesn't stop me from going to Hong Kong just about every weekend (because it's "Western" and they speak English.) And while the homesickness is nowhere near as bad as when I first got here, but I still can't help but cry sometimes. (It's my catharsis to purge and release any pent up bad feelings.)

And then there's that whole work issue that I've been dealing with. Thanks to the recent restructuring effort, I feel like everything has been reset. At one point I was content with work, but now it's remerged as a point of frustration. I feel lost again without a purpose. And I still don't know when I'm going home or even where I'm going to end up! At this point people seem content with giving it all more time and letting it work itself out.

It's funny how some things never change...

Friday, March 6, 2009

And continuing from part one:

The Third Tunnel
After I nearly missed the tour bus, we were off to our next point of interest: the Third Tunnel of Aggression. (That's what I get for wondering off in search of food, haha.) The Third Tunnel is one of a handfull of underground tunnels that cross the border of North and South Korea. This 1.1 mile long tunnel was built by North Korea for launching a surprise attack on Seoul. It didn't seem that big, but it's estimated to be large enough to move 10,000 soldiers per hour. Here is a layout of the tunnel to give you an idea of what it looks like: 

The tunnel is located 240 feet underground, so you have to walk down this long, steep walkway just to get to the entrance. (I didn't think it was that exhausting, but our tour guide told us about how one of her tourists couldn't make it back up the path.) It made me really sad that we couldn't take pictures inside the tunnel. I'm not exactly sure why it was such a big deal. Maybe it was a matter of national security, to ensure the North is unaware of the renovations that have been made to the tunnel. Or maybe it was just because the tunnel was small and crowded. (I like the former reason; it's more scintilizing even if it's not true.) In either case, here is a picture of the entrance to the walkway. Beyond this point you're not allowed to take pictures :(

Now when this tunnel was discovered by South Korea in 1978, North Korea actually tried to downplay the incident. In fact, they flat out denied building it, claiming it was a South Korean tunnel. But based on the slight incline of the tunnel (that drains water back towards North Korea) and the direction of the dynamite blasting, it was clear that North Korea had build this tunnel. So then they changed their story claiming that this was just a coal mine. They even went so far as to paint black "coal" on the walls!

Since I can't show you the "coal," here is a picture of the camera feeds from various places around the tunnel. It's hard to tell, but the images on the top row are from inside the tunnel!:

Dora Observatory
After almost missing the tour bus again, we were off to Dora Observatory, the northern most point in South Korea. Located atop Mount Dora, from this observatory one can look across the DMZ.

For security reasons, they had this "photo line," i.e. you're not allowed to take any pictures past the yellow line. From standing at this line, it's impossible to see the DMZ or North Korea (well unless you're Yao Ming or something). Again, I'm not really sure why. Maybe this kind of intel could be valuable to the North Koreans for planning attacks across the DMZ? In either case, the soldliers were serious about the rule and they were ready to confiscate memory cards:

Dorasan Station
Finally, there was Dorasan Station. This railroad station has become a symbol of the hope for reunification. The Gyeongui Line that runs through this station at one point connected Seoul to Pyeonyang. An effort has been slowly underway to recconect this railway with tracks having been built across the DMZ. Test runs have been completed and there's even a once a weekday frieght train that travels between North and South Korea. Obviously though there's no regular passenger train service ... for now. Anyway, this is the sign for the passenger trains to Pyeongyang:

And because tourists love pictures with soldiers in uniform, they had two people standing guard. It must seriously be the most boring job in the world. For one, there's nothing really to guard. And secondly they have to deal with annoying tourists/photographers (like me!) who want to take pictures of them all day. That's probably why this guy looks so heated:

On a final note about the DMZ, it's interesting to note that no human has entered the DMZ in the last 50 years. Thus it's become a de facto wildlife/nature reserve and environmentalists hope that if reunification occurs, the area will be preserved. It sounds like an awesome idea except for the fact that this was a battlefield littered with mines.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The DMZ was probably the most fascinating historical place I visited in South Korea. Before coming, I actually didn't know that much about the history of the division of Korea. (That's the great thing about traveling: you have the opportunity to learn all sorts of neat things about someone else's history, culture, language, food, etc.)

From current my understanding it seems like Korea got screwed over by the US and the Soviet Union. After decades of colonization and annexation by Japan, Korea had the chance to form their own country at the end of World War II. But the US and Soviet Union were unable to agree on whether to implement a democratic or communist government. So they decided to arbitrarily divide Korea along the 38th parallel. Independent elections were held in the US-backed south, while a USSR friendly provisional government was set up in the north. And to this day, Korea is still divided into North and South Korea.

So what is the DMZ then? Well after being unified for more than a millennium, the idea of a divided Korea was unacceptable to both governments. And the Korean War occurred as a natural result of this conflict. After the war, a 2.5 mile buffer zone was established between North and South Korea. And this area is what is known as the DMZ. (Interestingly enough, since no peace treaty signed after the armistice agreement, the two countries are technically still at war.)

Anyway, enough with the history. For my trip to the DMZ, I decided to go along with a tour group. Honestly though, I hate being in a tour group because I hate feeling like a tourist. Plus I'd much rather explore at my own pace. I hate feeling like I need to keep up/slow down for the group. But with a coupon from my hostel, I decided to make an exception. And I will admit that it was nice having someone else plan everything. Plus my tour guide was hilarious.

Freedom Bridge
The first stop on the tour was the "Bridge of Freedom." This bridge connects North and South Korea and it was used by refugees from the north. However, it's probably most famous for being the site of a POW exchange during the war:

And this fence blocks off the bridge to keep people from entering:

The South Korean entrance to the bridge is located in Imjingak. This park that was built in 1972 with the hope that someday unification would be possible. With the division of Korea, there are a lot of people who will never be able to return home to see their friends or family. It's rather sad actually:

As a result, people will often come to this site and hang ribbons with their notes/prayers. You know, things like, "No Divided Korea." Usually something more serious than, "PEARL JAM RULEZ!" (Not that I disagree with that message):

Anyway, that's it for part one of my DMZ tour. I ended up splitting the entry into two parts because I ended up having written so much content. I'll have part two posted tomorrow!

During my last night in Seoul, I made my way over to N Seoul Tower, a communication tower located on Mt. Namsan. The structure measures 777 feet in height from base to tip, but since it's on a mountain, the total height is 1,574 feet above sea level. N Seoul Tower was an item on my "Seoul To-Do List" that I ended up putting off until the last possible moment. And with my hostel at the base of Mt. Namsan, I really really should have gone earlier. So on my last night, I braved the cold and caught the Namsan cable car up to the peak.

I didn't really make it a priority because other tall buildings just pale in comparison after you've visited Taipei 101. I ended up going N Seoul Tower anyway though for two main reasons. One was the nighttime view of the city...

...And the other was the "sky restrooms." Imagine peeing to this! (Well for guys anyway. I'm not sure about the design of the women's restroom.) It's funny that you can enjoy a great panoramic view in the bathroom. And obviously the fact that it's a bathroom didn't stop me from taking this picture. You should have seen me hanging around the restroom, waiting for the place to clear out, pretending to wash my hands, etc. Taking pictures while guys are peeing would have felt too weird and creepy:

As for the rest of the place, it's exactly what you'd expect: lots of glass windows, overpriced cafes, plenty of souvenir shops and a fancy expensive restaurant on the top floor. I did like the "window guides " that pointed out famous/historical/touristy sights of Seoul. (It's that writing is on the window): 

They've even got little dots and lines on the window to give you a general idea of where the landmark(s) is located. The line in this image demarks the Han River and the various bridges that cross it. (And I'm pleasently surprised by how well the bokeh came out):

After I'd had enough of nighttime city views, I headed back down the plaza level. Walking around, I noticed a whole lotta' these little locks attached to every gate and fence: 

So what's the deal? Apparently couples love to come up here and chain their everlasting love with a little lock. (Did I mention that these are locks of love?) I'm curious about where they get such cute little locks though. Look at this one, it's got little hearts on it!:

But my real question is: "What happens when you break up?" I mean you don't want leave up a lock that belongs to your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. I suppose that why they have this sign:

And I imagine all the pimps and players out there must spend a small fortune on locks!

Next up is Cheonggye Stream, a 3.7 mile long stream that runs right through the heart of central Seoul.  Historically, the steam served as a waste water drain for the people living in Seoul. (Thus it's rather ironic that Cheonggyecheon translates to "clean stream.") The garbage and waste situation became considerably worse after liberation from Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War. It became the symbol of poverty and slovenliness and as a result it was eventually covered over with concrete. But in 2003, the city of Seoul began a massive urban renewal and beautification project:

Two years and 249 million USD later, the project was complete. Since then, it's become quite the popular attraction among local residents and tourists alike. Paths were made on both sides of the stream for people to take leisurely walks. If you ever get a chance to check it out, you'll understand why it's such a lovely place to visit:

They even made the effort to beautify and modernize the bridge underpasses. Under this particular bridge they installed rows of lights under the water:

Actually, there's a total 22 bridges that cross Cheonggyecheon. At this underpass, they made an photography gallery! And of course every work on display is a photograph of the stream. (Sadly, not every underpass looks as cool as this one):

And this is the waterfall at the beginning of the stream (Yay for blurred moving water photos!):

They even went so far as to include some digital, public works of art. This first piece is Digital Garden a work by Mexican artist Miguel Chevalier. According to the official blurb: 

"The artist takes you on an unforgettable journey through a digital 'garden of the future' that even includes a captivating presentation of a variety of three-dimensional flowers."

And here's a video of Digital Garden:

The other public artwork they have is Digital Canvas, a piece created by French artist Laurent Francois. The show basically consists of laser beams reflected of a screen of water mist. I can't quite phrase it as eloquently as the official blurb: 

"The artist's use of lasers to project various elements of nature on the water fountains of the Cheonggyecheon is truly an amazing sight."

Is it "truly an amazing sight?" You'll have to decide for yourself after watching this video (And did I forget to mention that all my videos are in HD. You've just got to click that little button that says "HD" near the bottom right):