My Old Man and Our New York

My final days in New York were simultaneously heart-warming and slightly devastating. Well, maybe not at the same time, but the last few days turned out to be a kaleidoscope of emotions, and a lot of goodbyes, with not all of them turning out how I had expected…

***

The first farewell was to Melissa, and the apartment that I had, for all intents and purposes, been calling home for the last six weeks. They say time flies when you’re having fun, but honestly, so much had happened since I first stepped off the subway in Grand Central Station that sometimes it felt like a lifetime ago. And while I’m sure Melissa was ready to finally have her very own apartment completely to herself for the first time since she had moved in, we shared an emotional goodbye with lots of long hugs and me being unable to adequately express my gratitude for everything that she has done for me.
“Really, it was no trouble at all. I’ve loved having you here! It’s gonna be weird not having you around,” she said with a beaming smile. “As long as I’m here, you’ve always got a home in New York City.” To this day, I’m still amazed by the endless depth of her generosity. I gathered up my things and said goodbye for the final time, and even said a final farewell to the doorman (“I’m leaving for good this time, I promise!“) as I made my way back to Grand Central Station. However, JFK Airport was not my destination today. I still had one last night in New York, and I was going to spend it with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in many months: my father.

Back when I was staying with Mike in Washington, I got a phone call in the middle of the day. I didn’t get a lot of calls while I was on the road, since nothing was ever usually that urgent that it required them, but I remember being extremely surprised to see that it was my father calling. When you get long distance phone falls from your family, sometimes it’s only natural to expect the worst, so I was a little hesitant when I answered the phone.
“Hello? Dad?”
“Robert! How are you?”
“I’m… I’m good, though… Dad, I’m in Washington DC.”
“Ah, I was wondering where you would be! What time is it there? It’s shouldn’t be late.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “No, Dad. It’s 1pm.” Far from being the bearer of bad news, my dad was just on his way home from having some drinks with his work associates. Uncharacteristically, he’d had enough to push him into a state of being relatively tipsy, but rather than being clumsy or slurring his words, he spoke in a rather eloquent and poetic manner, an extension of his usual well-composed self.
“I just called your mother to let her know where I was and that I’m on my way home,” he told me. “But it’s late here, and… I just felt that I wanted to speak to somebody that I love.” I swear I teared up a little when I heard that. If we’d been in the same time zone I assume I would have been a little annoyed to be receiving drunk dials in such a manner, but when my own father – who I hadn’t seen in approximately 5 months – calls you from the other side of the world for no reason other than to tell you that he loves you… well, it was a little special.

I take after my father in quite a few ways. We’re both deep thinkers and can get extremely philosophical. I mean, we can all get philosophical after a few drinks, but my dad’s one of the few people I know who can still hold a substantial and legitimate conversation about the meaning of life after one too many nips of whiskey. I wish I could say the same for myself – I guess he’s a role model to me in that regard… and among other things, of course. We spoke for almost an hour, and if I closed my eyes I could imagine us sitting around the dining room table in my old family home, bottle of scotch open in front of us, having the same, life-affirming conversation. With a substantial amount of time still left on my journey, it was a beautiful experience that was able to keep at bay any homesickness that might have been creeping into my subconscious.

***

It couldn’t have been any more than a month later that I was hopping onto the NYC subway to to head over to the Hell’s Kitchen, where I’d be sharing a hotel room with my dad that evening. He was in the USA as part of a business trip, but had managed to set aside a night in New York for some personal time to see UFO, a beloved rock band of his youth, playing a live gig. When he’d called me up that afternoon in Washington and told me the date of the one night he’d be in New York, it seemed like the perfect coincidence that that was the night before I flew out of the US and down to Brazil. When he’d asked if I wanted to come to the concert and spend some time with him, I immediately said yes, despite not having any idea who UFO was. It certainly wasn’t how I ever imagined my last night in New York would look like, but when things like that work out so neatly, it seems wrong not to take the opportunity to make it happen.

So I rocked up to the Holiday Inn in west Manhattan, where the reception staff were apparently expecting me. My dad arrived a few hours later, and after a brief and jovial reunion we set out to have a bite to eat and a drink or two before the concert that evening. My dad had booked a VIP pass to the concert, which apparently involved some kind of backstage tour and meet and greet with the band. When we rocked up to the venue, I suppressed a little chuckle under my breath when I realised I’d already had my own behind-the-scenes tour of the place – it was the same venue that the VIVA party had been in. We were early, so there was no queue to speak of, and the doors that I knew to be an entrance to the main room of the building were wide open. When we couldn’t see any sign of an official person waiting for us, my dad took it upon himself to go inside and see what was happening for himself.
“Dad! Wait… what… where are you… Oh God,” I sighed, having no choice but to follow him. There were what appeared to be a bunch of roadies setting up equipment and running sound checks on the the guitars and drums. We stood around for longer than I thought should have been possible before someone noticed us and asked if they could help us.

When my dad explained the VIP ticket and what he was doing here, the man stared back at us blankly.
“Oh..kay…” he said, trying to make some kind of sense of the information my dad has given him. “Honestly, I don’t know anything about it, but let me see if I can find someone who does.” We waited patiently, and I exchanged a look with my dad. He just shrugged and rolled his eyes.
“You’ve gotta take a bit of initiative sometimes, Robert. Otherwise we’d still be waiting outside for someone who clearly wasn’t looking for us.” Normally I would have been a little irked that this was turning into a lecture, but I have to admit, he had a point. He’s a smart man, my father, so I let him have that one. Eventually the guy who we spoke to originally came back, with a sheepish, timid smile that looked unbelievably out of place of a guy who looked as though he could be the drummer in a metal band.

As it turns out, I was pretty close. He was the lead singer of the first opening act, a band called Awaken, and he seemed have taken his inability to help us to heart.
“I’m sorry guys, it’s a bit of a mess back here right now. I’m not really sure what’s going on with the guys from UFO.” My dad explained the VIP ticket thing again, throwing in that’d he’d only managed to get a regular ticket for me and asked if I’d be able to still join. From the looks of what was going on, it didn’t seem like it would have been a problem – nothing here was too official or professional. But there didn’t even appear to be any kind of meet and greet, or any VIP experience at all.
“Look, I’m so sorry for this,” the guy said, and finally introduced who he actually was. “But here – I’ll give you guys these.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out some official looking lanyards, with passes that were emblazoned with Awaken’s logo and the letters ‘VIP’. “The show isn’t officially opening for a little while, but when you come back later you’ll be able to use these to skip the queue and come and sit in the VIP area.”
So we walked away from the whole thing a little confused, but not empty-handed. “All you have to do it look like you know what you’re talking about,” my dad said with a chuckle, “and people will respond to that.” I guess there’s still a lesson or two in life I can still learn from my old man.

My VIP pass, courtesy of one very persuasive father.

My VIP pass, courtesy of one very persuasive father.

***

We returned to the venue later to see a line of fans dressed primarily in black lining up along the edge of the building. Dad and I flashed our VIP passes.
“We’re with the band,” my dad said with a laugh as the bouncers inspected them, and I suppressed a groan of mild embarrassment. We were waved through to a foyer area, where we were required to present our actual tickets, but then once I was inside no one gave much notice to which kind of ticket I’d had – I had a VIP pass from the band! There was a small roped off VIP section, so dad and I got a drink each and sat down in it, just because we could. We watched a security guard come around and usher people who weren’t supposed to be there out of the area, but he left us well alone when we showed him our passes. It was all pretty hilarious, to be honest. I can’t say I’ve ever really been a VIP at any kind of event, but I had a feeling this kind of magic that my dad worked landed him in similar situations often enough.

Awaken playing their opening set.

Awaken playing their opening set.

The rest of the night was pretty standard – we saw our mates from Awaken play, and even had a chat with them after they’d played their set, and eventually UFO came on. I didn’t know a single song, but they were a crew of old men who still knew how to play their instruments after all these years, and they put on a really good show. It was an enjoyable evening, and I’m glad I’d chosen to take the time on my final night in New York to hang out with my dad. I guess it took being on the road for was long as I had been, and being away from them for so long, for me to really appreciate just how much I love my family, and how much they love me.

My dad and I in the VIP area.

My dad and I in the VIP area.

The main event - UFO.

The main event – UFO.

***

My dad had to leave New York quite early the next morning, but we wandered down the streets of Hell’s Kitchen to get a slice of pizza before heading back to the hotel. I got up to say goodbye in the morning, but I was probably a little too tired to be emotional.
“Stay safe, call if you ever need anything, and I’ll see you in the new year,” he said with a hug and a pat on the back, and then he was gone.

I’d hoped that I would be able to say one final goodbye in New York before heading over to JFK later that afternoon to catch my flight. Ralf was also leaving New York that afternoon, but his trip was only half-vacation and half-business, and he’d told me that he still had some work he needed to get done, and in the end there wasn’t any time for us to meet up one last time before we parted ways for a final, indefinite time. If I had known that the last time I was going to see him was on the subway home from our walk through Central Park, I might have taken the time to make it a little more meaningful than “Oh crap, this is my stop! Sorry, I’ll text you when I get home, see you soon!”
Because that was what happened the last time I saw him – an abrupt, awkward leap off the subway, completely convinced I would see him again before leaving New York. The fact that it really upset me that I didn’t see him again… well, in retrospect I can’t really put my finger on it. He had been a really enchanting person to meet – a diamond in the rough in an almost literal sense, when you consider where exactly we met in Berlin – and I think I had carried that enchantment with me when I had continued on my journey. Knowing that I actually was going to see him again in New York had kept whatever romantic spark we had had alive in my mind, but to have that final goodbye that I had been building up to ripped away from me so easily was, in short, devastating. I probably cried as hard as I would have at an emotional goodbye at the airport, but being alone was an extra twist of the knife – an extra knot in my stomach.

But that’s the way the cookie crumbles, and after the brief moment of heartache I remembered that I’d been getting quite good at being alone over the past five months. But it was in New York City, baby – New York City that I had really experienced it all. Many people say it’s the greatest city on Earth. I think that’s a very subjective title to award any city, but I have to admit, I understand why the Big Apple is a big contender. It exists as the epicentre of the world in countless stories and works of fiction just as much as it does in the minds and hearts of people all over the world. I’d both loved and hated New York, for all of it’s beauty, excitement, danger and wonder, and the city had both loved me back and crushed me at the same time. It was those experiences of that I was living for – the ones that test you, amaze you, open your eyes, open your heart, and eventually morph you into a better person. I reflected on all of this on my long public transport journey through Queens and out to the airport. For all it’s worthy and memorable experiences, it was time to finally move on from the Big Apple.

So long, NYC.

So long, NYC.

Thanks for having me, New York: I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.

Advertisements

Reflections on South East Asia

After my stressful trip back to Bangkok, I spent my last days in Thailand with Rathana, just chilling out and doing relatively normal things – going out for dinner, having a few drinks at a sky bar, watching a movie, doing a bit of shopping and chilling by the pool. When I think about it, it’s those little things that I really enjoyed about my time abroad. While it is fine to be a big ol’ tourist and gush over temples and beaches and resorts and all that jazz, I love the feeling of spending time just being in a foreign city and really living there, doing all the regular stuff as well as all the typical holiday things. I haven’t really figured out what I want to do with my life when, God forbid, this incredible journey comes to an end, but I must say that I’ve really developed a taste for living abroad. That issue is a can of worms in itself, though, and for now I just want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed, lessons I’ve learnt, and the life I’ve experienced during my time in South East Asia.

***

One thing that I was expecting, yet still deeply shocked by, was the prevalence of poverty in these countries. It broke my heart to see so many children in the streets, whether it was the boy in Saigon performing gruesome tricks such as breathing fire, chewing hot coals and eating razor blades, then approaching the crowds of beer-drinking tourists for a donation, or the little girl following me through the temples of Angkor Wat desperately trying to sell me five fridge magnets for a dollar, or the little girl carrying her baby brother, standing next to my table at a cafe in Siem Reap pleading, “Please, I don’t want money, I just want food.” It makes you want to run to the ATM and empty your accounts into their starving little hands, but I’ve been warned by so many about the poverty traps that evolve from giving these kids money, encouraging the very behaviour that keeps them on the streets and out of school. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Allistair told me he sometimes gave them a little bit of money, but made them promise that they would get off the streets and use the money to go to school. Yet I wonder how many kids actually listen to his advice, and how many just see it as another reason to continue with their begging.

Other people suggest that sitting them down and actually buying them a meal is a thousand times better than giving them money could ever be. However, I had a rather unpleasant experience in restaurant in Phnom Penh when it came to offering food. I had ordered pizza and a beer, and was sitting on a table facing out into the street, catching up on some blog posts and sending a few emails home on my iPad. Cambodia is full of people selling things on the street, whether its sunglasses, books, bracelets or marijuana, but it always tugs your heart strings a little to see children working on the streets like that. So when a little girl failed to interest me in the bracelets she was selling and her eyes fell hungrily onto the pizza in front of me, I finally caved in. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “I’m probably not gonna eat the whole thing anyway.” I pushed the plate slightly in her direction, and she leant over and lifted a cheesy triangle out and took a bite. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, were her three smaller companions all wanting their own pieces of my pizza too. “Oh, ah… Sure, take two,” I mumbled mostly to myself, because the little boy hadn’t waited for my permission to take a piece. I still wanted to have some of the pizza myself, so after that I pulled the plate back towards myself and took a bite out of one of the remaining pieces. Another little boy stood staring at me expectantly.

“Can’t you guys share?” I asked, motioning to the second piece that the first little boy had taken. I realise how awful and selfish that sounded, but I was trying to strike a balance between enjoying the food I’d ordered for myself and helping these little kids out. Yet they seemed so angry when I refused to give them any more of my pizza. “Look what you have, you have so much!” they yelled, pointing at my iPad and my beer. I’d have felt a little more guilty if they hadn’t started to harass me so much, with one of the boys sneaking around into the restaurant and behind my chair. I pulled my backpack close under my legs, huddling over my table, and I felt like someone with a bag of hot chips who had just been discovered by a flock of seagulls. The boy got so bold as to reach over and touch my iPad – I’m not sure if he was hoping to achieve anything, perhaps disturb the file I was working on, or simply just annoy me. He failed in the former, but definitely succeeded in the later. I’m not proud to admit it, but after that I ended up losing my temper and swearing at them, in an attempt to scare them off. Yet the girl, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, only came back with a greater fury, spitting my curse words back at me. I was in shock – how did what I thought was a simple gesture of kindness turn so bitter so quickly? The ordeal finally ended when the restaurant owner came out and had a word with the kids in their local tongue, and I relocated to a table further inside the restaurant. It had been a prime example of biting the hand that feeds, and I hate to admit that those children ruined it for all the others – I couldn’t bring myself to donate to any more street children, be it food, money, or anything else, because I was afraid of it escalating into another nasty situation.

***

To revisit a topic from a previous blog, I found the notion of love and relationships to be quite peculiar in South East Asia. As Anna had pointed out to me earlier on in my trip, their definition of love is something very different to our Western ideals of romance.There is a huge emphasis on tradition and family, which is a whole topic worthy of analysis in itself, but in this culture it’s probably similar to what we would call “living the dream” back at home – a white picket fence, happy marriage, two point five kids and an SUV parked in the driveway. Yet in Western culture, it’s becoming increasingly more common to break from the mould and live the life you want to live, not the life that’s expected of you.

That trend hasn’t caught on in Asia. One of the conversations I had with my host while I was Couchsurfing in Vietnam was about relationships. “I really want a boyfriend,” he had told me. “I want to start a family. I know I have my studies to finish, but I really want to start my life now.” When I suggested that there was more to life than relationships and family – or rather, one didn’t need to start a family to feel complete – he practically scoffed at the idea. I told him about several of my previous boyfriends where the topic of children had been discussed – not specially about us having them, but our individual views on the idea – and how every time I had been sure that I had a lot more life to experience before I was ready to settle down, let alone have a baby or start a family. But for him, all he could hear was the ticking of his biological clock. Being gay is one thing, and I was glad that while he wasn’t out, at least my host himself accepted his homosexuality. Yet for him the idea of disappointing his family, and not doing all he could to support and foster those basic traditional values, was a worse crime than loving a man would ever be.

And as my journey continued I saw this theme continue. Any local Asian boy was never just interested in a playful flirt or casual fun. It seemed as though they were all on a similar mission as my Couchsurfing host – to find the love of their life, to cherish and treasure and protect and look after. Which is an admirable quality – God knows it’s one I struggle with – but I can’t ignore the fact that they seem to be rushing through life without appreciating being young. I scoff and roll my eyes at the Westerners I know who are married at age 20, almost exclusively for religious reasons, and I would be quick to do the same again now if it weren’t for my realisation that its so ingrained into the culture, insofar that any other way of life just seems ludicrous.

***

Which I guess is only the tip of the iceberg that is the essential difference in culture. I know it sounds obvious, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject during my sociology degree, but it really took being and living in these places to comprehend the enormous differences in culture. ‘They do things differently in Asia’ is such an incredible understatement. It’s not just a different way of doing things, it’s a different way of thinking things – a different state of mind. You especially notice it when you run into other Westerners, and they seem just as confused as you do about some of those things.

Because the list is endless. I’ve had waiters who don’t understand the concept of tipping, and will actually refuse to take your money. I’ve bought items at a third of their original marked price, all because I didn’t seem interested at the beginning – the shopkeeper literally haggled herself down. As a white person I feel as though I’ve been both the receiver of special treatment and the target of multiple scams, all based on the idea that anyone from the Western world is insanely rich. Which, comparatively, most of us are. It’s a slightly uneasy feeling when it comes to haggling over an amount which literally converts into a couple of dollars back home. In Australia, I would have written it off as a couple of dollars, nothing major. Being in South East Asia almost had the reverse effect on me – in a place where the currency goes a lot further, we seem to want to make every cent count. Yet when we’re shaving a couple of dollars of the price that we’re paying, most of us don’t think about the money that the local seller is not getting, and how much more that money might mean to them than it means to us.

***

Cultural differences aside, I’ve had an amazing beginning to this year-long journey. I’ve been molested by monks and monkeys, run through the crowded streets of Thailand with super soakers, been moved to tears by the histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, won a game of Trivial Pursuits in the suburbs of Saigon, fallen off a motorbike in the middle of Phnom Penh, crammed myself into multiple night buses, and drunk an excessive amount of beer. Just to name a few things.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

As I board my plane to Beijing, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve only been travelling for six weeks, and a lot of people would say that that isn’t a long time at all. Which it isn’t – perhaps about a seventh of my journey in total. But I’ve seen so many places and met so many people that it definitely feels as though its been a long time. In the monotonous routine of life, six weeks can pass in the blink of an eye, so I feel confident that I’ve made the most of every second I’ve been away, experiencing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the wild and the crazy and the awe-inspiring. Yet the truth is that I rushed through South East Asia. There’s still a handful of other countries I would loved to have visited had I had more time, and definitely scores of new and exciting things to see when I eventually return.

But now the next stage of my adventure is calling me, along with what I’m sure – and actually hope – are a host of crazy new stories to be told.

Culture Lesson in Review: “Normal” Love

My first weekend in Bangkok felt like a throwback to my previous lifestyle in Sydney – you can take the boy from the party, but you can’t take the party from the boy.

Silom Soi 4 on a Saturday night.

Silom Soi 4 on a Saturday night.

Earlier in the week, Rathana had put me in touch with a few of his friends in Bangkok, and they had agreed to take me out and show me around while he was still in San Francisco. After dinner, and several jugs of margaritas, I found myself back at Silom Soi 4, though it was a Saturday night this time so the street was a little busier than last time I’d been there. The four guys I was with were all good friends, a couple of them having known each other for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, but they were fantastic company and welcomed me warmly into the group. Conversation was flowing fast and freely, and it usually does between such good friends, and I was privy to some hilarious, provocative, and thoughtful conversations. One in particular that I want to reflect on was a topic that was sparked when we spotted a peculiar couple on the other side of the street. One half of the couple was a young Thai boy with pretty, delicate features – I’m terrible with guessing, ages but I’d say somewhere in his mid- to late-twenties at the most. The other man was older… much, much older. I’m no stranger to age gaps in my relationships, but even I have to confess to feeling a little uncomfortable watching these two canoodle on the balcony of the bar.

Some cheeky remarks were made about the couple couple, and the discussion about such pairings being a common occurrence in the area turned to questions of why they occur in the first place. One of our group, who has only just recently moved to Bangkok himself, suggested that some of the younger local boys were almost driven to those types of relationships due to poverty, while the older Caucasian gentlemen use their wealth to effectively buy affection. In response to that suggestion, one of the guys – who we shall call ‘Anna’ – made a point that I personally had never really considered.

“The definition of love in their culture is very different from our Western ideas of what love is supposed to be. For them, love is about taking care of someone, or them taking care of you. I wouldn’t say that they’re driven to these relationships, or even that they’re being coerced, or that these men take advantage of them. It’s just how their culture defines love – they’re in love. Who are we to come in with our Western ideas about love and tell them what they have isn’t normal?”

I paraphrase, of course, but the idea really stuck with me. Even in a Western setting, I’ve had people question the integrity of my relationships with a number of previous boyfriends, whether it be due to ages or otherwise. And the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Anna. As two consenting adults, these two men have a relationship. Are they in love? Who can say? We didn’t ask them –  I know plenty of people in our own Western society who are in loveless relationships, but seeming a little more “normal” helps them avoid much scrutiny at all. The idea that love means different things in different cultures was intriguing, and while I’m sure there’s a multitude of complexities regarding love and relationships in Thai culture that I have little to no idea about, I think the discussion reaffirmed a value in me that I’d temporarily forgotten – love doesn’t play by any set rules, and there’s no such thing as a “normal” relationship. That particular age gap may have given me the heebie-jeebies, but hey, if they’d said that they were in love, then that would have been good enough for me.

Dancing in a cage in a Bangkok club - don't ask me which one, because I can't for the life of me remember.

Dancing in a cage in a Bangkok club – don’t ask me which one, because I can’t for the life of me remember.

My period of deep reflection on such complex emotional processes didn’t last long, though. A few more margaritas later and I was ready to hit the dancefloor. I think that’s what I like about a good gay bar – you can be millions of miles away in a foreign city, surrounded by people that you’ve never met and probably never will, but when you’re shaking your stuff on a crowded dancefloor to a Britney Spears remix, it’s always going to feel like home.