Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Night in the Woods

I wanna tell you real fast about a video game. It's called Night in the Woods.

If you're into gaming at all, you have probably heard of it. If you're not into gaming, you probably have not. It is an indie game, made by a small loving team, that ran a highly communicative and engaging Kickstarter campaign on the back of a simple but promising trailer.

I love it.

I've only played about 90 minutes. I'm sure it's not perfect. I can already tell that some of its necessary limitations, the things that it does to keep me on narrative track, may @ some point feel like corralling. I don't really care.

I love it. Here's why:

It's been clear, following the Kickstarter campaign, that its creators are duly obsessed with execution, aesthetics, for lack of a better And y'know what my own big project is not yet as complete as theirs, so I say this with studious humility but: I'm obsessed with that, too. So I was hoping I'd love it. Because I'm obsessed with the idea that if you really focus on making every thing, every beat, every element of your [insert form of expression] matter and land, then that's what it's about. That's why this stuff matters and is good and imparts something from some humans (in my case, I guess, one human) to others.

And this team, already, has done that over and over for me as a player.

When I played a "rhythm game" early on after Mae, the insanely engaging protagonist (an anthropomorphized cat; all the characters are anthropomorphized somethings), reengages her old friends and rejoins with the band...the song was good, and had good lyrics, and I cared about the scene and if I did well in the song.

When I had to buzz up to an apartment and a button was missing so I pressed all the others and had funny conversations and during that time I noticed the hint that was how I beat this small puzzle and got past this bit:
- I liked those conversations. They were fun and funny.
- That made the gradual repetition of the puzzle element engaging.
- That made the puzzle fun; that made it a game.

When I got home after having some conversations and doing some things and it was night because I'd slept in until 4pm because [story] all completely worked. It completely synced up.

(At one point, team NITW, I fell through the floor of my house, btw. I'm pretty sure it was not supposed to happen. Reloaded just fine.)

When the scenes that Mae has with (deliberate, likable) reliable repetition with her parents--dad at night; mom in morning--are GOOD SCENES, then I engage them and learn from them and enter the world.

And, most of all, when every visual detail and musical beat is like...a piece of expression given form either visual or aural, and teaches me/says something about Mae and her world, and the state of emotion and existence of's immersive. It's so, so immersive. I'm playing a AAA game now, as well, that I'm really enjoying, that I think is so great. But I'm not going to name it right here and right now because my point is this scrappy little indie is beating the pants off of it. NOT because of charity points, NOT because I so like the idea of a scrappy little indie. But because by controlling its small number of elements with such fine-toothed attention to aesthetic detail, they've created something completely and wholly engaging.

Thanks so much, Night in the Woods. I can't wait to feel more.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hong Kong #4: (Not) Using the Note

This post is about dining explorations.

There was Sun Hing, the awesome dim sum place from last trip; I went there a bunch. Actually, I figured out a neat "use" for it -- meaning a way to organically fit it into my schedule and way of doing things, rather than making a big-deal occasion out it. Sun Hing, famously, opens at 3am (and closes at some later-but-still-pretty-early a.m. hour). I wake up very early in general, and certainly was doing so on this bonked out trip while not even knowing what time my body thought that it was. Soooo...I'd roll out to Sun Hing, grab some dim sum, and come back to my tiny but totally acceptable AirBNB to write for a few hours. It was good! The main thing that I always got were those incredible sweet-savory egg buns; those are amazing. And the things that were like fried milk pudding or something went great with richly salty, spicy things (some from Sun Hing, some leftovers from elsewhere).

There was the intimidating breakfast/bakery place on my block; they too were open early, and I wasn't sure they were legit cuz they didn't look like a bakery but they sold baked goods out on the street from a little metal locker with glassed in doors. I bought a red bean bun and an egg custard tart from them, my first or second morning. Together, these items cost around a buck.

Okay! Then there was the first of J's recommendations--J is one of my colleagues on campus, one of the writers of 'the note', and a very helpful local guide in general. She recommended Tak Kee Chiu Chou, a short walk from my house. I arrived at 1020 or so, and they were closing at 1045 (I figured out); so inside this room that sort of looked like a small function hall set up with tables and chairs there were guys with mops and buckets going around while I ate. But they were very nice, seriously; even through the language barrier, I sort of felt like I was clearly not being hustled out or rushed along. I did not use the note, here; partially because they had an English menu and partially because I got shy. I was served by a dude at first, and left a tip for the lady who somehow inherited me, and she acted like that was funny even though I do think a small tip isn't unheard of in Hong Kong. Maybe mostly at the ex-pat places?

For this dinner, I had:
⇝Fried chicken in mrrhshmswr (sorry: don't remember!) sauce. I am going to write this sentence here: this was really tasty. Now, please imagine my writing it after every other food-item noted in this post unless I otherwise elaborate. THE FOOD IN HONG KONG IS SO GOOD AND SO REASONABLY PRICED IF YOU ARE JUST THE TINIEST BIT SMART ABOUT WHERE TO LOOK (more on this--"smart about where to look"--below).
⇝Cucumber with peppercorns and Sichuan pepper (tingly lips! also the thing I just said ⇖).
⇝Small Fish in Black Vinegar. These were tiny little fish (smelt?) sort of flattened and fried, almost like fish chips, served in yes this black vinegar that wasn't so acid/vinegary and made a nice base for dipping.

This was a very good dinner, and really it was enough for two dinners (for, again, I mean like ten bucks or something).

So now we get to the second of J's recommendations, which also brings--as promised--back to "smart about where to look". Because guess what J's second recommendation was? Cheung Heung Tea Restaurant, of course. What's that, Reader? You haven't heard of it? Oh but you have -- as the "intimidating breakfast &c. place" I wrote about at the top of this post. Wuuuuut? That's right. I, lanuage-less and helpless as a child on the streets of this fevered metropolis, had corrected on my own deduced the right place in my vicinity to go for quality goods of this type.

However, I take nothing away from J. Because, with her suggestion and validation, I got to experience a whole new thing that I'd kind of timidly skirted around the edges of (i.e., buying the delicious breakfast items from the outside guy rather than just going on in to this place). So I went in.

I'm not sure how I sort of knew this from the start; I think because I'd read enough about "bakeries" and "breakfast" in Hong Kong to know that I had gotten something kind of wrong. What I'd gotten wrong was this sharp divide in my mind between bakeries, restaurants, and Western-style breakfast places. Basically (this is like really dumb stuff, but I learned it all own my own so I'm telling you, friend) there are indeed diner/cafes in Hong Kong, they are this type of thing called "tea restaurants" or something like that often, and they serve a distinctive and delicious set of goods.

What I had for breakfast at Cheung Heung this time, for example--and I did this twice on this trip, because it is very pleasurable--was a bo lo bao, or pineapple bun (with a big pat of butter (that you get charged for (which is actually totally reasonable, when you think about it. It's nice when restaurants give you butter for free. But why should they?))). As the charming recipe / blog-post I linked to on the name there notes: there is no pineapple in a pineapple bun. It gets that name because of it's appearance. It's a kind of spongy-bread bun with a sweet crackly sugar topping. IT IS SO GOOD.

I also had a classic Egg Tart that first morning (though not my second). I've written about these things before. These things are the best freaking things.

Note: both of these foodstuffs, and others in this category, are both delicious in a kind of 'objective' sense (lol I know shutup) and a way that particularly suits my personal needs at breakfast: I kind of want a lot of "food", meaning calories; but I kind of don't like to get very full. So these dense caloric flavorful things are awesome, especially because while of course they are sweet and they're a far cry from my paleo Cali home diet, they're not like cake or something. They're fantastic.

AH BUT THE TEA. Hong Kong Milk Tea. What is it? It's tea with milk in it (zoom!) that idk wtf gets strained or something so it...look if you've had it you'll know just what I'm on about, and if you haven't just do the first/next chance you get. It is hot, it is a little sweet but not very sweet (it's not like a proper Indian chai, which also I love), and its not-so-sweetness means it goes great guessed it.

So, needless to say, this breakfast was freaking awesome. I didn't use the note here, either, although tbh it didn't even really occur to me to because (a) it was 515am or whatever, and (b) I knew what I was in for on this one -- I wasn't having my first (or second, whatever) Hong Kong tea restaurant experience with the intention of going off piste and ordering some cray-cray shit. I wanted the classics, and got them, and they made me really happy. I wish there were cafes like this where I lived. I mean-- I live in a canyon so basically there are like deer and then sometimes mountain lions and forest fires where I live but...even anywhere close to where I live.

Now, while I did not have a terrible time ordering either of my times at Cheung Heung (especially the second time. I was a pro by the 2nd time) the amount of gesticulation and misdirection ("butter" was hard. A knife? No. A...wash your hands? No. We got there, miming) underscored my utter bullsh1tness with this language and terribleness as I pass through this city. So, I have resolved that by the next time I go to Hong Kong (hope it's soon!) I will be able to say the following things:

pineapple bun
thank you
egg tart
milk tea

Those last two because that's an important distinction, with the milk tea.

I won't be able to discuss politics, and if I fall in love with someone I'll have to find creative ways to express my feelings, but it's a start.

Now, I have a small post-script here. If you recall, Reader, as I have no doubt you do: my first night in Hong Kong I instinctively found my way to a scrappy and chaotic dim sum place (not Sun Hing; different place) at which I had a very good meal and a fun time ordering things I don't usually get to eat. Also, as I really hope you recall, Reader, I like three paragraphs above got all braggy for awhile because I'd self-selected Cheung Heung as good before J's recommendation.

Well, guess what. The day after B, W, and J sent me the note, B approached me. Oh I forgot to tell you, said B (who is very nice, and also dresses so freaking well; it's like every suit was made on top of his body). There is a really good dim sum place in your neighborhood that is popular with the college kids.

I thought he meant Sun Hing; he didn't; he meant (you saw this coming)...that's right! I had again selected the quality place, even in my jet-lagged just having traveled 20 hours or whatever state, that first night. That first place I went was a recommended-by-B place! And lemme be clear here, cuz I'm not done tooting my own horn: lots of places were open, in both of these examples. There were other choices. AND it's not like either of these places had some new-food-trend-in-Manhattan type line out the door. I just sussed 'em out.

I'm a beagle for quality foodstufferies.

I need to learn those words in Cantonese. It took like forty-five seconds to order some butter.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

HliAT #16: "Pop in the Car Real Quick Go Grab [That Thing]"

How Long It Actually Takes To...

Go from the library in Topanga Canyon, into the parking lot hop in the car, drive a short stretch south on Topanga Canyon Boulevard to [the awesome] Country Natural Food, say hi to nice person working the counter and grab a pre-made sandwich and a cup of coffee, drive back and be back at your laptop: 8:19.37

So, the original point of HliAT, which absolutely still holds, was to explode my own (and perhaps, Reader, your) dumb unrealistic ideas about doing things quickly. To prove to myself that things always take time.

But sometimes it goes in the other direction. I, for one, am well capable of sitting for hours at (for example) the library, feeling hungry and like I'd love a hot cup of coffee, but not going to get it because "too much disruption". But, I mean, look: it's less than ten minutes. How does that compare to, I dunno, a dumb unfocused 'internet break'. And it's more fun! Getting out. And sustaining.

So in this HliAT, as in some others, the lesson is: just f#ckin' get on and do it.

Hong Kong 2017, #3: the Note

I had a good problem, on Belcher's Street in Kennedy Town. There were too many good restaurants. I started taking notes, of places I wanted to try out, and the notes were like this

iBakery, aroma, maxim's st. lolan

bird place on block, other bird place
dim sum on block  Cheing Heung Yeun +  others
You don't have to catch them all :)
Sun Hing
Smithfield (shuts at 8)    Kam Fung Cafe  41 Spring Gdn Lane

Waffling Beans (noon - 10pm), (1130 Fri)  North St
Butcher & Baker (11pm) Cadogan
Pacific Coffee (10pm) Davis

The top section is bakeries. I actually crossed of Aroma and Maxim's because they're just chains; iBakery is a chain, as well, but it has a social mission that interested but I still didn't wind up going to it, in favor of the many smaller freestanding bakeries and tea restaurants around.

Second section is the restaurants; back to them in a minute.

3rd section is coffee shops. I thought--not crazily--that if I got tired / sad in my little studio, especially at night when I did feel a need not to be cooped up, I could go work in a coffee shop. I did that once in the Pacific Coffee, on a previous trip. But on this trip the scheduling didn't work out, and also the one time that I was maybe going to I checked out the prices at Waffling Beans and literally a single drink was the same price as the excellent meal I'd just had, and I was like "f that s."

Back to the second section: restaurants. There were quite a few! And, also, I didn't have that many spare meals: breakfast wasn't a thing at most of these places, I was on campus for lunch, and I knew that--while I liked the idea of "dinner"--most nights I'd be on campus late with food available, so the idea of my getting back to k-town (a) hungry and (b) not exhausted weren't great.

So I wanted to figure out a way to maximize my restaurant experiencation.

I sent an email to W, J, and B -- three colleagues of mine at Chicago Booth who are party of the permanent staff there, who are either native Hong Kongers or at least speak Cantonese (J moved from elsewhere). The email was a little longer than this, but here's the essential part:

a little card that says, in Cantonese, something like this. This is NOT exactly what it should say, but these are the ideas:

Hello! I'd like to order just one dish: your house specialty, your very best dish. A small dish is fine! No beef or pork, please, but beyond that I'll eat anything--please don't serve me anything touristy, the more surprising the better. Thank you very much! 

The idea is that I can then take this card and go into each of these many restaurants, and maybe try 2 or even 3 a night (depending on how big this "best dish" is).

I'd spoken to all 3 of these colleague-friends about my restaurant explorations, and they all thought it was some mix of funny/strange/interesting, so I felt okay asking them to create this "little card" for me.

And they delivered! I got back a note, apparently a collaborative effort between the three of them. Here it is:

Now hahaha yeah yeah I have no idea what this says, but I totally trusted (still trust) W, B, and J's intentions and abilities. interesting note: J told me, later, that they'd added a specific request for no organ meats. I found this a little revealing re: the perception of standard preferences of white people in dining, given that I'd tried to say in my original note "give me the weird stuff." BUT it's possible that I'm applying my experience at restaurants (waiters, over and over, checking that I in fact want the thing I just knowingly ordered) to W, B, and J inaccurately, and that they were in fact just out ahead of me -- because, as J pointed out (when I said that I love organ meats), almost all organ meats would be from cattle or pigs, and so it might be a good idea to point out that I meant the organs as well as the meat-meat (she didn't say that last part; I'm extrapolating it as a possible explanation for why/how they were ahead of me).

So they made me this awesome note that said...the stuff, hopefully. And I printed out two copies, and carried them with me, psyched to put them to use.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hong Kong 2017, #2: "Gooooiiing OUT"

I'm going out for a run before heading to "campus" (the techy office-space that the U. of C. rents at the "Cyberport" while the permanent campus is under construction).

It's idk about 7am? 8? I'm in running clothes, of course; also headphones, phone, etc.

As I'm going down the narrow stairwell of the building I'm renting a studio flat in, an old man comes in the door. White hair, very snaggle-toothed.

He looks me over and says with a real central-casting, older Chinese guy crinkled laugh: "Gooooiiing out."

It's a thing I'm used to, here; it's definitely not unfriendly. And obviously he's speaking in English because it's me. But also there's something internal about his process -- like it's a little for him, too, seeing this big white person on the stairs in the morning.

I smiled but he was already past me, up the stairs.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hong Kong 2017, #1: Good restaurant, taste arbitrage, how people react, 💛

I'm back in Hong Kong for the Teaching Assistant job that I'm lucky to have gotten again.

I'm staying in Kennedy Town, again. Similar situation with a small studio; a little cheerier this time because less subterranean. Still not a place I'll work or spend too much time. But that's fine!

It's 12:44am. I'm going to try to be asleep by 1:30am. We'll see how that goes; I may have slept too much on the plane.

I've already sallied forth into fooding, which feels terrific and right to have done and also was really fun doing -- I've been excited about the fooding on this trip for months. Really, since the last one! I walked out and went to a place that looked terrific, had no English on its signage, and indeed--I discovered--has been commended multiply by multiple organizations for I-know-not-what, because these "commendations" are not like food critic or food mag things. They're certifications from youth organizations, "commendations" of gratitude, but they don't seem to be for donations...anyway. I cannot, once again, tell you the name of this place because even the English menu had it's name in Cantonese, and while there was an English menu (sort of) there wasn't a lot of English spoken. It is on Davis Street, just south of Belcher's Street, and here's a pic of its sign from Google maps.

If this were a movie we'd say "enhance. enhance." and bring the sign into focus and also there'd be someone on the team who speaks Cantonese obviously and the whole thing would be easier. Anyway that's the place.

They sat me at a circular table with a bunch of other people. The guy to my left was a heavyset dude jamming away on his phone the whole time. The two guys to my right were kind of rangy, gangly grad-student looking types, and the tone and timbre of their interaction struck me for its similarity to that familiar type, as well: they weren't boisterous or joisting, and they seemed to be kind of hashing out some conceptual thing in a friendly way.

I don't know what the f*$k I'm talking about, obviously; it's fun to travel where you don't know the language at all.

At one point, one of the I've-decided grad students had an interaction with the waitress who spoke a little English and she ducked close to my shoulder and said, "he sees you, and now he wants that," or...I wish I remember exactly what she said but it was close to that, the point I think being "He says the dish that you've ordered in front of you, and it looks good to him, and he wants it!" It was a nice moment. I looked at the guys and said "good choice!" and we laughed even though I'm pretty sure they didn't understand me.

For 103 HKD (including a small charge for 2 takeaway containers, which I'm tempted to side-eye but actually that's just because I'm not familiar with it: those things cost money!) I had 4 dishes, got very full, and have enough left over for another solid meal. That's about $13 US. Which brings me to the taste arbitrage part of this. Basically, I feel very powerful and happy in situations like this because there is a mismatch between the external manifestations of the market's attempts to satisfy my perceived desires and what those desires actually are, the result being that I feel like I'm making out like a bandit the whole time.

I wrote about this last year, as well, I think? In Kennedy Town, there are lots of kinds of swish, chic places; there is also a strong overlap / correlation between a place being swish / chic and being at least partially pitched towards ex-pats / Caucasians / English speakers. So there are all these places with glass walls and high-ceilings that are bustling with a mostly white crowd, where my $13 gets me a beer, pretty much.

And then there are these scrappy dingy places with low plastic stools and steam-billowing kitchens not really separated from the seating area, where they're totally happy to serve me but a bit bemused by my presence (reliably, there will be a double-checking that I in fact meant to order the thing that I've ordered; tonight it was about the "preserved duck egg" and the "black fungus" (both great). These places are hella cheap.

So I feel a kind of market power in these situations, rightly or not, because I'm walking around with a utility function which can be satiated so cheaply, and by different (much less expensive! much more delicious!) things than at least some market actors would predict for my demographic profile.

So the other thing that struck me tonight was the odd, but mostly nice, deference I get treated with here. There's certainly caution and distance in this, which I was struck by last time I was here as well: Hong Kong is a hugely cosmopolitan city (more on that in a moment), but in my very limited experience it seems like the "stuff white people like" tropes of sallying into restaurants where no one speaks English, etc., is a long way away from being the cliché it is to me as an urban American, and still novel.

So but anyway: how I get treated: deference, tinged with caution and distance. I misnavigated (I think) a grocery store tonight: I went in the turnstile, and couldn't get out, and couldn't find any exit so I went through an aisle and the cashier thought I might buy something, but I had nothing (except a bag that could've been full of shoplifted food, I suppose), and I said, "next time!" and she was just very nice about the whole thing. That's an atomized example that I've described poorly; the point is a general distance tempered with polite deference or solicitousness -- that's how I'm used to being treated here. And my post 24-hour travel day, just sounding off idk-wtf take on that is 3 factors:

(1) A common, universal tendency to be particularly polite and open to people who are clearly foreign, whom you have a language barrier with. People take me under their wing here--the waitress who speaks a little English--and it's not like all huggy but they kind of look out for the traveler. That's very nice I'm very comfortable with it.

(2) A common, universal tendency to just sort of notice and engage in a more direct way with people who physically stand out. I feel my physical presence very differently here, and part of that I think is my change in relative size and the fact that I'm a conspicuously white-dude white dude with blond hair and blue eyes. This may scan as a weird thing to observe, and wow: I could be totally wrong! I've never walked around Hong Kong as a brown-haired 5'5" guy. I imagine it would be similar in many ways. But it feels to me like some part of my experience is magnified by my appearance.

(3) Colonialism / White Privilege? This is the weirdest one to think about, and obviously the one I'm least comfortable with. I'm also uncomfortable ascribing any motivations to any individual I've acted interacted with, in this way; it's my observation about the summation of interactions that could be totally wrong. How it works for me is this: in cases where I am not sure what the script is, because I don't speak the language and don't know what is going on, I am assisted to a version of "what is going on" that follows the script of my being a person who is welcome and a person who is to be served with courtesy and care (if: some distance), and I can't help but wonder, again, just how I would scan differently if I looked or were different. Again, I really can't say enough--even anonymously, to no one, writing this--that it's not my thought to ascribe all the courtesy I get to sinister historical power structures; I'd never say that about people thoughtfully navigating my presence as a foreigner. But I also feel like I'd be punking a little if I didn't at least acknowledge the possibility that I have it easy because there is a familiar script that involves serving people who look like me, well. I don't know.

I feel bad ending on the sinister one. My main feeling on this first night in Hong Kong is happiness. It's 1:17am, and I feel that tight tiredness behind the eyes mixed with...not enough exhaustion. I hope I can fall asleep. The feeling is joy to be here. I think I love this place; it's a collision of people and forces and things and I just felt immediately happy, even on the bus from the airport.

It's raining. I didn't pack for the rain.

Okay that's it for this one.