Archive for the ‘America: England’s Hyperactive Nephew’Category

The Sorest Thumb in the Room

I think we all like to have a collection of stock stories that we can fall back on at interviews and cocktail parties. These are the old reliable anecdotes that serve as stopgaps between awkward pauses, or warm-ups to more important conversations. Perhaps it seems a little phony for me to say it, but in truth there is something comforting about turning a unpredictable encounter into a quasi-formulaic exchange you’ve had thousands of times before.

Considering that I’ve spent the majority of my life with somewhat of a minority background, it’s easy for me to steer an uneasy conversation into a more familiar arena. “You know you can’t chew gum in Singapore? I know that because I lived there for 8 years. Oh, what I haven’t mentioned that? Well…” There. Easy.

Many friends and acquaintances reading this may be familiar with some of my old favourites. Others may never have met me but may do one day in the future, and at the risk of giving away or spoiling any of the ammunition I might one day use to segue myself into our burgeoning friendship, I won’t spoil any surprises. There is one particular story, however, that has been so heavily used that it may soon need to be retired, and to give it a proper sending-off, allow me to employ it one final time.

When I was 11, my family and I moved to hot, tropical Singapore from temperate, waspy Connecticut. I’d spent most of my important growing-up years at a public elementary school and when I left in the winter of 2001, I didn’t bring any chewing gum or other contraband (except maybe about a million Pokemon cards) but I did manage to import a very strong, very nasal American accent.

There are videos of me when we were still in America alighting from a big yellow school bus, complaining about something my principle at my elementary school had said that afternoon. “Mr Rechi,” I complain to the camera, curling my vowels and tapdancing across consonants. “Mr Rechi didn’t tell the students to have a good weekend.” My siblings find endless joy in this clip. Not in the red, wire-framed glasses. Not in the vibrant bowl haircut, billowing in the wind. Rather, my brother and sisters laugh and laugh and do imitations and generally don’t let me forget, the very strong, very nasal American accent.

I wouldn’t strictly say I was bullied for the way I spoke when I arrived at my new international school in Singapore, not least because my ‘tormentors’ eventually became my best friends (in fact, the same best friends I Skype with now every week). Instead, it was perhaps a form of very influential teasing, that eventually convinced me things would have to change. Carefully, I studied the accents I heard around me. The cafeteria at my school was probably fairly similar to the one at the United Nations, with hundreds of different flavours of English bouncing around ever corner. Anyone who has ever spent time in an ‘expat’ community will know that the effect of all these translated mother tongues, these human filters transmitting Australian and Korean and British and Indian and Kiwi and German intonations and pronunciations, is an amalgamated, universal Overseas Accent.

To the layman ear, it sounds pretty British. But linguistic connoisseurs will detect rhotic consonants and stunted vowels, lazy “t’s” and curvy “er’s”. When I moved to England I was told I was Australian, when I travelled through Melbourne I was told I was South African. At the age of 11, teased for having a voice reminiscent of Spongebob Squarepants, none of this mattered as long as I didn’t sound American.

This is the part of the story where, depending on how much you seem to be enjoying our conversation, I would add that interestingly enough, my twin sister still has an American accent. As long as you didn’t laugh politely and search around the room for somebody more exciting to talk to, I would tell you how my twin, unpressured by spotty adolescents to drop her American pronunciations, talks now like she spent most of her life growing up with a Beverly Hills postcode. Her accent has remained, a relic of her New England childhood, so that when my mother introduces us to her friends at parties she has to quickly chime in to explain that we are in fact twins, though we don’t necessarily sound like we are.

This is usually a good point for me to start telling my story.

Keen readers will notice that for the past year or so, this blog has been written the same way it would have been spoken aloud: Englishly. My “favours” and “neighbours” are stuffed with redundant vowels, I avoid filling my “recognise”s with exciting z’s, I fly “aeroplanes” and put suitcases in the “boot”. However, once again, it seems, the time has come for me to change. Like my 11 year-old self did so many years ago, I am feeling the pressures to amalgamate, to homogenise, to blend in. Now, however, rather than coming from a troupe of boys in a humid South East Asian locker room, the pressure comes from within.

Everyday, I begin my lecture by putting the date in the top right-hand corner of the page. And everyday, a crisis strikes. Today is February 17th, I think to myself. What comes first? The month or the day? In my sociology classes back at university, we would learn about hybridised and multiple identities, British-Asians, for instance, who oscillate between cultural personas, British one minute, Asian the next. When I am deciding whether or not I should put write a 2 or 17 first, a little mini argument erupts in brain. But it always ends the same way.

I travelled 5,000 miles from family, friends and a first-class degree to start all over again in city where nobody, except maybe my sister, knows me. I remind myself of this, and then I then I pick up my pen and majestically write 2/17/12 at the top of my paper. Of course the problem with this particular method of cultural identification is that by the time my internal conflict has been resolved, the class is already three slides deep into the Powerpoint presentation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I haven’t sold my soul and my British heritage for a slice of the American dream. I’m far from becoming an anonymous member of the Greatest Nation on Earth, and in fact I still stick out like a sore thumb at parties. Despite my attempts to blend in, I still ask for the temperature in Celsius and am always momentarily stunned when people tell me they like my ‘pants’. It is more for consistency and convenience that I have decided to slowly Americanize (did you see that?) how I write and type. In the end I’ll never be happy unless I’m just a little bit strange.

And in case you were wondering, I won’t be losing the accent any time soon. It’s way too popular with the ladies.

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So it’s been a while since I’ve posted, and you know what? I’m not gonna apologise! That’s right. I’m not.

Well, okay. Maybe I will. A little.

Okay, okay, I’m really really really sorry. It’s just I’ve had midterms, and coursework, and medicine stuff, and… and to say sorry properly, I’ll provide you with something gorgeous today.

A couple years ago, Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley III, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez got together and informally formed Middle Brother. Their 2011 self-titled album took a fat chunk of all three members, resulting in a crunchy folky album that drifts along and does what it likes. The album is a whole mix of different stuff, but Million Dollar Bill stuck out for me for a number of reasons, not least because each member gets his own verse, before harmonising together in a swooning trio at each chorus. I think you’re going to like it too.

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Settle Down

I’m writing this alone, in a big empty house, on a dark cold night, in a city I don’t know. Every couple of minutes or so I hear a thump from behind the door I’ve closed in anticipation of creeping, knife-wielding burglars, and while, granted, the thumps could just be coming from one of the two noisy cats that I’m supposed to be looking after in my sister’s big empty house, on a dark cold night in San Francisco, they could just as likely be the footsteps of a murderer. I’m not taking any chances, so this means maintaining a constant loud one-way conversation in a dramatically masculine voice with the two cats, just so the knife-wielding burglars downstairs know that I have backup.

It’s nice to walk around this beautiful home and act like it won’t be another 15 years of student loan debt before I can actually afford one myself. Holly and Sean and their noisy cats are so close now, it’s almost unbelievable. While seeing them still means forty minutes of traversing a bridge, a freeway and the mountain range hills of San Francisco, it’s a helluva lot easier than the numerous time zones I had to traverse just to visit them in the past. Sometimes when I feel I’ve had enough of graduate life and its endless parade of periodic tables and hydrogen bonds, I pack up my little car and cross the bridge and the freeway and the hills, and ring a doorbell and suddenly my older sister is standing right there in front of me. For most of you, a sibling you can access without first buying a plane ticket may be the norm, but for me its a novelty I still haven’t quite become accustomed to. Holly and I sit in her kitchen and eat fruity salads and retell inside jokes we’ve been had since the mid-90s. Then I start work at the dining table, and she goes back to work in her office, but she keeps the door open so that we can crack each other up every fifteen minutes. It’s the kind of working environment that makes you forget you’re in a working environment.

When Sean comes home a few hours later, we eat together at the dining table, trying to carry on a conversation while fending off the noisy cats with our deftly placed thighs and elbows. By the end of the meal we’ve given in and the cats are licking our plates clean while we watch something trashy on TV. Then it starts getting late, and I get back in my little car and drive over the hills and the freeway and the bridge, where I catch glimpses in my rear-view mirror of the receding fog-blurred lights of San Francisco. Soon I am back on campus with my nose in a book, my stomach full of home-made spaghetti bolognese and my mind still anchored to that pretty little house in Sunset.

Moving to Northern California and starting a pre-med course here has been one of the Greatest Decisions of My Life. Coming from a sociology degree to a degree that requires me to learn the equation for determining the energy of a photo emitted during electron transfer* has its hiccups. I am by no means disparaging sociology; in fact if anything, I struggled more with the endless questioning and philosophising and theorising required to properly engage with the social sciences than I do now with the cold hard maths and logic of the natural sciences. My maladjustment is more to do with the fact that I’ve had to spend the last few weeks fumbling around for a lightswitch in that dark, cobweb-infested attic of my brain where fractions and quadratic formulas have been left untouched for the past decade. Turns out, though, that the bulb still works, and its actually getting brighter by the day.

The first week spent painstakingly converting the transmission of my brain was hellish. I was overwhelmed and undernourished, I was confused and tired and forcing myself to accustom not only to a new discipline, but a new college, a new city, a new country. I was up at 7 and in the library at 11, with an intervening day of lectures to attend and forms to fill and friends to make. Then suddenly, like these things tend to do, I woke up and everything had sorted itself out. All the knots became untangled, the square peg found the square hole and like the complementary wavelengths of two photons of light with equal constructive frequencies (that’s right), I found my own momentum propelling me forward. This is where I find myself now, careening through a frenetic world of concepts that mean nothing to me on Monday morning but by Wednesday afternoon have totally transformed the way I view the universe. It’s fast-paced, it’s tough and it’s scary, but I’m loving every second of it.

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Now step away for just a second from that part of my life that’s still moving at light-speed**, and head back with me to the rainbow-drenched streets of San Francisco. Sure, right now I may be surrounded by textbooks and unfinished homework, but there’s a purring cat on my lap and I’ll be in bed in a few minutes. In between dashing to lectures and somehow finding the time to clothe, bathe and feed myself, I’ve had brief moments of beautiful folk. Little songs have crept in here and there without me realising, so that I’ve suddenly got a fleshy list of tunes to show you over the next few weeks. Late at night in this dark house in the city, I stumbled upon something else that’s going to keep me up for a few minutes longer. My experience with Rachael Yamagata doesn’t go much further than a bit of Wikipedia research, and all I know of Ray Lamontagne is that his song ‘Lesson Learned’ accompanied me as overplayed soundtrack fodder through a teary breakup a few years ago. Pairing them together initially didn’t quite serve to excite me very much.

These quick judgements, though, suddenly faded when I actually listened to their heart-achingly complementary voices on the track below, titled, suitably enough, ‘Duet’. There’s just something about male/female covers that drives me crazy. You know I’m always looking for good folk, and if you like this Yamagata-Lamontagne partnership as much as I do, you’ll share your favourite duets (folk or otherwise) in the comments below. I’m in this house by myself for a few more days yet, and I need a little bit more noise to stifle those mysterious thumps coming from downstairs.

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*E = (-RH/nf²) – (-RH/ni²)

** 3.00 x 10⁸ m/s

10

09 2011

Spoiler Alert: I’m Not Writing This Via a Ouija Board

So how were everyone’s Christmases? I imagine they were pretty good, right? You don’t often get bad Christmases, I find, it’s kind of inherent in the season.

Thank you for all your finger-crossing. You’ll be happy to know that the Twin and I did indeed make it back in time for the holiday season, passing through a storm cloud as we descended first into Vegas and then into the arms of Papa Burns and my older brother, who had driven the 300 miles from San Diego to come pick us up. Aside from the two extra passengers they collected at the half-way point, they had basically pretty much driven for five hours, sat in an airport arrivals lounge for ten minutes and driven for another five hours in the opposite direction. I think this is what they call the Christmas spirit.

The next week went exactly as it has for the past 21 years in the various houses I have lived in: Christmas Eve involved gesticulating sing-alongs, Christmas Day mountains of delicious food and an endurance test of present-unwrapping, and Boxing Day spent mentally preparing myself to go skydiving.

Right, so, yes, Boxing Day this year was unique, and the day after, when I jumped out of an aeroplane at 10,000 feet, even more unique. My older sister had bought my brother and me Groupons to go skydiving in two days time. It’s the kind of thing to which you used to say when you were young, When I’m older I’m going to do that!, but secretly you harboured the creeping suspicion that, no, you weren’t going to do that, grown-ups didn’t skydive, they just spent Saturday afternoons at the post office worrying over their cholesterol levels. I never honestly thought I would actually be doing it.

Apparently though, skydiving is fairly casual these days. I don’t know what I was expecting when we–my brother Tom, my sister Holly, Papa Burns and myself–arrived at the airfield two days later. A hillside dotted with man-shaped craters? A graveyard placed within convenient proximity? I had at least expected a brief training video, but when Tom and I were placed in the room with a TV and a few chairs where I thought it would take place, we were instead confronted by a recording of the company’s lawyer telling us that after we had signed the consent forms (with comforting gems like, ‘Please tick this box to confirm that if you die while skydiving your body will be removed from the premises within 5 days.’) there was no chance we could get away with a lawsuit in case something went wrong.

When the training finally did come, it lasted a good 30 seconds before we were buckled into harnesses and introduced to our jump buddies. I made my best efforts at awkward conversation about the variety of San Diego weather while my instructor made his best efforts to ensure my groin straps were particularly snug. Before long our names were called, and we left the safety of the spectator zone and walked across the grass to our waiting twin-prop aeroplane. In the bright morning sunlight, miniscule under a giant blue-eggshell sky, we stepped resolutely across the grass while my father and sister watched on. The super-tight harness made me feel like a fighter pilot with a wedgie.

Because I was the last on the plane, I was closest to the door and would be the first to jump. The cabin of the plane was tiny, and we were crammed in along its length, knees knocking as the plane stretched back and launched itself into the sky. I was nervous at first, but soon we had unbuckled our seatbelts and were gazing along the Mexican border, chuckling as the instructors exchanged casual banter. A few minutes later I heard my instructor shout something to me across the metre or so that divided us.

“What?” I shouted back.

“I said, come sit on my lap!”

There was a long pause. I looked at the twenty-something year-old man across from me, staring into my eyes with absolute sincerity. I sighed, did a 180 degree turn and lightly planted my rear end into the strangers lap.

I think I’ve set the bar for weirdest sentence I will ever type on this website.

The only redeeming quality of having to spend five minutes sitting on another man’s lap, was seeing my brother, the massive six-foot rugby player blocking out the light in the cabin and trying to avoid my gaze as he balanced delicately on the thighs of the significantly more diminuative man beneath him.

Of course the other redeeming factor occured moments later, when I suddenly realised the door to the plane was open and I was half waddling, half being pushed toward this gaping maw of sunlight and cold air. In my ear I heard my buddy shouting, Remember the training, right? I certainly did not remember the training, but before I could answer he was counting down and rocking back and forth on the threshold of the door.

Tom would tell me later on the ground that he had waited for a wave or a smile before I jumped, but that I just kind of turned away from him and disappeared. So much for fraternity.

Suddenly I was falling. I spent the first ten seconds feeling really uncomfortable, like waiting impatiently for a cold shower to warm up. I was kind of baffled by what was going on and I think my brain was a little overwhelmed by it all. Then I kind of woke up, examined the bizarreness of the situation and burst out into laughter, the same kind of mad, incomprehensible laughter you get on roller coasters and the front row of concerts. My mouth filled up with air and I could feel the wind stretch back my skin. I just screamed and screamed and screamed. Oh, wait, no, not the girlish frightened screaming you are imagining right now in your head, the manly triumphant kind. Don’t think I would have done anything to embarrass myself in front of company, especially not the kind that’s strapped to your back.

As soon as we landed I detached myself from my aerial lapdance with obvious haste and shook my buddy’s hand before we parted ways, never to speak of this incident again.

I don’t know if was the 120 mph descent or the giddiness of the whole experience, but I couldn’t undo the giant smile plastered across my face for the whole day. It was incredible, and if you ever get a chance to do it, I can only recommend you sign up as fast as you can.

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I’ve been meaning to post this artist for the last two weeks but revision, dissertation research and applications have kept me too busy even for folk. Finally, though, I am able to present to you the very interesting Dan Mangan from Canada, and his song ‘Basket’. I’m kind of hoping this song catches the frustration some of you might be feeling this time of year and the enthusiastic vengeance you want to wreak on last year’s uncompleted Resolutions. It’s not easy, but Mangan really pulls off the I’m Fed-Up So Listen To Me singing voice somewere in the closing half of the song.

It’s been a great holiday, but now that I am back in the UK with a laptop full of uncompleted essays and application forms, I feel like I need to get into my rhythm again.  Every time I switch to another time zone I have to go through the inevitable acclimatization process, shifting my vowels, conquering jet lag, remembering how to cook. I feel I need another 10,000 foot drop to wake me up again.

Maybe, though, there can be a little less lap-sitting this time.

Tough Folk

Women have come a long way in fighting an unfair system. They have spent the last hundred years revolutionising the gender roles expected of them by society, an inspiring feat that makes us smile at Don Draper’s weekly antics. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we are happy to see the end of an era of strict, unyielding gender roles, we’re happy that we live in a world where it’s no longer rare to see a woman standing up in court or in a labcoat at a hospital.

Nevertheless it’s common knowledge that every man secretly wants to be a cowboy.

Deep down we all want hairy chests and cool scars. We want to open bottles with out teeth and fix cars and build fires. We all want to be Bear Grylls. Knowing how to use Photoshop or set up a firewall is probably far more practical in this day and age, but we don’t care. Every man at some point in his life will wonder if he looks good in leather boots.

Most men will be able to suppress these feelings on a day-to-day basis. If you ever see a grown man assembling IKEA furniture with anything more advanced than an Allen key or eating baked beans straight out of the tin he’s probably just temporarily alleviating his call of the wild. If you want to make him happy, just leave him be and later in the evening remark upon what broad shoulders he has.

Sometimes, however, the call of the wild proves too strong for even the most rugged of modern yuppies. A couple of weeks ago, some sort of cosmic alignment left my father and me itching for something manly to do. Soon it became unbearable and he would go on feverish manhunts for broken lightbulbs to replace or I would suddenly have to run out to the garden and do pushups for half an hour. Finally, we knew there was no other choice. There was only one thing left that we could do. We would have to go camping.

I’ve probably spent less than one percent of a percentage of my life inside a tent. Growing up in Singapore meant that casual trips to tiny islands dotted around the Indian Ocean were not uncommon, so sleepless nights in stuffy polyester prisons are not quite alien to me. However, I’ve never done it enough for it to become a hobby. Let’s just say my relationship with camping has never extended beyond a few one night stands, and I wasn’t planning on letting things get any more serious.

Nevertheless, Papa Burns and I know both knew that the time had come for me to make that important rite of passage into manli-hood, and a few days later we were driving East along the 78 toward the Cuyamaca Mountains in a Jeep full of tent equipment, man-sized sleeping bags and cans of chilli. The testosterone was palpable.

It was an incredible trip. We hiked and watched hawks and climbed rocks and played guitar under a star-soaked sky. I’m pretty sure I can grow a moustache now. We drove home exhausted and dirty but our masculinity gauges were firmly pointed to Full. This picture pretty much sums up the whole trip.

This was a few minutes after I punched a cougar in the face.

One of the most important things about road trips of course is the music you choose to act as your soundtrack, and so it’s finally time to sneak in some folk-related tidbit to this otherwise folk-devoid post. As I created the iTunes playlist for what would turn out to be three separate discs of road-tripping tunes, Papa Burns leaned over my shoulder and suggested songs for the journey. When he asked me to add something by Arcade Fire, a band he’d heard a lot about but not a lot of, my clicking and dragging became especially enthusiastic.

So, in honour of Arcade Fire’s new album The Suburbs (which I haven’t had a chance to get hold of yet but hear is amazing) and of the hugely masculine trip undertaken by myself and Papa Burns last week, I have chosen Arcade Fire’s My Body is a Cage as this week’s thumping tune.

Just a quick warning. The song builds up to a fantastic organ crescendo near the end, and if you’re in your macho mood, make sure that before you listen you take the time to put down that knife you’re picking buffalo out of your teeth with. Even cowboys have accidents.

My Body Is A Cage