Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Chinese Confession - Huang Shan II

Today’s blog is dedicated to my capstone project and two finals that should have been the focus of my attention when I wrote this back in December. I also dedicate it to procrastination, since this also took place about 10 months ago. Procrastination is an amazing thing. Whenever I find myself being extra productive, it is almost always because I am putting off something else, and because I am not the type to do absolutely nothing. When I am procrastinating, I instead find marginally productive things to do so that I can still live with myself. So yes, procrastination is a great thing. Without it, my room might never get cleaned, blogs might never get written, and photos might never get posted. So next time you think procrastination is a bad thing, remember that even procrastination has its potentially good qualities.

Okay, it has taken me a bit longer to document my hike up Huang Shan that I originally anticipated (obvious understatement). Fortunately I took hundreds and hundreds of pictures, and I easily could have taken more. For some reason, all of the typical cliché statements like “breath taking” or “awe inspiring” fail miserably to do justice to how amazing Huang Shan really is.

Huang Shan is easily among the most beautiful places in China. It’s actually not just one mountain, but rather several all in one area. I haven’t been everywhere in this country, but I certainly can’t argue against it. Lonely Planet, which is basically the bible of tour guide books, certainly thinks so. It specifically mentions Huang Shan as being a must-see and one of the top scenic places in the country. I think it is actually ranked as #1, though I don’t have a Lonely Planet book, so I can’t verify. But you don’t have to just take my word for it. I have pictures and even found some videos on youtube. Check them out:

We arrived at the base of the mountain fairly early, and the crowds had already begun making their way up the steep path. Being from Colorado, with an elevation of about a mile above sea level, I expected it to be a fairly easy hike. The peaks of the mountains are barely above 1,000 meters, so I figured it would be a breeze. How naïve of me. Unlike in the Rockies, where mountain trails usually feature switch backs, which make a hike much easier, the Chinese seem to be a bit more hardcore. They go straight up the mountain with little side-to-side deviation. In fact, the path was actually made almost entirely of stairs.

The first few hundred meters were a good warm up. I figured it would then level out and we would climb a bit more gradually. Nope. They kept going. Staircase after staircase after staircase after staircase. That’s how it went. It made the Stairmaster machines at the gym seem like so easy! It didn’t take long before our legs were burning and it seemed to take everything to keep from taking a break. Meanwhile, there were Chinese people who actually had the job of carrying heavy loads up the same path as us. And when I say heavy, I am not exaggerating. They had a bamboo pole across their shoulders, behind their head. Each end had an equal load in a sack or box that was strung to the pole. My friend Kirsten stopped and asked if she could try carrying one. One she had it on her shoulders, she couldn’t even move with it. It easily weighed over 100 pounds, and these people had to carry these things for miles up these steep stairs to the small shops along the path that sold drinks, trinkets, and snacks. After seeing these guys carrying such heavy loads, I told my friends that I am not allowed to complain one bit, and if I do, they can smack me.

I didn’t complain.

The hike wasn’t easy, but the view and the experience overall became more and more amazing with every step. As we climbed, I would look down at these steps – so carefully carved and shaped from cement or stone – and I just had to wonder how many people had to work so hard to make this path so that we all could enjoy such an amazing place. Then looking out at the steep valleys below us, the blue sky above us, and the trees, rocks, and plants all around us, it all seemed so perfect. The weather was absolutely beautiful and, to be honest, probably couldn’t have been any more perfect. It was clear and we could see for miles around us. Had there been any clouds, they would have made the scene even more amazing. Clouds often form at a pretty low elevation around Huang Shan, and when they do, the mountains rise above them so that they are like islands in the sky.

After several hours of hiking, we reached the top of one of the peaks, took some fantastic pictures, got even more pictures taken of us because we were foreigners, and then moved on to the next peak. It seemed a bit odd because as we moved along, the crowds were getting denser. At some points, the path resembled a rush hour traffic jam with people all stopped. Then I remembered that there is a cable car line that can take people from the base of the mountain to an area in the middle of all of the trails and peaks. There are also a few hotels, restaurants, and some places where tents can be rented. Staying overnight in hotels is pretty popular, but apparently they don’t have heat and it gets really cold at night.

At one point, we stopped to take a break in an area between two peaks that had some restaurants and tourist stores. As we sat there watching the crowd, a few Chinese people with video camera equipment came up and asked us if we would like to be in a movie since we are foreigners. Of course our answer was “Heck yeah!” So the next moment we were doing whatever they told us to do, which included letting Kirsten climb up on my shoulders as we provided entertainment for the crowd that had gathered around to watch us.

Once our moment of popularity had passed, we moved on with the rest of the hike. Along the way we came across some Buddhist monks from Vietnam, took even more pictures, gave me the nickname “National Geographic” because I had the fanciest camera and was taking the most pictures. When we finally began our descent, it was about 3 miles and getting dark. Fortunately most of us had some kind of flashlights. Just before the end we ran into our driver who was supposed to meet us at the bottom and take us back to the train station. Because it was getting so dark, he had busted out his flashlight and proceeded up the trail to find us in case we were stuck without light. I just have to say, as a former taxi driver, there is no way I would have gone out of my way so much to help people out. I was really impressed.

Finally we got back to the city, had dinner, and took our overnight train back to Shanghai. Then after nine months, I got around to actually posting this blog!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Chinese Confession - Cilantro

For the most part, I consider myself to be a very non-picky eater. I really appreciate good food, but at the same time, I can find the good in a lot of food. At times it can be problematic – for example, when trying to decide what restaurant to eat at with friends. Even that isn’t usually much of a problem though.

One thing I do more and more frequently request is that we don’t go to a place that puts cilantro in their food. It’s something that I’ve been emphasizing ever since I first got to China. They put a lot of cilantro in a lot of food in Shanghai, and seemingly in a lot of Chinese food in general. When I go out to eat with people, normally my only request is that the food not have cilantro. This is the same whether I’m in China, the US, or wherever. As long as there is no cilantro in the food, I am good to go. If someone is making Mexican food, I plead for them to not add any. For quite a while I thought that perhaps this made me more of a picky eater than anybody else. I seemed to be the only person I knew that really disliked it. Just thinking about it makes a grimace break out across my face and practically ruins my appetite. I couldn’t understand why so many people would like it, yet I would find it so utterly vile and repulsive. Even more, people usually had a complete look of shock when they found out just how much I hate the stuff.
As time went on, I started to consider that maybe cilantro just tastes a bit different to me than everyone else. I didn’t think much of it, though, and merely contented myself to avoid it as much as possible.

Well, last night I finally learned something that shed a lot more light on this whole cilantro ordeal. While playing our weekly game of trivia at a pub in town, one of the trivia questions related to this peculiar herb. As I am pretty vocal about my disliking of cilantro, I was talking with my friends about it. Then MC of the game mentioned as a side note that some people have an enzyme that makes cilantro taste like soap.

*Metaphorical smack in face with a frozen turkey*

It all fell perfectly into place. I couldn’t really describe what it was about the taste of cilantro that I hate so vehemently, but I just didn’t see how people could like to add it to food. It had such a powerful flavor that seemed so unnatural and didn’t mix with or compliment any of the other foods it was served with. No matter how powerful something would normally taste, if it had even a tiny spec of cilantro on it, that would be all I could taste and it would make me gag and want to spit it out.

Finally! I have a fully justifiable reason to use when I ask people, as kindly as possible, to not put cilantro in food. I have this enzyme!

So, in case you can’t quite relate, just picture yourself sitting down to eat some Mexican, Chinese, or Indian food that smells really, really good. Take a bite and chew it for a second or two, then reach down and grab a bar of soap, put it in your mouth, and take a nice big bite. Voila! Now you know what cilantro tastes like to me, and now you know why I can’t help but grimace at the very thought of eating something containing it.

If you want more information, just check it out on Wikipedia:


Also, when I was researching this a bit online, I came across some humorous things other people say cilantro tastes like:

* Aluminum foil
* Air freshener
* It tastes like a migraine
* It tastes like hitting yourself in the head
* It tastes like how a closet might smell
* It tastes like shoes
* Powdered soap and metal shavings
* Stink bugs (this one is most accurate in my book)
* Soapy lawn clippings
* A moldy swimming suit that’s been left to fester in a high school locker

One woman on a site (http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/Mixed+feelings?page=0&pageSize=1) who moved from Southern to Northern Brazil said she lost 17 pounds because she “couldn’t eat the cilantro-laden food.”

I checked on facebook and there is even a group dedicated to those who hate cilantro as much as I do! I just couldn’t resist posting some of their pictures on here.

Finally, I can find rest for my weary soul simply knowing that I’m not the only person in the world who absolutely cannot, cannot, cannot stand cilantro.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Update: Graduation and a Change in Life

They were the best of times; they were the worst of times. This statement – like so many of the clichés out there – is so overused that it has pretty much lost meaning. In this particular case, however, I find it to be a really good description of my experience over the six years that it took me to finish my undergrad college degree. That’s right – I’ve finally graduated! I half expected to see a news flash or people in the LSC plaza on CSU campus hoisting big signs in the air shouting, “Repent now! The end is near! Joe has finally graduated!”

Now that my position in the journey of life has changed so substantially, I’m trying to figure out where to go with my cabbage confessions. It is probably already sufficiently evident that I have enjoyed writing these immensely, and I’m also glad that people have read them and hopefully been able to appreciate and/or laugh at the things that I have experienced. I guess it reaffirms the knowledge (or at least the illusion) that I am a reasonable human being to know that my friends, family, and any potential mystery readers can get something of value from them.

Okay, I suppose it’s at least time to offer an update on what my new status is. In April I accepted a job offer to work at Colorado PERA as a Portfolio Associate. Colorado PERA is the state pension fund for public employees like teachers and law enforcement. I will be working in investments in the fixed income (technical term for bonds) division. I interned there last summer, and it looks like they liked me enough to hire me permanently! Fortunately, when I went down to interview for the job, I didn’t have the same experience as last time, when my gas pedal stopped working on Speer Boulevard in the middle of downtown and I had to roll through a red light to get off the street and fix it while somehow avoiding getting a ticket. It’s a funny story now, though it was a bit freaky at the time. Nope, this interview was completely drama free, so that was a welcome change.

If you want to see a picture of where I work, I used Virtual Earth to get a computer snapshot of downtown Denver, showing my office and where it is in relation to the other landmarks around it. It’s a pretty decent rendition too, at least according to our current technological abilities.

When people ask me to describe what I do, I find it extremely difficult to explain it in a way that they can understand. Even a lot of my classmates in Finance at CSU had a tough time understanding it. As I mentioned, my title is “Portfolio Associate.” In financial speak, I create and use numerous spreadsheets and reports that integrate data from several different sources in order to monitor the performance of our fixed income portfolio and benchmark it to the Lehman index.

If you didn’t fully grasp what that means, I’ll try to simplify it as best as I can. It basically means that I work with the overall bond portfolio at Colorado PERA. I don’t pick the bonds – that’s the job of the portfolio managers. But I do track and monitor how well the bond investments are doing, and that’s a pretty big job when you consider we have about $10 billion in bonds alone. My job doesn’t just end there though. We use a benchmark to determine our performance, so I track the benchmark as well. To accomplish this, I make a nearly unimaginable number of reports by day, week, month, quarter, year, and other undefined periods. I give these reports to the portfolio managers and our director, and they use them to help devise strategies to make more money.

And that pretty much summarizes what I do now. It’s certainly not as bloggable as driving a cab or living in China, per se, but I’m at least hoping to find something interesting to write about. I’m thinking I may start out blogging about the craziness of the financial markets. Like it or not, the financial markets never get dull. Every day is a different adventure – a new tale of what breakthroughs humanity is making or how the world is coming to an end, yet again, despite centuries of such predictions proving otherwise. Whether people are freaking out about the price of a Big Mac in London, some chickens getting sick in Guangdong, or the outcome of the elections in Turkey, it impacts us all to one degree or another. And hopefully I can find some reasons to be amused or at least poke a little fun at it all.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Real Life Confession - New Year's Resolution

Well, my first week of the semester is now over, including the weekend. I now find myself wondering how the rest of the semester will roll out. As usual, I maintain my optimism that things will go smashingly well and that I will, more-or-less, be happy with everything. It’s certainly off to a great start, and I think I might actually have the discipline/determination to make sure it continues that way.

Starting off, my new year’s resolution is proving to be a really, really good one. I should have done this sooner. And to make sure that I have a higher chance for success, I made only one resolution this year. It just happens to be a resolution that facilitates the accomplishment of other desirable ambitions. Okay, before I divulge what my resolution is, I have to preface it with a confession. I’m not very proud of this, and I’m sure this is going to result in the cutting off of one of the corners of my man card. Okay, here it goes: I play the Sims. I don’t play it often – perhaps a couple hours per month on average. For any of you who don’t know what it is, it’s a game where you create people and run their lives. It’s kind of like taking barbies or “house” to a much higher level. If you want your little sim to be a major league sports star, you can do it (though he or she will have to put in a lot of hours on the weight bench and possibly develop some charisma by practicing their romance skills in front of a mirror while being locked in the bathroom). This sim might even manage to mess up cold cereal in his or her haste to catch the carpool to get to work, but it all works out in the end because cooking skills can be developed while slaving laboriously over that bowl of Wheaties.

On the flip side, if your sim has a different aspiration, such as “pleasure” or “family”, his or her desires and related aspirations will be different. You can lead your little sim along, for better or worse, and see what kind of person he or she will become. If you really want to get your hands dirty, you can even get your sim to get married (though I strongly encourage you not to propose until the other person has had a hearty meal, gone to the bathroom, had enough fun, doesn’t think the room is too dirty or poorly decorated, doesn’t find your ripped muscles and expensive eau de toilette to be tasteless, and that the person considers your relationship strong enough. This is also really good advice to follow in the game.). Once your happy little sim becomes a happy couple of two sims, they can have their own sim children or adopt. You can even get them to marry aliens, vampires, hippies, or even the scantily dressed maid if you really want to live life on the wild side.

One of the big keys to success in The Sims is to keep your sim’s task list sufficiently busy so as to keep the character from being slothful and spending all of his or her time playing a snowboarding game on the computer or having pillow fights with other sims. I will overlook the irony that as you do this, you yourself are spending all the time at the computer running someone else’s life while your own personal task list is occupied by “Play The Sims”. To really achieve some of the more ambitious goals, it will take a sizeable amount of your character’s lifespan to achieve all of the prerequisites. So, managing their task list is critical.

And with this, I decided that this would be a great thing to apply as my new year’s resolution. For this year, I am aspiring to go about my day according to how I have it planned out in my daytimer, as opposed to going about the day in a more whimsical, mood-based manner like I have in the past. I’m generally a hard worker and pretty organized, but this endeavor is helping to take me to an even higher level. It takes more discipline, obviously, because after doing homework for hours and going to class, my motivation to go swim a mile may be a bit lacking. But I have already made my decision about what I am going to do, so I do it, and once I have swum that mile, I feel really, really good. Of course, I really love swimming anyway, so it doesn’t take much to persuade me to go, but the same concept applies with getting myself to do homework and projects before the night before they are due, or spending my Saturday afternoon working on a cover letter for an investment banking job rather than spending hours on Facebook.

I like to think that this will allow me to not only be a whole lot more productive, but it will also help me balance out my life more. By planning out my days and sticking to the agenda, I can get things done a whole lot quicker and more efficiently and also make sure that I am taking time to, say, get exercise, have a social life, keep up with the news, keep in touch with people, know when somebody’s birthday is coming up, etc. I will skip that part about practicing romance in front of the mirror while locked in the bathroom though. Sorry Sims, that’s going a bit too far. I’m also getting better sleep so far, though that’s probably not saying much since it is just the first week of school and the projects haven’t yet started really piling up.

And so this is where I am at this point in the New Year and school year: my man card is missing a corner thanks to The Sims, but I’m getting a whole lot more done and am even managing to make it to the gym, which should redeem that corner of my man card. How ironic. The Sims has helped improve my life and make me be more disciplined and use my time wisely. Now if only I could find a way for Starcraft to make my life better, aside from finding more efficient and ruthless ways to crush my opponents and more efficiently use hotkeys, then I would really be on a roll. Maybe that will help if I have to negotiate a corporate merger in the future.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Random Confession - City Block Disappears

Shanghai. Officials are left scratching their heads after an entire city block disappeared late last night.
You Peng Jing, a local student, was the first to notice this strange phenomenon when he went out during a study break to buy a bottle of Perrier.
“I had been studying the periodic table of elements for 14 hours straight and found myself quite parched. Nothing quenches my thirst quite as well as a bottle of France’s leading mineral water.”
When he tried to enter the Jiadeli supermarket he usually frequents, he was in such a haze that he didn’t even realize it was no longer there. He ended up falling 20 feet into a hole in the ground.
“Fortunately there was a pool of run-off water from typhoon Hillary. I was able to get out by performing some simple moves of Taichi that I had mastered back when I was volunteering at nursing homes.”
In the meantime, scientists are finding it difficult to determine exactly what caused such an unusual occurrence, largely because of the large crowd of cats that has gathered around the site. Police brought in dogs in an attempt to disperse the crowd. Upon arrival, however, the dogs wet themselves and fled in fear. Some believe this could be a feline-led act of terrorism.
“I suspect this is an act of protest because the restaurant Hao Hao Chi, previously located on that very block, planned to begin serving kitten cordon bleu.” said a resident of the neighborhood who prefers to remain anonymous.
When the mayor was informed about the disappearance, he laughed hysterically and said “that’s one less Christmas card I will have to send out next year.” He then followed by saying, “don’t quote me on that.”
As officials continue their investigation of this event, they ask that residents not panic and that they avoid any sudden movements around cats that could startle them into hastening the launch of phase II of their malicious plans, should they prove to be the culprits.