Friday, August 4, 2017

India from A to Z: Impressions of a first-timer

I love India.

Eating the local cuisine can be like having an out-of-body experience (culinary nirvana?). One particularly palatable lunch – butter chicken and nan bread at a Punjabi restaurant in Calangute, Goa – actually made me moan with pleasure. The billed add-ons (up to 20% in government taxes, plus an optional 10% service charge) can increase the listed price by nearly a third, but it's usually worth it. And the people never bore. Sure they can be pushy and literally in-your-face (alpha maleness is such a thing here), but they're also charming and fascinating.

Then I hate India.

The traffic, the noise, the chaos, and the street litter assault the senses and test one’s sanity.

I haven’t had such extreme alternating reactions to a place, sometimes within the span of one minute, since my final year in Buenos Aires. In some ways/areas, the country is surprisingly Western. Connaught Place in New Delhi could be a middle-class shopping area in any European metropolis, right down to its Roman architecture. If I squint and tilt my head just so, I might even be able to swear I'm in London's Piccadilly Circus.

In others ways/areas, India is the most foreign experience I've had yet, just edging out Cusco in Peru. I've lived in New York City, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, and Cape Town, so I know poverty and homelessness, but never has it been more confronting (literally) for me than in Mumbai and New Delhi.

Women follow me through sweaty, crowded marketplaces in South Mumbai, grabbing and imploring. A few use their babies as props, shoving them in my face, because, well, what's a desperate mother to do? If I won't help them, how could I possibly refuse the adorable little one? I can't, so well-played.

During one Uber trip through New Delhi's traffic-jammed streets, I clutch my backpack while watching homeless people go car to car, banging on windows and begging for handouts. One man holds the stump of his half leg up so I can get a clear view, presumably to garner sympathy. It works, but I'm too frozen with shock to reach into my pockets.

Midway through another journey by Uber, a group of young boys carrying stacks of books approach my vehicle one by one, hawking their English-language reading material. One has a collection of short stories by Western literary legends like Oscar Wilde and Leo Tolstoy one book up from the bottom of his load. I'm tempted, and he seems to sense it, but I have to let him down. I'm traveling as light as possible, and Kindle books take up far less luggage space as I trek from town to town.

To be honest, India was never high on my to-do list, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who visited this country and didn’t rave about it. I’m still waiting for that India – the one I’ll dream about and return to for years to come – to reveal itself. (I have high hopes for next week in Rajasthan.) In the meantime, here are some impressions from my first two and a half weeks in India, alphabetized.

Alibaug The Koh Samet of India, only significantly less horrid – and thank Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, I didn’t have to bunk with bloodthirsty mosquitoes at U Tropicana Resort Alibaug.

Bromance Sex between men is discouraged in India and, according to the gay dating app Scruff, punishable by life imprisonment. Got it. In an intriguing twist, though, it’s perfectly acceptable for two “straight” men to cuddle and hold hands as they walk down the street. Step forward, step way back.

Cows with attitude They roam the streets and the beaches freely, stopping and blocking traffic as if they run this town. My friend Juan (who took the photo above and the video at the bottom) says they’re sacred in India, which might be why the dogs, which everyone but me ignores, seem sort of jealous. The sacred status of the bovines might partly explain why every restaurant menu has a vegetarian section with as many options as the non-vegetarian section. (Dishes with diary products are included among the vegetarian listings.) It also must be why it’s virtually impossible to get a traditional Western hamburger here, even at the McDonald’s in Calangute, which, curiously, doesn’t even have them on the menu. The one at Nehru Place in New Delhi has a mutton burger, but as much as I love lamb, it's no substitute for you-know-what between two buns.

(New) Delhi A much better entry point than Mumbai. India's capital city is more manicured and manageable (as in Bangkok, there are strategically placed footbridges to make crossing the congested streets less risky), and there's a higher emphasis on beauty and culture (Exhibit A: Humayun's Tomb, above, a mausoleum precursor to the Taj Mahal in Agra). In India’s tale of two cities, like Melbourne over Sydney, Jerusalem over Tel Aviv, Sao Paolo over Rio, Madrid over Barcelona, and New York over Los Angeles, New Delhi wins.

English It’s one of India’s official languages, but I’m shocked by how few locals seem able to speak it.

Friendship revisited Mumbai is so much more enjoyable with an old mate whom you haven’t seen since your final night in Buenos Aires six and a half years earlier. Griping about the sketchiness that surrounds you is definitely a two-person sport.

Goa It reminds me of Cabo San Lucas. No, it reminds me of Mar del Plata. No, it reminds me of Phuket. No, it reminds me of Bali. If you’ve seen one trendy Latin or South Asian beachside tourist trap, have you pretty much seen them all?

Honk honk The bane of my existence for two and half weeks and counting. Why do drivers do it incessantly and usually without cause? Because they can.

Ink There are tattooists all over Calangute, but I can’t imagine allowing someone who hawks their inking services on the street to permanently deface my body.

Justin Timberlake What is it with the more-than-a-decade-old FutureSex/LoveSounds? I hear it playing everywhere.... OK, in two restaurants, but that's still a lot of 2006 in 2017.

K in Calcutta Do you know India's third city is now known as Kolkata? I didn't until I looked it up on Wikipedia shortly after arriving in the country. A number of Indian cities have changed names in recent years (Bombay became Mumbai, and Bangalore switched to Bengaluru, for instance), apparently part of the country’s effort to distance itself from its past as a British colony. I feel a twinge of guilt for mostly preferring the colonial-era names. Bombay just has a more magical ring than Mumbai, and Mother Teresa's turf will, in my head, always be Calcutta, not Kolkata.

Lotus Temple My second visit to a sacred Baha’i place. (My first was in Haifa, Israel, back in 2013.) How Sydney Opera House is it?!

Mumbai The city where I make my India debut and spend one week. My first few days in Andheri West are a nightmare where crossing the street is like playing Russian Roulette. Thankfully, my lovely and extremely understanding Airbnb host allows me to cancel our agreement without charge and relocate to South Mumbai, which at least has sidewalks and plenty of eating and drinking options. But where is that Bollywood glamour I’ve heard so much about? I just can’t imagine Priyanka Chopra walking these grim, polluted streets.

No singles/partners I am actually turned away from a restaurant at Connaught Place in New Delhi because it has a “couples-only” policy. I’ve never heard of such a thing. But then, this is a country where some hotels won’t accommodate unmarried couples, which means if you're traveling with a friend, you're booking separate rooms.

Oh, my stomach! I’ve been traveling the world for centuries, and my stomach never failed me – until Alibaug. Warning: Don’t only not drink the tap water in India – don’t brush your teeth with it either! After four days of illness, I finally make my way to Dr. Vasudev V. Dukle at Dr. Dukle's Hospital & Research Centre in Goa. I spend 45 minutes of a Saturday morning in a waiting room that reminds me of a medical scene from the 1800s. While watching barefoot nurses and patients pass, I almost expect a dog, or a cow, to walk by. Total cost of the examination, antibiotics, and probiotics: 400 rupees, or around US$6

Pizza by the Bay My favorite place in Mumbai, though I never actually try the pizza. But what is it with the dog playing dead outside? He's in the same position in the middle of the sidewalk two days in a row, only flipped over with his legs facing the Arabian Sea on the second day. Lazy, generic-looking dogs playing dead appear to be a thing in India, and they’ll pass out just about anywhere.

Quiet! The constant barrage of sounds has me considering one of those silence retreats up north. A few weeks ago, I went out with a guy in Bangkok who had just returned from 10 days at a Thai retreat. He said the silence was easy since he's a man of few words, but he struggled with the meditation because clearing your head of all thoughts while sitting in an awkward position is as difficult as it sounds. I was impressed by his chilled-out vibe, until he admitted the reason he kept taking his bag into the bathroom was because he had a bottle of cheap Thai rum inside of it. Apparently, the pints of beer we were drinking weren't doing the trick, so he was going to the loo to take swigs of the hard stuff. Hmm...kind of undermines the efficacy of the whole 10-days-of-silence thing, doesn't it?

Rickshaws Don't underestimate the power of the Indian tuk-tuk! When my Uber collides with one on the mean mean streets of New Delhi, a shouting match ensues, and the rickshaw is the only vehicle that drives away without a scratch or a dent.

Standing on the beach No-one lies on the beach in Calangute. They just stand at the edge of the water in the middle of the day, like they’re at God’s house party.

Taj Mahal One of the few things I’d wake up at 4.30 in the morning and travel three hours to see. It’s magnificent, of course, but pretty much just a glorious photo op, a 15-minute thrill.

Uber The best (air-conditioned) way to get around the urban masses that are Mumbai and New Delhi.

Vodafone Although it’s annoying as hell that it can take up to 24 hours to activate your SIM card, Vodafone India might offer the best data rate in the world. You’ll need everything but blood to sign up (don’t forget to bring your passport and two passport photos), but for the price of 600 rupees (less than $10), you get a local phone number, unlimited free local calls, and an automatic 1024 MB 4G data top-up every day just after midnight.

Wine I’ve never thought of India as a wine country, but the Sula Sauvignon Blanc and Late Harvest are among the best I’ve had anywhere.

eXpats I encounter none during the first three legs of my trip, in Mumbai, Alibaug, and Goa, not even on Grindr. (Naturally, I won't be hanging out with the one I wrote about in this HuffPost essay.) But then, I see only a handful of Westerners over the course of my first two weeks in India. I’m told they’re mostly up north, which, judging from the evidence in New Delhi, appears to be true. I’ve never been particularly drawn to my fellow expats anywhere, but for the first time ever, I find myself looking to spot just one, if only so that we can compare notes. I can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something.

You lookin’ at me? It can’t be my skin color – I’ve seen a number of locals who are darker than me. So what exactly is it about me that has been attracting so much attention? My friend Juan, who is Bolivian, says he gets it, too, so it must be a thing here. I’m not a big fan of being stared at, but I do appreciate it when they at least try to engage me, and a lot of people do here. It makes me feel less like an animal in a...

Zoo Those Mumbai slum tours are icky at best. I’m not really sure how anyone can think it’s a good idea to exploit poverty and the poor for a buck, or rather, a rupee. Our photo op/"cultural experience" is their harsh reality. You'll see plenty of run-down scenery during a regular, unscheduled stroll through Mumbai, Alibaug, Goa, or New Delhi. As for India's poor, they're people, not uncaged wildlife. If we want to gawk at living, breathing tourist attractions, there's always the zoo... or the beach?


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pagoda prayers, dusty roads, and Tanya Tucker: Impressions of Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon has been on my radar, albeit way off to the side, for decades, ever since I read about Beyond Rangoon in Entertainment Weekly's summer movie preview 22 years ago. That 1995 Patricia Arquette film got half of its title from the former name of the largest city in the country previously best known as Burma. (Incidentally, Burma debuted on my radar half a decade earlier, via "Mountains of Burma," one of many standouts on Midnight Oil's 1990 album Blue Sky Mining.)

Despite my passing interest in Burma/Myanmar, it would be the last Southeast Asian country I'd cross off my to-do list. (And I still haven't seen Beyond Rangoon!) If that makes it sound more like a chore than an adventure, well, it kind of is. Yangon, which is not exactly a cushy metropolis with easy horizontal mobility, requires a bit of work. Thank God for my four-star accommodations at Jasmine Palace Hotel, which puts Yangon right above Vientiane in Laos, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and dead-last Koh Samet off Thailand's east Gulf of Thailand coast, on my list of most-to-least-favorite places in Southeast Asia.

Not that Yangon really cares what visitors think of it. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, occasionally bordering on obsequious, but the city itself is like a detached employee who is too busy texting friends to be bothered with impatiently waiting customers. Yangon doesn't care that you've arrived, and it's certainly not about to break out the good china.

Billed as the Southeast Asian metropolis with the worst infrastructure, the sprawling city is dusty and dirty, despite the efforts of the women who diligently sweep the streets with old-school brooms. Dilapidated city buses are the extent of public transportation, so if you want to get around the rush-hour traffic, your only options are to negotiate the rickety, uneven sidewalks or to stay home.

On my final evening, an American expat in Bangkok sums it up as a "fun city but not particularly easy," and the "not particularly easy" part pretty much nails the Yangon experience. It's not fun in the "good times" sense, but more as a cultural curio. Anyone who has ever thought of "Asian" as a catch-all for interchangeable people and customs across different countries should spend one week here. There's no mistaking this for Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore.

It's not that I have a problem with underdevelopment. That quality actually works in Cambodia's favor, making Siem Reap and Phnom Penh two of my favorite Southeast Asian destinations. But underdevelopment is better suited to smaller, more modest cities that are uncluttered and unburdened by overpopulation and bumper-to-bumper traffic. In those places, it builds character, which is something Yangon could use more of outside of its famous pagodas.

Yangon may lack charm, but that doesn't mean it's a bore. Over the course of five days, it made strong impressions. Here are some of them...

The look A Southeast Asian version of Tanzania's Dar es Salaam, only with more paved roads and no livestock interrupting traffic. But as in Dar, four- and five-star hotels hover over one-star housing on the outskirts of the city center, occasionally filling the higher ups with twinges of guilt while overlooking the true grit.

The looks Aside from my one-year stint in Cape Town, I've spent the last decade plus living in countries with a paucity of black people. I'm used to the race-inspired attention, but the locals in Yangon bring the art of the stare to a new high.

The people Few Western faces pop up among the peak-hour downtown population - or anywhere else. Many of the men wear longyi sarongs (right) instead of trousers, and nearly everyone wears flip-flops. The level of English spoken is considerably lower than pretty much every other Southeast Asian country I've visited, which is too bad. These are some of the loveliest people I've encountered in Asia, but the language barrier gets in the way of meaningful communication with them. Can they possibly be this agreeable when talking amongst themselves in their native tongue?

The customs Be prepared to doff your shoes before entering the pagodas (the two largest ones, Shwedagon and Sule, dominate the Yangon skyline), and respect the locals engrossed in prayer. Yangon's "number one" and "number two" pagodas, as Shwedagon and Sule are respectively called by locals, are not just tourist traps but emblems of a devoutly Buddhist culture. Like the city itself, the pagodas haven't been tidied up in anticipation of your arrival, so be careful not to slip on the damp floors during rainy season.

Downtown It looks like an urban center that was destroyed by world-war bombs and rebuilt in a day. A plethora of electronics stores reminds you that you haven't time-traveled back to the 1970s.

The money It confounds. Unlike Thai baht, the bills are all the same size and demand considerable concentration to decipher denominations. Were they designed to make it easier to rip off tourists? That's my inner cynic talking - the Burmese people I encounter give me no reason to suspect dishonest tendencies among the general local population. But the money is so hard to keep organized. On the plus side, there are no pesky coins to make your pockets bulge.

The shopping I nearly fell off my chair when I heard "Can I See You Tonight," Tanya Tucker's 1980 Top 10 country hit, playing at Mr. Chef, a restaurant on the fourth level of Dagon Centre 2. Named like a sequel, Dagon Centre 2 is a crowded mall that feels more like a 1970s community center than the slick high-fashion malls of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Tanya Tucker "Can I See You Tonight"

The traffic Dense and chaotic, with no motorbikes, just cars, it befits Yangon's status as a Southeast Asian metropolis. But judging from the volume and frequency of honking horns, Burmese drivers are not as patient as their urban counterparts in other major Southeast Asian cities.

The taxis They're serviceable on the outside and shabby on the inside, with no seat belts to increase your chances of surviving getting from point A to point B. Oh, well. I guess you get what you pay for, and you don't pay a lot for taxis in Yangon. It costs only 7,000 kyat (US$5.15) to my hotel from the airport, and I never pay more than 4,000 kyat (US$2.94) for any trip I take over five days. But the bargain comes with some effort. Who wants to negotiate the fare every time you hitch a ride?

The food Toto, we're not in Bangkok anymore. The street food scene, though bustling, isn't nearly as compelling as the one I left behind in the Thai capital. It's hard to go wrong with fresh sliced pineapple, but the dried-up samples I see on the side of roads look like they'd require a bit of water to go down smoothly. Interestingly, the best meal I have (twice) in five days is the Korean fried chicken and garlic mashed potatoes at 50th Street Bar and Grill. The chef here has even figured out a way to make cole slaw interesting: Just add blue cheese sauce!

The mojitos Shaking and stirring them just right is a rare art indeed, but Myanmar bartenders can really turn out a drink. Yangon cocktails are some of the yummiest I've had in Asia. Thai mixologists, take note.

Midnight Oil "Moutains of Burma"

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Why I'm not quite rejoicing over the "diversity" of this year's Oscar nominees

I know I should be applauding.
After 2016's shameful Oscars blackout and the subsequent #OscarsSoWhite boycott over the lack of black nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has done a complete 180 this year by embracing color in an unprecedented way. A record six black actors have been nominated, with three of them competing in the Actress in a Supporting Role category alone.
Meanwhile, three of the nine Best Picture nominees (FencesHidden Figures, and Moonlight) feature predominantly black actors in the main cast. That's definitely a first. Just three years ago, Lee Daniels' well-received The Butler was completely shut out of the Oscar nominations, presumably (depending on whom you ask) because it had the misfortune of being released in the same year as the eventual Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave.
But have we actually overcome? And if so, with Fences v. Hidden Figures v. Moonlight also recently facing off at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, why do I still feel like shrugging?
Despite the obvious progress, closer inspection of the nominees reveals a troubling pattern. When it comes to black actors and the Oscars, a collectivist attitude continues to drive the Academy's choices.
In some ways, there's been no progess at all. Every black acting nominee has been cited for a movie with predominantly black actors in the central roles (so-called "black" movies) or one with racism at its center (Loving). Two performers, Actor in a Supporting Role frontrunner Mahershala Ali and non-nominee Janelle Monae, even appear in both Moonlight and Hidden Figures.
I suppose we should be thankful that none of the black Oscar contenders were nominated for playing slaves. (And if an old rape accusation hadn't come back to haunt The Birth of a Nation auteur Nate Parker, that would certainly not have been the case.) There's that.

But I wish that just one of them had been nominated for a role she or he could have won over, say, Michelle Williams or Casey Affleck, who, perhaps tellingly, remains a clear lead-actor frontrunner for the spartan intensity of his Manchester by the Sea performance, despite sexual harassment allegations against him by two women who worked on his 2010 directorial effort I'm Still Here.
The problem, however, isn't really with the Academy. Considering the options they were given, the voters did remarkably well this time. I commend them for pulling off one of the most diverse line-ups in the history of the Oscar nominations. The problem is with Hollywood. More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education integrated U.S. schools, Hollywood still has segregation issues.
Casting directors continue to overlook actors of color for non-race-specific movie roles. One might get the impression that the only reason three black actresses are headlining box-office hit and Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures is because the demands of historical accuracy forced the hands of the producers.
In some ways, 2017 is a step backwards from 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took the lead acting Oscars for roles that, with some story tweaks, could have been played by Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.
While a biopic like Jackie had to be led by a white actress (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, after all, white), it's hard to excuse the whitewashing of the year's most honored film.
La La Land nabbed a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations (only All About Eve and Titanic have managed to score as many), and it's likely to take Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, among many others. Impressive as it is, the film has been rightly criticized.
It's dominated by jazz music (a black music form, if ever there was one), yet the two leads, one of whom plays a jazz pianist, are white. The few black characters who do populate the movie are either incidental or peripheral. Despite his pop-star popularity and a decent performance, supporting co-star John Legend almost feels like a token big-name black inserted into the proceedings to give them a smidgen of color and credibility.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are wonderful actors, but couldn't, say, Legend and rising How to Get Away with Murder and The Birth of a Nation star Aja Naomi King have been just as believable in the main roles. As Hidden Figures has proven, you can put black actors up front and center and still score a massive box-office hit.
Speaking of Hidden Figures, the movie about three real-life black female mathematicians was at the center of the biggest Oscar-season gaffe so far. On the Golden Globes red carpet, former U.S. first daughter Jenna Bush accidentally called Hidden Figures "Hidden Fences" while chatting with Pharrell Williams, who produced Hidden Figures and wrote several of its songs. Interestingly, Michael Keaton made the same error while presenting Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture.
The online peanut gallery immediatly started screaming "Racist!" While I understand the outrage, I think it's misplaced. The slips made by Bush and Keaton are understandable when you think of the subliminal implications of the bigger Hollywood picture.
Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington vehicles aside, Hollywood seldom uses actors of color in substantial roles outside of aforementioned "black" films. So in a year with four "black" films in the Oscar-season discussion, we pretty much had those Bush and Keaton flubs coming. If Hollywood were less segregated, if black performers weren't banished mostly to "black" films and were more integrated into the movie mainstream, perhaps people wouldn't subconsciously blend "black" films into one.
Despite the asterisk hovering over my enthusiasm, I do consider the diversity of this year's Oscar nominees to be a positive step. And on Oscar night, I'll be cheering as loudly as everyone else when Viola Davis picks up her supporting-actress prize for Fences. (Please God, let it happen.)
But I'll also be hoping that someone in Hollywood will finally have the good sense to cast her in a leading movie role as dynamic and un-race-specific as her Emmy-winning one on How to Get Away with Murder. Annalise Keating is one of the most complex characters ever to hit TV screens, and she easily could have been played by Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore.
And they wouldn't even have been slumming. TV is no longer viewed as being on a lower Hollywood rung than movies. I like to think it's partly because, unlike films, TV is finally getting diversity right.
May movies, and by extention Oscar, eventually get it right, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Spotify Playlist: David Bowie - 70th Birthday Mix

I ended 2016 listening to George Michael non-stop, and now I've begun 2017 binge-listening to David Bowie.

Exactly one year ago today, I got off a flight from Bangkok to learn that he had passed away at age 69 from liver cancer. (In Australian time, it was Monday, January 11, but still January 10 in New York City, where he died.) On January 8, he would have been 70. I thought about it numerous times before he left us, and I could never imagine Bowie being 70.

Although I got to interview him twice, I always felt a little cheated when it came to David Bowie. He once told me that up until before the first Tin Machine album, all of the albums he made in the '80s, he made for money, not art. For those of you not doing the math, that would be 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) to 1987's Never Let Me Down.

Well, it just happens that I'm a child of the '80s, and the music that Bowie made in the '80s was the music that made me a lifelong fan. It wasn't until "Under Pressure" (the first Bowie song I can remember hearing and knowing who was singing it) hooked me in 1981 and I went back and checked out his earlier stuff that I discovered the brilliance that is "The Man Who Sold the World," "The Jean Genie" and "Sound and Vision" (my all-time favorite Bowie song).

But even after I discovered vintage Bowie, and even after his '90s creative renaissance, his '80s music still held up. It's all over my Spotify Bowie playlist, and I think it fits in quite nicely, thank you.

I like to think that as Bowie lay dying, as he made peace with God and made peace with his life, he also made piece with "Blue Jean." Ridiculous video attire aside, it really is a brilliant song.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Spotify Playlist: Boy Bands

A few things that ran through my mind while I was compiling my latest Spotify playlist:

1. "Hangin' Tough" by New Kids on the Block sounds a lot better now than it did in 1988, when, if my memory serves me correctly, I kind of hated it. How did that happen?

2. LeVert's "Casanova" has aged incredibly well. It's a shame that after it went Top 5 in 1987, white people pretty much lost interest in LeVert.

3. No shade to "Oh Girl" and "Have You Seen Her," but The Chi-Lites are best known for the wrong songs.

4. Since we're on the subject of artists who are best known for the wrongs songs, so are The Moments and The Delfonics.

5. I can listen to The Spinners' "Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl" medley on repeat all day long and still not be tired of it.

6. It pains me to write this, since I'm so respectful of the late Curtis Mayfield's talent, but I prefer Brian Hyland's 1970 cover of "Gypsy Woman" to The Impressions' 1961 original. Both versions are killer, though.

7. Why can't I remember any country male vocal groups besides The Statler Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys? Alabama doesn't count because they played instruments.

8. The '80s weren't so kind to R&B male vocal groups hoping to cross over to the pop (i.e., white) charts. New jack-era boy bands like Guy, Troop and Today struggled on Billboard's Hot 100 while racking up hits with relative ease on the R&B singles chart. If it had been released in the mid-'90s, Guy's "I Like" probably would have been a no-brainer Hot 100 topper.

9. The Temptations during their late-'60s/early '70s psychedelic soul era were so much more interesting than The Temptations during their "My Girl" traditional Motown soul phase.

10. It may sound dated as hell in 2017, but Another Bad Creation's Coolin' at the Playground Ya Know! (featuring "Playground") is crazy-good early '90s new jack swing.

Editor's note: I define a "boy band" as an act featuring no women and at least three male singing vocalists whose primary instruments are their voices. That makes acts like The Four Seasons, Bee Gees, The Osmonds and The Jackson 5, traditional "bands" whose members played instruments, ineligible.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The other side of sexual racism: gay white men, the N word and the slaveowner mentality

This has happened to me before.

A non-black man approaches me. I turn him down. He turns on me.

It happened to me twice in my book Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World.

I wonder how "Friendly guy" above would have reacted to a white man who replied the way I did to his disgusting opening line. There's a very good chance he would have let it go. After all, anyone who approaches others with any regularity on Grindr knows that rejection is part of the experience.

Of course, when someone sees you as nothing more than "BBC" (big black cock), as way too many non-black gay men do, they don't think of you as an equal. All you are, sadly, is "BBC."

Some might say - some have already said - "If you don't like it, get off the Grindr." Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The guys lurking on Grindr, simultaneously craving and despising "BBC," exist in real life, too.

The only difference is this: The anonymity of Grindr breaks down the inner censor that keeps most of us from walking around bars showing our cock pics to potential conquests, so it's easier to accidentally hook up with a closet racist when your first encounter with him is offline.

That said, the closet racist can strike anywhere. The worst experience I've had with a guy who went from lusting after me to loathing me in the space of minutes happened entirely in real life. One minute he was aggressively pursuing me (in a manner that would have been considered sexual assault if I were a woman), the next he was hurling the N-word at me.

It's the flipside of the "No blacks/Asians/whites/whatever" sexual policy, but the racism at the root of it is just as powerful and hurtful.

I'm sure the N-word was ringing in the ears of many black female slaves (and probably some male ones) as they were raped by their white masters. Does anyone who watched the perverse sexual relationship between Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) in 12 Years a Slave actually think he respected her? Too him, she was less than human, a piece of meat with a vagina.

To "Friendly guy" and to too many non-black guys who approach me both on Grindr and in real life, I'm "BBC," whether or not I'm even worthy of "Hello." At least you're more likely to get that message quickly on Grindr.

"Just because he fucks you doesn't mean he respects you," a wise writer once wrote. I already knew this before I read it, and I owe that awareness all to Gaydar and Manhunt (precursors to Grindr).

So for all of its flaws and faults (which are too numerous to go into here), Grindr can be illuminating in ways bar talk and pillow talk might not be. In this Grindr day and age of gay men freely letting it all hang out from the moment of first contact, I don't have to fuck anyone to find that out how little he respects me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Spotify Playlist: George Michael, 1983 to 2004

Several years ago when George Michael nearly succumbed to pneumonia, I so thoroughly prepared myself for his passing that I'm handling 2016's latest death of an icon with a lot more composure than I might have otherwise. 

That said, it's hard not to lose it a little when listening to all of the rich art that George left behind when he died on Christmas Day at the age of 53. 

Over the years, I've sometimes wished he had been a more conventional recording artist and released new music less sporadically. But then, if he had embraced convention in any way, the music that he did release might not have been quite as special. R.I.P.

For those wondering why the dates in the title of this blog post aren't the actual dates of George's life, it's because the Spotify playlist below covers music dating from Wham!'s 1983 debut album Fantastic to George Michael's 2004 solo album Patience.

And it begins with the song that I consider to be his crowning artistic achievement, from his 1990 magnum opus Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. I never stopped waiting for volume two, and now, the hope for it is gone. You can't always get what  you want... to paraphrase George quoting The Rolling Stones on one of many Prejudice standouts.

But getting back to "Praying for Time," lyrically, It's as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1990. Musically, it's timeless, like so much of George's art. 

"You have been loved," he sang on his 1996 album OlderHe has been, he will be, he is loved. And he will be missed. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Spotify playlist: New wave 1985-1990

A Spotify playlist: New wave 1979-1984

Losing a friend: Judging the way I live my life pretty much guarantees you won't be a part of it

This week I had to let a friendship go.

The falling out took me by surprise because it had absolutely nothing to do with Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, which seems to be the cause of most of the social contention in my life these days.

The friendship is collateral damage from, in the words of this former so-called friend, "how wrong I live my life"...and, well, my temper. You see, racism, homophobia, and Hillary Clinton-bashing aside, nothing gets my blood boiling like challenging the way I live my life. You'd think gay men would know better, but they don't.

In fact, I can trace the last ending of one of my friendships to the last time someone challenged me on the way I live my life.

"But don't you get bored?" that other ex-mate had asked, questioning my sabbatical from the 9-to-5, a hiatus that lasted eight glorious years, up until I moved to Sydney two years ago to take an editing job with ninemsn (now known as

I knew as soon as he asked the question that our friendship was a goner, not because of the question but because of the way he had asked it (the way you'd ask someone dressed for a wedding in his Halloween clown costume: "Are you really going to wear that?") The implication was that my days (and by extension, my life) were less significant because I wasn't spending them slaving away for pay.

Sadly, my re-entry into the rat race doesn't mean I no longer have to defend the way I live my life. Several days into my holiday return to Bangkok, my latest ex-friend was questioning my life without a two-year plan. He already has 2017 mapped out, and he can't understand why I don't.

There are two years to go on my Australian visa, and he wanted to know what I plan on doing if my employer doesn't renew my sponsorship and I'm kicked out of Australia.

"I have no idea," I said, listing relocating or applying for residency as two possibilities. "I guess I'll figure it out when the time comes."

"Are you serious?" He was looking at me like I had sprouted an extra head.

"Yes," I replied. Why should I start planning that far in advance? After all, I could be dead in two years."

Or maybe I'll get a job somewhere else, or maybe I'll get another job in Sydney, or maybe I'll fall in love with a hot Israeli guy and go back to Tel Aviv (or better yet, Jerusalem), or maybe I'll return to the U.S. Did I really have to figure it out before the arrival of my shawarma entrée at Shoshana, the Israeli restaurant where we were having dinner.

He stared at me, frowning.

"I mean, I could get hit by a tuk-tuk while crossing the street tomorrow." I tried to break the tension with a joke. We were reunited in Bangkok, the city where we met roughly four years ago, so I figured a little geographical humor was in order.

My ex-friend then proceeded to call out my "negativity." He thought I was living negatively and recklessly. No wonder I didn't have a boyfriend. I couldn't commit to anything.

This is when I started to lose it. After informing him that the tuk-tuk comment had been a joke, I told him that my reluctance to commit to a two-year professional plan, or the fact that I had no idea whether I would stay in Sydney or leave in two years, had absolutely nothing to do with my relationship status.

Being wary of commitment in one aspect of your life doesn't necessarily make you wary of commitment in every aspect of your life.

The more he stared at my extra head, the more passionate I became. The more passionate I became, the more I raised my voice.

"You're pissing me off because you're judging me," I said, when he commented on my volume. I felt like a gay kid trying to explain his "lifestyle" to his parents.

And like the gay kid, I'm hardly much of an anomaly. Surely I'm not the first person to approach life this way. I didn't invent the concept of "one day at a time" or "living day to day."

My brother Alexi once commented that I lived my life like "clockwork" and that I was a "man of the firm." Back then, he was right. I was tied to my career trajectory, my life in New York City, my schedule. I gave that up when I left New York City for an uncertain future abroad.

Several years ago, I found myself having to justify that decision in another friendship-ending conversation. Now here I was doing it again under completely different life circumstances. I have a full-time job, daily deadlines, and a new one-year lease on my apartment. I'm not running from anything, yet I was being accused of being afraid of commitment, of being negative, of being a curiosity because I don't have my entire future mapped out.

"Why can't you live your life your way, while I live my life my way? I mean, we're two different people. Your way isn't the only way."

I didn't mention that having all of his 2017 vacation days planned was thoroughly anal, because I was well aware that's how some people roll. It's the reason why some people lay out tomorrow's outfit the night before. There's nothing wrong being a planner, if that's your thing. Embracing spontaneity should be equally acceptable.

But my ex-friend continued to gasp in horror at my recklessness, even when I quoted the first line from my book: "You get what you're not looking for." Obviously, he hadn't read it. It would be almost hypocritical of me to schedule my entire future after writing that opening line.

The conversation continued to crumble. He continued to look at me with that horrified expression, and the more I felt his judgment, the louder I became. Other customers were beginning to look at us, annoyed.

I'm not sure how we got there, but before long, we'd wandered onto a new topic: family and my rather strained relationship with mine.

I feel that family members should be held to the same standards as friends, higher standards even, because family demands so much more from us. He feels family should get a free pass for pretty much anything. Fair enough. He's not the first person to voice that opinion, and I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that approach.

"To each his own," I said, trying to move away from the uncomfortable subject.

"But your family knows you better than anyone else. I can't imagine ever having the kind of relationship you have with your family with my family."

"That's OK. We're living two completely different lives, and we're two completely different people."

"I know."

"So what's your point then? Why are you judging every aspect of my life. I don't need your judgement...or your lecture. It's not like you're saying anything I haven't thought – or been told – before."

"If you don't fix your relationship with your parents, you'll regret it later."

"But who lives life without regret? No matter what kind of relationship you have with your parents, you're going to have regrets when they are gone."

He wasn't budging, and neither was I. The difference was, I wasn't critiquing his life. But I was stuck defending every aspect of mine. It was probably the most one-sided conversation I'd ever had.

Nothing was resolved that evening, and we parted as friends, and I put the entire uncomfortable episode behind me. Then two mornings later, I received a private message from him on Twitter while I was having breakfast at my hotel.

After informing me that he'd arrived safely in Ho Chi Minh City, he called me out for being "aggressive and defensive" that night at dinner. I called him out for being judgmental. After some ugly back and forth, during which he called me lonely and bitter, he wrote: "Give yourself a good look in the mirror and you will see how wrong you live your life."

There, he said it. The night before I had accused him of being judgmental. He said he was only asking questions and sharing opinions. I pointed out that there's a difference between "asking questions" and "questioning" – and unsolicited opinions about one's life are rarely welcome. With that one sentence – "Give yourself a good look in the mirror and you will see how wrong you live your life" – he proved me right. He'd been judging me all along.

"I suppose I am a failure then," I wrote back. I was totally over it...and him.

"Please do not ever contact me again. I have absolutely no interest in you, your life, your 'opinions,' or your judgment.

"In other words, fuck you."

And I took my lonely bitter ass back to the breakfast buffet for another serving of mini-pancakes, happy to be enjoying this meal in silence, in solitude, and in peace.