Seoul, Reggae and a Sunny Beach

Trip Start Apr 26, 2011
Trip End Aug 02, 2011

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Other than 2005, this was my first Memorial Day Weekend away from the Shore in more than a dozen years.  Admittedly, I was saddened by this fact as May sped along and the weekend approached.  The unofficial start to summer.  The first big weekend of the too-brief season.  Barbeques, backyard parties and bikini-clad girls on the beach.  So what did I do?  I found a way to have fun.  Like I always do.  With familiar elements in an unfamiliar setting that somehow make the familiar even more precious, and the unfamiliar less strange.  I'll tell you all about it.

But first, I want to tell you about my trip to Korea the week before.  I made my first trip to Seoul in July, 2006.  A stranger in a strange land meeting people for the first time that I had only known through email.  I remember those hesitant first hellos at the airport 5 years ago, me hoping that I'd make a good impression and the Koreans hoping their English would be good enough to be understood.  And I remember our first dinner together, after they brought me to the hotel to freshen up after the 14 hour flight. I made a joke as we ate, and the ice was broken.  I remember the very moment that we stopped being strangers and became friends.  The guys in Korea are some of my favorite people that I've met on my travels.  Mr. Kwon likes to say that we were brothers in a past life, and I believe him.  Kindred spirits that fate brought together from half a world away.  In the five years that have passed since my first visit I have been to Korea at least 8 times.  Mr. Kwon's generosity seems to multiply each visit, though he still won't call me Matt.  Only "Mr. Powers".  But he did let me buy dinner this visit.  First time ever.

On the flight back to Shanghai I became rather reflective as I thought back to who I was on that first trip to Korea five years ago.  At that time my only overseas business trip had been to a trade show in Germany the year before.  That's it.  One week of international business travel.  Who ever thought that little Matty Powers from Nutley, NJ, would turn out to be a globetrotting promoter of fuel cell technology and pollution control?

A special shout-out to my parents for preparing me for such a life.  Their constant encouragement to explore and read and learn taught me as a child that there was a lot more to the world than just Nutley.  Now we never had the money for a trip to China in those days, but NYC's China Town was just a short trip down Route 3.  I remember a trip into the city when I was in grammar school.  Mom was taking Chinese cooking lessons from one of the other mothers at Yantacaw School and she needed a wok.  And some strange fungus to make hot and sour soup.  My ever-patient father drove the four of us into the warren of streets and shops that make up China Town in lower Manhattan and set mom loose to do her thing.  Frankly, I don't know how she did it.  China Town still confuses me to this very day.

There were other trips and new cuisines to explore along the way.  And a trip to Egypt when I was a junior in high school, financed in part by my wisely-invested communion money (fantastic interest rates on CDs back in the Reagan years!) and lead by by favorite educator of all time, my high school history teacher, Mr. Brian McGinley.  If I had to name one teacher that had the most profound impact on my life, it would be him.  A warm, wonderful person with an unmatched generosity of spirit that inspired me to learn about the ancient world.  It was his passion for teaching us about Egypt in my freshman year, the way he brought the history to life, that made me want to go see the pyramids and the temples and leave my footprints in the sands of the Sahara.  I was reminded of his lessons on our earliest ancestors when I visited Olduvai Gorge this past summer, and once again I thanked my lucky stars for bringing him into my life.

It was the trip to Egypt that required me to get my first passport.  I think I'm on my third since then and have needed to get extra pages added to each of them.  Thank you, Mom and Dad, for being such wonderful, indulgent parents and for giving me the tools that I would later use as I explored this wonderful world.  And thank you to Corey for being such a good sport through it all.  I'm sorry I chased you with frogs.

Going to Korea was a big step in my career, though it didn't necessarily feel like that at the time.  It was a leap of faith into the unknown just to see what I would see.  And because of Mr. Kwon and his colleagues, because of the warm welcome and a joke over dinner, the world was opened up to me.  I gained the confidence to go anywhere in the world, meet strangers and develop a working relationship.  Sometimes a friendship as well.  Since that trip I have been to Africa (twice!), throughout Western Europe, India, the Middle East and all across Asia from Japan to Taiwan, Thailand to Singapore and even a day on Borneo Island in Malaysia, where I had a coconut on the beach to unwind after a long day.  During a meeting in Thailand I looked out the conference room window and saw an elephant walking down the street.  I have sung "Born in the USA" in Japanese karaoke bars and been treated to a night of "interesting and challenging" sushi.  I have visited museums, churches and temples and seen wondrous works of art.  And now these once-strange things are familiar.  And ever more precious.

So, back in Shanghai on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.  What the hell am I doing here, in China?  I should be in Belmar.  On my beach.  Surrounded by friends and the previously mentioned bikini-clad girls.  There was no way that I was going to let this weekend slip past.  So I set out to find the familiar amongst the strange.  As you'll see from the pictures, mission most definitely accomplished.

I invited my friends Frank and Edith to go see a reggae band at an outdoor bar in the French Concession, a Shanghai neighborhood whose streets are lined with stately trees and 1920s-era villas.  The band, Lions of Puxi, was good and had members from Maritius and Romania, though I don't think there was a single Jamaican among them.  They played some Bob Marley and a few other reggae classics as well as a hauntingly beautiful song in French that may have come from Haiti. It was fun exposing my Chinese friends to this music, and I felt a little closer to home as I listened to "summer music" under the stars.

OK, Shanghai has a lot of bars and a lot of expats so maybe finding live reggae wasn't such a stretch.  But a beach?!?  Where am I gonna find a beach?  The Chinese are afraid of the sun, as if they were all a bunch of little yellow vampires.  I found a beach!  Thanks to Time Out Shanghai I learned that someone had filled a parking lot with sand and called it Sunny Beach.  Not knowing what to expect I grabbed a taxi and headed down to the riverside.  Believe it or not, there was a Euro Techno beach party underway.  They had kiddie pools, volleyball and an ice cream truck.  I miss the Belmar ice cream truck.  The driver got busted in 2003 for selling pot, and we never saw the truck again.

I got there early and settled onto a lounge chair with a view of the Pudong skyscrapers against a beautiful blue sky.  I watched the people stream past for a while and as I closed my eyes and listened to the music I could have been on the 18th Avenue beach, if D'Jais had outdoor speakers.  But it was when I heard a girl say "anyways" that I knew I had found a bit of Jersey here in China. 

The final item on my list was ribs.  It is NOT Memorial Day weekend until I get my ribs.  I got some decent Memphis-style dry-rub ribs at Bubba's Texas BBQ, a perfect end to beautiful day.  I still longed to be with my friends and family, but I had found a way to connect with them across the distance, living my life the way it was meant to be lived.
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Matthew Smith on

Wow, Matt Powers! Funny this- I was googling Brian McGinley (who I just friended on FB, in order to verify the details of my recollections, in order to thank him for the profound influence he has had on my life journey... & this blog is what I found. To cool, dude. Congratulations on it alll. Drop me a line some day.
Matt Smith

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