Sorebrek's Musings and Ramblings

In search of the holy grail of an MBA (class of 2008 hopeful), this space will hopefully chronicle the search and my other quixotic pursuits.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Double-Delight Dragon

I wrote this oirginally for someone I know as a mini-travelogue of my trip to China a few weeks back, but now I see no reason why I shouldn't post it for public consumption. I like to play around with my writing style every now and then; this is one of those times. To some the style may sound highfalutin, but rest assured that there is nothing affected about the experience itself.

In the months since I first visited Beijing in May '05, there are things that remind me of my time there, small everyday things that have nothing to do with me living in the bay area. To say the least, Beijing gradually grows its roots into you much after you left its shores, much like Rome or some Indian cities do. An opportunity to visit again in less than six months was undoubtedly thrilling. These are my impressions - half-formed as they are.

Beijing is clearly the show-case city, the place of pride, the crown jewel of China, the middle kingdom. To start with, I have never had a more hassle-free ride from the airport to the hotel, courtesy the efficient 'taxi chaperons' at the airport and the four-lane wide toll highways. I was surprised to see that the four-lane highways extended well into the city with wide bike lanes and service roads on either side. Unlike the States, these don't happen to be for recreational purposes where someone such as your's truly dressed to resemble a parakeet would take out a road bike on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Reminiscent of Amsterdam, factory workers in suits ride bicycles to work, a reminder of China's economic transition, a vestige of the old co-existing with the new, the latter manifest in shiny German luxury autos. Sky-scrapers line the main thoroughfare; nowhere have I seen construction cranes (building more sky-scrapers) outnumber sky-scrapers. As a reminder that embracing the capitalist west does come with its unsavory fallouts, a constant haze curtain hangs over the city day and night. I took the subway for the heck of it after copying down the characters for my home station and allowed myself to get lost in the system. Not quite the Japanese Shinkansen or the San Fran BART, but the Beijing Subway is an efficient, practical and more importantly a human, organic system. There is constant conversation, unabashed glances and spirited jostling for space - it is almost like everyone is headed for a carnival and not to the daily grind.

Business conversation is still largely in Mandarin. Translation seems to serve dual purposes: while most white-collar workers understand English, translation is used to reaffirm their understanding. I also suspected that this was also a way to buy time before articulating a response. Conversation is very pragmatic, humor is common and topics taken head-on; no Kabuki dance going on here. However there is clearly reticence when it comes to asking questions - an Asian trait exemplified by the Japanese saying: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Hai Guis (literally: Returning Sea Turtles), returning Chinese immigrants from the west, seemed to be doing very well.

Due to little free time, I decided not to take the city tour all over again. Having been to the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Ming Tombs and the Great Wall (at Badaling) on my previous trip, this time I was picky about where I wanted to go. So I left the camera behind and walked all the way to Tiananmen Square. The balcony of the gate facing the square was opened up for visitors this time. Nothing can describe the feeling of being suspended over the vastness of the square in the mist, the moat below, soldiers on guard, the ancient forbidden city behind, straggler tourists, eager students, the Great Hall of the People and the Mao Mausoleum in relief. The first time I heard about the square was in '89 during the student protests (still a taboo topic in mainland China). In my own agnostic way I sent up a prayer for the unknown rebel who stood up to the tanks in the Spring of '89, a stark memory from my pimply teenage days brought to closure. The evening brought out the Asian city neons and along with it the seamier side of the city. Foreigners, especially curious looking ones as your's truly, were constantly hassled by shady characters plying the world's oldest profession.

While I had always suspected the authenticity of many of the so-called Chinese dishes served in America, this was truly an opportunity to put my theories to test. There exists a cornucopia of styles, none of which resemble the American interpretation of Chinese food very much. From the hometown Peking duck, to the mild Shangainese or southern style, to the strongly flavored northern style with dark sauces, to the fiery Schezwanese style to the rather exotic Cantonese cuisine, food in Beijing runs the whole gamut. The Chinese love for eating out clearly shines through. Ordering is an elaborate conversational process: huge menus are consulted, ingredients demystified, veracity of claims tested, opinions sought, polls taken and waitresses flirtatiously chided. This forms an operatic prelude to the food itself, which arrives in never-ending courses to be shared using chop-sticks with only a few dishes coming with serving spoons. Food is not be gulped down in a hurry. It is to be savored with sips of Mao Tai, a fiery rice wine, apparently a favorite of Chairman Mao, Jasmine or Oolong tea while dragging on the omnipresent cigarette. The dishes reflect an almost French-like love for offal: thyme, liver, gall, sweetbreads, giblets, brains, rooster crowns, pig feet (a la Jambonneau) all make for exotic eating. In fact, in Hong Kong, the Fook Lam Moon restaurant has truly elevated Chinese food to haute cuisine by pairing it with blue-chip Bordeaux. Hopefully, mainland will follow suit. The offering at the traditional duck restaurant is almost symphonic - starting with duck flippers (an acquired taste, unless aided by the mustard sauce), it goes on to the duck's heart, tiny eggs, liver, giblets, gizzard etc. until it finally hits the high crescendo with what the west knows as Mu-shu: roast duck wrapped in tender crepes. The Schezwanese hot pots with sea horses bobbing up and down in the soup may deter the foreign palette, but once the initial apprehension is set aside, you die and end up in spice heaven. Christened 'devil berries' by your's truly, Hua Jia, the Schezwanese pepper corns, banned in the US, produce an unsettling numbing sensation on the tongue and work well as a conversation inhibiters :-)

I am neither an economist nor a food writer, so you will pardon my naiveté in these departments. Writing about a nation’s people is another matter. I have always loved to dabble in amateur sociology, such a subjective science.

People do make up a place and I couldn’t agree more about Beijing. A Beijing character emerges, unique and differentiated from that of other regions, all the while retaining a unifying Chinese quality. The youth share a brashful optimism I saw nearly paralleled in India and to a lesser extent in Poland, a feeling increasingly becoming uncommon in the west. The youth of Beijing see the clear promise of possibility. They earn in salaries several times more than what their parents could ever dream of. Slowly, but surely, a youth cultural identity in fashion and music, distinct, but only just so influenced by the west, is emerging, much like the distinctive Japanese style. Perhaps a fallout of socialism, women appear more emancipated than those of other Asian countries. It was heartening to see women riding in the front passenger seats of taxi cabs and even more so to see women driving taxis.

On the other side, the older generation exudes an ennui, an almost Teutonic stoicism, an overwhelming resignment to kismet, a studied detachment and pointlessness that I conjectured to have come from lessons of the past. The fatalistic vulnerability of 5000 years casts a long shadow. It is hard not to be fatalistic when you have 5000 years of history bearing down on you. George Santanaya said: “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it”. I was heartened to see a sense for ancient and immediate history and a distinct pride in the past. The Chinese will do well in observing the Japanese model in preserving their past and amalgamating it with their future. To the accidental tourist, the brashness, the lack of a service culture and the jostle for space and opportunity are unpalatable as at once at odds with the traditional Chinese cultural emphasis on genteel conduct. However the perspective of immediate history brings a new understanding to this matter: a nation still recovering from the cookie-cutter policies of socialism has not learnt lessons in survival by holding doors open for others. It is this grit, this determination to succeed, this hunger, this aggressiveness, this earthiness that I think that will make China the America that America itself has forgotten. In such a pragmatic society, I suppose it does not pay to be a dreamer. However, youth are realizing that sensibility is not altogether a virtue to be cast aside. For a fast-developing China, it cannot be ignored as a first-world luxury, for from sensibility springs ingenuity and ingenuity is the only insurance against obsolescence. So much capacity for sensibility exists in the national character, but hidden by a scarred exterior.

On my last day before leaving China, I took an early morning flight to Xi'an, the ancient capital in the Shaanxi province. If Beijing had the weight of centuries, Xi'an had the weight of millennia. I was fascinated by modest houses built on land that might one day unearth a 2000-year-old artifact. I was later appalled at my own naiveté in my assuming that the significance of this would be lost on the residents. I realized later that there would always be a wisdom in their eyes that most of us at our articulate best would never be able to express, much less understand. The terracotta warriors that I had gone to see, stood in majestic relief, but it was on my way back, half-asleep from jet-lag in the back of my cab, that I watched China unravel before me: a film of dust clinging to roadside trees and tiled houses, corn drying on window ledges and terraces, women hanging their washing, little school girls in their uniforms crossing the street, flashes of yellow as the wind rippled through bamboo groves, the deceptive irreversibility of seasons, places where time stood still and took its time, yesterday’s rain in the puddles, hitch-hikers: an her adolescent boy with a changing voice and his mother who spoke of a simple life lost, of pain of petty losses and of forgotten times while her son listened with a youthful disinterest barely concealing his curiosity, with the simple guile that precedes the loss of innocence.

I woke up with a start in the mist to the blare of a menacing Dongfeng truck. I had fallen asleep to a simple melody played on qin, a seven-stringed zither, as I dreamt of clay warriors coming to life, ancient wind chimes, the folk tale of a couple by a lake and cold rain on a thatched roof. Along with Monet's water garden in Giverny, the back-waters of Kerala and the Fjords of Møre og Romsdal, China will always be a magical Shangri-la for me, somewhere I could go to when I sit in a blue funk stuck in traffic on the bay bridge.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Like a performing monkey dressed in a suit, wise-cracking with customers during the day and yelping at the yellow moon driving down the Bay bridge at night to Pagliacci, fancying myself the weeping clown, Il Pagliaccio screaming 'Nedda, o Nedda', it hit me. Like a meteor shower on an unexpected fall evening, like a bucket of ice-cold water at 2 AM, like the ten scourges that Jehovah rained on Egypt, it hit me: women love assholes - attribute it to an abusive childhood, masochism, or a redundant chromosome, that is so true.

For the longest time I had settled down to being the nice guy - burying the true asshole in the process. May be it is not so Jekyll and Hyde after all, but I was way Dr. Jekyll, where as I should've been Jekyll & Hyde LLP - how I hate able-bodied men on welfare, how I think pets are stinky and at the same time my heart crumbles like a freshly baked Mrs. Field's cookie everytime I see an old bum on the street or a stray cat. Everything falls in place now.

Women and needy men are like cops and doughnuts; the former can smell the latter a mile away. Last night drinking with a bunch of buddies, grounds-keeper A asks cute girl over for pool and then grandly proceeds to leaving her holding the cue for 15 minutes while he yaks on the cell-phone with his 4 AM girl. I-banker J, sensing the kill moves in with a tropical drink, comments on how beautiful the friggin' night was (for fuck's sake, it was freezing outside) and laments on the suffrage of women. The moment A hangs up his phone, the aforementioned cutie homes in on him like a stinger missile locked on a MIG. It is needless to go into who gets the happy ending. Extreme, dude - but that's what it is.

No that's not the epiphany yet. Friday morning was spent attending an information session at Stanford. First let me tell you: parking at the Stanford campus is well, a bitch - a day pass costs 17 washingtons.
My impressions:
  • Very collegial, down-to-earth energy - but I cannot but notice that this may be the anti-Harvard, the bizzaro H.

  • Emphasis on the quirky (now that gives me hope :-)).

  • Decent facilities - some dumpy class-rooms, some not very.

  • Unfuckingbelievable guest speakers - Al Gore, Dalai Lama and Warren Buffet - three weeks in a row.

  • Rock-star professors - we're talking Mick here, not Michael.

  • NorCal 'burb feel - families walking kids and or dogs; most of the humanity this part of town is German - i.e. if you believe "you are what you drive".
So you may ask, and rightly so, what the hell is the epiphany any way. I think Stanford is like the girl you don't want to ask out because you don't want to be walked over. Classy women and Stanford are like Semilion grapes; they could go either ways: distilled into a nice golden Chateau d'Yquem vintage or you could end up yelping like a sad case of sour grapes. I just fresh ran out of crude analogies for the day, but there are more where they came from - so stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


It comes in many forms:
"We already get the newspaper", "I like you as a friend", "I'm not really into indie movies", "My dog needs a root canal", and the classic: "it is not you, it is me"!

When I started writing this blog more than a year back, I didn't shy away from talking about other things besides b-school admissions, but then I had set myself the rule that I wouldn't discuss affairs de coeur. Now I'm tempted to break my own rule. The past one year has been a hit parade - it's been raining snubs. Ok, I didn't get a ding from a school, at least not yet; but If the past is any indicator of future, the outlook is bleak. Perhaps I'm going trhough my own blue period and this too shall come to pass, but it is hard to live in the moment, especially a moment in time as this. I'm having my own little pity party chugging non-diet Pepsi and listening to the lord of melancholy, Chopin - yes, even the pity party is pathetic :-( I sometimes think the expansiveness and magnificence of my reaction to rejection are reasons enough to vindicate the rejection in the first place :-) But I guess it is as important to grieve as it is to celebrate - huh?

Enough of that for now. As I said in one of my earlier posts, my b-school plans are pretty much decided. When I started thinking about school in June '04, I thought I had I had time on my side. Like other things in life, I couldn't be more sadly mistaken. Here I am, with 1.5 months to go and applying to a pared down list of schools, all in round 2: HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg and Chicago. Yes, I know that reads like a top-5 school list, but then I wouldn't have it any other way. Working for the number of years as I have, I don't see much of a point applying to a 'safety school'. My view on this is that I don't want to apply to a school that I wouldn't be thrilled to attend. I think of HBS and Stanford as stretch schools(and so does most of humanity) and they will always be special. However, I would be equally thrilled to get into the other three. I've talked to most of my recommenders and started work on the HBS and W essays. I've decided to tackle the W essay first since that is fairly generic enough to be a good starting point for most other essays. I've also promised myself to jump off a plane, quit my job ahead of time, catch a live performance of Schumann's piano concerto in A minor (Vienna, East Europe?), backpack in Asia and watch the whales migrate south along the Monterey bay. All this to be done by April, no matter how the decisions turn out. After all aren't we all looking for the most fulfilling relationships and outcomes? Before I offer any more Carrie Bradshaw-sounding aphorisms, I think I'd better sign off. Wish me luck compadres.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sorebrek courts the Merlion

So amici, the last time we spoke, Sorebrek was on a plane trying to score some bottled water. The thing is, normally Sorebrek loves these breaks from the mundane, i.e. sitting in traffic on bay bridge in a blue funk. However, this time, with the gods of MBA admissions to appease, he is not as thrilled to leave the familiar behind. In any case, off he goes, his toothbrush packed. First stop: Singapore. After being frisked at multiple airports and generally feeling violated, he manages to land in Singapore without event.

After being scanned for respiratory infections and potential for illegal immigration, he is let loose on Singapore! The hotel turns out to be a pleasant surprise; the staff get your name off the baggage tag and right there starts the 'Mr. Sorebrek' treatment. Nice. Just when it seemed like nothing could possibly go wrong, the blurb on the key-card envelope catches his eye: In keeping with the informal, yet refined environment at the R***, we ask that you refrain from wearing shorts or tank-tops in the lobby area. Now Mr.S is not really into shorts, but the sport he is, he rushes out and buys himself a pair of shorts and open-toed sandals and spends the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the informal yet relaxed environs of the lobby, chewing contraband gum, rocking to the pod and generally being the obnoxious tourist he abhors. But seriously, what kind of a dork would come up with the no-shorts rule? The place is a friggin' year-round open-air sauna; shorts and tank-tops are just small mercies. Btw, Mr. S always packs a Costco-sized pack of Trident when headed Singapore-wards and in all magnanimity hands it out to strangers in random acts of kindness. So far he has managed to jump the cane. About caning: if you're awarded 40 lashes, here is how it works. They do an artistic hatch pattern on your heinie; no overlaps. They do about ten and typically there is no room left. So they let you go. But wait, not so easy; after the first 10 heal, they have you come back and start all over again!

With work and other minor distractions put out of the way, Sorebrek and co-worker J hit the town - hard! First stop: Zouk. J's insider friends exchange Sieg Heil salutes with the velvet rope Nazis and in no time we've crossed the rope that separates the plebians from the patricians. Among other things, Singapore women hit the bottle pretty hard - we're not talking wimpy spritzers or drinks with goofy umbrellas in them; the real deal - shots of hard liquor put away like there is no tomorrow. Conversation: not ho hum, more like comme si comme ca. On the America hate-meter Singaporeans comes up pretty low, but it remains fashionable as in several other parts of the world to take pot-shots at Dubya. Hey I didn't elect him ok, can we get back to some shallow topics please? I am uncomfortable talking sense.

Cheap taxis - you can get from one end of the island to the other and drop under US$30 - expensive liquors and cigarettes though. Talking about cigarettes, I noticed that Singapore has these grizzly pictures printed on cigarette packs. Food: this place like totally like rocks like when it comes to food. All sorts of Asian food at dirt cheap prices. We're assured that the highest standard of hygiene is maintained. Apparently food cops do sting operations to bust violators. If it weren't for this MBA business that would be a career I wouldn't mind: hey you with the lobster in black-bean sauce, step away from the table sir; I need to perform a quality check. Apparently it is safe to drink water straight from the tap, but I wasn't willing to find out. Mango tree (South Indian seafood) and Hai Tien Lo (city lights Dim Sum) are two restaurants that stood out.

That said Singapore is a great place to work for the MBA types - atleast for a year or two. It is a true confluence of east and west with most of the creature comforts to go with. I ran into a lot of banker types and they didn't look or sound as neurotic as the Wall Street types. Who knows this might be a Sorebrek stomping ground in the years to come, although I wouldn't fancy settling down here; there is little else besides the shopping and food; none of the ambience of urine-town San Fran or freak-show Berkeley. God how I miss those things.
I'll leave you with the story of Singapore: long before Singapore as we know existed, one evening the lion heads out to a bar on an island close to home for a couple of drinks. A confused tourist Mermaid wanders into the same bar. Before you know it they hook up and the lion is doing shots off the Mermaid's belly. //Censored by the Government of Singapore// Thus the Merlion was born!