Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Instant Karma

Even though we are borrowing Chris and Jess's car, I decided that the train was the best way for my cousin James to get to the airport. Maybe this was my first mistake. Read on and see if you can pinpoint the moment that I went wrong.

Central Station is just far enough away that you need to get a ride if you're hoofin' it with a just-under-the-20-kg-limit suitcase, a carry-on and maybe a jacket or purse. James's luggage was modest in size and weight, but I opted for a cab anyway and phoned the concierge to call us one. Just five minutes later, the taxi driver buzzes to say he's downstairs. We meet him there about 90 seconds later, but somehow the meter reads $5.70. "What?!" I exclaim. "That's really rough." The driver assures me that it isn't and encourages me to read the square-shaped sticker on pricing. I skimmed it, but argued with him anyway, claiming that there's no way he had been waiting long enough to start the meter at $5.70.

The station couldn't be more than a mile and a half from our place, but it feels like it takes ages to get there. The meter races up to $13.80 by the time he stops the cab and he asks for an additional $2 on top of that. I refuse. I borrow James's money because I don't want to give this guy my fifty dollar bill. I hand him $13.80, the amount still shown on the meter. He starts yelling at me and refuses to open the trunk where James's suitcase is. Poor innocent James is listening to this guy rage about how he knows where I live and will charge me for fare evasion. I'm flustered, embarrassed, anxious.

As I attempt to get out of the cab and pull my bag along with me, my thumb gets stuck in the patent leather strap. My nail bends backward and immediately it starts to bleed and sting. Instant karma. I'm angry and in pain and James is still listening to this guy from inside the cab. We can't win. I give him the rest of the money and bang on the rear window, demanding that he unlock the trunk.

I bought James's train ticket, embarrassed that he had paid for an expensive ride made more so by my behavior, and washed my hands in the ladies room. I emerged with clean hands, but a messy conscience. I hugged James goodbye and hoped that memories of his trip to Sydney wouldn't be tarnished by the last 20 minutes of our time together.

This drama unfolded this morning and I haven't yet gotten over it. Some of us believe in a westernized notion of karma; what goes around, comes back around. When we have been unjustly treated, it is comforting to think that, some way, somehow the perpetrator will get his/her comeuppance. However, when it happened to me, I was shocked that what went around came back around fast enough to bite me in the... er, thumb, instantaneously.

I don't always believe in karma. Our friend was attacked here in Sydney two weeks ago by two young men who he had never met. They didn't want his laptop, nor did they want his money or credit cards; they just wanted to beat him up. This was terrifying to Mickey and me and all of our friends. Our friend hadn't provoked these guys, not with words nor with flashy clothes hinting at wealth. It happened in an ordinary neighborhood, in the middle of the day, near a train station. If it happened to him, our gentle yet strong friend, then it could happen to any of us.

It is indeed scary and terribly unfair that our universe doesn't operate according to karmic law. Those two guys physically hurt our friend, violated his sense of safety and ran away. Thankfully, justice stepped in for karma (or was it karma in the guise of justice?) and the police arrested one of the assailants the day after the attack. Our friend's blood was still on his shoes when they picked him up. Our friend identified this punk at the police station and the detectives were fairly confident that he'll be put away for a while.

Our friend's bruises have healed and he somehow manages to see the bright side of this dark day. "At least I still have my teeth," he said with a smile. Soon, the bruise under my thumb nail will fade too, but I hope I will have learned a lesson before it does. You can't explain certain acts of violence or tragedy; life is unfair. However, when you have the opportunity to be compassionate, generous and patient, you'll be better off if you take it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Watching Beijing from Sydney

I'm a little behind the times; the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing ended two weeks ago. However, I can't let the opportunity of reporting on my first Olympics abroad pass me by.

And for whatever reason, I was more "into" the games than I've ever been before. As a little girl, I'd always watched the gymnastics and ice skating intently, and in college (2000 summer games in Sydney), the girls in my dorm couldn't get enough of Ian Thorpe, or, the "Thorpedo," as he's known in Australia. Anyway, we spent our evenings and weekends watching obscure sports instead of our regularly-scheduled dose of nerdlicious competition, Jeopardy (reruns, so no loss).

I saw for the first time a synchronized swimming event and marveled not at how they maneuver without touching the bottom of the pool, but wondered instead how their makeup didn't smear. I came to understand the rules of handball and why falling ungracefully is such a huge part of the game, cheered for Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, watched a bronze medal women's softball game (Japan vs Australia) that should have won a gold for most boring 3.5 hours of Olympics and found rhythmic gymnastics crinky (creepy + kinky).

Most importantly, I watched the Olympics from an Australian perspective: Channel 7 coverage complete with wacky breakfast program called 'Yum Cha' (Australian for dim sum) and Australian advertising. My American friends and I whined about missing NBC's Bob Costas and the human interest stories about the athletes ("she left home at the age of three to train and has only seen her mother once a year since...")

My biggest complaints were that the Australian commentators were uninformed and that the network jumped from a heat of one event to a semifinal of another and then to a bronze medal match of another just to capture Australian athletes. My friend Hannah, who was visiting from NZ, mentioned that the American networks must do the same to feature our own athletes and this is true, but I feel NBC does a better job of showing all the top contenders in a given event before moving on to the next.

The opening ceremonies began at 10pm Sydney time so I was nodding off by the time Bulgaria paraded into the arena three hours later. We knew we would miss the Australian and US entrances so we recorded the NBC coverage via Tivo and Slingbox. Despite the commercials and fact that they waited until prime-time on Friday to air it, NBC's coverage of the opening ceremonies were superior to the Australian equivalent.

While the Australian commentators had some facts about the various national teams, their knowledge was sketchy at best. NBC, on the other hand, had a different approach. When a country strolled into the Bird's Nest, its name, flag and, most importantly for geography-inept American viewers, its place on the world map were displayed at the bottom of the screen. Then, they'd cut to a close-up of the flag carrier and display his/her name and sport on the screen. Now that's the kind of information I was after. The Aussie commentators would blather on about the costumes when I wanted to know what a 350lb guy was doing carrying the Polish flag... (ah, weightlifting, of course).

Likewise, when I watched an early round women's basketball game (US vs Czech Republic), I noticed that the Australian commentators had left their briefs at home. "The American women had better watch out," they warned when the Czech team was up 6 points fifteen minutes in. I later learned that Lisa Leslie and the US team won the game by almost 30 points. It turns out that the US team begins with their B team, but the Aussies in the press box were completely oblivious to this.

Perhaps the most revealing moments of the Olympics were the commercial breaks. One of my favorites featured an Aussie swimmer proving the durability of a Lenovo laptop. It begins with her jumping out of a pool (remember this) and walking over to the sidelines to use her Lenovo laptop. Someone else drops it, but it's still okay and another clumsy person spills a glass of water all over the keyboard, but it's still okay. Wait, you're thinking, the fact that she just jumped out of a pool dripping wet wasn't enough to prove that this thing was water resistant and they had to use a glass of water? Yup. I couldn't get over it. 

Another less funny ad that I've seen outside of the Olympic coverage is one for the Commonwealth Bank. There are several in this series, but they all feature bank execs in a board room scenario. Two guys from an American advertising agency (labeled as such at the bottom of the screen) are pitching a dodgy marketing strategy to the Australian employees of the Commonwealth Bank. Of course, the ideas presented by the ad men come across as overly complicated and dishonest and the bankers save the day (and the innocent, straight shooting Australian public) by opting for a simple and reasonable idea. The underlying sentiment is clear: foreign (especially American) tactics are deliberately deceptive and inappropriate for Australian consumers. The same way American advertisements employ a British accent to make a product/service seem sophisticated, Australians use an American accent to signal something untrustworthy and foolish. This puts me as a person working in client services at a disadvantage. Does my accent speak louder than my words and reflect poorly on my company? 

On a more positive note, the theme of the other ads was Australian pride. One for Coles supermarkets glorifies the dutiful mum who accompanies her budding athlete child to early morning swim and rowing practice while claiming to be "proudly Australian since 1914." Another features different people watching in awe as some Aussie Olympian wins gold while enjoying McDonald's (it's so moving and patriotic that you'll forget that McDonald's is American). And another involves that same laptop girl carrying "the spirit of Australia" to Beijing in her suitcase. 

The national pride here is tremendous and it was fun to watch the news headlines change as the Olympics unfolded. Whereas we in America are isolated in that we don't really look beyond our borders, Australia is physically isolated and its people are highly conscious of their distance from the rest of the world. They respond by bonding together, training some of the strongest athletes and thus demanding that the rest of the world sit up and pay attention to this down under nation of 20 million. 

Here on my couch, I was cheering on Team USA and nearly cried when Phelps won his eighth gold medal, but there were plenty of times when Mickey and I shouted out, "Aussie, Ausssie, Aussie! Oy, oy, oy!"