Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ma On Shan

The following post I wrote in the form of a short story. It was a fun exercise, trying to get into my own head as a character, but much of it reads as a journal entry, and that's basically what it is. These events took place after Yan and I had moved into our apartment, the details of which I'll reveal in the next post. So this story is coming a little out or order, but since I finished it today, I wanted to put it up while it's fresh! I hope you like it.




I could tell by the change in her face that something had escalated the level of tension between us. Something I had said, maybe, or the tone in my voice. My choice of silence at the wrong time. Or maybe this was one of those confrontations that just can’t be avoided – a test in the elasticity of our relationship. The color had drained from her face, the facial muscles expressionless and lifeless as if they had been disconnected from her features. Unsupported, her pallid skin sagged, dragging her eyelids down, making her look bored and livid at the same time. Her lower jaw hung loose, jutting out like a challenge and several untamed wisps of hair swayed threateningly above her thick, black mane. It was a truly terrifying sight. I retreated.

I had seen her like this before, of course, but this time I felt like there was no remedy, nothing I could say or do to salvage the situation. And I was upset as well – about what, I probably couldn’t exactly say. Whatever disagreement had initially baited our emotions had been trampled over by ego and self-preservation. What justified her getting so angry with me? Why did things have to get personal? Under the burn of her icy glare, I knew I would find no answers. Frustrated, I dashed to the ground whatever strands of patience I still held in my possession and turned toward the study room, telling her bluntly that rationality had been chucked out the window long ago and discussion would get us nowhere, or something like that. This seemed to make her even more incensed, however. As I sat down at the desk chair and turned toward the door, her scathing words flew at me in full fury, smattering against my face, and the air was sucked out of the room as the door slammed home. “You know, I really hate you!”

In the tomb-like cavity where I sat everything was motionless, all thoughts swallowed up by shock. Then the dust slowly began to fall back downwards, and I looked around for something to distract me. With the door shut the way it had been, I knew there was no possibility of leaving the room for a while. I took out some paints and began to plod some pigment on a piece of paper. After an hour or so of listening for signs of movement without and thoroughly decimating the page with my worrying brush, I heard the door to our apartment open and close unceremoniously. I waited for a few minutes and cautiously crept out of the room, feeling for all the world like the coward I was. I guessed she had gone to her parents’ place in Tai Wai and passed an idle hour or two, attempting to read. When my stomach began rumbling uncontrollably, I took it as an excuse to get out for a while. I thought it would be better for me to be out if she came back tonight instead her seeing me still at home pathetically alone. I felt disgusted with myself for such a selfish concern even occurring to me.

Nevertheless, a dark, empty apartment greeted me upon my return from a dinner I had over-prolonged for nothing. I didn’t want to feel disappointed that she wasn’t there, but, like the proverbial final straw, it sent me into the deep, disorienting depression I had been trying to fight off all evening. I flopped on the floor, melting into the glow of the television and hating every bright image that flashed in front of me.

She did come back, eventually, that night. As I lifted myself up and asked her if she had gone to Tai Wai and if she had eaten, I felt for a fleeting moment the heavy weight on my chest ease off slightly. Her averted eyes and murmurs, which I took to be a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ as she moved away from me, however, quickly looped the lodestone around me neck once again, and I fell back into silence. I went to bed, saying nothing. I curled up as far to one side as I could, but she never joined me.

I awoke hoping to see her in bed next to me, but found the space empty. I peeked my head out of the bedroom, saw a rumpled blanket on our futon and surmised the rest. She was laying on the floor over her laptop. I mumbled a good morning, and she murmured something in response. I went into the bathroom. ‘Was this really going to continue today?’ I wondered to myself. I couldn’t stand the idea of tiptoeing around each other all day, so I decided to get out of the apartment. What I needed was some fresh air, some exercise and a purpose. And I needed a way to leave the door open for her; a change of scenery, not just an escape. I knew immediately what I should do.

Ma On Shan, the mountain looming behind our apartment and our town’s namesake, was calling. Today would be the day I would conquer it, alone if I must, but preferably with my girl beside me. I showered, made a couple of sandwiches and packed up hiking essentials. She must have been at least a little curious about what I was up to, but she seemed to ignore my preparations. Now was the time. She had relocated to the bedroom. I swallowed and carefully approached her. When I called her name, she turned, and I said, “I’m going to climb the mountain, and I made two sandwiches. You can have one of them if you like.” It was at that exact moment when the skies opened up and I saw inside her reality. All she said was the smallest, meekest ‘Okay’, but in her face I saw all at once the pain, loneliness and relief flowing from her. We knew then how each other was feeling, and we knew it was not anger, or sadness, or even pain so much as emptiness. Despite the epiphany, there was no catharsis. We said nothing else after that. She got ready to go, and in a few minutes, we left.

The silence continued for a while. Although we had never even attempted to climb the mountain before, we had explored much of its base, so the first leg required no discussion of which direction to take. I led the way, keeping sure to not get too far ahead. The weather was really perfect. A few clouds, intermittent sunshine, not too hot or humid, a pleasant breeze. I stopped by my favorite sitting spot under the highway to take a picture. Walking under that road is so surreal, and it felt today especially like crossing over into a new world, one where there was no memory or knowledge of hurt feelings and shouldered pain.

I chose as direct an approach up the mountain as I could find, excited to be in this new world. We plunged up the initial sloping foothill and then paused to take some water and a last look at the apartments and city below, which were quickly being swallowed up by the trees. Still, we spoke little, but now not so much out of trepidation but out of respect – respect for what this mountain and this beautiful day were doing to us and for us. I could feel things changing and healing, and I was excited to see what would happen next.


Finding our way proved to be somewhat of a challenge, however. The mountain had decided not to make it easy on us. Shortly after our brief stop, the path seemed to come to an abrupt end. We made a search of the surrounding area for clues, and after following a couple unpromising false trails, we chose to plunge straight into the thicket and just try to make our way upwards. The branches quickly closed in; roots and boulders made snatches at our feet. We found something that could have resembled a path though it seemed to twist around every tree and rock. Stumbling upon what appeared to be someone’s living space made us a little more uncomfortable, but turning back now would have meant sacrificing too much. This was more than a hike now, and we both knew it. We tiptoed over the garbage and plastic bags and pressed onward.



After a short while, our efforts paid off. The path that seemed to have been teasing us for the last half hour finally decided to get down to business and so did we. Trudging upward and passing the water bottle back and forth, we drove into the sunshine and tree branches and kept our determination up. Another half hour passed with much progress gained before we reached a large boulder sticking out of the trees like a boil on the side of the mountain.

There was a man on the boil, a little brown uncle in a headscarf - the first other human being we had seen since we started the hike. Although I wasn’t feeling particularly in the mood for company, he seemed kindly enough, and his presence at least gave my navigation some legitimacy. We climbed up on the boulder with him and sat down, looking out over the land below. After our puffing and wheezing had subsided, Uncle began chatting with us, asking if we were making for the ‘saddle’ – Ma On Shan’s characteristic two peaks connected by an upturned arc. We told him we were, and he asked where I was from and so on, offering me a cigarette. I don’t usually smoke while in the middle of exercise but obliged him all the same. He spoke mostly in Cantonese, and she translated for both of us. Uncle didn’t really say much about himself other than that he was also heading for the peak and offering to show us the best way up.

This wasn’t the direction I expected our hike to take. I felt that something special and unplanned was happening, that the mountain was taking us somewhere we couldn’t have found on our own. And yet, it didn't feel so much as if this little man was interfering with the way the mountain was directing us; rather, he too seemed unplanned and spontaneous, almost as if he were a part of the mountain, himself. Besides, we already had been having trouble finding the path on our own. Perhaps this was like the mountain saying, ‘trust me, come on.’



So without further delay we pulled on our sweaty bags again and continued our steady stumbling up the slope. Our progress was slower than before, partially due to our guide’s relaxed pace and partially due to the increasingly dense vegetation. Nearly all of the forestland in Hong Kong had been clear-cut within the last fifty years, leaving the mountains brown and barren. Although these forests were now protected, in most places the process of succession had not reached the final stage, in which one would expect to see taller, more mature trees and less ground cover. As it was, this forest, although thriving with both native and nonnative vegetation, was still recovering, and the brush was thick and overgrown. At times it seemed as if we were wading through foliage, our chests downwards hidden from view. Periodically, Uncle would lop off a branch here or there or scratch at a passing boulder. I don't think he was actually trying to make the path more passable for us, but to mark its direction so that other hikers could follow his signs and stay on track.

As we made our way higher and higher, the brush’s hegemony began to lose its control. It became easier to ascertain the shape of the ground beneath us, but our way became steeper and rockier making footing more treacherous. We paused as Uncle picked out some suitable walking sticks for us; he carried his own, a shapely, polished, beech-colored stave, and swore we would need one. We plucked leaves, snapped off twigs, adjusted our sticks’ heights and, thus properly armed, continued our trek.

Hiking was never more enjoyable. Scrabbling and heaving ourselves over the rock face, leaping across tree roots and hoisting ourselves up age-worn ropes, we followed our guide wide-eyed and high-spirited. Although we were totally lost in this paradise, Uncle effortlessly navigated us along a seemingly invisible trail. We kept climbing and climbing, and then suddenly the treetops parted and we could see the summit almost within reach. In no time at all, we were at the top, feasting our eyes on the incredible panorama surrounding us.



Directly southwards, ridgeline after ridgeline competed for prominence, nearly overwhelming the eyes. Southeast of us, Ma On Shan’s saddle dipped like a curtain hung between our peak and the next. To the east lay Wu Kai Sha harbor and other small harbor towns and beyond them, the ocean. To the north and west lay Ma On Shan town, the lake-like reservoir at its feet standing out like a vast, silver plain. Beyond the shining waters rose the faded shapes of more mountains, growing paler and paler as they stretched farther north, toward the horizon and mainland China.






The breeze that reached us on top of that peak was like the mountain’s reward for completing the journey. The hike was so enjoyable and the forest so mesmerizing, we barely noticed how long it had taken us. Now the sun had shot well past its noon apogee, and we began to feel the ache in our limbs. I pulled out our sandwiches and a couple pears, and Yan and I set to our provisions with enthusiastic vigor. Uncle produced some meager rations of his own, what looked like a small convenience store purchase. I offered him a pear, which he refused, but he seemed content with his own small portion. Finishing his meal in no time at all, Uncle wondered around the peak cheerfully puffing on a cigarette.


We didn’t delay long up there, despite there being no pressure from other hikers. It just seemed presumptuous to remain on top of the world like that, as if we deserved to be there. To me it felt like the mountain was a giant generously allowing us to stand on its head for novelty’s sake, and I didn’t want to presume too much on its munificence.


We took a different path down. This one sloped steadily downward, at times brushing along the edge of the north cliff, providing us with breathtaking views of the water and harbors that seemed to lie directly below us. Again the grasses and brush surrounded us where the trees failed to reach. This time we lurched through foliage that came up to our necks, trying not to think about what critters were hitching a ride below our shoulders.


Before long, the trees found us again, but here the forest was too young to overpower the undergrowth. We lost sight of any path and the way down became difficult. Footing became treacherous again as the slope steepened. Hidden tree roots and loose rocks seemed to find their way under our feet, and we took more than a couple spills. We slithered our way down, latching onto every slender tree trunk we could find as the ground seemed to roll right under our feet. The trip down the mountain felt much longer and more arduous than the less steep path upward, and I have to admit my faith in Uncle wavered slightly.

Nevertheless, civilization managed to find us once again. Almost before we realized it, the trees opened up onto a paved walking trail. We gratefully unshouldered our heavy, soaking packs and took a seat on the welcoming curb. A cigarette found itself into my hands again, which I graciously accepted. As I looked back on forest from which we had emerged, I couldn’t locate our exiting point. It really felt like the mountain had developed a distaste for us and spit us back out into the world of man. ‘Thanks, anyway,’ I thought.

We slipped our cold, slimy packs on again and walked along the paved road in a direction I assumed would lead us back near where we started. We followed Uncle down under the highway and toward an apartment complex, apparently where he lived. He stopped us under a small gazebo and told us to wait while he went inside one of the buildings. I exchanged a curious glance with her, but she said, “I think he’s bringing us a hiking brochure.” Uncle was soon back outside, handing us a pamphlet upon which were written numerous scheduled hikes, dates and phone numbers. Apparently he was a part of some kind of hiking club. He told us we could join up with any of the hiking groups if we wished. We thanked him and then parted ways.

It didn't take long to find our way back home. Although nothing had physically changed, it seemed a different apartment greeted us as we opened the door. As I turned on the hot water and prepared for a truly rapturous shower, her arms circled around my waist. We stood like that silently, the myriad of apartment lights twinkling in the twilight outside our window and the mountain looming shadowed and protecting in the distance.

Friday, June 25, 2010

HONG KONG: (an old post I found lying around, forgotten)

I saw this post sitting in my 'unfinished posts' section, so I'm putting it up now.

Other than the occasional family outing, however, I didn’t have much time to relax during the first month in Hong Kong. In addition to our work and study, we had to find an apartment for ourselves. This proved to be much more difficult than I had expected. It turned out that our price range left us with very limited options. Apartments are nauseatingly expensive in Hong Kong. We spent the first couple of weeks using online agencies exclusively. The owners of the apartments featured on these sites were pretty flaky and the pictures ended up being far from reliable most of the time. We visited some pretty shady places, becoming more and more discouraged with each disappointment. After a while, I started getting a bit anxious. Having no job, no social network in Hong Kong and no way to invest myself much beyond my studies, I became a little fixated on trying to find an apartment, thinking that this would solve my restlessness. But I couldn’t do much to contribute to the search, being unable to speak Cantonese. Furthermore, it became pretty frustrating trying to study in Tai Wai with the baby screaming all day. Even though his parents had their own apartment in Hung Hom (across the hall from Yan’s parents’ old apartment, which they still own but don't use), Hinhin (the baby) and his mother spent most of the week in Tai Wai (maybe 4-5 nights a week). The only way I could work with all the noise (and that kid screams like a baby, despite being 2 years old) was to shut the door and hole myself up in Yan’s small bedroom, and that didn’t do much to help my livelihood.

I didn’t care much for Hinhin at first. It’s true, he was spoiled by his parents, his nurse and especially his grandma who gave in to his wishes every time, but I now think the kid was also just responding to the fact that his mom had just started a new job and wasn’t around to spend time with him during the day (not to mention his father being MIA most of the week). Well, I can say now that the baby’s gotten a lot better, likely due mostly to his mom making a few priority changes and stepping up tremendously to the role of ‘mom’; he doesn’t scream or hit as much, and I’m actually able to play with him for a while when we go to Tai Wai to visit (having worked a lot with his age in childcare jobs, I don’t have much patience when kids try to ‘dominate’ me, and since disciplining the kid would be stepping outside of my role, my only recourse is to just ignore him when he’s being a stinker – this largely defined our relationship while I was living in Tai Wai). Now whenever I see him he keeps saying "Petah Gogo" (meaning 'Peter - older brother') over and over again, staring at me. Unlike many little (>3 years old) Asian children, he never cried when he saw me. So I speak to him in English (which he has gotten better at) or sometimes Cantonese (when I know what to say) and we play games or I pick him up or read to him until he starts complaining or throwing something or hitting me; then I leave him and do something else. He's not a bad kid - just hadn't been disciplined much for a long time.

Eventually Ginny and I decided to narrow our apartment search to the neighborhood of Ma On Shan (the characters literally mean ‘Horse-Saddle Mountain’), a relatively new suburb northeast of Tai Wai and Shatin. It is located between the waterfront of a large reservoir and its namesake mountain – a quiet, pleasant community with convenient access to some nature and a lovely park that runs around the perimeter of the reservoir. It’s only a little more than a half hour away from downtown Kowloon (nothing’s very far from the city in Hong Kong) and 15 minutes from Ginny’s parents’ apartment in Tai Wai. We visited every real estate agency we could find in the area, determined to find something less than $8,000 HKD ($1,000 USD) a month and not crawling with cockroaches. Eventually we found a place for $7200 HKD in Sunshine City, an apartment complex that rests practically on top of the train station and a stone’s throw away from both the mountain and the reservoir (not to mention a decent public library and sports complex). Small (~400 sq. ft.) but clean (occasionally), our apartment is on the 22nd floor (higher than I’ve ever lived before by a long shot) and has two small rooms (with the kitchen and bathroom as an afterthought) adjacent to the living room, one of which has a great view, lots of light and is perfect for a little painting studio. We moved in just in time for Ginny’s birthday (April 6th), for which I bought her a mini bar, expressing my full support for her bartending studies (perhaps the best gift I’ve ever gotten someone – the gift that keeps on giving). Short on cash, we didn’t invest in much furniture. Instead, we bought a futon (a little roll-out Japanese mattress) for a couch that can double as a bed for visitors (see? we’re already prepared for you to come out and visit us!). We pretty much live on the floor – eating, reading, watching movies, playing cards – just like when we lived in Fairbanks, AK.

Now there are a couple day trips in April that are worth mentioning (other than the one i wrote about in the last post).

One was an exploration of the mountainous area on which Yan's parents live in Tai Wai. While staying there i would occasionally take a bus to or from downtown Hong Kong. This bus goes over the mountain and is a nice, quiet ride with nothing to see but trees (so i thought), so i usually read or daydream and dont really look out the windows. well, one day the bus was chugging along and I was chilling out on my way to meet Yan after she got off work (at this time she was still working as a tour guide trainee in Tsim Sha Tsui). The light was going away as it was evening and so i gave up on reading and turned my gaze outside. the bus jolted suddenly as the driver applied the brakes, and I saw something scurry off the pavement to the side of the road. As the engine revved up again and we drove by, I saw a couple of monkeys scamper off into the roadside forest! I practically shouted aloud with surprise and delight! For the rest of the trip, i could think about nothing anything else, and as soon as i could, i jumped on a computer. I found out that the monkeys were a kind of macaque, either Rhesus macaques, longtailed macaques or a hybrid of the two species. My curiosity and adventerousness aroused, the hunt was on! I was determined to search out these macaques again at the next available opportunity.

Ginny and I soon found the time to go for a hike around Lion Rock country park (named for its characteristically-shaped outcropping that overlooks Tai Wai). We took a bus to the trailhead, and as we started up, I began looking around enthusiastically for monkey signs. But what disappointment! Nary a macaque was to be seen! After a while, our hike ambitions were completely overruled by a pressing need to see monkeys. We abandoned the Lion Rock and decided to go back and search farther up the road for another trail. Ginny was certain there was a better place to look for monkeys and I readily submitted to her instinct.

Well it didnt take long to discover she was right! We approached some roadside construction area, and lo and behold! - monkeys chilling out by the bus stop!


We continued along the roadside, seeing a footbridge and another park-entrance-like area on the other side of the road (and walking right under another fella sitting on the road barrier!)


On the footbridge were more macaques enjoying the afternoon sun and watching the cars go by. The guy below (who seems to be about to throw something at Yan) got pretty miffed when Ginny tried to approach him, and I explained to her that to primates, showing your teeth (as when smiling or laughing) is an aggressive and challenging display. (Yay OREGON ZOO CAMP!) So we tried to talk and laugh the rest of our visit with our lips over our teeth (not easy to do).


Maybe he's calmed down a bit.. Lemme snap a picture...


Nope! There goes after Yan again! She just cant keep those teeth sheathed...


Man they're all over the place! And what better place to find tasty human food than in the trash.


Try the other end...


No. Not that one...


Bored waiting for the bus...


The reception we received at this park's entrance was a pretty good indication of what was waiting for us down the road. After walking a little farther down the path... WHAM! Macaque heaven. It was like the whole extended family was out for a picnic and just chillaxin' in the sunshine. Mothers feeding or carrying around babies clasping on to their backs. Youngsters frolicking amongst the trees and brush. Old farts lounging around. Fights in the street. Group napping in the shade. I couldn't get enough pictures. It was exhilerating!









Now, it doesn't take a biologist to realize that this is hardly a natural environment or niche. And in fact, although Hong Kong is considered part of the Rhesus macaques' natural range, these forest are hardly natural due to deforestation (as I described in the last post) and it is believed that Rhesus macaques were released into these forests sometime in the early 20th century. The longtailed macaques come from either farther afield, their homeland being primarily Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippeans.





Another day Ginny and I went down to a fishing village area in the east part of Hong Kong. It was a nice change of pace and scenery from the 'urban jungle'. Plus, seafood.













Some huge friggin tasty prawns fried in garlic and butter. It's always fun when you can choose your victims from a fishtank.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

HONG KONG: The Beginning (1 of 4) - humidity, the 'jungle', naughty boys, pandas, cable cars, ugly fish, tea, tea, TEA!

I've been sitting on this post for a while cuz I was hoping to post it and the next 3 all at once to give you a seamless picture of my life in Hong Kong. I should have known that this, like everything else in my life, wouldn't be seamless. So I'm unveiling this post and the next short-story-like entry for your viewing and (hopefully) satisfaction. Enjoy!

(WRITTEN MID-JUNE AND LATE-JUNE 2010):


The spring semester of my online masters in linguistics is coming to a close. Finding myself with some time on my hands, I’ve decided to bring this blog up to date with my current life in Hong Kong. My last post described the events leading up to this chapter of my life but stopped there. So I have much to talk about. The next four posts (including this one) are dedicated to this part of my story.

I actually finished my last essay more than a week ago. I was pretty burned out by then. I had basically been spending every wisp of energy and every free moment of my time on essays for two weeks up to that point. It was a rough time; the apartment, cooking and cleaning had been neglected, exercise and hobbies had been neglected and, worst of all, Ginny had been neglected. It was hard for her, trying to support me, wanting to spend time with me, being forced to stay out of my way. I tried to make it easier on her by going to the library to write when I could, but it was a strain on our relationship. Ginny had started working at Bubba Gump as a bartender shortly before the essay marathon. Although having the apartment to myself made it easier for me to work at home, Ginny struggled with the being gone all afternoon and evening and not really being able to come home to me. Totally brain-dead and burnt out upon finishing the essays, I sought the least effort-requiring activity to lose myself in: videogames. The game I became addicted to for a week is called Persona 4. It’s actually not a bad game; half RPG, half socially-driven, the plot basically involves rescuing other high-school-age characters from their various insecurities. You have to fight their ‘shadow’ when they deny it as a part of themselves. Anyway, the problem was that I was successful in losing myself. When Ginny was home, I gave her my time, of course, but when she was gone at work, I spent most of my time in front of the TV. I think the game became something I used to fill the time alone at home. I wasn’t realizing how lonely I had become in Hong Kong, especially with Ginny gone a lot, and I used to game to avoid realizing it. It’s been hard being here and not having friends or being able to make friends easily (which I normally do). No job and no community makes it difficult to meet people. I knew continuing the online masters here full time would create this dilemma for me, but I still wasn’t prepared. Ginny’s family has been wonderful to me, and that helps immensely, but it’s no substitute for having a few drinks, a few laughs and (with me) a heart-to-heart word or two between close friends. Eventually, of course, I realized that I was becoming more depressed, and, in a fit of frustration, switched off the PS2, and it has remained so since. I did, however, nearly miss the deadline of a crucial assignment for one of my classes, and I disappointed Ginny (and myself) terribly when I had to stay home this Monday to work on it instead of going on a day-trip to Lantau Island like we had planned. Well, Ginny’s workweek has now begun again today, I’m home alone once again, but more determined to do something productive with my time (and I decided to start with this blog!). So, let me start from the beginning now, when I landed in Hong Kong International Airport a little over two months ago…

Compared to the long 5-6 months of separation Yan and I were used to (if anyone can ever get ‘used to’ that!), the one month period of distance while I was in Africa with my parents might have seemed small, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. Meeting Ginny in Hong Kong was significant for a number of reasons for me. Firstly, it marked the real ‘end’ to our long distance and the beginning of blazing our trail through life together (go Blazers – heh heh ...sorry). Secondly, it symbolized a big step in terms of both commitment and intimacy for me to come live in Hong Kong and get to know Ginny’s family and cultural heritage (though, I should mention that she doesn’t consider herself to be a ‘normal hongkong-er’). The first thing I noticed in Hong Kong (after Ginny’s smile and kiss, of course) was how hot and humid it was already (and this was the beginning of March!). It was a beautiful day and one of the few times when I got off the plane and it wasn't already dark (don’t ask me why – I always am flying ‘redeyes’ – it must be a time change thing). We rode a double-decker bus from the airport on Lantau Island to Shatin (a sort of suburb of Hong Kong, north of Kowloon and the major downtown area). Sitting in the front seat on the top floor, I got a wonderful introduction to Hong Kong. Crossing those immense bridges into the midst of tightly-packed, towering buildings, I really felt like I was entering the ‘urban jungle’ (s0metimes Hong Kong is called a 'concrete jungle'). I had lived in big cities before (Seoul and Tokyo, both of which were bigger in terms of population), but this was unlike anything I had experienced before. Hong Kong is only 35km wide at its longest diameter, and walking its downtown (Kowloon on the mainland and Hong Kong Island) in the midst of towering giants that practically block out the sky feels like being underwater. In Shatin, we transferred to a taxi (due to all my luggage) and went the rest of the way to Ginny’s parents’ place in Tai Wai (a neighborhood in Shatin). I was overwhelmed by the size of the apartment. Granted, it wasn’t in the downtown (where even expensive flats are tiny), but it was still larger than most I had ever seen in Asia. There were two floors! – a living room and kitchen upstairs, and bedrooms downstairs – spacious, bright and very comfortable. As Yan and I staggered in the door weighed down with bags, someone sitting in the living room turned to face us: another Ginny! …or so she seemed. She was Ginny’s mum of course, but the resemblance was uncanny. It was strange because I immediately felt comfortable with her, perhaps due to her familiar appearance, but likely more due to her kindliness. I hadn’t communicated much with any of Yan’s family before coming to Hong Kong. Ginny had told me a lot about them, of course, but I could remember many times she became upset and hurt from conversations with her mother (Ginny’s mum can become anxious and superstitious about many health-related things – likely magnified by being separated from her daughter much of the time – and this can make her a bit pushy at times regarding Ginny’s health - and it doesn't help that her mum's main source of information regarding Ginny's health is a fortune teller). So I was a little apprehensive about how I was going to fit in the middle of all this. My worries were unwarranted, however, as I soon realized. When we got home, Ginny’s mum was fussing over ‘the baby’ – Ginny’s nearly-two-year-old nephew whose cuteness is directly proportional to his spoiledness. I had heard much about this little rogue as well, and so I immediately sat down with the little rascal and his grandma to play with him and almost as immediately found out just how spoiled he was. Nevertheless, it was a perfect icebreaker. Being with little kids of all types is familiar to me (no matter what country they’re from, kids are the same everywhere), and I felt comfortable in that apartment right away. After chucking my stuff in Ginny’s already-messy-and-overcrowded room (no surprise there), the two of us headed back to the nearby Shatin Station and mall to have lunch together. We had some truly delicious and filling Vietnamese noodle soup which left the both of us bloated and struggling to breathe as we talked between burps about everything from the last few weeks to the next few weeks. The edge that always hardens over long distance and is revealed at its end slowly broke away. That evening at dinner in Tai Wai I met Ginny’s sisters. Her older sister, a-Meng, is ‘the baby’s’ mother, talkative and animated, and the younger, a-Tong, is still a university student, quieter than both her older sisters and compassionate. They both made me feel very welcome, and I felt (correctly) that we would develop a good friendship, not defined just by my relationship with their sister. It wasn’t long before I became used to calling Ginny by her Cantonese name, ‘a-Yan’ (pronounced ‘a-yun-). Though I tried calling her by that name before, it never felt very natural in my mouth until I heard her family calling her that way. And I was beginning to understand my girl in a new way as well… I went to sleep with Yan in my arms and my head full of excitement for our future days together in Hong Kong.

***

I’m now writing from inside a cloud.
You know, I have so much to write about Hong Kong, I can’t do it all in one sitting. Today, I followed Ginny to work at Bubba Gump, which is located on The Peak, a ridgeline on Hong Kong Island that looks down onto the city and Victoria Harbor. Today is an overcast and blustery day. After nearly getting blown away while taking the ferry to Hong Kong Island, we got on a bus and slowly ascended into a cloud looming over The Peak. Now it’s so thick I can only vaguely make out trees on the slope 100 meters away. It’s really eerie too! As I’m sitting in this coffee shop, sometimes there will be a small break in the blanket of fog outside and a tiny window will open up on the view below before it slowly fades away again. Creepy. Well, got my double espresso and it’s just as well there’s not much view to distract me; time to get to work.

After waking from my first night in Hong Kong, I was anxious to see as much as I could. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t have the luxury to just go off and start exploring like I did in Taiwan (yeah, I know I haven’t posted what I’ve written about that summer yet, but I’ll get to it soon, I promise). The fact was I was three weeks into the spring semester of my master’s and one week behind already (study had been greatly inhibited by traveling – Nigeria, Spokane, Seoul). Taking four classes this time, I needed to get serious right away. Although I had to forego the ‘honeymoon phase’ of being in a new country, otherwise things fortunately worked out pretty well. Ginny was already looking for jobs by the time I arrived in Hong Kong, and she started working for a tour company almost right away. This freed me up during the day to do my work at the apartment in Tai Wai sufficiently that I was able to do stuff with Ginny and her family in the evenings and on Ginny’s days off. I didn’t get to do all that much sightseeing (which I don't much care for anyway) and exploring (which I live for), but Ginny’s family brought a lot of Hong Kong culture to me. We would go ‘yum cha’, which literally means ‘drink tea’, but consists of visiting a restaurant (that could be better described as an arena) jammed full of people sitting around tables. The noise of talking and laughing and eating is as thick as the fog outside, but it’s not so bad. After being stuffed beyond capacity with dim sum and other Hong Kong favorites and full of warm tea, you lean back and just sort of float on it all. It actually reminds me a lot of the ‘Sunday brunch’ feeling I grew up with. Although not everyone is coming from church, going ‘yum cha’ is often also a time for meeting up with family and relatives. Some of the foods are quite interesting: chicken and fish belly wrapped in a cloth-like tofu; hot, light buns filled with a sweet, yellow, egg-yolky paste; steamed dumplings carefully made to contain a mouthful of savory meat and soup inside; curry squid and fish balls; light maple sugar cake; shrimp-fish paste wrapped in seaweed and deep-fried (and many more…).

(left to right: Yan, Lily - baby's maid, Hin Hin, Mummy, a-Meng, Daddy)

Here are some pictures I took (a few days after I arrived) while riding in the back of a moving truck that was transporting Ginny's family's piano from their old apartment to the new apartment. The movers let us ride with them, and I got a nice first look at Hong Kong.





One day, Ginny's family noticed that my studies were keeping me inside all day and decided to plan a family trip to Ocean Park (originally I thought they were just going for the baby, but now I think they were thinking about me too). Ocean Park is a theme park on Hong Kong Island and it's bigger and more fun than Disneyland on Lantau Island (which I visited recently with Ginny and will write about later). In my opinion, this is entirely due to the fact that there is a zoo in Ocean Park and especially due to the fact that this zoo has pandas. As soon as we arrived, I grabbed Ginny's hand and made a B-line for the panda exhibit.

Now, I've been able to see pandas before in the Washington D.C. zoo and in the Taipei zoo, and I expected this time to be a lot like that - a lazy sleeping panda chilling out nearly out of view. When I stepped into the building, however, I knew immediately that this was going to be different. There, sitting practically in front of the glass, was a panda amiably munching away on some bamboo. Able to watch litterally inches from the panda, I stayed there for well over half an hour, soaking in this truly dreamlike experience...

(arrival at Ocean Park - Yan's parents)

Here are some pictures I selected from about 100 of the panda (named An An). And yes, there are videos too.


video


video


There were a few other pretty cool animals, including red pandas too (not actually bears but related to racoons).

(this one escaped from its cage)

(some ugly fish)

We then rode the cable car over to the rides and aquarium area of Ocean Park, catching some marvelous views along the way.


The aquarium was equally impressive - similar to (but not nearly as impressive as)
the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

(I found this fish hilarious)

(the sun descends behind some clouds as dusk sets in)

(these birds are Black-eared Kites and they can be seen all over Hong Kong, soaring high and low over the city as well as the countryside)

('hin hin' - the baby - watching me as we get ready to ride the cable car back over the mountain and head home)