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!


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.

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)