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)

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