Friday, December 21, 2012

End of Term


I am currently in the brief limbo period between the end of work and the beginning of my Christmas holiday back home in the states. If you care enough to read this, I’m sure you know by now that I’m soon to return to the USA with Sharman for the end of the year. In twelve hours, I’ll be out the door and on my long journey back home! Assuming the apocalypse doesn’t take place before then…

Now marks the end of my first full term working at a primary school. Overall, I’ve been very happy with the decision to work where I do. In a nutshell, my job is helping out 6-year-olds all day long at a school a fifteen-minute walk from my house. Sweet. But from another perspective, I’m gaining valuable experience at a real school and trying to figure out if this is the type of work I want to commit to and foster a career in. I say “real school” because the last school I was at was so unusual in structure (since it is for such small kids) that it almost felt more like a daycare than a school. My current school has students that stay from morning through the afternoon, feed themselves, have one main teacher, play at recess, ride on school busses and so on. My preschool last year had none of the above.

Another huge plus about the primary is the staff around me. I figured this out from the get go, but this school has some very talented teachers and though they may not realize it, they are teaching me as much as the kids, particularly my lead teacher Katie. As our old principal encouraged me to do, I’m looking at this time as almost an apprenticeship before I take steps to become a real certified teacher. Sooner or later, I certainly will advance my education beyond my Bachelor’s and my TEFL certificate. And for the past few months, I've been pondering just when, where and how I may try to do this. 

One downside that I’ve found at both the schools I’ve worked at now is the business-like aspect of the organization. Perhaps this is just the nature of the beast, but both schools I’ve been at have seemed to be a bit too motivated by cash. I won’t give any specific examples, but cutting general classroom resource costs, adding student fees at every opportunity and marketing like mad are among the trends. It’s not a perfect world. Maybe one day I’ll work at a school in which quality education trumps financial interest. I hope.

Still, in my day-to-day routine, this isn’t a significant issue on my mind. I love the kids and I love my coworkers, and when you’re surrounded by people you love, life is generally quite enjoyable. There are stressful days now and again for many a reason, but holistically, my full-time gig is a fulfilling one. Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Leah Ao Xin


I have a hunch that this blog post will reach record traffic levels due to the amount of people that love my cousin Mark Trombino and his wife Carol. This has been a life changing time for them and briefly being a part of it has been such unbelievably good fortune for myself. It is a great honor to be bringing many of you the first photos of father, mother and new child all together, either on this blog or on Facebook. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a bit unfair for me to meet Leah before her own older sister, but Priya, you’re going to see this little bundle of energy in Arizona quite soon. Mark and Carol had their hands full here in China, literally and figuratively.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, my girlfriend Sharman and I travelled to Guangzhou this weekend to meet my first cousin Mark (my dad’s sister’s son) as he and his wife Carol went through the final steps to fully adopting Leah Ao Xin Trombino. They met Leah on Monday morning in Harbin, China after nearly two years of research, paperwork and nail biting. Harbin, a freezing city in Northeastern China, is Leah’s birthplace and where she’s lived for the first four years of her life. After a few days there, the three of them hopped on a plane down to Guangzhou on China’s much warmer southern coast. All American adoptions in China must go through Guangzhou, as this is the location of the US Consulate.  

On Saturday morning, the day after the Trombino’s arrived in Guangzhou, Sharman and I took the two-hour train from Hong Kong meet them, as well as my good friend Henry who lives in Guangzhou and hosted Sharman and I. For the rest of the weekend, we were able to see just how special Leah Ao Xin really is. Despite all the certainly confusing stuff that’s been happening to her lately, she was nothing but smiles, laughter and love for the whole time we were with her. According to Mark and Carol, it only took about a day until she fully embraced them as her new parents, saying Baba and Mama all the time. Her first English sentence earlier in the week was “I love you.” Her second, thanks to Elmo and his videos, was “That’s not a frog!”

Much of Leah’s past is unknown but we do know that after a few months in an orphanage, from ages one to four, Leah she was in a loving foster family. This may explain why she was immediately so trusting and open, while a child straight from the orphanage may be shy and take longer to adjust to his/her adopted family. We went on a brief Guangzhou sightseeing tour with a number of adopted children and their American parents, and I can safely say that Ao Xin was the most comfortable, outgoing child of the lot. She is a little person like her parents, but even in spite of that, she’s quite mobile. Perhaps faster than her old man already!

Also this weekend, I was given reason number #2,654 why I’m lucky to be with Sharman. As a speaker of Mandarin (in addition to Cantonese and English), she was able to translate her parents’ instructions for Leah as well as helping Mark and Carol get some understanding on Leah's constant chatter towards them. She was always saying funny, adorable things in Mandarin like “Dad, I drew a heart” or “Is it yummy?” or “Write horizontally!” that her parents would have otherwise had no way of understanding. Not to mention that Sharman is a preschool teacher and a natural with young kids. She and I are so looking forward to seeing Leah again in a month on Christmas day in Phoenix. By that time, I’m sure her English will be increasing at the speed of light.

I was sad to leave them so soon but even though it was only a weekend, I know I’ll remember this as long as I live. It’s still hard to comprehend that this adorable little four-year-old who speaks only a couple words of English is my new cousin. At this moment, they’re in Guangzhou still but they leave on Thanksgiving Day to begin life as a family of four!





Sunday, November 11, 2012

Balance

This is a post that has nothing to do with me, Hong Kong or any specific event that's occurred recently. Instead, it's my most recent postulate upon some of life's eternal questions. I wrote this after a Skype chat with a friend, as I found the need to remind myself and my friend to step back and think of the big picture a bit more than either of us has been recently. All is just fine in my life these days, but who's to say that we should only ponder the Big Questions in times of trial? So here it is. The importance of balance. 

When caught up in one’s day-to-day routine, it’s easy to lose track of the fundamental reasons why one does what one does with the majority of the waking hours. For example, after three years of schooling, all that undergrad biology school student Samantha may think about is her hours inputting data in the lab, her memorization of terms and her exam scores. With our tendency to think in the short term, it’s easy for Samantha to forget that she’s building up her knowledge to one day save lives in a real hospital. And even if not every fact is applicable to life in the ICU, it all is necessary to get the diploma that leads to another diploma, which leads to a medical job. Or even a college grad like say, Tony, who serves as a tour guide in an art museum near his home. He may stress about his taxes, his weight problems, and the repetitive nature of his job, but in reality, there isn’t a day that goes by where one of the people on his tours develops an entirely new appreciation of art thanks to Tony’s insight on the exhibits. Even those without meaningful full-time occupations can give the world great gifts through love and wisdom in countless different ways.

To reflect on my vaguely Buddhist thinking, I like to think that life is one long journey to achieve perfect balance. Think of it as designing the perfect, hybrid car. Things may be running smoothly, but there are always tweaks to be made, be it the engine, overall comfort or effective airbags. These tweaks that need to be made are not burdensome but healthy challenges, stimulating the mind for the long term and providing rewarding results in the short term. By the time I’m destined to die, I’d like to hope that I will have achieved the perfect balance for the car to drive off into the sunset. A calm, efficient ride, reaching high speeds, but not so fast as to miss the scenery. On top of that, the car will be completely sustainable. Taking in the exact amount of energy that it gives back, through improving the universe and other people’s lives. 

This balance can also be seen as inhale and exhale. The inhale is learning and taking from the world and its resources. The exhale is teaching and giving. This is most obviously displayed in the universal norm working for wages, but should be present in every aspect of life. Hospitable strangers host you in a foreign land; you allow foreigners to stay in your home free of charge. You learn from your father how to catch a fish; you teach your daughter how to catch a fish. You have a revelation from the natural beauty at a national park; you encourage others to go on a similar hike and/or volunteer to pick up trash along the trails. You’re born into a wealthy family; you spend time experiencing and informing others what it’s like to be in dire circumstances and how to approach the disparity. 

I find it much more natural to dwell on the negative aspects of life than to bask in the positive. For whatever reason, the human brain naturally fixates on problems and when something is satisfactory, it’s taken for granted and ignored. It’s crucial to have moments to step back and look at what really matters, and to me that’s having a life that makes the world a better place, pardon the cliché. On any given day, most people have a handful of issues or regrets that add up to something terrible, something commonly called stress. But when one looks back at those issues and regrets just one short year in the future, most if not all of those stress components will be purely trivial. 

In reality, so many of the important factors in life are out of our control. Where we’re born, what genes we inherit, what kind of family we have, who we meet, unexpected experiences and events, luck, timing, tragedies, etc. But as we can only control our own choices, the most we can do is hope to find this balance and know how to approach the past, present and future. All without giving in to negativity, stress, worry and/or cynicism, no matter how bleak it may seem sometimes. Breathe in, breathe out.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Half Term Break


This week was full of firsts for me. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever had a week off from school in October. It was the first holiday in Hong Kong I didn’t travel anywhere. And last, it was the first time my parents came to see this marvelous city.

For obvious reasons, it was fantastic to see my parents for the first time since last December. As most of you know, I’m an only child so this was a good catch-up on family time, as Skype chats only provide so much. Over the course of the week, I returned to a number of wonderful places in Hong Kong that I hadn’t been for some time. Some of the places are mentioned in previous blog posts right here. Over the week, we ventured to the Tian Tian Buddha, 10,000 Buddhas Monastery, The Peak, Cheung Chau Island, Kowloon Walled City Park, a performance at the Cultural Center, Hollywood Road, Hong Kong Park and the Avenue of Stars. As my parents hoped, they were able to spend the week actively sightseeing while I was the tour guide. I enjoy this role, so I too had a good time, particularly in some of the best possible weather.

Another fun part of the holiday was seeing my parents meet my girlfriend Sharman and her parents. It’s rather to surreal to have two worlds connect like that, thinking this is the only time that our collective four parents have ever inhabited the same continent at the same time. The Peking Duck dinner was remarkably delicious and with a bit of help from me, Sharman was able to translate so that everyone could be a part of the conversation despite no common language. Wild. Perhaps some people dread the meeting of significant others and parents, but this was really nothing to get worked up about. Everyone got along quite well, despite my parents’ gift for the Leungs breaking on the way to the meal. As they say in HK, “Ayaaaaa.”

One thing that I think all expats suffer to some extent is a certain degree of homesickness. It's certainly something that comes to mind after seeing my family for what felt like the blink of an eye. My life in Hong Kong is quite satisfying, with a good job, apartment, girlfriend and overall environment. However, there are always times when I long for things back home. Usually it’s friends and family that give me pangs of nostalgia, but sometimes it's thinking of my pets, indie music or Taco Bell (judge me all you like). Fortunately, 6,500 miles of distance is not the same impossible divide that it used to be. Even with the Pacific Ocean between us, I’m able to see the people I love at least once a year at Christmas and some of them twice a year, when schedules work out. And with the wonders of Facebook, Gmail and Skype it’s extremely easy to communicate with people from the comfort of my own apartment. Only ten years ago, chatting with people in real time would have been substantially less convenient. I try to use this as reasoning to not let homesickness bother me too much. And so far, I’ve made it nearly a year and a half without falling into the clutches of severe homesickness.

And speaking of family visitation, I’m excited to travel to Guangzhou next month to be with my cousin Mark and his wife Carol as they finalize the adoption of their soon-to-be daughter, Leah Ao Xin, who currently lives in Harbin in northeast China. Luckily for me, though perhaps inconveniently for them, all adoptions must be approved through the US Consulate in Guangzhou, and hence I can take a quick bus ride up to be with them after they fly down from Harbin with 4-year-old Leah Ao Xin. I’ll certainly post more about this once in a lifetime event after it happens in a few weeks. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Music and Baseball


If you know me more than a little bit, you know that music and baseball are my twin obsessions. A day never goes by where neither topic crosses my mind. One of the few downsides about moving to Hong Kong is that my involvement in these two things has taken a backseat to my daily routine. In college, I worked two baseball related jobs, played on an intramural softball team, studied music as my degree, worked at the college radio station and played in two different rock bands. Thus far in Hong Kong, I’ve had to dig deeper to find outlets for my passions. But with this academic year, my deep digging has paid off to some extent.

First of all, at my school, all teachers and TAs are in charge of an after school extra-curricular club of our choosing. For the first few months of this year, I’ve been leading a baseball club. It’s been a tremendous challenge directing 23 kids (only two of whom are girls) towards the basic skills of the game. Baseball is essentially non-existent in Hong Kong, so most of these kids didn’t know the first thing about America’s pastime when we started in early September. Seven weeks in, they aren’t exactly Ken Griffeys out there, but it appears they’re having a good time and trying their hardest to hit the tennis ball off the tee.

As I mentioned, this baseball club has been one of my biggest undertakings at my new school. The very first week was a basically a disaster as all 25 children, aged 4-7, ran around our school hall like crazy, giving me limited opportunities to speak to the group. I’ve since learned to raise my voice and get their attention, and with some help from our school’s PE teacher, set up a system to give them some structure for the lesson. Choosing tasks that everyone can do yet still be challenged and stimulated by has been the hardest part so far. Especially in a slower paced game like baseball. My respect for physical education instructors has gone way up since starting baseball club.

As far as musical involvement is concerned, this September, I successfully auditioned for the Hong Kong Bach Choir. A group that’s existed for 40 odd years, the HKBC is my first musical ensemble since graduating from PLU in the spring of 2011. So far, I’ve had a great time singing stellar music with some 130 Hong Kongers and expats alike. We meet once a week and rehearse under the baton of an American guy named Jerry Hoberman, whose résumé is impressive and leadership is strong. It’s not a professional group but I'd say we're fairly decent as far as amateur choirs go. They always advertise as the best choir in Hong Kong. This December, we’ll be singing Beethoven’s 9th with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate Jerry’s 20th year directing the choir. If you are reading this in HK, I hope to see you there!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Living in the SAR

When I chat with friends back home, via Facebook, Gmail or Skype, one of the most common questions I get is, 'How are things in China?' At the beginning, I'd think nothing of it, but recently, I've started to correct people and say, 'You mean Hong Kong?' 

In the most technical sense, Hong Kong is indeed a part of China. Along with Macau, it is a Special Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, 15 years in to the 50 year transition towards being a fully Chinese city in 2047. For now, we in Hong Kong enjoy a number of rights that mainland Chinese don't have. For example, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the freedom to peacefully protest. Or more specifically, if I was in China, I could not use Facebook, Blogspot or Youtube without trying to cheat the system (as many people do). Being an American born and raised on these basic freedoms, I consider them crucial and believe that having them really separates us from Mainland China. 

An issue that really set myself and many other Hong Kongers off recently was the National Education controversy. It's complicated but in a nutshell, earlier this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao thought it would be good for Hong Kongers to learn more about the Motherland and proposed a curriculum that was very Chinese in nature. You know, ignore Tiannamen, ignore the Cultural Revolution's millions of deaths, Mao was awesome hands down etc. Well, the Hong Kong people didn't like this idea of future generations being taught conveniently edited history books and marched through the streets in huge numbers, eventually leading to the withdrawal of the program. For now. It was an inspring victory for the Hong Kong people, but a frightening taste of what might be on the way. 

After living here for one year, I feel much more connected to the Hong Kong people than before. I'm not just an American surrounded by Chinese—I'm a Hong Kong resident occasionally bombarded by mainlanders. For example, I recently went to Ocean Park, which is a family friendly Hong Kong theme park not unlike the USA's Sea World. The place was teeming with Chinese tour groups and it was obvious just what a different mindset these people had. On the shuttle towards the park's entrance at the end of the day, dozens of people were rudely pushing to get onto the train, and sure enough, they all seemed to be mainland Chinese. How did I know? They were speaking Mandarin instead of the local Cantonese and had ridiculous name badges and/or hats on to show that they were part of a tour group. Don't get me started on the philosophy of sight-seeing in packs as the Chinese so often do.

I don't mean to sound xenophopic against the mainland Chinese. Some of the people I met on my Guilin trip were lovely and extremely hospitable, and those I saw at Ocean Park don't represent the full one billion. But within the past few months, thanks to recent news events and books I've read, I've started to feel anxious about the prospect of Hong Kong people slowly losing their rights. My Ocean Park trip may have been an ominous metaphor of Hong Kong people getting pushed aside and swallowed up. These are the same fears that led to the mass exodus in the '80s and '90s before the 1997 handover from Britain to China. 15 years later, Hong Kong still enjoys it's colonial era freedom and has more or less felt things are 'so far, so good' but who's to say if and when that might change? 

Perhaps I am too concerned. My own personal situation is under no threat whatsoever. My school is a private school and my flat complex is also a private enterprise. Even if things change within a couple years, I may not even still be here. Or maybe I will. Regardless, I've developed a great respect for the people and city of Hong Kong and I'd hate to see that specialness turn into just another Chinese metropolis, graciously digesting the propaganda fed to them by the PRC. Or maybe China itself will evolve into a more democratic state as Thomas Friedman has suggested. One of the downsides of being an expat is that you worry about two countries futures. I'll save my concerns about America for another day.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Another School Year


A year ago, I wrote a post about September signifying the beginning of a new school year every year of my life since I was five. This year is no different as I am currently settling in at my new school. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m sure it will feel quite strange if I’m not starting a new school year come September.

When I first accepted this job, I really only knew that I’d be a teaching assistant at a British run primary (elementary) school in Tai Wai, Hong Kong. After a week of preparation and a week of classes, I now have a much better idea of exactly what it is I’ll be doing.

First of all, my job is to help out in the P2 class, which consists of twenty-one children born in 2006, currently ages 5 and 6. Instead of a September 1st cutoff date for age, in Hong Kong, it's January 1st. My duties include keeping the children on task, giving individual help to those who need it, and making the lead teacher's job easier in whatever way I can. And starting this week, I will teach an after school club on a subject very dear to my heart, baseball. Besides myself and the lead teacher Ms. Katie, our class also has another full-time teacher named Ms. Ada who is mostly focused on one boy with special needs. 

During my first week of classes, I felt utterly exhausted, but I hope this was simply because I still need to fully transition from my slow vacation pace to fast work pace. The class is funny and charming but we certainly have to work hard to keep them focused and under control, even with three adults in the classroom. Despite their occasional wildness, it’s pretty amazing to see twenty-one kids, all of Asian ethnicity—mostly Chinese and a few Japanese—speaking and understanding English so naturally. For almost every single kid, English is not the native tongue. If I ask in English how to say something in Cantonese OR Mandarin, they are usually able to answer me with no hesitation. Trilingual is the norm.

The school itself is quite professional, something I am very pleased with. The teachers are all talented, easy-going people and many, like me, have just started out at the school. This is not due to high turnover but because the student enrollment has gone from thirty to ninety students in a year’s time. Last year was the primary’s first year of existence so there were only two classes: P1 and P2. This year, there are five classes going up to P3, so the faculty has naturally grown as well. By the time the school reaches full capacity in a few years, it should hold some three to four hundred pupils, at least by my calculation. Perhaps at that point I won’t be the only North American to have worked there. My coworkers come mostly from Britain, but also Hong Kong, mainland China and South Africa.

My general philosophy is not to look much more than a year into the future, but it’s certainly nice to have a solid option to work at this school for longer, should that be something I want to pursue. I have certainly considered and been offered the possibility of working towards my teaching credentials while employed at this school in the future. It’s right next to my house and so far, seems to be a good fit with my educational thinking. But as I mentioned, one year at a time.

Working with primary students is a brand new experience for me. After only a week, I have an infinitely better understanding of the way they interact, what makes them tick and what makes them laugh. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking back to my own wonderful elementary experience on Bainbridge Island at the Island School. Surprisingly, I still remember a lot about that time, especially my friends and teachers. It was a pivotal six years in my life and I hope that I can positively influence these kids the way my teachers and teaching assistants influenced me back in the 1990s. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Guilin

My second trip of the holiday was to Guilin, China. Guilin is about 300 miles north (the distance between Seattle and Eugene) but the best way to get there is by overnight train. The trip was planned by my old friend Henry, whom I’ve mentioned here before. Henry’s been teaching English in Guangzhou for the past six months and had been to Guilin only a month ago on a solo journey. This time Henry took his coworker friend Angel and myself along for a few memorable days in the region.

I had been to mainland China twice before: once with my university jazz band in 2009 and once to visit Henry in April of this year. But this was the closest I felt to experiencing China as the Chinese do, mostly because of the train. At around 5:30 pm, we departed on a train from Shenzhen—the Chinese city bordering Hong Kong to the north—and spent its 15-hour journey in seats since we hadn’t booked our tickets in time to get beds in the sleeper cars. In the passenger cabin, the lights never turn off and lots of people only have standing room only tickets. It’s hard to believe, but many aboard the train actually stood up for the entire trip. As far as facilities, there is a toilet between cars for dozens to share and hot water to prepare cup of noodles. That's it. Not a pleasant night, but certainly a unique one.

We arrived in the main city of Guilin and took a bus to the smaller, more touristy city of Yangshuo. Once we got to Yangshuo, we rented bikes and spent some time looking for our reserved hotel. By the time we arrived, it had been nearly 24 hours since departing my flat in Hong Kong. We were a bit tired but it was only the afternoon by then, so we went on a bike ride through the nearby farm area.

I can’t overstate enough how beautiful the pastoral scenery is in the Guilin region. What dominates the landscape are numerous pointy mountains created by karstification. I’d never heard that word before I went to Guilin so for an idea of what it means, consult our friend Wikipedia! Anyway, biking through the farm lands and seeing acres of rice paddies beneath hundreds of mysterious green spikes felt otherworldly. The only downer of the first day was the mother of all side aches hitting me at the end of our ride. I’m not sure if it was eating too much before or lack of sleep or what, but it was not pleasant. Fortunately, the pain was all gone after a few minutes lying on the hotel bed.  

The following day was the best day. With Henry at the lead, the three of us biked the twenty-two mile stretch to the town of Xingping. Twenty-two miles may not sound like all that much but the journey was quite hilly and ended up taking us around seven hours. I’m a competent biker but not a great one and this now holds the record as my longest bike ride. The sights we saw along the way were even better than the day before. Near the end of the trek, we were given a spectacular viewpoint looking down upon the Li River. Just as the sun was setting, we caught a raft and floated down to Xingping, bikes, tired riders and all. As Henry said to me, the great thing about biking on trips is that it’s both a rewarding, healthy activity and a way to feast the eyes on magnificent scenery.

That night I stayed in my first hostel. In a nutshell, it was amazing and I want to stay in more like it. We went to bed after eating delicious pizzas cooked in the hostel, just what I most desired after a long day of exertion. The next day, we hiked up to the top of one of the mountains known as Lao Zhai Shan. As expected, the view was stunning and first time we’d been able to see a city from above.  We headed back to Yangshuo by bus this time, and ate at a Buddhist influenced vegetarian restaurant. The nice thing about China is you can eat what may be on the pricier side by Chinese standards, but still ends up costing a reasonable amount in Hong Kong or US terms. With work in less than two days, I had to depart from the group at this point. I headed back to Guilin by bus and then to Shenzhen by sleeper train. Fortunately, I was able to book a sleeper bunk on the way back and shared my room with an astoundingly nice family from Guangzhou. I slept well and received Chinese lessons and free fruit from them in both the evening and the morning.

I’ve read a couple books about China recently—one by Peter Hessler called River Town and one called Factory Girls by his wife, Leslie Chang. Both are great books about the extremely complex nature of China. In Hong Kong, it’s easy to look at China as the bad guy, more of an “oppressor” than Britain was back in colonial times with China’s current educational mandates and role in the housing monopolies. This trip didn’t do much to change my own complicated feelings about China but I certainly was moved by the majestic countryside and the kind people I met along the way. Everyone should come to China at least once. It may not always be the best, but I think it’s the most interesting country on earth. 

My wonderful travelling companions: Henry (tour guide) and Angel (translator) 

Sure doesn't look like it, but it's rice

Li River

Guangxi Province countryside

Looking down on Xingping

Corn with antennae

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sabah

For those of you don’t know too much about Malaysia, it’s split into two parts, like New Zealand or Michigan. But instead of having two islands, or two peninsulas, Malaysia has one of each. Sabah is the name of the part of Malaysia that lies in the northern half of the island of Borneo, bordering Indonesia. This was my third trip down to Southeast Asia this year, and while the journey to Puerto Princesa in January remains the best, Sabah was still an enjoyable exploration. The furthest south I’ve travelled yet.

My girlfriend and I flew directly from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu on Thursday morning. It was only a three-hour flight so we were able to spend some time exploring the largest city in Sabah that afternoon. Formerly a British trading hub called Jesselton, Kota Kinabalu itself isn’t anything too special. It’s filled with markets, hotels and restaurants like most other touristy Asian cities. My favorite moment of that first day was walking around the State Mosque during the call to evening prayer. The place was fairly desolate but for a mesmerizing male voice, singing praise to Allah, or so I assume. Malaysia’s official religion is Islam though Sabah is actually more Catholic. Overall, one of the country’s biggest assets is its peaceful coexistence of dozens of different cultural groups.

The next day, we had a beginners’ scuba course. This was the activity I was most excited for and it didn’t fall short of my hopes. Our instructors and fellow divers were lots of fun and we managed to go on three decently long dives just off of Gaya Island close to the city. Unfortunately, I have no underwater camera to document the dives but we saw lots of colorful coral as well as Nemo and friends playing in the sea anemones. Scuba gear is such an amazing invention. I like to compare it to the airplane, which game humans the ability to fly like birds. Scuba diving allows us to swim like fishes.

Day three was a bit of a disappointment. After checking out a couple local museums, we went on a river cruise to that advertised itself as a great way to see both proboscis monkeys and fireflies up close. This ‘nature’ tour ended up being a two-hour drive to board a massive vessel with hundreds of loud people consuming a buffet dinner and socializing with one another. We saw a couple of monkeys that were dozens of feet away and one bush of fireflies. We expected peace and tranquility and got the epitome of lazy, "sightsee in your comfort zone" tourism. So it goes I guess.

The last couple days consisted of some thrilling whitewater rafting and a so-so tour of Mount Kinabalu National Park. My expectations were high (so to speak) for the tallest mountain in SE Asia but it ended up being mostly obscured by clouds and the flora and fauna weren’t anything as special as I read about. Or at least what we got to see. There was a special flower in the area but the tour guide asked us for about $10 US per person to see it so we declined. The rafting however, was totally exhilarating. Worth every penny to rock up and down the rapids of the Padras River. 

Unrelated to being in Malaysia, it was wonderful to come back to our hotel every night at watch the Olympics. We really lucked out that our holiday timed itself perfectly with the games. It’s always so inspiring to me to watch people chase their goals with such passion and guts. And to see an American beat the Chinese frontrunners in men’s platform diving in David Boudia :)

I traveled up to Guilin, China after a day back in HK. You can read about that above soon. Here are some photos of Sabah. 

Sabah State Mosque

Floating dock on Gaya Island

Photo with a photogenic monkey photo

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey

40 meters above ground on the jungle canopy walk

Mount Kinabalu

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dozens of Goodbyes

July began with my one-year anniversary in Hong Kong and is ending with the conclusion of my first full-time job. It’s been an emotional time and I think I summed it up decently in my final weekly newsletter, sent to my students’ parents: 

Hello everyone, 
For my last newsletter, I'd just like to write a huge thank you to the many students, parents, grandparents and helpers I've gotten to know during my time at this school. I'm not usually one to get overly sentimental, but I have really been blessed to get to know all of you. During these last two weeks, I've been quite humbled by having received so many well-wishes for my future.  
From my first day here until now, I have learned just as much if not more from my students as they have learned from me. Watching so many kids transform from babies into inquisitive, clever children is something very few people get to see and I will never forget this experience. It's also confirmed my belief, from the Beatles, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE!  
I wish each and every one of my students all the very best as they grow up.  
Cheers!  
Mr. Ben 

I really haven't had an experience like this before—saying my goodbyes and thank yous to so many people at the end of a life chapter. And by so many, I mean 150 students and their families plus nearly twenty colleagues. The closest was probably graduating university but that grand finale had been known by everyone involved from the get go and the majority of my friends were leaving with me. Announcing to the students and parents that I was leaving was probably the hardest step in the process but bidding adieu to the tight-knit colleague group was nearly as tough. After spending so many hours with certain people, you develop quite an attachment. 

In these last two weeks, with the end in sight, I felt what an impact these kids had on me and vice versa (I hope/think?) and that was something that really brought into focus the fact that teaching could be a career path for me. Of course, I'll need a lot more training to develop teaching skills beyond what I have now. But more than ever before, working in education seems like a pretty solid way to pass the weekday hours and try to make a difference. 

As I posted earlier, I start at the primary school on August 20th. I’m looking forward to (and also a bit nervous about) broadening my teaching experience and comparing this to my year teaching toddlers. During the next three weeks, I’ll spend half the time lounging around in Hong Kong and half the time travelling to both Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia and Guilin, China. Expect many photos and blog posts to come from these two trips.

Monday, July 2, 2012

One Year Later

This Wednesday marks my first Asia-versary. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a metric butt-load* about many things. For example, teaching, small children, teaching small children, Hong Kong, Asia in general, Chinese culture, travelling, Cantonese, having a fulltime job, being in a relationship, self-reliance, etc. But for this post, I’d like to make a brief timeline of the last fifty-two weeks. I’ve always been a big fan of timelines, way before Facebook I might add (for hipster credit). Here it goes, with older posts linked. 

July 3-4, 2011: Travelled from Seattle to Hong Kong via planes, trains, boats and automobiles. Definitely the longest and most anxious days of my life. The journey went: Bainbridge Island house->BI Ferry Terminal->Seattle Ferry Terminal->SeaTac Airport->San Francisco Airport->Hong Kong Airport->Kowloon MTR Station->Roommate Ben’s Chan Uk Village flat. A 30-hour journey from totally familiar to completely foreign. 

July 16: First day teaching. Not just in HK but first day teaching any class period. It wasn’t supposed to be until the 18th, but my predecessor decided to ditch a bit early so I showed up and got a whirlwind introduction to the kids, parents and fellow teachers. Another nerve-wracking day for sure. Thankfully, I’d been trained about the job during the previous week so I at least had an idea of what to do. 

August 26: Flew alone to Taipei, Taiwan for my first trip outside HK as well as my first vacation alone. Good times and good memories, particularly seeing a Taiwanese professional baseball game. 

October 16: Began dating my gorgeous girlfriend, changing my life infinitely for the better ☺. Our first date was on the serene Lamma Island. 

December 18: Journeyed back across the Pacific to Seattle. For two weeks, I spent time with good friends and family in both the Seattle area and the Napa Valley. Being home made Hong Kong feel like a strange but wonderful dream. 

January 23, 2012: Went to Puerto Princesa, Philippines with four good friends, all connected to my school in HK. Possibly the best vacation of my life, this consisted of four near perfect days on an idyllic tropical island. I can still taste the delicious fruit smoothies and milkshakes. 

March 4: Moved into a new flat in Tai Wai. Took some cash and a bit of work to get it all set up, but once the place came together, I settled comfortably into my first solo apartment. 

April 3: Took a trip to Bangkok, Thailand with my girlfriend. It was far too short of a stay but I enjoyed seeing another world class city nearby. Some sweet golden temples they have there. 

(upcoming) July 28: Final day of work at my school. It’s hard to describe a day that hasn’t happened yet, but I expect an ocean of bittersweetness. More details in a post yet to come. 

So there’s a year. No gooey reflection necessary. I’ve had a great time and I’m optimistic about what the future might hold!

*'Metric butt-load' is a specific unit of measurement established by my great chum, Taylor Hagbo. It's quantity should be self-evident. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Language

I’ve been meaning to write something on this for some time. So far on this blog, the only time I’ve spent much time addressing this endlessly fascinating topic was back in August when I discussed my own pursuit of learning Cantonese. I still use and try to improve my Canto every day, but that isn’t what this post is about. Of all the differences between the world of Hong Kong and the world of Seattle, I’d say that the role of language is the most interesting to me. Growing up in the United States, I knew that most of the world’s population didn’t speak English. And I knew that there were a whole lot of people who spoke multiple languages fluently. But I never realized how much of an anomaly American citizens are in being mostly monolingual. 

I’d say the average American (with the notable exception of recent immigrants) speaks English natively and knows a handful of words in other languages, most likely Spanish. I personally studied Spanish for three years and though I was good at it, I saw it more as a high school requirement than a valuable life skill. And I believe most Americans feel the same. Why shouldn’t they? Most Americans will spend their entire lives interacting only with native English speakers, speaking only English to each other. It’s the way our society is and has been since the country was founded. The term “language” is pretty much synonymous with “English” to most Americans (and probably most Australians/Canadians/New Zealanders). Simple as that. But it couldn’t be more different in Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

In Hong Kong, the native language of the people is Cantonese. But the national language of China is Mandarin. And the language of commerce, travel, most things international, and HK’s former colonial owner is English. So when announcements are made on trains or busses, they are stated in each of these three languages. That being said, Hong Kong people have a wide variety of skill levels at each of these languages. I’ve come across Hong Kongers who can only speak Cantonese, and others who can speak all three of the aforementioned flawlessly. 

Most Americans may find this unique or unusual, but I think that this is closer to the global norm than what American society is. In mainland China, most citizens speak Mandarin in addition to one or more local dialects, whether it’s an ancient village dialect or Shanghainese. In continental Europe, most citizens speak their native tongue, English and often a third or fourth language to boot. In Africa, most people speak a tribal language passed down by their parents in addition to their country’s ‘Lingua Franca’, whatever that may be. I challenge you to start Googling random countries in the world and check out the languages spoken by its people. More often than not, you’ll find a lot more lingual diversity than in the USA. 

(sidenote: The increase of Latinos in the US is changing the language landscape of America, but this is a different sort of issue that I’m not even going to try to tackle) 

I continue to be impressed by the polyglots I interact with all the time. And working at a school that teaches Mandarin and English to native Cantonese speakers, I encounter dozens of them every day, from teachers to students to parents to domestic helpers. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about my own heavy reliance on a single language, but that’s not my fault; it’s the way my native society works. For now, I can only continue working on my Cantonese, and potentially other languages in the future. It’s great for the brain and it’s a surefire way to feel more like a global citizen.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Next Job

I’ve been sitting on this news for a while but wanted to wait a while before posting anything about it. This August, I’ll begin work at an international primary school (ages 6-12) as a teaching assistant. At this point, I don’t have an extremely clear picture of what my job will consist of, but basically, I’ll be doing my bit to make the teachers and students lives better. Part of my duties include organizing an after school club, which will almost certainly be music related. Additionally, I expect to do some one-on-one help with kids that need it and assist teachers, as you may imagine a teaching assistant would do. For the second time in as many jobs, I’m thrilled to be receiving an offer that’s a challenge and something totally different than any experience I’ve had. 

Until recently, I was planning to stay at my current school another year, but when I got this interview thanks to a former colleague and eventually a job offer, I couldn’t say no. The school is within walking distance of my current flat, there’s no work on Saturdays, and much longer vacations throughout the year. I enjoy teaching the toddlers and will miss being the lead teacher that I am now, but I do suspect that two years of my current job might have burned me out, had I taken that path. It’s just a tiring job that’s hard to sustain. 

As it stands, I’ll be completing my current tenure at the end of July, and starting at the primary on the 20th of August. This gives me three glorious weeks of vacation. It’s the first time I’ve had that much holiday since June 2011, when I was completing my endless checklist of things to do before Hong Kong. Now, I expect to travel (though not home unfortunately), relax, write, make music and do other things I simply haven’t had time to do.

So the next chapter of my journey begins. For now, I look forward to the next six weeks of watching my little tykes as they dance to “Twist and Shout” and “Singin’ in the Rain” in preparation of our school concert. It’ll be hard to say goodbye to the kids and my coworkers but so it goes. Onward!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Long Ke and Lion Rock

These last couple weeks, I saw two places in Hong Kong that made me think, “How the hell haven’t I been here after eleven months?!” Their scope and overall beauty were among the most impressive I’ve witnessed in HK yet.

The first was a beach called Long Ke. I’d been hearing about this beach for some time, yet had never made the trek due to its tricky location. But after reading about it being voted as the number two beach in Hong Kong by HK Magazine, I decided to finally check it out. Perhaps the number one, even more isolated Dai Long Wan will come later.

To get there, my girlfriend and I took the train one brief stop from Tai Wai to Shatin, took a 45-minute bus ride to Sai Kung and a winding 30-minute taxi ride to the trail head, about as far east as you can get in the Hong Kong SAR. From there, it was about a 30-minute hike down to the beach. But once we finally reached our destination, it was surreal. It was like we had left Hong Kong and plopped back down in the idyllic island of Palwan, where we had been five months ago.

The sand was fine, the water was crystal clear, the handful of other people there were laid-back, and the beach was BIG. There was plenty of room to play Frisbee and no concern about leaving our stuff on the beach while we swam in the not-too-cold-but-not-too-warm water. Those of you Seattleites reading this probably can’t imagine ocean water that’s too warm, but in Hong Kong, it happens. No joke. The beauty of this place was enhanced by the fact the rarity of beaches like this in Hong Kong. Most of the ones I’ve been to are either tiny, packed with people or littered with trash from the ocean. 

Here are some photos of the beach and the hike up there. The only down side of the outing was that the taxi ride out there added up to a hefty sum, so next time, we might invite a bigger posse and split the taxi cost. It’s the only possible way to access Long Ke, aside from permitted vehicles driven by employees of the surrounding Geopark and nearby rehab facility.

A group of feral cattle

Just...yes

This is what one might call camouflage

Hard to believe we're in one of the densest cities on Earth
  
The other place I went to was much less of a time commitment. Just a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment lies one of the entrances to the Lion Rock Country Park. The Lion Rock is one of the highest points on the HK mainland at 495 meters, and divides the densely populated Kowloon peninsula from the more rural New Territories. Though I didn’t originally intend to do so due to the heat, I hiked to the highest point that people can safely access, a stone’s through—no pun intended—from the peak of the rock, which actually does look a bit like a lion.

From here, I got one of the best views of Hong Kong I’ve had yet. At some 1,600 feet above sea level, I was able to see a full panorama of Kowloon and a hazy silhouette of HK Island’s north shore. Victoria Peak may have the fame and the glitz of the island’s architecture, but Lion Rock has a scenic hike, infinitely greater isolation and in my opinion, better scope due to its distance inland. My camera doesn’t do it justice, but here are a few shots.

Lion Rock

Kowloon from above

Camera facing south over the green New Territories

Reminds me of Avatar for some reason

Whoah! Didn't know that existed!
Please don't steal my stuff

Aside from my outdoor adventures, nothing too exciting has happened to me as of late. Still working hard at my school, trying to keep writing words and music when I can, and fantasizing about future trips around Asia. Thanks too all those who are reading this. I love reading your comments and hearing about your lives as well!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cheung Chau

For the tail end of April and first week of May, my good friend John came to visit me. Fresh from a three-month stay in Nepal, he got a solid taste of a city about as unlike Kathmandu as you can find in Asia. It was great to have him here and I wish him all the best as he prepares to embark on a two-year stint in Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps. Hopefully, he’ll also have some sort of blog that I’ll be sure to link here! 

Having John visit was fun for me as well. Not just because I got to spend time with a friend, but also because I got to revisit some of my favorite places in Hong Kong again. Of these places I revisited, I’d say the most memorable was Cheung Chau. I wrote about my first trip to Cheung Chau Island back in August. My second trip there was among my first dates with my current girlfriend back in October. But this third trip really confirmed my suspicion that Cheung Chau is my favorite spot in all of Hong Kong. And just after I started writing this blog, it dawned on me why this is—because there are so many similarities to Bainbridge Island. 

The most obvious is that it’s a small island a short ferry ride away from the bustling city. But also, Cheung Chau is a careful contrast of laid-back neighborhood life and green, serene wilderness. After you dock and see the main street of shops and pricey but delicious restaurants, you walk through a village where people calmly go about their daily lives. Walk a little farther and you get to hiking trails and beaches. On this last trip, our group of John, Henry (another high school friend, living in Guangzhou) my girlfriend and I trekked up to a viewpoint pavilion and then down to a secluded beach just below. Unfortunately, the beach had its fair share of litter but we didn’t let that ruin the experience. 

After swimming and dining at a harbor-side restaurant, we hopped the ferry and made our way back to downtown vertical-land. It’s hard to explain, especially when there’s not much there in the way of landmarks, but Cheung Chau is simply blissful. I feel similarly about nearby Lamma Island, but Cheung Chau’s lack of Western pubs and hippy communes make it a bit more genuine in my book. Speaking of the true Chinese-ness of Cheung Chau, we witnessed the grand finale of the annual Bun Festival, where people worship mountains of buns and parade all over the place. It was a lot of fun, though I hope to see more of it next year. And you can’t beat the delicious buns filled with lotus for a cheap 7 HKD! 

It wasn’t until just recently that I declared this my favorite place in Hong Kong. I’ve mentioned many times the stifling population of the city and this is, in my opinion at least, the best way to escape that. These days the heat is getting pretty strong so outdoor adventures are losing their appeal, but I expect to visit old Cheung Chau at least once every few months. Call it therapeutic, refreshing or whatever you like, this place is special.


Nice buns


View of Cheung Chau's central isthmus, where most of the houses are

Beachin'

Three gweilos

Bun mountains

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Guangzhou

My expectations for Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) were considerably lower than they were for Bangkok. Most of this had to do with the opinions I’d heard from friends, saying that Guangzhou was like a bigger, dirtier, less friendly, less convenient, less exciting version of Hong Kong. And honestly, this was the general impression I got of the place. However, I still had a good time visiting my friend Henry, who recently visited me in Hong Kong, and thought it was money well spent. 

Early on Easter morning, my girlfriend and I travelled from Hong Kong to Guangzhou via passenger ferry from the south coast of China up into the Pearl River Delta. The journey was around two hours and not nearly as pleasant as the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry—it actually felt more like an airplane cabin than a ferry. On another note, the population density in this coastal area is absolutely staggering. I’ve read that the population of the delta megalopolis (including Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau etc.) is as much as 120,000,000. So basically, that means one in 57 people on Earth lives in this small chunk of fertile land in South China. Whoah. 

After arriving and getting one of two visits checked off my rather expensive Chinese visa, we took a shuttle bus to our hotel in southern Guangzhou. Checking into the hotel immediately brought back memories of my tour through China with the PLU jazz band in the spring of 2009. Everything about the hotel was exactly like all four of the hotels we stayed in during that trip through Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai. Big fancy lobby with a huge eating area, a whole row of elevators, hard beds, etc. China doesn’t seem to exactly encourage diversity in hotel designs, or at least from my experience.

We met up with Henry at the metro stop nearest the hotel soon after arriving. From there we went on a tour that can be best summarized in Henry’s post here, focusing on the crazy things we saw at the Quingping market. You can call me lazy for linking this, or you can understand that he’s a much better blogger than I am. Essentially, the day consisted of wandering around interesting parts of the city such as Shamian Island, the aforementioned creepy crawly Qingping Market and the beautiful Bright Filial Piety Temple. The day ended with a trip to the thrilling and famous Chime-Long Circus. This was highlighted by bears riding motorcycles, people jumping from extremely high places and five motorcyclists riding in a small chain-link ball. Stressful but impressive. 

The next day, after briefly exploring the ritzy Beijing Street, we parted ways with Henry and headed to the Canton Tower. The Canton Tower is currently the fourth-tallest freestanding structure in the world and now the tallest building I’ve ever been in, surpassing the Taipei 101. Despite this claim to fame, the thick smog made the view from the top rather disappointing. I like the design of the tower, but after seeing the Hong Kong skyline and view from the Peak, nothing else can really compare. And so another holiday ends. But fortunately, I very much look forward to seeing my students again. My job is tiresome and sometimes repetitive, but a day never goes by that I don't feel my heart warmed by these mini Hong Kongers. And so it goes...

BHS grads reunite, eating Middle Eastern food on Easter in South China

At the Bright Filial Piety Temple, known by some as the Bright Feline Piety Temple

Chime-Long Circus

Canton Tower

That's a lot of floors

Our ferry