Sunday, September 18, 2011

Macau and Miscellaneous

Good afternoon, morning, evening to you all. Nothing truly significant has happened to me in the past two weeks and hence I skipped last week's post. Sorry about that. Anyway, I enjoyed a day off from work last Tuesday for the mid-Autumn festival and went to the former Portugese colony of Macau for the afternoon. Macau is the most densely populated place on earth (545,000 people in 11 square miles says Wikipedia) but my friend Sandy and I managed to navigate through the casinos and cobblestone streets pretty well. I only did a bit a gambling (cheap slots) but did a lot of walking and observing the fascinating combo of Chinese, Portuguese and Las Vegas culture. I hope to go there again one day when I have more time. But for now, I can check it off the list of things to do in the greater Hong Kong area. Here are some photos:

As for the rest of this post, I think I’ll just describe some of the unusual things that have happened to me lately. I mean, why not.

-I played the hero of a Chinese folktale in a skit we put on for the children and their parents this Monday for the mid-Autumn Festival. It was incredibly chaotic being told five different things by the five different Hong Kong teachers that were also in the drama but I had a really good time. Most Chinese people know the story of Sheung Oh but it was new to me, so as the children watched me shoot down the nine suns with my bow and arrow, I was probably as clueless as the kids were, despite being one or two years old. I had a good excuse though, being the only foreigner involved.

-That same day, my key would not fit in the door of my apartment for no apparent reason when I got home. At 1:30 am, I spent about half an hour walking around in the rain between houses of sleeping people I knew until my roommate Ben finally answered his phone and I got in safe and sound. Because it was the night of the holiday, tons of people were still hanging out outside in my usually silent neighborhood. A random Chinese guy offered me beer and to play cards with him and his friends, but I politely declined. I was quite wet and tired.

-I’ve been in contact with the new English teacher at my school. He seems like a good guy and I’m excited to meet him in a couple weeks when he arrives in Hong Kong. And strangely enough, he's from Eugene, Oregon!

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Just like every year since 1994, the beginning of September has meant the beginning of a new school year for me. Now for the first time, I’m a teacher and not a student. My first six weeks working at my school was for what they call “summer term” but now, it’s officially the start of the 2011-12 year.

Much like July, this month is about learning lots of new names. I’d say about a third of my 120 (or so) students are new, but I usually am able to remember everyone after a week or two. The beginning is always the hardest with teaching this age group as most of the kids take a while to become comfortable with a new person in their lives. There are, of course, the exceptions that sit on my lap seconds after I introduce myself. But the vast majority of the children will gravitate towards their mothers when I approach them. Fortunately, this distance goes away fairly quickly.

This week had a bit of a dark cloud over it as one of the teachers at the school was let go in what I felt was an unjust manner. He had done nothing wrong, but wasn’t teaching the way that he was expected to and was let go because things weren't working out. I won’t go into this with too much detail on this public forum, but let’s just say I got my first taste of injustice in the workplace in this, my first real fulltime job.

Overall, my love for teaching the kids and working with my fellow teachers is much greater than my disappointment in some of my superiors. Still, it’s hard to see a friend treated poorly and not be able to do much about it. I am not personally concerned about getting fired as I’ve had no complaints from my boss or kids’ parents so far. I must not take for granted my good fortune in finding a job that was such a great fit for me on the first try. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on here after a year though. It depends on a great deal of things, and I can’t see into the future.

Other than that, there’s not much to report here in Hong Kong. I’m working hard on my Cantonese and have even started watching some Hong Kong films to more familiarize myself with the culture. As I’ve said, the farther I can remove myself from your stereotypical clueless tourist, the happier I’ll be.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Holiday Week Part 1: Hong Kong

Since my contract at the school began with the month-long summer term, I was able to have a vacation without working here for very long. My first holiday (I have three more: in December, January and April) was a wonderful, memorable time and with this and the next post, I’ll be describing it as best I can.

On Monday, I went with my fellow American colleague Dan to Cheung Chau, an island south of Hong Kong Island. Cheung Chau is only a forty-five minute ferry ride away from Victoria Harbor, but it’s about as different from bustling HK Island as possible. CC is a fishing village, home to about 30,000 people and zero cars. The only motorized vehicles are ambulances that look like ice cream trucks. The pace of life is very slow and the whole island has an easy going feel to it. We didn’t do anything truly amazing, just walked around, admiring the natural beauty. A highlight for me was turning a corner and seeing a pristine beach and jumping in the water seconds later. Not to mention, the delicious seafood and the extremely friendly waitress and cook at the restaurant.
Cheung Chau Harbor
Life's a beach
Busy traffic on Cheung Chau's main street...not

On Tuesday, I journeyed out on my own to Stanley, a popular tourist destination on the south side of HK Island. All the skyscrapers and commerce are on the north coast, so much like Cheung Chau, it was a nice change of pace. However, Stanley didn’t feel like going back in time like CC did. Stanley has one of the most famous markets in Hong Kong, and for whatever reason, this didn’t thrill me that much. I’ve now been to many Chinese markets and I kind of get the point now. There’s a lot of random stuff for sale and vendors are griping at you to buy it. But Stanley also had a beautiful beach and there was a park that I particularly enjoyed. It’s rare to ever be outside and completely alone in Hong Kong, so I took advantage of that by filming some videos with silly commentary about the flora and fauna I was filming. For personal enjoyment only.
Murray House in Stanley, the oldest colonial building still standing in HK
Natty roots
And this is why the tourists come

Wednesday and Thursday were days to hang out with friends. I’ve mentioned this before but one of the best parts about my school is working with and spending time with my fellow teachers from Hong Kong. I went to Dim Sum (lunch) with a whole slew of them and watched my first Cantonese movie in a Hong Kong theater, called Overheard 2. Fortunately, there were English subtitles but the movie was still confusing. I’d call it a stock market gangster action movie, if you can imagine that. Later that night, I went to a hip-hop dance performance with one of our HK teachers, Sharman, who’s a hip-hop dancer herself. It was truly incredible, despite not always being my musical cup of tea. The Hong Kong kids can really dance! And the next night, I met up with Mennie, a HK teacher who just moved on from my school after five years working here. She took me to an excellent Chinese restaurant near her home in Diamond Hill.
Hong Kong women love taking photos for Facebook even more than American women

As much as I love spending time with my compadre Westerners exploring this city, there’s nothing better than spending it with real local Hong Kong people. It makes me feel more like I’m becoming a real resident here and not a tourist, jumping from sight-seeing area to sight-seeing area. Speaking of which, that’s exactly what I did this weekend in Taipei. You may now move your eyes a couple centimeters down.

Holiday Week Part 2: Taiwan

When I discovered I had a vacation at the end of August, I decided I had to go somewhere interesting outside of Hong Kong. We don’t get many holidays and I’m surrounded by wonders in every direction. I pondered places like Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam and Bangkok, Thailand but ultimately decided on Taipei, Taiwan—though I hope to go the those other places eventually as well. It’s an only an hour and a half plane ride away and was just the right combination of allure and convenience for my budget and time constraints. I knew very little about Taipei and though I was only there about two days, I discovered that it’s quite a nifty city.

I travelled alone, which I was initially a bit nervous about, though I had no reason to be. I’ve learned this summer that I am generally very good at figuring things out on my own and not much really fazes me. For example, shortly after arriving at the hotel Friday evening, I decided to walk to the Xingtian Temple, as it was relatively close. I got a little bit lost, in the dark, in a rather dirty part of a city that doesn’t speak my language very well, and there was lightning and thunder, and trashcans burning on street corners, and thousands of people driving motorcycles like maniacs, and I had no phone. But I was still enjoying myself, not panicking in the least as I went down various dark alleys. I eventually found the temple, ate a burger down the road and made my way back to the hotel a couple hours after I had left. Some of you may prefer the word stupid to laid-back, but I’m still alive right? And don’t worry, Taipei is renowned for its friendly, safe atmosphere and I never journeyed too far from the main drag of 711s and Taiwanese restaurants. Please don’t judge me for getting a burger. I had Taiwanese for lunch and dinner the next day.

On Saturday, I decided to go on a bus tour of the city. Since I was here for such a short time, I chose to swallow my pride and act like the ultimate, stereotypical tourist with map and camera always at the ready. Plus, every guided tour I’ve been on in my life has had an awesome tour guide, and this was no exception with the hilarious Lilin. On the tour, two families (from Hong Kong (!) and Malaysia) and I went to a famous art gallery called the National Palace Museum, the Chiang “Father of Taiwan” Kai-Shek memorial, the Martyrs Shrine and yet another gorgeous Daoist Temple, where we randomly saw a soap opera being filmed. The first three sites are all major landmarks of Taiwan. Check out the pictures below:
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial
The Chiang and I Daoist Temple (never was told the name) Shrine of Martyrs

After the tour, I went to the world’s second tallest building, Taipei 101. In the interest of time, I decided not to go up to the top but ended up going back Sunday. The reason I cut this short was that I decided to go to a baseball game that evening. The game was in New Taipei, which, confusingly, is a different city than Taipei but I managed to find it by train and taxi. This was a major highlight of the trip, as I ended up sitting with the wife of one of the coaches, an American man named Corey Paul who was drafted by the Mariners in the same year as Ken Griffey Jr. No joke. His wife was super nice and I essentially got a free lesson on the Chinese Professional Baseball League from the one other English speaking person at the park. After the game, I went to the Shilin Night Market, which had some crazy, crazy foods. The last picture is the sizzling steak that I got. Not the most adventurous choice, but still yummy and cheap.

Baseball in Asia
White baseball fan in Asia
Crabs that really look like crabs
It was no Pike Place, but still amazing

On Sunday morning, I went on another tour (with another great tour guide) of the northern coast of Taiwan. It was an entirely different side of the area that you can’t get in Taipei. We saw some beautiful beaches, a fishing village and the Yehliu Geopark. I’m guessing this is like Taiwan’s Yellowstone and Grand Canyon put into a much smaller area. The main draw is the Queen’s Head Rock, which really does look like a profile of Cleopatra, or at least how Egyptian artists portrayed her. This tour was with only one other guy by the name of Andrew, a pharmacist who came from Indonesia. Andrew is vacationing in Hong Kong next weekend, so we may meet up again quite soon, bizarrely enough!
Holy erosion Batman!
North coast of Taiwan
Pose like an Egyptian

That afternoon, I went to the observation deck of the Taipei 101, which cost $400. It’s a good thing one U.S. dollar is thirty Taiwanese dollars ☺ Anyway, it was an incredible sight to see a metropolis from 1,400 feet above. I also got to see the giant ball that counterbalances any sort of high-speed typhoon winds or earthquakes. I haven’t travelled much, but thanks to Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai, I’ve seen three of the top four tallest buildings in the world. Now I just need to make a quick stop in Dubai I’ll be good to go.

I am so high right now
Called Taipei 101 because it has 101 floors
Other skyscrapers looking like cottages
Supposed to look like a bamboo stalk
The sign read, "Super Big Wind Dampener"

I probably won’t get to go anywhere else exciting in Asia until next January, so I’m glad I was able to have this trip in Taiwan. Overall, it was a memorable, exciting weekend. Soon, back to the grind of playing songs and reading stories to adorable children. Sometimes, I have trouble believing this is really my life.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I’ve been in Hong Kong almost seven weeks now and am about to begin the first of four short vacations I’ll get here at my school. This time next week, I’ll (hopefully) be enjoying my final hours in Taipei, Taiwan as I’ll be going there on my own for a brief sniff around starting Friday the 26th. You’ll read all about that and possibly Macao in my next post. But now, I’d like to write about some of the struggles I’ve had starting this new life 7,000 miles from home.

Though my time here as been about as smooth and easy as I could’ve imagined, there have been plenty of barbs along the way and I wanted to make sure I wrote about them in this blog. Who would want to read about only sunshine and rainbows anyway? Here are some of the unpleasantries in no particular order:

The heat: It isn’t all that bad compared to many places in the world, but for me, accustomed to the absolute perfection of summer in Seattle, the weather is pretty gross. Basically every day is 90 (32 C) degrees or higher with 80% humidity. I don’t spend much time outside during the week when I’m teaching, but during weekends, it sometimes prevents me from doing any extensive outdoor exploring. I just keep telling myself, October will be glorious just as it starts to get chilly back home.

The huge population density: Like the heat, I knew all about this before I moved here. Still, it’s exhausting to be bumping up against hundreds of people just about everywhere I go. I’m not particularly claustrophobic but I do always take a big sigh of relief when I get off the bus in my neighborhood and can finally spread my arms out without accidentally slapping someone.

Changes in diet: There is plenty of incredible food here, but it’s been hard getting used to having to find meals in unfamiliar places, without relying too much on any one restaurant. I eat out just about every single meal due to the many inconveniences of cooking here, e.g. the cost of groceries and my limited kitchen capabilities. Hong Kong has just about every imaginable type of food (except good Mexican ☹), but the city is gigantic and there are so many choices. If you know me, you know that making these kinds of decisions when I don’t have all the pertinent information can be stressful. But the longer I’m here, the better my eating habits are becoming.

Working on Saturday: We work from 8:30-1 on Saturdays which leaves only one day to sleep in and hardly any time to do anything substantial with the weekends. As one of the main reasons I’m here are the travel opportunities around Asia, this is kind of a bummer. No weekend getaways to Thailand for me. Still, I’ve been told the salary here is higher than most preschools so I guess that’s the tradeoff.

Unfamiliarity: This relates to everything on here of course, but as a newcomer, it’s much more difficult to do the simplest things. Some particularly bothersome ones include getting a bank account set up, getting a bedside table delivered from IKEA, getting used to the pint sized washing machine on the roof of my flat and finding various bus stops. And there’s also the fact that I don’t know nearly as many people here as back home, though I'm trying to meet different folks all the time.

Homesickness: I honestly haven’t been longing for Bainbridge Island, Seattle and the US of A as much as I thought I might. It hasn’t been all that long and I’m pretty much consumed by the excitement of living abroad. Plus, I’ve discovered a very independent person with an ability to adapt to new places quickly. But still, I miss seeing family, school friends, pets, concerts and baseball very much. Oh and being able to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. I look forward to coming home for Christmas!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Teaching Toddlers

When I first started my job hunt in March of this year, I had no idea I would be teaching such young children. At that point, I was applying online for any English teaching jobs I could find in Hong Kong (and some in Taiwan as well). Why Hong Kong, you might ask? Well, there aren’t many concrete reasons but after all my research, it seemed like an excellent place to live and work. Plus, the skyline looked spectacular. Anyway, I applied to everything I could find and only heard back from a few of the schools. Likely thanks to the fact that I’d never taught before. But after I was offered this job, a stable one with good pay and no experience required, I accepted it albeit on a bit of a risk. I wasn’t sure if instructing children ages 6-24 months was going to be my cup of tea.

Fortunately for me, I really enjoy what I do here. And to be specific, that's teaching toddler (12-24 months) classes and a couple baby (6-12 months) classes. At this age, the kids are so pure and honest. The things that entertain them are so simple, like for example, putting a scarf over their face and saying “Peek-a-boo!” after pulling it away. One of the things that amazes me most is what a wide variety of personalities the children have once they turn from babies into toddlers at around 12-16 or so months. I have some kids that hug me at every opportunity while there are others that watch me with distant suspicion. There are some that smile and dance during our songs and others that look sullen no matter what crazy antics I perform for them, or worse, cry loudly and frequently. But they all have one thing in common; they are all adorable. I swear, Asian children are cuter than white ones.

(Sidenote: I don't like my baby classes nearly as much. All they ever do is drool and crawl, despite being extremely cute.)

After nearly one month with my toddler students, I’m getting to know some of them quite well. At their early age, they’re developing so fast and what a thrill it is to watch a child get smarter before your eyes. At this age, only a handful of kids are able to make complete sentences in English and I probably have five students—out of 120—who can count to ten successfully. But I’m not just teaching them that; I’m also trying to get them excited about music by singing and playing my baby guitar (aka ukulele) for them on a daily basis. Today, I discovered a portable keyboard in our storage space, which I plan on making my next teaching tool.

At some point, I’ll probably write a blog post consisting of a bunch of profiles of some of my most notable students. I’m definitely starting to understand why teachers have favorites, as terrible as that sounds. There really are some kids that I look forward to seeing every day, either because they make me laugh or they just brim with natural positivity or both. And of course, there are other students whom I don’t have much to remember by, unfortunately. But I’m trying to interact with each one as much as I can, because each kid is unique in his/her own right.

A lot of parents have been saying that their child talks about me at home, which is about the best thing I could possibly hear. Particularly when they also talk about the guitar or music, or one of my awesome classroom teachers, Doris and Julie. It gives me goose bumps to think that in my first real job, I believe I’m making a huge impact on some amazing kids’ lives. There are some things about this job that aren’t so hot (lack of supply organization, poor communication from management) but overall, the children make it all worth it. This sounds uncharacteristically sticky and gooey but it’s the truth. I’m already thinking about a potential future in teaching after I leave my current school. Nobody has to prod me to do the best job I can; I naturally want to make the day as valuable and fun as possible for the children.

Now, off to the adult world to drink some alcohol on my precious Saturday night ☺

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Before I left the states, whenever I talked to people about my then-future job, one of the most common questions I got was, “Do you speak any Chinese?” It’s a very logical question (with an emphatic "no" as an answer), as communication is usually conducted through speaking. Believe it or not. Well, as I’ve mentioned a couple times in earlier posts, there’s no need at all to speak Chinese, or more specifically, Cantonese, to get by here; it’s a totally bilingual city. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to discover that I really like trying to learn the language. It’s very rewarding and impresses the hell out of the people here who are very happy to teach me anything I ask. And so, learning Cantonese has become one of my main hobbies these days.
In case you are wondering what exactly is the difference between Cantonese and Chinese, it’s that Cantonese is dialect of Chinese spoken in the southern part of the country. Mandarin is the dominant dialect of Chinese, but even Mandarin is spoken differently in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Comprable to cities like Atlanta and Boston in the sort of regional differences. Cantonese is the second-most widely spoken dialect out of dozens behind Mandarin. Cantonese and Mandarin are similar in some ways but the pronunciation is so different that someone who only knows one is not able to instantly understand the other. Fortunately, Chinese characters are the same for all dialects, though there are traditional and simplified. It’s one character per word, and I’m not even attempting that side of the language. Learning the sounds is hard enough.
Cantonese has seven or nine tones, depending on whom you ask. The tones are the ways to say a syllable. For example, high, low, middle, rising, falling and a few subtle ones in between. This is a real pain for a native English speaker like myself, where a word is always the same no matter how you say it. For example, the word "lo-tsi" means "teacher" in Cantonese. The "tsi" sound is a flat, higher pitch. But if you say it with a rising tone, it means shit. I wish I could record it for you, and I probably can somehow, but I’m too lazy. Just understand that if you try to learn “I would like to order the tofu please” from a guidebook and use the phrase at a restaurant without ever hearing a native speaker say it, the waiter will not understand you and probably ask you to point to it on the menu or say it in English. In fact, there are actually lots of restaurants here where the staff doesn’t speak Cantonese. Like for example, Ruby Tuesday.
I keep telling myself that being a musician with well above average ears and mimicking skills is a big asset in my attempts to pick up this language. It also helps to work with twenty people who speak English and Cantonese (and Mandarin, though I haven’t started on that one yet). I know only a handful of phrases and can count to ten so I am not nearly at the point where I can start a conversation with someone I’ve never met before. My coworkers say the best way to learn is to get a Hong Kong girlfriend. Perhaps I’ll put up a classified ad: “Looking for attractive HK female for the purpose of teaching me Cantonese. Will be repaid with long walks on the beach and top notch American humor and charm.” Maybe it’s worth a try?