Sunday, October 30, 2011

First Two Hong Kong Concerts

Hello and long time no blog! My apologies. For whatever reason, October has been a busy month for me. I’ve been meeting new people and doing cool things in addition to working like the dickens at my school. Since my last post, I’ve taken a trip to two of the outlying islands (Lamma and Tung Lung Chau), been to the “Halloween Bash” at Ocean Park theme park, had some truly heavenly Indian food and gone to two musical events that I’ll be describing in more detail for you now.

One of the very few disappointments I’ve had during my time here has been my lack of participation in and/or exposure to anything musical. After so much involvement in high school and college, I’ve only really made music in the classroom with kids’ songs. This is fun and all, but before I came, I was really hoping to find some concerts to watch and musical compadres to jam with. Well, this month I attended an opera and a symphony performance. It wasn’t by any means the HK rock ‘n’ roll scene I’m still looking to find, but seeing and hearing classical music live quenched a deep concert thirst I’d been neglecting.

The opera I watched was called Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, all about the controversial love life of China’s revolutionary hero of 1911. Despite not being a huge opera junky, I thoroughly enjoyed this unique work. Having made its world premiere two days before, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was sung in Mandarin and was accompanied by a Chinese-style orchestra, despite being Western in nature. And by that, I mean the opera company typically performs works of Verdi, Mozart and Puccini (not a traditional Chinese opera troupe). Musically, SYS was a fascinating combination of eastern and western influences, which made sense, as the composer was a Julliard trained Chinese born man.

Another interesting tidbit about the opera was that it premiered in Hong Kong by default after being ‘postponed’ in Beijing for vague reasons. The article I read cited ‘logistical issues’ but everyone is speculating that the Chinese government felt uneasy about the subject matter, both Sun’s love life and the revolutionary themes present throughout. The fact that this was not an issue in Hong Kong represents why I love this city. Censorship doesn’t really happen here. And people are free to throw tomatoes at their representatives! (Yes, that happened in a government hearing a couple weeks ago and was all over the TV).

The other performance I went to was the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven, Elgar and Wagner. I managed to snag student tickets in the front row for about $8 US(!!!), but they turned out to be off to the side and not totally ideal due to the panoramic style of the concert hall. Still, to see the city's top classical group was a thrill, especially for one of my favorite pieces in Beethoven’s Pastorale. This rocked furthermore after I got to hang out with some orchestra members at a bar by the pier afterwards. If you want to come here and study upright bass, I now know the people to contact ☺

With my busy work schedule, my faraway living locale and the lack of a major musical culture in HK, it makes sense that I haven’t attended many concerts here. But I know if I put an effort into it, I can work some concerts back into my life. This is a good thing, considering there are few experiences as powerful and uplifting as live music.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thankful Thursday*

*Even though it's two months until Turkey Day, I still feel like giving thanks.

I sit and write this on a lazy Thursday evening, which was preceded by a lazy afternoon and morning thanks to a high typhoon warning in Hong Kong. The typhoon is HK’s equivalent to a snow day in Seattle. It happens very rarely and mostly in one season, but when it occurs, it means no school and is a great gift to students and teachers alike. If you haven’t heard of a typhoon, it’s a giant windstorm that’s born in the ocean and gets swept towards tropical countries like Hong Kong. They are very rarely dangerous to us, just exciting. They can be destructive, but this time, it just scattered tree branches and leaves on the ground sometime early this morning.

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write a post about how thankful I am for my circumstances in life. I am fortunate in so many ways that I can’t take for granted. Here are the main reasons:

-Getting to living in a foreign country. In the most general sense, living abroad is an invaluable experience everyone should have. There’s no other way to realize how insignificant your culture is, yet at the same time, treasure it. If you are reading this and haven’t lived abroad before, try to find a way.

-Having a great job. How many 22-year-old American college grads in 2011 can say they have a well-paying, fulltime job doing something they like? It was a risk to take this job without ever doing something like it before, but the risk was worth it, as teaching toddlers has proven a rewarding and fun profession. It’s hard work, but I truly feel that I’m improving people’s lives with what I do. Not to mention, my workmates are people I enjoy seeing every day.

-Having an ideal living situation. For my entire life, I have been comfortable with my housing and my current flat is no exception. From day one, I enjoyed living in Clearwater Bay with a man who has become my good friend in my roommate Ben. Furthermore, it’s a spacious flat with a roof overlooking the beautiful mountains and valleys for a cheap price. Sure it’s a bit out of the way, but all the positives outweigh that detail.

-Being surrounded by Hong Kong’s vibrancy. The people and places in this region are so full of life. Only six months ago, I just knew I wanted to travel but not where. Turns out Hong Kong was about the best place I could have picked, though I’ll have to test that theory out more thoroughly by travelling around in the future ☺

It’s not a perfect life, with some days being much better than others, but if I could’ve seen my current self a year ago, I would have been thrilled beyond belief. So much has gone well for me, it hardly seems fair. I can only end this by thanking the powers that be for the top-notch hand I’ve been dealt.

Friday, September 23, 2011


In an earlier post, I wrote about the huge amount of time this job requires. If you can’t remember the exact number, it’s 49.5 hours every week, including 4.5 on Saturdays. And a solid chunk of that time is spent singing and dancing and walking all over campus. Long story short, this is a very tiring profession and it’s made even more tiring when we’re asked to pick up the slack for absent teachers. Still, just about everyone (including myself) has a very good attitude about it and we all realize that what we do is much more enjoyable than sitting at a desk in a cubicle alone all day.

This Friday, I took my first sick day since starting work here. Or half a sick day, as I came in later in the afternoon, feeling much better. Considering that I’ve been working here since early July, I think that’s a pretty good track record. I’d had a cold for the past few days, but another reason didn’t leave the flat in the morning was that I needed a bit of extra rest like never before. I don’t expect to make this a routine but just one work-free morning did wonders for my attitude and physical well-being. It really sucks that we have to feel guilty about the inconvenience that the other teachers go through in this situation, but sometimes in life, we have to look out for number one.

I can’t blame all of the fatigue on my school. Entering the working world for the first time is definitely a factor as I have far less relaxation hours than I did in college and am still adjusting to that. Oh yeah and also, I’m in a foreign country that’s hot and crowded. Lastly, I have to commute for a total of nearly two hours every day. Fortunately for me, I’m very young and a naturally energetic person. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have taken this job.

But a 50-hour week is not uncommon is Hong Kong. Most Westerners know about the crazy work ethic of the Chinese people and there is no better place to study that than in Hong Kong. As one of the densest cities on earth, the competition is frighteningly fierce. Why else would parents want their kids to get educated in two languages at six months old?

Even with all the work, it’s hard for me to really complain considering all that’s gone so well for me here in Hong Kong. I have no doubt that I’m living an abundant life, which is often not the case for recent college graduates, sitting on their parents' couch. This is very important to me. I’m undecided if I’ll work at my school for one or two years but at the very least, I’m now trying to savor my free time like never before. Thank you Mom and Dad for getting me a Kindle!

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.