Sunday, November 27, 2011

Jei Jeis

Other than the young age of my students, one thing that really sets my job apart from your average teaching job is that each child is accompanied by another person. I'd say 80% of the time, this other person is a domestic helper, usually from the Philippines. These women are referred to as "jei jei" or "aunty" by their employer's children. The other 20% are with parents or grandparents, but most of the children in Hong Kong are raised by their jei jei. Especially the affluent children that I teach at my school.

At the moment, I'm reading a popular novel called The Help and I can't help compare the lives of African American women in the 1950s American south to the jei jeis in modern Hong Kong. Certainly the racism here is not as fierce as that, but sometimes I sense that there is a sort of racial hierarchy that no one really talks about. The smaller darker women do things like change the kids' diapers while the parents go out and buy their baby designer clothes. Similarly to the maids in The Help, I see the children get deeply attached to the jei jeis, often more comfortable with them than their parents. Of course, the majority of the parents I meet seem like kind, benevolent people but there's no denying that having a personal servant dependent on you for a salary is a bit of a power trip. 

On Sundays, certain areas of Hong Kong are completely packed with domestic helpers socializing with one another on their one legally mandated day off. They flock to places like Victoria Park in Causeway Bay just to sit and socialize in their native Tagalog. If you go here on a Sunday, there's a sea of these women covering every patch of grass. The same can be said for the cheap market places in Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei; it's really quite a sight. In your head, you may picture the ethnic makeup of Hong Kong as being Chinese people with a few white folks like me mixed in. But in reality, there are probably just as many if not more Filipina women as Westerners, though I don't know the exact numbers.   

Filipino people typically speak English and Tagalog fluently, so at my school, I'm able to occasionally converse with them. Teaching toddlers can occasionally be a bit boring as the kids can't do all that much yet, so I enjoy talking with the jei jeis. It's rarely about anything more personal than small talk about the kid they look after, but these women are almost always friendly, kind people despite their low social standing. We're supposed to scold them from speaking Tagala during class, but I have no problem with them making friends with other jei jeis at the school, as long as they are looking after and caring for their kid. The way I see it, their life is probably very hard, living away from their family, doing the dirty work that no Hong Kong people want to do. So I try to make coming to my classes a pleasant part of their daily routine, not just another place they get ordered around to do this and do that. 

Of course, my focus is always on the children more than anything. But I try to make the experience fun for everyone, including myself and the classroom teacher. Sure, every job gets tedious sometimes but it's worth it to do the little things here and there.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Though today is a major holiday in the USA, it's nothing special in Hong Kong for obvious reasons. Still, I wish all my American friends and family a happy turkey day today. I write this in the middle of a stretch of eleven straight weeks with no days off save Sundays. This is part of my excuse for being less consistent about posting here. Also, now that I've been in Hong Kong for several months, I have fewer touristy discoveries to report. Still, I think that on this Thanksgiving Day, I'll do another sort of 'day in the life' blog post, much like I did several months ago.

6:30 am: Wake up and get ready to begin the day.

7:15: Board the minibus to Choi Hung. The bus I take nearly every day now, this relatively quiet and cheap 16-person bus winds through the hills by the water of Clearwater Bay. It's a relaxing way to start the morning and minimizes the time I spend on the MTR, which is insanely crowded in the morning. On the ride over, I listened to The Go-Betweens on my iPod.

7:35: Take the MTR four stops from Choi Hung to Kowloon Tong.

7:50: Enjoy a 'chocolate hazelnut pillow' with some ice lemon tea from Pacific Coffee Company in the Festival Walk mall while relaxing on their comfortable red couches.

8:20: Arrive at work (right next to the mall), change into my uniform and prepare for the days lesson. This included practicing my own ukulele arrangement of 'Turkey in the Straw' in celebration of the holiday. As my school is an American school, we were encouraged to find ways to celebrate, which is obviously fine by me.

9:00: Begin the first of my four consecutive morning classes. Today, I had the students make turkey handprints before we feasted on food that everyone brought from home. It wasn't turkey or mashed potatoes, but various cakes and crackers are enough to make me happy. The Cantonese phrase for tasty is 'Ho mei!'

12:00 pm: The fourth class ends and instead of getting lunch during my break, I just socialized with the teachers a bit in the staff room before going up to the empty playroom to read a few pages from The Help on my Kindle. I even had time for a brief nap, something that almost never happens. With all the food in the morning, I did not need to spend any money or time on lunch today. For this, I give thanks :)

1:30: My first 45-minute prep period of the day, where I began this blog post for lack of anything better to do.

2:15: Teach two more classes. These consisted mostly of eating more food and trying to convince children that the paint on their hands was not scary. Some cried hysterically when the paint brush touched their palm, for whatever reason.

4:00: Go back to the staff room for my second prep period. Here, I began working on my D.O.L. or Demonstration of Learning. This is a bunch of photos of my students doing some activity from my lesson, like, for example, sticking straws on PVC paper. Unfortunately, the computer was so slow that I got extremely frustrated and left work in a rather sour mood.

5:30: Take the MTR to Mong Kok to this inexpensive suit shop where I exchange my recently purchased white shirt for the pink shirt I had originally requested. Earlier this week, I bought a tailored Chinese-style suit for my school's tenth anniversary dinner next week. It cost me roughly $80 US for everything and I plan to keep this suit for a while. Gotta love Hong Kong and its cheap stuff.

7:15: Arrived home in Chan Uk Village after taking the double-decker bus from Diamond Hill. Again, I love taking busses to avoid the MTR rush hour crowds, AM or PM. About twenty people ride this bus despite its capacity of 100.

7:45: Walked down with roommate Ben to our neighbor Glenn's house where we played Wii Sports video games to burn off some steam. I lost at just about every game, but it was nice to catch up with Glenn and later on, his housemates Katie and Angela. These three Westerners (American, English and Canadian) go way back with Ben and were some of the first people I met in Hong Kong. After only four months, they already feel like old friends.

9:30: Came back to my flat where I turned on my computer and finished writing this blog. My Facebook status is currently, "Happy Thanksgiving! I probably have more to be thankful for this year than any other. Love to you all." It's a true statement. Particularly if you care enough about me to finish this entire post. Have a sane black Friday tomorrow!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Random Update

Hello to all of you again. I’m sorry that I had to take down the photos of my students from last week. I was informed that this isn’t something I’m allowed to do, even on my own personal blog. I didn’t get in trouble, just told that what went up must come down. But I hope to see many of you over Christmas and share more photos with you in person if you didn’t see the photos before!

Life in Hong Kong is still wonderful, though I’m definitely ready to come home for the holidays. The combination of work exhaustion and homesickness is pretty potent, though I’m sure I’ll be ready to come back here after two weeks. Hong Kong is an incredible place. I’m continuing to discover new things about it every week and really consider it a second home now.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving, although I’m not sure how much I’ll celebrate it. Not for lack of thankfulness, but because I have to work all day and don’t know who I should celebrate with. I’ve met plenty of Americans but none who have the resources and/or energy to cook up a turkey. It’s kind of a shame, but I’m sure something will happen.

Recently, I’ve been pondering the idea of being a music teacher in Hong Kong one day. That’s essentially what my preschool classes have become, which is great. But I wonder if teaching older kids about music may be a better long-term job down the road. Particularly since music classes are typically taught in English here.

This was just a brief, rather uneventful update for those of you who wanted such a thing. I continue to believe that coming here has been the best decision I have ever made and I want YOU to visit sometime.

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!