Monday, December 12, 2011

Top Ten

As my first stint in Hong Kong concludes with a brief trip back home to Seattle for the holiday season, I thought it would be best to list off the best things about my time here thus far. Also, December is the ultimate month for lists. These are in no particular order:

Ben (not me)

I cannot say enough about how much my dear roommate Ben has helped me out here since day one. I contacted him via email way back in April and since then, he helped me learn how to get by in Hong Kong and offered me temporary and later long-term hospitality. Without his help, there would have been so much extra stress in my life. I am infinitely grateful.

Convenience of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is an extremely user-friendly place. The MTR transit system combined the English signs and speakers everywhere make getting anywhere and doing anything much easier than most foreign cities. Also convenient for me is the amount of Western-style staples like movie theaters, fast food and shopping malls. There might actually be too many malls to be honest, but overall, finding anything to buy is probably easier here than most American cities.

Working at My School

Though I complain about my tiredness on a daily basis, my first real job has been a solid one. I enjoy what I do and I get paid well and on time. My hope was that this job as a teacher would end up teaching me a lot about myself and it has! I have a feeling this might be the first of many years of teaching...

Weekend adventures

Of course, my time off from work is when I have had my most memorable experiences. Since I've come to Asia, I've been to Taiwan, Macao, six different islands within Hong Kong and dozens of other special places located all around the territory. And the best part is, there's still so much left to explore.

New friends

Considering the cosmopolitan nature of this place, it makes sense that I've made a wide variety of friends since coming to Hong Kong. The city seems to have a gravitational pull on nice, easy-going Westerners, especially in the teaching sector. I've also done well in meeting native Hong Kongers, most of whom are very friendly and forgiving of my occasional cultural ignorance. I hope all of you Hong Kong people reading this have a happy holidays!


This is a separate category from my job, because the students provide a spark in my life in a different sort of way. When describing them, cute is an understatement. Every single day, these kids wash away my cynicism. Maybe they'll be corrupted when they are older, but for now, they are little beacons of pure joy and energy. It's truly inspiring to witness.


One of my main hobbies since the start, learning the language of the Hong Kong people has been a major challenge but also a rewarding pursuit. At this point, I'm light-years away from being conversational, but I can speak and understand a decent amount, which is more than most Westerners. I've posted about this before, but it is always fun to see the surprised look on people's faces when I say something as simple as "I want butter please" in Cantonese.

Beauty of Hong Kong

It truly does wonders for the soul to have jungles, beaches and mountains all in one little chunk of land. Especially coming from the Evergreen State. Hong Kong is known for its skyline and bustling street markets, but like I posted earlier this month, it's the quieter places that really get me excited.

Chan Uk Village Flat

I've been living in the same place since my first night in Hong Kong and it's been quite good to me. Surrounded by a jungle, I basically feel like I live on top of the mountain, looking down on other neighborhoods and across to other mountains. With our own rooftop on the third floor, Ben and I are able to witness a spectacular sunset just about any night of the week and see the stars better than just about anywhere in Hong Kong. Yes, it's a good distance from HK Island but the cheap rent and peacefulness make it worth it. 

My girlfriend

I've been dating my girlfriend, a local Hong Kong woman, for almost two months now. I'm not one to gush about my romantic feelings, especially not on a blog, but let it suffice to say that she makes me very happy. The girl is a real gem and experiencing the city alongside her makes it all that much better. As the Beatles once said, "All you need is love!"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Peaceful Places

In my five months in Hong Kong, I often find myself gravitating towards quieter places in my leisure time. The city is so loud and busy that in order to relax and enjoy myself, I need to find a peaceful environment. I think much of this has to do with my upbringing on serene Bainbridge Island. Fortunately, despite it's compact nature, Hong Kong is diverse and contains dozens of such places. Here are a few of my favorites, and I'll try not to sound too much like Rick Steves.

Cheung Chau Island

Possibly my favorite getaway in Hong Kong, Cheung Chau is a short ferry ride away from the urban jungle of Central. There are no significant landmarks there, but the friendly, chilled out environment is simply sublime. There are also no cars, only fisherman, delicious restaurants and ancient pirate caves. Just going there is literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air.

Lamma Island

In many ways, Lamma is similar to Cheung Chau. It's an island with a small community and an easy-going vibe. But Lamma is more westernized and is more of a hippie haven than Cheung Chau. I have no problem with bars (such as the wonderfully named 'Dalai Lamma') but Lamma somehow feels a bit less...authentic. Nonetheless, the views while hiking the island are heavenly.

Kat Hing Wai

Kat Hing Wai is a walled village up in the northwestern corner of the New Territories. It's pretty much exactly like it sounds; a bunch of slender houses within a great brick wall. But what makes this so special is that it was founded by the Tang family 500 years ago and many of their descendants still live there. In a city infamous for destroying its ancient history, this village is quite a unique specimen. And not surprisingly, it's well off the beaten tourist path.

Kowloon Walled City Park

This park was built after one of Kowloon's most crowded and sketchy public housing projects was destroyed in 1994. It's now a vibrant green paradise that is both historically interesting and visually stunning. Before the park was a residential area, it was a military fort serving the Chinese and British at different times. I think the current state of this plot of land is the best yet.

Nan Lian Garden & Chi Lin Nunnery

These two parks stand across the street from each other in Diamond Hill, Kowloon. Both are filled with plant life and temples that almost make one forget that there's a westernized shopping center a stone's throw away. The pictures should say it all. So zen.

10,000 Buddhas

The 10,000 Buddhas in Sha Tin is one of the most amazing examples of Buddhist artistry I've seen yet. And that's saying something, having been in Asia for five months now. Once you think you've seen every statue or shrine here, another one is peaking around the corner. Of course, the main draw is the 10,000 tiny gold Buddhas in the main sanctuary. Believe it or not, each in unique from the next.

Tung Lung Island

Of all the islands I've been to, Tung Lung probably has the least 'stuff'. Unlike Lamma or Cheung Chau there's no 7-11, no grocery store and maybe one restaurant. When I was at that restaurant, a Chinese boy stared at me like he'd never seen a white man before. Truly strange in Hong Kong as us foreigners are everywhere. But what I most remember about this place are the powerful waves crashing up against the rocks on the coast. Talk about the uninhibited power of nature.

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.