Monday, January 30, 2012

Lunar New Year in the Philippines

After having two weeks to come home to the states for Christmas, I was lucky enough to have another week of holiday for Lunar, also known as Chinese, New Year. In my second opportunity to explore Asia outside of Hong Kong (Taiwan in August), I travelled with four fellow Hong Kong teachers to the island of Palawan in the Philippines. We were there for three full days and though all vacations go by too quick, this one truly couldn't have felt shorter. We really had a spectacular time.

We left Hong Kong for Manila on Monday morning and after a brief layover, we flew from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the largest city on Palawan. City might not be the best term though. Despite having 200,000 people, most of the houses have thatched roofs and there only seemed to be a handful of buildings that much larger than our hotel. The ride from the airport to our jungle hotel couldn't have possibly been any different from the ride from my flat to the Hong Kong airport. The hardly paved road was occupied by hardly clothed Filipino villagers, motorcycles, tiny crowded vans, a few old cars and tricycles, which are essentially carriages attached to motorcycles and serve as the island's taxi service. Not to mention the weather being in the 80s and sunny (low 30s Celcius).

Palawan is a big tourist destination within the Philippines due to its natural beauty. People on the island seemed to coexist with nature in a more respectful way than I'm used to, as evidenced by a hefty fee for littering. Despite being fairly undeveloped, Palawan and Puerto Princesa are also popular destination for Westerners. We went to the 'Tiki Restobar' on the first night where a band of Filipinos played great versions of western pop songs for a mostly white patronage. The place was outdoors, gorgeous and had cheap and delicious food and drinks. A killer combination.

The next day we went island hopping and snorkeling in the major bay of the island, Honda Bay. It doesn't get much more tropical than this. After riding our motor boat with the tour guide, two boatmen and a handful of other tourists, we stepped onto the white sand and got in the crystal clear water to look at dozens of different kinds of fishes. I had never been snorkeling before and I hope to go again before long. It's so easy to forget how vast the ocean is, even within a dozen yards of the shore. Between snorkel dives, we feasted on delicious barbecue cooked by our wonderful tour guide Joanne while drinking the juice of pandans directly out of the fruits, which look like coconuts. Underneath one of the hundreds of palm-like trees, you could purchase these massive fruits for less than $1 US and watch the merchant cut it open with a machete before placing your straw inside and enjoying the sweet flavor. 

The second full day, we went to Palawan's main attraction, the Underground River. After travelling by van for a few hours, we came upon the western coast of the island at the resort town of Sabang. After that, we took another boat across the churning ocean waves to a tucked away cave, we got in a row boat to travel down the river. After seeing this river, I can see why it's one of the 'New Seven Wonders of Nature.' As you travel, you feel like you're in some strange Disneyland ride through a fictional planet, but then you remember that the stalactites, stalagmites, bats and enormous limestone formations are all real and carved out over millions of years here on planet earth. It was tough to take pictures due to the darkness, but I did my best.

On the third full day, we went to variety of places around the city of Puerto Princesa, including a crocodile reserve, ziplining area and a firefly river tour. This confirmed that this island is truly all about natural majesty. The ziplining and firefly watching provided a nice contrast from each other. With one, we were able to see stunning views of a vast valley and coastline, while flying though the air and pumping adrenaline. With the other, we were quietly guided down a calm river in the black night, watching the trees light up and the stars above shining brighter than I've ever seen. The light breeze prevented the bugs from lighting up all that much, but we saw some and even were able to catch a few and let them illuminate our hands as we drifted through the brackish water. I didn't even know there was brackish water, though I suppose it makes sense that a river on an island would be slightly but not entirely salty.

We reluctantly flew home the next day and now I sit on my bed in Clearwater Bay, HK, sorting through photos and wishing that I didn't have to go back to work on Monday. After this trip, my desire to travel is even stronger. Lucky for me, I'm in an awesome location to do so and my next trip will be in April for Easter break. I'm not sure where it will be but I hope it's half as inspiring, educational and flat-out fun as this trip was!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy New Year!

Returning to Hong Kong this month from the US marked a bit of a symbolic shift for me. Instead of going to Hong Kong, I was coming back to Hong Kong. It was hard to return though, as my two weeks back home were as good as I could have hoped for. I saw tons of friends and experienced some of my favorite things America has to offer that Hong Kong is lacking, such as Mexican food, live rock music, and a quirky movie at an independent theater. I also came to remember how beautiful the Seattle area is, and was impressed by San Francisco and the Napa Valley, two places I haven't been to in ages. I particularly enjoyed meeting my 11-month-old cousin, Isaac Dunlap, for the first time. I can honestly, unbiasedly say that if he was in one of my classes, he would be a favorite. Not that I have any favorites or anything. 

It was nice to see that despite being so far away, my friends, family and home are just as I left them. In some ways, the last six months in HK felt like a wonderful dream that I just woke up from in my Bainbridge Island bed. It's hard to get used to only seeing my friends and family for a brief two weeks at Christmas but it certainly makes it great when I do. And thank God for Facebook and Skype for the rest of the year!

This is a transitional time in the fact that I'm starting to look at my future quite a bit more than I had a month ago. I'm staring to question where I'll be living and working/studying(?) next year, though I can say for sure it will be here in HK. Yes, I miss people and certain aspects of America, but the opportunity for great experiences in Hong Kong at this time in my life, not to mention the sluggish US economy, make it an obvious decision to stay here. You'll be kept posted on any big life changes that may take place, but in a nutshell, I'm not going anywhere. So make your plans to visit me please :)

Now that I consider myself less of a visitor and more of a Hong Kong resident, I'm probably going to write in here slightly less frequently. As might be expected, I'm starting to have less new experiences worth documenting as my time in HK continues to lengthen. Not to mention having a life that just gets busier and busier. Thank you all for continuing to read this!

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.