Sunday, June 24, 2012


I’ve been meaning to write something on this for some time. So far on this blog, the only time I’ve spent much time addressing this endlessly fascinating topic was back in August when I discussed my own pursuit of learning Cantonese. I still use and try to improve my Canto every day, but that isn’t what this post is about. Of all the differences between the world of Hong Kong and the world of Seattle, I’d say that the role of language is the most interesting to me. Growing up in the United States, I knew that most of the world’s population didn’t speak English. And I knew that there were a whole lot of people who spoke multiple languages fluently. But I never realized how much of an anomaly American citizens are in being mostly monolingual. 

I’d say the average American (with the notable exception of recent immigrants) speaks English natively and knows a handful of words in other languages, most likely Spanish. I personally studied Spanish for three years and though I was good at it, I saw it more as a high school requirement than a valuable life skill. And I believe most Americans feel the same. Why shouldn’t they? Most Americans will spend their entire lives interacting only with native English speakers, speaking only English to each other. It’s the way our society is and has been since the country was founded. The term “language” is pretty much synonymous with “English” to most Americans (and probably most Australians/Canadians/New Zealanders). Simple as that. But it couldn’t be more different in Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

In Hong Kong, the native language of the people is Cantonese. But the national language of China is Mandarin. And the language of commerce, travel, most things international, and HK’s former colonial owner is English. So when announcements are made on trains or busses, they are stated in each of these three languages. That being said, Hong Kong people have a wide variety of skill levels at each of these languages. I’ve come across Hong Kongers who can only speak Cantonese, and others who can speak all three of the aforementioned flawlessly. 

Most Americans may find this unique or unusual, but I think that this is closer to the global norm than what American society is. In mainland China, most citizens speak Mandarin in addition to one or more local dialects, whether it’s an ancient village dialect or Shanghainese. In continental Europe, most citizens speak their native tongue, English and often a third or fourth language to boot. In Africa, most people speak a tribal language passed down by their parents in addition to their country’s ‘Lingua Franca’, whatever that may be. I challenge you to start Googling random countries in the world and check out the languages spoken by its people. More often than not, you’ll find a lot more lingual diversity than in the USA. 

(sidenote: The increase of Latinos in the US is changing the language landscape of America, but this is a different sort of issue that I’m not even going to try to tackle) 

I continue to be impressed by the polyglots I interact with all the time. And working at a school that teaches Mandarin and English to native Cantonese speakers, I encounter dozens of them every day, from teachers to students to parents to domestic helpers. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about my own heavy reliance on a single language, but that’s not my fault; it’s the way my native society works. For now, I can only continue working on my Cantonese, and potentially other languages in the future. It’s great for the brain and it’s a surefire way to feel more like a global citizen.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Next Job

I’ve been sitting on this news for a while but wanted to wait a while before posting anything about it. This August, I’ll begin work at an international primary school (ages 6-12) as a teaching assistant. At this point, I don’t have an extremely clear picture of what my job will consist of, but basically, I’ll be doing my bit to make the teachers and students lives better. Part of my duties include organizing an after school club, which will almost certainly be music related. Additionally, I expect to do some one-on-one help with kids that need it and assist teachers, as you may imagine a teaching assistant would do. For the second time in as many jobs, I’m thrilled to be receiving an offer that’s a challenge and something totally different than any experience I’ve had. 

Until recently, I was planning to stay at my current school another year, but when I got this interview thanks to a former colleague and eventually a job offer, I couldn’t say no. The school is within walking distance of my current flat, there’s no work on Saturdays, and much longer vacations throughout the year. I enjoy teaching the toddlers and will miss being the lead teacher that I am now, but I do suspect that two years of my current job might have burned me out, had I taken that path. It’s just a tiring job that’s hard to sustain. 

As it stands, I’ll be completing my current tenure at the end of July, and starting at the primary on the 20th of August. This gives me three glorious weeks of vacation. It’s the first time I’ve had that much holiday since June 2011, when I was completing my endless checklist of things to do before Hong Kong. Now, I expect to travel (though not home unfortunately), relax, write, make music and do other things I simply haven’t had time to do.

So the next chapter of my journey begins. For now, I look forward to the next six weeks of watching my little tykes as they dance to “Twist and Shout” and “Singin’ in the Rain” in preparation of our school concert. It’ll be hard to say goodbye to the kids and my coworkers but so it goes. Onward!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Long Ke and Lion Rock

These last couple weeks, I saw two places in Hong Kong that made me think, “How the hell haven’t I been here after eleven months?!” Their scope and overall beauty were among the most impressive I’ve witnessed in HK yet.

The first was a beach called Long Ke. I’d been hearing about this beach for some time, yet had never made the trek due to its tricky location. But after reading about it being voted as the number two beach in Hong Kong by HK Magazine, I decided to finally check it out. Perhaps the number one, even more isolated Dai Long Wan will come later.

To get there, my girlfriend and I took the train one brief stop from Tai Wai to Shatin, took a 45-minute bus ride to Sai Kung and a winding 30-minute taxi ride to the trail head, about as far east as you can get in the Hong Kong SAR. From there, it was about a 30-minute hike down to the beach. But once we finally reached our destination, it was surreal. It was like we had left Hong Kong and plopped back down in the idyllic island of Palwan, where we had been five months ago.

The sand was fine, the water was crystal clear, the handful of other people there were laid-back, and the beach was BIG. There was plenty of room to play Frisbee and no concern about leaving our stuff on the beach while we swam in the not-too-cold-but-not-too-warm water. Those of you Seattleites reading this probably can’t imagine ocean water that’s too warm, but in Hong Kong, it happens. No joke. The beauty of this place was enhanced by the fact the rarity of beaches like this in Hong Kong. Most of the ones I’ve been to are either tiny, packed with people or littered with trash from the ocean. 

Here are some photos of the beach and the hike up there. The only down side of the outing was that the taxi ride out there added up to a hefty sum, so next time, we might invite a bigger posse and split the taxi cost. It’s the only possible way to access Long Ke, aside from permitted vehicles driven by employees of the surrounding Geopark and nearby rehab facility.

A group of feral cattle


This is what one might call camouflage

Hard to believe we're in one of the densest cities on Earth
The other place I went to was much less of a time commitment. Just a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment lies one of the entrances to the Lion Rock Country Park. The Lion Rock is one of the highest points on the HK mainland at 495 meters, and divides the densely populated Kowloon peninsula from the more rural New Territories. Though I didn’t originally intend to do so due to the heat, I hiked to the highest point that people can safely access, a stone’s through—no pun intended—from the peak of the rock, which actually does look a bit like a lion.

From here, I got one of the best views of Hong Kong I’ve had yet. At some 1,600 feet above sea level, I was able to see a full panorama of Kowloon and a hazy silhouette of HK Island’s north shore. Victoria Peak may have the fame and the glitz of the island’s architecture, but Lion Rock has a scenic hike, infinitely greater isolation and in my opinion, better scope due to its distance inland. My camera doesn’t do it justice, but here are a few shots.

Lion Rock

Kowloon from above

Camera facing south over the green New Territories

Reminds me of Avatar for some reason

Whoah! Didn't know that existed!
Please don't steal my stuff

Aside from my outdoor adventures, nothing too exciting has happened to me as of late. Still working hard at my school, trying to keep writing words and music when I can, and fantasizing about future trips around Asia. Thanks too all those who are reading this. I love reading your comments and hearing about your lives as well!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cheung Chau

For the tail end of April and first week of May, my good friend John came to visit me. Fresh from a three-month stay in Nepal, he got a solid taste of a city about as unlike Kathmandu as you can find in Asia. It was great to have him here and I wish him all the best as he prepares to embark on a two-year stint in Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps. Hopefully, he’ll also have some sort of blog that I’ll be sure to link here! 

Having John visit was fun for me as well. Not just because I got to spend time with a friend, but also because I got to revisit some of my favorite places in Hong Kong again. Of these places I revisited, I’d say the most memorable was Cheung Chau. I wrote about my first trip to Cheung Chau Island back in August. My second trip there was among my first dates with my current girlfriend back in October. But this third trip really confirmed my suspicion that Cheung Chau is my favorite spot in all of Hong Kong. And just after I started writing this blog, it dawned on me why this is—because there are so many similarities to Bainbridge Island. 

The most obvious is that it’s a small island a short ferry ride away from the bustling city. But also, Cheung Chau is a careful contrast of laid-back neighborhood life and green, serene wilderness. After you dock and see the main street of shops and pricey but delicious restaurants, you walk through a village where people calmly go about their daily lives. Walk a little farther and you get to hiking trails and beaches. On this last trip, our group of John, Henry (another high school friend, living in Guangzhou) my girlfriend and I trekked up to a viewpoint pavilion and then down to a secluded beach just below. Unfortunately, the beach had its fair share of litter but we didn’t let that ruin the experience. 

After swimming and dining at a harbor-side restaurant, we hopped the ferry and made our way back to downtown vertical-land. It’s hard to explain, especially when there’s not much there in the way of landmarks, but Cheung Chau is simply blissful. I feel similarly about nearby Lamma Island, but Cheung Chau’s lack of Western pubs and hippy communes make it a bit more genuine in my book. Speaking of the true Chinese-ness of Cheung Chau, we witnessed the grand finale of the annual Bun Festival, where people worship mountains of buns and parade all over the place. It was a lot of fun, though I hope to see more of it next year. And you can’t beat the delicious buns filled with lotus for a cheap 7 HKD! 

It wasn’t until just recently that I declared this my favorite place in Hong Kong. I’ve mentioned many times the stifling population of the city and this is, in my opinion at least, the best way to escape that. These days the heat is getting pretty strong so outdoor adventures are losing their appeal, but I expect to visit old Cheung Chau at least once every few months. Call it therapeutic, refreshing or whatever you like, this place is special.

Nice buns

View of Cheung Chau's central isthmus, where most of the houses are


Three gweilos

Bun mountains

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


My expectations for Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) were considerably lower than they were for Bangkok. Most of this had to do with the opinions I’d heard from friends, saying that Guangzhou was like a bigger, dirtier, less friendly, less convenient, less exciting version of Hong Kong. And honestly, this was the general impression I got of the place. However, I still had a good time visiting my friend Henry, who recently visited me in Hong Kong, and thought it was money well spent. 

Early on Easter morning, my girlfriend and I travelled from Hong Kong to Guangzhou via passenger ferry from the south coast of China up into the Pearl River Delta. The journey was around two hours and not nearly as pleasant as the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry—it actually felt more like an airplane cabin than a ferry. On another note, the population density in this coastal area is absolutely staggering. I’ve read that the population of the delta megalopolis (including Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau etc.) is as much as 120,000,000. So basically, that means one in 57 people on Earth lives in this small chunk of fertile land in South China. Whoah. 

After arriving and getting one of two visits checked off my rather expensive Chinese visa, we took a shuttle bus to our hotel in southern Guangzhou. Checking into the hotel immediately brought back memories of my tour through China with the PLU jazz band in the spring of 2009. Everything about the hotel was exactly like all four of the hotels we stayed in during that trip through Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai. Big fancy lobby with a huge eating area, a whole row of elevators, hard beds, etc. China doesn’t seem to exactly encourage diversity in hotel designs, or at least from my experience.

We met up with Henry at the metro stop nearest the hotel soon after arriving. From there we went on a tour that can be best summarized in Henry’s post here, focusing on the crazy things we saw at the Quingping market. You can call me lazy for linking this, or you can understand that he’s a much better blogger than I am. Essentially, the day consisted of wandering around interesting parts of the city such as Shamian Island, the aforementioned creepy crawly Qingping Market and the beautiful Bright Filial Piety Temple. The day ended with a trip to the thrilling and famous Chime-Long Circus. This was highlighted by bears riding motorcycles, people jumping from extremely high places and five motorcyclists riding in a small chain-link ball. Stressful but impressive. 

The next day, after briefly exploring the ritzy Beijing Street, we parted ways with Henry and headed to the Canton Tower. The Canton Tower is currently the fourth-tallest freestanding structure in the world and now the tallest building I’ve ever been in, surpassing the Taipei 101. Despite this claim to fame, the thick smog made the view from the top rather disappointing. I like the design of the tower, but after seeing the Hong Kong skyline and view from the Peak, nothing else can really compare. And so another holiday ends. But fortunately, I very much look forward to seeing my students again. My job is tiresome and sometimes repetitive, but a day never goes by that I don't feel my heart warmed by these mini Hong Kongers. And so it goes...

BHS grads reunite, eating Middle Eastern food on Easter in South China

At the Bright Filial Piety Temple, known by some as the Bright Feline Piety Temple

Chime-Long Circus

Canton Tower

That's a lot of floors

Our ferry

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Since I discovered this list of 100 Cities of the World, I’ve sort of made it a goal to visit as many of the places listed as I can. With this trip to Thailand, I’m proud to say I’ve made it into the double digits of world cities visited, with Guangzhou about to be number eleven this weekend.

For those interested, that’s:

1. Seattle
2. Los Angeles
3. Beijing
4. Shanghai
5. San Diego
6. Hong Kong
7. Taipei
8. Macau
9. San Francisco
10. Bangkok 
11. Guangzhou (as of April 8th)

It’s not that many so far but considering my total equaled a big fat uno back in 2008, I’d say eleven is respectable. I'm curious to find out how many you have been to, dear readers? Anyway, I spent a couple days in city number ten with my girlfriend for a part of my Easter holiday. 

As you probably know, Bangkok is absolutely massive—even bigger than HK—so spending two full days there was only enough to get a brief taste. Speaking of taste, upon arriving in the hotel, I almost immediately threw up the airplane food. It wasn’t a great start to the trip, but from there on out, Bangkok treated us well.

The first full day was spent navigating through the many golden temples in the historic district of Rattanakosin Island. After climbing up to see the panoramic views from the temple known as the Golden Mount, we made our way by auto-rickshaw (known as the onomatopoeic 'tuk-tuk') to the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace is the main attraction of Bangkok and was obviously a highlight of the trip. The Palace was founded by the king of then-called Siam 230 years ago and contains some of the most amazing, elaborate architecture you can find in Asia. Also, inside the palace grounds is the Emerald Buddha, generally regarded as the most famous statue in Thailand. I enjoyed hearing from the tour guide about how this 2,000-year-old statue was found inside a building that was struck by lightning, leading to the belief that this particular statue was given to the Thai people from the heavens. This is one special Buddha, so much so that they even change his golden clothes with the seasons.

That evening, we went on a nighttime tour of many of the other temples and attractions in the area. It was a totally different experience being alone beneath these giant golden spires in the dark compared to the hordes of hot sweaty tourists in the daytime. Despite being in one of the larger cities on earth, you could hear crickets chirping around the Wat Pho temple when we were there at around 9 pm. The temple was home to many sleeping cats and dogs as well, something I found rather charming though I'm not sure why.

The next day was a bit less sight-seeing and a bit more vacation-style luxury. After a brief trip to a temple close to our accommodations, my girlfriend and I found a massage spa that her friend recommended closer to downtown Bangkok. After that relaxing new experience, we went to a French restaurant for a nine-course dinner that served as an early six-month anniversary celebration. Heading back to the hotel that evening, we saw the ritzy, westernized side of Bangkok that included the multi-story Siam Plaza. It turns out Hong Kong isn’t the only east Asian city with an obsession for international-style decadence.

As I mentioned, the trip wasn’t long but just long enough to see that Bangkok is a one-of-a-kind city, albeit with an old heritage meets new fashion feeling similar to China. Our trip was given another memorable twist by the fact that our hotel was on Khaosan Road, also known as Bangkok’s “backpacker ghetto.” Almost everyone we saw there was a foreigner who looked like they hadn’t bathed in a week. It may sound kind of gross but it made for some fantastic people watching. My personal favorite was a man with dreadlocks down to his ankles.

Back in Hong Kong now, I leave for Guangzhou to visit my friend Henry early tomorrow morning. It will be the third city with eight million or more people I’ll have visited in as many days. Hong Kong will surely feel like a village after this. I shall post again once I return to the Kong about my travels through old Canton.

Khaosan Road, known as the 'Backpacker Ghetto'

Part of the Royal Palace

Wat Pho at night

Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok

The Erawan Hotel and Shrine (needless to stay, this was not our hotel)

Bang a Gong (Get It On)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Settling In

I write this while sitting in my Tai Wai apartment (precisely here), nearly three weeks into my tenancy. March has really sped by and it doesn’t feel like it’s already spring, though the weather is indeed starting to warm up. In fact, this last weekend concluded winter with some of the nicest weather I’ve seen in Hong Kong—warm, clear and promising.

In a sense, I’d like this to be a ‘First Impressions’ kind of post, like when I first came to Hong Kong. Obviously, this is on a much smaller scale, but nonetheless, I live in a completely different place than I had before.

Earlier, I explained why I chose Tai Wai as my new locale. Most of the reasons had to do with closeness to work, but also, I wanted to live in a quiet place that still wasn’t as isolated as my last flat was. So far, the area has lived up to my expectations in these regards. I’ve managed to find a bus that takes me to work in 10-15 minutes that stops 5 minutes from my apartment. As convenient and consistent as the MTR is, I’ve found that using the bus every morning helps me stay sane. I can have a comfortable seat, enjoy my iPod or a book and view the scenery before starting work. The MTR is more like a crowded cattle transport in a dark tunnel for roughly the same price and the same time interval.

Outside exit A of the MTR station (10 minutes from my flat) lies the Tai Wai village. I haven’t explored it too much yet, but it seems that you can find just about any daily necessities in this area. There’s a grocery store, pharmacy, home appliance store, clinic and hundreds of other little shops. So far, I’ve only found a couple Western restaurants as it is very local, but I think I’ll start forcing myself to try some of the dozens of Chinese places and try out my Cantonese chops.

Most of my time in Tai Wai has been spent in my apartment enjoying my precious free time totally alone. I don’t know if it has to do with my being an only child but I absolutely relish being alone for a short period; it’s often the only way to really collect one’s thoughts. Overall, the apartment itself has worked out fairly nicely. One annoyance has been that some people occasionally throw trash that lands on my balcony. Being on the first floor I’m one of the only people who has a small balcony, though it’s not quite as attractive when littered with used tissues and cigarettes. Another problem has been that my upstairs neighbor occasionally decides to seemingly rearrange his/her apartment at four in the morning, making bangs and scrapes to wake me up.

But these two problems are minor compared to the fact that I’m quite comfortable here and have all my utilities/furniture/appliances taken care of. Six weeks ago, I was anxious about where I would be living after moving out of Chan Uk. I’ve now lived in seven places in my life: two on Bainbridge Island, three in Tacoma and now, two in Hong Kong. I expect good memories to come from this one just as the previous six provided. 

The awesome door knocker on my flat

The apartment, after three weeks of inhabitation

The massive MTR station that serves as my gateway to the rest of Hong Kong

The bike path and sidewalk of Chui Tin Street just outside my complex

Tai Wai
And as an aside, I was happy to host my hometown friend and neighbor Henry Atkinson this last weekend. He's now my neighbor again in a sense, teaching English in Guangzhou only 100 miles away! You can check out his blog as well and what he wrote about his time here in Hong Kong.