Tuesday, August 21, 2012


For those of you don’t know too much about Malaysia, it’s split into two parts, like New Zealand or Michigan. But instead of having two islands, or two peninsulas, Malaysia has one of each. Sabah is the name of the part of Malaysia that lies in the northern half of the island of Borneo, bordering Indonesia. This was my third trip down to Southeast Asia this year, and while the journey to Puerto Princesa in January remains the best, Sabah was still an enjoyable exploration. The furthest south I’ve travelled yet.

My girlfriend and I flew directly from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu on Thursday morning. It was only a three-hour flight so we were able to spend some time exploring the largest city in Sabah that afternoon. Formerly a British trading hub called Jesselton, Kota Kinabalu itself isn’t anything too special. It’s filled with markets, hotels and restaurants like most other touristy Asian cities. My favorite moment of that first day was walking around the State Mosque during the call to evening prayer. The place was fairly desolate but for a mesmerizing male voice, singing praise to Allah, or so I assume. Malaysia’s official religion is Islam though Sabah is actually more Catholic. Overall, one of the country’s biggest assets is its peaceful coexistence of dozens of different cultural groups.

The next day, we had a beginners’ scuba course. This was the activity I was most excited for and it didn’t fall short of my hopes. Our instructors and fellow divers were lots of fun and we managed to go on three decently long dives just off of Gaya Island close to the city. Unfortunately, I have no underwater camera to document the dives but we saw lots of colorful coral as well as Nemo and friends playing in the sea anemones. Scuba gear is such an amazing invention. I like to compare it to the airplane, which game humans the ability to fly like birds. Scuba diving allows us to swim like fishes.

Day three was a bit of a disappointment. After checking out a couple local museums, we went on a river cruise to that advertised itself as a great way to see both proboscis monkeys and fireflies up close. This ‘nature’ tour ended up being a two-hour drive to board a massive vessel with hundreds of loud people consuming a buffet dinner and socializing with one another. We saw a couple of monkeys that were dozens of feet away and one bush of fireflies. We expected peace and tranquility and got the epitome of lazy, "sightsee in your comfort zone" tourism. So it goes I guess.

The last couple days consisted of some thrilling whitewater rafting and a so-so tour of Mount Kinabalu National Park. My expectations were high (so to speak) for the tallest mountain in SE Asia but it ended up being mostly obscured by clouds and the flora and fauna weren’t anything as special as I read about. Or at least what we got to see. There was a special flower in the area but the tour guide asked us for about $10 US per person to see it so we declined. The rafting however, was totally exhilarating. Worth every penny to rock up and down the rapids of the Padras River. 

Unrelated to being in Malaysia, it was wonderful to come back to our hotel every night at watch the Olympics. We really lucked out that our holiday timed itself perfectly with the games. It’s always so inspiring to me to watch people chase their goals with such passion and guts. And to see an American beat the Chinese frontrunners in men’s platform diving in David Boudia :)

I traveled up to Guilin, China after a day back in HK. You can read about that above soon. Here are some photos of Sabah. 

Sabah State Mosque

Floating dock on Gaya Island

Photo with a photogenic monkey photo

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey

40 meters above ground on the jungle canopy walk

Mount Kinabalu

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dozens of Goodbyes

July began with my one-year anniversary in Hong Kong and is ending with the conclusion of my first full-time job. It’s been an emotional time and I think I summed it up decently in my final weekly newsletter, sent to my students’ parents: 

Hello everyone, 
For my last newsletter, I'd just like to write a huge thank you to the many students, parents, grandparents and helpers I've gotten to know during my time at this school. I'm not usually one to get overly sentimental, but I have really been blessed to get to know all of you. During these last two weeks, I've been quite humbled by having received so many well-wishes for my future.  
From my first day here until now, I have learned just as much if not more from my students as they have learned from me. Watching so many kids transform from babies into inquisitive, clever children is something very few people get to see and I will never forget this experience. It's also confirmed my belief, from the Beatles, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE!  
I wish each and every one of my students all the very best as they grow up.  
Mr. Ben 

I really haven't had an experience like this before—saying my goodbyes and thank yous to so many people at the end of a life chapter. And by so many, I mean 150 students and their families plus nearly twenty colleagues. The closest was probably graduating university but that grand finale had been known by everyone involved from the get go and the majority of my friends were leaving with me. Announcing to the students and parents that I was leaving was probably the hardest step in the process but bidding adieu to the tight-knit colleague group was nearly as tough. After spending so many hours with certain people, you develop quite an attachment. 

In these last two weeks, with the end in sight, I felt what an impact these kids had on me and vice versa (I hope/think?) and that was something that really brought into focus the fact that teaching could be a career path for me. Of course, I'll need a lot more training to develop teaching skills beyond what I have now. But more than ever before, working in education seems like a pretty solid way to pass the weekday hours and try to make a difference. 

As I posted earlier, I start at the primary school on August 20th. I’m looking forward to (and also a bit nervous about) broadening my teaching experience and comparing this to my year teaching toddlers. During the next three weeks, I’ll spend half the time lounging around in Hong Kong and half the time travelling to both Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia and Guilin, China. Expect many photos and blog posts to come from these two trips.

Monday, July 2, 2012

One Year Later

This Wednesday marks my first Asia-versary. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a metric butt-load* about many things. For example, teaching, small children, teaching small children, Hong Kong, Asia in general, Chinese culture, travelling, Cantonese, having a fulltime job, being in a relationship, self-reliance, etc. But for this post, I’d like to make a brief timeline of the last fifty-two weeks. I’ve always been a big fan of timelines, way before Facebook I might add (for hipster credit). Here it goes, with older posts linked. 

July 3-4, 2011: Travelled from Seattle to Hong Kong via planes, trains, boats and automobiles. Definitely the longest and most anxious days of my life. The journey went: Bainbridge Island house->BI Ferry Terminal->Seattle Ferry Terminal->SeaTac Airport->San Francisco Airport->Hong Kong Airport->Kowloon MTR Station->Roommate Ben’s Chan Uk Village flat. A 30-hour journey from totally familiar to completely foreign. 

July 16: First day teaching. Not just in HK but first day teaching any class period. It wasn’t supposed to be until the 18th, but my predecessor decided to ditch a bit early so I showed up and got a whirlwind introduction to the kids, parents and fellow teachers. Another nerve-wracking day for sure. Thankfully, I’d been trained about the job during the previous week so I at least had an idea of what to do. 

August 26: Flew alone to Taipei, Taiwan for my first trip outside HK as well as my first vacation alone. Good times and good memories, particularly seeing a Taiwanese professional baseball game. 

October 16: Began dating my gorgeous girlfriend, changing my life infinitely for the better ☺. Our first date was on the serene Lamma Island. 

December 18: Journeyed back across the Pacific to Seattle. For two weeks, I spent time with good friends and family in both the Seattle area and the Napa Valley. Being home made Hong Kong feel like a strange but wonderful dream. 

January 23, 2012: Went to Puerto Princesa, Philippines with four good friends, all connected to my school in HK. Possibly the best vacation of my life, this consisted of four near perfect days on an idyllic tropical island. I can still taste the delicious fruit smoothies and milkshakes. 

March 4: Moved into a new flat in Tai Wai. Took some cash and a bit of work to get it all set up, but once the place came together, I settled comfortably into my first solo apartment. 

April 3: Took a trip to Bangkok, Thailand with my girlfriend. It was far too short of a stay but I enjoyed seeing another world class city nearby. Some sweet golden temples they have there. 

(upcoming) July 28: Final day of work at my school. It’s hard to describe a day that hasn’t happened yet, but I expect an ocean of bittersweetness. More details in a post yet to come. 

So there’s a year. No gooey reflection necessary. I’ve had a great time and I’m optimistic about what the future might hold!

*'Metric butt-load' is a specific unit of measurement established by my great chum, Taylor Hagbo. It's quantity should be self-evident. 

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