Monday, November 19, 2012

Leah Ao Xin

I have a hunch that this blog post will reach record traffic levels due to the amount of people that love my cousin Mark Trombino and his wife Carol. This has been a life changing time for them and briefly being a part of it has been such unbelievably good fortune for myself. It is a great honor to be bringing many of you the first photos of father, mother and new child all together, either on this blog or on Facebook. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a bit unfair for me to meet Leah before her own older sister, but Priya, you’re going to see this little bundle of energy in Arizona quite soon. Mark and Carol had their hands full here in China, literally and figuratively.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, my girlfriend Sharman and I travelled to Guangzhou this weekend to meet my first cousin Mark (my dad’s sister’s son) as he and his wife Carol went through the final steps to fully adopting Leah Ao Xin Trombino. They met Leah on Monday morning in Harbin, China after nearly two years of research, paperwork and nail biting. Harbin, a freezing city in Northeastern China, is Leah’s birthplace and where she’s lived for the first four years of her life. After a few days there, the three of them hopped on a plane down to Guangzhou on China’s much warmer southern coast. All American adoptions in China must go through Guangzhou, as this is the location of the US Consulate.  

On Saturday morning, the day after the Trombino’s arrived in Guangzhou, Sharman and I took the two-hour train from Hong Kong meet them, as well as my good friend Henry who lives in Guangzhou and hosted Sharman and I. For the rest of the weekend, we were able to see just how special Leah Ao Xin really is. Despite all the certainly confusing stuff that’s been happening to her lately, she was nothing but smiles, laughter and love for the whole time we were with her. According to Mark and Carol, it only took about a day until she fully embraced them as her new parents, saying Baba and Mama all the time. Her first English sentence earlier in the week was “I love you.” Her second, thanks to Elmo and his videos, was “That’s not a frog!”

Much of Leah’s past is unknown but we do know that after a few months in an orphanage, from ages one to four, Leah she was in a loving foster family. This may explain why she was immediately so trusting and open, while a child straight from the orphanage may be shy and take longer to adjust to his/her adopted family. We went on a brief Guangzhou sightseeing tour with a number of adopted children and their American parents, and I can safely say that Ao Xin was the most comfortable, outgoing child of the lot. She is a little person like her parents, but even in spite of that, she’s quite mobile. Perhaps faster than her old man already!

Also this weekend, I was given reason number #2,654 why I’m lucky to be with Sharman. As a speaker of Mandarin (in addition to Cantonese and English), she was able to translate her parents’ instructions for Leah as well as helping Mark and Carol get some understanding on Leah's constant chatter towards them. She was always saying funny, adorable things in Mandarin like “Dad, I drew a heart” or “Is it yummy?” or “Write horizontally!” that her parents would have otherwise had no way of understanding. Not to mention that Sharman is a preschool teacher and a natural with young kids. She and I are so looking forward to seeing Leah again in a month on Christmas day in Phoenix. By that time, I’m sure her English will be increasing at the speed of light.

I was sad to leave them so soon but even though it was only a weekend, I know I’ll remember this as long as I live. It’s still hard to comprehend that this adorable little four-year-old who speaks only a couple words of English is my new cousin. At this moment, they’re in Guangzhou still but they leave on Thanksgiving Day to begin life as a family of four!

Sunday, November 11, 2012


This is a post that has nothing to do with me, Hong Kong or any specific event that's occurred recently. Instead, it's my most recent postulate upon some of life's eternal questions. I wrote this after a Skype chat with a friend, as I found the need to remind myself and my friend to step back and think of the big picture a bit more than either of us has been recently. All is just fine in my life these days, but who's to say that we should only ponder the Big Questions in times of trial? So here it is. The importance of balance. 

When caught up in one’s day-to-day routine, it’s easy to lose track of the fundamental reasons why one does what one does with the majority of the waking hours. For example, after three years of schooling, all that undergrad biology school student Samantha may think about is her hours inputting data in the lab, her memorization of terms and her exam scores. With our tendency to think in the short term, it’s easy for Samantha to forget that she’s building up her knowledge to one day save lives in a real hospital. And even if not every fact is applicable to life in the ICU, it all is necessary to get the diploma that leads to another diploma, which leads to a medical job. Or even a college grad like say, Tony, who serves as a tour guide in an art museum near his home. He may stress about his taxes, his weight problems, and the repetitive nature of his job, but in reality, there isn’t a day that goes by where one of the people on his tours develops an entirely new appreciation of art thanks to Tony’s insight on the exhibits. Even those without meaningful full-time occupations can give the world great gifts through love and wisdom in countless different ways.

To reflect on my vaguely Buddhist thinking, I like to think that life is one long journey to achieve perfect balance. Think of it as designing the perfect, hybrid car. Things may be running smoothly, but there are always tweaks to be made, be it the engine, overall comfort or effective airbags. These tweaks that need to be made are not burdensome but healthy challenges, stimulating the mind for the long term and providing rewarding results in the short term. By the time I’m destined to die, I’d like to hope that I will have achieved the perfect balance for the car to drive off into the sunset. A calm, efficient ride, reaching high speeds, but not so fast as to miss the scenery. On top of that, the car will be completely sustainable. Taking in the exact amount of energy that it gives back, through improving the universe and other people’s lives. 

This balance can also be seen as inhale and exhale. The inhale is learning and taking from the world and its resources. The exhale is teaching and giving. This is most obviously displayed in the universal norm working for wages, but should be present in every aspect of life. Hospitable strangers host you in a foreign land; you allow foreigners to stay in your home free of charge. You learn from your father how to catch a fish; you teach your daughter how to catch a fish. You have a revelation from the natural beauty at a national park; you encourage others to go on a similar hike and/or volunteer to pick up trash along the trails. You’re born into a wealthy family; you spend time experiencing and informing others what it’s like to be in dire circumstances and how to approach the disparity. 

I find it much more natural to dwell on the negative aspects of life than to bask in the positive. For whatever reason, the human brain naturally fixates on problems and when something is satisfactory, it’s taken for granted and ignored. It’s crucial to have moments to step back and look at what really matters, and to me that’s having a life that makes the world a better place, pardon the cliché. On any given day, most people have a handful of issues or regrets that add up to something terrible, something commonly called stress. But when one looks back at those issues and regrets just one short year in the future, most if not all of those stress components will be purely trivial. 

In reality, so many of the important factors in life are out of our control. Where we’re born, what genes we inherit, what kind of family we have, who we meet, unexpected experiences and events, luck, timing, tragedies, etc. But as we can only control our own choices, the most we can do is hope to find this balance and know how to approach the past, present and future. All without giving in to negativity, stress, worry and/or cynicism, no matter how bleak it may seem sometimes. Breathe in, breathe out.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Half Term Break

This week was full of firsts for me. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever had a week off from school in October. It was the first holiday in Hong Kong I didn’t travel anywhere. And last, it was the first time my parents came to see this marvelous city.

For obvious reasons, it was fantastic to see my parents for the first time since last December. As most of you know, I’m an only child so this was a good catch-up on family time, as Skype chats only provide so much. Over the course of the week, I returned to a number of wonderful places in Hong Kong that I hadn’t been for some time. Some of the places are mentioned in previous blog posts right here. Over the week, we ventured to the Tian Tian Buddha, 10,000 Buddhas Monastery, The Peak, Cheung Chau Island, Kowloon Walled City Park, a performance at the Cultural Center, Hollywood Road, Hong Kong Park and the Avenue of Stars. As my parents hoped, they were able to spend the week actively sightseeing while I was the tour guide. I enjoy this role, so I too had a good time, particularly in some of the best possible weather.

Another fun part of the holiday was seeing my parents meet my girlfriend Sharman and her parents. It’s rather to surreal to have two worlds connect like that, thinking this is the only time that our collective four parents have ever inhabited the same continent at the same time. The Peking Duck dinner was remarkably delicious and with a bit of help from me, Sharman was able to translate so that everyone could be a part of the conversation despite no common language. Wild. Perhaps some people dread the meeting of significant others and parents, but this was really nothing to get worked up about. Everyone got along quite well, despite my parents’ gift for the Leungs breaking on the way to the meal. As they say in HK, “Ayaaaaa.”

One thing that I think all expats suffer to some extent is a certain degree of homesickness. It's certainly something that comes to mind after seeing my family for what felt like the blink of an eye. My life in Hong Kong is quite satisfying, with a good job, apartment, girlfriend and overall environment. However, there are always times when I long for things back home. Usually it’s friends and family that give me pangs of nostalgia, but sometimes it's thinking of my pets, indie music or Taco Bell (judge me all you like). Fortunately, 6,500 miles of distance is not the same impossible divide that it used to be. Even with the Pacific Ocean between us, I’m able to see the people I love at least once a year at Christmas and some of them twice a year, when schedules work out. And with the wonders of Facebook, Gmail and Skype it’s extremely easy to communicate with people from the comfort of my own apartment. Only ten years ago, chatting with people in real time would have been substantially less convenient. I try to use this as reasoning to not let homesickness bother me too much. And so far, I’ve made it nearly a year and a half without falling into the clutches of severe homesickness.

And speaking of family visitation, I’m excited to travel to Guangzhou next month to be with my cousin Mark and his wife Carol as they finalize the adoption of their soon-to-be daughter, Leah Ao Xin, who currently lives in Harbin in northeast China. Luckily for me, though perhaps inconveniently for them, all adoptions must be approved through the US Consulate in Guangzhou, and hence I can take a quick bus ride up to be with them after they fly down from Harbin with 4-year-old Leah Ao Xin. I’ll certainly post more about this once in a lifetime event after it happens in a few weeks. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Music and Baseball

If you know me more than a little bit, you know that music and baseball are my twin obsessions. A day never goes by where neither topic crosses my mind. One of the few downsides about moving to Hong Kong is that my involvement in these two things has taken a backseat to my daily routine. In college, I worked two baseball related jobs, played on an intramural softball team, studied music as my degree, worked at the college radio station and played in two different rock bands. Thus far in Hong Kong, I’ve had to dig deeper to find outlets for my passions. But with this academic year, my deep digging has paid off to some extent.

First of all, at my school, all teachers and TAs are in charge of an after school extra-curricular club of our choosing. For the first few months of this year, I’ve been leading a baseball club. It’s been a tremendous challenge directing 23 kids (only two of whom are girls) towards the basic skills of the game. Baseball is essentially non-existent in Hong Kong, so most of these kids didn’t know the first thing about America’s pastime when we started in early September. Seven weeks in, they aren’t exactly Ken Griffeys out there, but it appears they’re having a good time and trying their hardest to hit the tennis ball off the tee.

As I mentioned, this baseball club has been one of my biggest undertakings at my new school. The very first week was a basically a disaster as all 25 children, aged 4-7, ran around our school hall like crazy, giving me limited opportunities to speak to the group. I’ve since learned to raise my voice and get their attention, and with some help from our school’s PE teacher, set up a system to give them some structure for the lesson. Choosing tasks that everyone can do yet still be challenged and stimulated by has been the hardest part so far. Especially in a slower paced game like baseball. My respect for physical education instructors has gone way up since starting baseball club.

As far as musical involvement is concerned, this September, I successfully auditioned for the Hong Kong Bach Choir. A group that’s existed for 40 odd years, the HKBC is my first musical ensemble since graduating from PLU in the spring of 2011. So far, I’ve had a great time singing stellar music with some 130 Hong Kongers and expats alike. We meet once a week and rehearse under the baton of an American guy named Jerry Hoberman, whose résumé is impressive and leadership is strong. It’s not a professional group but I'd say we're fairly decent as far as amateur choirs go. They always advertise as the best choir in Hong Kong. This December, we’ll be singing Beethoven’s 9th with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate Jerry’s 20th year directing the choir. If you are reading this in HK, I hope to see you there!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Living in the SAR

When I chat with friends back home, via Facebook, Gmail or Skype, one of the most common questions I get is, 'How are things in China?' At the beginning, I'd think nothing of it, but recently, I've started to correct people and say, 'You mean Hong Kong?' 

In the most technical sense, Hong Kong is indeed a part of China. Along with Macau, it is a Special Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, 15 years in to the 50 year transition towards being a fully Chinese city in 2047. For now, we in Hong Kong enjoy a number of rights that mainland Chinese don't have. For example, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the freedom to peacefully protest. Or more specifically, if I was in China, I could not use Facebook, Blogspot or Youtube without trying to cheat the system (as many people do). Being an American born and raised on these basic freedoms, I consider them crucial and believe that having them really separates us from Mainland China. 

An issue that really set myself and many other Hong Kongers off recently was the National Education controversy. It's complicated but in a nutshell, earlier this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao thought it would be good for Hong Kongers to learn more about the Motherland and proposed a curriculum that was very Chinese in nature. You know, ignore Tiannamen, ignore the Cultural Revolution's millions of deaths, Mao was awesome hands down etc. Well, the Hong Kong people didn't like this idea of future generations being taught conveniently edited history books and marched through the streets in huge numbers, eventually leading to the withdrawal of the program. For now. It was an inspring victory for the Hong Kong people, but a frightening taste of what might be on the way. 

After living here for one year, I feel much more connected to the Hong Kong people than before. I'm not just an American surrounded by Chinese—I'm a Hong Kong resident occasionally bombarded by mainlanders. For example, I recently went to Ocean Park, which is a family friendly Hong Kong theme park not unlike the USA's Sea World. The place was teeming with Chinese tour groups and it was obvious just what a different mindset these people had. On the shuttle towards the park's entrance at the end of the day, dozens of people were rudely pushing to get onto the train, and sure enough, they all seemed to be mainland Chinese. How did I know? They were speaking Mandarin instead of the local Cantonese and had ridiculous name badges and/or hats on to show that they were part of a tour group. Don't get me started on the philosophy of sight-seeing in packs as the Chinese so often do.

I don't mean to sound xenophopic against the mainland Chinese. Some of the people I met on my Guilin trip were lovely and extremely hospitable, and those I saw at Ocean Park don't represent the full one billion. But within the past few months, thanks to recent news events and books I've read, I've started to feel anxious about the prospect of Hong Kong people slowly losing their rights. My Ocean Park trip may have been an ominous metaphor of Hong Kong people getting pushed aside and swallowed up. These are the same fears that led to the mass exodus in the '80s and '90s before the 1997 handover from Britain to China. 15 years later, Hong Kong still enjoys it's colonial era freedom and has more or less felt things are 'so far, so good' but who's to say if and when that might change? 

Perhaps I am too concerned. My own personal situation is under no threat whatsoever. My school is a private school and my flat complex is also a private enterprise. Even if things change within a couple years, I may not even still be here. Or maybe I will. Regardless, I've developed a great respect for the people and city of Hong Kong and I'd hate to see that specialness turn into just another Chinese metropolis, graciously digesting the propaganda fed to them by the PRC. Or maybe China itself will evolve into a more democratic state as Thomas Friedman has suggested. One of the downsides of being an expat is that you worry about two countries futures. I'll save my concerns about America for another day.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Another School Year

A year ago, I wrote a post about September signifying the beginning of a new school year every year of my life since I was five. This year is no different as I am currently settling in at my new school. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m sure it will feel quite strange if I’m not starting a new school year come September.

When I first accepted this job, I really only knew that I’d be a teaching assistant at a British run primary (elementary) school in Tai Wai, Hong Kong. After a week of preparation and a week of classes, I now have a much better idea of exactly what it is I’ll be doing.

First of all, my job is to help out in the P2 class, which consists of twenty-one children born in 2006, currently ages 5 and 6. Instead of a September 1st cutoff date for age, in Hong Kong, it's January 1st. My duties include keeping the children on task, giving individual help to those who need it, and making the lead teacher's job easier in whatever way I can. And starting this week, I will teach an after school club on a subject very dear to my heart, baseball. Besides myself and the lead teacher Ms. Katie, our class also has another full-time teacher named Ms. Ada who is mostly focused on one boy with special needs. 

During my first week of classes, I felt utterly exhausted, but I hope this was simply because I still need to fully transition from my slow vacation pace to fast work pace. The class is funny and charming but we certainly have to work hard to keep them focused and under control, even with three adults in the classroom. Despite their occasional wildness, it’s pretty amazing to see twenty-one kids, all of Asian ethnicity—mostly Chinese and a few Japanese—speaking and understanding English so naturally. For almost every single kid, English is not the native tongue. If I ask in English how to say something in Cantonese OR Mandarin, they are usually able to answer me with no hesitation. Trilingual is the norm.

The school itself is quite professional, something I am very pleased with. The teachers are all talented, easy-going people and many, like me, have just started out at the school. This is not due to high turnover but because the student enrollment has gone from thirty to ninety students in a year’s time. Last year was the primary’s first year of existence so there were only two classes: P1 and P2. This year, there are five classes going up to P3, so the faculty has naturally grown as well. By the time the school reaches full capacity in a few years, it should hold some three to four hundred pupils, at least by my calculation. Perhaps at that point I won’t be the only North American to have worked there. My coworkers come mostly from Britain, but also Hong Kong, mainland China and South Africa.

My general philosophy is not to look much more than a year into the future, but it’s certainly nice to have a solid option to work at this school for longer, should that be something I want to pursue. I have certainly considered and been offered the possibility of working towards my teaching credentials while employed at this school in the future. It’s right next to my house and so far, seems to be a good fit with my educational thinking. But as I mentioned, one year at a time.

Working with primary students is a brand new experience for me. After only a week, I have an infinitely better understanding of the way they interact, what makes them tick and what makes them laugh. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking back to my own wonderful elementary experience on Bainbridge Island at the Island School. Surprisingly, I still remember a lot about that time, especially my friends and teachers. It was a pivotal six years in my life and I hope that I can positively influence these kids the way my teachers and teaching assistants influenced me back in the 1990s. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


My second trip of the holiday was to Guilin, China. Guilin is about 300 miles north (the distance between Seattle and Eugene) but the best way to get there is by overnight train. The trip was planned by my old friend Henry, whom I’ve mentioned here before. Henry’s been teaching English in Guangzhou for the past six months and had been to Guilin only a month ago on a solo journey. This time Henry took his coworker friend Angel and myself along for a few memorable days in the region.

I had been to mainland China twice before: once with my university jazz band in 2009 and once to visit Henry in April of this year. But this was the closest I felt to experiencing China as the Chinese do, mostly because of the train. At around 5:30 pm, we departed on a train from Shenzhen—the Chinese city bordering Hong Kong to the north—and spent its 15-hour journey in seats since we hadn’t booked our tickets in time to get beds in the sleeper cars. In the passenger cabin, the lights never turn off and lots of people only have standing room only tickets. It’s hard to believe, but many aboard the train actually stood up for the entire trip. As far as facilities, there is a toilet between cars for dozens to share and hot water to prepare cup of noodles. That's it. Not a pleasant night, but certainly a unique one.

We arrived in the main city of Guilin and took a bus to the smaller, more touristy city of Yangshuo. Once we got to Yangshuo, we rented bikes and spent some time looking for our reserved hotel. By the time we arrived, it had been nearly 24 hours since departing my flat in Hong Kong. We were a bit tired but it was only the afternoon by then, so we went on a bike ride through the nearby farm area.

I can’t overstate enough how beautiful the pastoral scenery is in the Guilin region. What dominates the landscape are numerous pointy mountains created by karstification. I’d never heard that word before I went to Guilin so for an idea of what it means, consult our friend Wikipedia! Anyway, biking through the farm lands and seeing acres of rice paddies beneath hundreds of mysterious green spikes felt otherworldly. The only downer of the first day was the mother of all side aches hitting me at the end of our ride. I’m not sure if it was eating too much before or lack of sleep or what, but it was not pleasant. Fortunately, the pain was all gone after a few minutes lying on the hotel bed.  

The following day was the best day. With Henry at the lead, the three of us biked the twenty-two mile stretch to the town of Xingping. Twenty-two miles may not sound like all that much but the journey was quite hilly and ended up taking us around seven hours. I’m a competent biker but not a great one and this now holds the record as my longest bike ride. The sights we saw along the way were even better than the day before. Near the end of the trek, we were given a spectacular viewpoint looking down upon the Li River. Just as the sun was setting, we caught a raft and floated down to Xingping, bikes, tired riders and all. As Henry said to me, the great thing about biking on trips is that it’s both a rewarding, healthy activity and a way to feast the eyes on magnificent scenery.

That night I stayed in my first hostel. In a nutshell, it was amazing and I want to stay in more like it. We went to bed after eating delicious pizzas cooked in the hostel, just what I most desired after a long day of exertion. The next day, we hiked up to the top of one of the mountains known as Lao Zhai Shan. As expected, the view was stunning and first time we’d been able to see a city from above.  We headed back to Yangshuo by bus this time, and ate at a Buddhist influenced vegetarian restaurant. The nice thing about China is you can eat what may be on the pricier side by Chinese standards, but still ends up costing a reasonable amount in Hong Kong or US terms. With work in less than two days, I had to depart from the group at this point. I headed back to Guilin by bus and then to Shenzhen by sleeper train. Fortunately, I was able to book a sleeper bunk on the way back and shared my room with an astoundingly nice family from Guangzhou. I slept well and received Chinese lessons and free fruit from them in both the evening and the morning.

I’ve read a couple books about China recently—one by Peter Hessler called River Town and one called Factory Girls by his wife, Leslie Chang. Both are great books about the extremely complex nature of China. In Hong Kong, it’s easy to look at China as the bad guy, more of an “oppressor” than Britain was back in colonial times with China’s current educational mandates and role in the housing monopolies. This trip didn’t do much to change my own complicated feelings about China but I certainly was moved by the majestic countryside and the kind people I met along the way. Everyone should come to China at least once. It may not always be the best, but I think it’s the most interesting country on earth. 

My wonderful travelling companions: Henry (tour guide) and Angel (translator) 

Sure doesn't look like it, but it's rice

Li River

Guangxi Province countryside

Looking down on Xingping

Corn with antennae