From Basking in Beijing to Baking in Brooklyn

November 11, 2009

Hello! It’s been awhile. While the purpose of this blog was originally to expound upon my traveling shenanigans, I am feeling the urge to document odd bits of my life strike again. No announcements or group emails this time, just writing for the sake of writing. I did, eventually, safely return from the far East. Beijing was a confusing city for me to navigate. It is large and sprawling and seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis. Things I loved about it: the hutongs, the street food, the Summer Palace, the parks, the courtyard in our traditional hotel, the woman at the tea shop who poured forth cup upon cup of liquid heaven and invariably tried to upsell. Things that made me feel dizzy: the incessant frenetic energy, the polluted air, the labyrinthine underground transportation, the vast emptiness of Tianenmen Square, taxi rides. I think I would have had a different experience had I arrived in Beijing “fresh.” But the reality was that CSE, while amazing, had worn me down a tad and I brought a subpar version of myself to bear upon this wondrous city. One thing I will say for Beijing is that they figured out how to serve peanuts in a most spectacular way: bathed in a vinegar-soy sauce and cilantro and served with chopsticks.  YUM!

As the title suggests, I am a Brooklyn girl now. These streets are well worn by the likes of….Barry Manilow, Alyssa Milano, and Eddie Murphy? Really? That is great news. In response to seeing me pull a volume of Anais Nin’s diary out of my handbag in a bar (the subway is a great way to catch up on my reading!), my friend walked me by a plaque denoting the street that Henry Miller grew up on in Williamsburg. In other celebrity sighting news, I live on the same block as Jonathan Letham (author of “Fortress of Solitude” and “Motherless Brooklyn” and one block away from Michelle Williams – both of whom I have bumped into at my local caffeinating hole. Oh man, is this what New York does to you? Turn you into a celebrity sighter/reporter? I’ll try not to mention seeing Busy Phillips in Prospect Park while I was on a jog one morning. She was on Dawson’s Creek.

We are now solidly entering mid-November, which means I have had 2 plus months of unemployment opportunities to explore. I rocked a sweet trifecta during September. Every day I would:

1. Apply to a job

2. Seek out an adventure

3. Talk to someone new

Usually my adventures involved movement – biking, walking, running, trying out a new yoga studio, checking out a new neighborhood. My job applications were generally the result of a Building on Bond coffee-induced spurt of mental activity. One evening, I strolled across the Manhattan Bridge with a French foreign exchange student. This was how I rolled. It was fun.

As the second half of the subject suggests, I have been trying my hand at baking. Two things you should know about me and baking. The first is that I am not an exact-science-kind-of-gal. This seems to work well for kitchen experimentations like stirfry and salad. Baking….not so much. I once tried to make cookies without looking at a recipe and they tasted more like salty sponges. I don’t think proportions are my thing. The second is that I really prefer savory to sweet. Things that are both salty and sweet are still best, but when in doubt please serve me salty flour over sugary flour. Anywho, I woke up one day with the battlecry of “Make bread!” marching triumphantly across my front of mind. It was time. But, I didn’t trust myself yet. So, I made crackers. With rosemary. Next, I crafted a flatbread – also with rosemary. With increased confidence and baking soda on the brain, I worked my job-less frustrations out on a focaccia dough that needed to be kneaded. My favorite part about cooking is that you get to put all of your favorite ingredients together. For me, this meant an olive-herby focaccia loaf that actually turned out quite tasty! I guess you can’t go wrong with fresh thyme, parsley, and, of course, my good friend rosemary.  I strayed from my saline path the other week and made a lemon-olive-oil cake.  Now, I think I’m ready to make a legit loaf.  A big, savory oblong of goodness. Those packets of yeast accumulating in my cabinet have no chance with me.

super 19 & such

August 3, 2009

hello! i have been back in hong kong for two weeks now. when i am here, i don’t feel quite so far away. hong kong is a huge, thriving metropolis but my dorm is tucked up a hill and out of the way. my group of students here range in age from 16-19. they are super cool. they all seem to get along quite well, though in their late adolescent ways =) they crack me up. somehow the group decided to invent a few invisible (not imaginary!) friends: sarah and jason. there are more too: jennifer, john, and…sometimes the list goes on. but sarah & jason are the honorary members. this tends to confuse people like our program manager when she drops by the room to see how things are going. 

Super Sarah & Jason

In the classroom: Super Sarah & Jason...and everyone else =)

my co-fellow, pel, is awesome. she is a finance wiz who is passionate about environmental sustainability here in hong kong. she encourages us to eat off campus whenever possible. she showed me all of these amazing restaurants just down the hill from HKU. 

Eating out a local restaurant

our group having a tasty meal just down the street from HKU

since arriving back in hong kong, i have let reality settle in a bit more. i am attempting to do such things as apply for jobs and consider housing options for next year. but, this is hard to do when incredible shopping deals, sundry street foods, and hundreds of outlying islands beckon! plus, CSE continues to assume that we like to be occupied with activities 24 hour a day. i finally reclaimed my right to liberty and skipped out on saturday morning’s social activity: a visit to the hong kong police college. my friends who went said it was actually pretty cool and had a fake city replete with businesses like WcDonalds and 7-12, and a fake MTR station where the officers practice regulating the populace, preventing crime, etc. i opted to meet the crew in stanley, which is a beach & market area on the south of the island. 

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our group (clearly there is a trend here) in stanley during our "my hong kong" field trip on monday

i think i made a good call because i actually felt relaxed for the better part of saturday. the stanley market is supposedly cheaper than in kowloon or downtown hong kong, but it was also a bit more sparse. nonetheless, i made good use of the remainder of my stipend. looks like i’ll be eating in the dining hall for the rest of this week! speaking of eating, we made our way into mongkok – the shopping mecca of kowloon – on sunday afternoon. my shopping mentality has been totally manipulated because i think that shoes which cost $15 USD are way too expensive. the markets are so packed with stuff that it is really becoming an exercise in self-restraint to walk through them. do i really need this kinda-cool $4 belt? on the one hand: no. on the other hand: it’s only $4!

peanut buttery, sucrose-tastic waffle sandwich

peanut buttery, sucrose-tastic waffle sandwich

 

 

 

yum, popcorn waffles

yum, popcorn waffles

my favorite purchase of the day was the food. mongkok is known for selling hong kong street food at its finest. i tasted my way through two different varieties of waffles. one is lighter and puffier. the waffle iron has deeper pockets, so the ridges are more oval shaped. these are fun to eat because you can break off the individual ovals, popcorn style. the more traditional looking waffle gets slathered with butter, peanut butter, condensed milk, and sugar then folded up like a sandwich. clearly i loved it. we also ordered what we thought would be cream puffs, but turned out to be squid balls served with a brown tangy sauce, what appeared to be mayonnaise, some dried seafood flakes, and seaweed strips. um, i want to say yum but it came after the waffle. for dinner, we ate in a sidewalk (slash, let’s be honest: straight up in the street) restaurant on temple street. temple street has a lively night market full of vendors selling the usual brick a brack plus, fortune tellers, chinese opera & restaurants. i was only traveling in a pack of 4 (what a relief!) and our food was heavily doused with garlic. fantastic. 

dining a la strada: temple street style

dining a la strada: temple street style

in mongkok yesterday, a side trip to the ladies room in a random mall ended up as a photo booth field day. on second thought, the japanese style photo booth in china extravaganza that ensued rivals my previously stated favorite purchase. words can’t fully nor accurately describe the hilarity. 

this was way too much fun

this was way too much fun

i’m jumping around a bit, but want to return to stanley. after an afternoon of strenuous (just kidding) shopping, i finally made it to the beach where i met up with some of the other CSE people. after weeks of incredibly hot weather, i slipped into the water expeditiously. we paddled out to a floating dock where we lazily spent the remainder of the afternoon straight through until sunset over hong kong island. it was truly luscious. 

magic hour was followed by a pink hued sky in stanley

magic hour was followed by a pink hued sky in stanley

inevitable edibles, and other surprises

July 25, 2009

okay, so when you think of China do you conjure up images of mystery meats and dumplings? i admit, i did too. so i want to keep a running tally of interesting and unlikely foods i have tried. where possible, i will include a photo. in no particular order:

Pumpkin Dumpling:

Oh my goodness. This amazing delectable hit my mouth and I was in heaven. It was scrumptious to the max. I wish I knew how to make such a delight on my own. Triple Yum. 

Pumpkin Dumpling
Pumpkin Dumpling

 Lotus Seed:

In Hangzhou, you could buy lotus seeds on the street. They come in stalks with what looks like a green, natural showerhead coming out of the neck. To eat the seeds, you must first break apart the head and pluck out a seed. Then, you have to break open the seed in order to eat the tender morsel inside. Yum!

Lotus Seed

Lotus Seed

Quail Eggs:

I had my first quail egg boiled in a hot pot with my student group in Hangzhou. The ones pictured below were from a delicious Tea House in Hangzhou. I loved the set up of the Tea House. First, you order a tea that costs anywhere from $68 to a few hundred Hong Kong dollars. Second, you go to the incredibly bountiful buffet as many times as you wish. Heaven. Double Yum.

Quail Eggs

Quail Eggs

Hot Pot:

There are so many ways to have hot pot. Below is a picture of a traditional Chinese hot pot that I shared with my students in Hangzhou. We alternated between dropping meats and vegetables into the broth. Vegetables included various forms of fungi, cabbage, something that tasted like jicama, and dark leafy greens. Sharing is caring. Definitely Yum!

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Hot Pot

Cold Green Bean Dessert Soup:

I tried this on the first dinner out in Hong Kong. It was pretty good. At the time, I appreciated the protein for dessert because I was not so into the entire bird that had lain on our table before hand. What can I say: I was green then and so was the soup. Half a Yum. 

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cold green bean dessert soup

Watermelon Soup with Tofu:

Wo ai xigua. Need I say more? This soup is incredibly refreshing. Tofu takes many forms here. Soft and silky is one popular way to serve it, though not my favorite. It made sense in this soup though. Perfect for a hot day on Lantau. Double Yum!

 

Watermelon Soup with Tofu

Watermelon Soup with Tofu

wo ai xigua

July 25, 2009

Pop Quiz: How many provinces are there in China? 

Zhejiang Campus

sunset on Zhejiang Campus

Somewhere along the way, perhaps during the watermelon techno temple dance party near Hangzhou, wo ai xigua became my favorite go-to phrase in Mandarin. Mandarin is a tonal language, which makes it very difficult for people like me to learn how to speak it properly. To be more precise, Mandarin is not technically a language but rather one of the 7 largest Chinese dialects. Mandarin is the most widely spoken dialect here and Standard Mandarin is China’s official language. The written Chinese characters are the same for all dialects. However, the pronunciations vary to a point where even native Chinese people must write out the Chinese characters when talking to someone who speaks a different dialect. 

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the night light fountain show at West Lake is universal

Wo ai xigua (pronounced: whoah aye shee-gwah, at least in Hangzhou) means: I love watermelon. I find it works well for everything from taxi rides to ordering in restaurants to meeting new people. It is pretty much the only thing I can pronounce properly in Mandarin. Clearly I have no hope in learning Cantonese, the predominant language in Hong Kong, which involves 9 tones (even though apparently only 6 are widely used). Yet, this hasn’t stopped my students from attempting to teach me. Yesterday, I learned how to say “I love Hong Kong” and “I love you.” These should definitely come in handy. Cantonese is more nasal, so “I love you” sounds like “noh noi nay.” Then again, perhaps I should not convince myself to try these things on random passersby. 

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wo ai West Lake

 Two of the other Mandarin phrases which I attempted to commit to memory in Hangzhou go something like this:

  1. Dar you yi xia
  2. Mei yue shou kai yidien chuh

(For any of ye literate in pinyin, please forgive my typos. For those who don’t know what pinyin is, allow me to explain. Pinyin uses Roman letters to phonetically spell out Chinese characters. China officially adopted this linguistic system during the 1950s to facilitate communication between people who speak the myriad Chinese dialects. Pinyin is also uber useful for foreigners like me. Fun cross-cultural exchange fact: my friend from the UK has pointed out that her Chinese pronunciation book is different than my American pronunciation book. Wicked.

Kathy learns Chinese

how Kathy & I learn Chinese

So why did I learn those two phrases and what do they mean? For our community service day, part of my group wanted to promote environmentalism along with another group. When I realized this involved biking from our campus to West Lake, which takes about 45 minutes in a taxi, on our borrowed and quite rusty bikes, clearly I immediately thought: WO AI XIGUA! Aka: AWESOME.  I met a fellow, Kathy, and her Chinese co-fellow, David, plus two of her students, Flaco and Gilbert, in the cafeteria on campus. Gilbert and Flaco donned cardboard signs with pro-bike/anti-car environmental messages. The five of us set out for what was sure to be another epic day, CSE style.

Powering up for Community Service Day

As we biked along, we definitely started to attract a bit of attention. The pinnacle of the day was at West Lake, where we harassed locals and tourists alike. Kathy and I would shamelessly bike up to people touring about the lake and use the first line: Dar you yi xia (Excuse me, do you have a minute?) which was quickly followed by number two: Mei yue shou kai yidien chuh (Bike once a month instead of driving…or something like that). Usually, the passerby would look at me with confusion, but that would buy me enough time to smile at them while gesturing wildly until Gilbert or Flaco rode up and expertly explained in Chinese that we would like to give them a map with places for them to park their bikes to encourage them to bike more and drive less. Since it was CSE, the entire thing was documented on video. Bloopers central, I am sure. Random highlights include discovering a pocket of Spanish tourists that I was actually able to speak to and stopping for a green bean bubble tea in a cafeteria on the satellite Zheijiang campus closer to the lake. This part of campus also has a giant statue in homage to Mao. They say he is hailing a taxi cab. 

the West Lake crew

no taxis for us. the West Lake crew: ready to rock

At the end of the day, the huge irony was that all of the students wanted to go to McDonalds for lunch. So, yes, my cross-cultural Community Service day of touting environmentalism in a park ended up with spicy chicken sandwiched between an all too familiar sesame bun. But, I must say that China’s hot chili ketchup is tastier than ours. They also add festivity to the french fries with a packet of dry seasoning that you can sprinkle in your fry bag in order to shake things up. If there is a theme for this CSE trip, it is unexpectedness with a dash of confusion. *Sigh*

also a surprise: hot dog in the sushi

also a surprise: hot dog in my sushi

Answer: 23 Provinces (including Taiwan), plus 4 municipalities (aka cities that act like provinces: Shanghai, Chongqing, Tianjin, Beijing), 5 autonomous regions (each with its own designated minority group), and 2 special administrative regions (Hong Kong & Macao).

hangzhou: you never know

July 19, 2009

 

in china they say: there is heaven, and hangzhou below

in china they say: there is heaven, and hangzhou below

i think that hangzhou (pronounced like hahng-joe) should be renamed HotJoe. it was extremely and utterly ridiculously hot there – way hotter than my pseudo swine flu temperature. it was so hot, that i began carrying a special sun umbrella that has UV ray protection built in. i followed the locals and learned how to bike with one hand so that i could hold my brelly with the other. that’s the hangzhou way. however, i resisted the allure (?) of the ubiquitous “whitening” face cleansers and creams on my own. 

Day 1 of teaching with my group: 7Up

Day 1 of teaching with my group: 7Up

but, when i think of hangzhou, i don’t feel the searing heat of the sun but rather the genuine warmth of the people there. our “students” were called “Junior-Fellows” and they were rising freshmen at Zhejiang University who had received early admission based on their high test scores on the national college entry exam. Zhejiang is the third best university in mainland China. it also has the longest corridors in any Asian university (awesome!). we also had “Co-Fellows” who were Zhejiang University students who had participated in the CSE program last year as Junior Fellows. my co-fellow’s English name is Jeff. he is so nice, and endearingly awkward. he is going to get his Ph.D in something like physical engineering next year in the Netherlands. from the moment we arrived, the Co-Fellows and Junior Fellows swarmed and surrounded us. they showed me everything from how to navigate the campus to sharing a traditional hot pot style dinner. they were just like the food: super sweet. 

Watermelon Dance Party!

Watermelon Dance Party!

i was in Group 7. we called ourselves Group 7Up. CSE was just like summer camp, which is totally not what i had expected. i taught for 2 hours for 5 days total. the rest of my time was spent socializing, field tripping, karaoking, lolly-gagging about, and eating. i don’t know how much of a role language barriers and cultural differences played, but every day i had absolutely no idea what was going to happen! the irony is that we had received an elaborate schedule with seemingly every minute mapped out in advance. but once we arrived in hangzhou, each fellow always had a noticeably different understanding of whatever was about to happen. all the information i received was second or third hand and inevitably something got lost in translation or had changed since the initial message went out. meeting times were totally flexible. if something started at 9am, we might be instructed to arrive at 8:30, but that it was okay as long as we were there by 9am or so. then, around 9:15 or 9:30 the actual event might take place. our “camping” trip turned out to have lodging at a 4 star hotel far nicer than our dorm rooms. our field trip to a “modern company” consisted of riding on a bus for about an hour and a half only to see two fairly boring rooms of a water treatment plant before getting on the bus to ride back to campus. we were at the facility for about half an hour.

My day in military fatigues begins

My day in Chinese military fatigues begins

but once i embraced the humor and excitement in never knowing what was about to occur, i appreciated the randomness and beauty of pleasant confusion while in good company. when we went to the silk museum, we got to make our own tie-dye pattern on a swatch of silk. at the XiTang water village, my group sang Chinese songs as we floated down the river, and when the drama presentations exceeded 4 hours, many students elected to either read magazines or take a nap. one of my favorite hangzhou moments is as follows: after spending the day in military fatigues doing team-building drills and playing paintball with M-16s, we ate watermelon and danced to techno music in a temple. 

My group on a boat in the XiTang water village

My group on a boat in the XiTang water village

hence the title of this post: in hangzhou, you never know what is about to happen or what just happened. it was all so strange and lovely. what can i say except that there is now a hangzhou shaped hole in my heart. tally ho!

hangzhou, part I: quarantined

July 18, 2009

 

ah, laughing merrily about the masks while drinking starbucks in HK airport

ah, sarah and I laughing merrily about the masks while drinking starbucks in HK airport

wow. first of all, apologies for not writing sooner. although, perhaps we should be grateful because this will force me to condense my thoughts. my two weeks in hangzhou were so packed with activities and amazing people that each day felt like at least three in one. mainland china is vastly different from hong kong. for starters, mainland china blocks sites like facebook and wordpress. there are various ways to get around this by using mirror sites. however, my mac was incompatible with the internet situation on Zhejiang University  campus (where we stayed in Hangzhou and my roommate, whose computer i shared, was worried about contracting computer viruses. 

 

speaking of viruses… at this point, my hangzhou arrival seems like a distant memory – both in terms of time and importance. in some ways i can’t believe it actually happened. but truly: i arrived on the 4th of july and was in quarantine for about 9 hours. apparently i set off the infrared swine flu fever detector with a body temp of a whopping 98.2 degrees. i had my temp. taken about three times in the airport and for whatever reason, it was going up instead of going down (but never past 98.6 F). their initial threshold for sending incoming passengers to have their temperature taken again is 37.5 C, and apparently mine was 38.1 C to begin once i was on the ground (i was fine when they took my temperature using a gun like device which they pointed at my head on the plane. twice. awesome). i think my temperature increased because i was just a wee bit nervous. two of my travel companions (a fellow from the UK and our program coordinator in Hangzhou) were also suspect. luckily, they both speak Mandarin fluently. we were taken from the airport in an ambulance to an “isolation room.” it wasn’t that bad though! there was free wireless, a view of the airport, and even dinner. the reason we had to wait for so long was because the throat culture to test for H1N1 (which is what they have renamed Swine Flu lest we inaccurately associate it with the pork industry) takes about 6-8 hours for the results to come back from the lab. not including when they go to dinner, which they did. but anyways, all’s well that ends well and we finally made it to Zhejiang University around midnight – just in time to sneak past the guard before the building closes at midnight. happy independence day!

the great news is that this was perhaps my biggest fear before coming to china, and so now i am emboldened by living through a nightmare in real-time. plus, the food was pretty tasty =)

there is SO much more to china and my experience in hangzhou than this, in retrospect, minor episode. but it is a classic tale, so i couldn’t resist beginning here. i’m now in the market for an inexpensive silk screener: i survived Swine Flu – China, 2009.  more on the wonders of summer camp in hangzhou soon!

 

not laughing quite so hard in the ambulance!

not laughing quite so hard in the ambulance!

 

tommy eyes the airport view

tommy eyes the airport view

 

but we managed to entertain ourselves!

but at least we managed to entertain ourselves!

happy handover day, etc.

July 2, 2009

Happy belated Handover Day! Well, actually it was yesterday (July 1). Right after Canada Day (wildly celebrated here as well) and just before 4th of July (which is bound to make me slightly homesick). Moving along, Handover Day marks the 12th anniversary of when Hong Kong, Kowloon & the New Territories were given back to China after being under British rule. Britain had won Hong Kong island and leased the New Territories in 1839 and 1898, after defeating China during the first Opium War. Many people, including the family of one of my program coordinators, left Hong Kong just before the handover because they were wary of its political and economic ramifications. Nobody knew what would happen when you hand “the world’s most capitalistic city” back to a communist country. In some ways, I think they are still trying to figure that out.

the administrative districts of Hong Kong

the administrative district of Hong Kong

To assuage some of these concerns, stipulations were put in place to protect capitalism and individual rights for at least 50 years. Now, you can see both obvious and subtle remnants of British rule here. For example, many of the streets retain British names, like the Queen’s Road (not to be confused with Queensway), Connought Street, and Wyndam Street (etc., etc.). There is even an area of downtown Hong Kong called SoHo. Circle Ks and Pret a Mangers (staple UK chains) abound. The education system is also modeled after the one in the UK, including school names. To illustrate this point further, my future students attend the following schools: St. Francis Xavier’s School, St. Catherine’s School for Girls, The Jockey Club of Eduyoung College, and Victoria Shanghai Academy. Granted, they also attend schools such as Wong Shiu Chi Secondary School, Tang King Po School, etc.  Additional visible signs include the “letter boxes,” which were installed and painted red during British rule, but then later painted green after the handover.

Hong Kong green painted over British red

Hong Kong green over British red at The Peak

In Hong Kong yesterday, there were three types of parades: one for celebrating Handover Day (pro-China); one for protesting Handover Day (pro-British/capitalism) and one for those who like to celebrate having a day off of work. I fell into the latter category and therefore did not actually see said parades and/or protests because I ran off to Lantau once again. I expected to like it again, but instead I fell full on in love with Lantau all over again.

i want to live on lantau

i want to live on lantau

This time, we walked to the Central ferry terminal (30 mins), took the ferry (30 mins), and took a bus to the Po Lin Monastery & “Big Buddha” (30 mins). In an hour and a half, we were face to face with Tian Tan, the alleged tallest seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world. He was a sight to behold. Seated on a lotus throne, he is also the only Buddha in China to be facing north. All the others face south. I don’t know the significance of this – anyone else?

one of my friends is suspect of tranquility always being uphill

Ni hao! one of my friends is suspect of tranquility always being uphill

We walked up the stairs to get closer to the Buddha, who was sitting against a backdrop of beautiful blue sky with lovely clouds whisping along behind him. Though his stature was dominating, being in his shadow was  both mesmerizing and peaceful. His hand represents removing affliction. The Buddha has a lovely view of Lantau Island, but behind him lay an even more breathtaking panoramic view of an aqua gem of a reservoir with the ocean and outlying islands stretching out beyond in a haze of blue and triangles. Perhaps there is a lesson in him turning his back to this view? We descended from the Buddha’s throne and walked towards a Tea Garden. We found a lovely little spot for a light lunch of fried rice with “vegetarian chicken.” I had read somewhere that Hong Kong, or was it mainland, mimics vegetarian meats quite well. Well, indeed.

one of the Buddha's cronies (who i wouldn't mind being cast in stone as)

one of the Buddha's cronies (who i wouldn't mind being cast in stone as)

rubbing the lucky pan for good fortune

Outside the restaurant, we learned how to rub the “lucky pan” for good fortune. A good rub elicits a spouting, playful fountain and an instrumental sound that I don’t quite have the words to describe. I had a delicious hot lemon tea during lunch and an iced tea afterward. The tea leaves are grown close by the restaurant. The woman who worked there pointed at which kind of leaf we were drinking, but unfortunately my tea recognition skills are not up to par because I have no idea what it was. Perhaps a lotus leaf?

the Wisdom Path

the Wisdom Path

After lunch, we wandered onto the “Wisdom Path” which connects with the Lantau Trail. I don’t know how to explain the rest except to say it was the most peaceful, tranquil, delightful afternoon I have had since arriving. The sun was brilliant and warm, the wind sonorous, the air clear and bright. We had aspirations to go to a beach that fell to the wayside as we melted into this land. This day will stay with me.

We took the Air Tram back down to the other side of Lantau Island, where we caught the MTR back to Hong Kong Island. What a day!

the Air Tram from Nging Ping Village. No thank you for the clear bottomed "Crystal Cabin"

the Air Tram from Nging Ping Village. No thank you for the clear bottomed "Crystal Cabin"

If you would like to see more photos from Lantau, check out the following album.

I am so glad to have found so much greenery in Hong Kong. The day before last, I hiked up to the top of “The Peak,” which is the highest point in Hong Kong Island at about 550 meters (or 1,600 feet). One word: WOW! After a full day of orientation inside, I was ready to explore new territory in my adopted kingdom.  I let the group start off without me, for I was craving some downtime and also in dire need of sola time. It turns out we can trek to The Peak right from our campus (I literally google mapped Swire Hall (my dorm) to The Peak and it worked!).   I enjoyed a lovely hike up the peak path and caught the group just before the summit. The path was actually a paved road that snaked its way up about 3,000 meters worth of foliage, vistas (now you might be wondering why i walked over 3,000 meters to a 550 meter peak from about halfway between sea level and the peak. i’m still trying to figure that out, but the path was quite gradual and involved a lot of elongated switchbacks). There was quite a mix of pedestrians en route: locals taking an evening stroll,  “super fit” joggers sweating their way by, and of course many a tourist heading up for their first view. Upon reaching the top, I was initially surprised to see a legit mall replete with Haagan Daaz (which, by the way, has perfected the art of the quintessential ice cream scoop. and is also apparently spelled Haagen Dazs)  & McDonalds…but then I remembered this is Hong Kong!

View of Hong Kong from the Peak Trail

View of Hong Kong from the Peak Trail

We soaked in the view and then a few of us headed into the mall (obviously) for a drink. Please try not to judge us, but we definitely ate at a Bubba Gumps. I was only a little bit happy to be seated next to a large photograph of Lietenant Dan. Not only that, but we also ordered each and every of the following: french fries, hush puppies, fried shrimp, and onion rings. I know! But what were our other options? A happy meal? Oh dear. The meal went nicely with the chapter on chain restaurants I was reading in “The Man Who Ate Everything,” by Jeffrey Steingarten (thanks for the rec, Sas!). While we were sitting there, the nightly light show theme song came on. Every night at 8pm, the famous buildings in Hong Kong flash their ostentatious and colorful lights to the beat of a cheesey theme song. It is one of the major tourist attractions, but to be honest, I don’t really get it’s fanfare. What was way more entertaining was the Happy Birthday Song (a different version than the one I am used to) being sung by all the waitstaff to the most adorable little boy at a nearby table.

a few fellows at The Peak

chloe, emily, eric & harry (my co- fellows) at The Peak

We took the tram down what might as well have been a 90 degree angled slope. I felt like an astronaut (or a Jetson?) with the buildings seeming to jut out horizontally from the hillside. The Tram runs up and down without going through the circular turn-around like the ones in San Francisco. As a result, the passengers get the added excitement of facing backwards when traveling downhill. Fun times!

Observation deck at The Peak

Observation deck at The Peak

For more photos of the peak experience, click here.

I realize this is all out of order, but today (Thurs) was full of orientation activities again. The primary excitement (if you don’t include the dining hall, which I do because there are soooo many unfamiliar choices) of the day was at the very end. This little light flashed in the highest right-hand corner of our classroom around 5:55pm. This flash dance highlighted an obscure sign below that read: “After this light turns on, the regular lights will turn off in 10 minutes.” Having a few more agenda items to get through, no one really thought anything of it. But in 10 minutes, the lights definitely turned off. Worse yet: so did the AC. And even worse: the door locked us in and we didn’t have the special code to get out! Ah!! Terrible news for the claustrophobic! Luckily, I do not fall into this category. Seriously, you would think I would be claustrophobic, but somehow I have escaped that fate. At least for now =)

best day ever!

June 29, 2009
when it rains, it pours (and sometimes lightning too!)

when it rains, it pours

after a week of exploring hong kong’s concrete jungle of shops, stalls, and signs, the little voice in my head (and by that i think i mean my lungs) that was kindly requesting greenery grew louder and louder. soon, it was all i could hear (that and: maybe you should try something that doesn’t contain rice noodles). so off to lantau island i went! we got a bit of a late start, but walked down from our new digs on the Hong Kong University Campus to the Central MTR (their equivalent of the T/Metro/MUNI) station. You can take the underground MTR to Lantau Island from the Kowloon side, but it was faster for us to take a ferry. despite the intense downpour (lightning too!) right before our ferry was about to depart, we decided to make our maiden voyage. Lantau is actually where Hong Kong International Airport is, although i shamefully did not realize this upon my arrival.

(whoah, i am still trying to figure out how best to space text/photos. sorry!)

green, green, green!

green, green, green!

sweet relief! the ferry ride alone was worth it as it provided a gently rocking oasis for quiet, relaxation, contemplation time. landing on Lantau Island had none of  the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong waiting for us. since we had to return to the city for curry dinner at 6pm, we soon realized we wouldn’t have time to visit the largest sitting bronzed Buddha in the world (which is about an hour bus ride from the ferry terminal), the monastary, and some other village ports. BUT, we did decide to rent bikes for $10 Hong Kong Dollars (HKD), or just a bit more than $1 USD. wow. i felt so liberated. we were soon surrounded by a pack of Chinese teens and just followed them. they led us to this gorgeous bike/walking path that wound us away from the crescent shaped beach and into electric green foliage, small country houses, and a lovely temple. i was in heaven.

happy bike ride happy

after we returned our bikes, we had some time to hang out and watch a fisherman, explore the beach, and grab a VitaSoy for the road. VitaSoy produces soy milk in so many flavors and temptingly places them in vending machines and 711s everywhere. i am committed to trying all of them. so far coconut flavored is my favorite, but melon was surprisingly good. regular is okay and i did not like malted at all. in other drinks, i tried something called Yakult today. Yakult is a probiotic drink that may or may not be available in the states, but i’ve certainly never tried it before. it tastes like lemon merengue pie to me!

incense burning in front of temple

incense burning in front of temple

but back to the best day ever. erica & i took the ferry back to Central, then hopped on the MTR to go back to our old TST neighborhood. we met up with clara, a good friend of mine from Bowdoin/San Francisco, who was kind enough to invite us to Sunday Night Curry Dinner with the Uncles. out of clara’s six possible uncles and 1 possible aunt, we had 4 uncles and their spouses, 1 close friend/adopted uncle, 1 close friend/adopted aunt, 2 cousins and the three of us. clara’s parents live in seattle, and i *hope, hope* will meet them at some point too! i also hope for th day that i may meet clara’s brother terry. we all met outside of a large nondescript building on a busy street that was secretly hiding a phenomenal curry den inside. i discovered that clara’s family knows things, and they knew that if we wound our way up through an unpromising hallway we would find our way to the curry promised land.

Uncle Elton makes everything more fun

Uncle Elton makes everything more fun

on saturday, i also found out that clara knew the best shoe vendors and walked away like a gladiator – not only in the sense of victory, but also in the style of shoe! anyways, back to the curry. each aunt and uncle carried a special bag with compartments for holding 2 bottles of wine. plus, someone brought a silver label bottle of Jack Daniels – and apparently you can’t get this kind of booze in the States! dinner was delicious. the girl formerly known as a pescaterian had meats steeped in rich sauces of all colors. the naan, dahl, and cauliflower were all faaantastic. clara’s family is awesome. they were all so friendly, so generous, and so hilarious. i was pretty much in love with them all. uncle elton insisted on being our “butler” and made sure everyone’s glass was always full & uncle kerry gave a toast in the form of singing “country road.” surrounded by clara’s family and for the second time in a day, i found myself in heaven.

PS: i should probably mention that my program started! ah, the real reason i came to Hong Kong emerges. so far we have had a big dinner out followed by drinks in Lan Kwai Fong (a hip bar/club area of Hong Kong jam-packed with bars and festive people spilling out onto the streets), an insanely delicious dim sum breakfast, and a day of orientation entitled: “Teaching…Survival Guide.” one thing worth mentioning is that we received specific instructions to NOT speak Chinese. phew!

some of the fellows being indoctrinated into chinese cuisine

the fellows collectively seem nice, sweet, and fun. they also appear to be approximately 20 years old in mean, median, and mode. i am sharing a dormitory style room on a girls only floor, replete with beige matching furniture fastened securely to the walls, and a narrow single bed that came with a bottom sheet and a single blue comforter with bright yellows suns all over. the rooms have AC and there is a lounge with a TV, Chinese magazines, and a refrigerator where we can keep our food (labeled of course). many HKU students are here for the summer, so it is fun to see them all bopping around. since the building is built into a hillside, when the HKU co-fellows mention going toward the street below they say they are “going downstairs.” i kind of like this as it makes it seem like Hong Kong is my house, and i just happen to live on the top floor.

TST

June 28, 2009

Wow! there is so much to report out on that it’s hard to know where to begin. if there’s one thing i learned at HGSE, it is to turn to acronyms when in doubt. so, TST stands for Tsim Sha Tsui, which is where i have been staying. and for the purposes of this post is also shorthand for Toklo, Salt, and Tanka which is the way i’m going to try to organize my thoughts. i’ve done a lot of walking, soaking in markets and mayhem, sights and lights, people upon people. in general, i’ve noticed that hong kong is a city of contrasts. i go from my extremely air conditioned and quiet hotel room to a hot maze of city and i’ve quickly learned to carry my umbrella for the predictably unpredictable downpours that last 5 minutes to a few hours. it’s getting late, so i apologize in advance for the nonsequitor nature of the photos in particular.

the green beans are extra long, the grapes are supersized, and the rose apples look like red peppers

the green beans are extra long, the grapes are supersized, and the rose apples look like red peppers

i spent the better part of one afternoon this week at the Hong Kong museum of History (which by chance we visited on Free Wednesday, yesss!). if you ever find yourself in Hong Kong, it is definitely worth dedicating a few hours for wandering about there. while there was much to see and look at (geological history, opium wars, japanese occupation, marital traditions…), in particular i was taken by how the Toklo people harvested sea salt and the maritime lifestyle of Tanka people.

a poster size stamp at the HK Museum of History

a poster size stamp at the HK Museum of History

some people say that there would not be civilization without salt. the Toklo people (who were one of the four major ethnic groups of Hong Kong & South China highlighted by the museum) began harvesting salt centuries ago. in China, salt has been considered a public good (and therefore taxable) since the 7th century BC. during the Ming dynasty, the tax from salt accounted for 1/3 to 1/2 of the imperial revenue (who knew?). recently, of course, finance has eclipsed the salt and other local industries as the dominating economic force here.

view of Hong Kong island from my hotel in TST

view of Hong Kong island from my hotel in TST

in fact, salt production no longer even occurs in hong kong. but still, my mouth waters when i think about the way that sea salt brings out flavors and dries up at the thought of the engulfing monstrosity of the finance industry. and i mean the latter quite literally: the buildings in Hong Kong, which looked so pretty from Kowloon, felt positively dwarfing upon arrival to the Island. more on that later.

Hong Kong: a germaphobes worst nightmare/heaven

Hong Kong: a germaphobes worst nightmare/heaven

back at the museum, i learned that the more sophisticated method of harvesting salt is called “wet” (as opposed to the “dry” method). the wet method involves a series of five collecting pools. the first (and largest) pool is houses the salt water for its first overnight evaporation, and this process continues in each pool until a very concentrated mass of brine is left in the fifth (and smallest) pool. from there, harvesters place the salt crystals on a flat mat and the sun does the rest. a second mat is laid on top of the drying salt to prevent moisture from the air reversing the process. and there you have it: course sea salt! i am now incredibly thirsty and also want to spike my water with oyster sauce.

speaking of sauce, i think i may be turning into a rice noodle.

milk tea, a Hong Kong specialty.

milk tea, a Hong Kong specialty.

oh, but i do want to tell you about the Tanka, or boat people, who were my favorite. the Tanka are “boat dwellers” who supposedly descended from an elite clan in mainland China, but took to the sea long ago to escape…someone. the Tanka have been living on their boats ever since, only going ashore to do things like “go to restaurants,” according to one of the pamphlets. anyways, perhaps i am romanticizing living life on a boat within a small village of boats, but that just sounds so intriguing and i’d love to learn more. there are actually still Tanka descendents living on their boats today, but mainly just some of the elders. perhaps i’ll see one when i exploret the outlying islands (of which there are somewhere between 236 and over 300, depending on the source).

Kowloon Park: flamingos, aviaries, and tai chi galore!

Kowloon Park: flamingos, aviaries, and tai chi galore!

i’d like to close by saying thank you, Hong Kong style. most people here primarily speak Cantonese (although many people also speak English and Mandarin). so without further adieu, hmgoi (thank you for a service, in Cantonese); dojeh (thank you for a gift, in Cantonese); and, xiexie (thank you in Mandarin). and of course, thanks =)

hong kong arrival

June 23, 2009

today i tried on an incredible item previously unknown to me: a bright, fire-engine red one-piece sweat-dress-suit that fell above the knee and had the tell-tale adidas stripes down the full length sleeves in sparkly silver. it also came replete with an almost cowl-like collar that zipped up from the waist, and a tie in the back in case you wanted it any tighter (which i did not). it was both mod and austin powers-esque, aka: i loved it. erica nearly convinced me to buy it, but i am biding my time. we found the SDS while oogling at rows upon rows of sneaks in the famed fa yuen shoe street in mong kok. so many sequins, patterns, styles, and colors to choose from! i’m totally coming back in bright green high tops.

view of hong kong island from kowloon harbor

view of hong kong island from kowloon promenade

hong kong is all the words i imagined it to be: crazy, intense, hot, humid and i am just starting to uncover some of its other descriptors: breezy, fusion, teeming, stimulating… it is so westernized and yet so foreign to me. english is spoken everywhere, except apparently at the “Happy Restaurant” where erica and i had lunch today. there, we had to rely on an exciting game of pointing to the laminated pictures on the wall until a 13 year old patron happily helped us order (erica was hoping for oyster sauce, roughly translated as brown soy sauce, cantonese style). i may or may not have consumed duck in my noodly soup; it was salty. (good thing i conveniently gave up vegetarianism prior to arriving here.)

kowloon at night

kowloon at night

my main vehicle for exploring hong kong has been the foot train. so far my feet have taken me all over the kowloon peninsula (even though kowloon is part of hong kong, it is physically located on the mainland of china – a quick star ferry ride away). during my first morning walk, i was mesmerized by the people doing tai chi in kowloon park. it seemed like anyone could just stake out a corner of the park with a portable speaker, although some groups seemed more formalized than others. kowloon park is surprisingly large, very green, and also very concrete. there are public facilities like a pool and basketball court, an aviary, a pond with flamingos and ducks, a rose garden, and quiet benches abound. the birds there are incredibly loud; they screamed incessantly from the outskirts. i also wandered down to the peninsula hotel, which harks from the colonial era and is the “best place for afternoon tea” according to any and every guide book and website i’ve seen. the “pen” is nearby the waterfront, which has a spectacular view of hong kong island.

requisite signage shot

requisite signage shot

i am staying in an area called tsim sha tsui (TST) which is known for its conglomeration of shops & vendors. just north is mong kok, which is a shopping mecca in its own right. in between TST and mong kok is another heavily congested area called yao ma tei which houses such novelties as the jade market and temple street night market. walking around these areas is an assault on the senses.

tasty treats

tasty treats

i keep feeling like i am in vegas, where the lights are always on, the time is unclear, and everyone is always awake. i am fast adjusting to the different smells – the roast duck hanging in the windows, the dried fish (and by fish i mean mussels, scallops, and sea horses too) in baskets spilling into the sidewalk, and the herbs (like furry antlers, duh) emanating from the equivalent of apothecary shops. in hong kong, they use air conditioning like crazy. every store has it pumping at full blast and nearly every store is open air. even the 711s are like oases inside (and who knew there would be a 711 on every other block!). there is so much more to tell from what little i’ve seen, and yet i realize how minuscule my glimpse is thus far and can’t wait to see & learn more.

working backwards, i did successfully escape from heathrow long enough for a dream-like traipse through london with nick. it was lovely to wander about the south bank and soak in some sun in trafalgar square. we walked through the national gallery for a good (albeit quick) dose of master painters. although i think i may have dozed off when i requested just a brief pause along the row of cushioned museum benches. ah well, i’m sure i absorbed just as much culture through osmosis.

foot bridge near the london eye

foot bridge near the london eye

more soon!