Monday, February 4, 2013

The Final Week

Annie and I in the lobby of our swank hotel
My last week in Hong Kong, my oldest sister and my mom made the trek overseas to visit. My sister’s journey was considerably shorter than my mom’s. Ann currently lives in Seoul with her husband, Sang Jun, and they have a baby on the way. 

My plan was to meet them at the airport, but plans went slightly askew when my return flight from India was cancelled two hours before my last exam, and 12 hours before I departed for my 19 day journey across Southern India. After several stressful hours, I managed secure a flight back to Hong Kong…two days later than originally planned. I was convinced my mom who not a newbie at world travel would be fine navigating her way to the hotel in a foreign city without me. Apparently she was not amused and mentioned more than once, “I’m glad at least one of my daughters could meet me at the airport.” Despite her trepidation, Ann and Mom did just fine without me. They found their hotel, saw Victoria Peak and Hong Kong Park, and even successfully navigated the MTR. I arrived the evening of their second day and immediately scolded them for overpaying for food. They had a lot to learn. 

My plan for the seven days we had together was basically to boil down my entire semester into one week. My goal was to make Ann and Mom love Hong Kong as much as I do. By Ann’s third day, she was sold. She loved the family atmosphere, the greenery, and the warm weather. Mom took a bit longer to come around, but I think she got there. 

Tai Po Dim Sum
I kicked off the “Semester Summary” with Dim Sum in Tai Po. This may be one of my favorite places to eat in Hong Kong (and one of the cheapest).  It’s not exactly a tourist attraction, and the old Cantonese men and women who sit with us for breakfast always get a kick out of our attempts at using chopsticks. The pork buns aren’t the best I’ve ever had, but when you’re stuffed after a meal for only 18hkd, you’ve got little to complain about. After the filling breakfast, I took them on an abbreviated tour of campus - seven months pregnant isn’t exactly conducive for wandering the mountainous campus of CUHK. Thoroughly determined to show them that New Territories and Kowloon have just as much to offer as HK Island - where they had spend their first few days - I did force them to do a bit of walking around Mong Kok to see the Bird Market and Ladies Market. Ending the evening with some tasty Chinese food at Mr. Wong’s, we headed back to the South side of the Island for the night. 

Last look at Central Campus
The next day, Mom was feeling a bit under the weather, so Annie I went to the Zoological and Botanical Gardens on our own. Ann, who has been in Korea for over a year, craved some Western food and with a stop into the Flying Pan, a 24-hour breakfast diner in Central, we satisfied it with waffles and pancakes. I think this meal really solidified Ann’s fascination with the city. “You mean you can get Western style food whenever you want?” I think Ann regretted such a short trip, but no less than I did as I most likely won’t see her again until she visits the States in (hopefully) September of 2013. 

After ditching Ann at the airport, Mom and I spent the remaining days crossing off the Must-Do’s on Mom’s Hong Kong list. We hit the 10,000 Buddha’s Temple, the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, Tsim Sha Tsui for a sunset, the Big Buddha on Lantau Island, Symphony of Lights, the Star Ferry, Ozone Bar: the highest bar in the world, and the Mid-Levels escalators.  I even walked her through Lan Kwai Fong for a taste of the night life. 

Just takin' a breather
Sprinkled  between these stops that successfully showcase just how many people live in Hong Kong (7 million is a lot no matter how you count it), we hit some places less frequented by the general populace. We did attempt the hike up to Lantau Peak. Even after a semester of running hills, I wasn’t prepared for the hundreds of stairs leading up. I quickly realized why the hike was advertised as not for the faint hearted. I fell into the pace of counting my steps and asking for a break every 100 or so. Mom was a champ, leading the whole way. Indian food was our reward. Chungking Mansion - a building that exemplifies globalization - is the best place for Indian food in all of HK. After spending three weeks in India just a few days before, I was an expert at ordering. We took a day trip out to the beaches of Sai Kung. The weather wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t manage to ruin our lunch of delicious sea food and rice.

Indian Food - Never could remember the name of this restaurant. 
My last day in Hong Kong - though depressing because it was goodbye - was without a hitch. We went to Tai Po one last time for Dim Sum, Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin, an open air restaurant in Central which I had been to previously in the semester, and topped off the evening with Take Out Comedy: Stand up comedy, Hong Kong style. After a week, my mom was able to catch most of the jokes about the city, and I was able to explain the ones she didn’t. This day really encompassed what I love about Hong Kong: the food, the culture and the people. 

We had a wonderful week and by showing Mom all my favorite places and how I spent my semester, I realized how much I’m going to miss it. I truly fell in love with the city and the people I met there. On the flight back, I caught myself flipping through my passport, trying to ingrain the memories that accompany each stamp. Hopefully, this isn't the end of my collection. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Culture Shocks

Out and About- 
  • You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a 7-Eleven. 
  • As a foreigner in the New Territories, I get stared at. This only happens when close to the Mainland border, but getting the Once-Over is always a bit unnerving. 
  • Different language: English is spoken by almost everyone, however, in the New Territories (aka on campus), be prepared to mime your way through a lunch order. 
  • Driving on the left side of the road: The other day I had the epiphany that when I cross the street I should look to my right first. As I stepped onto the street, I was almost hit by a car because - it turns out - the street was a one way the other direction. To be safe, just look both ways before crossing the street.
  • People run to catch elevators, even if it’s an express elevator that only visits two floors. 
  • Young couples walk like they own the entire sidewalk. Holding hands while moving at a glacial pace is a science here. 
  • Spitting in public is perfectly all right. And you can never just *spit*, you have to make the loud spitting noise as well.  
  • People sneeze into their hands. I'm by no means a germaphobe, but it freaks me out every time I see it. 
  • No open container laws. Have you ever just wanted to shop in a street market with beer in hand? You can do that here. 
  • Students are overly devoted to their studies. People spend hours memorizing PowerPoint slides. I can think of better ways to spend my time. 
  • Every student org here has a chant, and they do them all day, err day. They must practice these chants/beats/steps for hours because they’re intricate, they’re loud, and seem to happen every time I’m trying to go to bed early. 
  • Just because not everyone in the group speaks Cantonese, don’t expect the group meetings to be run in English. I do a fair share of doodling during group meetings. 
  • Everyone is soft spoken. I've fallen into the habit of telling people I’m hard of hearing just to get them to speak up, and even that doesn't always work. 

  • Store clerks will follow you around until you buy something. They hover. 
  • Salespeople are pushy. Men will you offer you a purse or watch on every corner, and women will physically restrain you from leaving their stall. 

  • When the menu says sausage, it means hot dog. Every. Time. 
  • Eating noodle soup with chopsticks is something I have yet to master. 
  • No tipping (which is good, because I can’t afford it)
  • Watch out for the bones in meat. What you do is you pop the meat in your mouth, gnaw on it, suck on the bone, and then spit it out onto the table. My tables manners are falling apart.
  • The entire chicken is served as a dish. Chicken head anyone? 

  • Toilet paper is common, but not guaranteed. Do you really want to take the chance? 
  • Squatty toilets. Do not fall in. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

"Studying" in HK

What you do when you should be studying? Write a blog about how you should be studying.

Despite popular belief, I’m juggling a full class load while gallivanting around HK. Midterms have started and they are slowing killing me. I‘ll be straight with you: school is harder here. But maybe not for the reason you think. Work in the classroom is not bad; the academics are doable. My marketing professor apologized in class today for not teaching the material effectively as illustrated by our poor performance on the midterm. Her definition of poor performance: no one received a 40/40. So, yes, doing well is definitely a possibility. However, studying abroad adds that new dimension: ABROAD. I’m in another country. I have absolutely no motivation to stay on campus and study when beaches, open air markets and cheap Chinese food are just a train ride away.

I have two more midterms this week. I should be studying, but there are just so many other things to do. Last Friday, a few of us had a “tourist day”.
In Lonely Planet, we trust.

I think we want to go that way...

Yes, definitely that way.

We went to several temples, the HK Correctional Services museum, and the best comedy show in HK. The day was a success and we even managed to catch the last train home. This is something I could not have done while sitting in Iowa City. I want to take advantage of this amazing opportunity, but sometimes it feels like school is getting in the way. I’m currently telling myself that I’m learning a life skill - to balance work and leisure - however I’m having trouble breaking away from the college dilemma of “good grades, social life, adequate sleep: you can only have 2.”

So studying is coming along slowly but surely. I’m studying , I just could be doing slightly better on the quizzes…

Update: I got all my midterm grades back. I didn’t fail!

A Day in the Life

I should probably have made my bed before taking this picture.

The day starts like any other: in my dorm room. The rooms are generally smaller than the rooms on Iowa’s campus, but the essentials are there. We've got two beds, two closets, two desks and two chairs. What more do you need?
I share with 18 other girls, but no real problems.

The bathrooms are nice enough. Not spectacular, but they get the job done. Way better than in mainland China, because HK bathrooms come complete with ever elusive toliet paper.

Breakfast is never that extravagant, but the canteens on campus make sure you’re fed. Culture shock #134: when they say sausage, they really mean hot dog. Pineapple Buns (pictured) are my new favorite thing. 
Only 4 hkd! That's about $0.50 usd.

Practicing characters. I hope some of this actually sticks.

 Study a bit; usually some last minute cramming and off to class (on Tuesdays - Thursdays, that is). My hardest classes are definitely my accounting classes, but learning Mandarin is the most fun.

Scheduling is done in long lectures so I usually sit in a class for three hours at a time. Can't say it's my preferred way to spend my time in HK...

Lunch is had at a local campus canteen. You can have Chinese or Western style food. If I want a quick bite, I’ll grab a sandwich, but sometimes I splurge with the fried rice and vegetables. Iced Milk Tea is one of the best beverages ever. It's tea and condensed milk, which a staple of my HK diet.(pictures of food to follow)

Cross Country Team (this pose is purposely Asian)

Back to class til 5:15 and then I’ve got time to kill before dinner. These couple hours are just as likely to be spent surfing the internet as they are to be doing something productive. On Mondays and Thursdays, I have cross country practice at 6pm.

Formal dinner: Even as a brunette, my curly hair stands out.

Communal dining is required on T-W-R. My entire hostel is required to eat together on these days. Sometimes there are guest speakers, and twice a semester we have a formal dinner (complete with cloaks).


After dinner, we pretend to study. In reality, we attempt to watch movies, we play cards, or just sit in chat. We might jump on the train to Tai Po to grab dessert, or make something on our own. In the evening, I say goodnight to my adopted roommate and dream of Dim Sum

Teaching the Europeans how to make s'mores.
I saved her from a life of destitution. (aka the trash)

Monday, October 15, 2012

An Excursion to Mainland

To celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival in October, six exchange students and I made the adventurous trek into Mainland. The Group: myself - Iowa, Char - California, Jodelle - California, Nalanda - Canada, Merijn (nicknamed Nick) - Netherlands, Wolfgang - Germany, and Yannick - Switzerland. The Destination: Guilin and Yangshuo. After leaving CUHK three hours later than planned, we headed to the bus station. It turns out we only live about 5 metro stops from the border (who knew) but we were pressed for time and getting through immigration was a might stressful. But only a couple visa stamps later, and we were in! From Shenzhen - the bordertown - we hopped a sleeper bus to Guilin. A 12 hour trip in a train made entirly of cots. It was fantastic. Why the United States insists on everyone having their own vehicle is beyond me.

From L to R, top to bottom: Char, Wolfgang, Myself, Jodelle, Nalanda, Merijn, Yannick

Tourists: Bookbags on front, guidebook and camera in hand
We arrived in Guilin and our vacation officially began. Everyone slept pretty well and we were anxious to find food. Unlike Hong Kong, in Mainland, having some knowledge of Mandarin (Putonghua) is necessary. Lucky for us, both Char and Jodelle speak conversation Putonghua. Honestly, without them, the rest us would probably be dead in a ditch somewhere. We wandered around the city looking especially touristy, but no matter.

After breakfast (and dessert), we headed to the Reed Flute Caves to see some rock formations and thousand year old turtles. First scam of the trip: while in the taxi to the caves, the driver stoped in the middle of the road and informed us it would be 3 times as expensive than what he originally quoted. After several tense minutes of bargaining/strategic side glances, we agreed to pay simply to get the car moving. The caves were beautiful and we didn't see the turtles, but as we also have turtles in the United States, I don't think I missed anything.
Looks a bit like the Hong Kong Island skyline.

The seven of us with the hostel owner. She gave us a pomelo,
on which she wrote "For the 7 kids on the 4th floor :-)"
After the caves we took a bus to Yangshuo, where we would spend the rest of our break. Getting on the bus was every man for himself, but we managed to secure seven seats. After dinner - which was AMAZING and so very cheap, we headed to the hostel. Our first hostel in Yangshuo was awesome. We had the top floor to ourselves with an impressive view, and the woman who ran the place acted as our local expert. 

Our third day away from Hong Kong was spent on bicycles. Biking through China is literally a dream come true and I could not have asked for a more perfect day. After a delicious breakfast of Swiss Muesli, we biked from our hostel even farther into the countryside, attempting to follow the Li River. We ended up in a couple remote villages but besides getting some odd looks from the locals, there were no real problems. We ate mango with a Swiss Army knife - which the Swiss had actually cut his hand with the day before - and just enjoyed the scenery. 
On our cruisers with the famous landscape of Yangshuo as a backdrop.

After some more tense bargaining (I suck at it, but Yannick and Char are practically professionals), we paid to take some bamboo boats up the Li River back to Yangshuo.

Bamboo Boat is the best way to travel.
In the evening, the North Americans taught a couple classic card games to our European counterparts before heading to a light show called Impressions. Impressions is a huge production put on nightly in Yangshuo. The show is actually performed on the water with dozens of men on bamboo boats and hundreds of performers. We were in the 4th row and it was pretty impressive.

In town, we wandered the shops and ate a ridiculous amount of food from the vendors. All delicious. Back at the hostel, we ate mooncake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival before hitting the sack. Traditional mooncake is an interesting taste - there's what seems like a hardboiled duck yolk in the center - but I really enjoyed it.

We were, what you call, lost.

Now Monday, we hiked to another really remote village. We were looking for this old military town but never actually found it. Char and Jodelle confessed to us later that towards the end of the 2 hour hike to nowhere, one of the locals offered to lead us to the old town. However, Char and Jodelle - who were tired of walking - convenientely forgot to translate that part of the conversation to the rest of the non-Putonghua speakers.

The Big Banyan Tree: I was in charge of keeping track of
 expenses which is why I'm so concentrated on a piece of looseleaf.

After the hike and some delicious fruits, we took our rented car to see a really old tree: the Big Banyan Tree is said to be 1400 years old. While there, a weird thing began: Locals asked to take pictures with out. I mean, like a lot. It was kind of odd. We were stared at, said hello to, and requested for photos. Wolfgang and I were slightly less popular than the blondes in our group, but it was still a pretty odd sensation. 

We caused a scene.
After a disappointing lunch, we weren't about to take any chances with dinner so we stuck with what we knew and went to the cheap and delicious restaurant from the first night. In town, we were once again a local attraction. While waiting at a vendor, a local asked Char if she was our translator and then asked to have a photo. From there it escalated pretty quickly. More people wanted photos, and people stopped to see what the commotion was about. We clogged up the market. By the end of it, there was a line of girls waiting to take pictures with Yannick - a tall, blonde. We should have charged.  
Our hostel for the night was far less impressive than the first, due to its lack of working toliet and hot water, but it did the trick. I can't hate on it too much because it is partially responsible for my most impressive moment in China: I asked the owner's daughter "Ni jiao shenme mingzi?" And she actually understood me! She replied "Wo jiao Annie." This counts as my first successful Putonghua interaction. The sense of accomplishment at being to able to ask this little girl her name ranks right up there with setting the curve on a midterm.
On our last day, we went to the farmer's market and then for a swim in theYulong River. Outside the fact that the farmer's market sold both dog and cat meat (which is really quite disturbing), it was a perfect day. We swam in the river surrounded by bamboo boats while being yelled greetings from the locals. As I had nothing to prove, I didn't jump off the bridge, but a couple of the boys took full advantage. Dodging the bamboo boats was a like a game of real life frogger and luckily no one was injured. 
Wolfgang like a boss.

We took the sleeper bus back to Shenzhen. It was packed and five of us snagged the back beds. The five mattresses made sense for us traveling as a group, but I don't know if this would be my preferred way to travel if I didn't know my sleeping companions. Despite our best efforts to time bathroom breaks, I still was forced to ask the bus driver to make a pit stop at 2am. After waking up Jodelle just to find out how to say bathroom in Putonghua, I successfully made the request.

We went through immigration like a dream, and we even got to skip some lines because we're considered residents. Best feeling ever. As I took the metro back to CUHK, I was counting my blessings that home had toliets that weren't squat sans toliet paper when I realized that home was Hong Kong. Holy moly, Hong Kong is home. Mind Blown.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Recent Discoveries

Classes have begun and I've even gone to a couple (just kidding - no skipping here). Despite the hellish process that is adding and dropping classes, my schedule is awesome. I only have class Tues-Wed-Thurs. Four day weekend, every weekend! With my free time and even while racing to classes, I've discovered a few things about the area.

1. Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia
On my first Saturday here, Suri, from Finland, and I decided to go to Macau. She needed to activate her student visa, and I simply had nothing to do. The ferry ride from HK to Macau is about an hour long, complete with Abandon Ship instructions. We knew there was gambling but little did I know that is was ALL gambling. At this point in my life, I can't afford to gamble, so after wandering a bit we chose a fancy looking poolside bar to have a fancy looking poolside drink. It was swank. I most likely overpaid for the drink, but the atmosphere was worth it. Next time in Macau, perhaps I'll bite the bullet and bet a dollar.
Our friendly poolside dragon. 

2. If you're going to the beach (or anywhere), know the bus stop. 
No class on Fridays = Beach Day. We took the metro, we took a bus. Then we walked 2k. No beach. Then we walked the 2k back. Got back on the bus. Got off the bus at the nearest civilized area and took a ferry. Beach! I get lost nearly everywhere I go, so I wasn't too concerned when the trip out took an hour longer than planned. The beach was gorgeous, and the water was warm. I did step on a barnacle and got a nasty cut, but I think the salt water cleaned it out....
My first dip in the Pacific Ocean

3. This campus is not wheelchair accessible. 
Let me walk (pun intended) you through how I get from my dorm to the humanities building, where I have only one class (thank god). I take an elevator down 10 stories, then a different elevator up 4 stories. Walk a bit. Up 6 flights of stairs to central campus. Walk a bit. Walk up 8 flights of stairs to the humanities building, and lastly down a flight of stairs to the first floor where my classroom is. Math tells me I've only gained 6 stories worth of elevation, but my burning thighs tell math to stuff it.

These stairs come complete with escalators, but none of the other walkways are that blessed. 

4. Check the language of the class before you go there. 
I was understandably nervous for my first day. New country, new school, new classes. My very first class was in the theology building which is way on the other side campus. I passed the metro station, the pond, the track, and the meditation garden. Overall a very nice walk. After asking several people for directions, I found the classroom - only slightly late. Sheepishly, I entered the classroom and sat in the back. I hoped and prayed that the instructor wouldn't pull a Prof. Blake Whitten and draw an unnecessary amount of attention to the late and apologetic international student. But to my dismay the entire class stopped and stared at me. I stared fixedly at the syllabus. "Excuse me, Miss. Do you speak Cantonese?" Uh oh. "Uh, no, I don't. Is this class in Cantonese? I'm not even registeredMy adviser told me to take this class. I thought I'd check it out. I'm sorry. I guess I'll just go. K. Thanks. Bye." Despite it being an honest mistake, I was embarrassed. I went home and checked the languages of my other classes, and even after triple checking, I was nervous each time I entered a new classroom. I think I'll start practicing my Cantonese.

5. Dim Sum is amazing. 
The shrimp, the pork, the spring rolls, the dumplings. SESAME BALLS. The food here: Yum. Admittedly there is a distinct lack of fruits and vegetables (good luck being a vegetarian here), but I will definitely miss Dim Sum.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Exploration begins

So I'm approaching one week since I've left the grand ol' US. It's been both busy and boring. All the international students were basically given four days to run around Hong Kong without a care in the world. The question became "Who is there to run around with?" Luckily everybody is just as new as I am. First night here, I went out with a group of people from Canada, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, US, and Indonesia.We went to Temple Street Market, one of the tons of open air markets around. I can't count how many times I was asked "You want purse? New watch? Good price." After one such encounter, I told the man I already had a bag and didn't need another. He took one look at my purse and said, "You never get husband with that ugly bag. You need new one. Good price!" Although I was almost convinced by that line, I didn't end up buying bag from him.

I did buy a wallet at Ladies' Market. Bargaining is pretty common at the open air markets. Even though I don't speak a lick of Cantonese, with the help of a calculator, even I can bargain with the locals. At first I was very intimidated - afraid I was going to offend someone or make a fool of myself. However, the first time's always the hardest, so after my first successful bargain, I felt like I'd just passed an impossible exam (Tom Carroll's class, anyone?)

I've officially moved into my permanent housing. My roommate's from Austria and my next door neighbors are from Taiwan and mainland China. I've certainly had to brush up on my geography since moving in. I've got a room with a view!
Living on the 9th floor has its perks. 

During the move from the orientation hostel to our permanent hostel, we were locked out of the buildings from 9am to 5pm. My orientation roommate and I spent the day at Sha Tin mall. Shopping is crazy here, and I better slow down my spending if I don't plan on being destitute at the end of the semester. So while wandering around the mall, which is packed, I had a group of locals run up to me: "Can we take a picture with you???" My hesitant response was something along the lines of "uhhh......" so they explained: "It's for a scavenger hunt. We must take a picture with a foreigner." Who was I to say no? I was approached not once, but twice for my picture at the mall. I guess I don't quite look like a local.
Can you find me?