Friday, February 13, 2009

At The White Swan

Those of you who have adopted children from China undoubtedly have fond memories of the White Swan Hotel on Guangzhou's Shamian Island. This is the hotel where families stay while waiting for clearance to head back to America with their precious new additions. We found it joyous to watch all of the photos being taken and to listen to all of the new parents exchange stories with one another.

As for us, no, we are not coming back to the United States as a fivesome, despite what many of you have thought all along. Rather, we were at the White Swan attending some Fulbright meetings, hopefully doing our little part to assist the newly arrived professors and their families get oriented to life and work in China.

My overall advice, kind of like my "half time" observations, can be boiled down to the following two insights...

First, as outsiders, our Chinese language abilities and our affinity for Chinese food largely drive our lives on a daily basis. Language and tastes, in other words, strongly affect who we interact with, how we get around town, where we eat our meals.

Second, our main classroom contributions come not in the teaching of substantive materials, but rather in the area of methodology. How does one construct an argument? What are the standards of evidence we use to evaluate descriptive or explanatory claims? These skills and modes of inquiry are, in my estimation, as important here in China as they are in the United States, as we all try to build societies that are fair and transparent.

~Steve

Getting Accustomed

I know I'm back on an '04 kick, but I can't help but recall an experience whose memory was happily overturned last week.

Possibly the scariest few moments I can remember from our last trip (and probably in the top five in my time as a mom) occurred at the border between mainland China and Hong Kong. Since we were riding a bus between Taishan and Kowloon, we needed to actually get off the bus twice to pass through customs. Once to leave the mainland, the other to arrive in Hong Kong. With all of our luggage in hand (and on our backs), Steve and I each grabbed a hand of one of the kids and proceeded through the door of the building. "Back in the day" (that is, '04) when zhongguoren were less likely to queue up, there was a herd of us trying to get to the same place at the same time.

I had Julie by the hand, but she got pushed a bit ahead of me (she was just nine at the time). As the throng pushed forward, we tried to hold on to the same bag, so as to remained connected, but it was impossible. For about ten seconds (which seemed like forever), I watched her keep swept up in the crowd. She turned and looked at me, obviously very upset, as was I. When a woman in the crowd spotted us, she put her arms out to stop the people in the crowd and loudly verbalized that Julie and I needed to be reunited...and we were. Both shaken, we profusely thanked her and made our way to the immigration line.

This image of customs has remained in my mind for over four years, so I was dreading the repeat of this process as we headed back to the scene last week. Perhaps because Julie is older, we're all a bit wiser, we already know our way, and there seems to be much less pushing, shoving, and line cutting these days. It seemed almost silly to have responded to our last experience in such a way. This time, we are a "well-oiled machine"...through the door, through the line, no problem. A new memory to replace the old.

~Desi

Fernando Is Not A Chinese Name...

...But it is a Chinese restaurant in Macau. Macanese, that is. Since Macau was under Portuguese control until 1999, there is a unique combination of cultures present, which makes for some wonderful culinary delights.

Right on Hac Sa Beach on the island of Coloane is a sleepy little fandian that serves up tastes that combine the best aspects of Portuguese cooking with the best of Chinese. For us, the Macau fried rice, the drunken beef (steak in a peppercorn, beer gravy), a roasted half chicken, and some sliced chorizo filled our table and our bellies. Those dishes combined with the Portuguese rolls with butter provided some familiar, yet distinct tastes, which each one of us enjoyed.

~Desi

Then And Now...

...Macau beach kids.

~Desi

Walking On The Rocks

One thing that the Chinese think is good for your health is to walk on really pointy rocks. At a famous site in Macau, there are some of the worst rocks. Last time we came to China, we went to these same rocks. When we were there, I could only walk on them for about three feet. That is how bad they hurt!

This time, I thought that I was just young and I could not take it, but I was wrong. This time, it was just as bad. I went back and forth ten times, and my feet killed! I had to take a break after every "lap." And after all that pain, I feel the same!

~Zoli

Then And Now: St. Paul's Ruins

The iconic attraction in Macau is the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral. (Sorry gamblers..I'm not talking about the casinos!) A long time ago, this church burned down, leaving only the front facade standing. The remaining arches, statues, and ornate stone work make for a very unusual and interesting visual.

Five years ago, the facade was surrounded by scaffolding. (We heard that, among other things, they were cleaning up after Macau's pigeons.) This time, we were excited not only to get closer to the ruins, but also to have the chance to climb up the observatory stairs for a bird's eye view of the ruins and the surrounding square.

And then there were the chalices, ciboriums, and other Catholic relics of old that are housed in a small nearby museum. As we watched other tourists, presumably very few of whom were Catholic, we thought about how Catholic icons must seem as exotic to them as Buddhist icons can at times (although less and less so) seem to us.

~Steve

The Macau Jet Foil

The greater Hong Kong area seems to be all about transportation. Ferries, cable cars, double-decker buses. Well, add to the list the jet foil from Kowloon to Macau. Clocking in at about one hour, this high-speed ride takes passengers down the coast of the South China Sea, with ocean spray shooting along the side windows the whole way.

As an added bonus, a day trip to Macau gets you four stamps in your passport, as the two provinces are governed under "One Country, Two Systems." With all of the traveling we have done, it had been completely on the mainland before arriving in Hong Kong, so the kids (not to mention this adult!) were excited by the new additions to our passports.

~Steve

Cai Laoshi

Tai O is a small fishing village located in a remote area of Hong Kong's Lantau Island. To get there, you take a bus that winds alongside beautiful beaches and over the top of narrow mountain passes.

The reward at the end of this mildly harrowing journey is a collection of houses built over the water on stilts. In the middle of Tai O, there is a main street that caters to the fairly small number of tourists who pass by, with vendors selling dried sea creatures and other local specialties.

One afternoon, we found ourselves wandering out past this little strip, into the middle of the residential part of Tai O, which featured shacks covered in what appeared to be aluminum covered in spray paint.

It was a fascinating enough place that when we came to a small restaurant, we decided to take the plunge and grab a table out on the street. The locals found this to be pretty amusing, as old timers on stools across the way were fixed on us and young people walking by turned their heads for longer looks.

And then there was the issue of ordering food. As I previously posted, my Mandarin was not much more helpful than English. This was especially true in areas, like Tai O, that are not in the cosmopolitan Hong Kong vein. But, before too long, we had a nice collection of sliced meats and vegetables to eat under an absolutely lovely evening sky.

A little while later, along shuffled a guy who back in the US we might describe as an "old salt." Choy was his last name, or Cai as it is pronounced in Mandarin. Well, for the next hour or so, Cai Xiansheng joined us, eating his bowl of noodles and schooling us in all things Chinese and American. Cai Laoshi's topics notably included...

A detailed story about the time that Howard Hughes pretended to be in need of help.

Information about what Mao Zedong read when he was working in the library at Beida...It wasn't Karl Marx, by the way.

For our part, we were in no rush to leave. Locally prepared food, a gorgeous south China night, and lessons from Cai Xiansheng. The kind of stuff that no tour book could ever have directed us to...

~Steve

The Giant Buddha

Back in the 1970s, a group of monks in Hong Kong had the idea to build a giant Buddha on a Lantau Island hilltop. Then, more recently, someone else had the idea to build a massive cable car that would take people over land and water up to the peak. The result is a very cool and interesting few hours spent riding and admiring.

At one point in the day, we found ourselves chowing down on some decent vegetarian snacks over at the monastery. As we sat there next to a group of monks, we talked about how, in some respects, the experience was not all that unlike our trips over to the National Cathedral, walking past beautiful little chapels and then enjoying some chocolate pudding while sitting next to groups of nuns.

~Steve

Will Somebody Please Speak Mandarin To Me?

A week in Hong Kong is a true pleasure in so many respects...beautiful water, excellent seafood and dim sum, stunning cityscapes and rural vistas.

But then there is my one personal frustration...as is so often the case...language! But this time there was a new twist.

For six months now, my approach has been to speak Mandarin whenever possible, which is basically all the time on the mainland. In Hong Kong, though, my Mandarin was received in a very different manner, to say the least. Usually the exchanges went something like this...

Me: [Fill in this blank with some basic question about price or direction, phrased in Mandarin.]

Hong Konger: Huh?

Me: [Repeat the above question, again in Mandarin.]

Hong Konger: [In English.] Wow! Your Mandarin in so much better than mine. So...What did you say?

Me: [Ask the question a third time, this time in English.]

I seem to remember reading or hearing that Mandarin and Cantonese are no closer to one another than German and English. All I can say is that, as a fledgling Mandarin learner, Cantonese is indeed a foreign language. "One Country, Two Languages," I guess!

And I haven't even touched on the differences in written language, between the simplified characters we have been studying and the traditional characters that are found on signs in Hong Kong. It truly would have been a week of illiteracy on all fronts had it not been for the fact that there is a ton of very good English spoken on the streets of Hong Kong. "God Save the Queen," indeed!

~Steve

I've Come So Far, Much Farther Than I Used To Be

I'm in the process of righting past wrongs. In part, because I'm realizing the errors of my ways. Perhaps the fear of the unknown is responsible for my transgressions. Perhaps a lack of willingness to try new things is the culprit. In either case, I'm now heading in the right direction...

We're talking food here!

In 2004, we made sure to journey from Kowloon to Lamma Island for a spectacular hike from Yung Shue Wan to Sok Kwu Wan. We had read about the views as well as the reward that awaited at the end of the hike...the best seafood in Hong Kong. At the end of this scenic trek, we reached a quaint fishing village that had a strip of seafood restaurants jutting out from the shore. Tanks of all types of sea creatures greeted us as we walked by. Each place had a catchy name, like the "Lamma Hilton" or "Rainbow Seafood." One even boasted of a free ferry ride back to Hong Kong.

We decided to try the one with the ferry, figuring it would provide our easiest route back. As we skimmed the menu, dish after dish of fish, crustaceans, and creatures we'd never heard of or seen the likes of before, we settled on vegetable lo mein and vegetable fried rice.

Crazy, no? The waiter thought so too!

Four and half years later, so did we, as we entered Sok Kwu Wan. On this trip, we headed back to the Rainbow Seafood Restaurant (yes, the one with the ferry), looked through the menu, and ordered.

For Steve, it was sliced grouper in sweet and sour sauce. For me, lobster, baby! So delicious that we came back two days later, for the hike, the view, the ferry, and, of course, the seafood. Grouper and lobster once again adorned our plates.

What were we thinking back then? Lesson learned...Ignorance is not always bliss. While food caution is always important when visiting a new place, food fear is just plain silly (and not very tasty)!

~Desi

A February Tan

In subtropical places, it's always warm. Along with warmth comes sun. Along with sunshine comes a tan or, for some, sunburn.

Hong Kong is probably the closest to the equator we have ever been, and because of our trip on 2004, we knew the weather is HOT! But it didn't really cross my mind that in February, I would be sweating while the people in Beijing are wearing overcoats and long johns. Our trips to Lamma Island's beaches sure taught me to be better prepared.

After a twenty-minute ferry ride to the island, and a quick meal, we began the beautiful hike from Yung Shue Wan to Sok Kwu Wan, two small towns. Our first stop was a quaint little beach with clear blue water in a small cove. Z and I splashed in the water, happy to be warm in the middle of winter. But, of course, later that evening, I was greeted with a not so pleasant surprise..a blistered red nose. I guess we weren't expecting a tan in February!

~Julie

The Best Cantonese Dim Sum I've Ever Had (And The View Wasn't Bad, Either!)...

...Was in Yung Shue Wan, near the terminus of the Lamma Island ferry. Stilted on the beach amongst a bustling community made up of both residents and visitors, Sampan Seafood serves quite a nice selection of dian xin. Take the chao shao bao (steamed buns with roast pork) and the sesame balls (glutenous spheres coated with sesame seeds and filled with red bean paste), not to mention my personal favorite at this restaurant, xiao mai (pork dumplings with bits of shrimp and mushroom)...We couldn't help ordering more than we could possibly eat (and then eating it!).

Now that's what I call a Chinese breakfast. Served around ten a.m., the locals sit at large round tables with lazy susans in the middle and, by our observation, enjoy scintillating conversation, camaraderie, and the best eating on that side of the island. For us, people watching and plate after plate of delicious snacks was our recipe for a morning well spent (except for Z, who spent his time well...by beach combing just steps away from us).

~Desi

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Neon Of Nathan Road

These pictures could just as easily be labeled "The Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce Has An Easy Job, Part III." The lights, the people...way, way cool...

~Steve

PS: Check out the street artist who is getting painted...

The Hong Kong Chamber Of Commerce Has An Easy Job, Part II

Hong Kong actually consists of something like 250 islands, most of which are very tiny and uninhabited. A few of the larger outlying islands make for great days spent hiking, so we headed out a couple of times to Lamma Island for some of our favorite rural scenery in the world. Just great stuff...

~Steve

PS: That is star fruit growing on the tree...

An Unexpected Street Food Snack

The other day, we stayed true to Desi's advice to always get on line if there are people queuing on the street in China. It was our first day in Hong Kong, and there was this cluster of people milling about this one xiao tanr. What could they possibly be selling? Well, whatever it is, it must be good, we all agreed.

So there we were, a few minutes later, with a surprising treat in our hands...waffles! Yes, the man and two women at the stand were equipped with a supply of batter and a couple of big waffle irons. They just kept cranking them out, one after another.

For our part, we kept coming back, over and over again, chowing down on a snack, and here may be a Balla family first, that all four of us thoroughly enjoyed.

~Steve

The Hong Kong Chamber Of Commerce Has An Easy Job, Part I

Here are a few pictures we took while walking around Victoria Peak, high over the harbor in Hong Kong. Just a spectacular combination of sub-tropical foliage, beautiful water, and amazing skyscrapers...

~Steve

Peak Tram...Then And Now

One of the most famous tourist sites in Hong Kong is Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island. It is the tallest peak in the area and has awesome views of the city and outlying islands. But, of course, one of the main attractions is the transportation to the top of the peak...a tram! The tram consists of two cars that look like trollies with wooden benches. The ride is pretty steep, and since our trip in 2004 to Hong Kong, I have always found that the scariest part is the ride down. The benches face forward when you go up, but on the way down, the whole trip is backward.

On our first ride down five years ago, Mommy snapped a picture of me in my favorite outfit making a scary face. After that, this picture became the one I remembered most from Victoria Peak and one of my favorites from our time in China. This time around, we tried to take the same picture, hopefully with a little bit of a nicer face!

~Julie

Race On The Beach

On Lamma Island, just off the coast of Hong Kong Island, there are multiple beaches. There is a main beach, a side beach, and a rocky beach. There are other beaches too, but they are all off limits. Our favorite beach, the main beach, was the beach we spent the most time at.

When we go to beaches, the main things we do are swimming, digging HUGE holes, and having races. My favorite thing to do is race Julie and Dad.

There are different kinds of races we do. We have long distances races, short races, and races where we have to avoid things (like the water) and stay inside a certain line.

Since I am getting older, I am getting closer and closer to beating Dad over short distances. Our prediction is that when I am 14, I will be able to beat him.

~Zoli

The Star Ferry

We've had this love affair with the Star Ferry ever since we first set foot in Hong Kong five years ago. Here are the basics...

Hong Kong consists of a peninsula that juts out of mainland China, as well a series of islands that are in close proximity to one another. The Star Ferry is a system of boats that connects Kowloon (the end of the peninsula) with Hong Kong Island, the main commercial center of the city. The ride across Victoria Harbor takes about fifteen minutes, and features head-on views on what the four of us agree is our favorite skyline in the world.

As for the boats themselves, they give off the appearance of being old and rickety. These are not luxury cruisers we are talking about, but green and white wooden ferries that just exude character.

For a total price of about one US dollar for the four of us, the Star Ferry kept calling us back, from a nighttime jaunt across the harbor shortly after arriving to one last ride the morning of our departure. The Star Ferry is truly one of Hong Kong's gems.

~Steve

Freedom Is Not Free

Hong Kong is part of mainland China, but not really. Hong Kong is like mainland China, but not really. Hong Kong is more "free" than mainland China, but not really.

While these statements sound confusing, when you're on the ground level in Hong Kong, you realize that the place itself actually is quite confusing.

Take the government of Hong Kong, for example. In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to mainland China by Great Britain. In fact, you can visit the Reunification Monument near the convention center on Hong Kong Island. While it is technically governed by China, Hong Kong is actually a "Special Administrative Region." In other words, "One Country, Two Systems." As a result, Hong Kong has different economic policies as well as a different rule of law.

Second, Hong Kong is what I'd call "China-lite." It's a great place to transition to Chinese living because there are many aspects of Western culture present amidst the "sea of black heads." In fact, we noticed more waiguoren in Hong Kong than in any place we've been in the last six months. Along with the foreigners (both residents and visitors) comes the familiarity of Western product. Convenience stores like 7-Eleven, Circle K, and the "Park And Shop" carry cheese (a tough find in Beijing), Doritos, and even Miracle Whip. In all, Hong Kong is a Chinese city with Western characteristics.

Finally, while Hong Kong slants democratic (an adjective that implies "free"), there are more rules, regulations, and fines publicly displayed, and obviously enforced, given the absence of spit, litter, and dog waste visible on the streets. In contrast with the chaos and seeming lack of rules on the mainland, I felt a lot more aware of my actions in Hong Kong, despite the fact that I never spit, litter, or leave my dog's waste for others to clean.

While the flags of China and Hong Kong are raised together every day, the societal differences are ever apparent.

~Desi

What We Do On Number Two

The Number 2 bus is the main bus we ride in Hong Kong. This bus runs along Nathan Road (a famous road) from end to end.

The Number 2 bus is one of many double-decker buses in Hong Kong. Julie and I sit in the front seats on the second level. I guess it is like the te liu lu in Beijing. They don't stop a lot, they both are double deckers, and they come every fifteen minutes.

The Number 2 bus is a nice convenience, since our hotel was right off Nathan Road and so is the Star Ferry (more about that in another blog).

Now, what do Julie and I do on the bus? We talk about Harry Potter while watching the streets of Hong Kong go by. Since I have read all the books and seen all the movies, I tell Julie everything she wants to know. Julie has seen all the movies, but there are a lot of parts she does not understand because she hasn't read the books yet. It's fun for me, but does Julie get bored out of her skull?

~Zoli

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Comfort Lodge, Hong Kong

This is the story of how hard it was (seriously!) to find our hotel upon arriving in Hong Kong, where we just spent a week enjoying the sights and sub-tropical weather.

It all began when I booked our accommodation online, securing a room at a place called the Comfort Lodge. It was relatively cheap by Hong Kong standards (where prices are way higher than on the mainland), and it was centrally located right in the heart of Kowloon, close to shopping, mass transit, and Victoria Harbor.

Armed with the street address and a general idea of the location, we set out from the bus station in Mong Kok, our arrival point in Hong Kong, rolling luggage behind us. A little while later, I knew, from my advance research, that we were right in the vicinity of the place, at this major intersection. But, I couldn't decide, should we turn to the left or to the right? We didn't see a neon Comfort Lodge sign in either direction.

So we turned right. And then we turned left. And then we turned left again. And then we turned left again, and we were right back where we started.

So then we tried the other direction. More left turns and right turns. Finally we reached a street that was called Tak Hsing. Now since the street name I had written down on my sheet of paper said Tak Hing (notice the one letter difference), it seemed like we were really closing in on it. But there we were, a few minutes later, having walking the entire length of Tak Hsing (not very far, by the way)...and still no sign of the elusive Comfort Lodge.

At that point, we decided the search would move more quickly if we parked all of our stuff in this nearby park and if I jetted off by myself at top speed. I quickly discovered a small street, not much more than an alleyway, with the name Tak Hing. But there I was, yet again, at the other end of the strip, and still no Comfort Lodge sighting. It wasn't until I walked up and down Tak Hing a few more times that I noticed an archway of sorts with the address I had pulled off the web. (By the way, that's a picture of Julie and Z, much later in the trip, walking through the archway.) But the archway looked liked it led into a residential complex, and there was still no sign announcing the Comfort Lodge.

My next move was to timidly walk in past the archway. Sure enough, it was indeed a residential complex, with people coming in and out of their apartments. There was one apartment I noticed that had a "ring the bell" sign outside its door. Now I was getting even more timid. I didn't want to look like a fool and buzz the front door of some private home. But I didn't know what else to do, so I took a deep breath and hit the button. Sure enough, when I asked the question, I got the answer that, yes, this is a hotel.

Actually, it turns out that two of the apartments have been converted from residences into a main office and a series of rooms. So when we finally got checked in, we had to first use our key to open the front door of the "apartment" and then swipe it again to get into our room. As for the room itself, it was small, but not all that bad. And, yes, it had its own bathroom! I myself was having some doubts for a few minutes there, but it all turned out to have a happy ending. Decent price, great location...A good launching pad for our Hong Kong adventures...

~Steve

The Story Of The Twelve-Year Animals

Does anyone know the history of the twelve-year animals in the Chinese zodiac? Or that the cat isn't one of them? Well, on Z's and my last day at BISS, I was in a play that told this story.

The ancient tale goes something like this...

Once upon a time, there were animals, people, and the Jade Emperor living on Earth. The animals and the Jade Emperor were very smart, but the people couldn't keep track of anything, especially the years. So the Jade Emperor gathered the animals on the day before the new year and decided to create a twelve year cycle where each animal would have one year. The only problem was that there were thirteen animals. One animal had to be eliminated. The Jade Emperor decided to hold a race the following morning, New Year's Day. The first twelve animals to reach the emperor would be the year animals.

Two of the youngest animals, the rat and the cat, who were best friends, decided to leave very early the next morning to win the race. But on the way to the emperor there was a large river and neither of them could swim. Fortunately, the ox was right behind them, so they caught a ride across the river. The rat, however, began to worry that the emperor would never notice the small creature. The rat desperately wanted to be the first year animal. As they reached the home of the emperor, the rat pushed the cat into the water and raced past the ox. The rat was the first animal to reach the emperor, so therefore became the first year animal.

The other animals began to arrive, but the cat didn't make it. Since then, the cat and rat have been enemies.

I had picked the rat as my animal for a Chinese project, so I was chosen to play the part in the performance. With two buns as my mousy ears and a Chinese jacket, I finished my last day of school at BISS with a memorable experience on stage.

~Julie