Saturday, July 30, 2011

East Meets West

Before I begin this blog post, I’ll give a brief summary of this week. Overall, it was quite good, despite a lingering cold. Three new English teachers began at the Suffolk campus, making me the most experienced teacher here—believe it or not. I like and get along with them all, which is great considering we’ll be spending ridiculous amounts of time together at the school. Of course, they’re 26, 28 and 30, which doesn’t threaten my status as the “baby” of the campus. I know one day it’ll be a huge compliment to be told I look very young, but right now, it’s kind of annoying. I hear something from either a parent or coworker nearly every day. Anyway, I’m starting to get used to the swing of things around here and have been getting excellent feedback from parents through the center director. I’m still getting used to such limited free time, but soon I shall.

The title of this post is the phrase you’ll hear in just about any guidebook, article or TV show about Hong Kong. But the cliché is true. I haven’t travelled much but I’m fairly certain this place is quite unique in the way that Eastern and Western cultures mingle.

First of all, Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it was peacefully turned over to China. Because of that, a higher proportion of folks speak decent English here than anywhere in the country. All the signs, store fronts and mall directories are in Chinese characters and English, which makes it very easy for someone like myself to live without inconvenience. That’s not to say I haven’t been confused regularly, but it would be ten times worse if there weren’t English signs everywhere. Furthermore, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) which means they don't have to abide by many Chinese policies. So...they have government protests, free press, Facebook, no visa requirements and blogging. Hooray!

Even though it’s very westerner friendly here, I don’t see a ton of white people on a daily basis. At least compared to thousands of Chinese people cramming the MTR and walking on the street. Still, if I go to a restaurant, store or just about any place of business, they will speak to me in English without being requested to. Can you imagine if a Latino person was addressed in Spanish when he walked into a Texas bank? A good chunk of Texas used to be part of Mexico, remember? The whole thing quite an interesting phenomenon to me.

When I say westerners, I am of course referring to white people (I've seen some middle-easterners and black people as well, but only a handful). The most common nationality of us whiteys is British, followed by an equal amount of Canadians and Americans, then Aussies, Kiwis and other Europeans. I’ve met teachers from all of the above countries but New Zealand, and Sandy, the only other guy at my campus, is from Portland! Also, I’m actually getting to befriend some British folks for the first time in my life. It doesn’t matter what they say—I want to listen because it’s a real life British accent. This makes me think I need to go to the UK sometime.

Westerners here are also given a sort of freedom that the Chinese don’t have. This has to do with western Hong Kongers typically being fairly affluent business people. And by freedom, I mean they aren’t as likely to get in trouble with the law over minor squabbles or being able to bring outside food into a particular coffee shop that doesn’t allow it ☺ We are also given preferential treatment in many restaurants, probably because a big tip is more likely.

The easygoing western/Chinese relationship is also interesting to me. All that I associate with colonization is unjust. It brings to mind the revolutions for independence in places like the U.S., India and Haiti. In all cases, there’s an oppressor and an oppressed. But here, the white man is hardly treated like an oppressor. I should read up more on the 150 years of British rule here, but this couldn’t be more different from Passage to India. This probably has to do with Britiain's much more hands-off policy here. There’s no suspicion or distrust, or at least that meets the eye. Then again, I did walk through the Wan Chai red-light district when going to my school's high-rise office and saw a bunch of white men reveling in their objectification of the scantily clad Chinese women at their sides. This is hardly the image I want people to associate with my race and gender, but I believe there are enough respectable westerners here to cancel out the bad apples.

As I mentioned earlier, nearly everyone here speaks some English. But of course, the language of the city is Cantonese—a very difficult language to speak and/or understand. As a westerner, trying to speak Cantonese is a nice gesture but not at all needed. I’m trying to learn as much as I can and when I use it, people are generally quite pleased. I ask the multitude of bi/trilingual Chinese women at my work to teach me some new things every day. Of course, because the language is tonal, writing it down (in phonetic English) is not always the key to success but I keep working on it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to converse in Cantonese like I could in a Romance language after a year or two, but I enjoy trying to figure it out all the same.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Day in the Life

After a week of adjusting and a week of training, my third week here in Hong Kong was closest to what I can expect for a typical one during my time here. That’s to say it was my first full week teaching at my school in Kowloon Tong. For my third post, I’ve decided to describe what happens during an average day in my new, vastly different life.

  • 6:00 am (all times are approximate by the way): Alarm goes off. I’m using a cheap clock I bargained for at a market in Mong Kok on Hong Kong Island. My goal is to leave the house by 6:45 to give me plenty of time to eat breakfast near work. I then walk through Mang Kung Uk Village to the bus stop about eight minutes away. Here are some photos of what I see on this walk.

  • (On a side note, Ben, myself, and our white Belgian neighbor are the only Westerners in are village. It’s a great cultural immersion to say the least and I'm excited to be living here on a more permanent basis. Ben took me in as a roommate! On a side side note, the Belgian guy lost his temper the other day and threw some of his furniture and stereo equipment off the balcony that I had to step around the next morning. I think he’s calmer now as I saw him walking around with his wife/girlfriend earlier today.)

  • 6:50: Catch a minibus to the MTR station. Minibuses look like this and carry a maximum of sixteen people, no standing allowed. If there are sixteen on board, they pass you by. But they go by so often that this is rarely a problem. I’ve only been declined a ride once so far and that was after work in the evening rush. There are two mini buses that come by and they each go to different MTR stations, both of which are on the way to work. I just take the first minibus that comes as the prices and ride times are similar.
  • 7:05: Get on an MTR train. MTR stands for Mass Transit Railway, which is a network of high-speed trains that can get you just about anywhere in the city. Sometimes they’re underground, sometimes above. The MTR is a masterpiece of efficiency and what every traffic-clogged American city should study. User friendly, affordable (my daily commute is about $1.50 US for a 20 mile trip) constantly running and expansive, the MTR system, at least from my perspective, is the ideal public transport set up. Of course, everyone realizes this and they are usually packed.
  • 7:30: Arrive at the Kowloon Tong MTR station. From there I walk to Pacific Coffee Company in the Festival Walk Mall where I get a nice muffin and caffeine of some variety. I savor this time when I can just sit and read or listen to music or both. It’s worth it to wake up earlier so I can have this period of relaxation before work. The school is about a hundred feet from the MTR station, as is the mall in the other direction. Sooooo convenient.
  • 8:30: The workday begins. The first class doesn’t start until 9, so I usually spend that half hour preparing for the lesson. Then, my teaching schedule has four consecutive classes that take me to up to lunchtime. For exactly what happens in a class, you can look at last week’s post. Four in a row is pretty tiring and by lunch, I book it back towards the mall.
  • 12:00: Lunch. I usually get something at the mall grocery store (called “Taste”) and head back up to the tables just outside the coffee place. Sweet and sour chicken, BLT, sushi, I have lots of choices and have only tried a few so far. After eating, I head back to the school and read or take a nap in the padded play area. Since our lunch break is all the way to 1:30, this is feasible and oh so very nice.
  • 1:30: Afternoon classes. My afternoons have either two or three classes depending on the day. This is the time I’ll make lesson plans for the following week or work on learning new songs to teach the group. The last class ends at 4:30, and that last hour is spent cleaning up, planning lessons if I need to, and/or browsing the web while waiting for 5:30 to roll around.
  • 5:30: Sign out. I head towards the MTR station and back to the house by train and bus. Since the house is fairly far from any major stores or restaurants, I’ll usually get dinner and random stuff I may need or want (like a guitar yesterday) during this time along my route. When I get home, I’ll usually just chill out and talk to Ben or read.
  • 9:30: Bed time. It seems very early, but I always fall asleep in a few minutes after hitting the futon. There are no two ways about it—this is a tiring job. But of course there are still weekends!

With a half day Saturday, Sunday’s the only full day off I have so I try to always make the most of it. Last Sunday, the 17th, I went to the Tian Tian Buddha on Lantau Island and took some rad pictures. Or at least I think they’re rad.

So that about sums it up. Free time is precious, but the salary is so good that we can do whatever we want with it. For example, for the summer break in late August, I’m currently debating between vacationing in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh or Taipei. Decisions decisions decisions. And for what it's worth, when I get around to it, I'll be posting tons more photos on Facebook. This is just an appetizer.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beginning Work

May this blog post begin with an epitaph for my first real beard. It began over a year ago and by request of my new employers, met its end this week. Asian men don’t usually grow beards and hence, some little children are frightened of them. It’s kind of ironic that the beard began right after I bought an electric razor and ended right after I bought a beard trimmer. Alas. The facial hair will be back one day.

I’m coming to realize that with the crazy new stuff I’m experiencing all the time, I won’t be able to fit it into a single post every week. We’ve got culture shifting, teaching, being a tourist, starting a new life, making friends in Hong Kong and even more. This week, I began training for my job so it seems logical for that to be the focus here. This week, I began training at the Braemar Hill campus in North Point on Hong Kong Island, though I’ll be teaching at in Kowloon Tong. Now it’s Saturday and I’ve completed my first 49.5-hour workweek. Sounds like a lot? It is. But fortunately for me, I’ve discovered that I like teaching little kids. Not to say that I don’t expect this job to be exhausting.

My classes will be almost all toddlers, AKA kids from ages one to two. I also have a couple infant classes, which I'll describe when I know anything about them. At Braemar Hill, I shadowed Russell, the guy who has my job at that campus. On Monday, I acted as an assistant teacher during Russell’s six 45-minute classes by singing along with his songs and interacting with the kids. Starting out, it was a bit awkward since I haven’t been around a whole lot of toddlers in my life. But eventually, I got the hang of it and started talking to them, even though I was usually met with very suspicious looks. Like people of any age, toddlers prefer to feel safe and when they see a new face, especially one with a beard (I shaved midweek), they aren’t always trusting.

Along with the classroom observation, I got lots of training from the center director. This center director is from the great state of Arizona and taught me all that I could possibly want to know about this job. That’s everything from hand washing technique to monthly reports to the positive reinforcement method. And of course, she gave me a forest’s worth of paper about all this. In many ways, this wasn’t too different from a most jobs with the employee handbook, clocking in clocking out, and so on. But in this case, the clients getting our service are rather diminutive.

Russell was a great model for me. A 6’5” teddy bear of a man, Russell is gifted at connecting with the kids and finding that middle ground between pampering and disciplining. The kids genuinely like and respect him and hearing him talk about individual students made me look forward to a few weeks down the road when I’ll really get to observe the individual personalities of these kids. During “circle time,” Russell began by saying “Good morning everyone!” and greeting each child by name. We’d sing lots of songs and then he’d read a story before demonstrating the day’s activities to help their motor, cognitive and artistic skills. Again, just watching his teaching and lesson planning for a week really helped me a lot in understanding what this is all about. I took over during some of his classes later in the week and found out that I can actually do this myself! At the risk of sounding corny, it’s all worth it to see them smile, laugh or hug you at the end of the class.

My first day of teaching at Kowloon Tong was supposed to be Monday the 18th, but because of some misunderstanding with the teacher I’m replacing, I got called in today after about half an hour at Braemar Hill. Despite being forced to learn trial by fire in a new place, I felt that I did okay. I think the most nerve-wracking part is over but now I just have to get used to the long-hour schedule. Free time is truly precious!

On an unrelated note, the blue sky left this week and was replaced by a classic PNW gray with a bit of smog. At least it's down to a cooler temperature. Also, my first movie theater experience in Hong Kong was the last Harry Potter film. Glorious. What an accomplishment by all those involved in the series. I can't wait to watch the movies with my kids one day (after they read the books of course).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

First Impressions

Before I even begin this initial post, I’d like to thank all of you people back home who might be reading this. I love you all so very much and will keep in touch with every single one of you. The last six weeks was basically one goodbye after another and though I probably won’t see you all for a while, I look forward to hearing about what y’all are up to, particularly in this strange time of transition to the “real world.” I managed to stay close to most of my high school friends after I went to college so I see no reason not to keep in touch with my northwest friends now that I’m onto another life chapter. Huzzah!

I arrived in Hong Kong at 11 pm on Monday, July 4th after travelling for about thirty hours. Other than the five-hour delay in San Francisco, everything went according to plan, though it wasn’t the best Independence Day of my life. I hopped on a train from the airport and then a taxi from the Kowloon station. My first attempt at Cantonese to the cab driver was a complete failure (“Can you speak English?”) so I just showed him the address and off we went. Seeing the city for the first time after being awake for so long wasn’t ideal but I could sense its majesty nonetheless. I had anticipated calling my host Ben (yep, same name as me) after being dropped off at the Chan Uk Village public restroom, but the cab driver didn’t have a cell phone so I just hung out there until I saw a couple teenagers who were nice enough to let this random bearded white dude use one of their phones at 1 am.

The next morning Ben took me on a tour of parts of the city. Ben is an American currently employed at the school where I will be working. I’m so grateful that I’m able to stay with him temporarily as I get my feet on the ground. I’ve probably asked him several hundred questions in the past thirty-six hours and so far, he is happy to answer them all. He lives on the top floor of house that’s a good distance away from the main city on the East end of the New Territories, but filled with incredible vegetation and scenery. Here’s the view from his roof:
On Tuesday, we went all around the city where I got some necessary items (cell phone, shampoo, etc.) and saw the place I’ve been researching for the past few months. I wish I could tell you all the exact locations I saw but it’s all such a blur that I don’t think I can. The best view however, was travelling across Victoria Harbor by ferry and seeing the skyline against the blue sky. It is the most vertical city in the world after all. Here’s a picture of Seattle on super steroids:
That night, I got to meet some of Ben’s friends who all have worked at various branches of my school. They invited us to delicious curry dinner at their house nearby. It was great to meet them, though I could hardly stay awake due to the jet lag even while playing Wii games for about an hour. That night I slept for eleven hours. Hallelujah.

On Wednesday, I went out by myself to meet Joan, the center director at the school I’ll be working at in Kowloon Tong. I made several mistakes in trying to navigate the public transportation system but eventually made it back home in three times the time it would take a more experienced Hong Konger. I kind of enjoy figuring these things out on my own though, as it forces me to really observe things with a keen eye. The rest of the day, Ben and I just hung out at his house and I discovered, to my delight, how good his taste in TV is. I must say I did not expect to watch “Family Guy”, “30 Rock” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” while eating Pizza Hut pizza in Hong Kong. No wonder expats have such an easy time moving here. Ben is currently on a break from work—something that works out quite well for me, having someone to show me the ropes as I get settled.

Overall first impressions of Hong Kong summed up in a string of adjectives? Busy, Westerner friendly, hot, gorgeous, sprawling, fast, geographically diverse. Since I’ve been here for such a short time, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions but so far, so good. Moving to a new country is daunting, particularly for someone like me who’s spent his entire life in the USA. But thanks to Ben and the user-friendly nature of the city, I’m doing quite well with the change. I plan on writing an entry like this once a week, so check back soon!