Monday, August 29, 2011

Holiday Week Part 1: Hong Kong

Since my contract at the school began with the month-long summer term, I was able to have a vacation without working here for very long. My first holiday (I have three more: in December, January and April) was a wonderful, memorable time and with this and the next post, I’ll be describing it as best I can.

On Monday, I went with my fellow American colleague Dan to Cheung Chau, an island south of Hong Kong Island. Cheung Chau is only a forty-five minute ferry ride away from Victoria Harbor, but it’s about as different from bustling HK Island as possible. CC is a fishing village, home to about 30,000 people and zero cars. The only motorized vehicles are ambulances that look like ice cream trucks. The pace of life is very slow and the whole island has an easy going feel to it. We didn’t do anything truly amazing, just walked around, admiring the natural beauty. A highlight for me was turning a corner and seeing a pristine beach and jumping in the water seconds later. Not to mention, the delicious seafood and the extremely friendly waitress and cook at the restaurant.
Cheung Chau Harbor
Life's a beach
Busy traffic on Cheung Chau's main street...not

On Tuesday, I journeyed out on my own to Stanley, a popular tourist destination on the south side of HK Island. All the skyscrapers and commerce are on the north coast, so much like Cheung Chau, it was a nice change of pace. However, Stanley didn’t feel like going back in time like CC did. Stanley has one of the most famous markets in Hong Kong, and for whatever reason, this didn’t thrill me that much. I’ve now been to many Chinese markets and I kind of get the point now. There’s a lot of random stuff for sale and vendors are griping at you to buy it. But Stanley also had a beautiful beach and there was a park that I particularly enjoyed. It’s rare to ever be outside and completely alone in Hong Kong, so I took advantage of that by filming some videos with silly commentary about the flora and fauna I was filming. For personal enjoyment only.
Murray House in Stanley, the oldest colonial building still standing in HK
Natty roots
And this is why the tourists come

Wednesday and Thursday were days to hang out with friends. I’ve mentioned this before but one of the best parts about my school is working with and spending time with my fellow teachers from Hong Kong. I went to Dim Sum (lunch) with a whole slew of them and watched my first Cantonese movie in a Hong Kong theater, called Overheard 2. Fortunately, there were English subtitles but the movie was still confusing. I’d call it a stock market gangster action movie, if you can imagine that. Later that night, I went to a hip-hop dance performance with one of our HK teachers, Sharman, who’s a hip-hop dancer herself. It was truly incredible, despite not always being my musical cup of tea. The Hong Kong kids can really dance! And the next night, I met up with Mennie, a HK teacher who just moved on from my school after five years working here. She took me to an excellent Chinese restaurant near her home in Diamond Hill.
Hong Kong women love taking photos for Facebook even more than American women

As much as I love spending time with my compadre Westerners exploring this city, there’s nothing better than spending it with real local Hong Kong people. It makes me feel more like I’m becoming a real resident here and not a tourist, jumping from sight-seeing area to sight-seeing area. Speaking of which, that’s exactly what I did this weekend in Taipei. You may now move your eyes a couple centimeters down.

Holiday Week Part 2: Taiwan

When I discovered I had a vacation at the end of August, I decided I had to go somewhere interesting outside of Hong Kong. We don’t get many holidays and I’m surrounded by wonders in every direction. I pondered places like Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam and Bangkok, Thailand but ultimately decided on Taipei, Taiwan—though I hope to go the those other places eventually as well. It’s an only an hour and a half plane ride away and was just the right combination of allure and convenience for my budget and time constraints. I knew very little about Taipei and though I was only there about two days, I discovered that it’s quite a nifty city.

I travelled alone, which I was initially a bit nervous about, though I had no reason to be. I’ve learned this summer that I am generally very good at figuring things out on my own and not much really fazes me. For example, shortly after arriving at the hotel Friday evening, I decided to walk to the Xingtian Temple, as it was relatively close. I got a little bit lost, in the dark, in a rather dirty part of a city that doesn’t speak my language very well, and there was lightning and thunder, and trashcans burning on street corners, and thousands of people driving motorcycles like maniacs, and I had no phone. But I was still enjoying myself, not panicking in the least as I went down various dark alleys. I eventually found the temple, ate a burger down the road and made my way back to the hotel a couple hours after I had left. Some of you may prefer the word stupid to laid-back, but I’m still alive right? And don’t worry, Taipei is renowned for its friendly, safe atmosphere and I never journeyed too far from the main drag of 711s and Taiwanese restaurants. Please don’t judge me for getting a burger. I had Taiwanese for lunch and dinner the next day.

On Saturday, I decided to go on a bus tour of the city. Since I was here for such a short time, I chose to swallow my pride and act like the ultimate, stereotypical tourist with map and camera always at the ready. Plus, every guided tour I’ve been on in my life has had an awesome tour guide, and this was no exception with the hilarious Lilin. On the tour, two families (from Hong Kong (!) and Malaysia) and I went to a famous art gallery called the National Palace Museum, the Chiang “Father of Taiwan” Kai-Shek memorial, the Martyrs Shrine and yet another gorgeous Daoist Temple, where we randomly saw a soap opera being filmed. The first three sites are all major landmarks of Taiwan. Check out the pictures below:
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial
The Chiang and I Daoist Temple (never was told the name) Shrine of Martyrs

After the tour, I went to the world’s second tallest building, Taipei 101. In the interest of time, I decided not to go up to the top but ended up going back Sunday. The reason I cut this short was that I decided to go to a baseball game that evening. The game was in New Taipei, which, confusingly, is a different city than Taipei but I managed to find it by train and taxi. This was a major highlight of the trip, as I ended up sitting with the wife of one of the coaches, an American man named Corey Paul who was drafted by the Mariners in the same year as Ken Griffey Jr. No joke. His wife was super nice and I essentially got a free lesson on the Chinese Professional Baseball League from the one other English speaking person at the park. After the game, I went to the Shilin Night Market, which had some crazy, crazy foods. The last picture is the sizzling steak that I got. Not the most adventurous choice, but still yummy and cheap.

Baseball in Asia
White baseball fan in Asia
Crabs that really look like crabs
It was no Pike Place, but still amazing

On Sunday morning, I went on another tour (with another great tour guide) of the northern coast of Taiwan. It was an entirely different side of the area that you can’t get in Taipei. We saw some beautiful beaches, a fishing village and the Yehliu Geopark. I’m guessing this is like Taiwan’s Yellowstone and Grand Canyon put into a much smaller area. The main draw is the Queen’s Head Rock, which really does look like a profile of Cleopatra, or at least how Egyptian artists portrayed her. This tour was with only one other guy by the name of Andrew, a pharmacist who came from Indonesia. Andrew is vacationing in Hong Kong next weekend, so we may meet up again quite soon, bizarrely enough!
Holy erosion Batman!
North coast of Taiwan
Pose like an Egyptian

That afternoon, I went to the observation deck of the Taipei 101, which cost $400. It’s a good thing one U.S. dollar is thirty Taiwanese dollars ☺ Anyway, it was an incredible sight to see a metropolis from 1,400 feet above. I also got to see the giant ball that counterbalances any sort of high-speed typhoon winds or earthquakes. I haven’t travelled much, but thanks to Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai, I’ve seen three of the top four tallest buildings in the world. Now I just need to make a quick stop in Dubai I’ll be good to go.

I am so high right now
Called Taipei 101 because it has 101 floors
Other skyscrapers looking like cottages
Supposed to look like a bamboo stalk
The sign read, "Super Big Wind Dampener"

I probably won’t get to go anywhere else exciting in Asia until next January, so I’m glad I was able to have this trip in Taiwan. Overall, it was a memorable, exciting weekend. Soon, back to the grind of playing songs and reading stories to adorable children. Sometimes, I have trouble believing this is really my life.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I’ve been in Hong Kong almost seven weeks now and am about to begin the first of four short vacations I’ll get here at my school. This time next week, I’ll (hopefully) be enjoying my final hours in Taipei, Taiwan as I’ll be going there on my own for a brief sniff around starting Friday the 26th. You’ll read all about that and possibly Macao in my next post. But now, I’d like to write about some of the struggles I’ve had starting this new life 7,000 miles from home.

Though my time here as been about as smooth and easy as I could’ve imagined, there have been plenty of barbs along the way and I wanted to make sure I wrote about them in this blog. Who would want to read about only sunshine and rainbows anyway? Here are some of the unpleasantries in no particular order:

The heat: It isn’t all that bad compared to many places in the world, but for me, accustomed to the absolute perfection of summer in Seattle, the weather is pretty gross. Basically every day is 90 (32 C) degrees or higher with 80% humidity. I don’t spend much time outside during the week when I’m teaching, but during weekends, it sometimes prevents me from doing any extensive outdoor exploring. I just keep telling myself, October will be glorious just as it starts to get chilly back home.

The huge population density: Like the heat, I knew all about this before I moved here. Still, it’s exhausting to be bumping up against hundreds of people just about everywhere I go. I’m not particularly claustrophobic but I do always take a big sigh of relief when I get off the bus in my neighborhood and can finally spread my arms out without accidentally slapping someone.

Changes in diet: There is plenty of incredible food here, but it’s been hard getting used to having to find meals in unfamiliar places, without relying too much on any one restaurant. I eat out just about every single meal due to the many inconveniences of cooking here, e.g. the cost of groceries and my limited kitchen capabilities. Hong Kong has just about every imaginable type of food (except good Mexican ☹), but the city is gigantic and there are so many choices. If you know me, you know that making these kinds of decisions when I don’t have all the pertinent information can be stressful. But the longer I’m here, the better my eating habits are becoming.

Working on Saturday: We work from 8:30-1 on Saturdays which leaves only one day to sleep in and hardly any time to do anything substantial with the weekends. As one of the main reasons I’m here are the travel opportunities around Asia, this is kind of a bummer. No weekend getaways to Thailand for me. Still, I’ve been told the salary here is higher than most preschools so I guess that’s the tradeoff.

Unfamiliarity: This relates to everything on here of course, but as a newcomer, it’s much more difficult to do the simplest things. Some particularly bothersome ones include getting a bank account set up, getting a bedside table delivered from IKEA, getting used to the pint sized washing machine on the roof of my flat and finding various bus stops. And there’s also the fact that I don’t know nearly as many people here as back home, though I'm trying to meet different folks all the time.

Homesickness: I honestly haven’t been longing for Bainbridge Island, Seattle and the US of A as much as I thought I might. It hasn’t been all that long and I’m pretty much consumed by the excitement of living abroad. Plus, I’ve discovered a very independent person with an ability to adapt to new places quickly. But still, I miss seeing family, school friends, pets, concerts and baseball very much. Oh and being able to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. I look forward to coming home for Christmas!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Teaching Toddlers

When I first started my job hunt in March of this year, I had no idea I would be teaching such young children. At that point, I was applying online for any English teaching jobs I could find in Hong Kong (and some in Taiwan as well). Why Hong Kong, you might ask? Well, there aren’t many concrete reasons but after all my research, it seemed like an excellent place to live and work. Plus, the skyline looked spectacular. Anyway, I applied to everything I could find and only heard back from a few of the schools. Likely thanks to the fact that I’d never taught before. But after I was offered this job, a stable one with good pay and no experience required, I accepted it albeit on a bit of a risk. I wasn’t sure if instructing children ages 6-24 months was going to be my cup of tea.

Fortunately for me, I really enjoy what I do here. And to be specific, that's teaching toddler (12-24 months) classes and a couple baby (6-12 months) classes. At this age, the kids are so pure and honest. The things that entertain them are so simple, like for example, putting a scarf over their face and saying “Peek-a-boo!” after pulling it away. One of the things that amazes me most is what a wide variety of personalities the children have once they turn from babies into toddlers at around 12-16 or so months. I have some kids that hug me at every opportunity while there are others that watch me with distant suspicion. There are some that smile and dance during our songs and others that look sullen no matter what crazy antics I perform for them, or worse, cry loudly and frequently. But they all have one thing in common; they are all adorable. I swear, Asian children are cuter than white ones.

(Sidenote: I don't like my baby classes nearly as much. All they ever do is drool and crawl, despite being extremely cute.)

After nearly one month with my toddler students, I’m getting to know some of them quite well. At their early age, they’re developing so fast and what a thrill it is to watch a child get smarter before your eyes. At this age, only a handful of kids are able to make complete sentences in English and I probably have five students—out of 120—who can count to ten successfully. But I’m not just teaching them that; I’m also trying to get them excited about music by singing and playing my baby guitar (aka ukulele) for them on a daily basis. Today, I discovered a portable keyboard in our storage space, which I plan on making my next teaching tool.

At some point, I’ll probably write a blog post consisting of a bunch of profiles of some of my most notable students. I’m definitely starting to understand why teachers have favorites, as terrible as that sounds. There really are some kids that I look forward to seeing every day, either because they make me laugh or they just brim with natural positivity or both. And of course, there are other students whom I don’t have much to remember by, unfortunately. But I’m trying to interact with each one as much as I can, because each kid is unique in his/her own right.

A lot of parents have been saying that their child talks about me at home, which is about the best thing I could possibly hear. Particularly when they also talk about the guitar or music, or one of my awesome classroom teachers, Doris and Julie. It gives me goose bumps to think that in my first real job, I believe I’m making a huge impact on some amazing kids’ lives. There are some things about this job that aren’t so hot (lack of supply organization, poor communication from management) but overall, the children make it all worth it. This sounds uncharacteristically sticky and gooey but it’s the truth. I’m already thinking about a potential future in teaching after I leave my current school. Nobody has to prod me to do the best job I can; I naturally want to make the day as valuable and fun as possible for the children.

Now, off to the adult world to drink some alcohol on my precious Saturday night ☺

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Before I left the states, whenever I talked to people about my then-future job, one of the most common questions I got was, “Do you speak any Chinese?” It’s a very logical question (with an emphatic "no" as an answer), as communication is usually conducted through speaking. Believe it or not. Well, as I’ve mentioned a couple times in earlier posts, there’s no need at all to speak Chinese, or more specifically, Cantonese, to get by here; it’s a totally bilingual city. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to discover that I really like trying to learn the language. It’s very rewarding and impresses the hell out of the people here who are very happy to teach me anything I ask. And so, learning Cantonese has become one of my main hobbies these days.
In case you are wondering what exactly is the difference between Cantonese and Chinese, it’s that Cantonese is dialect of Chinese spoken in the southern part of the country. Mandarin is the dominant dialect of Chinese, but even Mandarin is spoken differently in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Comprable to cities like Atlanta and Boston in the sort of regional differences. Cantonese is the second-most widely spoken dialect out of dozens behind Mandarin. Cantonese and Mandarin are similar in some ways but the pronunciation is so different that someone who only knows one is not able to instantly understand the other. Fortunately, Chinese characters are the same for all dialects, though there are traditional and simplified. It’s one character per word, and I’m not even attempting that side of the language. Learning the sounds is hard enough.
Cantonese has seven or nine tones, depending on whom you ask. The tones are the ways to say a syllable. For example, high, low, middle, rising, falling and a few subtle ones in between. This is a real pain for a native English speaker like myself, where a word is always the same no matter how you say it. For example, the word "lo-tsi" means "teacher" in Cantonese. The "tsi" sound is a flat, higher pitch. But if you say it with a rising tone, it means shit. I wish I could record it for you, and I probably can somehow, but I’m too lazy. Just understand that if you try to learn “I would like to order the tofu please” from a guidebook and use the phrase at a restaurant without ever hearing a native speaker say it, the waiter will not understand you and probably ask you to point to it on the menu or say it in English. In fact, there are actually lots of restaurants here where the staff doesn’t speak Cantonese. Like for example, Ruby Tuesday.
I keep telling myself that being a musician with well above average ears and mimicking skills is a big asset in my attempts to pick up this language. It also helps to work with twenty people who speak English and Cantonese (and Mandarin, though I haven’t started on that one yet). I know only a handful of phrases and can count to ten so I am not nearly at the point where I can start a conversation with someone I’ve never met before. My coworkers say the best way to learn is to get a Hong Kong girlfriend. Perhaps I’ll put up a classified ad: “Looking for attractive HK female for the purpose of teaching me Cantonese. Will be repaid with long walks on the beach and top notch American humor and charm.” Maybe it’s worth a try?

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.