Friday, February 22, 2013

Hua Hin

Thailand is a special country. It’s hardly an obscure destination for foreign travelers to go—they seem to be everywhere you look—but my second trip to the country was even better than the first, some ten months ago. Having been to Southeast Asia four times now, there are certain things I’m getting used to. Despite this, I enjoy witnessing many completely new sights, sounds and smells on each trip.

I first heard about Hua Hin from my lead teacher Katie this fall, as she traveled there over Christmas. With plane ticket prices going up and up for Chinese New Year, I decided to fly to Bangkok again, as it’s one of the closest major cities to Hong Kong. But instead of staying within the metropolis, I wanted to go a bit outside of the city, and Hua Hin seemed the best option, after talking with Katie. Beaches and sun galore. Sounds like the perfect escape from lackluster February in Hong Kong.

After a bit of a mixup in finding the bus to Hua Hin, Sharman and I departed southwest from Bangkok on the three-hour ride. And unbeknownst to me, our hotel was another 45 minutes south of the city center so we had to take a tuk-tuk from the bus depot to the resort. At the start, I was a bit skeptical of the hotel. It was far away, teeming with Western families and shut down the front desk at the strangely early hour of 9 pm. However, after a day or so, I realized that the hotel was pretty excellent after all.  The families were fairly laid back and most importantly, the hotel was right on a beautiful endless stretch of quiet beachfront. Unlike the Hua Hin beach, where you could hardly find a square yard without a sunbathing European. 

On the first day, we mostly stayed close to the hotel, soaking in the natural beauty. Our two excursions were both via boat; one on a fisherman's boat to a breathtaking cave called Phraya Nakhon aways down the bay, another on a rented kayak to so-called “Monkey Island.” When we got to the small island and went for a brief swim, hordes of macaque monkeys came towards us. It was a bit surreal in an uncomfortable sort of way so we rowed back to the hotel after a short time. Don’t worry; we had a more positive monkey experience later on the trip.

The next day was Valentines Day and we went for an elephant ride in the nearby elephant farm.  Thailand is obsessed with elephants and I figured this was a must do. I particularly enjoyed riding through the water at the end of the trek. Nothing more romantic than lifting your feet up to avoid floating elephant poo, right? We also expored the actually city of Hua Hin on this day and to be honest, it was fairly unattractive. It just felt like a normal city with a few thousand extra tourists. And as I mentioned before, the famous Hua Hin beach may have gotten a bit too famous with it's endless leathery old Caucasians, sizzling under the sun. The only highlight from the city itself was a shop called "The Family Tree" which sold countless items, all made by local community groups with profits going back to the people. The place was run by a lovely mixed Thai/English couple, as pictured below (6th one down). Sharman got some of her only souvenirs from this place and I got to try out a sweet Thai banjo-like instrument.

The following day we went on a Thai cooking course. This was a unique, rewarding experience where some twelve tourists got to learn how to cook four different Thai dishes with help from a local Thai lady named Beau and her Australian husband (seeing a pattern here?). I’m a very poor cook, partially because I have little interest in cooking, but this course was still a grand time, particularly watching Beau's mastery in the kitchen and her patience with all our faux pas. It’s hard to write about right now before dinner as I can still remember those divine aromas of green curry and tom yum soup!

The final thing we did on the trip was a guided bike ride around the area just south of Hua Hin. Though expensive by Thai standards, this excursion was a real highlight of the trip, much like the ride I took in Guilin six months ago. Bicycling through new places is very liberating to me, for whatever reason. We went all the way from the border shared with Burma, along beaches, by a majestic temple and near the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park. It was also on this trip that we met a clan of dusky leaf monkeys. Unlike the pesky macaques, these creatures were very friendly, taking bananas from our hands and jumping around, undisturbed by our presence. Many of my best photos came from this bike ride.

Though hardly the point of the trip, one of the main themes of our time in Hua Hin was doing healthy activities. We kayaked, swam, hiked (to the cave), had a massage, biked and cooked/ate healthy local food. According to our free cookbook, Thai food is one of the healthiest cuisines as many of the spices either boost immunity or heal the body in various ways. I have no idea how but I trust the cookbook.

It was another enjoyable trip and further confirmation that I’ve got the travel bug and I’ve got it bad. Fortunately, I’ll be in Vietnam a month from now for my Easter holiday. See you in four weeks Southeast Asia!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Hearty Hong Kong Hikes to Heavenly Heights

Since coming to Hong Kong, I’ve had trouble finding a consistent way to exercise. A great deal of this has to do with my own laziness but it also has to do with lack of opportunity and/or convenience. I like team sports but don’t know enough people to play them with. I’ve never been a big fan of the gym atmosphere. There isn’t much room to bike in Hong Kong, and if you want to, it’s a rather expensive hobby. Jogging is just...sweaty. I love swimming but only have easy access to a pool in the summer months here at my apartment. Recently, however, I’ve found my favorite way to exercise thus far: hiking.

For each of the first four weekends of 2013, I embarked on a different hike in Hong Kong. One of the most attractive things about the territory is that beyond the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, 40% of the land is reserved for twenty-three different country parks, all of which have well maintained hiking trails. Basically, that’s to say there are approximately 170 square miles of lush green hills, just waiting to be climbed by people like me. And a great deal of my hikes so far have ventured outside the country parks, into villages and farmland on the outskirts.

In June, I had my first proper Hong Kong hike, to the top of the famous Lion Rock. I did it alone, and though it was hardly a major accomplishment, the journey, the view and the serenity were deeply satisfying. Those countless writers and naturalists have been right when they describe the awesome power of nature (awesome in the profound sense, not the ‘cool, dude’ sense). And ever since I’ve been in Hong Kong, I’ve realized more than ever how important it is for me to experience the great outdoors on a regular basis. I do believe it’s related to my Pacific Northwest roots. Oh and maybe my deep love of the Beatles’ song, “Mother Nature’s Son.”

For Christmas, my head teacher Katie generously gave me this fantastic book: Historical Hong Kong Hikes.

I like it so much I took a photo of it against my teal couch. That's right. Anyway, it’s become my goal to do all fifteen of the hikes in the book before the year is through and so far I’m well on pace! The first one was with my close high school friend Evan, who stopped in Hong Kong for a week during his month-long Asian adventure. We trekked from ritzy Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, up through a Catholic Trappist Monastery, down to chilled out Mui Wo. Misty, quiet, lovely.

Next was a hike from HK’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, down through some lovely countryside to a few farming villages near Tai Po. Right off the bat, I will admit that the majority of the ascent was done in the back seat of taxi. Still, I was very briefly on the top of Hong Kong. I went with my college friend, and fellow HK expat and English teacher Lexi and we agreed that it felt about as far removed as possible from the crazy Hong Kong hustle without leaving the territory.

Then Lexi, Sharman and I hiked from the Hong Kong Parkview estate through Jardine’s Lookout and Tai Tam Country Park on the east side of Hong Kong Island. It didn’t have quite the variety of some of the other hikes, but it’s always fun to feel literally right above the city, looking down on the ships coming through the foggy harbor.

And last weekend was the ultimate Hong Kong hike. High school friend Henry, our other high school friend Cosmo and I recreated one of Henry’s favorite moments during his year in China by climbing two of Hong Kong’s highest peaks, both located on Lantau Island: Sunset Peak (869m) and Lantau Peak (934m). The trip from the previously mentioned Mui Wo (sea-level) to Ngong Ping took around seven hours to complete and was probably the most strenuous hike I’ve ever been on. Nonetheless, it brought the best views of all and gave me confidence to tackle even bigger hikes in coming years, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere. The view of the sun peaking through the clouds on top of Lantau peak was rather magical.

To conclude this post, I’d like to give a big thank you to Henry for all the great adventures we had during his year living in Guangzhou. I saw him in Mainland China three times and he probably came to Hong Kong on nearly a dozen visits. I even mentioned him in six (!) different blog posts, not including this one. If you care, see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Henry, I hope that you had as much fun with me as I did over the last year with you, whether it was biking through beautifully mystical Yangshuo, taking photos of monkeys from point blank range at Kam Shan Country Park, or wandering through the busy streets of Mong Kok to find model robots. Sharman, myself and South China will miss you. Best of luck back home in the US of A!  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Visitors Are Welome!

When I was back in the US, people expectedly asked me what the best things about living in Hong Kong are. My usual answers were incredibly cliché, such as, ‘it’s such a vibrant city’ or ‘it’s surrounded by tons of great travel destinations’ or ‘living there is so freaking convenient!’ Though I get tired of repeating these statements, they are all very true and I try not to take them for granted. However, one really special part of being here that I don’t usually mention is being a host to my friends back home.

Just this morning, my high school/middle school classmate Evan departed Hong Kong after spending a week tramping about the SAR. He and our mutual friend Henry left for a trip exploring the Yunnan Province in southwest China and if I didn’t have work up until Chinese New Year, I certainly would have joined them. Having Evan here was splendid, both in playing tour-guide for him, and being able to converse about the very different lives we lead. He is currently between stints working for the conservation corps in the great American West. After Asia, he’ll be headed to Kalispell, Montana to do some work clearing non-native plants species from various trails and such. Pretty different from helping teach Chinese six-year-olds in one of the densest populations on earth.

Since I moved into my current apartment nearly a year ago, I have hosted four high school classmates (one more next month) as well as my parents. For those of you curious BHS kids, that’s Henry Atkinson, John Leatherman, Luke Jensen, Evan Stewart and soon to be Cosmo Smith. All but one of those five people was on their first trip to Asia, and for most of them, visiting me and having free accomodation were among the biggest draws for coming to Hong Kong. When I first planned out my move to Hong Kong a year and a half ago, I never thought about this. But by having a comfortable residence here, I’m hosting people who may otherwise not have been particularly motivated to visit this region. Since I’ve come to firmly believe in the importance of exploring the world, it’s quite rewarding to know that I play a part in facilitating my friends’ journeys.    

Of course, travelling is expensive and peoples’ lives are busy and twelve-hour plane rides are not fun. I realize all of that. But. It’s not common to have a friend in a world-class foreign city like Hong Kong inviting you to visit. There’s no time like the present, especially if you don’t have a major job/school commitment or kids yet.

I never intended for my blog to be a persuasive platform but hey, there are no real rules here on MFHK. Every time someone visits me, it seems to be a rewarding experience for all parties involved. Give it the old post-college try.

Just think. You could be this cool!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

USA Again

Happy New Year to all! At this moment, I am back in Hong Kong, one day into my school's winter quarter. I was in the States for two weeks and I managed to spend time in Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo, Tacoma, Phoenix and Tucson. The two main purposes of the trip were a) spending time with family and friends and b) showing my girlfriend my home country for the first time. Both went extraordinarily well, but of course, that made it harder than ever to leave. So it goes. 

This was the first I'd been home since last Christmas and though the two trips were similar in many ways in the way I spent my time, my mindset was different due to the length of time since I'd been a US resident. I haven't been living in the US for a year and half, while last Christmas it had only been six short months. This time I felt more nostalgic, needing to dig deeper in my memory when thinking about the last time I did a particular activity or saw a certain person. 

I put a lot of effort into keeping in touch with people, but this is a blessing and a curse. By the end of my trip, I was feeling quite overwhelmed after I'd had half a dozen two plus hour conversations with individual friends in as many days. These hours are invaluable and mean so much to me, but after a while, sometimes it's best to take a break by shifting the conversation from various life decisions relevant to most twenty-somethings to, how 'bout those Seahawks?! 

Forgive me for sounding a bit less positive and optimistic than usual, but that's honestly not how I feel all the time, so I don't plan on hiding these emotions in my blog. Seeing all of my closest friends and family for two weeks then parting ways for the next fifty is one of the biggest challenges about being an expat. Particularly one with a serious love of his home turf. As my girlfriend said, all this is sort of like going to a party and then coming home to your house and feeling suddenly aware of your solitude, but on a much larger scale and with a language barrier.

But instead of endless dwelling, it's time to share some New Years' resolutions. I was pleased that my class teacher Katie had our class write personal resolutions on their first day back. Of course, the resolutions of a six-year-old aren't much more than "tidying my room" or "saying please and thank you" but nonetheless, it's nice to see children joining in on the refreshing hope we adults try to take in at this time of year. For myself, I plan to be more creative, continue to improve my Cantonese, read like a fiend, and exercise more. I have countless other little goals but those are some that I'm trying to keep at the forefront. At this very moment, I'm working in the creative category so as Barney Stinson might say, "Self five!" 

More on the matter of this blog and my writing in general, I'd love to see posts here take all sorts of new directions. I write for myself and for you, dear reader, and by expanding the content, I think I'll do better to keep you and myself engaged. 2012 saw twenty-two posts, mostly about what I've experienced, which I'll continue to write about. But a year later, I find myself more intrigued by writing about what I'm thinking about, especially if I can do so in a way that doesn't feel self-righteous or indulgent. That being said, please let me know if it comes across that way :) On one of the six different flights I took recently, I read a great quote from Obama in Time about why he considers why writing in a diary is important. "...writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are; that the process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions." This blog is not a diary by any means but it also shouldn't be pure journalistic documentation of my time here in Hong Kong. I'm usually dealing with a jumble of thoughts in my life and I agree with our President that writing is a great way find meaning from that jumble. 

To conclude this long and winding road of a post, here are some photos from my trip. Land of the Brave.

Sharman and the King
The Newest Addition to the Seattle Skyline

Cowboy Country


Gray but Beautiful

Bainbridge Island's Landmark


Friday, December 21, 2012

End of Term

I am currently in the brief limbo period between the end of work and the beginning of my Christmas holiday back home in the states. If you care enough to read this, I’m sure you know by now that I’m soon to return to the USA with Sharman for the end of the year. In twelve hours, I’ll be out the door and on my long journey back home! Assuming the apocalypse doesn’t take place before then…

Now marks the end of my first full term working at a primary school. Overall, I’ve been very happy with the decision to work where I do. In a nutshell, my job is helping out 6-year-olds all day long at a school a fifteen-minute walk from my house. Sweet. But from another perspective, I’m gaining valuable experience at a real school and trying to figure out if this is the type of work I want to commit to and foster a career in. I say “real school” because the last school I was at was so unusual in structure (since it is for such small kids) that it almost felt more like a daycare than a school. My current school has students that stay from morning through the afternoon, feed themselves, have one main teacher, play at recess, ride on school busses and so on. My preschool last year had none of the above.

Another huge plus about the primary is the staff around me. I figured this out from the get go, but this school has some very talented teachers and though they may not realize it, they are teaching me as much as the kids, particularly my lead teacher Katie. As our old principal encouraged me to do, I’m looking at this time as almost an apprenticeship before I take steps to become a real certified teacher. Sooner or later, I certainly will advance my education beyond my Bachelor’s and my TEFL certificate. And for the past few months, I've been pondering just when, where and how I may try to do this. 

One downside that I’ve found at both the schools I’ve worked at now is the business-like aspect of the organization. Perhaps this is just the nature of the beast, but both schools I’ve been at have seemed to be a bit too motivated by cash. I won’t give any specific examples, but cutting general classroom resource costs, adding student fees at every opportunity and marketing like mad are among the trends. It’s not a perfect world. Maybe one day I’ll work at a school in which quality education trumps financial interest. I hope.

Still, in my day-to-day routine, this isn’t a significant issue on my mind. I love the kids and I love my coworkers, and when you’re surrounded by people you love, life is generally quite enjoyable. There are stressful days now and again for many a reason, but holistically, my full-time gig is a fulfilling one. Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Leah Ao Xin

I have a hunch that this blog post will reach record traffic levels due to the amount of people that love my cousin Mark Trombino and his wife Carol. This has been a life changing time for them and briefly being a part of it has been such unbelievably good fortune for myself. It is a great honor to be bringing many of you the first photos of father, mother and new child all together, either on this blog or on Facebook. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a bit unfair for me to meet Leah before her own older sister, but Priya, you’re going to see this little bundle of energy in Arizona quite soon. Mark and Carol had their hands full here in China, literally and figuratively.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, my girlfriend Sharman and I travelled to Guangzhou this weekend to meet my first cousin Mark (my dad’s sister’s son) as he and his wife Carol went through the final steps to fully adopting Leah Ao Xin Trombino. They met Leah on Monday morning in Harbin, China after nearly two years of research, paperwork and nail biting. Harbin, a freezing city in Northeastern China, is Leah’s birthplace and where she’s lived for the first four years of her life. After a few days there, the three of them hopped on a plane down to Guangzhou on China’s much warmer southern coast. All American adoptions in China must go through Guangzhou, as this is the location of the US Consulate.  

On Saturday morning, the day after the Trombino’s arrived in Guangzhou, Sharman and I took the two-hour train from Hong Kong meet them, as well as my good friend Henry who lives in Guangzhou and hosted Sharman and I. For the rest of the weekend, we were able to see just how special Leah Ao Xin really is. Despite all the certainly confusing stuff that’s been happening to her lately, she was nothing but smiles, laughter and love for the whole time we were with her. According to Mark and Carol, it only took about a day until she fully embraced them as her new parents, saying Baba and Mama all the time. Her first English sentence earlier in the week was “I love you.” Her second, thanks to Elmo and his videos, was “That’s not a frog!”

Much of Leah’s past is unknown but we do know that after a few months in an orphanage, from ages one to four, Leah she was in a loving foster family. This may explain why she was immediately so trusting and open, while a child straight from the orphanage may be shy and take longer to adjust to his/her adopted family. We went on a brief Guangzhou sightseeing tour with a number of adopted children and their American parents, and I can safely say that Ao Xin was the most comfortable, outgoing child of the lot. She is a little person like her parents, but even in spite of that, she’s quite mobile. Perhaps faster than her old man already!

Also this weekend, I was given reason number #2,654 why I’m lucky to be with Sharman. As a speaker of Mandarin (in addition to Cantonese and English), she was able to translate her parents’ instructions for Leah as well as helping Mark and Carol get some understanding on Leah's constant chatter towards them. She was always saying funny, adorable things in Mandarin like “Dad, I drew a heart” or “Is it yummy?” or “Write horizontally!” that her parents would have otherwise had no way of understanding. Not to mention that Sharman is a preschool teacher and a natural with young kids. She and I are so looking forward to seeing Leah again in a month on Christmas day in Phoenix. By that time, I’m sure her English will be increasing at the speed of light.

I was sad to leave them so soon but even though it was only a weekend, I know I’ll remember this as long as I live. It’s still hard to comprehend that this adorable little four-year-old who speaks only a couple words of English is my new cousin. At this moment, they’re in Guangzhou still but they leave on Thanksgiving Day to begin life as a family of four!

Sunday, November 11, 2012


This is a post that has nothing to do with me, Hong Kong or any specific event that's occurred recently. Instead, it's my most recent postulate upon some of life's eternal questions. I wrote this after a Skype chat with a friend, as I found the need to remind myself and my friend to step back and think of the big picture a bit more than either of us has been recently. All is just fine in my life these days, but who's to say that we should only ponder the Big Questions in times of trial? So here it is. The importance of balance. 

When caught up in one’s day-to-day routine, it’s easy to lose track of the fundamental reasons why one does what one does with the majority of the waking hours. For example, after three years of schooling, all that undergrad biology school student Samantha may think about is her hours inputting data in the lab, her memorization of terms and her exam scores. With our tendency to think in the short term, it’s easy for Samantha to forget that she’s building up her knowledge to one day save lives in a real hospital. And even if not every fact is applicable to life in the ICU, it all is necessary to get the diploma that leads to another diploma, which leads to a medical job. Or even a college grad like say, Tony, who serves as a tour guide in an art museum near his home. He may stress about his taxes, his weight problems, and the repetitive nature of his job, but in reality, there isn’t a day that goes by where one of the people on his tours develops an entirely new appreciation of art thanks to Tony’s insight on the exhibits. Even those without meaningful full-time occupations can give the world great gifts through love and wisdom in countless different ways.

To reflect on my vaguely Buddhist thinking, I like to think that life is one long journey to achieve perfect balance. Think of it as designing the perfect, hybrid car. Things may be running smoothly, but there are always tweaks to be made, be it the engine, overall comfort or effective airbags. These tweaks that need to be made are not burdensome but healthy challenges, stimulating the mind for the long term and providing rewarding results in the short term. By the time I’m destined to die, I’d like to hope that I will have achieved the perfect balance for the car to drive off into the sunset. A calm, efficient ride, reaching high speeds, but not so fast as to miss the scenery. On top of that, the car will be completely sustainable. Taking in the exact amount of energy that it gives back, through improving the universe and other people’s lives. 

This balance can also be seen as inhale and exhale. The inhale is learning and taking from the world and its resources. The exhale is teaching and giving. This is most obviously displayed in the universal norm working for wages, but should be present in every aspect of life. Hospitable strangers host you in a foreign land; you allow foreigners to stay in your home free of charge. You learn from your father how to catch a fish; you teach your daughter how to catch a fish. You have a revelation from the natural beauty at a national park; you encourage others to go on a similar hike and/or volunteer to pick up trash along the trails. You’re born into a wealthy family; you spend time experiencing and informing others what it’s like to be in dire circumstances and how to approach the disparity. 

I find it much more natural to dwell on the negative aspects of life than to bask in the positive. For whatever reason, the human brain naturally fixates on problems and when something is satisfactory, it’s taken for granted and ignored. It’s crucial to have moments to step back and look at what really matters, and to me that’s having a life that makes the world a better place, pardon the cliché. On any given day, most people have a handful of issues or regrets that add up to something terrible, something commonly called stress. But when one looks back at those issues and regrets just one short year in the future, most if not all of those stress components will be purely trivial. 

In reality, so many of the important factors in life are out of our control. Where we’re born, what genes we inherit, what kind of family we have, who we meet, unexpected experiences and events, luck, timing, tragedies, etc. But as we can only control our own choices, the most we can do is hope to find this balance and know how to approach the past, present and future. All without giving in to negativity, stress, worry and/or cynicism, no matter how bleak it may seem sometimes. Breathe in, breathe out.