Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Hong Kong’

Culture Shock

In Uncategorized on October 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Culture shock is a funny thing.  Based on my experience, it seems to be not so much about differences, but rather about expectations of similarity. 

During my first three trips to China, it’s hard for me to point to many instances of culture shock.  I can think of one, and that was at the end of my two-month summer stay.  The thing is, I knew nothing about China – and I knew that I knew nothing about China.  I had no illusions about my familiarity with the language, culture, food, or anything else that I encountered.  Everything was very different from what I was used to, but I just accepted it as it was and moved on.

When I went back for the year, I felt reasonably adept at life in China, but my recent Chinese language course made me realize that my language skills were rudimentary at best.  Again, with low expectations, I adjusted fairly well to my new life. 

The culture shock came later.

Culture shock is a consequence of confidence.  The instances that easily come to mind (shopping in Beijing after my parents left, and Easter Sunday when a woman told me I’d been sitting improperly all year, for example) both came much later in the year, when I felt like I knew everything. 

The worst culture shock I’ve ever had in my life was my first day in Hong Kong.  I’d already been to Taiwan, so I thought I knew what “China-not-China” was like, and was NOT prepared for the reality of Hong Kong.  The aggressive English-speaking Indian men, the cost of everything, the Cantonese and traditional characters, the cars driving on the left side of the road – it all took me by surprise, going against all of my expectations, and was just too much for to take in all at once.  So I retired to my room and watched youtube videos for a few hours. 

In preparing to come out to California, I knew that the West Coast is different from the Midwestern/Central states that I’ve always lived in.  I was prepared for political differences and higher prices and not being able to carry a gun with more than 10 rounds (not that this was going to cramp my style at all). 

But it ended up being something much more mundane that got to me.  A few days after I arrived, I went grocery shopping and nearly ended up in the fetal position in a corner.  It wasn’t just that there wasn’t a familiar grocery store around – there weren’t any familiar products in the grocery store.  The brands were all different, and everything was organic or gluten-free or free-range or whatever.  Also (like Hong Kong) everything was more expensive than I was used to.   When you’re stocking a brand new apartment, it’s a long shopping trip, and by the end of the produce section I was ready to quit.  I was so happy when I saw something I recognized! (I feel like it was Old El Paso taco shells or something stupid like that.)

I’m not trying to be all small-town Oklahoma here or anything.  (When people ask, I say I’m from Oklahoma; I figure it is at least as accurate as any other possible response.)  When I tell Californians of this culture shock, I make sure to follow it up with the Hong Kong story, so that they know I’m not just freaking out because we don’t have stoplights in the town where I grew up or something stereotypically small-town like that.  Like I said, culture shock isn’t as much about differences as the expectation of similarity.  My Bulgarian roommate nailed it on the head when she said, “But you’re from America!”.  I would never assume that Xinjiang is basically the same as Xiamen, but it’s easier to fall into that trap when you’re dealing with your own country. 

The culture shock passed quickly enough (well before the dairy aisle), and now two weeks after arriving I am feeling pretty settled in.  I’m still getting used to all of the proper nouns associated with my new home (cities, roads, stores, brands, etc.) – a challenge with any move – and I’m sure there will be surprises ahead . . . but I did it in China and I’m pretty sure I can handle California. 

Uh oh, there’s that confidence again . . .

Thoughts on Hong Kong

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2010 at 1:27 am

My bus arrived in Xiamen this morning at 6, coming back to the island in the soft pre-dawn glow.  I grabbed a taxi home and had just enough time to clean out my backpack and shower before class.  I skipped three days of class last week, but was relieved/disappointed to find out that we were still on the same lesson, so I didn’t miss much.

My name was in the notebook on the front desk downstairs – twice! – which meant I had mail.  What a wonderful welcome-back gift – a postcard from France and a birthday card from Tulsa, signed by so many good friends! 

I spent the morning and afternoon (except for a quick jaunt over to Lianxing for class that turned out to be cancelled) unpacking and catching up on things. 


While I worked, I pondered my weekend in Hong Kong and the observations I made there.  Here are some thoughts:

I’ve said before that a big city is a big city.  This is not true – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou are Chinese big cities.  Hong Kong, on the other hand, seems actually international.  Once I got over the shock of all the Indian men, the most striking thing about the people in Hong Kong was that they looked like Americans.  Every ethnicity, every color, every shape, every style of fashion was represented. 

Living in China and speaking Mandarin has become a source of pride for me.  I love knowing that I can handle most any basic situation that would arise, whether or not anyone else involved can speak English.  It’s comforting, certainly, and a source of confidence to try new things and go new places, but it’s also at least part pride – straight up, seven-deadly-sins pride.  When I’m in China, I’m not ‘one of those Americans’, and I like living above reproach from any other potentially condescending foreigners.  Going to Hong Kong not speaking Cantonese was a lesson in humility.  No one cared that I spoke Mandarin; my one attempt with a taxi driver yielded more confusion than the English I was trying to explain, and when I ordered 珍珠奶茶 instead of “milk tea with pearls”, the worker laughed at me much like I would be amused at an obvious non-native speaker speaking Spanish to me in America. 

I feel obligated to like Hong Kong more than mainland China, but I don’t think I do.  Hong Kong is free, modern, clean, and courteous; China only occasionally exhibits these characteristics.  China, however, is both familiar and exciting.  The familiarity is the product of months and months of immersion, while the excitement has managed to stick around despite the length of time I’ve been here.  China’s quirks make every day an adventure and – 85% of the time – a joy, while Hong Kong is predictably free, modern, clean, and courteous.  Where’s the fun in that?  I still think back on Taiwan with great fondness; I think Taiwan is a great combination of the excitement and adventure of the mainland plus the convenience, efficiency, and courtesy of Hong Kong. 

I first met Alex in the fall of my sophomore year at TU.  I had been to China for the first time that summer, on a one-week Engineers Without Borders assessment trip, and Alex had just returned from a semester studying abroad in Chengdu (the first TU student to study in China).  The next year, I returned to China with the SENEA project, and Alex returned to Chengdu to study.  Sometime during the fall of my junior year, when I began toying with the idea of studying Chinese in China, I sent Alex an email and we met up at the Center for Global Education to talk.  I remember being so impressed with how much he knew about China and Chinese.  As far as I know, he spoke more Chinese than any non-Chinese student at TU – he was the master. 

He applied for this scholarship too, but he was graduating so I was chosen :)  Fast forward to now, me quickly approaching a year total in China and nearly as long of intense language study.  With his job of teaching English in a Cantonese-speaking area, he has to work hard to even keep his Mandarin at the level it once was, much less improve.  What I’m getting at here is – undoubtedly due more to our different circumstances than any differences between us personally – I may have surpassed ‘the master’.  We didn’t have a speak-off or anything, but I’m sure we’re at least pretty close in language ability and other practical China skills.  I just remember how far ahead he once seemed – how unattainable his language level seemed, and how enviable his familiarity with the country and its people.  I’m simultaneously tickled and disconcerted at the idea of having reached this goal I never set for myself. 


Aleid and I had dinner plans, which is probably good because otherwise I would not have left my room.  The weather is wet – not precipitating, just wet.  Humidity is well up in the 90’s and everything is sweating, even the air.  Visibility is perhaps at an all-time low, with even the top of Caiqingjie and the tallest tower of DaXueCheng (18 stories?) obscured by fog. 

I had a weird feeling on the walk over to West Gate – I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to eat.  Even allowing myself to consider food that is unavailable in China, nothing sounded right.  We went to Green Chairs and had Kung Pao chicken, which of course ended up being exactly what I wanted.  We also tried something new – shrimp cooked in tea leaves!  It tasted exactly like you would expect shrimp cooked in tea leaves to taste, which is what I discovered when trying Orange M&M’s and Sprite Iced Tea in Hong Kong.  Go figure!


Journal note: There are three new posts today – this one, one about the trip back from Shenzhen last night, and an extra one about Tomb-Sweeping Day.

Mandarin: Not So Sweet After All

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2010 at 1:01 am

Emotions are fickle things. 

I reentered China at approximately 6 p.m. on Sunday evening, and spent a good half hour relishing the wave of Mandarin washing over me.

By 7 or so, I was beginning to remember some things that I’m not so terribly fond of about China. 

The conversation partners I had so easily found were asking me for the 6th time why I don’t have a Chinese boyfriend because I’m “so pretty”.  I was most certainly not pretty, after changing into pajamas for the long bus ride and feeling grimy despite doing my best to wash my face in the miniscule sink at Chungking Mansions.  It’s usually nice to get compliments anyway, but their implications were overpowered by the cigarette smoke (which I don’t remember smelling even once in Hong Kong) that they blew directly in my face with each leer.

I had some good conversations with a few of the nicer men, but had real difficulty communicating with some of them.  While they were all technically speaking Mandarin, some of their accents were quite heavy.  In addition to the lovely Southern habit of dropping the ‘h’ from ‘sh’, these guys also said ‘f’ instead of ‘h’ and ‘l’ instead of ‘n’ and ‘r’.  And then there was the guy who asked me if I’d been to “Baizhang” and had to explain that it was China’s capital before I understood what he was talking about . . . Accents are the bane of any language-learner’s existence, but there is definitely a simple pleasure to hear one Chinese person berate another for saying something wrong.  Ha!  I didn’t understand, but it was your fault. 

The cast of characters in the bus office was continually changing, men coming and men (always men) going.  One guy got into a [rather one-sided] conversation with me about Christianity.  As best as I could understand, he was comparing Christianity in China with Christianity in the rest of the world, and as far as I could understand he was saying that Christians in other countries identify themselves primarily with their nation instead of Christianity.  I was certainly not going to agree with his assertion, but – not wanting to mistake his meaning – instead claimed I didn’t understand.  (I didn’t; whether it was an issue of language or logic was unclear.)  But after watching my adeptly handle such challenging questions as “How old are you?” and “Which is better, China or America?”, this guy was not going to let me get off claiming anything less than complete fluency.  He looked at me with contempt and said, “I know  you understand.”  It wasn’t that hard to deal with his disappointment, especially because he shut up afterwards. 

Then a new guy came in, sat down, and asked where I was from.  My answer prompted an immediate response from him: “America sucks.  England too.”  I actually don’t hear (/understand) a lot of America-bashing over here, so I was a little taken aback.  But what came next was even more surprising – he brought up the president and, after some prompting, clarified that he meant Obama.  This was the first time I’d heard anything bad about Obama, so I was interested to hear his reasons.  (I thought it would have something to do with his race, as many Chinese are racist to some extent and invariably remark on his color.)  Unfortunately, this guy’s Mandarin was heavily accented, breakneck fast, and mumbled almost beyond comprehension.  I kept asking him to repeat himself and looking at the others for help deciphering his rant, but everyone in the room just looked visibly uncomfortable and tried to avoid my gaze.  The only word I picked up is “bin Laden”, but there was no mention or Iraq or war as far as I could tell, so I really don’t know what he was saying.  It really irritated me that he spoke for so long when I obviously didn’t understand.  If you have a problem with my country, that’s fine, but please speak proper 普通话 so I can understand you.  Instead, he just took the opportunity to soapbox in front of a Chinese audience and an American who can’t even say anything in response. 

Thus the hours passed.  Finally it was 8:30 (the scheduled departure time of our bus), and I began to gather my things.  I asked the men when we were heading out, and they asked me what the rush was?  They sat there, tea cups in hand and cigarettes between lips, in absolutely no hurry to be anywhere or do anything, and told me that I was too pretty to head back to Xiamen yet.  I laughed and said I would just walk home, but inside I was wondering if the time for joking had passed and the time for figuring out another way home had arrived.  Luckily, a woman came in around this time, and she too seemed vaguely concerned about returning to Xiamen sometime in the near future.

More hours passed.  Someone turned on the TV and we started watching the news.  The countdown to the Shanghai World Expo is at 20 days.  Protests continue in Thailand.  Opposition forces have taken control of Kyrgyzstan (another ridiculous country name I’ve learned in Chinese – 吉尔吉斯斯坦).  The president of Poland died in a plane crash over Russia.  (Only upon my return home did I find out that many top government officials died as well; now my heart is sad for that beautiful country.) 

Around 10, we walked across the station in the first leg of our journey.  We had been joined by some new passengers, including one young man who carried a woman’s bag the entire way for her.  The fact that this deserves mention in the journal indicates how uncommon common courtesy is in China . . . I remember thinking to myself how he had just earned 1,000 Potential Chinese Boyfriend points, as opposed to the stupid flattery and cigarette smoke of the men in the bus office (worth 0 points). 

After a van ride to take us to our bus, we were finally able to board.  Apparently we had a sleeper bus – my first time!  You may think you can’t fit many beds into a single bus, but that’s just because you’re not thinking like a Chinese.  There are three rows of beds along the length of the bus, and each one is stacked two high.  Each bed is exactly the width of me, with my arms by my side, and the aisles between are significantly narrower.  I think the lengths vary, because I was continually motioned towards different berths as the driver realized how ridiculously tall I am.  The head of each bed is raised, creating extra foot room for the passenger behind you.  I actually found it quite comfortable, especially considering I was expecting a seat.  The bed was probably more comfortable than a hard sleeper in a train, but train compartments offer space to sit up, eat, walk around, etc. while sleeper buses are exclusively for sleeping. 

And, of course, that is fine with me. 

Mandarin: No Sweeter Sound

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2010 at 6:45 am

This morning I had plans with Alex, a friend of mine from TU, to meet for Mass at his usual place, Rosary Church Kowloon.  The church was a beautiful building, and the Mass was just as beautiful.  The priest (Irish, I’m pretty sure) was the first native English-speaker I’d heard celebrate Mass in over 7 months, and the Gloria was the first one I’d recognized from home in just as long.  Those weren’t the only differences – the congregation didn’t talk during the service, the priest commented on the one cell phone that rang, and there were extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.  The main similarity to my church in Xiamen was that Communion was still confusing. 

At the end of Mass, Father made a special announcement concerning the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.  This was another first for me.  He shared some of Pope Benedict’s words, which I had already read, but it was still the first time I heard anyone mention the issue in person.  (I think this is completely a function of me living in China, and not characteristic of the international church – is that true?)  I wonder what they know about it [mainland] China . . . are they talking and I just don’t understand? 

After Mass, Alex suggested that we go to his town, “out in the boonies of Hong Kong” and on the way to Shenzhen.  We took the Metro over there, where we had a delicious Indian meal.  (Alex confirmed my hunch that he eats a lot more foreign food in Hong Kong than he did when he used to live in Chengdu, simply because most Chinese food is as expensive as the foreign food.) 


From there, we walked to the river, where we hung out and talked for awhile.  We spent a lot of time comparing China with the non-China places we’ve been.  Here’s a general summary: Chinese people are friendly, people from Hong Kong are courteous, and Taiwanese are both. 

Alex and I have had different paths to China so it’s interesting to compare our past experiences and our hopes for the future.  We discussed the prospect of returning to work in China; it sounds good but the more I think about it, maybe it wouldn’t be the same.  We both like China and think it’s fun, but perhaps less so when you actually have to get something done . . .

Alex’s town has a nice ‘town square’, lots of sitting areas surrounded by food vendors.  We got big glasses of milk tea (for the ridiculous price of $1.80, compared to 60 cents back in Xiamen) and I got a Belgian waffle doused in butter and condensed milk.  I have pretty good self control when it comes to food, but all my restraint goes out the window when traveling.  Especially in China, if I see good food in another city and don’t eat it, I may not ever get the chance again!  And thus, my Easter sugar high has stayed around through the entirety of the Octave.

I managed to work the money situation just right, changing 1,000 renminbi (about $130) to Hong Kong dollars when I arrived and leaving with about $10 US of loose bills in my wallet and an Octopus Card with a negative balance.  Basically what I’m getting at here is – I am a ninja.

He walked me to the subway, which I took back to the border crossing.  As I approached passport control, my phone vibrated, delivering a text message from back home in Xiamen – now I have dinner plans to look forward to tomorrow!  Reentering China was – surprisingly – quite easy and I was through in a matter of minutes.  From the moment 請 became 请, I felt myself relax into the familiarity of China.  The Chinese characters before me were all wondrously simplified, and the only language that my ears detected was good ol’ Mandarin.  After a few days of English and Cantonese, it soothes my soul.

I bought a ticket for the 8:30 bus to Xiamen and sat down to wait for a few hours.  The couple Chinese guys nearby were drawn in like moths to a flame, and after complimenting me on my Mandarin, the usual battery of questions began:

  • How long have you been here?
  • Where do you work?
  • Where are you from?
  • Which is better, China or America?
  • Are you used to it here?
  • Do you eat Chinese food?
  • What brand is your computer?
  • How much did it cost?
  • Do you have a Chinese boyfriend?
  • Have you been to ___ place in China?

It’s good to be back, China – I’ve missed you, and I think you missed me too. 

Exploring the Fragrant Harbor

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2010 at 2:55 am

Not having a window doesn’t feel weird until the morning, which – without a window – is indistinguishable from any other time of day.  This is where alarm clocks (and preferably, a little willpower) come in.  I left the place around 11:30, which meant I had gone over 15 hours without any glimpse of natural light.  Gross.

Oddly enough, there wasn’t much natural light outside.  My original plan was to ride the Peak Tram up the mountain for a good view of the city and surroundings, but reconsidered when I saw that the sky looked like this:


Instead, I went wandering in search of food.  I ran into a major problem in this, paralyzed in indecision over what to eat.  Everything is more expensive here than anything is back in Xiamen, so it’s not the usual easy choice between cheap Chinese food and expensive foreign food.  The rule I try to follow, enjoy what you have, where you are, was decidedly hard to follow because I’m having a hard time figuring out where I am.  In China, I’m in China – not in America; in America, I’m in America – not in China.  But Hong Kong is a horse of a different color, and I can’t quite figure out if I’m in China or the West and, therefore, if I should be eating Chinese or Western food.  I ended up allowing myself to think in terms of US dollars, as 7 USD for a meal is more palatable than 50 HKD, and bought a bag full of delicious breads at BreadTalk, an orange ice cup from the ice cream truck (!!), and an enormous glass of milk tea. 

I stopped in at the H&M right by Chungking Mansions, where I heard they had “Western-friendly sizes”.  I wanted to believe, but it wasn’t until I saw the size 40 shoes that I was convinced.  They had 40’s – not 39’s that the saleslady promised were large – and they had them in every style.  But then I was distracted by the dresses – bright sundresses in sizes up to US 14!  Out of habit after 7 months of miserable shopping in China, I took the largest two sizes into a dressing room, where I was astonished to discover that they were both too big.  As I went back to try a 10, I relished the feeling of fitting in, of being a part of the acceptable spectrum instead of a negligible outlier.  I ended up buying a pair of black flats and a sundress, 99 HKD ($13 each) – shopping therapy at its best! 

For lack of definitive plans, I took the subway to Hong Kong island (from Kowloon, where I’m staying) and got on the bus headed for the tram anyway.  Then I noticed that the bus route included a St. John’s Cathedral, so I decided to check that out instead.  I was really surprised to discover that it was an Anglican church!  China only recognized five religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity), with no allowances for variety within those categories.  Thus, there are no Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Anglican churches – and I have no idea what Mormons do!  But there it was, a beautiful Anglican cathedral in front of me . . . and a very physical reminder of the freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong. 


I knew there was a Catholic cathedral in the area, too, so I asked directions and went for a walk.  Hong Kong is an interesting city, and after the culture shock of last night wore off I was finally able to enjoy it today.  There’s a lot of green everywhere, woven in between the city, and the city itself is built on very hilly ground.  Thus, touring Hong Kong on foot is like mountain climbing, with good views of nearby skyscrapers. 

The worst part about my sojourn was the number of times I nearly got killed.  I’m quite slow catching on to this whole driving-on-the-left thing, and thus tend to look away just as cars speed towards me.  Just one of the quirky remnants of British colonialism, like their use of the word ‘alight’ when talking about getting off buses.  I can imagine HK and the mainland getting closer and closer in many ways in the remaining 87 years before the “one country, two systems” deal is up.  I don’t think the Party will be able to keep up with globalization and the PRC will continue to become more capitalist, more modern, and more free.  Basically, the limit of China as t approaches 87 years is Hong Kong – did you follow that?  But some things don’t change gradually – regarding driving directions, for instance, a gradual change would cause immediate catastrophe.  Haha . . .

I arrived intact at the church someone had directed me to – not the cathedral, but it was Catholic and that’s a start.  St. Joseph’s is one of the least attractive churches I’ve seen in China, obviously built in the 70’s.


But it had just turned 3:00 – the Hour of Mercy – and for the first time during the Octave of Easter/Novena to the Divine Mercy, I found myself in a silent church.  I definitely miss friends who share my faith, multiple opportunities to go to Mass each day, and priests who are fluent in my language, but recently I’ve found myself longing most for a chapel that is both nearby and frequently open.  Seek and ye shall find, I guess!

Asking directions again, I finally made it to the cathedral compound.  The outside is totally uninspiring but the inside makes up for it – a huge gorgeous sanctuary with several side altars and an abundance of stained glass, statues, and mosaics. 


There was even an adoration chapel!  And there were people there!

After my church tour of Hong Kong was over, I returned to Kowloon and headed for the Star Ferry Port.  I bought tickets for the 8:00 boat ride around the harbor, which left me with a few hours to kill.  I wandered around, taking in the obligatory pro-Falun Gong exhibits on display in every non-China area.  I knew I’ve been in China too long when I wondered why the government put up with that sort of stuff, and it took me a while to remember things like freedom of speech, press, and public assembly.


I really liked the view of Hong Kong island from the harbor.  It went on for ever and ever, shades of gray punctuated by neon that appeared to float in monochrome.

Hong Kong Panorama 2.tif

I grabbed dinner – a burger and fries – from an Australian pub nearby and at in in a small parkish place near the water.  It was gorgeous – benches shadowed by palm trees, facing a bubbling fountain, sandwiched between a beautiful concert hall and the harbor.  The fog – same stuff that made the day so gray – made the night absolutely stunning, by trapping the lights of the city down here on earth.  It was every color but gray. 

I took the 8 o’clock boat so I could catch the Symphony of Lights, a nightly light show, from the water.  It was pretty cool, with huge screens displaying messages and powerful beams of light shooting through the sky. 


The pictures didn’t turn out that great, but I’m not too disappointed.  The experience was enough, I think, and in hindsight I’ve found I treasure my written memories more than photos 96% of the time anyway. 

I was really entranced by the colorful flags on our boat, though, and managed to get a few good shots:

IMG_2535 IMG_2554

IMG_2556 IMG_2558

Hong Kong Isn’t China, But It Might Be India

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2010 at 2:10 am

Oh, Guangzhou Victory Hotel – it’s been great.  Thanks for the bacon and croissants, the decadent bed, the super-friendly bellboys, and nightly chocolates delivered to my room.  But all things must come to an end, and today was a day for leaving – leaving Guangzhou, and leaving China.

My friends went home to America this morning, but I had another stop to make before heading home (to Xiamen, of course) – Hong Kong.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I don’t consider Hong Kong to be part of China.  It might have something to do with the fact that I had to go through Chinese and Hong Kong Customs and Immigration to go from one to the other, or the fact that I had to change currencies and my cell phone no longer works.  Things like this indicate different countries to me – I know, I’m crazy like that. 

I was prepared for those changes, in theory at least.  In actuality, I wasn’t quite prepared for the trek from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, which involved 3 separate subway rides and a longer train ride, adding up to over 5 hours – longer than it took me to get from Xiamen to Guangzhou!  A lot of this time was also spent waiting in lines to get through customs and immigration, each time comically divided into a ridiculous number of lines showing the complicated relationship between China and the places I refer to as non-China (HK, Macau, and Taiwan). 

The surprises of Hong Kong did not stop there, though.  Coming to Hong Kong after living in China is like going about your daily life while wearing a pair of glasses that aren’t your own.  Everything is different – usually just a little bit, but enough to throw me off.  The traditional characters, for instance – a lot of them familiar from my summer course in the US, but some only understandable based on context.  But even traditional characters are preferable to the Romanized Cantonese that accompanies them.  It’s strange and I hate it – again, it bears some semblance to Mandarin pinyin but the differences are non-negligible.  Cantonese is so prevalent here that the ‘common-ness’ of 普通话 (Mandarin, the ‘common language’), is questionable; I’m not sure how much use my Mandarin is, so I’m paralyzed by doubt every time I try to speak. 

It’s not just language based, either.  In a relic of British imperialism, they drive on the left, walk on the left, and put their pants on left leg first (most likely); I have made an ass out of myself even more often than usual because of this.  Even the money is almost-but-not-quite.  I traded in 1,000 RMB for 1,112 HKD, which is a difference slight enough to mean that revising my usual estimation of 7-to-1 isn’t worth it.  The bills are even brighter than Chinese money, but look weird because they are issued by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited and HSBC instead of a government; they pretty much look like traveler’s checks or something. 

Anyway, I made it the correct subway stop and came up to the surface of Hong Kong for the very first time . . . and culture shock immediately set in.  Hard core, more overwhelmed than I’ve been since coming to China.  I was on Nathan Rd, the main drag of Kowloon, and the neon signs in English, Chinese (characters), and Cantonese illuminated the street like the midday sun.  And what was there to be illuminated was people.  In terms of quantity it was much like China, but the quality of the people was different.  I really felt like I had taken the wrong train and ended up in Mumbai or something, because Indians and Pakistanis had clearly overtaken the Han Chinese as the strong majority in this area.  They harassed me as I walked along, selling watches, computers, tailors, and places to stay.

It was around this point, when I was being intimidated into near hysteria by some men who weren’t even being particularly aggressive, I realized that if I were to immediately travel from China to a culture of machismo, I would mostly likely experience a completely emotional breakdown.  Chinese men are just not very aggressive, and even when drunk they’re more deferent than Western men.  I’ve become accustomed to this, and thus was surprised by and unprepared for the efforts of these men to get my attention.  Worse, they all spoke English so couldn’t even hide behind the language barrier as a defense. 

But, I actually was looking for a place to stay, so at some point I had to talk to them.  I went to the Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’s most infamous low-budget hostels, and let one guy take me up to his place.  For 150 Hong Kong dollars ($20) a night, I get what could generously be described as a cell. 


I have my own bathroom so I shouldn’t complain, but it’s miniscule – I could literally drink from the faucet while relieving myself on the toilet, and could do both while taking a shower. 


After setting my stuff down, I decided to explore my surroundings.  I had grand delusions of eating at the TGIF next door, but when I saw that appetizers were 100 HKD ($13), I decided even that wasn’t worth it.  Enjoy what you have, where you are, I reminded myself, and grabbed Indian food from one of the 400 tiny food stands in Chungking Mansions. 

I got it to-go and planned to retire to my room and enjoy the freedom of expression available here in Hong Kong, in the form of Facebook, Youtube, and The Onion.  If only it were that simple . . . Turns out that the Chungking Mansions consist of at least 5 buildings, sharing a common base but unconnected at the top.  I’m sure you see where this is going, but to explain completely why it took me an hour to get up to my room on the 6th floor of building D, I also have to add that the elevators are epically slow.  Each building has two – one that stops on even floors and one that stops on odd floors – each capable of holding about 6 people an uncomfortable proximities.  After dinner time, lines for the elevators were spilling out into the main corridors and made me glad I had a book on me. 

So yeah, my bad sense of direction + a maze of identical Bollywood DVD shops, naan and curry stands, and knock-off iPod sellers + worst elevator situation ever = 4 trips to the 6th floor, including one by stairs. 

Back in my room, I curled up with my chicken rice, pita bread, and wifi-enabled laptop, and there spent several wonderful hours rotting my brain.  I read about 40 Onion articles in a row and watched a music video for the first time since leaving America.  I came to the conclusion that Lady Gaga is freaking messed-up, and am now fine not watching music videos for another 7+ months.  But I also watched a few videos I had bookmarked for this occasion.  One, a guerrilla handbell stunt from Improv Everywhere, was distinctly out-of-date with a Christmas scene but despite (or perhaps because of?) this, brought me to tears. 

I’ve been using my proxy back home in Xiamen so it wasn’t weird at all to get on facebook, but videos load too slow so it was really my first time on Youtube in many months.  It has changed – I can’t describe exactly how, but the page is laid out differently and there are a lot more videos in HD.  Weird that a familiar website can feel so unfamiliar. 

But maybe I should have expected it.  Familiar sites have brought me a lot of unfamiliar things this year – engagement announcements of friends, pictures of things I wasn’t there for, news of current events I missed, and popular songs I’ve never heard of.  Most recently, it’s been weird checking out the new 2010 scholarship winners.  For the last two years, April was a time to await scholarship decisions, a time to obsessively check websites looking for my name.  This year, I checked the same sites but looked instead for the name of my school.  I was happy to see TU students do so well – with a Truman, 2 Goldwaters, and 3 NSFs – but felt weird that I didn’t know most of the winners.  (Technically, this was more true before I found out about the NSF winners, one of whom is living in my room of my apartment right now, and the other who just sent me a letter from New Zealand.)  SENEA totally swept the last two years of Goldwater and Udall scholarships, but I guess all good things must come to an end. 

It’s Easter Everywhere!

In Uncategorized on April 5, 2010 at 12:33 am

Today is Easter.  Today, April 4th 2010, is Easter everywhere in the world.  Chinese people try to tell me that there is no such thing in China but that’s just stupid.  For instance, the 4th of July will be America’s Independence Day everywhere in the world; whether or not you personally observe it is totally irrelevant to the discussion.  Also, it’s a ridiculous statement to say that “Chinese doesn’t have this holiday” because Chinese Christians, though few, DO exist and DO celebrate it! 

If someone came up to me in the States and told me “Today is Snuffelbarger day!”, I would respond, “Happy Snuffelbarger day!”, and then I would ask how this holiday is celebrated.  This is not how the Chinese approach unknown things, however.  This has been obvious in several interactions over the past few days.  I got into an argument with my taxi driver last night, for instance, when he told me that no Chinese celebrate Easter.  He refused to change his mind even after I told him that the traffic jam we just got out of was Chinese people leaving Easter Mass.  Then today, XuLei told me that the reason no one responded to my Easter greeting, 复活节快乐, was that they didn’t know what 复活节 (Easter) was.  She continued to suggest this possibility after I told her that the people I was greeting were fellow Catholics, immediately after 复活节 Mass. 

Sometimes it’s exciting to be a square peg in a world of round holes, but sometimes I miss the melting pot. 


I was awakened by a phone call in Chinese.  I think it’s up there with fire alarms and “Open up, it’s the police” on the list of Worst Ways To Be Woken Up.  But my Chinese is getting better every day, a progress I can measure every time my caller ID displays a Chinese name and my stomach sinks a little bit less.  I fell quite far from last night’s sugar high, but even sporting that massive ‘Easter hangover’ I managed the call pretty well.  Small victory for a day of great triumph :)

I had lunch with XuLei today.  We went to our favorite restaurant – the one known as the Restaurant with the Green Chairs or Aleid’s Restaurant or The Sichuan Place on Post Office Street No Not That One The One We Went To That One Time . . . basically, anything but its actual name (like anyone knows its actual name anyway).  We ordered the exact same dishes as last time; when the kungpao chicken is that good, you don’t try new dishes.  They brought the rice with the first dish, which gives us hope that if we go often enough they’ll stop bothering us with the menu and the rest of the ordering process.

As we were walking back, I got distracted by the pretty clothes on the street and ended up buying a new dress and a super cute top for 110 yuan ($16).  More importantly, though, I finally have pictures of my Easter dress, the one I got tailor-made!


This evening I went out for dinner for Sietze and Jelle, who just got back from an interesting trip to Quanzhou.  Aleid told me that it was a great trip, cementing forever her status as World’s Most Cheerful Phone Talker EvAr.  Highlights included getting their drinks spiked with Ecstasy and Sietze having his wallet, cell phone, and camera stolen.  Great, eh?  It sounds like a story that someone tells about something that happened “to a friend of mine once” as a warning to others of the dangers of Chinese bars and cheap hotels.  It really sucks for Sietze, but I did enjoy the story of one of the drunk guys asking the taxi to take them to “XiaDa, XiMen”, the West Gate of our university, a several-hour bus ride away. 

After dinner I went to buy plane tickets for a surprise trip to Guangzhou on Tuesday.  Some family friends, the Edmonds, recently came over to China to adopt a child, and are right now in Guangzhou doing the paperwork.  America is so far away and Guangzhou is so close – I just had to go over and see them.  Then once I’m in Guangzhou, Hong Kong is even closer, so I’m going to proceed across the border to see a TU friend who is currently living there on a Fulbright Scholarship.  I’m quite excited for this trip, although I’m a little bit bummed to be missing the epic Easter Octave meals I had been planning in Tulsa.  It’ll be my first time seeing pre-August 24th friends! 

Buying plane tickets in China – okay, doing most anything in China – is quite frustrating on a good day.  Today was not a good day.  Take a culture that uses cash almost exclusively, add in a small language barrier, slow internet, a holiday weekend, and a ridiculous double standard in China’s treatment of Hong Kong, and you have an instant travel nightmare.  Seriously, I’m so over China’s claims to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.  Any place that Chinese can not freely go to, that requires a separate visa, that issues a separate currency, or is considered an international destination is NOT a part of China!  When they stop checking my passport at the border, I will gladly call it Taiwan Province.  When I can book a cheap domestic flight, I’ll stop using 回国 when talking about coming back from Hong Kong.  When I can use my Chinese cell phone in Macau, I’ll ignore the obvious border between it and the mainland.  Until then, I’ll enjoy the free internet that exists in these non-Chinese locations and continue to call it like I see it. 

So, after several hours of 麻烦, we 查得很累.  (Apologies; today, more than usual, Chinese words are coming to mind and the translations all seem too awkward.  The essence is, it was incredibly frustrating and we were drained afterwards.)  We managed to buy the ticket to Guangzhou but still working on getting me back to Xiamen somehow.  There are always buses, so I’m not too worried . . .

The Journey (to Hong Kong)

In Uncategorized on August 26, 2009 at 7:15 am

Scene A
Location: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, Bloomington, MN
Time: 8:50 p.m. Central US time.

After a very satisfying dinner with the family at Texas Roadhouse (my traditional pre-departure and post-return dining location), my parents drove me to the airport.  I had a margarita with dinner but it did nothing to calm me down.  I’m not nervous, I don’t think, but I am jittery as anything.  I feel like I did every day of Chinese class at 11:50, when it felt like class should be over but we still had 15 minutes to go.  I’m done counting down the days and hours left and home, but my getting-to-China countdown is still over 24 hours!

Scene B
Location: flight 881 over Los Angeles, CA
Time: 2 a.m. Pacific time

Once I got through security and onto the plane, I calmed down a lot.  They had a movie – My Life in Ruins – which I watched, but I mostly slept.  The flight was a little longer than I expected (I guess Minneapolis is further from LA than Tulsa?), but really, what difference does an hour make in a trip like this?  LAX was a little frustrating, but once I was in the capable hands of Peong, my Cathay Pacific attendant, everything was okay.  I felt even better once I got on the plane.  The man next to me (actually, the man one seat away, thanks to my buddy Peong who put me in a window seat next to no one) told me that Cathay Pacific is the best airline in the world.  The claim doesn’t seem too outlandish yet.  We have individual screens without probably 100 movies (even 3 that I want to watch!), animated videos of our plane making the trip from LA to Hong Kong, actually comfortable seats, power outlets below the entertainment console, and complimentary wine with the not-bad meal.

Scene C
Location: a ??? somewhere over the Pacific
Time: The only time that means anything is 8 1/2 hours in, 6 hours to go.

Going through LA, and therefore adding a third time zone into the mix, jumpstarts the confusion over the seemingly-simple question, “What time is it?”  All I know is, I did Monday Night Prayer and it is dark outside.  I’ve slept a lot, watched Little Miss Sunshine and am now starting He’s Just Not That Into You.

Scene D
Location: Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong SAR
Time: 8:00 a.m., Beijing time.

Flying, especially across the vast, featureless Pacific, is an adventure out of time.  We were flying west, and it took a while for the sun to catch up with us, so it was dark for almost the entirety of the trip.  The sun rose around 4:30, and I did Morning Prayer (from Wednesday) while enjoying the colorful sunrise.  I’m not exactly sure what happened to Tuesday, because I thought I had it figured out . . . I watched 17 Again and slept a bit more.  I haven’t had a good stretch of sleep in a bed in about 48 hours, but I’m not feeling too bad.  I think my body could possibly even believe that it is 8 a.m., with a long day ahead.

So, basically – I made it across the ocean, but I’m not technically in China yet.  (Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region or, as I call it,  “kind-of China”.)  Hong Kong doesn’t seem like China anyway.  Everything is in English with Chinese as the second language – so basically, just like LA.  There are touches of America (the Starbucks a few gates down) and some things that seem foreign, if not Chinese (the moving walkways are on the left, not the right).  My flight leaves in an hour or so, but until then I’m enjoying the free wi-fi.  I’ve even talked to my parents and my aunt on Skype!