Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Gigamind

If you had asked us in March (when we learned of our Fulbrights) about what sort of school we wanted for the boys, we would have told you that we’d like to find a school that instructs in English, but that has primarily local kids in it. We weren’t particularly concerned with the quality of the curriculum; I know that sounds somewhat callous, but our thinking was that the real learning the boys will be doing this year will be in what they’re experiencing as they travel and navigate through a completely different part of the world.

However, in all of our searches for English language schools here in Hong Kong, we really only came across ex-pat schools, so that’s what we focused our search on. And in April, we thought we had everything nailed down with the American International School (AIS). It wasn’t ideal in that it wasn’t close to where we were located and it was an expat school, but it had spaces for both boys (almost no other school did), so that was that. Then, of course, came that fateful e-mail that awaited us the night we landed: no space for Berkley. That set off a frantic three weeks of trying to figure out how to make this work. We looked at schools all over Hong Kong – even farther than AIS; almost none had spaces and the ones that did were so far as to be unworkable. We begged and pleaded with AIS; we had the Consulate call over for us – to no avail.

So, with a heavy heart, we sent Quin off to school on Monday alone. To be honest, I was a total wreck. Not only was I sending my baby off to a strange school all by himself; he had to get up at 5:45 a.m. to make his bus – and school didn’t start until 8:15. And the bus didn’t bring him back until 4:45 – a long day for anyone, let alone an 8 ½ year old boy. To make matters worse, after we sent him off, I was faced with a day of home schooling Berkley. Now, don’t get me wrong – I think home schooling can be a great option. But (to be blunt) I am not temperamentally suited to home schooling – at all.

We never gave up though. We started exploring public options; apparently, there’s a quasi-public Islamic school near us that instructs in English. Of course, no spots. Finally, some hope; on Tuesday, the secretary of the department that Doug works in sent him a short little email with a URL in it: You should try this - http://www.gigamind.edu.hk/PRI/EN/Overview.htm.*

We called and our call was answered – there were spots. So the last two days have been somewhat frantic. I spent all of yesterday lining up paperwork and filling out forms (thank goodness for online home-schooling activities which occupied Berkley all morning as I did this). Berkley and I went up (only 35 minutes there and only 1 form of transportation!) to drop the forms off; I fell in love. It was just the school that we had hoped for; almost all of the children are native to Hong Kong, but they’re learning in English. It’s located next to this beautiful little park, with pagodas and koi ponds. And did I mention: they had spaces for BOTH boys.

So today, we kept Quin out of school and went up for the interview. We sat through it with baited breath; I almost burst into tears when the principal finally said – would the boys like to start school tomorrow? Thus, at the 11th hour of the 11th day, we have finally secured two places at a nearby school for both of our boys. If we had found this school right off the bat, it’s the school we would have chosen above all of the others.** I can’t help but think that God or Allah or karma or whatever you want to call it works in mysterious ways. If Berkley were never wait-listed, we never would have found this school. I suppose I wish s/he would have led us to this school without all the stress, but I appreciate it all the more for the hard work and grief that it took to find it. We don’t know what this semester has in store for the boys, but we are confident that it will be a tremendous learning experience for them. And it’s a huge weight off of our shoulders to know that the boys are in a good school with a normal commute and that Doug and I will both be able to fulfill our work obligations. Right now, as I sit and enjoy a cocktail on the eve of the boy’s first day of school (well technically – this is Quin’s second first day of school of the week!), life is good.***

*At this point, we owe so much to Carol (she’s done so much for us aside from the school tip) that I don’t know how we will ever thank her. I’m thinking about changing the boys’ middle names to Carol, but for some reason, they aren’t on board with that. I’m sure we’ll think of something though.

**In a strange twist of fate, Doug met another new faculty member at orientation today who is sending his daughter to Gigamind as well; she’ll be in 6th grade. He is originally from Hong Kong, but came to the US as a child and now teaches at Ithaca College. His wife speaks fluent Cantonese, so she managed to persuade the bus company to create a bus stop for the three kids at the Lingnan gate. So, we’ve gone from having to get up at 5:30 to make a 1 hour round trip to take Quin to meet his bus to waking up around 7:00ish to make a 8 minute round trip walk to take the boys to meet their bus. And, the bus for this school will cost $1800 LESS over the course of the semester – JOY.

*** I can’t help but finishing off this post by adding how much all of your comments, thoughts and prayers of support have meant to us. It’s been a trying three weeks in dealing with this school situation, and it’s meant so much to us to know how many of you are routing for us. Thank you!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Quin's Hair

As most of you know, Quin has long hair – past his shoulders now. This utterly confounds people out here. We’ve been through immigration several times now (this was the whole point of the trip to Macau), and each time, the immigration officer holds up Quin’s passport as if to ask – where is this boy? When Doug took the boys to the pool (without me due to my cold), the worker there frantically tried to prevent Doug from going in the men’s changing room, insisting that our “girl” was too big to be allowed in there. At school registration, Quin was offered culottes (the option for girls), not shorts (the option for boys). And when Quin and Berkley met two kids who spoke English in Tuen Mun, the little girl could NOT believe that Quin was a boy; she must have stared at him for 5 minutes trying to puzzle it out (I could just see her thinking – am I making a mistake with my English?). I could go on and on, but you get the picture.



The phrase “boy, long hair” has been used to try to explain on each occasion; we’ve now realized that as long as Quin keeps his hair like this, we should probably learn that phrase in whatever language is spoken in the country we happen to be in. There’s something fitting about this; back in the days of my brutal Dorothy Hamill bowl cut, I was frequently mistaken for a boy. Now, I’m the mother of a boy who is frequently mistaken for a girl. Given how often he complains about brushing his hair and the facts that it constantly looks like he stuck his finger in a light socket and it’s insanely hot here (a good indicator of how hot it is – whether Quin wears a ponytail or not; since pontytails are “for girls,” he’ll only pull his hair up when it’s completely unbearable), there’s a part of me that just wants to cut it (although I fear I wouldn’t recognize him if he did cut it as this point). But there’s a bigger part of me that’s really proud of him. Despite the constant misunderstandings, complications and strange looks, he refuses to cave to pressure of all sorts. He likes his hair long, and that’s the way he’s going to keep it.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dim sum and then some

Today, we did what any normal Hong Kong family might do on a Sunday: ate some dim sum (with some of the other Fulbrighters here) and then went shopping. After a couple of visits to dim sum restaurants, I think we can safely say they’re not our favorites. First of all, it’s not particularly vegetarian friendly; in fact, if we didn’t eat fish, I think there’d only be one or two dishes we could eat. And second of all, it’s bland; I mean – really bland. Not sure why this is, but I much prefer my food spicy. On the bright side, we ordered way too much food, yet it only cost $10 per person – not counting the boys.

After dim sum, we checked out some of the Sunday markets in Kowloon.

Once again, the boys proved to be HORRIBLE bargainers; Quin was boasting how he was about to walk away from the “Angry Bird” last time, but this time, he pretty much threw a fit when we walked away from the “Pokemon cards.” So, we ended up circling back and buying a pack for each of the boys. Downside: we paid full price. Upside: the full price was $1.25 (US) for about 60-70 cards. Still a good deal.

The highlight of the day, in my opinion, was the flower and bird markets. The former is just stalls upon stalls of people selling beautiful and cheap flowers (enormous bouquets could be had for less than $5). We can’t really figure out how so many of these vendors stay in business with so much competition and such low prices in the priciest real estate market in the world, but there was nary an empty stall on the whole road.



At the end of the road was the bird market.

Apparently, it’s very manly in Hong Kong (and maybe even all of China) to carry around a bird in a cage. So the bird market has lots of old men with all sorts of birds in beautiful elaborate cages. In addition, it’s the place to go if you want to buy a bird:



An elaborate bird cage:

Or things that birds like to eat:



All in all, quite an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A More Normal Life

Blog posting has been slow as there hasn’t been much going on (partly due to the fact that I’ve come down with a nasty cold); instead of doing the tourist thing, we’ve been hunkering down to get ready for the school year. Quin is all set and registered for school now; he has his uniform and everything. His first day will be Monday. He met his teacher at registration, and she seems very nice. In fact, she’s from Illinois! Unfortunately, Berkley is still in limbo; he’s first on the waiting list, but the last day to register was Friday, so we won’t know until this week if he’s in or waiting for someone to leave. For next week then, home-schooling it will be.

I’ll say that one thing we’ve already come to appreciate during our short time here is public education in the U.S. - which guarantees a place for everyone. Apparently, across all of Hong Kong, there is not a single space in second grade in any of the expat schools. Thankfully, we’re getting (mostly) reimbursed for the cost of schooling here too; if we weren’t, we probably would have had some sticker shock! Also bewildering is the array of options; there are international private schools, but there’s also a whole system of local private schools – some of which get support from the government, so they’re more quasi-private. The local school system tops that off, but it’s not like most places in the U.S. where you live in a district for a local school. Apparently, there’s some application and lottery system – all very confusing to an outsider. However, if Berkley doesn’t get in to the American International School, we may contact the regional school office as apparently Hong Kong has some program for integrating non-native speakers into the public school system (at least that’s what we can make out from the website). If that’s the case and Berkley’s not in, then he may be going local. This may not be a bad thing as Quin’s bus will be picking him up at 6:35, and he won’t be home until 4:30! That’s a long day.

As we start to settle into a routine, we’ll probably be posting less frequently about our trips out and about and more frequently about our cultural observations. I’ve got a few brewing on grocery stores, identity, restaurants, and Diet Coke, and I’m sure Doug has things he's thinking about too. Of course, if we’re home schooling Berkley the whole semester, things will really be infrequent as we’ll need to use every bit of spare time to get actual work done. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Macau

We had to visit Macau, a one-hour ferry ride away from Hong Kong, in order to come back through Customs and have our employment/temporary resident visas "chopped" (i.e., stamped and made official).

Macau is like Hong Kong in many ways. Both are former colonies of Western European powers and so mix east and west in interesting ways. Both are currently Special Administrative Regions in China, and so exist as "one nation, separate systems." Both offer bustling street life, with colorful shops and markets.

Two differences stand out, however. First, Macau was a territory of Portugal, whereas Hong Kong was British. For some reason, I find the former conjunction creates a more unusual and odd contrast. Partly, I think this is because the British and the Chinese share a certain reserved manner that goes together naturally. But, also, I think it's because the Portuguese are Roman Catholic and the British are Anglican. The Chinese like to put religious images and icons in prominent display, whether taoist, Confucian or Buddhist. This adds a wonderful color and liveliness to China. Anglicans are pretty low key along these lines, but Roman Catholics like religious imagery as much as the Chinese. As a result, Christ crosses paths with Buddha in Macau, and they have interesting conversations.

Here, a single wall from an old church still stands.

Here, Quin admits to various transgressions against his brother. He is still reciting Our Fathers in penance. (This was in the Macau Museum, which the boys begged us to go into and which they actually thoroughly enjoyed.)

The architecture also combines east and west in a way less noticeable in Hong Kong. Many buildings were covered in beautiful Portuguese tiles. And the main square had beautiful walkways, more Lisboa than Shanghai.


My Lusophile friends would appreciate the interesting contrast of the Portuguese language and Chinese characters.


The other major difference between Hong Kong and Macau is the gambling that occurs in the latter. Currently, Macau has gambling revenues five times that of Las Vegas. And it's growing rapidly, especially among high rollers and Chinese mainlanders. It's an interesting point to consider that the Chinese Communist Party allows its citizens to gamble extensively at a location in its own territory. I'm guessing Mao would not approve, but the current "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is a different ballgame than Mao's communist vision.

Here is an image of the Grand Lisboa, one of the swankiest casinos and hotels on the island. For some reason, it has been elevated in Quin and Berkley's minds to be the most amazing, most expensive hotel in the universe.


One final interesting fact about Macau: it was in the past a major manufacturer of fireworks. We thought this poster in the Museum was really cool (unfortunately, no reprints were for sale in the gift shop). They made fireworks here into the 1990s, at which time their manufacture moved, like so many things, to China.


All in all, we thought Macau was just OK. Unlike Hong Kong, restaurants were surprisingly hard to find. Casinos hold no interest for us, especially with minors in tow. We already saw many of the touristy highlights. We may go back for the International Fireworks Competition or the Grand Prix race. Maybe not. I think we may be inclined to spend our time exploring Hong Kong instead.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fu Tei Road



Sometimes good adventures are literally right out your back door. I decided to walk up Fu Tei Road, which runs right behind our apartment on campus and up into the hillside. Immediately, I was faced with the option of going up the main road, which had a Private Road sign, or up the path/walkway to the left.



I decided to explore the walkway first. Very quickly I found myself among a maze of dilapidated walkways and stairs. Some of the areas looked liked infrastructure long forgotten and neglected. I felt like I was in an episode of Lost!



Then I came upon bunches of little huts and small houses, very run down and certainly lacking any kinds of utilities or conveniences. An official sign at one point implied many were squatter homes. It was strangely quiet, except for some curious dogs that woke up on a patio and started barking at me. A gentle "lei ho" (Cantonese for hello) seemed to calm them down. Given the dogs, the eerie quiet, the narrowness of the walkways, the stillness of the air, I felt a bit like I was invading people's privacy. Heightening this sense was the fact that many walkways simply terminated at a hut, which forced me to just turn around in someone's "yard." For these reasons, I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures. I did get some shots through the trees later. Suffice it to say, the living conditions were exceptionally poor--a sharp contrast to the ostentatious wealth one sees in the developed parts of Hong Kong.



Feeling uneasy about both the privacy and the dog issues, I made my way back down to the fork in the road and started the climb up Fu Tei Road. Partway up I came upon a more formal village. The houses seemed sturdier than the squatter huts, but conditions were still not great. These are likely the homes of the people I had seen in previous days coming out of Fu Tei Road dressed for work. There were some cars, too, in the village. Once again, though, it was strangely quiet, except for more dogs. I left when they started making a racket.



Further up the road I started to get some good views. In this picture, you can see the very top of our apartment, which I've marked in white. Campus lies to the right of our apartment.


The road grew very steep in places. All along the road were dated pieces of infrastructure that I think are related to storm runoff and drainage. I avoided the Others.




As I climbed, I saw several people descending with hiking staffs or otherwise looking like they were out for exercise. So, I wasn't totally surprised when I reached the top and found a little barbecue area and really cool-looking trail head.


This is the start of the Tuen Mun trail, which I hiked down just a few hundred meters. The view into the valley on the other side was spectacular. Next time I'm going straight up and extending the adventure down the trail a bit.

It's easy to reduce Hong Kong to the bustling urban skyscrapers that dominate our image of the place. But, the natural areas of Hong Kong seem to hold immense beauty. And while most residents have a small flat in a high-rise, many people still take up residence in these natural areas.

























Sunday, August 21, 2011

Temple Street Night Market

Yesterday, we went to check to out Kowloon Park as there are Kong Fu demonstrations on Sunday afternoons. Not only did we get to see Kung Fu, we also caught the end of a dragon dance. While both were pretty amateurish, the boys loved them.



Doug had scoped out a restaurant for dinner on his new favorite website, openrice. However, as we’re kind of the senior citizens of Hong Kong (we eat WAY earlier than most folks), the restaurant wasn’t open yet when we got to it. This gave us the chance to scope out the Temple Street Night market, which was just getting started. Luckily, the market did not disappoint; there was something for everyone, including dried iguana on a stick.


As we strolled along, the boys learned two important lessons (school? Who needs school?). First, they learned about bargaining; unfortunately, they learned how to bargain only after we had already purchased two large “Angry Bird” stuffed animals. We did manage to get a lower price than she initially quoted, but since the boys were oohing and aahing about how much they wanted said stuffed animals, she knew she had some suckers on the line. Despite this, we managed to secure the two large “Angry Bird” stuffed animals for $15 – for the both of them.


The second important lesson of the evening was about counterfeit goods (hence the quotes around Angry Bird – they were surely not legit). We had a lengthy discussion of what was meant by said term; this lesson was reinforced by the fact that Quin discovered a hole in his Angry Bird not less than 3 hours after purchase. Doug was worried about how we’d get these large birds home; I have a sneaky suspicion that will not be a problem. Nonetheless, we are all excited to return to the night market sometime soon; I have my eye on a “Tod’s” purse.

By the time we were done exploring, the restaurant had opened, and while the quality of food was okay, it was as if the restaurant was designed just for us. It had linguine and clam sauce for Berkley, pizza for Quin, and Indian curry for Mom and Dad; to top it off, an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (in English!) came on the TV during the meal. For dessert, we tried a Hong Kong waffle – basically, a Belgian waffle smothered in peanut butter and sugar. Mmmm. For today, we’ll continue to eat our way through Hong Kong as we plan to explore the Mids.