Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Cats of Lingnan

There is a fairly large population of wild cats on campus.  They appear to live in the wooded areas and move about through the storm water drainage system.  Sometimes they congregate in groups of 5-10, but mostly you see one or two here and there.  Someone puts food out for them, maybe members of the Lingnan Cat Society (it's real; I saw the poster).  They're not particularly  skittish around people, though they won't let you get close enough to pet them.  They're all relatively small, but are a very healthy-looking population.  They're awfully cute, if you like cats (which I do, and they make me miss my two kitties back in the US).

Typhoon Nesat

When we filled the school enrollment forms for the boys, one of the questions we had to respond to was what we wanted to do with them when the typhoon 8 signal was hoisted. Not knowing what that meant, we did some research and learned about the Hong Kong tropical cyclone warning signal system. Typhoons are a big deal here in part due to the fact that much of Hong Kong rests on granite. Top this off with dense population and development, and you have a recipe for disaster. The high winds have the potential to do tremendous damage to physical structures (although that potential has diminished with the advent of modern construction and typhoon building regulations), while intricate canal and drainage systems have been developed to handle the risk of flash flooding that comes with the heavy rains.

At the time, it seemed a very remote possibility that we would have to deal with such a situation, but as it turns out, today signal 8 was lifted for typhoon Nesat.

Luckily, this occurred before the boys went to school, so we didn’t have to rush to school to pick them up or wait anxiously for the bus to drop them off. Having already promised the boys a day off from school (due to some home-sickness), this turned out to be fortunate timing in terms of not getting behind on school work. However, it also turned out to be somewhat of a drag as pretty much everything was closed for the day, including the Space Museum which we had planned to visit.

After a morning movie, we decided that we needed to get out of the house – we were going a bit stir crazy and we had almost no food – so we headed down to Tuen Mun. Castle Peak Road, a major thoroughfare that runs past the university, was eerily quiet, with few cars, taxis or buses to be found. Some bus routes were not running (including our favorite the 46), but luckily, we found a line that ran down to town. The drive down revealed mostly shuttered store fronts and strangely deserted streets.

Upon entering the mall, we found people out and about, but few stores open – probably due to the fact that most people saw today as a serendipitous day off from work.

After some lunch, we decided since the weather wasn’t too bad (an on and off light drizzle with temperatures in the low 80s), we’d walk home. Quin requested a stop in the Tuen Mun market to see the fish; while we were in there, the skies opened. Rain was pouring down, and the wind was blowing it almost sideways. We had umbrellas, but they were fairly useless at this point. Rain ran down the sidewalks in streams and rivers, so thick in some places that there was no way to walk anywhere without going ankle deep in the deluge. Luckily, we were able to walk under covered walkways (which offered only minimal defense from the rain) to catch the light rail.

From the light rail stop to home though, we were out in the open, with only a few flimsy umbrellas for protection. The boys decided to make a break for it, sans umbrellas, half way home; they weren’t much wetter than Doug and I by the time we all got home. In the end then, we survived our first typhoon, wetter and wiser. As another typhoon is brewing, we’ll be sure to stock up on food and movies to ride out the next signal 8, should it occur.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Life as an Expat

Sipping a cocktail on my veranda overlooking the South China Sea, I couldn’t help but feel like a character in a Graham Greene novel.* And indeed, when we’re here, I sometimes have those out-of-body experiences where I wonder – whose life is this that I’m living? Now, granted, we’re not really full-fledged expatriates, living the expat life with a fancy car, large apartment and lots of servants. But we had just spent the day at a lush, secluded resort in a strange place (Macau, an SAR of China which was once a Portuguese colony); we sipped drinks along with families of other nationalities (at the very least, I counted Portugal, Germany, and Australia in addition to China) while our kids swam in the pool. Secluded away from the riff-raff, we ate, drank and indulged our children. While it was totally relaxing, it was also very strange.

I have these fleeting out-of-body experiences on occasion: when the kids compare the Macau tower to the Seattle Space Needle or when I commented that we’d probably get clear weather after we checked out of the hotel on Sunday, just like we did in the French countryside. In these moments, I worry that instead of raising adventurous, curious children, we’re raising spoiled and indulgent ones (mind you – these worries only partially stem from the behavior of my children; instead, my standard American-style parenting neuroses are probably more to blame).

I realize that our kids have these experiences on which to draw because Doug and I have made a conscious decision to prioritize travel in our lives. We want our kids to see the world and to experience other cultures. And to be sure, when we do this, life for us and the kids isn’t always easy. But I wonder if we’re exposing them too much to the R&R part of foreign travel and not enough how much of the rest of the world lives (i.e. not at lush, tropical resorts). We have several other trips planned this year which will be some combination of travel (which we like to think of as experiencing new places and culture and not necessarily easy) and vacation (more relaxing and focused on R&R); coming up soon is a week-long trip to Bangkok and Phuket. As we add to the boys’ inventory of places to remember, I hope that we’ll be able to present them with a balanced view of life outside the U.S. And so long as I’m able to sip a cocktail or two while we do this, I’m sure we’ll all turn out fine.

* Of course, I should note here that I haven’t actually read a Graham Greene novel, so this is what I imagine a character is one of his novels would be doing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Random Observations of the Week (9/25/2011)

  • All of the traffic lights here give a yellow indicator when the light is about to turn from red to green. Now, Hong Kong isn’t the only country to do this (we’ve seen it in Europe too), but to me, that just seems like a bad idea. I’ve been in cabs here where the cabbie accelerates to get through a yellow light that’s about to turn red, and in cabs where the cabbie doesn’t even take his foot off the gas for a red with a yellow (meaning it’s about to turn green). Seems like a recipe for disaster.
  • I think of all sorts of random observations for the week when I’m out and about; I just can never remember them by the time I’m back at my computer. Clearly, I need some sort of a system.
  • Our level of food snobbery has definitely declined since we’ve been here. At home, we rarely eat at fast food places – usually only when we travel – and order pizza from local chains if we don’t make it ourselves. But when we were out on last Sunday, looking for somewhere to eat, we saw a Subway and darn if it wasn’t the most enticing thing I’ve seen/eaten in a long time (of course, this was before all of our good eating in Macau). And we order pizza from Pizza Hut all the time. Sometimes, what you really want is a taste of home – even if you wouldn’t really eat said food at home.
  • Insanity Plyometrics workout on Friday morning + climbing Castle Peak (~550m) on Friday afternoon = bonky and sore Shannon. It was well worth sucking it up to get up Castle Peak, though, as the views were quite spectacular despite the haze.
  • Berkley is starting to feel the pressure at school. The other day, he came home with his spelling test. He had spelled all the words correctly (each of the 16 words had to be spelled 5 times), but since he had used pen, he had to cross out a number of mistakes and then correct them. Final grade = C+. They’re hard core around here. He particularly dislikes Chinese right now as he’s getting intensive Chinese lessons to get him up to speed. If I hadn’t read the recent NYTimes article about the family who immersed their kids in a Russian school, I’d feel bad about this. Instead, I’m focusing on trying to help him suck it up and get through it as he’ll drop two of the weekly sessions come October (he has about 3-4 hours of it right now; he’s drop down to about 2.5 next month).
  • The weather has “cooled” off around here; the highs are now only in the low 80s/high 70s. As a result, all of the locals are wearing pants and light jackets – I kid you not. This morning, I threw on jeans to take the boys to school (a bit of a treat for them as it meant they got to sleep in a half hour later) – BIG mistake. It’s really still hot here despite how the locals may dress.

Macau, Round Two

We decided to go back to Macau this past weekend. This decision was made in spite of the fact that our last visit “was just OK.” There were two reasons. The first was that Saturday was one of the nights they were holding the international fireworks competition. The other was that we found a hotel, the Westin, with a nice pool, a beach and kids’ activities, and we would be able to get it for almost nothing using Starwood points. So we booked it.

We were really looking forward to a nice little mini-vacation, but at the last minute we almost canceled when the weather report suggested rain. The boys would not have it, though, so we decided to go anyway. We could still swim in the rain, right? And the poolside bar still serves drinks in the rain, right

As we headed out to the ferry on Saturday morning, we almost immediately began to regret the decision, and circumstances deteriorated from there.

We wanted to take the ferry from Tuen Mun, which is only a 10 minute taxi ride from home, rather than the ferry from Kowloon, which takes close to an hour to get to on the train. Since we ended up being late last time, we left plenty early, getting to the terminal over an hour before the 10:30 departure. When we arrived, however, we were told there were only Super Class seats left. Crap. OK, well, we’d just have to shell out and let the kids have that “first class” experience they’ve been wishing for. Got to the ticket office and found out there was only one Super Class seat left. So, they were essentially sold out.

The next ferry wasn’t until 1:30, and we didn’t want to wait and blow the entire afternoon, so we hailed a cab and shelled out for a taxi (definitely not as nice as shelling out for Super Class) into Kowloon for the other ferry, which leaves every half hour. We managed to get tickets this time, though we ended up having to wait for the 11:30 ferry, putting us into Macau at 12:30, only an hour later than planned. Not too bad. And no one puked or anything going over.

Then we hit Customs in Macau. Humongous sea of people. No real lines, just a mob of people pushing China-style. The boys are antsy, and we’re all getting hungry—no, make that hangry. Those who know Shannon well will understand that she was not happy about this at all. Who would be?

Over an hour later, we finally got through. We were all now starving, and short-tempered. Luckily, we had read there was a shuttle to the Westin. We went out to the shuttle bus area (every hotel has one). There were dozens of shuttle buses, thousands of people shuffling to them, but no shuttle for the Westin. After making the rounds several times, and watching our frustration (and use of swear words) skyrocket, we just hailed a taxi. Again, shelling out for the taxi.

Pulled out of the ferry terminal, turned south to cross the bridge and…traffic jam. Bumper to bumper. You can imagine our moods.

Well, we finally did make it to the Westin, and finally did get food. And a pool. And drinks by the pool. And we realized that we had gotten all of our bad luck out of the way. It would be a great time from then forward.

The kids swam all afternoon. There was a grassy field with a soccer net, and we checked out a ball and played soccer and kick ball (with a drink in hand, of course). It was nice. We miss grass.

The highlight, though, was the food at the hotel. They had a dinner buffet, but unlike most hotel buffets, this was an Indian- and Asian-themed buffet. And it was excellent. Raw bar, sushi bar, Indian curries, Indian grill, Mongolian grill, naan freshly-made to order, all kinds of salads and a dessert bar that included a chocolate fountain. After being so hungry earlier, we were in heaven. We all ate until our bellies hurt. (And the boys put almost as much food down at the breakfast buffet the next morning.)

After dinner, we all agreed that we just didn’t want to bother hauling ourselves to the north part of town for the fireworks. As Berkley put it, “it’s been a long day.”

On Sunday, after hitting the indoor pool, we went to the Venetian, which is the sixth largest building (by square feet) in the world. Pretty crazy. If you’ve been to Vegas, you can imagine it. We scored veggie burgers, fries and pizza for lunch, too. We definitely made ourselves happy with food this weekend.

After a quick run through the Grand Prix Museum, it was back to the ferry and on to Tuen Mun (we got tickets this time).

Well, it wasn’t completely the relaxing weekend we were looking for. I suppose, though, it’s better to have all the bad stuff up front. All’s well that ends well.

(We’d post pictures, but one additional piece of misfortune was forgetting the camera at home.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Weekend Update

So, here’s the brief tale (with pictures) of our weekend. Last Tuesday, we had visited Kam Cheung to see an ancient walled village (apparently dating back to the 12th century). It wasn’t much to look at though, as the current village has sprung up in and around it, but we did manage to find an awesome brass factory (to which I will be returning later – they ship to the U.S.!) and a small flea market. The boys were desperate to return to said flea market (as we had no cash on Tuesday), but unfortunately, even though we had cash on Saturday, we were too early – everything was closed. Much bitching and moaning ensued. However, we did manage to catch the home opener (their first in Hong Kong Division 1) of the local Tuen Mun Football Club. The football/soccer was about on par with a good NCAA Division 1 game, but packed stands created a fun atmosphere.

On Sunday, we took the boys to the Science Museum. Once again, they bitched and moaned about leaving the house and then had a fantastic time. And I thoroughly enjoyed that it cost the 4 of us less than $10US TOTAL to go to the museum.

To top the weekend off, Doug and I enjoyed our first evening out without kids on Sunday night. Po Chung, the founder of DHL and the sponsor of the General Education Fulbright program, invited all of the GenEd Fulbrighters and their spouses on his private yacht. He took us over to Lamma Island (definitely a place to return – great seafood, no cars and supposedly great beaches) for a casual dinner. We sailed out of Aberdeen Harbor, and let me tell you – there is definitely some money there. I could not believe the size of the yachts in this harbor – and the great quantity of these humungous boats going in and out on a Sunday night. There were a few issues with the boys and the babysitter, but thanks to some Pizza Hut and a movie, they all survived to live another day. Doug and I are already eagerly planning future nights out – I think we’ll be keeping Pizza Hut in business over the next few months.

School Update

It’s been two weeks now, and the boys are pretty well settled in to school. Probably more so than Mom and Dad due to the fact that unlike in their U.S. school, they have a different teacher for each subject. And which subject they have on any given day varies. Some days they have music, some they have I.T. To even further complicate things, some days music is learning about music theory while on other days (at least for Quin), it’s playing the violin. Now, this would not be a huge deal if they didn't have all of their books at home for homework time. So it’s up to us to figure out which books should go to school on which days. As our boys are not particularly attentive to what’s going on around them or communicative about what’s going on at school, this is not an easy task. Quin, in particular, is really bad about this. Some days he comes home with his completed homework still in his bag. I guess they figure that by 3rd grade, students should have their act together about these things, but clearly he doesn’t, so it may be that Quin’s getting no credit for all the hard work he’s doing on his homework. Maybe I’m wrong, and Quin knows exactly what he should be doing, but if not, it will be an important lesson for him.

Despite this complication, we’re very happy with the school and the curriculum. As I mentioned above, the music curriculum is excellent as the boys are not just singing songs, but learning actual music theory. And we love the fact that they have an actual I.T. curriculum; as an example, the other day, Quin learned how to use Windows Explorer to locate files on a computer. This probably stems from the fact that they have specialist teachers in all of these subjects. Rather than relying on a generalist teacher to instruct them in how to use computers, they have an I.T. teacher who only teaches that subject and who seems to be doing a great job. In addition, since they have different classes each day, their homework differs each night. So rather than doing the same thing over and over each night, they have something new and engaging. We’ve found the homework to be a good mix of comfortable and challenging too which really helps with their attention to it.

There have only really been two issues. The first: Mandarin. When we interviewed with the principal, he asked us if we wanted the boys to take Chinese; our response was of course. Now we understand his hesitation. Cantonese and Mandarin share a common “alphabet” (really – it’s more apt to say characters), so the Putonghua (the official name for the official language – really Mandarin) lessons are conducted in Cantonese, not English. Students simply look at the characters they already know (since they speak Cantonese) and learn the Mandarin pronunciation. This works great for the Cantonese speaking students, but not so great for Quin and Berkley, who obviously don’t know Cantonese or the characters. For the first Chinese classes, they didn’t do much except sit around. However, we’ve now done some back and forth with their Chinese teachers, and they’ve developed some specific instruction for the boys. Perfect – except for the fact that Quin and Berkley now have to do Chinese lessons during the time all of the other students are doing their extra-curriculars like table tennis and computer games. Amazingly, we didn’t hear a complaint about this until this morning.

The second real issue is that Quin doesn’t seem to be making friends. The first week or so of class, he seemed to be playing tag with a group of kids, primarily girls. Now, he says he goes and reads during recess as the boys don’t want to play with him. He hasn’t said much about this (despite our questions and assurances that he can talk to us about it), but I’m thinking it may have to do with the hair. As I noted earlier, people around here don’t know what to make of a boy with long hair; I think that may be true of the boys in Quin’s class. Of course, this is breaking my heart all over again, but we’re going to keep our eye on the situation to see if we can help at all. All in all though, we have to say we're really happy with Gigamind (and the boys seem to be too); let's hope we have just as much luck in Shanghai.