Monday, October 31, 2011

Bangkok


I’m not going to bore everyone with all of the details of our week-long stay in Thailand, so I’ll post some highlights here along with pictures. First, let’s start with Bangkok.

Our time in Bangkok was lovely, but overshadowed by the fact that we were worried about getting out due to the flooding. As the pictures show, water levels were high and sandbags were ubiquitous.


While in Bangkok, we stayed at the Siam City; thanks to our colleague, we were placed on the Executive Level, which included a free breakfast buffet. Needless to say, this thrilled the boys as did the outdoor pool to which we retired for at least some part of each day. The other highlight of Bangkok for the boys: traveling in a tuk tuk. Horribly dangerous you say? True, but also incredibly fun. I’d put it in my highlight reel too as it’s always been something I wanted to do.


For me, another highlight was the Chattachuk Market, which we visited on Sunday and which many rate as one of the best weekend markets in all of Asia as one can also find original fashion and art amongst the knockoffs. I scored another Buddha for my collection along with a long dress to wear for our sightseeing at Bangkok’s sacred sites.


We hit those sacred sites on Monday; the river was just low enough to allow us to take a river boat ride there. Loud and smelly, but still totally worth it.


I think the Royal Palace was probably the best of Bangkok. Pictures can’t really do it justice; I’ll post some anyway and just say that it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.






The reclining Budhha was also amazing, but it was difficult to get perspective on how huge and awesome it was; the boys loved dropping tin coins in a series of bins along one wall. The sound they made was magical.


One thing we were really looking forward to was eating authentic Thai food, and the visit did not disappoint (well – Doug might disagree as something he ate gave him some pretty bad food poisoning. For my money, it was the undercooked shrimp fritters – so glad I passed on that one). I am now officially obsessed with green papaya salad; I tried numerous versions during our stay with the best ones making my eyes water and nose run in a wonderful way.

After a whirlwind 60 hours or so, we were off to Phuket. As I mentioned in my last post, we were literally hours away from being stranded in Bangkok. Our flight left the airport around 10 a.m.; by 2:00 p.m. that same day, the runways were flooded and Nok Air, our airline, suspended all flights. While I wish we could have spent more time there, I was relieved we made it out. And in the end, given our experiences, I’m pretty confident that we’ll be back some day to explore some more.

Coming soon: Phuket highlights.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A lifetime of travel karma

Despite Doug having a severe bout of food poisoning (must have been the undercooked street shrimp fritters), we managed to catch our flight out of Bangkok yesterday, less than 4 hours before the airport was closed due to flooding. We're now safely and happily whiling away the hours Phuket which is safe from the floods. But please say a prayer for all those in Bangkok as it looks like the city cannot be spared; the entire city is now facing the worst floods in many, many decades. More about our adventures when we return.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Flood

Imagine you're a government official and you have to decide whether this neighborhood or that neighborhood should suffer the worse effects of a flood. How would you decide? That's the dilemma facing Thai politicians now.

As you've probably heard, Thailand is experiencing its worst flooding in 60 years. Much of the north is underwater and is draining south toward the sea. At the bottom of this floodplain is the most populated part of the country, Bangkok, and it's the place we are at now as I write.

Though the flooding is extreme this year, it's a regular problem to a usually lesser degree. As a result, the government has built an extensive system of drainage canals, dykes and sluice gates. As the water has pressed down on Bangkok, officials have closed these gates and reinforced dykes and flood walls. The problem is that these measures have prevented the water from draining out of the north and into the sea. As a result, it has made flooding much worse in many areas. As you might imagine, this has made some people--namely those north of Bangkok--a bit angry. Sensing this, the government has announced today that all sluice gates, dykes and dams are "special zones" off limits to the public. Apparently they're worried people will take things into their own hands. Boy, I'd hate to be up for reelection in Thailand next year!

As for our visit, we have not been affected by the water. Yet. The street market we visited yesterday in northern Bangkok yesterday was dry, though the paper today said it's under threat of flooding in the next few days. Today we visit the Grand Palace, which will probably be the very last place they'll let floods enter.

Tomorrow, however, we fly out of Don Muang airport to Phuket. Muang is the old international airport and is used only for domestic flights now. Guess which side of town it's on? Yep, north. And a broken sluice gate has led to water flowing into the area, apparently onto the roads near the airport entrance. Right now it looks like all flights are still departing, but we're not sure what the situation will be in 24 hours. We may end up taking a very long bus ride to Phuket. I hope the bus terminal isn't under water...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lingnan University

It's been a couple weeks since I posted; haven't had much new to report I guess.  Walking the kids to the bus this morning, I asked them for ideas.  "Why don't you blog about Lingnan, Dad?"  It was a great idea, and the morning light was particularly nice.  So, after seeing them off to school, I grabbed a camera and took a bunch of pictures.

Lingnan University, where we're housed this semester, has a beautiful campus, and it was hard to select among the dozens of photos, but I've whittled it down to 15 that capture the campus fairly well.


This is the main entrance to campus, which is a pedestrian-only entrance.  There are only two car entrances (one more than UMass Dartmouth!), but Lingnan has a very high residential rate and many staff arrive by public transportation.  (Part of the reason: the excise tax on new cars is about 50% of their value--yikes!)



After walking under the entrance, you come upon the main campus square.  They hold most campus events here, such as the Dance Night and International Night events we had checked out and written about earlier.  Right now it's set up for a recruitment event, which is taking place this weekend.

Lingnan has about 2200 students, only about 65 of whom are graduate students.  Among the eight public universities in Hong Kong, it's the smallest and widely viewed as the one occupying the bottom rung.  This is evident in rankings based on faculty research as well as by looking at what students request when they submit their applications (HK has a unified admissions process, where students rank their top-25 programs (i.e., majors), and the departments admit their top choices of students).  In other words, Lingnan is a safety school.  But, it's important to point out that only the top 15-20% of Hong Kong secondary students get into any of the public universities (which are the most prestigious; the privates are less so).  So, Lingnan may get the bottom of the cream of the crop, but it's still the cream of the crop.



If you turn left from the main square, you come upon this pleasant garden...




...and then the really nice, 50 meter pool.  When we first arrived, the sun pushed pool temperatures into the upper 80s and even the 90s, so lap swimming was difficult.  Now, it's great.  The only issue is that the campus restaurant and dining hall are in this building adjacent to the pool, so if you swim late in the afternoon with an empty stomach, the smells waft down and make it difficult to think of anything but dinner.



This is the dining hall, or canteen, as it's called here.  Not very large, and it's the only dining hall on campus.  It serves Chinese food, with few exceptions.



If you turn right from the main square, you come upon this relaxing koi pond.



Also to the right is the business building, where my office is located--it's on the top floor on the other side, looking out toward the student hostels (i.e., dorms).  Lingnan is unusual in several ways.  It has always been known as the only liberal arts university in Hong Kong--the others are very research-focused and tend toward narrow professional programs.  The teaching load here is 3-3 or 3-2, whereas the other university faculty teach 2-2 loads or even less (hence the rankings on research).  Classes are small, student-faculty relations are very personalized, most students live on campus and there has always been a gen ed program. 

This niche may be challenged, however.  For one thing, the new gen ed reforms I wrote about earlier mean all the universities will essentially become liberal arts universities.  For another, research pressures here at Lingnan are intense, partly because of a desire to climb up the rankings but also because the government is introducing a new plan to base campus funding in part on the research productivity of the faculty.

The other unusual feature of Lingnan is that, despite branding itself as a liberal arts university, it has no math or science faculty.  There is a business college, an arts college and a social science college.   Science and math faculty have no home.  There are a few adjuncts, often visiting professors, who are housed in the gen ed office and teach math or science.  But, it's not a required part of the curriculum.



This is a view of the main square from the business building, sort of the reverse angle of the prior picture.  You can see the mountains in the distance, obscured by the "respirable suspended particulates."



Further past the koi pond and the business building, there is a quaint gazebo at the top of a steep, wooded hill.





Also on the hill is the university president's house.  Nice place.  And, check out the Mercedes Benz in the driveway.  That is classic Hong Kong.  In the US, presidents at public universities are often a bit modest in personal style, lest they give the impression they're wasting taxpayer money.  At UMass Dartmouth, our campus chief executive drives a Toyota--nice, but not too nice.  In Hong Kong, you're not important unless you have a Benzie.  Seriously.


This is the student hostel just behind the president's house.  I have a nice view of this from my office, and our apartment looks out on this as well.



 
This is one of the car entrances, and the one we use most days when heading to the train.  You can see the Visitor's Quarters, where we are living, on the right.



And here's a clear view of the VQ, as it's called.  The scaffolding and green netting finally came off this week.  Both the main door and the apartment door have a code-entry system, and since the boys have memorized the codes they often run ahead of us and let themselves in.  It's nice for them to have that ability without worrying they'll lose they keys.

All in all, I'd say Lingnan has a beautiful campus.  Among the other HK universities I've visited, it has by far the most interesting architecture, a blend of contemporary style with classic Chinese elements.  It integrates pleasant gardens and such into the campus.  Most of the walkways are covered--critical in the brutal Hong Kong climate.  It's setting, nestled into the hills and mountains, adds to the beauty.  And I've enjoyed very much my interactions with the faculty and staff, as well as the students.  It's really a nice place to work and live.

Random Observations of the Week (10/20/2011)

  • Since we’ve arrived here, our building, the Visitors’ Quarters, has been surrounding by bamboo scaffolding, covered by green netting. That’s been our view for the past 2 months. This week, it all finally came off. It’s so refreshing to 1) be able to see outside clearly and 2) not have to worry about random men appearing outside your window at any point during the day.
  • Quin and Berkley have told us when a teacher comes or goes from their class, they have a little saying the whole class has to chant in a sing-songy kind of voice. We’ll use Mr. Victor (or Mista Victa as the boys and the rest of the school calls him): Good morning (or afternoon) Mr. Victor. Thank you Mr. Victor. We love you Mr. Victor. I think it’s really strange, but the boys seem to have no problem with it.
  • Stores here are totally whack. Since we’ll be on the beach in Thailand and my bathing suits are falling apart, I decided to go to the mall to get a new one. It’s still in the low 80s/upper 70s here, so no problem right? Wrong. All of the stores in the mall were filled with sweaters, pants, scarves, hats, neckwamers, etc. It’s as if I’m living in Boston or Chicago. I mean – average lows here in January are around 60 degrees (okay 57.2 to be exact). Who needs a hat, scarf and neckwarmer when it’s 60? The only suits I could find were for swimming laps or for a slightly younger demographic (read: skimpy). Sigh. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find more options once in Thailand.
  • I also needed an ankle length skirt to go to one of the temples in Thailand. Again – not a single one to be found – and this has nothing to do with the fact that I’m well above average height for a woman here. There were lots of mini-skirts, but no long skirts. So, apparently, women in Hong Kong wear sweaters, hats, scarves and mini-skirts in the winter.
  • Lingnan University held an International Day the other day (those of you on FB probably saw this already); students from other countries who are studying here set up booths to represent their home country. Some had crafts; others had food. The American booth had mac and cheese, PB&Js and beer pong, complete with PBR in a can. Not exactly our finest moment.
  • I may have mentioned this before, but I think it’s pretty cool, so it bears repeating. My colleague John at UMass Dartmouth, who is originally from Cameroon, has a brother who manages a hotel in Bangkok. John hooked us up, so that’s where we’ll be staying. I just think that’s the greatest small world story.
  • Our downstairs neighbor’s family has arrived. He has two girls, Claire and Catherine, and let me tell you – we are all very happy they are here. They’re really well matched for the boys, and pretty much every day since they’ve been here, the kids have hung out. Each boy has bonded with one of the girls, such that they get time away from each other. Life has been so much easier for us all.
  • That’s it for now. Blog and Facebook posting will be light to non-existent, depending on whether we have access to the internet. We could pay to get it at our hotels, but a) we’re too cheap, and b) we’re kind of thrilled with the idea of being unplugged for a while. Of course, we’ll have the full update on the trip when we get back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Big 40

The older I get, the longer my birthdays seem to last. This year, we had a whole birthday weekend, rather than simply a day. Well – more accurately, I used my looming birthday all weekend to try to coax good behavior out of the boys, usually with only moderate success. Nevertheless, we still had a great weekend, driven partly by the day off and spent lounging around on Friday.

On Saturday, one of Doug’s colleagues here at Lingnan invited us to go hiking with her family (she also has two boys – a 13 and 10 year old; while she’s from Hong Kong, her husband is British, and the boys only speak English), and it turned out to be a lovely day. She kindly picked us up in her car, so we were able to drive to a county park that’s not easily accessible by public transportation for us. We hiked up a trail to a beautiful waterfall (Bride's Pool); after some scrambling, we were able to get close enough that the boys could swim in the pool and climb behind the falls. We then hiked another trail almost straight up, so that her husband could do a bottle drop for a 48K trail race he was competing in that night (!). Joseph, the 10 year old, was almost perfectly matched for our boys, so while Ben, the father, ran up the trail, the boys sat around and built a dam together in a mountain stream. Upon returning to their apartment, the boys were introduced to their new obsession: Minecraft. All in all, a day well spent.

Sunday was truly my day as I got to pick the itinerary. I decided that we needed to check out one of the nice beaches (I mean – it’s October, and it’s still in the 80s here!), so we made the trek out to Shek O, which is quite a haul from us, but is widely regarded as one of the best beaches in Hong Kong. Shek O is located on the south-eastern tip of Hong Kong Island, surrounded by mountains, so it requires a bus trip over a beautifully winding road to reach it.

After a day of swimming out to floating platform, body surfing, and general lazing around, we cleaned up and headed over to the Jumbo for dinner.

There, we dined on fresh seafood and drank cocktails (okay – the boys ate pizza and mac and cheese and had sodas), overlooking the Aberdeen Harbor on a beautiful Hong Kong night.

Now, on my actual birthday, I can see that few things engender as much reflection in one’s life as a major milestone birthday. But, really – what a fabulous way to celebrate my 40th birthday. While I wish I could celebrate with family and friends too, I’m in the middle of enjoying a nearly year-long adventure living half way around the world with my family. I have two beautiful boys (whom I love dearly even when they drive me mad) and a wonderful husband. I have a job I love (and that allows me and my husband to spend a year away while still retaining job security!), in a place I’m very happy to live. And, I have a strong network of truly supportive and caring friends and family. As I look at the world around me, I realize how truly blessed I am. And that is the best birthday present I could ever hope for.

Random Observations of the Week (10/17/2011)

  • Wow. I can't believe it's been a week since we posted anything. Here are some random observations; post about my birthday weekend coming soon!
  • Our vacation to Thailand it supposed to start this Saturday, so of course, the country is experiencing its worst flooding in decades. We’ll know by Tuesday how bad the situation is, but I can’t help but feel like my in-laws who had plans to go to New Orleans less than a week after Katrina hit. Needless to say, they didn’t make it; I’m hoping we don’t share their fate.
  • The students here on campus have been protesting about various campus policies (we've been asking around and haven't been able to get a clear answer about the cause, but it seems to boil down to a decision to implement Smart Cards which students believe will be used to monitor their whereabouts and access their rooms without their consent). What amazes me is that the protests have been going on for weeks, day and night. Right now, it's about 9 in the morning, and right on schedule, the chanting (which is what the protests seem to consist of here) has commenced. I can't help but wonder if students in the U.S. would engage in such a sustained protest over campus policies.
  • Had one of the most interesting public transportation rides ever the other night. First, Berkley managed to secure an invitation to visit Mount Kilimanjaro from a group of semi-intoxicated Africans (one of them even gave Berkley his e-mail address, so we could follow up). Then, he had his picture taken by some locals; he was totally hamming it up, mugging for the camera. Finally, I used my college French to communicate with a guitar player and his wife who were trying to chat him up. Totally bizarre – particularly since I had a few drinks in me.
  • And that’s all part of a larger observation: Berkley’s natural gregariousness combined with the fact that the Chinese love kids with blond hair has meant that he has been in his element. He regularly has people take pictures of him (in addition to the folks on the train, he had some girls following him taking pictures yesterday too), and he’s always making friends on public transportation. It’s strange for me to watch as I was so not like that as a child.
  • The boys had sports day at their school on Thursday. In our experience in the U.S., sports day involves constant activity; there are multiple activities set up, so the kids are always doing something. Not so at Gigamind. The kids each got to participate in two activities; the rest of the day they were sitting around in the stands, pretty much doing nothing. While Berkley’s second place in his heat finish for the 60m dash was not enough to win him a medal, Quin crushed it in the softball toss. Clearly, throwing is not a large part of the kid culture around here. However, he almost had his moment of glory stolen as they announced someone else as the winner. Luckily, Doug had volunteered at the event, so he was able to help work it out. They re-announced the winners, and Quin got his moment on top of the podium. After all the excitement of the day (well – okay not really. In fact, the kids were all completely wound up, and Berkley ended up getting in trouble), the entire school was given a day off on Friday. Because you know – a few 60m dashes will really wipe kids out!


  • Speaking of volunteering, both Doug and I stepped up for Sports Day. While it was great to get a feel for their friends and the school, I totally got the shaft. Doug was assigned to the softball toss, which took about 1.5 hours. The rest of the day, he got to hang out. On the other hand, I was assigned to be a timer which meant I was working ALL day, in the 80+ heat, with NO shade. Unlike the kids, I was pretty wiped out by the end of the day!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Quinlan's Birthday

My baby turned 9 on Sunday. Given that Quin has had some rough times of late (particularly with respect to making friends at school), we really wanted his birthday to be special for him. That was a little difficult given the lack of friends and family to celebrate with him, but we did our best anyway. Our plan for the weekend was to let him do what he wanted. On Friday night, that involved going out for pizza and then heading over to Temple Street Night Market. Each of the boys got a portion of their allowance, and we set them loose to negotiate for whatever they wanted. Unfortunately, Quin hadn’t been really…uh… “regular” last week, so he was not having much fun. He did manage to find lots of new Pokemon cards, but other than that, he just wanted to go home (the fact that the only toilets in the area were squatters did not help his outlook – although perhaps it may have helped his condition if he had only been brave enough to try). Berkley, on the other hand, was a shark; when the vendors would type a price into the calculator (an efficient way of communicating when language isn’t shared), he would type a lower one right back. He even managed to walk away several times when he couldn’t get the deal he wanted. By the end of the night, Berkley had scored a backpack full of deals.

Since Quin’s issues hadn’t resolved by Saturday morning, his choice was to hang around the house all day. Quin got money from most of his relatives and from us, which he adored. We thought he’d be bummed by not having a bunch of presents to open, but the way he saw it, getting money enabled him to buy one of the massive Lego projects he’s been eyeing, rather than getting quite a few smaller ones. On Sunday, he finished the one he bought on Saturday, so we’ll be going back sometime soon to spend the rest of his birthday money on another large Lego. As a bonus, all of our sitting around on Saturday paid off for Quin who is now back to normal – hurrah.

On his actual birthday, we went to the Hong Kong Zoo – Quin’s choice. They had quite a few monkeys and lots of birds, but that’s just about it. Not quite as exciting as we might have hoped for his big day. After a tram ride down to Wan Chai (which took way longer than it should have as our tram got stuck in a traffic jam created by the convergence of two separate protests – one in opposition to the current government and one in support of it), we stopped off for some more pizza – again Quin’s choice (astute readers might note a correlation between Quin's dietary choices and his "issues"; to which we respond: yes - we know. We're working on it now that the birthday weekend is over).


All in all, not a bad birthday weekend, but it was topped off by the surprise that Doug and I had been planning for a few weeks. On Monday morning, we had the boys get up and get ready for school, at which point we told them that instead of going to school, we were taking them to Ocean Park.

Ocean Park is a combination zoo/aquarium/amusement park. The boys agreed it was the best surprise ever. The aquarium was spectacular (probably the best I’ve ever seen – even better than the one in Boston), and the rides were just right for the boys. Despite the rain in the afternoon, it was a really fun day for all – just what we wanted for Quin and what the boys needed.



One critical mistake: putting the boys together on the first roller coaster ride. The ratcheting noise it made going up (in my mind, one of the best noises ever as it signals the fun to come) scared the dickens out of Berkley. He was convinced the coaster was broken, and he was going to die. As the coaster sits on the cliff looking out at the South China Sea (the picture below gives you an idea of what you see as you summit), this was quite terrifying for him. As a result, he preferred sticking to some of the less intense rides.

Quin, on the other hand, was in his element. He was fearless in the rides he tried, and even went on some of them by himself when Doug and I were too weak stomached to join him (in the picture below, he's in the back car - all by himself).


And I guess that’s what it’s all about: seeing your kids blossom into independence and confidence. While there have been trials and tribulations involved with coming over here, seeing Quin navigate through Hong Kong and deal with all of the issues he’s confronted here has made me so proud to be his mother. Happy Birthday Quinlan!