Monday, November 28, 2011

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A Christmas Plea...

We're not getting too much in the way of Christmas-spirit here.  Sure - some of the malls and buildings are decorated, but they're kind of lame.  Think pink hearts instead of snowflakes and Santa Claus (in fact, aside from at Disney, I haven't seen one Santa yet!).  The Christmas trees here are no match for what you see in the U.S. - our Charlie Brown Christmas tree is a good example (note that we're using two of Quin's old American International School shirts for our "tree skirt."). 

Of course, part of the Charlie Brown-ness of it is due to the fact that we went on the cheap side.  Since we're not bringing this back with us, we only spent ~$12 US on it.  In fact, the lights almost cost more than the tree.  Yes - you read that right.  Despite the fact that you can get a string of lights in the US that were made in China for a few bucks, Christmas lights here cost over $10US a strand.  And they're kind of strange too - no green, weird strobe effects, etc.  

To top it off, while I remembered to bring our stockings, I forgot other important things, like Christmas music (slow internet speed makes it near impossible to stream Pandora or the like) or Elf on the Shelf.  Most of all though, I'm missing the Christmas cards that start coming in this time of the year.  While some people dislike the letters and artfully arranged photos that come in at Christmas time, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE them.  I love seeing kids grow up and hearing what people have been up to over the year.  So, here's where you come in.  If we're not on your Christmas list, feel free to ignore this, but if we are, I would really appreciate it if you sent your Christmas card to us over here.  It would help bring a little of that Christmas spirit over to Hong Kong, and I'm sure the boys would LOVE to see pictures of their friends and family.  Send the cards to:

Doug Roscoe
VQ 201
Lingnan University
8 Castle Peak Road
Tuen Mun, New Territories
Hong Kong, SAR China

Thanks so much!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Other Hong Kong

Views at Plover Cove Country Park

When people think about Hong Kong, they usually envision an urban metropolis.  The iconic views of the Island's skyline against the Peak seem to capture the essence of the place.  Hong Kong is indeed a very urban place, with all the cultural, historical and social attractions of any great city.  And we've been exploring these.

But, more and more, we've come to realize how much beauty and interest there is among the natural areas of Hong Kong.  And I suspect when, years later, we reflect on our favorite memories of Hong Kong, among them will be some of the hikes we've done--especially for the boys.

Country parks are marked dark green

As you can see above, vast areas of Hong Kong are country parks.  This includes Tai Lam, which abuts our campus and which we can get to with a 10 minute walk.  We'd been exploring these trails since we got here.  But we started to explore more widely when we started hiking with a faculty member here at Lingnan and her family.  Annie teaches sociology, and her husband Ben and their two sons, Oscar and Joseph, are avid hikers.  (Ben is into ultra distance trail racing, too--I may join him for a shorter race in January.)  They have been very friendly to us, providing the boys with some male companionship and all of us with the opportunity to see a lot of Hong Kong we wouldn't have known to explore.

From left: Joseph, Annie, Oscar, Ben, me and Quin (Shannon behind lens)

Scrambling up rocks

Hong Kong's mountains are steep and largely made of granite.  This results in some excellent stream hiking, and Ben has taken us up some streams that are off the beaten path.  The boys love to scramble up the rocks, occasionally stopping to swim in some of the deep pools and kettles that form.  There are places that require some rock climbing, usually with a spotter at the bottom.  Ben mentioned a new hike he found that requires ropes; the boys are giddy with excitement.

View of Tuen Mun from Tai Lam Country Park

Quin and Berkley like it so much because it involves risk.  For that reason, it often provides us an opportunity to talk with them about risk taking, costs and benefits, and how to make good decisions about risk.  We get to explain that this scramble is a good risk because the drop is only 10 feet, while that scramble is a bad one because the drop could be 100.

Plenty of waterfalls and cascades to play in

The boys have become pretty good at it, too.  A couple weekends ago we did an epic 7 mile hike through the very steep hills of Tai Lam.  They were charged up and having a good time the entire way, without complaint or fighting.  Yesterday was just a “short” stream hike—only 4 miles.

Quin, Berkley and Joseph show some attitude

So, more and more, weekend plans involve a big hike somewhere.  I expected to do some hiking here, but I've been surprised by how much all of us have enjoyed the great Hong Kong outdoors and how much it’s come to be part of our experience.

Berkley looks fierce while Quin waits after 
completing a Bear Grylls-style water crossing

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Hong Kong Style

While there are certainly signs of Christmas here in Hong Kong (probably due both to the British colonial legacy along with prominence that shopping plays in the lives of people here), there were no signs of Thanksgiving anywhere.  Well – Lingnan actually had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the dining hall Thursday night, but since we’re vegetarians, that wasn’t all that appealing to us (while I enjoy all the fixings, for me, Thanksgiving is really about spending time with family). 
Feeling bad about depriving the boys of the holiday, we decided to take the day off and head over to Disneyland. If they couldn’t have the traditional all-American holiday, well then, we thought they could have a different sort of all-American experience, Disney.  And Disney certainly didn’t disappoint; the experience began on the train ride over (given that many here don’t own cars, Hong Kong Disneyland is accessible by public rail.  It took us less than an hour to get there).  There’s a special line that takes you from the main MTR to Disney; the trains had Mickey-shaped windows, Mickey-shaped handholds, etc.   

In fact, the whole experience was just like what you’d experience at a Disney in the U.S:  fun rides, interesting productions and spotless service and grounds.  We rode on Space Mountain, took a turn on Cinderella’s Carousel, and rode boats in It’s a Small World.  Given that it was just a random Thursday, the lines were short (with one exception: the Toy Story Solider Parachute Drop.  Worst line management I’ve ever seen at Disney.  Of course, being my father’s daughter, I couldn't let such poor line management pass without comment, which scored the boys are line-free trip to one of the neighboring rides); given two boys and an impatient mother, the short lines made the experience all the more enjoyable.  Sitting on Main Street, which was all decked out for Christmas, with snow falling and the Boston Pops’ version of “Sleigh Ride” playing in the background, it was almost like being at home – almost.  I mean – the snow was fake, we were in shorts, and Mickey Mouse spoke Cantonese, so it wasn’t quite the same.  

Nonetheless, we enjoyed it quite a bit.  Part of it was the whole experience (the fireworks, the parades, the rides), but part of it was also the little things that make a visit to Disney so fun.  As an example, when we were walking to lunch, we came across a man who was “painting” Disney characters with a broom and some water.  He let Berkley and Quin have a go; they produced a face (which totally resembled the Genki Sushi logo) and a spider, respectively.  

So, it definitely wasn't a traditional Thanksgiving for us. No traditional Thanksgiving meal (we had an Indian vegetarian sampler and Laksa for lunch followed by sushi for dinner), no family and friends. But it was still a day that reminded us how much we have to be thankful for, and in the end, I think that's what Thanksgiving is really all about.  


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Random Observations (11/25/2011)

  • Just realized I haven’t posted any random observations since the end of October!  So, there’s a whole range of them here.  I’m going to try to get back on my weekly schedule after this.
  • Berkley proved even more popular in Thailand than in Hong Kong.  Our first night there, he was spontaneously hugged and kissed several times.  Both he and Quin had several pictures snapped while in the Royal Palace, and one night in Phuket, a baby stopped to play with his hair.  As he likes to say, he developed quite a fan club in Thailand.
  • On the subject of photos, Berkley was very popular at Disney too.  In fact, while he and Quin were in line for a ride that Doug and I, with our weak stomachs, were sitting out, he decided he was going to start charging $1HKD for photos.  And he told this to a group who wanted his picture.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have $1HKD, so they gave him $5HKD – which of course he took.  On the one hand, quite embarrassing; on the other, quite fitting in this highly capitalistic society.
  • After dinner one night in Bangkok, we walked back through one of the bustling parts of Bangkok. Along the route were all sorts of stalls, selling t-shirts, jewelry, pirated DVDs, and some VERY adult products.  Luckily, only the angry bird t-shirts seemed to attract the boys’ attention.
  • I bought microwave popcorn recently.  The instructions said to consult the front of your microwave to determine how long it should cook.  Funny – our microwave has settings for rice, congee, porridge, noodles, shark’s fin soup (really?), and steamed fish.  No popcorn though, so I just winged it.
  • It has “cooled off” in Hong Kong, which means temperatures are down to the low 70s.  As a result, I only broke a mild sweat from lugging groceries back from the market, as opposed to the full-on, need a second shower days of a few weeks ago.  I understand now why people who are from here are so eager to wear long pants and sleeves, even when it’s still warm. I am SO sick of my summer clothes and sundresses that I am really prepared to leave them all behind.
  • I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Comcast.  English language TV here is minimal at best (one channel with uneven programming).  We use Hulu, but our wireless isn’t great, so we often have to pause to buffer shows.  And there’s just no channel surfing.  While I enjoy reading, some nights I just want to veg on the couch, mindlessly flipping through channels to see what’s on.  But I can’t.  So I really look forward to coming home to sports on TV, a variety of channels to flip through with shows on my DVR as back-up.
  • Hong Kong Disney (more on that later) was really interesting.  Everything was very similar, but with a slightly Asian spin.  For example, Adventureland here was filled with relics that were decidedly Asian – statues, boats on the river cruise, etc.  All of the performers in the parade were Asian – except for the Princesses who appeared imported. America had a small, small corner of It’s a Small World; I think we only had Woody and Jess dolls along with a few iconic buildings.  While some of the food was similar (ice cream, cotton candy, caramel corn, etc), much of it was very different, reflecting local preferences (snacks included fish balls on a stick, rice sticks, etc.).  For us, the food was more inviting.  We had a sampling of Indian vegetarian dishes and Laksa for lunch (surprisingly well done) and sushi for dinner.  Interestingly though, much of the programming was still in English.  A few shows were only in Cantonese, and most of the rides had bi or tri-lingual instructions, but all of the characters spoke English for the most part (although Mickey himself spoke a bit of Cantonese). Strange mix of accommodating and excluding. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gwelios Visit Kowloon Walled City

One of our family traditions is for Doug or me to read out loud to the boys every night.  We’ve worked our way through a variety of books, some excellent (Inkheart, Harry Potter, etc.) and some cringe-inducingly awful (Warrior Series – I’m looking at you).  Right now, we’re reading Gwelio by Martin Booth, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The term gwelio is now seen as a somewhat generic term for Westerners, although historically, it does have some negative racial connotations. The book Gwelio tells the story of Martin’s time in Hong Kong as a 7-10 year old.  It’s really an example of free-range parenting taken to the extreme.  He is basically given the run of the city (okay – his mother does give him some rules, but what 7 year old boy follows rules like – don’t go there or be sure to say near home?).  As you can imagine, he gets into some really interesting adventures, including hanging out with members of the Triad, visiting an opium den, and helping a family escape from a squatter house blaze.  

One of the locations that features prominently in his memoir is Kowloon Walled City.  Originally built as a coastal fort in 1810 (although sporadic settlement in that location dates to approximately the turn of last millennium), it no longer sits anywhere near the ocean; landfill surrounds what used to be the ocean side.  During the 1950s (when Booth lived in Hong Kong) and indeed for much of the 20th century, the City was largely ungoverned.  When the Chinese leased the New Territories to the British, the Walled City was excluded from the lease.  There was much back and forth talk about who controlled the City, but no one really actually did any controlling.  

As a result, the Walled City became a haven for drugs, crime and apparently unlicensed dentists (my worst nightmare!).  Due to the lack of authority, building codes were mere guidelines at best, resulting in probably the most densely populated area on earth.  Wikipedia claims that in 1987, the population density in the Walled City was over 1.2 million people per square kilometer (no – that’s not a typo); in contrast, Hong Kong itself only had about 6,700 people per square kilometer.  Buildings were so densely packed that most parts of the actual ground (the little that was not covered) never saw the light of day; social life occurred largely on the rooftops.

Eventually, something had to be done, so the British asserted their power in the early 1990s.  Some residents left voluntarily, while others had to be forcibly evicted.  Once clear, the Kowloon Walled City was demolished, and a park and memorial was erected in its place.  

Given Martin’s adventures in the Walled City and its colorful history, we decided to visit on Saturday.  It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path, but is well worth the visit, in my opinion, as it combines a good dose of history, some natural beauty and a touch of everyday life in Hong Kong.  There were plenty of locals there enjoying the amenities in the portion of the park surrounding the old walls.  The new park inside the walls is beautifully done; it’s hard to believe that it was once the location of largely lawless slum.  Most of the areas in the old walls are lush gardens, although there are some historical artifacts and pictures that detail the history of the area.  Quin even remarked that the park was much better than he expected (I don’t think his expectations are very high for parks and historical sites though!).  

For the boys though, even better than the Walled City was the portion of the park outside the old walls as it contained a bike track.  For $45 HKD (or about $5.50 U.S.), we rented bikes for the boys for an hour and set them free.  They were gloriously happy – furiously pedaling away with the wind whipping through their hair.  It was this latter element that had us biting our nails as there were no helmets available for rent and quite a bit of the chaos that is almost always involved in navigating Hong Kong.  There were minor crashes and several near misses, but luckily, the boys emerged unscathed.  Needless to say, they can’t wait to go back.  So while our boys generally have to endure far more parental supervision than Martin Booth, for an hour on Saturday, our little gwelios seriously enjoyed a taste of freedom.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

10,000+ Buddhas and counting

There’s something about Buddhist monasteries for me. I don’t know what it is; maybe it’s because they’re so different from places of worship back home, but I just really find them to be both awe-inspiring and peaceful at the same time.

Since we’ve been here, we’ve visited our share of monasteries, both here in Hong Kong and in Thailand. All of them are unique in their own way, from the giant Buddha at Po Lin to the 1,000+ year structures at Castle Peak or the modern edifice up the road from us. The 10,000 Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin, which we visited on Thursday, was no exception.

As the name suggests, there are A LOT of Buddhas; in fact, there are more than 13,000 Buddhas at the monastery. You can’t take pictures in the temple itself, so I can’t show you all of the statues, but believe me, it was pretty impressive to see that many of them– thus the awe. But at the same time, the monastery was incredibly peaceful, despite the fact that we were only a 20 minute hike from a bustling MTR station (and an Ikea, which we visited after our trip to the monastery. Pretty much exactly like Ikeas in the U.S., right down to the Swedish meatballs in the cafeteria. Of course, we didn’t sample those although we did go in for the .25 soft serve ice cream cones). At the top, surrounded by beautiful structures and mountains in the background, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of peace (and understand why people pay top dollar to be interred there. I guess that’s how the monastery makes money to stay in business).

The hike itself was pretty awe-inspiring too as the portion of the path closest to the monastery was lined with a wide variety of interesting statues. The boys entertained themselves the whole way up (and down) by picking out which one they wanted to be.

At the end of the day, Berkley said it was the best day off of school ever (until he was reminded that we went to Ocean Park on a day off at which point he corrected himself by saying it was the second best day off of school ever). And I certainly agree with him that these unplanned excursions as a family are the sorts of things we’ll really remember when this trip is over. If we were in the U.S., we certainly wouldn’t be springing the boys from school like we have been here, but here, we will. I mean - how often do you get the chance to see over 13,000 Buddhas?