Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Random Observations 1/26/2012

  • I mentioned this on FB the other day, but grocery shopping here in Hong Kong during the run up to Chinese New Year was absolutely INSANE.  Typically, a normal trip to a Hong Kong grocery store is about the same as shopping in an American grocery store during its most busy period.  But since it’s a tradition to give food gifts for Chinese New Year, the aisles here are even more packed with people, and everyone is pushing carts loaded with boxes of candy, cookies and the like to gift.  No big deal you may say, but the latter fact creates the problem as products in grocery stores here are densely packed, probably due to the fact that real estate is so expensive.  There is no extra space at the end of aisles or where you check out.  So, when I went last week, all of the checkout lanes in front of aisles were open, with carts lined up down each and every lane.  This, of course, made it impossible to actually shop as lanes are only two carts wide, and one cart width was being taken by people waiting to check out.  So, you had to abandon your cart to walk up the aisle to get anything, thereby clogging the ends of lanes with abandoned carts.  Total nightmare. 
  • Last week, we were blessed with beautiful weather for a few days – upper 60s, lower 70s and sunny.  In that kind of weather, indeed any time the sun is out, I wear sunglasses.  They’re part fashion statement, part eye protection, and part cover-up so I can observe around me without people noticing.  But in checking people out, I noticed that almost NO ONE wears sunglasses here.  I’m not sure why as you can find sunglasses on sale everywhere; apparently, the locals aren’t the ones purchasing them.
  • In fact, much of the purchasing around here is not driven by the locals; rather, Mainlanders come down in droves, attracted by the lack of sales tax on goods, particularly luxury goods.  Nowhere is this more evident than on Canton Road, which is where you’ll find all of the high end retailers.  Even more interesting to me, though, is the fact that the highest of these high end retailers have lines outside their boutiques.  I guess there are so many Mainlanders here buying expensive stuff, they have to regulate how many are in the store at any one time.  Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Channel, among others, all had lines at least a dozen deep.  Local residents are starting to resent this too.  The other day, a security guard prevented a local from taking pictures of these boutiques (along with the people in the lines); it seems that there may be some folks in these lines who don’t want people back home aware they’re here buying expensive stuff.  This brought about a protest from some locals who felt they were being treated unfairly as compared to the mainlanders.   Such resentment can been see in other places too; for example, there’s been a lot of rumbling about mainland women who come here to give birth, thus taking away spaces and resources from local women. 
  • Our warm weather last week was followed by cold weather this week; highs have been in the 40s.  I guess this is an unusually cold winter due to La Nina.  But, it’s not uncommon to have at least a few days each winter that are this cold.  Despite this fact, central heating is rare in Hong Kong, so we’ve had to make do with space heaters.  Let me tell you – space heaters do not get the job done.  While the boys do not seem to be affected by it, Doug and I definitely are.  That’s why I was happy to read the NYTimesarticle about brown fat yesterday.  Hopefully, all of this suffering is at least leading to some calories burned.
  •  On Monday, we went to the New Year’s Parade.  I couldn’t help but think of The Christmas Story – “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine” – while we were there.  That’s right; the floats were all crummy commercials for a variety of tourist spots.  While there were some cool things (dragons, dancers in costumes, kung fu groups), it was a bit of a disappointment.
  • Tomorrow, we’ll be leaving Hong Kong.  I can’t believe it’s been five and a half months already, but it has.  I’ve loved our time here in Hong Kong; it’s amazing to me how much it’s become normal and comfortable.  For instance, when we arrived here, the airport seemed so different, so foreign, and so overwhelming.  But when we came back from Bali in December, the airport seemed so familiar and comforting.  As we prepare to tackle another strange city in a few weeks, I’m cheered by the fact that at some point Shanghai will feel as familiar as Hong Kong.  As a result, I feel far more confident about my ability to handle whatever awaits us in phase two of our adventure.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cheung Chau

 As our time in Hong Kong winds down, we’re trying to squeeze in a few last items on our to-do list. As Doug mentioned, we’ve seen all of the A list tourist sites, but there were still a few lower level sites left that we wanted to check out. Last Thursday, we tackled one of those items and headed over to Cheung Chau, one of the small outlying islands. Doug and I weren’t expecting much, but we had heard we could rent bicycles, so the boys were really looking forward to it. And, as it turns out, they were right. Cheung Chau was everything I had hoped for with our trip to Lamma Island, which as you may remember was a bit of a train wreck due to the national day crowds. This time, we ate a lovely seafood lunch, sitting outside to enjoy the 70 degree and sunny weather (and by we, I mean Doug and me. To our great consternation, since we have come to China, the boys have decided that they will only occasionally eat rice and noodles. Joy. So, we gave the boys a few bucks, sent them down the street, and back they came with french fries from McDonalds). 

With everybody satiated, we rented bikes and set out to explore the island.


Rather than sticking to the main drag where the few other tourists were riding (due mainly to the fact that many of them had rented bicycles with a bench in the back – suitable only for flat roads), we pushed our bikes up some steep hills and were rewarded with some lovely vistas. At one point, Doug remarked that he felt like he was riding his bike through Italy, although there were obvious signs this was not the case.

There were pirate caves to explore, rocks to climb and beaches to comb (alas – it was not quite warm enough to swim).

All in all, it was really a stunning day. As we rode down the winding streets to return out bikes, there were definitely more than two smiling faces in our family on Thursday afternoon.

More than once, the boys remarked that they wished we had come to Cheung Chau earlier in our stay so that we could have visited more than once. As we squeeze in a last few sight-seeing trips, we can’t help but feel the same way (wow – why didn’t we try Knutsford Terrace for dinner earlier?), but I think you could explore Hong Kong, or any other major city for that matter, forever and still not feel like you’ve seen it all. However, I have no real glaring regrets or list of things I wish we did. We’ve done and seen a lot in our time here, so while I’m sad to be leaving Hong Kong, I am definitely looking forward to conquering a new city.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Castle Peak (Mostly) in Pictures

A few weeks ago, as I mentioned previously, we hiked back up to the top of Castle Peak with the boys.  The hike to the top was mostly straight up, with only a brief respite at a 1,000 year old monastery about 1/3 of the way up.  We took a different route down, one that ran along the ridges of several hills before heading down.  Despite the fact the area was blanketed in smog, a seemingly very common occurrence these days in Hong Kong, we still managed to get quite a few excellent pictures that capture the essence of the day very nicely.  It's days like these that I'll really miss when we leave here. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Living Like a Tourist

Six months is an awkward amount of time to stay in a place.  It’s too long to feel like a tourist, but too short to feel like a resident. 

As we prepare to leave Hong Kong, we’ve started to reflect a bit more on our stay here and the things we’ve done and didn’t get to do.  We’ve crossed off virtually all the “things-to-see” on our list.  We’ve gone to places we’ve liked more than once.  We’ve started to cement some friendships (including the boys at school).  But in many ways we have only recently begun to feel like we’re settled.  Like roots—just the faintest shoots—are starting to grow.  And now we move on.

This awkwardness has manifested itself in a degree of ambivalence about the typical weekend itinerary.  On the one hand, we’re only here six months, so we feel like every weekend must include a full round of sightseeing, exploring, cultural exposure and dining out.  On the other hand, one can’t really be a tourist for six months.  At some point, you just need a normal weekend.

What has often resulted is a sort of casual tourism.  On a given Saturday or Sunday, we might plan a hike in a new area and a meal out.  Or we might aim to just explore one small neighborhood we haven’t seen, but only after a morning of chill time at home.  Having hit the Major Attractions like the Peak, the Star Ferry and Po Lin Monastery, we’ve moved into the second and third tier attractions.  Or we just go walking around to see what there is to see, to learn more about Hong Kong.

What I’ve recently come to realize is that this is actually a really nice way to live.  I’ve lived in a lot of different places in my life and travelled to many more, but I’ve never travelled in the places I’ve lived.  I’ve never really lived like a tourist in my own city.

We own guidebooks for Hong Kong and Shanghai, checked out one for Bangkok when we went there.  We’ve browsed through many other books and websites about these places.  The first thing we do when we start planning a vacation is to get a guide book.  But, I’ve never even looked at one for Boston.  Never owned one for Chicago.

I remember moving away from Chicago and thinking about cultural sights I never saw—places that would be top of my list if I were going today on a trip there.  For example, I always wanted to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art and finally did—when I returned on a trip years after moving away.

I think what happens is you develop a sense of open-endedness.  There seems to be no definite end to your stay in the place where you live (even if you suspect, at some point in a few years, you’ll likely move on).  So, there’s no pressure to see these things.  You can always get to them. 

Well, I’ve decided to make a commitment when I get home to living more like a tourist.  I’m going to buy a Boston guide book.  I’m going to buy a Providence guide book.  And I’m going to encourage the family to spend some of our weekend days checking out sights now, rather than at some future, undetermined date.  So, if you see us just wandering around Southie some Saturday, that’s just us living like tourists.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Unpacking the Backpack

All semester long, I’ve been mulling over a blog post in my mind, one dealing with the topic of race. But, it’s a difficult post to write because, well, I’m white, so I’ve been putting it off. But in seeing everyone post about MLK Day, I thought: if there’s a time to write this post, it’s now. So here goes. From the start, one of the reasons that I really wanted to spend our time away in a country so very different from our own is that it allows me to experience my race in a way that’s not possible at home. Now, I know this may be a touchy subject, so I suppose I need to preface this post with a caveat. While I’m going to be talking about how being here has allowed me to become more aware of what it feels like to be different, I am, of course, completely aware of the fact that it’s not the same. I mean – I am a white person in a country that was a British colony. Therefore, being white here carries many of the same sorts of privileges that it does in the U.S. Even though I have become more fully aware of what it means to feel different than others, I’m not sure that I can ever understand what it means to feel disadvantaged because of that.

So while I cannot fully unpack the backpack that is privilege, my time here has given me a much better understanding of how it feels to be different. We live in a part of Hong Kong where few expats live. Therefore, it is not uncommon for us to be the only white people when we board public transportation, when we step into a store, or even when we walk down the street. There have been times when we have been stared at, pointed at, and probably talked about (I can’t be sure of the latter as there is the additional linguistic barrier here, but all signs point to this being the case). As an example, when we returned from Macau, we decided to take the ferry back to Tuen Mun, which is the town we live in. Few westerners do this as few live in the area; most take the ferry back to Hong Kong Island or Kowloon. So, pretty much every worker we interacted with kept saying :”Tuen Mun, Tuen Mun” – just in case we didn’t know where we were going. In the departure lounge, people openly stared and probably talked about us. Not a big deal if this was the only time something like this occurred. But it’s pretty much a common occurrence for us to be noticed because of the color of our skin. Children are probably the most interested in us; we may be the first actual white people some of them have seen, and they are particularly fascinated with Berkley and his blond hair. I have, on a few occasions, been followed around a store, although I think that may be more due to the fact that they think I may be more likely to spend money and they want a commission than due to the fact that they think I might shoplift something. Nonetheless, when this happens, it’s been pretty clear that they’re following me because I’m white.

After a while, it becomes part of the new normal. You’re different, so people notice you. At the same time, it’s unsettling in the long run to be singled out as different so frequently; eventually, you long to be among people like you. So when you are on public transportation and there are other white people, you notice. It’s as if there’s some force of recognition of someone else who is like you. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re like you. Heading home one night on the MTR, there was another white couple to whom Berkley tried to talk. I say tried as they were French, so I could only rely on my minimal college-level French and their minimal English skills to communicate (of course, Berkley tries to talk to nearly everyone using his English; if they say one or two halting words in English to him, he’s off to the races). We had assumed that we could speak to each other simply because of the color of our skin, which wasn't necessarily true. Interestingly (at least for me, probably less so for some of my friends of color), this feeling of connection crosses racial barriers. I have exchanged this look of recognition with some black people I have seen, as if our being different from the majority here creates some sort of bond that would not be the same at home. After a while, you begin to understand why expats tend to befriend other expats or residential segregation occurs even in the absence of laws mandating it.

Now, if you ask Doug, he might say I’m being overly sensitive to this. And perhaps he would be right. Maybe since I’ve talked to some of my Women’s Studies colleagues about this topic and they’ve shared with me the Peggy McIntosh article that I linked to above (which is used in all of our Introduction to Women’s Studies courses), I have paid more attention to this issue of race while here in Hong Kong. I want to be clear that I don’t think we’ve been discriminated against because of the color of our skin. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. But as I stated earlier, I think that being here has allowed me to think more clearly about what it feels like to be different, to be noticed simply because of the color of your skin. And while I cannot ever fully understand what it means to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I hope that my experiences here will help me unpack my backpack and work to create a more just society for all. Just as importantly, I hope that my children will remember what it felt like during this year abroad to be so different from everyone else and that when they return to the U.S., they will be more sensitive to the needs of so many others who are different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religion, or what have you. And as we all reflect on the life of Martin Luther King, I hope we can all work towards a society where power rests on the broadest of all possible foundations.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bo Innovation

Shannon and I recently had an amazing dining experience. I use the term dining experience purposely, because it was much more than a meal. We ate at a restaurant called Bo Innovation, which is run by “Demon” Chef Alvin Leung. What Leung provides is an intellectually engaging meal that uses cutting edge culinary techniques and boundless creativity to showcase traditional Chinese dishes and ingredients in progressive and reinvented ways.

Chef Alvin Leung

We knew about Bo Innovation from watching, many months earlier, the Hong Kong episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show No Reservations. So, it was in the back of our mind. Then, we decided we ought to hit at least one really high-end restaurant while here in this culinary capital. Looking at the list of “world’s best restaurants” or those with Michelin stars, we were surprised to see the big ones in Hong Kong were generally French. French food doesn’t really suit our semi-vegetarian tastes, and it certainly doesn’t scream Hong Kong, so we weren’t sure where to go. But, then we came upon Bo Innovation, which had both a Michelin star and a place on the best-of lists we found. Shannon made it happen by taking me there as a Christmas present.

What drew us to Bo was the fact that it was Chinese food, but Chinese food that provided something new. It seems to us that few Chinese restaurants, either here or in the States, try to do anything innovative. The best, most highly rated Chinese restaurants all provide outstanding versions of traditional dishes. Fusion restaurants that draw from Chinese or Asian cuisines seem just to borrow a flavor or ingredient and then throw it into a dish from another tradition. What Leung does is reinvent Chinese food while still keeping it Chinese.

If you’re the sort of person who only likes a simple meal that involves an ample plate of recognizable and delicious food, Bo Innovation is not for you. Bo Innovation is a reflective and intellectual experience. We learned a lot about Chinese food. That’s not to say the food wasn’t tasty—every one of the thirteen small plates on the set menu was awesomely delicious (and kudos for the kitchen’s willingness to substitute and adjust to keep land animals off our plates). But the real enjoyment in the meal came from the surprises, innovations and unique connections to Chinese cuisine.

There were unusual ingredients: ginger snow (ginger frozen with liquid nitrogen and then crushed); Hawthorn sorbet; cauliflower risotto (that is, the cauliflower itself made up the grains of risotto); butter ice cream; mashed potato foam; a tomato marshmallow; wasabi foam.

And then there were the unique constructions: lobster with star anise butter, chanterelles, corn and sea urchin; pineapple cubes with three different types of peppercorns; that Hawthorn sorbet (very bitter) with beetroot foam (very sweet).

But most impressive were the ways he drew from and celebrated Chinese food and Hong Kong traditions. The first plate, an oyster with spring onion, lime cream and the ginger snow, also came with “parfum du hong kong.” It smelled exactly like the wet markets here. A tomato plate included a skinless cherry tomato that had been cooked in a particular brand of sweet vinegar, Pat Chun, that is very popular in Hong Kong.

A dessert plate was a little ball of orange-flavored chocolate around Chinese almonds. The chocolate was placed on a Chinese soup spoon and brought out on a little covered box. At the table, the top of the box was removed and a puff of Sandalwood smoke came out and wafted over the food and across the table. It brought you right into the many temples here that are filled with the mysterious smell of the burning Sandalwood joss sticks. And, though it might sound off-putting, the odor actually went perfectly with the taste of the chocolate.

Another dessert was a take on a very popular tea set in Hong Kong—the pineapple bun slashed through with butter and a cup of half coffee with cream, half tea. Along with the pepper and pineapple cubes, there was Leung’s take on the pineapple bun—a crispy dough-coated ball of butter ice cream. And with it was a cup of the coffee/tea, except the two parts were gellified and separated into two halves within the cup. The coffee half was warm and the tea part was cool, so when you sipped it you simultaneously felt warm and cold on your lips. Amazing.

The service was incredible, and most courses came with explanations and instructions. They brought out the bottle of Pat Chun vinegar, explained its popularity and let us smell it. The brought out containers of key ingredients in the dishes (like little dried shrimps or fermented olives) and let us smell and even taste them. While I don’t always go in for this level of fussiness (“this course should be eaten with fork and knife; this course in one bite with chopsticks”) and appreciate simple, good food as much as the next person, we really did learn a lot and enjoyed the food more for knowing the backstory.

Leung, despite the edgy look and ominous nickname, seemed like a really nice guy. He led a small group of chefs in an exposed kitchen area through plating and expediting. The dining room was pretty quiet (it was early on a weeknight), so I often caught him leaning back looking out across the tables. The look was one of eager assessment—were they enjoying my food? When I caught his eye and gave him a little smile and nod of appreciation, he smiled back with satisfaction. On the way out we thanked him for a great meal and he was very humble and polite.

After a few months here, Shannon and I have realized we are not huge fans of Cantonese food. It’s very meat-based and relies on light and delicate flavors and sauces. We much rather prefer really spicy vegetables (like Sichuan or Southeast Asian food). We’re pretty well done with dim sum. But Bo Innovation made us really appreciate Cantonese cuisine in a way we hadn’t. And, as Shannon points out in the prior post, it captures Hong Kong so well, merging traditional Chinese culture with the fast pace and dynamic energy of this progressive city.

Random Observations 1/12/2012

  • Last week, we tried to go to the movies. I saw tried as we went to the movie theater expecting to see MI4, but as it turns out, they do movies here a bit differently than we do at home (like so many other things). In typical American fashion, we ended up hitting the theater about 15 minutes before show time and entered the line to buy tickets. My infamous line impatience quickly kicked in as everyone was taking at least a couple of minutes to purchase their tickets – why should it take so long to buy a couple of tickets? We soon found out when we got to the head of the line. Not only do you buy a ticket for the movie here in Hong Kong, you also reserve a seat. And for us, now only 10 minutes or so before show time, the only seats left were in the very first row. Uh – no thanks. So, we see that the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie is playing and some other random cartoon movie that I can’t remember and ask to check out seating availability for those (which is why it was taking everyone so long in line) – pretty much the same deal, with maybe seats in the first two or three rows. Again, no thanks. Back to the house it was – lesson learned.
  • For some reason, Hotelling’s law seems to have been taken to the extreme in all of the countries we’ve visited so far (Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia). Not sure if it’s something throughout Asia, but basically, all of the stores of a same sort are all clustered together, whether it be in a mall or on a street. Stuff for kids in one zone, home goods in another, sporting goods around the corner, and so on. I suppose that’s good if you want to comparison shop (you can easily move from one shop to the next), but woe is the customer who wants to buy a pair of sneakers but can’t find the sporting goods section.
  • We climbed Castle Peak last weekend with the boys. When we first got here, Doug and I did it together, and I thought there was NO way the boys would make it to the top. But they did it with no problem – not a single complaint. Part of this is due to the fact that it’s way less hot now than when Doug and I did it, but mostly it’s due to the fact that the boys are really good hikers now. We could take them just about anywhere around here, and they’d be fine. This is one of the things we really hope we keep doing when we get back as it’s truly an enjoyable way to spend the day with the boys. For instance, the whole way down (and we took this crazy long way down), the boys shared with us their ideas for books. They had some really creative and fun ideas, and it was so nice to just to hear them go on and one about them.
  • Although the boys don’t know much Cantonese, they’ve managed to pick up some slang and to mimic the Cantonese-accented English of their school peers. Quin has been particularly adept at this. At first, it kind of sounded like he was mocking them, but we’ve realized that he’s really just got the accent down pat. For example, on Sunday, we went to our favorite Thai restaurant for a goodbye dinner with our downstairs neighbors (who have returned to Wisconsin which we’re all bummed about). I told the boys they could get a soda, but told Quin no when he asked for Coke. He responded – che (best way I can describe it – sounds like le in French, but drawn out) which means noooo. The waitress burst out laughing as he had just totally nailed it. Wish we had been able to learn more Cantonese while we were here, but also makes us more determined to push the boys to work on their Mandarin this spring.
  • Doug and I managed to sneak out for a grown-up dinner the other night, my Christmas present to him. I know it’s a bit self-serving as I got to go too, but it’s hard to find a substantial present that doesn’t take up space in luggage! I’m going to let him blog about it, but for me, Bo Innovation was the perfect denouement to our time in Hong Kong – a mix of traditional Chinese with the new, modern and edgy. It was a truly exceptional dinner.