May 2, 2016

Brown Bag Lunch: HK Style

Hong Kong is one of the greatest food cities in the world. It's also one of the most humid cities. Together, those two factors have ganged up against me in my pursuit for packed lunches. And I haven't yet cracked the code.

Back in Seattle, I was a lunch-packing queen, making large quinoa and veggie salads or big pots of soup on Sunday nights that would last the whole week through. In Hong Kong, I haven't quite averaged one homemade lunch per week just yet. I'm trying to change that so I have healthier lunches.

In the US, packed lunches also equated to saving money. Here? Not so much since I'm not cooking for a family and am not quite as savvy with the wet market as fierce Cantonese mamas. 

This week, I decided to just go for it. Aside from grains that I bought at a small organics store, all of my groceries for the week came from produce stalls in the market. Beets, snap peas, passion fruit, baby Filipino mangoes, sweet potatoes, pomegranate, and strange green things that look like scallions but smell like sour oniony-feet all made it into my fridge. 

Determined to pull off a week-long salad worthy of a high-five from the farmers market crowd in Seattle, I started prepping ingredients. The beets went into my oven, yes the amazing gas oven that I'm fortunate to have, and I chopped up cucumbers and the strange scallion thing. My kitchen smelled awful, sour and pungent, but I opted to toss the green bits into the salad bowl.

Then I went to grab a potato to bake for dinner while the beets and quinoa were cooking. 
Stored in an closed yet breathable tin in my cupboard was a beautiful sweet potato that I bought three weeks ago. I kept it in a dark, cool spot, yet when I opened the tin I was met with a horrible metallic soil smell. The potato had blown up like a wrinkly balloon. 

Now my kitchen was really smelly.

Alright, one potato to waste, not ideal but I'll cut my losses, I thought.

The beets were done roasting soon enough and I added them in with the stinky scallions and cucumbers then stirred in quinoa and pomegranate seeds. The scallion things were overpowering, so I took my very Seattle salad and made it a little more Asia by adding citrus, fish oil, soy sauce and maggi seasoning. 

To finish it off, I went to the fridge for the feta cheese I picked up the same day that I purchased the potato. Cheese is like gold in Hong Kong. Until I strike it rich with a two-income life here, cheese is just not something that fits into my grocery budget. But a couple of weeks ago, I splurged and bought a small brick of feta that cost ~$10. 

I had the privilege of enjoying said cheese just once, as this evening when I pulled it out of its fine glass storage container, the damn thing had grown fur.

My relationship with feeding myself in Hong Kong is an analogy for me building my life here. Many things work quite well--like my job, apartment, hobbies and my mother's homemade brownie recipe. But most everything has an unexpected consequence, like a crowded pedestrian commute on my way to work, relentless swollen, itchy gnat bites I get from hiking or yoga outside, and failed root veggie storage.

This dichotomy is both the charm and misery of life abroad. Nine times out of 10 one can't help but to laugh at the situation. But that one time--those 10% of incidents where laughs just cannot be generated-- is absolutely devastating. 

One day soon, hopefully in the coming month or two, I will crack  the code on food in Hong Kong and find a happier balance of all of absurd moments.

April 3, 2016

March: Three Key Themes

March was here and gone and easily summed up in three key themes: doctors, mold, guests.

Along with a fair chunk of Hong Kong (and from what I've gathered, large swathes of the US), I spend most of the month sick. After a nonstop work schedule culminated with a conference  at the very end of February, myself along with most of my colleagues caught a vicious flu bug. So much so that the first working day after the conference only two of the normally 20 or so people in my office area came to work. I was not one of the two.

The waiting room of the doctor's office

This month meant I had to figure out how the health system worked in  Hong Kong. My company's health insurance offers an app service that lets me search doctors by specialties and location. Any doctor featured  in the app is completely free to visit (yes!) 

Like Tinder with dating, this app is a big game of roulette with the knowledge and personality of the people. I should've swiped left and said no, but  was too easily  tempted by the doctor located closest to my house. The waiting room was packed and crowded and I noticed a lot of Botox signs around... not exactly encouraging when I needed something to tame my fever and sinuses.

When I got called into the doctor's office, it was actually his office. It was another tiny room where  the doctor sat at his desk and I on a chair as if I were at a job interview. In all of 30 seconds, he wrote a prescription and I went back to reception to pick up six  tiny packets of yellow, pink and white pills. It was unclear what the drugs were or what I was diagnosed with.

I went home, took what I thought was one dose and wound up feeling drunk and nauseated.

When I went to work the next day, my colleague graciously made me an appointment at her family's  doctor which was also conveniently close to my home. This doctor was much kinder, his office less  chaotic, and was marginally more clear on what the medicine was as well as expected dosages. 

All in, I went to the doc three times this month -- more than I had in all of the years I lived in Seattle. I blame the humidity and the mold. 

As the fog settled in last month, the temperature remained cool but the humidity was consistently flirting with 100%. All of a sudden, the walls along the border of the windows bloomed into green and grey spots, looking a bit like blackheads on a nose. Not knowing what to do, I let it be until the color grew more pronounced.

One Sunday morning, while sniffling and running a low-grade fever, I finally pulled out the bleach and a sponge. While I started scrubbing off the blooms of blackheads, my old roommate from Seattle was thankfully in town and started researching mold in Hong Kong. 

Apparently it's common and it's a never-ending battle. 

She pulled up blog posts describing moldy shoes, moldy sofas and completely wrecked wardrobes from people who left town on a vacation and came back to dank, disgusting clothes. I continued working my way around the windowsills, increasingly horrified by  her reports and by what I was seeing. 

As I cleaned around the window by my bed, I took a peek behind the headboard and screamed. My roommate thought I had found a gigantic spider. Instead, the wall was covered in fur: black, green and grey fur. 

Immediately I knew the source of my sinus woes. I scrubbed once and scrubbed again and promptly turned on my dehumidifier. No doubt by  electric bill this month will be triple what I have been paying because my dehumidifier has hardly been turned off.

In addition to seeping into the walls, the moisture  has  seeped into my bones. While my skin is fabulous, the air  feels so thick that it seems to stick inside your lungs along with all of the glorious particulate matter from pollution. Another colleague thought that my never-ending cold was due to the humidity, so she made me some homemade dehumidifying soup with Chinese barley, red beans  and a little sugar. It tasted great and the next day my coworkers  proclaimed that my hair looked less humidified. Success?


The highlight of the month was my old roommate visiting from Seattle. I can't express how nice it was spending a lot  of time with someone who actually knows me. It felt good getting re-centered.

In  the next 10 days alone, I have five guests all from the US coming through town or staying with me. It'll be nice to show off my city. 

February 21, 2016

100 Days

Today marks 100 days in Hong Kong, 100 days!

So, here is my list of 100 things that define this experience so far:

  1. I adore my neighborhood
  2. My apartment actually feels like home
  3. But rent it stupid expensive.
  4. The city still blows my mind..
  5. ...and sometimes makes me crazy. 
  6. So I escape to the jungle.
  7. Or I hop on a ferry to the beautiful surrounding islands (my favorite!)
  8. Hong Kong really is an adult playground
  9. Money will buy anything here
  10. But it's totally ok and reasonable to get by without an excess of it.
  11. The markets are bizarre and wonderful,
  12. yes it's true that the crowds drive me nuts there,
  13. but nowhere else in the world can I buy legos, underwear and ultra-fresh SE Asian fruit all within 100 steps
  14. And it's all a five-minute walk from home.
  15. This city's hills make Seattle's hills look quaint, 
  16. Many streets here are just straight up (or down) steps.
  17. Ahh, Seattle... I miss that city more than I thought I would,
  18. it's only now that I can finally think about it and only have it gently pull on my heart strings -- the places, routes, shitty weather, the smell of the ocean...I've been gone long enough now to let myself actually think about the city. Up until now, I blocked it from my mind. 
  19. Of course I miss my friends, a lot.
  20. But I have visitors! At least one each month since November and continuing through  May :)
  21. I've now been in Hong Kong long enough to identify other silly American things I miss:
  22. La Croix bubbly water, affordable kombucha, takeout from Annapurna and understandable grocery stores.
  23. Ok, pity party over. This city has way too many great things that keep  me distracted:
  24.  Like food.
  25. You can eat everything in Hong Kong. 
  26. I love the local noodles and eggy waffles,
  27. And I've taken a masochistic adoration to Sichuan meals. 
  28. It numbs your mouth in a firey, citrusy feeling totally unique to Sichuanese food. 
  29. I don't cook as often as I should here; it's expensive cooking for one. 
  30. However, I really want to learn how to cook Cantonese food.
  31. I'm currently accepting donations for my wok and knife set fund. (Kidding about  the donations part, but those are two critical items I still need to purchase for my place).
  32. So are plants. I really need some living things in my home space.
  33. Good thing there is an ENTIRE market just for plants in Prince Edward, just a few stops away.
  34. Foot massages are my weekly indulgence. 
  35. Sometimes I go twice a week. 
  36. Visit me in Hong Kong and at least one foot massage is guaranteed to be on the list. 
  37. Living far from home is an inexplicable learning experience, it's far from glamorous.
  38. It took me 2.5 months to finally be fine to admit that this move was difficult.
  39. Moving here has forced me to let down my guard and open up to any bizarre connection the universe presents.
  40. Some of my favorite connections have been with fellow Seattlites having only found one another after arriving in Hong Kong. Sometimes the universe is funny like that.
  41. The common tie of the "former life" and "current life" has been an appreciated factor with the fellow jet fresh imports from the US West Coast. 
  42. Cantonese is a really difficult language.
  43. My Mandarin needs *a lot* of work, but not as much work as my Cantonese.
  44. Three months in and I know how to say my address and a handful of words, like: hello, annoying, and three forms of "thank you."
  45. Hong Kong  is cold in the winter. It's humid and there isn't much for insulation.
  46. I can't wait for the hot, sticky summer.
  47. The pollution here is a real thing, but it's not that bad.
  48. An air purifier is the best investment I've made for my apartment.
  49. It still amazes me that I can be in the jungle in 10 minutes from my front door.
  50. Did you know that 70% of Hong Kong is undeveloped land?
  51. That's why the bits that are developed are so dense. 
  52. (And a part of the reason the air pollution is in check).
  53. The Asia travel bug hasn't yet hit me fully yet, there's too much to explore here. For example:
  54. Lantau Island: its beaches, feral cows and Disneyworld! (still need to go to Disney..)
  55. Lamma Island: for that laid back feel 
  56. Sai Kung: I've hardly even touched the area yet, but I like what I see in the New Territories
  57. Cheung Chau Island: for that biking fix
  58. Hong Kong Island: This is where I live and I've got a grasp of maybe 10% of all the good stuff on this island
  59. Best way to get around the city in HK island? A wooden street car that runs east to west. It's my favorite view of the city.
  60. Kowloon: it's where I feel like I'm 100% in Hong Kong
  61. Mong Kok: one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world. Somehow I've wound up there more weekends than not in the last few months.
  62. The wet market down the street: where things are sold that I did not know could be eaten.
  63. I'm realizing there is still a lot here that I need to figure out,
  64. Like the "adult" things one avoids until necessary, like figuring out where to go to the doctor,
  65. Or what to do if a fire alarm goes off in your building
  66. Or if a fuse blows in the apartment (at least I have finally located the fuse box).
  67. And then there are taxes. Uff da. I actually can't even....
  68. Time for another foot massage.
  69. I also want to try cupping and acupuncture, but medicine is one area where the language barrier is real. 
  70. Tai chi is also on high on my list of things to try. I plan to crash the party of grandmas who climb up the mountain each morning at 7 a.m. for the energy work in the park.
  71. The second the weather gets warmer, I plan to start teaching yoga in parks, on beaches... pretty much anywhere that gets people barefoot on something other than concrete.
  72. I don't talk about my work on my blog, but my job has been the easiest and best part about adjusting to living in Hong Kong.
  73. My colleagues are the BEST and have lovingly answered all of my silly questions about Hong Kong, such as, "How do I treat itchy bug bites?"
  74. Answer: this amazing MoPiDick (yes, like Moby Dick) ointment from Japan, found at any drugstore. It's amazing!
  75. Also amazing are the Korean sheet face masks. They are single cotton sheets with holes cut out for your eyes, nose and  mouth. They're soaked in serum for any sort of skin improvement, such as moisture, soothing, anti-aging, and whitening (I stay away from the whitening ones).
  76. The most entertaining masks  are the ones with animal patterns, like monkeys and puppies.
  77. Plan a visit to Hong Kong and Korean face masks will also certainly be on the itinerary.
  78. I'm thankful for how similar Hong Kong feels to home. Aside from moving alone, which is hard to do even domestically, I have all of the comforts I had in the US.
  79. Thank goodness I have a yoga studio. It's clean and spacious.
  80. It's easy, albeit a bit expensive, to eat really  healthy here.
  81. My step count has shot up to a daily average of 3.9 miles.
  82. And I climb an average of 20 flights of stairs each day.
  83. (Hong Kong hills do NOT mess around).
  84. I'm learning how to use umbrellas again. No one in Seattle uses umbrellas. Here they are key.
  85. So are rainboots. These streets rip up shoes like crazy.
  86. Speaking of rain, I love how I can hear it raining from my apartment.
  87. In fact, I can't hear much of anything other than rain and the occasional dog bark. There is zero traffic by my apartment.
  88. My address sounds straight from a scifi novel (if you got my  New Year card, you'll understand that). 
  89. Commuting, even on foot, can require the same keen attentiveness as driving in a lot of traffic.
  90. You don't ever want to be that distracted walker who is texting and walking, that's how head on collisions happen.
  91. Sometimes those crowded human highways are infuriating, other times I find the zen and flow in it. I need to consciously work towards making it as calming as possible.
  92. (If you've made it this far, bless your heart. Only nine more to go).
  93. I'll be here a while, quite a long while. I'm getting through the post-honeymoon lull and wholeheartedly believe I can build a good life here.
  94. I am committed to building a community out of this behemoth of a city,
  95. the starting point for that is building my home, which is 75% there. I've given myself a deadline of May to get it to where I want it to be.
  96. Technology is the saving grace of this move. I am so grateful I can video chat with family and friends for free on a moment's notice.
  97. Willing that I live to be  an old dragon lady, I can't wait to see this move in retrospect and what role it actually plays in my life story.
  98. Yes, it's hard doing the Google Earth zoom-out of where I am on the planet in relation to my loved ones. But it's also pretty damn amazing,
  99. This move, more than others, has reinforced that this world is small,
  100. and that people everywhere are capable of connecting and relating well to one another.
Thank you, Hong Kong, for a brilliant and challenging first 100 days. 

Welcome, Year of the Monkey

Happy Year of the Monkey! Kung Hei Fat Choy! Xin nian kuai le!

The Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year (or LNY) is one of the biggest holidays  on  earth. It celebrates the new year beginning  on the lunar calendar and results in an insanely huge annual migration of humans  who are heading back to their hometowns for the holiday.

Victoria Park LNY Market

For me, it meant three days off from work and a good chance to start learning bits and pieces about the rituals behind it. LNY markets appeared all throughout the city, selling stunning flowers  and holiday decor.

Impossibly busy crowd in Mong  Kok
Orchid shopping at Victoria Park 

The Decorations

Orange bushes adorn every single entryway. Even in the far reaches of temples outside of fishing villages, one can find an orange bush. The Chinese word for mandarin oranges sounds like "good luck" when spoken and uses the character for "gold" when written. The bushes represent a good  luck and fortune in the year ahead.

The bushes are perfectly symmetrical and dripping with so much fruit it's almost unnatural. Thankfully my colleague had courage to ask the question all of the new gwailo's have been wondering: could the oranges be  eaten? Absolutely not. The local who answered her said that the bushes are sprayed with all sorts of chemicals to keep those oranges looking just right.

Aside from orange bushes, families also purchase pots of narcissus flowers, indicating the arrival of spring along with "five generation fruit" pyramids, which look like stacks of lemons with some extra nubbins growing out of them. The fruit are a symbol of generations within a family.

Door frames are adorned  with poetry on long red scrips of paper, wishing good health, fortune, and happiness. From what I gather, the poems have quite a bit of crafty wordplay that I can only sense by the generally awkward translations.

The biggest and most interesting  surprise of all of it to me was that I received lai see, or red pocket money. Bosses and married people hand out  red envelopes of money to ward off evil spirits for the year ahead.The envelopes are filled with crisp bills of varying denominations, but most commonly in HK it's a $20 or $10 HKD, which is $2-3 US.

In some parts of Asia, my old age would disqualify me for the red packets, but in Hong Kong, anyone who isn't married may receive red packet from married friends or colleagues. The packets are also given out by managers to their teams. I gave to my cleaning lady and my door guards. It's amazing how nice some of the door guards have been since I gave them lucky money. 

Nothing says "single in Hong Kong," quite like paying for meals--while dining alone--in brand new, fresh $20 bills. 

Many Chinese are quick to say that  the LNY is a lot like Christmas in the US, and up until this year I didn't quite understand the connection. But it's really true--both holidays are spent primarily with family, there are a several traditional decorations and foods involved, little kids anxiously a await gifts from grownups, and there is a palpable sense of festive excitement around. I'm happy to have spent my first LNY in Asia right here in Hong Kong. 

February 10, 2016

When Hong Kong Gets Cold

Hello! It's been a couple of weeks since the last post, I'll blame it on my perpetually chilled fingertips... they haven't been too eager to type anything that wasn't work-related.

This last month has been one of the coldest that Hong Kong has had on record. Two weeks ago "frost chasers" scurried up the tallest peaks in the country parks in the hopes of catching a single snowflake or shimmering icicles on the underbrush.

Despite injuries, thankfully no one was killed in the cold weather pursuits, but I dare say spraying cold ground with cold water wasn't the most brilliant move by the rescuers, who are more accustomed to extreme heat than cold. (I'm not joking, scroll to the bottom to see the genius in action).

While I wasn't chasing frost (I grew up with enough of it to last a lifetime), I was planning to go camping and sleep outside that weekend. Thankfully we decided against  the sleeping outside bit and rented a beachside apartment on a nearby Hong Kong island.

Despite all of the blizzards and wind storms I experienced on the prairie, it was nothing compared to the 30-hour gale on the beach. We attempted a hike, but gave in after a half hour of being sand-blasted on the beach. That night, the wind was relentless--even shaking the apartment with some gusts. Potted plants on the patio tipped over and cracked, some awnings were torn, and loads of branches fell from the trees.

The actual-freezing temperature was  brief, but the wet chill in the air has persisted. The slate tiles of my apartment floor and the less-than-radiant heat from my radiator heater make it next to impossible to crawl out of my flannel sheets (best Christmas gift EVER) in the morning.

Outside, the temperatures aren't so bad. With a jacket and scarf, it's totally manageable. The challenge comes with warming up as the insides of buildings are either the same temperature or colder than outside. Suddenly sunny and 55 feels like a refrigerator.

People walk around in gigantic parkas, usually reserved for legitimate sub-zero temps. I manage in a fall jacket, but  indoors I'm running out of appropriate winter clothing to wear to work. Most of my bulky sweaters I left back in the US.

I'm going on the record  and saying that I can't wait  for  summer. Steamy, hot, raining, mildewy summer. In my inexperienced mind, summer is setup to be one nonstop hot yoga class. Anytime I say that out loud, I'm warned to be careful what I wish for. Apparently summers here are brutal, but at this point, I'm ready for the fridge chill to leave my apartment.

January 16, 2016

The Gwailo Goes to the Market

"This gre-ee-n leaf-ah, is it good for cooking, lah?" I slowly said to the vegetable vendor, doing my very best interpretation of Canto-English with strategic "ah, lah, and oh's" to make it sound like I  meant business.

"This is watercress and that's bamboo," the vendor replied to me in perfect English.

Embarrassed, I quickly dropped my poor, obnoxious accent and tried to recover by asking him a dozen questions about different vegetables I didn't recognize. Ultimately I purchased only familiar things: broccoli, onion, ginger, and zucchini. But now I've got a new friend in the wet market...I think.
Wan Chai wet market

My new favorite English-speaking veggie hawker
The wet market is a series of stalls--both indoor and outdoor--that sell fresh produce, meat and fish. It's open from 8-8 each day and the produce and meat are fresh and a fraction of the price of a typical grocery store. I'm still working out the origin of most of the produce, namely the vegetables, as it's hard to tell where they were grown. Fruits are more straightforward and there is amazing fruit that comes from all over SE Asia. 

I went to the market shortly after it opened on Sunday morning and at that time was the only gwailo (foreigner)  there.  Market shopping is a personal benchmark for getting on well in a new place. I've been lucky to live within a five minute walk of fresh markets for the great majority of the last eight years. 

It's amazing that my first shopping trip in each market--be in in Rome, Hangzhou, Capitol Hill in Seattle, and now in Hong Kong--felt the same. In each place, armed with a shopping bag and a clear calculation of what was in my wallet, I felt nervous, unsure, and absolutely clueless as to what to buy and where. 

In all instances (save for Hong Kong), the market slowly transformed from an intimidating amount of produce to manageable stands where I had my hawker for eggs, tomatoes, name it, and I knew where to get it and they knew me. I'll get there one day in Hong Kong, it's just a matter of setting up the routine of it.

I've hit the two month mark now and I'm happy to report that I do have a sense of routine, at least a tiny bit. Anyone who knows me well knows that I adore a good routine--I'm the classic case of early to bed, early to rise, neat-freak, follow-a-schedule gal. There's nothing quite like a move around the world to shake out any dust settled from established habits.

At this point I maybe have 10% of Hong Kong figured out, but it's a solid 10%. My job is going great, I'm loving all of the food, I'm learning more about my neighborhood and the city, and I have a lovely home. Food, water, shelter, safety: all of my basic needs are more than met. However, the bus system here is still hit-or-miss for me, I have no sense of a budget, and anytime I attempt to say something in Cantonese it comes out in Mandarin. 

It's all ok though, I'm embracing my new home and shamelessly wearing my gwailo heart on my sleeve.

January 10, 2016

The Helper Situation

This week I hired a helper.

She (of course, she) will come to my place once a week to clean, take care of laundry, do my dishes, and run any errands that I may require. All for a fraction of the cost of a typical trip to Target.

Ok Americans, pick your jaw up from the floor.

Helpers are everywhere in Hong Kong, nearly everyone with a disposable income has one and anyone with children has at least one, if not one per child. Families have live-in helpers, providing them with room and board in exchange for them maintaining the household and taking care of the kids. A live-in helper costs more or less the same as a full-time daycare provider in the US.

Part-time help, like what I now have, is technically illegal but it's a win-win for both me and my gal: she earns some easy extra income, and my inner neat freak enjoys coming home to a spotless apartment.

The whole idea of  having someone tend to my basic chores  feels a little extravagant; especially since I know that I am fully capable of it all myself. However, it's kind of the way things seem to work here.

The majority of helpers are from Indonesia or Philippines. As far as I know, they're all women and they work six days a week. Sundays and public holidays are their days off. It's incredible how the city  transforms on Sundays when all of the helpers socialize. Despite denser-than-usual crowds, it's my favorite day of the week to walk around and people watch.

Every public open space becomes a picnic. Each above-ground walkway, under every overpass, and on and around each public bench are good friends chatting and eating their favorite foods from home... or KFC. Each group sets down cardboard and blankets, some who are extra protective of their space even build cardboard walls.

They crochet, make crafts, or play games on their phones and loudly discuss the hot gossip. In larger spaces, they might group into large choruses and sing or dance. After dusk, guitars come out and it turns into more of a party.

For the helpers, it's the one day of the week where they can let loose and be part of their community.

On the one hand, the idea of it makes me cringe--elements of it certainly are reminiscent of the Victorian era--and the modern, independent feminist that I am feels a bit upset about the whole setup. As a society, we should be past this master-servant relationship dynamic.

But I also see the other side as well. Hong Kong is not setup for working parents and a full-time helper job isn't a bad gig, especially when with the right family. While there isn't "daycare" per say, kids start attending school well before their first birthday. As infants, someone must tag along with the child to school, thus a helper is required. As children grow, the school hours change but like the US, never really align to the hours of a full-time job.

In many cases, the helpers become part of the family because they're so well integrated with the kids. Sure there are some horrifying cases I've heard of mistreatment of helpers from employers or malice acts from the helpers themselves, but for the most part things work out quite well.

Part-time helpers are usually moonlighting in addition to working full-time for a family. The extra money earned from picking up a handful of extra apartments each week is a nice bonus to the monthly salary paid by the full-time family.

It's probably going to take me quite some time to feel ok about someone tending to my most basic needs, but I'm going  to do my best to embrace it and be kind. After all, my helper could teach me a thing or two about figuring out laundry and  scoring a top-notch deal in the wet market.