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, mangoes...you 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.

January 2, 2016

High Contrast Holiday Season

Hong Kong doesn't do anything halfway. It shamelessly goes all in--from the tallest, biggest, shiniest skyscrapers to the stalls that sell only one variety of eggy waffles. There are entire streets lined with what looks like the exact same shop, one selling linoleum, one with pipes, one with paint. There are clothing streets, pet streets, furniture streets, coffee streets... it's overwhelming.

When you're in the city here, you are in. the. city. Crowded, loud, traffic, people everywhere. But in just minutes, you can be in the jungle or on a boat bound for a quiet island. Like mainland China, there is no in between here. Mediocrity is something that can only exist within the confines of one's home.

True to the nature of this city, ringing in the New Year was absolutely filled with amazing contrasts. The last week of 2015 was spent at home in North Dakota, on the snow-covered, frigid prairie with my family. A quick 25-hour jaunt across the Pacific landed me back in balmy Hong Kong  at 11 p.m. on a Monday. I was at  work by 9 a.m. on Tuesday. Not my most productive day... but a sharp move to get over jet lag as quickly as possible. 

Contrast 1: night and day. The 13-hour time difference from North Dakota makes for a perfectly opposite day-to-night schedule. This time around, the jet lag subsided after three nights (both in the US and when I returned to Hong Kong). Coffee and electrolyte drinks in the morning, exercise in the day, and melatonin at night for the first few days is my jet lag recovery cocktail. 

Contrast 2: North Dakota vs. Hong Kong (essentially, night and day). This photo says it all. Two absolutely completely different worlds. I quite like them both.

Contrast 3: New Year's Eve. Since this was my first New Year's in Hong Kong, I wanted to go out and experience the city. While my scope of reference is small, it seems as though on New Year's, you  either go out-- sequins, suits, champagne-crowded decadence--or you stay in, dinner with friends  and a quiet countdown at home. If there's an in-between, I didn't hear about it. 

Somewhere around the corner from Armani and a few floors above Gucci was the club where I landed. Everyone was pretty--everyone! All were dressed to the nines and drinking top shelf gin and tonics or vodka sodas from the open bar. It was a grown up Neverland and a far cry from the Teacher's Lounge in Fortuna, N.D. where I was just days before. My inner farm kid always feels a bit self-conscious in that environment, but as I get older, I'm finding more amusement in the whole showcase of it.

Don't worry mom and grandma, I didn't do anything that night that would make you cringe.

Contrast 4: Remote island on Jan. 1. I was absolutely part of the global hangover and woke up with a splitting headache on New Year's Day. It was quickly remedied by a foot massage and piping hot bowl of ramen (no, not the $0.25 packet from the grocery store).

Since moving to Seattle, I started a tradition of finding a beach on New Year's Day. On the west coast, that meant dressing in several layers and biking miles to Golden Gardens. In Hong Kong, it meant hopping on a ferry, somewhat unsure of what was awaiting at the other side.

A friend and I went to Lamma Island, which is ~45 boat ride from Central in Hong Kong. Prior to going, the only thing I knew about it was that hippies, farmers and  fisherman live there--a bit like Vashon Island in the Puget Sound. 

There are no cars on the island, the air is fresh[ish], and the birds sing songs of absolute joy to have gotten out of the city and found the place. We arrived at a small fishing village that was ~200 yards of seafood restaurants. I'm not sure if people actually even live in the village, or if it's just restaurants waiting to catch hungry ferry-goers. 

A short 20 minute walk through jungle and small garden plots of veggies led us to a sugar sand beach. The sun was shining, it was 72, and the beach was relatively empty. The raucous of the night before evaporated and was a world away from the serene shore. 

That evening, I once again found myself thrust through a 180 change, going from small fishing boats on Vashon Island to a big wooden junk boat in Victoria Harbor to see the skyline. 

Here's to 2016--a year that's bound to be a good shake up of experiences. I hope that in the new year you too can find experiences that defy mediocrity. 

December 14, 2015

IKEA on Sundays

Think back to Black Friday 2006, the peak of the madness just before the economy tanked and Amazon roared to life. Remember the camp outs in front of Best Buy and Walmart? And the nervous excitement of the crowd which quickly turned to rage and exhaustion just 30 short minutes after the store doors opened at 5 a.m.?

Well my friend, that very scene is repeated every Saturday and Sunday at IKEA in Hong Kong.
I was ready for it, I had my list and was bracing for the onslaught of the crowd. Space is hard to come by in Hong Kong, so to fit a behemoth of a store like IKEA into an ultra-crowded city center requires it to go underground.

The store design was brilliant (save for one spot) and I cruised through the first two areas that didn’t have anything on my list. It was crowded, but manageable. By the time I reached the living room section, it was a different story.

There’s a saying that “IKEA is where relationships go to die,” but on Sundays in Hong Kong, the living room area of IKEA becomes he place where friendships are forged and young love could very well blossom, if you happen to speak the same Indonesian dialect as the hottie sitting on the Norsborg sofa. Again, space is a premium in Hong Kong, so why not hang out in a relatively open warehouse on a comfy sofa and gossip while braiding your best friend’s hair?

The store slowly strangled me, and after two hours it was time to escape. There was only one fatal flaw of the store design: the escalator going up out of the store rose up to ground level literally right below the lunch counter at IKEA. Gazing up as I rose on the escalator, all I saw were people gnawing on entire turkey legs, and the slimy suction cup sound of juicy meat being ripped from the bone was deafening.

It was at that moment my senses admitted defeat and I was officially fried. But I had to get home.
Loaded down with two big blue bags, I needed a taxi. I learned the hard way that 3 p.m. is shift change time for taxis in Hong Kong. Alas, it was just another notch in the belt of my long, ugly history with taxis in Asia. Somehow I managed not to cry.

IKEA in Hong Kong on a Sunday was enough to make me never ever want to return. The busyness of the store led me to buy weird things, like a single wooden spoon, an impractically small cutting board and the always-needed colander…not exactly a winning combination of necessities to put together an apartment. So the prospects of a return trip to IKEA seemed inevitable.

Yet somehow, one week on, I’ve managed to not return. Local shops like the “King Tak Han Porcelain Co., Ltd.,”  which among porcelain, also sells every kind of container, utensil, shelf and basket imaginable; and the lovable Japan Home Center store, where low-cost home goods are sold and a poppy 10-second chorus of “Jingle Bells” plays on repeat, have been a godsend.

The local online forums to buy and sell furniture have been the true goldmine.  I was fortunate to meet a couple who was leaving Hong Kong who sold me pretty much their entire kitchen along with several household items, like an iron, for less than $100USD. I found a new “used” TV for a similar price and, to avoid another arduous  taxi experience, called an Uber and waited 20 minutes for the Tesla (yes, Tesla) to arrive. With a 32” TV in my lap, I enjoyed my first Tesla ride that netted out to just under $8USD.

Sometimes you win, you learn, or you just throw your hands up and hope that a luxury sedan comes to pick you up. I’ve done all of the above in an effort to set up my home.

December 1, 2015

Local Knowledge

"In Hong Kong, you can do anything for a little bit of money, it's very convenient" my consultant reminded me yesterday.

We were sitting in the most efficient 15'x15' office, on the single tiny meeting table somehow arranged among six desks, a refrigerator, copier, and wall of counter space. I've quickly learned the office is a very standard real estate office and there are several thousand sprinkled throughout the city (honest, they're on practically every single street corner).

My consultant was hustling his contacts to find me a good deal on a paint job and deep clean of my new apartment. I told him I could paint myself, but when I went back to the apartment yesterday and actually gauged the garishness of the Fisher Price Fire Truck Toy red kitchen, I decided maybe a dozen coats still wouldn't fully cover up that red.
Angry red kitchen

Somehow, he negotiated a $150US discount on the paint work and snagged a great deal on a cleaner. Afterwards, he helped me buy paint at a store where I no doubt would have spent 3x the money just trying to figure out what/how much to buy. 

Of the dozens of people for whom I am very grateful were involved in orchestrating my relocation, my consultant--the last man in the process, which at times was tricky to navigate--has been the most above-and-beyond, practical helper imaginable. 

The move to China a few years ago was  very much "figure it out," aside from visa assistance and a quick 1/2 day tour of the nearest grocery store. I'm incredibly lucky and grateful to have the help  I do now from the consultant, two local friends and colleagues.

Hong Kong is friendly enough to expats that I would've figured things out eventually, like negotiated home internet or where to find a mattress for my special "HK-sized" bed, but the consultant has completely cut out the time required to do so. I've asked the poor man every single question I never actually figured out when living in China.

Drinking Chinese medicine-grade herbal tea.
This is  my "look polite" cringe.
Thanks to him, I've learned how to properly tend to my trash/recycling, cross the street like a local and navigate a good chunk of the city center through tunnels or above-ground walkways. He has one son who is about my age who has spent time living in the US, so he knows what it's like having a child far from home. "You are like my daughter, I'm happy to help," he told me today.

My local friends and coworkers have also shown me dozens of little quirks about the way things work here, helping me to feel more like I have a grasp on things. For example, I have a washer/dryer combo in my temp apartment, which is absolutely too good to be true. The washer works great, save for a weak final spin cycle, so when it moves into the "dryer" mode, the machine simply adds heat to the sopping clothes making them a steaming pile of, well you get the point.

Conversations during meals have brought insight to knowing how to properly manage cockroaches (still unsure if I can handle those..) and where to snag a deal on a sofa. Acutely listening and observing has taught me about restaurant decorum and a new acquaintance shared the context around why people quickly tap two or three knuckles twice on the table when a waiter brings more tea.

While there's beauty in learning how to figure things out on your own, there is also a lot of hassle. Quite frankly, moving here alone has been difficult enough, so I'm leveraging any of the help and advice I can get. The locals' knowledge and "make it through the day" tidbits are absolutely priceless and definitely convenient.

November 24, 2015

People Everywhere

Twelve days into Hong Kong and the stages of adjustment are  playing out more or less as anticipated, but living-breathing-moving-functioning through them iss o much more  simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting than I had expected.

Of the many stages one goes through when moving to a new country, I'm only at stage 1.2--the adrenaline of landing here and sussing out basic needs is complete and now my body is craving routine and normalcy, which I now savor in the tiniest of doses.

I'm building little routines: waking up early to practice a bit of yoga at my temporary apartment, after which I take the exact same route each day walking to work. Then in the office I try to strike a nice balance between being a total newbie and picking up where I left off in Seattle.

All of these things sound familiar and simple enough, but they look and feel like nothing I'm used to.

Take the commute, for example. I'm staying a convenient 15-minute walk from work, which is made even easier by the above-ground human freeway that snakes one story above the cars, shops and sidewalk below.

The mass of people in Hong Kong is incredible. During commuting time, it doesn't really matter if you don't know exactly where you're headed, because you very literally just go with the flow of traffic. 

Human feet far exceed the intelligence of cars in a traffic jam, there's something intuitive about people walking with one another despite the variance in speed and cadence of steps. It's only when some poor human tries swimming upstream that near collisions occur. I've unfortunately been said human a few times this week.

Among the mass of bodies, it's fun trying to make some sort of interpersonal connection, even if only for a split second--catching a "yep, we're in this mass together," glance. Though it's more difficult than one would think, it seems the majority of folks I join on the great walk every morning have been hypnotized into complacency after taking it day after day.

There are few cities in the world that command energy like Hong Kong. It's like New York, Shanghai, and I imagine maybe Tokyo and Mumbai, in that the city is like it's own creature living, pulsing and feeling the collective highs and lows of its inhabitants. 

It's only when a place achieves a certain mass of people that it can force you out of your individual self and into the collective beat of a population. This is something I have never experienced on a daily basis for any length of time, and is something to work on growing accustomed. I am simply a cell in Hong Kong, fortunate to have the chance to pulse through her veins.