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.

November 16, 2015

Dr. Chao and his magic medicine

I've been in Hong Kong now for five days, and each day I work towards convincing myself that I actually live here and that I'm not on vacation. Every day there are moments of "WOW, this is my city now!" followed rather quickly by "Holy cow, why did I think moving here was a good idea?" It's safe to say my heart and head aren't fully in sync with the move quite yet.

Five days in, I can't say I've had any monumental adventures, but I have started carving out pockets that feel a bit more familiar. The side streets in Wan Chai, the neighborhood where I am staying, are packed with little shops, stalls and  restaurants.

Each morning I set out in a different direction to find a noodle soup breakfast at a dai pai dong style cafe, which is more or less a small old-style restaurant. Breakfast is simple and inexpensive, a bowl of macaroni with ham and broth and a cup of milk tea (dark-brewed breakfast tea with evaporated milk and a bit of sugar) costs less than $4 USD. 
dai pai dong style breakfast

The morning has been the time I've felt the best, so that's when I've done most of my exploring. I arrived in Hong Kong with a nasty cold that began in my nose in Seattle and settled into a nice chest cough by the time I landed in Hong Kong. As such, a good chunk of my time has been spent in my temporary apartment watching survivalist documentaries on Discovery Channel or reruns of NHL or NFL games. No joke, I saw the second period of the Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal hockey game three times on two different days.

However, I am very fortunate that my good friend's father is a Chinese medicine doctor in Hong Kong. My friend is a former coworker from Seattle and she moved home to Hong Kong a few years ago. We met up on Sunday to check out a vintage market in Mong  Kok then went back to her home. She gave me some medicine her dad recommended to calm my cough. 

The medicine came in a tiny plastic bag that contained approximately a teaspoon of reddish-brown powder, she mixed it with a bit of water and told me to drink it. The mix was gritty, thick and bitter, but no worse than a shot of cheap vodka. 

Her father, Dr. Chao, arrived home an hour later.He had been in Taiwan for a week and walked in the door tired with his hands full of luggage. He immediately set down the luggage and walked over to me to take my pulse.

Then he walked away and quickly came back with a face mask on and a stethoscope. He listened to me breathing and took my temp. Meanwhile my friend and her brother were on Google Translate trying to figure out the English words for what he was describing.

Google's answer from Chinese-English was something like "hyperactive respiratory tract," which didn't really help. So then I pulled out Google Translate and keyed in "bronchitis." The English-Chinese translation was exactly what he had been describing to my friend.
Google Translate magic
TCM herbal pill packets

"Not quite yet bronchitis," he said. Best diagnosis ever.

He then gave me sets of herbal medicine to take three times a day. Each packet of medicine contained ~10 pills to help with my symptoms, six of which were the nasty reddish-brown powder in pill form.

Happy  to report that now, two days later, I am feeling much better. My cough is still a bit pesky, but I more or less feel like myself. All in, my first experience with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was a big success. 

Most of all, I feel very fortunate for my friend and her father who were able to help me out so quickly. Their generosity and kindness have been early seeds in the start of my yet-to-be-formed Hong Kong community. 

November 7, 2015

Asia Part II: Hong Kong

Hi there, the farlang lady is back! This time I'm off to Hong Kong, specifically on I'm moving to Hong Kong on Wednesday. That's four days from right now.

This blog started out a whopping five years ago when I moved to China fresh out of college. If you dig around in the 2010-2011 archives, you'll find some hilarious gems of me discovering China in the most awkward, beautiful, and entertaining manner.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and had zero expectations of what China should or shouldn't be, which is what it made it so damn difficult and comedic. It was the first time in my life I was in a place where I didn't understand the language or culture yet I had never felt so curious.

Now, five years later, I'm going back to the city that captivated my attention from the moment I crossed the bridge from Shenzhen into Hong Kong. After being in the city for only one day, I was determined to live there at some point.

China never actually left me. Somehow she was in the back of my mind when I decided to pack up my car and drive to the west coast with my dad in 2011. China was the linchpin that landed my first job in Seattle at an ad agency and was a motivator when I took a chance on a contract that bloomed into the amazing job that I have now. Hong Kong kept calling and I kept listening.

It turns out listening to and acting upon a dream are really difficult. My roots in Seattle are far deeper than I realized, even though I always knew in the back of my mind that I wouldn't be here forever. Willingly walking away from an incredible home and community feels totally ridiculous and sad.

The logistics are also a small horror. Yet, I know that I have it easy: no kids, no dogs, no man and no couch to complicate the move. But it still feels decidedly un-adult of me to start from scratch after just getting up on my feet and figuring out nifty grown-up things like health insurance deductibles.

Further deepening my feeling of regression is that I'm once again living out of a suitcase, sleeping on the floor of my living room. It's both strange and comfortable being a guest in the apartment where I've lived for three years. The movers came to take away the majority of the artifacts that make me feel like me. The next time I see them again, will be in my own high-rise flat on the other shore of the Pacific.

If I strip away the move logistics, goodbyes, and crumpled sleeping bag on the floor, the real gold of the story is quite simple: The bizarre and wonderful journey of following a dream requires relentless patience and enough of a degree of illogical gutsiness such that your mind doesn't scare you out of giving it a shot. Above all, the work has to come from a genuine place so that you don't have to go it alone.

"When you want something, all of the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it," -- The Alchemist.

Broadcasting next post from Hong Kong--