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.