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.