Thailand Part 3 – We the Tourists

As American tourists, we have a way of standing out no matter where we go in Asia. Thailand was no exception. If there was a tourist attraction in Chiang Rai, we were there (see Thailand Part 1 and Thailand Part 2 for some of the details). If you’re ever in northern Thailand, I highly recommend any of the attractions mentioned in the other two posts, but today’s post includes other essentials.

Most of the people in Thailand are Buddhists. We knew we wanted to see some temples while we were there, but we had no idea how many that would include. Each village (in the US we would almost consider it more of a large neighborhood than a village) has its own temple. All of them are ornate and beautiful. Believers go to the temples to offer incense and pray (side note – we are not fully aware of what it means to be Buddhists. We really need to familiarize ourselves with the beliefs and traditions. Just like there are so many aspects of Christianity tied to American culture, there are many aspects of Buddhism intertwined with Asia’s culture). When you enter a Buddhist Temple, you remove your shoes. I think part of this is out of reverence and part of it is just to keep the floor clean – especially since praying includes kneeling on the floor. We took long pants/skirts when visited Temples just to be respectful.

We saw several Temples, but the two we enjoyed most were Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) and the Wat Phra Kaes (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The White Temple is a fairly new temple and its designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, is a famous Thai artist who still lives and works today. The temple is all white, hence the creative name, except for some chrome and mirrors. It is stunning to see in the sunlight. A highlight of the trip to the temple grounds was a visit to the golden toilet. I guess if you’re going to build an ornate, beautiful temple and open it to the public, then you need to have ornate, beautiful bathrooms as well. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha has a pretty incredible old legend associated with it. I won’t get it all correct, but essentially a bolt of lightning struck the temple and cracked open a statue that contained a smaller statue – a Buddha made of emerald. Over the years, the actual emerald Buddha has been moved around, but it currently sits in a temple in Bangkok and is considered the holiest artifact in Thailand. The temple in Chiang Rai (which is where the original lightning strike and revelation of emerald Buddha occurred) now houses a replica made of green jade. Let’s just say Buddha carved out of jade is pretty impressive.

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Jade Buddha – replica of the Emerald Buddha

Another tourist attraction in Chiang Rai is the clock tower. It sits in a busy intersection of the city. The artist who designed it is the same who designed the White Temple. Unfortunately, while we were in Thailand, the clock tower was undergoing some refurbishing so we did not get to see the light show that happens several times each night. It was still pretty amazing, though.

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Clock Tower

All tourists who go to Thailand must do one thing – even if they do nothing else. MASSAGE. We experienced three types of Thai massages:

  1. Traditional Thai Massage – leave all your clothes in place. Imagine a combination of massage, yoga, acupressure, and a light beating. It wasn’t painful, but it was a bit strange. I’m sure thankful that all clothes were left in place, otherwise, it could have been very embarrassing for everyone (including you, dear readers).
  2. Thai Oil Massage – much more like a traditional massage you would receive at a spa in the US. Because of the oil, however, clothes are missing. I have to admit, at one point I felt a bit like a turkey being greased up for the Thanksgiving roasting pan. It was pretty relaxing (and not very embarrassing).
  3. Thai Foot Massage – MY FAVORITE!! So, imagine a pedicure without getting your nails done or your callouses rubbed off. It’s an hour of pure bliss. They rub your feet, your toes, your calves; they use a little chopstick-like thing to hit the pressure points in your feet; it’s relaxation to the nth degree. Then, when your therapist is all done with your feet and legs, you switch places and get a quick neck, shoulder, and head massage.

The only thing better than a massage in Thailand is the cost of a massage in Thailand – anywhere from $6-12 US dollars. Needless to say, we each had one everyday.

Thai food is pretty amazing, too. Of course, we had Pad Thai and various curries almost every chance we could. Fried rice, often with pineapples, was a pretty standard favorite as well. Throughout Asia, pork is a popular, so we had several dishes with pork – fried, chopped, sliced (just not pulled and barbecued). Many of you probably watched Mike’s video of eating live jumping shrimp, but most of the food we had was yummy and not the least bit living. The one thing we missed that we really wanted was mango sticky rice (apparently the best mangos for the dish were out of season). We were, however, pleasantly surprise to find an old favorite, Swenson’s Ice Cream. Those of you who knew us in Florida surely remember our fondness of Swenson’s. In fact, you probably ate there with us on more than one occasion.

Coffee in Asia is strange. For daily consumption, most people drink instant coffee (I know some of you are rolling your eyes). We’ve actually grown used to it and only have brewed coffee when we are out near a Starbuck’s or Pacific Coffee. However, Thailand has a pretty robust (pun intended) coffee industry. Like tea, a lot of coffee is grown in Thailand. A small coffee shop was recommended because the owner roasts his own special blend of local beans. It was delicious! We had hoped to share it, however, all of the coffee we bought is currently sitting in Hannah’s suitcase in the Chicago airport with all of the other lost luggage.

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Thai Coffee Latte

The night market was great fun. We bought tons of tourist trap treasures (or junk, choose the term). Sadly, most of it is in the aforementioned lost suitcase. The elephant pants are the greatest loss. At a mere $2.98 US (100 Thai Baht), they were the best find of the entire trip. Other beloved souvenirs included an elephant bag, cards with pencil sketches of hill tribe people, carved elephants, silk scarves and pashminas, and (no shock) shoes!

We hope to return to Thailand. We are not particularly interested in going to Bangkok (although I do love the song, so maybe I could do just one night), but we want to go to the area of Phuket which is famous for its beaches. Perhaps if you come visit, we could take you there!

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Thailand Part 2 – Awestruck

I am constantly amazed by the natural beauty of Asia. Before this move, I imagined these huge mega-cities bustling with people and pollution. Don’t get me wrong, there is that in Asia, but Mother Nature has certainly shown her handiwork throughout the East.

We knew we wanted to do a jungle trek in Thailand. Luckily Chiang Rai has many great locations for trekking. Hannah and I did our first trek by heading to the area of Chiang Rai where many of the hill tribes live. We did not start our adventure until just after noon. On the drive out of town, we made stops for chicken and fresh vegetables and fruit. We arrived in the village and our guides made quick work of preparing our pre-trek meal.

While Thai people cook on a stove with pots and pans, cooking in bamboo is a traditional method that is still used by campers and hikers (not unlike our roasting hotdogs and marshmallows on sticks). First the guides cut down several large bamboo poles (Sticks? Trees? Branches? Not sure what the term should be) to make the cooking pots. Most of the bamboo is hollow, but apparently where the rings are, some wood goes all the way through. With various lengths of green bamboo, the guides made cooking vessels. In one we cracked eggs and threw in tomatoes and onions; in another we cut added fresh potatoes, carrots, and onions to coconut milk; and in the final one we put chicken. In the end, we had one bamboo stalk filled with an omelet, one filled with chicken, and one filled with the base for a soup which the guide poured into a bowl made out of nothing but banana tree leaves. While everything was cooking, they made cups and chopsticks out of bamboo. It was an experience we will never forget.

After lunch, we started our trek to a waterfall. We were in Thailand towards the end of the rainy season, so the ground was packed mud and the rocks were damp and slippery. The mountain trail was narrow and, luckily, we only passed one other group of trekkers. This was my first trip to a waterfall (I don’t count the one at the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios as a real waterfall). Awestruck is the best word that comes to mind. At the same time, I found it both beautiful and terrifying. It might have been less terrifying if were not for the bamboo bridges (fastened together with rusty wire) we had to cross in order to complete the trek. Our guide was completely relaxed and focused on weaving rings and bracelets out of thin strips of bamboo, and I was ready to radio in for a helicopter! Our descent was no easier than the climb, but we did finish the trek in a small tea plantation among the tea bushes.

And that leads into another aspect of Thailand that was breath-taking. Tea plantations, pineapple plantations, and rice fields do not sound like they would be particularly interesting, but they are truly amazing sites. We visited two different tea plantations. The one at the end of the waterfall trek was really quite small and shared by the villagers who lived in the area. The other was an enormous operation with tea bushes (plants?) stretching on for acres. This one was obviously a large commercial plantation, specializing in oolong tea, with a restaurant, tasting room, and store. It was similar to a winery – only with tea. Like the tea, the pineapple plantations were acres and acres of pineapple plants. One of our favorite treats was miniature pineapples. About the size of a large apple, they were completely skinned, but had a small piece of stem attached to hold. We each got a bag with six sweet, juicy pineapples. We never did learn if they were fully mature fruits or if they just picked them when they were small. I had read about the rice farms, but I was not keen on seeing them, however, we all were surprised by how beautiful they were. One tour day we were driving out in the middle of nowhere with rice fields on both sides of the road. We pulled up to a small collection of buildings, almost like gazebos at a park. They were made of bamboo and connected by bamboo bridges (rickety, of course). It turned out to be a restaurant with several buildings for seating – right in the middle of the rice field. People were just sitting there, enjoying their food, and watching the rice grow (which would be like watching the grass grow).

The Golden Triangle is the part of the world where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma) meet. Standing on the banks of the river, you can see all three countries (you can also see a part of land China just leased to build a gigantic casino). This area is famous for the role it played in the opium trade during colonialism. (Current events lesson – Myanmar is currently experiencing horrible violence. Several years ago, many refugees fled the area, in fact several families ended up in North Kansas City, but the violence is increasing again, and it is not a safe place for many ethnic minorities – I doubt it ever makes the news in the US, but it’s tragic).

On our final day in Thailand, Hannah and I left our hotel at 4:30 am to see the sunrise at the Foo Chee Fa Forest. Unfortunately, we missed the sunrise by about 10 minutes, but it was still amazing. Every morning the clouds rest on the mountains and as day breaks it seems as if you are standing in the sky. After a two-hour drive and an 800-meter trek (which would have been much easier on a track instead of up a mountain), we may have caught a glimpse of heaven.

Thailand Part 1 – Animals

If you have known me for any length of time, you know I’m a bit nutty about animals. The first years of my life were spent on a farm, and I have always been surrounded with cats and dogs (and for a while cows, horses, pigs, and chickens). I even had every little girls’ greatest wish granted when I received a pony (yes, a real live, Shetland pony named Princess) for my 5th birthday. It’s no shock that I loved the animals in Thailand.

When I first booked our trip, I started looking for what we would want to do while there. Immediately, I decided I wanted to ride the elephants. Historically elephants have been plentiful throughout Thailand. These days, however, there a few elephants in the wild. Most are used either in the logging industry or in the tourist industry. Some are sacred temple elephants. As I read about the plight of elephants in Thailand, I knew that I could not, in good conscience, go on an elephant trek in the jungle. However, I really wanted to see elephants. A tour company recommended Elephant Valley Thailand. After reading up on their mission, that’s where we ended up.

EVT exists to rehabilitate elephants who have been utilised in the tourist industry and logging industry to help them eventually return to the wild. Elephants are very social animals and working in those industries is very isolating. They have to learn how to live in a herd. Many of them do not know how to do things like throw dirt on themselves to keep cool, bathe, or forage for their own food. Most elephants are trained to work through force (whips, canes, and hooks are the tools that make 2-ton mammal compliant). While we were there, we watched six elephants act like elephants – no balancing on balls nor building pachyderm pyramids. They ate, they meandered around, they pooped (a lot). The sanctuary has one bull, and they hope to eventually have a pregnant cow. I wouldn’t say we saw elephant sex, but we did witness an attempt at friskiness. Sadly, the bull, who has been isolated most of his life, didn’t know exactly what to do. After a failed attempt, he did what I think many males do after failure at love: he farted really loud and went off to eat.

elephant bathWe did get to watch the elephants take baths. In the wild, they would hose off at least twice a day in a pond or river. At the sanctuary, they have that option, but they also are given baths to keep their skin healthy. In a way, it’s kind of like watching your dad wash the car – big scrub brush, lots of water, and the people watching the show get squirted at least once.

Thelephants eating bananase highlight was feeding them bananas. Using their trunks like a finger, the elephants reached out and took a banana, peel and all, and put it in their mouths. The guy who runs the place, Jack, has a little son who is about 4 years old. He was the expert at feeding bananas to the elephants and was happy to give us newbies some lessons. If you’re interested in learning more about EVT, you can check out their Facebook page here here.

 

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On to the monkeys! Monkeys live in the wild in many parts of Asia (even Hong Kong has some). There is one Buddhist Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand, that is close to caves where monkeys make their homes. This temple is known as the Monkey Temple because every day multiple groups (troupes, families, clans??) of monkeys come down from the jungle caves to visit the temple. They are not, however, there to pray; they come for the peanuts the visitors can buy to feed them. These monkeys are crazy funny. There are hundreds of them – all ages and sizes. They will take the peanuts right from your hand! I guess monkeys are not endangered in Thailand because there does not seem to be any worries about feeding them or allowing them to depend on humans. Based on all the babies we saw the monkeys seem to have no problem reproducing. No doubt, I could have watched the monkeys all day. Of course, I could have watched the elephants all day, too. And the cats.

Yes, the cats at the cat café. I really don’t recall a period in my life when I did not have a cat. We don’t keep a cat in Hong Kong (yet), but I’ve almost always had at least one cat in my world. In Thailand, I went to my first Cat Café. And I am 100% serious when cat cafeI say, I want to look in to opening one in Kansas City upon our return. I hope no one beats me to it. The cat café in Chiang Rai was amazing. First of all, they had really good desserts – and what looked like really good coffee drinks. In order to get to the cats, every guest had to make a purchase, and luckily the purchase was worth making. The cat room had tables with chairs or mats, beams at various heights, covered litter boxes (with air fresheners nearby), and about 30 cats. People would just sit and enjoy the cats. You could play with them, brush them, hold them, watch them, feed them (that’s not true, feeding was not allowed, but one cat stole part of my cheesecake right from under my nose). There were all kinds of rules concerning human behaviour in the cat room, but the cats had it made. I hope you will visit my cat café: Mooch and Mamma’s Cat Café one day!

If you ever find yourself in Thailand, you won’t have to go to a zoo to enjoy the animals!

Loss on the Other Side of the World

When we first talked about moving to Hong Kong, our biggest fear was leaving our parents behind, knowing that while we were on some crazy adventure on the opposite side of the globe, we could miss final moments and memories with the ones we love the most.pampa

Our fear became our reality as October approached. As I write this, it’s hard to believe that just three weeks ago, we were so excited to have Hannah on her way to spend her birthday and mid-Autumn break with us in Hong Kong with a holiday in Thailand planned. It seems a distant memory that I raced home from school to catch the train to meet her at the airport – waiting an eternity for her pass through the arrivals gate!

One of the things that makes living Hong Kong bearable for us and our family is the ease with which we can keep in touch. For $39 (US) a year, we purchased a US Skype phone number that allows us to call our parents’ land lines and cell lines whenever we want. We have actually spoken to our parents on the phone more regularly from Hong Kong than we ever did in Kansas City. The time difference isn’t really that big of a deal because we can catch them in the morning (by calling during our evening) or we can call in the evening (by calling during our morning). Because of our cell phone’s data plan, I often call home during my walk to work.

It was that Skype number that kept us update to date as Mike’s dad started to slip away. We knew almost immediately of his first, and then second, trip to the hospital. While we were in Thailand, Mike called twice a day to get updates from his mom and his brother, Jeff. It was Wednesday evening of our trip when Hannah and I insisted that Mike leave and try to get back to Springfield. We were in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, and because of it being a holiday week in China (and Hong Kong) flights out were difficult to find. Luckily, he was able to get to Bangkok, then on to Hong Kong on Thursday. He left Hong Kong Friday mid-day, and in spite of over 20 hours of travel, because of the time difference, he arrived in Kansas City Friday evening. He and Haley drove straight to Springfield.

final hands

His dad was actively dying by the time Mike arrived, but Mike was able to be with him for just over 24 hours before he took his final breath. Mike, Jeff, and his mom were all there together. It was a beautifully peaceful passing. We will be forever grateful that the four of them were all together one last day.

 

Hannah and I eventually made it to Kansas City then Springfield. Saturday night, the whole family celebrated LaMoine’s birthday, which was on October 2, by eating at one of his favourite places, Red Lobster. It was great to be together with everyone. Our niece Kelsey and her husband Johnny have a daughter, Lucy and are expecting #2 in December (a girl, perhaps named Avery) along with our other niece, Madi completed Jeff and Sherri’s family. Both Hannah and Haley were with us along with Hannah’s boyfriend, Tony, and Haley’s financé (oh that seems odd to say), Braxton.  LaMoine loved food, family, and laughter. I think he would have been proud of the way we celebrated.

The funeral was lovely. The flowers were perfect; the music included many, but of course not all, of his favourite hymns; the pastor gave a lovely message that could not have been more fitting. There was a slide show tribute that included pictures some of us had never seen before. Family and friends came together to remember a life well-lived. As always, it was sad to think that it often takes tragedy to bring families together. We think of each other often, like Facebook posts and Instagram pictures, but there is no substitute for being in the same space. In a world with family and friends scattered everywhere, how do we make staying connected a priority? A question not answerable in this blog, but certainly worthy of seeking a solution.

I am returning to Hong Kong. Work calls and I know that it can be a good distraction from feelings of sadness. Mike will remain in the US for a while. He is trying to help his mom figure out her next steps. It is good that he can stay. So much of helping his parents has fallen to Jeff and Sherri in the last few years, simply because they are right there in Springfield. Many things have to be decided, but they have some time. I have to say that I am a bit jealous. Having Hannah with me for a couple of weeks and then seeing Haley makes me miss them even more. Hugging my own mom seemed a bit more precious than I remembered. I seriously wish they were all coming home with me. We will be back in just a few months, but right now, I’d really like to soak them up for a few more days.

Loss is never easy, but it is a part of life that we cannot change. It teaches us lessons, about hugging tighter, forgiving quickly, talking more, and listening intently.

RCHK v. NKCHS: completely different and exactly the same

After 14 years at North Kansas City High School, starting a new job at Renaissance College Hong Kong has been quite an adjustment. Some days I feel like I am on a completely different planet; other times I’m reminded that kids are the same wherever they are!

RCHK has about 2,000 students. We don’t say what grade students are, instead we say what year they are in school. That means kindergarteners are in Year 1 and seniors are in Year 13. Being at a school with 5- and 6- year-olds is amazing! They are so cute! It’s fun to watch the various age groups mingle together. I’ve seen some primary boys taking care of their “pet” snail who lives in the flower beds. They feed him lettuce and carrots from their lunch and fashion him little hiding places from empty juice boxes. I recently watched an eight-year-old boy, holding a younger girl’s hand, and introducing his little sister to his friends. The other day, as I crossed the play yard, a little girl ran up to me shouting “Teacher, teacher, he is going to throw chocolate milk on me!”

The students all wear uniforms, but that does not mean there are not dress code issues! The oldest students (Year 12 and 13) have the privilege of not wearing uniforms, and just like schools in the US, there are issues with dress code violations. And just like in the US, it is almost always targeted at girls who are dressed in ways that boys might find distracting. And so I ignore their short shorts and bare shoulders, and encourage the boys (and men) to learn to control their thoughts!

All of the students here are pursing some aspect of the International Baccalaureate Programme. Years 1-6 are in the Primary Years Programme; Years 7-11 are in the Middle Years Program; And Years 12 – 13 are either in the Diploma Program or the Career Program. The IB choice options here seem endless; it makes me so happy that I am not responsible for any scheduling issues (BTW schedules are called timetables).

My main job is assisting students as they make plans for University. I sort of thought I would just be helping students who are headed to the US, however, it’s not that simple. I work with about half the class, and I work with them no matter where they are going to school. Even though I thought I was an expert on admissions at US Universities, almost all of my students are applying as International Students, so it’s a completely different process. I will be helping students with their applications to universities in UK, Hong Kong, US, Canada, Europe, and other parts of Asia. Every day there is something more to learn (I’ve applied to attend a seminar at Oxford in February, cross fingers for me)! We also have quite a bit of time built into our timetable to meet with students and deliver lessons – which felt like a rarity back at NKCHS.

Recall Hong Kong was under British control for 99 years. That means the British influence in the schools is everywhere. RCKH is broken into Houses (just like in Harry Potter). Our Houses are named for Chinese Dynasties; we have Ming, Qing, Song, and Tang. We have House leaders, House competitions, House shirts, House everything! We also play a lot of British sports – football (soccer), rugby, cricket, and netball (don’t ask, it’s a variation of basketball, I think). Everyone plays chess (except me).

Our school building is six stories tall (with a semi-seventh story – that has a lounge and a rooftop garden). Students are not allowed to use the lift (elevator), so every passing period about 1000 secondary students go up and down three (I think) staircases. Every morning students are supposed to check in by scanning their school ID card. That’s the only time we take attendance all day. Students take seven courses; each day they take four classes and there is a 10-day rotation (makes block schedule with A Days and B Days and three different bell schedules seem simple). Students and teachers all get a 20-minute morning break (which some times they refer to as recess) and a 50-minute lunch. Year 12 and 13 students are allowed to leave campus for lunch; they head to the local plaza for McDonald’s almost every day! Just like at Northtown, we are currently in the midst of renovation, but it should be finished in about a month. And just like Northtown, there is a good chance my office space will be moving once the renovations are complete!

I do want to mention to all my former IB students who started complaining (and still have not stopped) about CAS (for the rest of you, the simple description of CAS is the community service requirement of the IB Programme). If you ever thought CAS was a pain at Northtown, you ain’t seen nothing. CAS at RCHK is CAS on crack. It is crazy! They have majors, minors, CAS coordinator, CAS counsellors, CAS advisors, and now, a CAS blog, Facebook page and Instagram! It is off the wall – and let me just remind any of you who had me, or Gagel, or Maslo, or Reed, or Loveall, or Strack, or  as your CAS coordinator – you had (have) it easy!! Don’t get me started on Extended Essays!

Just like at Northtown, RCHK is an incredibly diverse school. While most of my students are ethnic Chinese, I have students from all over the world including Canada, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Korea, US, India, Pakistan, UK, Australia, and Mainland China. Unlike Northtown, though, this is an incredibly expensive ($20,000 US per year) private international school. The students have to meet very stringent admissions requirements. For you IB folks, that means we have incredible pass rate (last year 134 out of 135 earned the IB Diploma; the average score was 36; we had one perfect 45). We do have students who are scholarship students based on academic, music, theatre, art, and sports talent. This year we have our first National Merit Semi-Finalist – so just like I would be at Northtown, I’m working with him on completing his application for finalist.

The people I work with are amazing. My partner, Suman, is a kind and patient teacher. There are so many things I don’t know, and she never appears to tire of my questions. She does let me take on some tasks she’s not keen to do, like speak at assemblies and put together power point presentations. Our administrative assistant (or administrator, as we call her), Joko, is so helpful, too. She is a master-keeper of data, and can put her hands on any number we need within minutes. The community water cooler is right next to my desk, so I get to chat with English teachers and Art teachers throughout the day as they come in for a refill (no plastic disposable bottles, we are reducing our carbon footprint). Everyone has been very friendly. There’s a Brit with a wicked sense of humour who comes in at least four times a day. He’s beginning to appreciate my wicked sense of humour, too! Just like at home, we have too many meetings, too many extra duties, and too many emails to answer. However, I have only received two telephone calls the entire time I’ve been working here. And well, that’s nothing like Northtown!

One thing that is very apparent in my first month at RCHK is that students are the same world wide. They are all worried about their futures – where they will attend university, what they will study, how they will afford it. They all feel tremendous amounts of pressure to get everything done – school work, service, job-shadowing, personal statements, internships. They want to please their parents and their teachers, but they also want to have time to be silly kids. They also want to rebel a bit – which can take almost any form imaginable.

I feel like I’m constantly saying “at my former school we did . . . ” about any number of topics. I’m learning more than I imagined, but I sometimes surprise myself with something useful I know from my experience. Just so you know, Once a Hornet, Always a Hornet; and Once a Black Kite, Always a Black Kite.

Reflections at Six Weeks

It’s difficult to believe we’ve been in Hong Kong for 6-weeks. In a way it seems like we’ve been here forever, and in a way it seems like we just arrived for a vacation that will be over in a few short days. Mike is doing a great job of keeping all of our Facebook friends up to date with his crazy “Pics of the Day,” but don’t let those fool you – pictures cannot capture the crazy, yet mundane, life we live in Hong Kong.

Imagine going to Disney World in the middle of summer vacation season. That is what every day life here is like. With over 7 million people living on three little islands, there is always a crowd. The line for the express lane at the grocery store is not all that different from the line for Space Mountain – takes forever, but because there is interesting stuff to see, you don’t really realise how long it is taking to be directed to your assigned checker. In this very crowded place, society seems to be moving at breakneck speed. Individuals, however, are not in such a hurry. People here are ALWAYS on their phones. That means when they are navigating sidewalks, train stations, escalators, stairs, they are always looking down. So yes, there are many near misses. I am a gawker, so I’m always looking around, but not always where I’m going. Not the best combination.

Personal space is very different from in the US – I suppose with this many people in such a confined area, it has to be. Elevators are often crammed to the maximum capacity (luckily obesity is not widespread, so weight limits are probably still ok). There are some local habits that we are learning to accept. The first is that in a moving crowd, you’re probably going to get cut off by someone in more of a hurry than you; likewise, you’re probably going to be stalled by someone who is moving at much slower pace or who is completely stopped altogether right in the middle of a congested area. Both situations are frustrating and often result in getting separated from your group (so Mike is way ahead and I’m lagging behind trying to get around three little ladies standing in a semi-circle looking at a cake in a window). Restaurant dining takes some getting used to as well. We are most often a party of two, but that does not mean we will eat at a table for just two. We are often seated at a table with random people. Restaurants serve too many people and have such limited space, they are not going to waste time on allowing each party to have a table to themselves. While different, it often helps us know what is good – especially if the place has a limited in menu translated into English. Finally, it’s like we are living in 1979 when it comes to smokers. Actually, that is not really true, people do not smoke inside any confined areas, but it seems like tons of people smoke out and about. Walking outside almost includes breathing in someone’s cigarette smoke.

Since people cannot spread out, they spread up. Almost all buildings have rooftop living space. My school has three rooftop playgrounds (I think – there might be more). Stores are often pretty small, but they might have 4 our 5 stories. And like in Europe, the ground floor is not the first floor. It goes G, 1, 2, etc. We live on the floor that is labeled 22, but it’s really the 23rd story of the building (according to what we are used to). Because everything goes up, we are always climbing stairs, riding (and sometimes climbing) escalators, or riding elevators. I do not love elevators; it’s not that I have a phobia, I just would prefer the stairs most of the time. Not so easy here because there are too many flights. One thing I never realised is that people actually use the “close door” button; in Hong Kong, entering an elevator practically requires pressing it. I suppose it’s a side- effect of the society that never stops moving, but I’m amazed by the use of that button. I really didn’t even think the button worked; after all elevator doors close relatively quickly on their own. Turns out, that’s not fast enough!

Outdoor space is a priority. There are parks, trails, and playgrounds all over the place. Green plants are also important, but almost all of the green space is surrounded by low fences, so people (and animals) cannot actually get into the grass. Our building has an outdoor playground and a garden area (think flowering plants, not vegetables), but there’s a lot of public space nearby. Across the street is a promenade that we think runs several miles along the harbour. There are walking and running trails, playgrounds, exercise equipment, benches, shelters, and bike paths that run the length of the promenade. And unless it is pouring down rain, the area is always packed. I often walk along the trail on my way to work, and one of my favourite things to do is watch people using the “elderly fitness area.” There pieces of equipment for stretching and strengthening exercises, and there are almost always women doing Tai Chi. I would love to hang out there and participate, but I’m obviously too young. I don’t want to put the regulars in the position of asking me to leave because of my age!

Hong Kong is a very clean city, but with this many people there is a LOT of trash. Living in a place like this really makes us think about re-using. Most of the time you do not get bags with your purchases. There is an expectation that everyone brings their own reusable bags. When you buy something cold, it does go into a plastic bag, but if you forget your bags and need all of your purchases packed, you have to pay for the bags. You also have to pay for carryout containers at restaurants. The charge is not much – $1 HK (which is about 13 cents). We reuse the small plastic bags that we get with food to scoop the poop! Dogs “trashing” the sidewalks is criminal with hefty fines attached! There are trash and recycle bins all over the place, but it’s hard to imagine how they deal with it all. Because of the recent typhoons, the beaches certainly allow us to see where part of that trash goes. Even though the beaches are beautiful, we can always see piles of garbage – and often workers cleaning it up. Even the beach glass that Mike collects is essentially trash that the ocean has transformed into something beautiful (and plentiful). It certainly makes us think about what we throw away.

Slowly but surely, or almost instantly, (depending on how we are feeling), this place is becoming home. I wonder what will seem strange to us when we return to the US . . .

shopping bagShopping bags – really of all shapes and sizes – are essential in Hong Kong. Most stores do not automatically give you a bag with your purchases. You can buy them (usually 1 HK$ – so .13 US), but in general everyone brings their own. We have a small collection of reusable bags, but we need to get a few more (or bring them on our return from home at Christmas). When we do a major shopping trip, we take this guy on wheels! Without a car, shopping always means someone is going be the pack mule to get it all home, so this is really helpful. Most things that come in a large package (paper towels, toilet paper, etc) come with a heavy-duty handle. If it comes in a box (like our toaster oven) the sales clerk creates a carrying handle out of plastic wrap. In the US, I never would dream of carrying my purchases for 15 or 20 minutes from the store to home, but here that’s just what you have to do.

tempo

Tempo – imagine a combination of tissue and a paper towel that smells kind of lemony. That’s Tempo. When we arrived at our hotel on the first day in HK, two packs of these were in our welcome bag. We had no idea what they were for, but once we stepped outside, we quickly learned. Recall that we lived in Florida for 10 years of our lives, and that our favourite (spell check is on British English now) vacations always include heat and humidity. Let me just say, there is no hot, like Hong Kong hot. Tempos are great because they stand up against a day of sweating and mopping the brow. Additionally, if you smell something you don’t like, you can sniff the Tempo instead. I’m not pointing fingers or naming names, but on the MTR an elderly woman once sniffed her Tempo the entire trip while a certain American’s arm was raised to grasp the strap during the train ride.

phone switchNo, you are not looking at a landline. This is our intercom system. Whenever someone arrives to see us at our flat, this rings LOUD. One of our security guards then speaks to us in Cantonese. If we are lucky we catch a name or a phrase like “George” or “Internet” and we agree to have the visitor sent upstairs. We haven’t tried it in reverse, but we think we could pick it up and our security guard would answer and we could say something intelligent like “Taxi” and he or she would call one for us. Right next to the intercom, you’ll notice our light switches. I don’t understand them. Sometimes up is on, sometimes down is on (sometimes I swear it changes from one day to the next). You can also notice the walls. Yes, white; yes, concrete. For us that currently means there is nothing hanging on the walls. I just bought a folding fan with the 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac depicted on it. It’s going on one of these bare, white walls. Not sure when, not sure how, but we must have goals!

water heater

This our water heater thermometer. Every time we want hot water to shower or wash dishes we have to turn this on and set the temperature (everything here is in Celsius, so having 41 degree water is perfect for that). There’s another switch that goes with this. It’s the gas switch and it must be on before this switch works. There two tricks to this method:

  1. Remembering to turn on the gas (which has its switch in the living room before getting into the shower)
  2. Remembering to turn the gas off so the bill isn’t sky-high

 

This might be the best purchase we have made, and we never imagined this was something we would need. We don’t evewater boilern know the real name of this contraption. We’ve been told that we should not drink the water straight from the tap. We’ve also been told that it’s perfectly safe, but it tastes funny. We’ve also learned (from a Hong Kong historian) that the reason tea is so popular in China, and thus spread to other parts of the world, is because boiling the water makes it drinkable. So this machine is a water boiler. We keep it filled with water, it keeps the water hot, and then we can drink it. It’s great for me, the tea drinker, and it’s great for Mike, the coffee drinker who now drinks Nescafé instant coffee (finding ground coffee, coffee beans, or a coffee maker that does not take pods, is like finding Halloween decorations in April – it’s possible, but it’s going to take some serious work and you may have to bribe someone to search the warehouse). If we want cold drinking water, we pour the hot water into a Brita pitcher and keep that in the refrigerator.

octopus_cards_2And finally the Octopus Card. We have no idea how it got its name, but we could not live without it. This is how we use the MTR, the buses, get into our building, buy stuff at 7-11 or the school cafeteria. Expensive restaurants, wet markets, and taxis don’t take Octopus, but pretty much everything else does. We have Hong Kong ID cards – which are pretty important, but we’d be lost without Octopus. Almost equally as important as the Octopus card is the 7-11. I realise in the US, especially in the Kansas City area, Quik Trips are much more popular than 7-11. I am telling you, though, 7-11 stores are everywhere in HK and they are the most important places in town for two reasons – 1. You can buy or add value to your Octopus card and 2. You can pay your bills (cable, gas, water, electric, everything). [3. this is just extra – it’s so dang hot here, people need a slurpee every couple of hours – except it’s just Americans because we like to drink frozen stuff]. If you’re interested in a foreign investing tip, invest in 7-11 stores in Asia. You’ll retire rich.

This week we learned that that, while all of these things are important, the only way this adventure is really possible is thanks to our people – especially the ones back home. In case you missed it, while Hong Kong was dealing with Typhoon Hato, Kansas City was dealing with a huge flood. Our basement – which has not had an issue with flooding in the past – had a huge issue thanks to a mud-clogged sump pump. After the efforts of the kids, neighbors, friends (hopefully not former friends), and a competent carpent cleaning/mold treatment service everything is on track to be fixed. We owe a huge thank you to Tony Weiss, Bill and Sandy Skaggs, Sean Taylor (and Meghan who had to manage their family while Sean managed ours), and Tamara Everly for all their help. Our girls stepped up and adulted like pros – but that should not have been a surprise!

 

 

 

 

Things We Cannot Live Without (in HK)

 

The Flat in pics

House Hunters International

 

The first thing on our agenda after arriving in Hong Kong was finding a place to live. We seriously thought about contacting House Hunters International (from HGTV) to see if they wanted to film our adventures, but I never got around to completing the application. The first full day we were in Hong Kong, we began the search. We have now been in our new home almost a week, and it’s already cluttered just like our homes have always been!

There are basically two options for regular people in Hong Kong – I suppose the super-rich have whatever options they want, but for us – a flat or a village house. A flat is an apartment in a highrise building and a village house is an apartment in a smaller building (2-3 floors). We thought we wanted a village house. Village houses are located in small villages with multiple buildings. We looked at some where the village looked like a typical US apartment complex with a large group of identical buildings. We looked at others where the village was a mishmash of all sorts of buildings – each with each own character.

The advantages of a village house include more space (both indoor and outdoor), and a lot less congestion.  All of the village houses we toured were very close to the sea. In fact, our favorite one had a shady path leading right to the beach. It would have been a lovely place to live. There were a few things that worried us about choosing a village house that we had not considered before arriving. The first was transportation. While Hong Kong has an elaborate and efficient public transportation system, we both would have had to take a bus to get to work (rather than the train). Now the bus system is great, but the walk to the bus stop and the uncovered waiting area worried me – especially when it’s raining. The second was isolation. Not that we would have been out in the middle of nowhere, but the villages of the village houses are more like living communities. There are not shops or restaurants (at least not where we were looking). There would be no running out for ice-cream in the evenings if we lived in a village house – and since the stores were a 20-minute bus ride away, there might not be getting ice-cream home from the store without it melting. Finally, the tenants in the village houses needed to provide some essential appliances that we did not really want to purchase including a stove top, washing machine, and microwave.

Essentially once we saw our first flat, we knew we wanted to live in one. Though not as spacious, we saw some that were really beautiful. We instantly loved the idea of being close to shops and restaurants. We also really like the idea of becoming regulars at small establishments. Although we will make connections with people from all over the world through work, we really want to connect with the locals as well.

We looked at what seemed like hundreds of flats. We really only had two requirements – in our price range and dog-friendly (Cooper arrived on 09 August). Living space is very expensive in Hong Kong. Some reports say it is the most expensive place in the world to live. Compared to KC MO, it is NOT cheap. We really wanted to stay under $20,000 HK which is about $2,560 US per month. That restricted our location and building options. Even more restrictive, however, was finding a building and a landlord that would allow a dog. In HK, the building is not owned by one person or company. Each individual flat in a building is owned by a landlord who pays management fees to the building. The lease is not signed with the building or management company, but rather with the individual landlords.

We narrowed our flats down to three (see it really is like House Hunters International). Then we had to go through all of the negotiations to get the one we wanted.

  1. Kingston Lodge – this was the first flat we saw. It was beautiful, but very small. Seriously, had the best hardwood floors I’ve ever seen (suburban contractors could take a lesson). Both the building and the landlord were dog friendly. We loved the area, too. It was very close to the hotel we were staying in, so we became very familiar with the neighborhood. It was about a 10-minute walk to the MTR station, but most of the route was covered, so it would not have been an issue during bad weather. With only three train stops to the school, we really wanted this one. However, we could not agree on a price with the landlord.
  2. Baycrest – this one was directly across the street from the school. Literally, walk out the front door of the building, cross the street, and walk into the front door of the school. For those of you who know my morning struggles, this might have been ideal. We really wanted to have a balcony and this flat did not have one (recall that people hang their clothes out to dry here). But here was the kicker: the landlord was ok with the dog, but the building does not allow dogs. Now the landlord had a sneaky plan. He suggested that we sneak Cooper in and out of the building in a bag and no one would say anything unless he was a nuisance. If you have ever met Cooper, he is a great dog, but he has some barking issues. Whenever he sees an animal on tv (horse, dog, cat, bear, real, cartoon) he barks like crazy and tries to find it behind the tv. He also barks a lot at people with dark hair – especially big, dark hair (brunettes from the 80s are going to get his attention). So while I would not call my sweet pup a nuisance, we were not up for dog-in-a-bag and we were nervous he would be the source of many complaints.
  3. La Costa – this place is a great combination of the other two: Nice dark wood floors, balcony, building and landlord both agree to a dog! It’s in our price range ($17,000 HK per month – so slightly under budget).  Walk 10 minutes one direction, I am at the back entrance of my school (and one MTR station) or walk 10 minutes the other direction we are at another MTR station. Grocery stores and other shops are close by. A new shopping area is being built next to our building and will open in December. The balcony and both bedrooms look out over the harbor and there are mountains in the distance (yes, the guest room has this view and it’s waiting for you!). And so La Costa is our home!!! We can take Cooper outside without hiding him (as long as he is on a string – dog-on-a-string is better than dog-in-a-bag any day) and there is a dog park about 5 minutes away.

After our first night here. I woke up to rain hitting the window (I thought the toilet was leaking). We finally have internet and cable set up (after 2 technicians and 3 trips to the office). We’ve unpacked most of our stuff, made some grocery store purchases, and learned how to greet the security staff in Cantonese (sounds like NEEE HO – kinda).

We have also had our first guest. A teacher I worked with several years ago at Northtown, Cathie Morrison, spent six weeks of her summer in China and left for home via Hong Kong. She spent four nights with us. FYI – the guest room is quite comfortable and we are (apparently) lovely hosts (hint hint).

Life at the Regal Riverside Hotel

Oh how our lives have changed! One week ago, it was our final day in Kansas City. We were both in a daze. Saying good-bye to so much that we cherish seemed so difficult. We survived the flights (first 12 hours fine, last 4 torture). And now we are close to making final arrangements for our flat and load of used furniture!

Life at the Regal Riverside Hotel is a bit like Home Alone: Lost in New York – only not. We have not ordered a sundae extravaganza from room service, but we have gone to 7-11 for ice-cream bars! We have fallen into somewhat of a routine. We wake up at some forsaken time of the morning, unable to sleep. We doze until 8 or 9 am. We head to the breakfast buffet (more to come later). Then we head out to do whatever errands we need to do for the day. So far, no time for being tourists, but hopefully that will change soon! We scrounge for food that looks somewhat familiar for lunch and dinner. We ride the train, walk, and try to imagine what real life will be here.

It is going to take some adjusting to make this home. Let’s just start with the L’eau Regal Riverside Breakfast Buffet. It is actually quite good, but except for the made-to-order omelet station and the pastries, it does not seem like breakfast buffet to us. In the American section, there are scrambled eggs and sausages (that look like miniature hot dogs – seriously the kind you would get at a ballgame only about 2 inches long). They also serve good old American corn and pork and beans! I sort of want to tell someone that most Americans don’t eat corn and beans for breakfast, but maybe they know something I don’t know. Mike has taken to adding chicken curry (from the Indian section) to his breakfast palate, while I have been stuck on yogurt with Fiber One cereal (I know, I’m showing my age and the complexities of my digestive system). Yesterday we roamed a grocery store and I finally saw what I had so hoped to find: Peanut Butter – and not just any peanut butter, JIF peanut butter. Today I had peanut butter toast with strawberry jam for breakfast. Heavenly! It seems the fruits of choice are watermelon and oranges. So far that is all we have eaten. We have seen other fruit, some familiar, some exotic, in stores, but we haven’t tried any yet. Once we are in the flat, I am planning to tackle a dragon fruit. From the looks of it, I may need a sword!

In doing our daily errands, we are also exploring Hong Kong. From what I can tell, Hong Kong would be like New York City – broken into bouroughs (Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, etc). Then within each there are smaller cities that seem to share the name of the train station close by. Somehow, the name of your building seems to be part of your address as well, but I don’t quite have that one figured out yet. We seem to navigating the train (MTR) quite well. Traveling this system is quite comfortable and cheap (the AC is ALWAYS full blast on the train cars). The key to successful MTR travel, however, is knowing how to exit the station in the right direction (we know this from experience). There is an extensive bus system as well, but we have not hopped on that one yet (see my pun). Walking is an adventure. Jay-walking is not permitted in Hong Kong. They have barricades around the streets that keep would-be-criminals from crossing anywhere other than the crosswalk. At the most congested intersections, there are subways (not trains, but underground sidewalks) for crossing from one side to another. When standing at a traffic light, almost everyone waits patiently for the walk light to turn green. We have seen more than one pedestrian get a ticket for crossing too early or too late. Interestingly, while they drive on the lefthand side of the road, they walk on the right.

It’s going to take more than a week to feel settled. However, we are finding the people here so nice. We’ve been lost more than once, and people have stopped, looked at our phone apps, and directed us on our way. I was baffled by the electronic ordering system at McDonald’s (yes, I’ve eaten there twice now), and a teenager, very politely, showed me what to do. I expected people at restaurants, stores, and the hotel to be nice – after all we are paying them, but total strangers, with no horse in this race, have taken time to help us. Even when we have to ask them to repeat themselves, they remain patient, good-natured, and friendly. So here is my challenge, friends: Mike and I are obviously strangers in a strange land, yet so many people have taken the time to help us. The next time you see someone who is obviously a stranger in a strange land, think of us, and offer to help.