Thursday, February 24, 2011

a pleasant surprise

Sometimes things do work out okay.

While cleaning out some old paperwork in my office yesterday, I suddenly discovered that my Hong Kong work visa will expire in less than a month, an issue that is compounded by the fact that I planned to travel in less than three weeks. Knowing the typical governmental process for any sort of application procedure, I immediately embarked on a collection of the necessary papers and documents.

What do I need? You would think that I had never experienced such an application process before. In fact, this is my third or fourth time to deal with local visa issues, but I can never remember from one time to the next what paperwork is necessary, which floor to go to, or what forms to fill out. Inevitably, I end up at the wrong counter without a certain paper or document, and I’m sent away in shame. I searched the website in hopes of locating clues as to what I should bring. I dared not print out a form and complete it before arrival—I can’t even figure out what category of visa applicant I fall under.

I awoke two hours before my alarm went off this morning and instantly began to dread the day’s task. I chose a large backpack and set out to gather everything I might possibly need. Papers. Signed letters. Photos and documents. Extra copies of everything. Might they want my United frequent flier card too? Assuming I’ll spend exorbitant amounts of time waiting, I fill up a water bottle and grab some snacks. A fully-charged iPod and cell phone. Advil. A pack of gum. One newspaper and a 700-page book. I should be okay for a day or two.

The crowd of morning rush hour took me by surprise (I’m privileged to walk to work and, thus, am not accustomed to using public transportation before 8:00am) and my trip took nearly an hour. The crush of humanity continued throughout the walk from the train station to the Hong Kong Immigration Tower—a non-descript, gray concrete building, with armed guards in the lobby and an intimidating building directory covering an entire wall. Not knowing my destination, I bypassed the elevator, and stepped onto the escalators, hoping I could study the signs on each floor.

I found the floor with counters labeled “forms” and “enquiries.” Surprisingly, there were no lines at either counter, so I wound my way through the empty ropes and approached the counter. A pleasant gentleman sat surrounded by stacks of papers taller than he was, and as I explained my situation, he immediately sifted through a sheaf of documents and handed a blank form to me. I realized my confusion: I had been searching for information on “visa renewal,” when I should have been looking for “visa extension.” Silly me.

I was equally surprised to locate a long empty space at the desks where people like me can pause to fill out forms. With plenty of space, I dumped my bag and began writing on the form in block letters, using blue or black ink. Ah yes, this is the form on which I am obligated to check the box next to “spinster.” Is this the best terminology we can come up with?

Papers in hand, I continued up the escalators until I found the appropriate floor. The line labeled “those without appointments” made me feel inadequate, as if I’d failed in my responsibilities; but I took my place and was pleased when it moved quickly. An agreeable woman scanned my form, took my passport, and printed out a receipt with a number: B26. Very efficient. They used to scribble a number in permanent marker on a bit of scratch paper.

Here we go, I thought as I examined the rows of chairs and located a place to settle. I took my time as I removed my coat, slathered my hands with anti-bacteria gel, and put away the ream of unnecessary documents I had toted along. As I glanced up at the wall in front of me, I saw a new television screen with the numbers that were being called clearly displayed in large, bright letters. Well. My usual task at this point is to practice my numbers in Cantonese, hoping I’ll recognize mine when it’s called, rather than wait until the receptionist repeats it in exasperated English.

And… what’s this? They are currently on number B22. I’m four people away! How did this miraculous turn of events come about? Before I could relish my good fortune, my number was announced. I hastily gathered up my belongings and went to the counter. With a cheerful smile, the woman behind the glass asked me a few questions and studied my paperwork. I was prepared to argue my case: I’m leaving town soon and need to rush this visa application through. Before I could embark on my preplanned speech, she graciously agreed to look into it. “Please find a seat and wait for me to call you again.”

Okay. This is when the wait begins. It’s a two-part process, I thought dully. I planted myself in a chair, glanced at my watch and then located my newspaper. Civil unrest in Libya. After scrutinizing the grainy front-page photo, I started reading the article. Suddenly, my name was called over the loudspeaker. Not B26. My name. Frazzled, I once again gathered my gear and located the counter to which I was called. The same kind woman returned my passport and handed me a form listing the date of collection of my visa—five days before my trip. She smiled, thanked me and turned away.

Confused, I asked what I should do next. “Nothing.” You mean I’m finished? I can leave now? She nodded. But I didn’t even finish the front page of the newspaper. I didn’t get to practice my Cantonese numbers. And I was supposed to have a dreadful, eventful ordeal—encountering unpleasant people, committing embarrassing language blunders, filling out the wrong forms, making multiple trips between Kowloon Tong and Wan Chai, waiting in long queues like a hungry refugee—something worthy of blogging. But this? What about the banana now located at the bottom of my backpack, or my plan to figure out how to beat level 14 of that game I just discovered on my iPod?

No matter. The shopping center I planned to visit after my visa excursion is not yet open; it’s too early in the morning. So there will be some waiting after all.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

signs and wonders

Another common theme in my jaunts around Hong Kong: signs, posters and billboards with unusually-worded phrases, inventive terminology, or confusing instructions. As much as possible, I’ve retained original spelling, punctuation and grammar—hence, the humor.

When a simple word just won’t do

“No smoking. Any person who contravenes the regulation will be liable to prosecution.”
(sign on a walkway near train station)

“Be considerate. Clean up the place by yourself after dogs excreate.”
(sign on sidewalk in my neighborhood)

“Beware of on-coming right turners”
(on a street sign)

“Put parcel in aperture”
(sign in local post office, above a drop-box hole where packages may be mailed)

“Don’t put M-folded paper into the w.c. Cistern”
(a sign on the inside of a restroom stall; m-folded paper is a reference to tri-fold paper towels)

I don’t understand…

“Please don’t abandon the Tortoise and Fish! No Feeding! Thank you for your co-operation”
(sign on an outdoor fountain filled with fish and turtles)

“Billie and Roy’s Weeding”
(a sign outside a banquet hall at the Marriott)

“Nelson Piano Company”
(the name over a store that sells only guitars)

“Appreciated for continued support to Route 29A/B Maxi cab for years. Starting at the date of February 01, 2009, an additional scheduled bus as midnight 12:00, and providing for a concessionary fare. Pleased to intend elderly to present Elder-card. The above arrangement effects for a period of a year up to January 31, 2010.”
(a notice posted on the inside of a minibus)

“Hair Age Salon”
(a sign over a salon-type store)

“For customer right reason, please request cashier to provide the receipt and keep for record”
(posted on a cash register at a local Burger King)

“Please caution for uneven flooring”
(a sign in a mall hallway)

“Uttering counterfeit banknotes is a crime. Don’t do it.”
(notice posted on a cash register)

“Children drive dead slow”
(posted at the entrance to a car park outside an apartment building)

“Construction Site. No Authorized Entry.”
(sign posted on a fence around a construction area)


“Friends…or Food?”
(on a billboard that included photos of three dogs of various pedigrees, one with a cartoon conversation-bubble saying, “Don’t EAT us”)

Sign in the airport with a depiction of a passenger attempting to carry a whole, deceased chicken onto the plane; the airport employee is pulling the dead bird out of the luggage, grimly shaking his head no

“Happy Home for the Elderly”
(a sign over a nursing home…nothing wrong with that, except that it was located one floor above “Pink Bar II”)

“Help tortured animals break free”
(on a billboard with a picture of a black bear in a cage)

“Funful English Primary School”
(local “English” primary school)

“Dunk shot is not encouraged”
(sign hanging from a homemade basketball goal)

“Person Nail”
(sign on a nail salon)

“Beware of vehicles, no cycling, keep place clean, no alcohol & meat”
(sign outside Buddhist monastery [they’re vegetarian])

“You can angry to anyone except boss”
(sign that could be purchased at the market)

“Wildlife is not food.”
(sign at a nature center, posted in a grassy area)

“Please do not squat on the toilet seat”
(sign posted on the back of stall door in a women’s restroom)

“Protect sharks—don’t eat fins.”
(a sign with a shark inside a circle-with-slash symbol, urging people to avoid shark’s fin soup)

There’s gotta be a better way to say that…
(FCUK is the name of a local clothing store; this was a display of huge Styrofoam block letters, stacked in the above arrangement, with the British flag printed on them)

“Garlic Fashion”
(name of a local clothing shop)

“Please clean up by yourself after the dogs foul the street”
(sign outside a building on my street)

“Natural Wind”
(sign over a shop in Mong Kok)

In a minibus, an advertisement for prescription medication, in which a doctor is offering a box of pills; the doctor’s nametag reads “Dr. Pain”

“Put your rucksack at the front”
(banner at a holiday fair; it means to watch out for your belongings)

“Golden Snow”
(the name of a shop)

“Water depth 0.3 M. No paddling”
(sign on an outdoor decorative fountain; 0.3 meters = 11.8 inches)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Super Bowl Monday

Though Super Bowl Sunday is not a holiday (yes, I have family members who would argue with that statement), we Americans living overseas still make feeble attempts to celebrate it as such. As with other non-local holidays, though, we postpone the festivities to suit our Hong Kong schedules.

Generally, the Super Bowl is aired live on a local television station beginning around 7:00am on Monday morning. Different commentators are employed to guide the viewers through the game for this special international broadcast. (The same international broadcast will be aired in other Asian countries.) Though these commentators are usually American, they assume the average viewer is not, so they adjust their comments accordingly. For the benefit of those across the world who hear the word “football” and picture the sport played with a round white and black ball, these commentators explain the rules of the uniquely American game in meticulous detail. As one who learned the basics of football as a marching band member in High School, I appreciate this immensely; my male football-enthusiast friends, however, find it mildly irritating.

Because we work on Monday, someone will record the game that morning while the rest of us go about our normal day. In an attempt to prevent learning the outcome of the game prematurely, we take great pains to avoid opportunities where we might accidentally hear the score. I turn on my computer, hold a large piece of paper over the computer screen as the internet opens, and carefully maneuver to my email inbox without looking at anything except the address bar. A co-worker enters my office and I blurt out, “Good morning I haven’t seen the game don’t tell me the score sorry thank you!” Even in unexpected places—the train, for example, where television screens show news blips—the outcome may be spoiled.

At the end of this trying day, we gather in someone’s flat and share the close encounters we faced. Inevitably someone has learned the score already, and they are sworn to silence, on pain of death—or we threaten to withhold the gooey chocolate brownies from them if they divulge the winner.

I appreciate a good game and a close competition as much as the next person; but I have to admit that I care very little who wins and loses. I’m the one who shows up at the Super Bowl party asking, “Now, which teams are playing?” and saying, “Okay, I’ll root for the ones wearing the green uniforms.”

But let’s not forget the food. A Super Bowl party is not successful without greasy pizza, seven-layer Mexican dip, tortilla chips, Oreo cookies, soda and a lot of other unhealthy food. At 5pm, we were still searching the island for a can of refried beans—an important layer in the dip. By 7pm, though, the condiments were assembled, the pizza had been ordered, and we settled back to laugh at the American who flubbed our National Anthem.

The game begins, and we have the freedom to fast-forward through uninteresting portions. Commercials shown are local (i.e. boring and predictable, not necessarily in English), so the three- or four-hour game proceeds quickly. Someone pauses the recording as we grab another slice of pizza or get a refill of ice in our drinks. We loudly comment and exclaim at the halftime show, sometimes singing along with the performers, thoroughly immersed in American culture. The match wraps up before 10pm, and we laugh at the fact that we managed to eagerly engage in watching a game twelve hours after it took place, yet celebrating it as if it were a live event.

For those few hours, we might have been in someone’s spacious living room in the American Midwest on a Sunday afternoon, eating everyday snacks we just purchased that weekend at the neighborhood grocery store. Instead, we were sitting in a small flat on the 18th floor of a high-rise building, eating layered dip that included a $3 USD can of refried beans, munching pepperoni pizza that had to be special ordered because it’s not on the regular menu, and sharing one bag of tortilla chips which had been set aside for this day. And the ranch dip? It was made from the other half of the seasoning packet we saved from Thanksgiving.

Now, let’s head home and watch some of those commercials on YouTube.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

what's a new year fair?

A Chinese New Year fair is a place to... surrounded by the ubiquitous holiday orange trees.

...see many pinwheels spin. unique plants. with toys.

...have a snack.

...walk through the crowds very slowly. a plant taller than a human being.

...disseminate your political viewpoints.

...see lots and lots of red things.

...have another snack.

...pretend you're rich.

...stock up on the necessary red packets.

...have yet another snack.

...celebrate Chinese New Year with several million other Hong Kongers!