Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Things I Miss About the USA

Having just visited the States, I thought anew about the seemingly-insignificant aspects of life in America that I miss. (It goes without saying that I miss family and friends the most.) In listing these items, the assumption is that the opposite of each is true of Hong Kong. For instance, I miss the wide open spaces of America, which implies that HK is crowded and confined. (True!)

• Spontaneous conversations with strangers while waiting in line at the grocery store. “Those chips—they’re the new ones I saw advertised. Have you tried them before?” or “The rain is really coming down hard out there, isn’t it?”

• The stars at night, which are big and bright deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country.

• Having the option to return or exchange unwanted items from any store.

• Cable television in English.

• People with Texas accents.

• Singing at the top of my lungs to the radio while driving down the highway (alone in the car…obviously).

• Dairy Queen Blizzards. Oreo, please.

• Saying “no ma’am” and “yessir” all the time.

• Open fields, rolling hills, cows grazing, wildflowers along the roadways, unmarked country lanes…

• Driving.

• Free drink refills at restaurants and getting lots of ice without even asking for it.

• Mowing the lawn, and the smell of fresh-cut grass.

• Eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations—not because I really care what people at the next table are saying, but because I can understand the language they are speaking.

• The utter stillness and quietness of our neighborhood after 9pm.

• Wide aisles in the supermarkets.

• Random Seinfeld references…and having everyone around me understand those references.

• Looking thin. (My weight doesn’t change when I walk through immigration at the LAX airport; but I’m no longer compared to size-2 Asians.)

• Amusing and entertaining television commercials. (No cartoon characters urging me to buy tissues.)

• Everyday courtesies from strangers: opening a door, letting another step into the elevator first, saying thank you in these situations.

• Hearing (show-and-tell) stories from my parents of all the latest critters who have taken up residence in their backyard: a family of owls, squirrels, a skunk, possums.

• Route 44 drinks at Sonic.

• Freedom of speech; i.e. not filtering out my Texas accent, Americanisms, idioms and other figures of speech.

• Lakes.

• Salesclerks and store employees who go out of their way for the customer (who literally move out of the way when a customer walks by).

• Pickup trucks.

• Clear skies, sunrises and sunsets, no pollution.

• The friendly wave you offer to another car when you pass them on a two-lane highway. And the “Texas finger wave,” where you lift your index finger slightly off the top of the steering wheel when you encounter another car on a country road.

• Trees. Lots of trees.

Good thing I love Hong Kong.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Excursion: Texas—The Bowling Club Cafe

Excursion: a digression or deviation. An occasional comment on a trip outside Hong Kong. Just to keep things interesting.

My friend lives in one city, and I was staying with my parents in another, so we chose to meet halfway for a quick catch-up visit. Knowing there were few choices in the halfway vicinity, we decide to meet at the Dairy Queen in one of those rural towns affectionately called “a wide place in the road.” No, the Dairy Queen would not be open at 9:30am when we would meet, but it was an easily identifiable (or, perhaps, the only identifiable) landmark. (Note: in Texas, one must say “the Dairy Queen,” not simply “Dairy Queen.”)

We greet one another in the deserted parking lot at the Dairy Queen, and decide to drive a few blocks over to the town square, which contains the only eating establishment open on a Wednesday morning: The Bowling Club Cafe. This faded brick and sheet-metal building has a small sign (no accent on the “e” of cafe), a few windows facing the street, a glass door entrance, and an unpaved parking area filled with dusty, beat-up pickup trucks—quintessential Texas transportation.

We step through the doorway, and quickly realize that each and every restaurant patron and employee is staring at us. I glance down at myself, thinking that perhaps I neglected to put on pants. But no. We are outsiders. Because we are not wearing faded jeans, a plaid button-down shirt, boots or a hat, we are quite obviously out-of-towners. I stand frozen in place, looking around for a sign that directs customers to “wait to be seated,” while my friend assertively walks across the small room to an empty table in the corner.

Folks return to their meals and conversations as the waitress—dressed in blue jeans, a red t-shirt and tennis shoes, with a pencil tucked behind her ear—comes to our table, sets down two menus, and greets us cheerily, “Mornin’. What can I git for y’all ta-day?”

As she moseys away to fetch our drinks, we study the menus, which consist of a thin laminated paper, folded in two, covered on both sides with ads for local businesses. I look around to discreetly study the clientele, and realize that some are actually dressed in shorts and sneakers. Nonetheless, it is obvious that they are all locals, as they greet each person who enters by name. Of the dozen or so customers, it seems that my friend and I are the only ones under age 60.

My friend orders a breakfast plate and I, the biscuits and gravy, both of which are served on nondescript heavy plastic plates, such as would be found in a school cafeteria. I begin to feel that I’m in another culture all its own. Brown paneled walls, industrial floor tiles, and a glass counter for the cash register, complete with dusty candy bars in the display case and a few peppermints sitting on top. Tables of Formica, covered with more ads of local businesses: legal aid, a construction company, real estate, a nearby ranch. The walls display local High School paraphernalia—a football and basketball schedule, a pennant, a sports jersey.

“Did this building formerly hold a bowling alley?” my friend and I wonder. Seems unlikely in this town, where nightlife shuts down when the Dairy Queen closes around 9pm. But why the cafe name? [Later, I research this on the internet, and learn that there is, in fact, a bowling lane or two behind the restaurant. How did we miss this?!]

My friend and I sip ice water from our brown cafeteria cups and visit until the lunch crowd comes in—shortly after 11am. Noisy chatter fills the small cafe as patrons continue to heartily greet one another, discussing the weather and local news. We walk to the cash register, pay our bill and move to the door. The cashier simply says, “Thank you,” but in my head, I imagine she says, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

a foreigner at home

As I look ahead to an upcoming trip to the US, I am reminded of my last journey there, which included one of my most embarrassing moments.

The key to understanding and appreciating this story is knowing that I am not a morning person, and I sincerely dislike rising early. On the morning this event took place, I awoke before 4am and was in the car headed toward the airport shortly thereafter.

My vacation was drawing to a close, and I bade farewell to my family and successfully traversed the horrors of security lines at the Austin airport. Having surrendered my beverage at security, I begin to look around for a place to purchase water. Locating a newsstand kiosk near my gate, I grab a bottle of water and a bit of candy (Reese’s Pieces, if you must know—a guilty pleasure unavailable in HK). The cashier scans my items and the total is $3.40.

Having traveled often, I know the pitfalls of heavy carry-on baggage, so I quickly decide to offload some of my American coins to pay for these things. I pull out eight quarters and hand them to the woman. She looks at me and says, “The total is $3.40.” I nod, and reshuffle the bag on my shoulder. I realize she is still staring at me, and then she repeats, “It’s three dollars and forty cents.” I look at the pile of coins in her hand and think, “Why are some Texans so dumb? I’ve given her four dollars.”

Pause. Prior to this moment, I’ve spent over two weeks in the United States, during which time I have made numerous transactions with American currency. But let me restate my first point: it is not yet 7am and I’m desperately low on sleep. And let’s add the fact that an American quarter is similar in size to a HK fifty-cent coin. These are my only excuses. (And how pitiful they are.)

Our cash register standoff continues: I am frowning at the clerk, she is staring at me, and a line of customers is growing behind me. With an air of impatience, the woman puts the quarters on the counter and carefully lines them up in groups of four. “The total is $3.40. This is two dollars,” she says slowly.

Finally, it all clicks in my brain and I realize my embarrassing mistake. Painfully aware of the folks quietly standing behind me, observing the situation, I grab a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet and hastily gather up the quarters. The truth is, I probably had $3.40 in coinage, but I dare not try to add it up now.

The cashier hands me change, I collect my purchases, edge away from the counter, and blurt out, “I’m sorry. I’m not from here.”


I’m not from here?! This is the nation of my birth. Yea, the very state in which I lived the first 27 years of my life! Let’s just make an odd and confusing situation even more embarrassing and strange by my claiming—with a decidedly Texas accent—that I’m not American. “I haven’t resided in the States in several years. My skills in quickly calculating the local monetary system are severely out of practice. It’s dawn and I’m so freaking tired!” These would have been more accurate statements.

I settle into a chair near my gate, sip water, and ponder, “I love living in Hong Kong. One look at my Western nose and green eyes, and people around me automatically make allowances for my blunders and humiliations—it’s okay for me to be stupid. No matter that I’ve lived in HK almost six years; I’ll always be a foreigner.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

home sweet home

I have the distinct privilege of living in a flat owned by my employer. I am immensely grateful for this, since it meant I was able to move into a furnished home located within walking distance of work. Not to mention, I was fortunate to miss out on the arduous task of house-hunting—flats are hard to find in this area, and are unbelievably expensive to boot.

I enjoy a cozy living space, complete with two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living/dining area. This particular flat has been owned by my employer for some time, and a number of other people lived in it before I moved in. I’m not certain who made interior design decisions, but I’ve noticed some unusual decoration features: the walls are pale pink (perhaps my least favorite color, but which, thankfully, has faded through the years) and each light-switch cover is a different shade (two pale green ones, a dark blue one, a black one, a baby blue, a neon orange, and a few white ones with various silver or gold stripes). Equally odd: the entire floor consists of light brown wood laminate, except for a single square of blue and green tiles in the entryway, and one blue/green/burgundy stripe in the hallway. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the kitchen: amongst floor-to-ceiling white tiles, there are two randomly placed decorative tiles, one depicting a scene of an antique wood stove, the other a rustic fireplace—both completely out of character with the ultra-modern purple and grey cabinetry.

Upon moving in, I made a few minor alterations: added mini-blinds, purchased rugs, bought several additional bookshelves, hung a few items on the walls, and rearranged the existing furniture. My supposition is that this flat previously served as a dumping ground for unwanted donated items. One of my first acts as tenant was to remove a monstrous faux-granite entertainment center which swallowed the living room. Between this garish black and white eyesore and the brown leather couch on the opposite wall was a lovely wood and glass coffee table. Unfortunately, there was no space to walk around the coffee table—it was literally wall-to-wall furniture. I also removed the wicker and black-glass desk with matching wicker chair frame (sans seat).

Throughout the first few months I lived here, I took time to methodically sort through the drawers, cabinets, and closets to ascertain what I had and what I needed. There were three can-openers, two kitchen timers, keys to doors or locks that no longer existed, sheets for 10-12 beds (some of which were the wrong size, many of which looked hand-stitched from the 1940s, or in designs popular in the 70s), books in an assortment of languages, four baking dishes (only one would fit in the oven at a time), several sets of stereo speakers (no stereo), and enough mismatched plates and glasses to feed a multitude.

Each day brought a new, interesting find; it was like a living treasure hunt. A full set of ornate, gilded china was stored in the bedside table in the master bedroom; a 1970s-orange crock-pot was in the other bedside table. Spare light-bulbs were in the bathroom cabinets next to an old blow-dryer, while a bottle of metal pot cleaner was in a bedroom drawer. A can of tomato soup from another era went into the rubbish bin, while a lovely candle-holder was moved out of the closet to a more prominent place. The most incongruous find for an Asian flat: seventeen VCR tapes filled with old M*A*S*H episodes.

My new mantra quickly became, “It was here when I moved here.”

When company came over and asked why I had four spatulas and no large cooking spoon, I remarked, “It was like that when I moved here.”

“What’s the deal with the bookcase that is slanted on top, and why is there an electrical outlet located in the upper-middle of the living room wall?” people would ask.

“I don’t know; it was here when I moved in.”

Perhaps I took it too far though: “Where did those ugly grey storage bins come from?” Though I had carefully picked them out and purchased them the previous week, “Well, most of these things were here when I moved here…”

It took some time and effort to make this well-used, interestingly-furnished flat my own, but I have grown to love my fortress of solitude and relish the sense of comfort and contentment I feel here… even when my downstairs neighbor rang my doorbell at 7:00am one morning to complain that her ceiling was caving in because my bathtub was leaking.