Tuesday, May 24, 2011

hungry koi

(A video clip I took in Zhuhai a few weeks ago. Each time we dropped a handful of fish pellets into the water, they went nuts. You would think they hadn't eaten in weeks!)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

what the guidebooks don't tell you

Anyone can wander into the travel section of the local Barnes and Noble and pick up a copy of a country guidebook, or browse through endless webpages packed with detailed information on a particular city or location. In such tomes or internet portals, one will undoubtedly pick up the basics of a city such as Hong Kong: time zone, climate and average temperature, population and ethnic makeup, politics, history, major holidays and festivals, religious beliefs, and so on. Continue reading and more minutia is brought to light: what sort of outlet adaptors are needed, a country code for the phone, exchange rates, dos and don’ts of cultural interactions, common foods, the transportation system, and how to speak a few basic phrases in Cantonese.

All useful information.

Yet, there are so many facets of daily life in Hong Kong that are not addressed in such publications, and may only be discovered after living here for a longer period of time. For example…

When it’s raining heavily and I’m laden with a book-bag over one shoulder, a sack full of groceries on one arm, and an open umbrella in one hand. The minibus I’ve hailed screeches to a halt a few feet from the curb, and I begin to climb up the steep stairs into the bus, all the while attempting to close my umbrella, dig out the bus fare, try to keep myself from getting drenched by the rain and keep the other passengers from getting water slung over their legs from my umbrella…and the minibus driver is cursing, revving the engine, threatening to pull away from the curb before I can get both legs inside the bus.

The guidebooks did not instruct me how to conduct myself when eating at a local restaurant with a group of Chinese grandmas who are piling unidentifiable foodstuffs into my bowl with their chopsticks, urging me—in Cantonese—to eat! eat! eat! (And then they watch to see that I do actually swallow it.)

What about the frustrating situation of the non-stop barking dog in the building next to mine? How should I speak to my building manager about this annoyance, which, because the manager speaks little English, requires a delicate combination of simple Cantonese, charades and sound-effects?

How can I make smores in a country that doesn’t sell graham crackers? Or how should I bake Thanksgiving pies when Crisco is nowhere to be found?

No guidebook told me that every local person who swims in the community pool will wear goggles and a rubber swim cap. If the foreigner neglects to wear such, he/she will attract awkward stares.

Guidebooks do not offer succinct answers for unusual questions the foreigner will likely encounter: Are you a full-blooded American? Is Texas a state or a country? Do you not get sick from drinking ice in your water?

How to shop for bed-sheets? Which charade actions are necessary to convey the concept of a “top sheet” in a culture that primarily uses duvet covers? Or what about searching for cake frosting in a city that prefers cake without frosting (if they eat cake at all)?

No one told me that if I choose not to use an umbrella on a sunny afternoon, I will be labeled insane—no one in Asia voluntarily tans.

What should I do when an older woman stops me on the street and rattles off one Cantonese sentence after another? When it seems that my shrugs, head-shakings, smiles and helpless facial expressions are not getting through to her?

No guidebook taught me how to carry a casserole dish to a potluck dinner when I have to rely on public transportation or walk down a crowded sidewalk.

When the temperatures hover around 80-90°F and the humidity consistently reaches 90 percent and higher, how can anything dry, or stay dry—items such as towels and laundry, papers and books? Or me?

Without the guidebook’s assistance, I struggle through the hardship of hearing frequent comments about my weight—which is not an off-limits subject in Asia. “Why are all Americans so fat?” I’d like to read a book on how to deflect such blatant attacks to my physique—a particularly ironic situation in a culture that values the concept of saving face.
Is there an effective way to rid my kitchen of large geckos?

No book prepared me for the obnoxious noise of construction, the ever-present cacophony of drilling, jack-hammering and pounding that takes place in buildings and on streets everywhere; crying children and screaming neighbors; the honking of horns and the car alarms that go off at odd hours; or even the birds that chirp incessantly during the night.
How do these squatty-potties work, anyway?

A guidebook might discuss the idiosyncrasies of attending a movie at the theater—that seats are assigned, for example—but fail to mention that when searching for a movie in the video store, they are categorized and alphabetized by lead actor’s first name. And if there are multiple lead actors/actresses, whose name should I look under?

I might be able to research where to buy souvenirs and local trinkets in HK. But what about white taper candles? Plastic fall leaves? A napkin holder or picture frame? An oven thermometer in Fahrenheit?

The guidebooks likely offer tips on using chopsticks, but none of them address how to remove the head, tail and antennae of a shrimp without making a huge mess or losing my appetite.

Until such a comprehensive guidebook is written, I will continue to cheerfully blunder my way through life in Hong Kong like a foreign idiot. On the other hand, no guidebook could ever prepare me for the wonderful friendships I would find here, the warm hospitality of locals who eagerly introduce me to their city, or the way my understanding of God has deepened and broadened because of interaction with believers from a variety of cultures and worldviews. Sometimes what the guidebooks don’t tell you is best learned firsthand.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


It seems that I live in a city of sleep-deprived citizens. Everywhere I look, I see Hong Kongers nodding off in impromptu naps. On the bus or train, heads are sinking down or jerking up in a sleepy head-bob. On park benches or picnic tables, people stretched out for a lunch-break rest or afternoon siesta. Taxi drivers displaying their “out of service” sign in the windshield, catching a snooze while parked on the side of the street. Construction workers and street sweepers huddled in a corner or propped against a brick wall, newspaper draped over their faces, catching forty winks during a break.

A few days ago, I found myself chuckling at an elderly gentleman who was dozing on a low stool at a park area on a warm afternoon, head nodding up and down. It reminded me of a drowsy toddler falling asleep in a highchair over a plate of spaghetti, desperately trying to stay awake, but losing the fight.

Suddenly, as I watched, the man began to fall—literally in slow motion—off the short stool. His body gradually sank to the ground until he ended up in a squatting position. He awoke, startled, and managed to use his hands to keep his balance. I had already begun to hurry toward him, concerned that he would hit his head, but he seemed to stabilize and rise. However, either because he was too sleepy or too frail, he sank and teetered again, unable to straighten his legs and stand from this awkward squatting position. He wasn’t in danger of hurting himself, but he was at risk of landing on his tail on the dirty ground.

I reached him and grabbed his arm to help him up, about the same time two other bystanders also came over to help. By then, the gentleman had fully regained his balance and managed to reseat himself on the stool. I asked if he was okay, but he waved me away impatiently. I’m certain he was embarrassed, but he survived the napping scare unscathed.
I giggled through the remainder of the day, as I replayed in my mind this man’s sleepy, slow-motion slouch from the stool. Perhaps he should return to his home and make use of a comfy armchair.

I suppose I should be thankful that most of these heavy-eyed Hong Kongers don’t drive, but opt for public transportation. I’d rather be seated next to a nodding woman on a bus, than looking over at a stoplight to see a dozing driver in the next vehicle.

Well, I’m headed to bed.

(Photo above: folks choosing an odd place for a siesta.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Excursion: Zhuhai—Twenty Signs You’ve Picked a Bad Hotel

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

My sister decided that during her stay in Hong Kong, she would enjoy a visit to Mainland China. As the local expert, I take charge by organizing visas, making hotel reservations, arranging transportation and sorting out schedules and sightseeing plans.

Sitting in the HK travel agent’s office one busy afternoon, we receive our (outrageously expensive) China visas, and I offhandedly ask, “Do you recommend a particular hotel in Zhuhai?” The travel agent hands us a list of hotels located in our destination city, then mentions an unlisted lodging option which offers a good price. She calls it the “Bali Hotel.” My sister and I discuss prices, decide we like the name (we’re going to China and Bali!), and are pleased to learn that it is a four-star hotel. We have no time for internet research, so I impulsively book us a room for two nights…at the Bai Li Hotel, as it turns out. Bad sign number one.

Our trip is planned and rooms paid for, but I Google the hotel the night before we leave. It’s still listed as four-star. Offers free internet. Caters to business travelers. Amenities include air conditioning, alarm clock, safety deposit box, drinking water, refrigerator, hair dryer, and so forth. We’ll be fine, I think to myself.

After a full day of sightseeing in Macau, we cross the border and get in line for a taxi. Bad sign number two: the first two taxi drivers don’t know how to get to the hotel, even with the name and address written in Chinese.

We eventually arrive at our destination and begin the check-in process at the Bai Li. I realize that the English-speaking staff members don’t actually speak English. “Does our room have two separate beds?” I politely ask. In response, the desk clerk hands us a second room key. A conversation trying to distinguish between beds and keys ensues. Bad sign #3.
We board the elevator and push the button for the fourth floor. “Four means bad luck in Chinese,” I tell my sister. “Maybe we shouldn’t stay on this floor,” I joke. We step into the dim, smoky hallway, pass a vacuum cleaner propped against the wall, and eventually find our room number. After numerous tries (bad sign #4), I successfully get the key to open the door and we peer inside.

Large wet and spongy stain on carpet where air conditioner has previously leaked. Bad sign #5. A glance into the bathroom, and we see that there are price tags on all of the toiletry items. No hairdryer. No box of tissues. A half-roll of toilet paper left on the dispenser. Sign #6.

Well, we’re primarily here to sleep, and there are, in fact, two separate beds with white linens and spare pillows. Our bags drop to the floor and we look around. This is a very basic room. No refrigerator or coffee pot. Only one lamp. No door on the “closet.” Not even an alarm clock. Bad signs numbers 7-10. A quick trip to the neighborhood supermarket provides us with drinking water, snacks, and cheap flip-flops to wear in our questionable bathroom.

“Let’s check out the television,” we say to one another, as any good Americans would. Nineteen Chinese channels, only one of which is Cantonese. We look blankly at each other. I begin to wish I brought a better book to read. Sign #11.

On our way out to find dinner, we stop at the front desk to ask about internet usage. It’s free in the room, we are assured. “But I don’t have a computer with me. So do you have a business center?” I ask, recalling that “business center” was listed on the website under Hotel Amenities. After a lengthy conversation that includes charades and scribbles on a scrap of paper, we are informed: you must go across the street, find the supermarket, and go to the second floor. A local internet cafĂ©, I presume. Bad sign #12.

My sister and I seriously consider moving to a different hotel, but choose to stay, since we’ve already paid for this one (albeit at a low price). Typical traveler’s stomach sets in for me, and I am forced to return to the front desk to ask for more toilet paper. #13. More hand motions and charades. A woman shows up at our door a half-hour later with one small roll.

Perhaps a shower will offer refreshment and relaxation, I consider. Hot water is slow to come. The removable showerhead leaks and sprays in several directions at once. Furthermore, when set in the holder, the showerhead shoots water straight at the stall door, which doesn’t close all the way, causing water to flood the bathroom floor. After a series of acrobatic moves, I learn that the best way to bathe is to turn off the water while showering. Bad signs 14-16.

A long, restless night follows. We learn that the hotel contains a disco nightclub and karaoke bar on the second floor. We never see any other hotel guests, but we realize that people are enjoying the nightclub…all night long. Bad sign #17. Our room is kept comfortably cool with air conditioning, but the source of the carpet stain is made clear, as condensation drips continuously from the ceiling vent. Chinese water torture? Sign #18.

The following day, we return from a morning of sightseeing. Spare roll of toilet paper has been confiscated by the cleaning staff. Bad sign #19. A mild case of food poisoning causes us to make a desperate trip down to the front desk begging for one more roll. We come wielding a sample square of tissue in hopes that we can forego the charades.

In the evening, we watch Chinese versions of “You’ve Got Talent”—the reactions of winners and losers need no translation. Suddenly, my sister slaps her pillow and yelps, “Fleas!” Bad sign #20. “That explains the bites I’ve found on my legs,” I think to myself as I swat at another flea while she disposes of the first one.

A sigh of relief passes our lips as we complete the check-out process and walk out the hotel doors the following morning. Bye-bye Bai Li. Later that day, when we board the ferry headed for Hong Kong, I notice an advertisement with this phrase: “Never before. Never again.”