Thursday, June 30, 2011

an italian lesson in hong kong

I had dinner at my favorite local Italian restaurant a few days ago. As is the case with many restaurants in America and a few Western restaurants in Hong Kong, a looped soundtrack plays over the PA system in the restrooms.

This restaurant washroom, however, doesn’t play music. It plays a “learn to speak conversational Italian” recording. So while one is washing her hands, she may hear a stilted dialogue about locating a seat on the train or navigating the airport check-in counter.

No matter the topic, only two voices are heard: a teacher voice and a student voice—or perhaps it’s the native Italian and the visiting foreigner. Every line of the scripted discussion is spoken in both Italian and English, in a very deliberate, pedantic tone. For instance, one might hear something like this:

Foreigner: “Are there any rooms available in this hotel?”

Italian: “Yes.”

Foreigner: “How much does a room cost?”

Italian: “It depends on how many people are staying.”

Periodically, a pause in the exchange occurs and a new topic of conversation is encountered. (Disclaimer: I don’t spend exorbitant amounts of time in the washroom; but I have frequented this restaurant numerous times over the past six years. And they do have free refills on iced tea…)

My favorite Italian dialogue occurred while I was visiting this loo a year or two ago. It was such a bizarre conversation that I ran back to the table and wrote it down.

Foreigner: “What should I do if I meet a robber?”

Italian: “Do not resist him.”

Foreigner: “Why?”

Italian: “He may have a knife or a gun.”

Foreigner: “Will he try to hurt me?”

Italian: “Yes.”

Foreigner: “What should I do?”

Italian: “You should give him what he wants.”

Foreigner: “What if I do not have what he wants?”

Italian: “You should always carry money for a robber.”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

home repairs

[This is a reworked piece that I originally wrote in June 2009; I pulled it out this week, as I’ve dealt with these same issues again. Typically, the summer months bring the most rainfall to Hong Kong, occasionally causing the kinds of problems detailed below.]


Saturday morning. I awoke with a start, hearing heavy rain and thinking of a number of items on my ever-pressing to-do list. Because Hong Kong has been inundated with rain throughout the past few weeks, I had towels strategically placed around my flat in leak-prone areas, which I checked faithfully when I arose each morning. It seemed that they were no wetter than the night before, so I moved along with my morning routine.

Before I could get much farther than making the bed, I happened to pass by the bathroom window and saw a gush of water pouring over the window sill and spilling onto the floor. I sent up a whoop of delight, as I had been searching for the precise source of the leakage for some time now; this was the first time I actually saw water coming inside, the first chance I had to pinpoint the problem.

Realizing I had only two days before heading out of town for a long vacation, and knowing that the rain would continue for several more months, I set to work on the leakage. I called a guy friend who owed me a favor and asked questions about caulk: Do you have any caulk? Where I would I find caulk in HK? Does caulk come packaged in a tube here, as it does in the States? He promised to do some research and calling around; but in my impatience, I decided to address the problem myself.

As I searched for more dry towels, I imagined myself going from shop to shop on the streets of Mong Kok, in search of sealant. How would I describe this to a person who doesn’t speak English? If I tried a quick real-life game of Pictionary with a salesclerk, what would I draw? Could this situation be acted out, charade-like? Maybe I should just carry my English-Chinese dictionary with me.

I quickly got dressed, grabbed the largest umbrella I could find, and ran out the door. Because of the extreme downpour, I took a taxi to a nearby all-purpose store—what I consider to be a Chinese equivalent to Wal-mart—in hopes of finding such a product. Sure enough, in the bathroom accessories department, I found a wide selection of waterproof sealant in small tubes. After studying the options for a few moments, I chose one with instructions in English, paid and left. By this time, my friend had also located a similar product, but I decided having two tubes was wise—you never know when one type won’t work.

Upon arrival at my flat, I prudently took advantage of the pause in the deluge and set about repairing the water seepage issue. The thick white sealant came out of the tube sluggishly, and the leaky window sill ended up looking like a cake frosting disaster. Nonetheless, I pragmatically decided that aesthetic appearance was not as important as function, so I kept piling the sealant on thicker until I almost used the entire tube. If rain can penetrate that glob of caulk, I’ll eat my hat (or move to an arid climate).

Feeling quite proud of myself, I quickly realized my mistake: if I closed the window, it would be sealed shut permanently; but when the window was open, it rained on the newly-applied caulk and threatened to undo my work. Having no choice, I spent the remainder of the day opening and closing the window, as the rain started and stopped. I also rigged an elaborate “rain guard” over the caulking, using cardboard, duct tape and a large number of paper towels.

It was also at this point in the day that I was desperate to do laundry—I’m running out of clothes and towels, and I needed to pack for my trip. As I headed up to the rooftop where my washer and dryer are located, I presented a perfect picture of awkwardness: trying to maneuver a laundry basket, measure liquid detergent, and load the machine, all while holding a large umbrella and vaguely wondering about the risk of electric shock. Some bits of clothing had to be rewashed because they fell on the ground, into a two-inch deep muddy puddle. At least the pile of wet towels could be dried and put away.

Or so I thought.

I’ve always had a bit of moisture on the kitchen floor when it rains, and after squeezing the tube of sealant to get the last globule out around the window in the bathroom, I found the source in the kitchen—again, for the first time. Nothing like the thought of going out of town for three weeks to get me moving on projects that previously caused procrastination. The HK hot and rainy season, plus a pile of wet towels, plus an apartment closed up without air-conditioning for the month of July equals a massive growth of mildew and stink. I pulled out the freshly laundered towels and recommenced the mopping. Thank goodness for that other tube of sealant from my friend.

In an oddly coincidental, Seinfeldesque sort of way, the various aspects of my day came together in one sudden revelation: the metal roof on the tiny shed that covers my washing machine atop my building happens to hang over my bathroom window, causing excessive amounts of water to drain directly into the outside sill, into my flat.

Time for a vacation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

but I really like ice in my drinks

I like to think of myself as a teachable person. I’m willing to learn from others, heed wise advice, and maintain an open mind toward the opinions of others. Usually. Okay, sometimes.

But it’s very difficult for me to swallow advice that I don’t understand, or suggestions that seem a far cry from what I recognize as reality. Example: old wives’ tales. These bits of wisdom passed down from one generation to the next, wherein the original purpose or intent is forgotten or no longer exists. Must we really wait a certain amount of time after eating before we jump in the lake to swim? If I pluck out a grey hair, as I did last week, will two actually grow back in its place? Such recommendations (folklore?) within my own culture are not easy to accept, so imagine the challenges of heeding this kind of advice from another culture. For example…

Here is what I know: In my culture, I’ve been told to lift heavy objects with care. Bend at the knees, carry the weight with your legs and body, not the back.

Here is what I was told in HK: You shouldn’t lift heavy objects if you haven’t had a baby yet.


Here is what I know: After you get a body massage, you should drink lots of water to wash out the toxins that are released after a massage. Also, massage oil could stain, so wash it off before sitting on furniture.

Here is what I was told in HK: You shouldn’t bathe after a massage. You might get sick.


Here is what I know: Icy cold drinks may constrict the vocal cords, so don’t drink cold liquids before important singing engagements. Otherwise, ice is fine. Plus it satisfies your thirst better.

Here is what I was told in HK: Putting ice in your drinks will make you sick. Don’t do it. Furthermore, if you drink a cup of cold water immediately after a meal, the food oils will solidify in your body, slow down digestion and cause heart attacks and cancer. So drink only warm water instead.


Here is what I know: You may get a runny nose from air (from a fan) blowing directly on your face. But mostly it won’t hurt you.

Here is what I was told in HK: Don’t point that fan at your back because it will negatively affect your kidneys. You should point it at your front or side instead.


Here is what I know: If you have a cold, take lots of vitamin C, or drink juice that has vitamin C in it. Of course, if you have a sore throat, you might not want to drink orange juice because it stings the throat.

Here is what I was told in HK: If you have a cold, do not drink orange juice or any kind of juice, regardless of the state of your throat. Congee is best.


Here is what I know: When experiencing stomach problems, stick to a mild diet, such as the “BRAT” diet, consisting of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.

Here is what I was told in HK: Do not, under any circumstances, eat rice if you are sick! Congee only.


Here is what I know: Washing hands with warm, soapy water is best for cleansing skin and killing germs.

Here is what I was told in HK: Don’t wash your hands in hot water. It will make you sick.


As a young person in a culture steeped in folk remedies, and frequently surrounded by older, more knowledgeable local adults, it’s a guarantee that I’ll get fussed at, criticized, or reprimanded for something at some point. But I can’t be expected to adhere to these ideas when I’ve never heard them. Moreover, when I do hear them, I don’t understand them.

So I’ll continue to smile, thank the giver-of-advice kindly, and continue on my merry cold-water-drinking, warm-water-washing way.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

of monkeys and temples

The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and Temple perches on the side of a forested mountain in Sha Tin, in the New Territories of Hong Kong. My friend and I decided we would explore this area, so we energetically set out one morning last week.

After an arduous journey uphill, made easier by the installation of several outdoor escalators, we reach an area consisting of three-walled “rooms”—niches about twenty feet wide and ten feet deep. Inside these rooms are hundreds of plaques hanging floor-to-ceiling, each representing a deceased person, and upon which is a short obituary and a number to facilitate locating a particular person. In the center of every room sits a narrow metal or wooden table, useful for burning incense or placing offerings of fruit. These common forms of ancestor worship can be seen in many other temples and monasteries across the city, and indeed, all over Asia.

We continue our upward hike, past makeshift stands selling fruit, incense sticks and paper effigies useful for ancestor worship. It is a weekday morning, rather warm and humid, and thus the temple area is mostly deserted. My friend and I snap pictures of the lush countryside, as we proceed to a circular formation of these niches where several people are placing their fruit offering on tables.

Suddenly, there is a minor commotion in one area; a man and a woman are waving their arms in apparent irritation or frustration. Not understanding Cantonese, I think they are upset with each other, an uncommon occurrence in the serene, peaceful atmosphere of a Buddhist temple. Then a movement in the corner catches my eye.

A monkey. Two monkeys.

The offerings of fruit are too enticing for the wild primates to ignore. In the blink of an eye, these two mischievous creatures have snatched a red apple and a bunch of four bright yellow bananas. My friend and I shriek in delight, even as I wonder how those who brought the offering feel. Do the gods take kindly to stolen offerings? If the devout worshiper is offering fruit on behalf of their deceased ancestor, what do they think about a monkey absconding with the gift?


My friend and I sneak around the corner of the temple and continue recording the monkeys’ antics, while the man and woman lose interest and resume their duties. I suspect this sort of situation happens often—perhaps multiple times daily—as the surrounding forests are likely filled with such greedy rapscallions. But this irritating nuisance to the monastery employees and worshipers proves to bring laughter and amusement to my friend and me. “Just another day in Hong Kong,” I shrug with a smile.


Now, if a monkey scampers into the worship center of Kowloon International Baptist Church next Sunday morning around 11am, that’ll be something.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

no circular mail


I love getting mail. Real mail. Those bits of tangible paper wrapped in crisp envelopes, which are covered in picturesque stamps, multihued postmarks, and scrawling script. Sometimes there’s even a cute little airplane sticker on the outside.

Here in Hong Kong, my mailbox consists of a small metal box with a narrow slit into which envelopes and thin packets may be stuffed. Anything larger requires a special trip to the almost-inaccessible post office twenty-minutes down the road. Once, I received a parcel about the size of a VHS tape; and rather than requiring me to journey to the post office, the mailman kindly and artfully hung the package from the outside of my mailbox, using a complicated system of twine and rubber bands.

My mailbox also has a narrow glass window through which I can see new mail, thus saving me time on the days that my box is empty. Occasionally, I receive a lovely letter or postcard from a close friend; other times a magazine or catalog to peruse; often a bill or bank statement. But mostly my mailbox contains junk mail.

Junk mail. Sometimes it’s a single sheet of white paper, filled with Chinese characters, which are unintelligible to me. It may be a thicker piece of paper with pictures of various apartment buildings and accommodations—a real estate agency trying to summon new business. It may be an ad for a local tutoring center, urging the reader to register his/her child for English or math classes. Perhaps an advertisement for swimming or piano lessons. I might find a public service announcement offering tips on taking care of household appliances; a reminder to routinely check the gas stove or hot water heater, or to keep an eye on the condition of window panes so that one doesn’t fall out and injure an innocent bystander.

My mailbox might offer a vibrant tri-fold ad from a nearby supermarket. Though no products are listed or described in English, I study the pictures to ascertain what grocery items are on sale. Pizza Hut has sent me a flier introducing a new offering: Surf Clam and Crab Stick Sesame Stuffed Crust Pizza. The brochure from KFC, addressed to “KFC Fans,” tells me that I can purchase wasabi hot wings or egg tarts with my chicken combo.

Sometimes, the ad or junk mail item is unidentifiable. There may be several cartoon characters with conversation bubbles streaming from their mouths; a handful of bold headings and random pictures. Who is it from? What is it for? What do they want me to do, or buy?

Last week, as I was waiting in line to mail a few letters at the post office, I noticed a billboard: “No Circular Mail,” it read. To opt out from receiving impersonal advertisements and unaddressed circulars, simply place this particular small oval-shaped green sticker on the outside of the mailbox, and—ta-da!—no more junk mail. Moreover, the sticker was free and sitting right there on the post office counter.

So I took one.

Later at home, I followed the instructions on the adhesive label and went to the Hong Kong Post website for further information. Sure enough, it was true: place this sticker on the mailbox and the postal employee will bypass my box, except for mail addressed specifically to me. There were, of course, a few exceptions: …the ‘No Circular Mail’ Opt-out Sticker Scheme does not cover unaddressed circular mail posted by government and related organisations, Legislative Councillors/District Councillors, election candidates, and election candidates and charitable bodies eligible for tax exempt under Section 88 of Inland Revenue Ordinance. Please also note that this scheme is not applicable to addressed advertising mail.

Nevertheless, I found myself feeling quite proud as I placed the green oval on the upper right-hand corner of my box: I’m doing my part to protect the environment by cutting down on needless waste paper.

And the green oval—the Sticker Scheme—worked; I’ve not received one bit of junk mail. For six days, my box has been completely empty. No more supermarket ads with pictures of strange meat, indistinguishable cleaning products, or ambiguous noodles and canned goods. No more cartoon characters reminding me to call the gas company if I smell something suspect, or to watch for break-ins if my building is covered in scaffolding. Not one brochure with unidentifiable Chinese writing or colorful photographs of a new apartment building with 900-square foot flats for rent. No more black-and-white bits of paper with misspelled words, offering to tutor my child in English.

My life is kind of boring now.