Wednesday, August 31, 2011

an international lunch

I attended college at a small central Texas university in which those who were not from Texas were considered international students. Actually, to be fair, there were a few Koreans and Japanese students, and maybe a handful of other non-Americans.

Yesterday, I was invited to join a luncheon for all international exchange students at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). I was there to give a plug about our church and be a “face of the local community,” welcoming these newly-arrived young people to the city.

We are assigned tables, and I sit down with seven students from seven different countries: Czech Republic, France, Hong Kong (a local student assisting with the welcome activities), Germany, Mainland China, Denmark and the Netherlands.

I begin with the usual get-to-know-you questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? What are you studying? When did you arrive in Hong Kong?

And then our conversations diverge into many directions. In an effort to engage the Czech girl sitting next to me, I ramble aimlessly about HKBU… it’s about fifty years old, which is actually quite young. The university I attended is over 150 years old, I brag. She politely responds, “My school was founded in the 1300s.” Oh, I say.

Our table of mismatched strangers continues talking. “Are there any good French restaurants in Hong Kong?” I have no idea, I say. The local Hong Kong student doesn’t know either.

The Netherlands guy asks questions about my job, and I have trouble talking with him because I am distracted by his t-shirt. It has a cartoon drawing of a scantily-clad female with foreign objects protruding from various body parts in her upper regions. “Well, I lead worship at a church…”

“If we do some traveling in China while we’re here, where should we go?” the students ask. I suggest two highly-recommended locations, both popular among tourists. No, I haven’t been to either place, I admit.

Actually, there are no long holidays during the fall semester, the students realize—especially unfortunate since the spring semester contains both Chinese New Year and Easter. “Most international students skip out on classes for a few days or a week, so they can go sight-seeing in a nearby country,” I offer helpfully. Then I bite my tongue. What kind of advice am I giving? Me, a “member of the local community,” encouraging these neophytes to play hooky?

I try to be the hospitable host for my half of the round table, refilling tea cups and placing dim sum items into bowls. I spill boiling water all over the table cloth. “At least I didn’t drop a spring roll into my cup,” I chuckle. “I do that often.” The students smile kindly.
“Is there any difference between Catholics and Baptists?” pipes up the French guy. Well…a few, I answer. The restaurant is so noisy—over 200 international students, in addition to faculty and members of the community—so how can I get into a theological discussion here? I run through the basics.

The meal begins to wrap up. In fact, the food is a poor excuse for the delicacies of traditional dim sum and Cantonese fare. “Don’t judge Hong Kong cuisine by this sad cafeteria-quality food,” I say wisely. It’s the best we’ve had so far, the students politely comment.

Like kindergarteners, the 200+ university students are asked to depart for the next activity in order of table number. We arise, close with the niceties that are expected after such an occasion, and move into different directions.

This international lunch is a snapshot of a typical Hong Kong experience for me. Thrown into awkward situations with people from all walks of life, from various regions of the globe, and with completely different personalities and worldviews. Discussing multiple topics—everything from food, travel, cultures and language, to religion, music and history. Being asked odd and sometimes ridiculous questions about the US. Occasionally being the expert on Hong Kong (if interacting with a newcomer) but usually being the foreign idiot (when chatting with locals). Trying to answer the question “Why did you come to Hong Kong?” for people who have no concept of Christianity or church.

These are reasons I love this city—you never know who you’ll encounter or what you’ll learn from another expat or local. The “internationalness,” I like to call it. Never a dull moment, always having to be on your toes, not sure what kinds of people will walk into your life tomorrow.

Hong Kong.

(But I still come away from every Chinese meal wanting a bite of chocolate or some such satisfying dessert…I guess I’ll always be an American.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

characters in my world

Having lived in the same neighborhood for over six years, it is inevitable that I’ll encounter some of the same people on a regular basis. Most of them speak no English, and I don’t have the guts to attempt my poor, limited Cantonese, so we rarely converse. I don’t even know their names. But they are familiar faces and a comfortable part of my routine.

The most recognizable folks in my day are those who work in my apartment complex: the manager, the caretaker, and three guards. The caretaker, a bright-eyed woman with straggly grey hair, always wears black capri pants and the same flowered blouse. She greets me cheerfully each time we encounter one another, but I have the sense that she’s studying me, trying to figure out why I do what I do. And there’s the trash situation

Our building manager is very kind and professional, and has been extremely helpful to me on a number of occasions, including once when I had a small plumbing disaster, and another time when I registered a complaint about an incessantly barking dog. Unfortunately, the latter situation involved me barking—in an effort to get my point across without language—so I always smile at him sheepishly, recalling that embarrassing foreigner/local exchange.

My favorite guard is a woman—let’s call her Ms. Lam—who has seemingly tossed aside the inscrutable, passive face that I have come to expect from Hong Kong Chinese. Instead, she greets me (and other building residents) with great enthusiasm, huge smiles, and friendly laughs. She admires babies and children, waves hello and goodbye to folks of all ages, and makes cheerful comments about the weather. Sometimes she asks if I’m going to church, and her question is accompanied by making the sign of the cross on her chest. I nod and smile. No point in trying to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants using inventive sign-language.

One guard is relatively new, and I’ve not figured out much about his personality. For the first few weeks, when I waved hello or goodbye upon entering or leaving the building, he merely looked at me with a curious stare—no smile, no frown. Now he politely nods in response to my wave. No smile, no frown. I don’t have a name for him yet.

The third guard is the one I think of as Mr. Chan, who is missing a few teeth and frequently offers me a cigarette or a bite of his lunch. He inevitably tries his one English phrase in a singsong voice—“Gud mawning”—and waves to me. But his wave is peculiar. The arm is extended, and the palm is flat, angled out and down. No wrist movement. It’s as if he’s situated on a high balcony, waving to a large crowd far below. Just a stiff, slow back and forth, arc movement. “Gah wui?” Church? he asks me. I nod, smile and move along before I’m offered anything to eat or smoke.

I exit my apartment complex and frequently encounter a guard from the building across the street. I’ll call him Mr. Chin. Tall and lanky, with thick dark hair and glasses, he ambles up the sidewalk, always wearing his uniform: navy blue pants and a white, collared shirt. He nods at me, glances at me with his large eyes, and we sometimes greet one another with basic niceties.

If it’s a weekday morning, I will likely see “Ms. Fong,” the street-sweeper. Her metal cart, packed with a large, round plastic trash bin and an assortment of rags, gloves, and cleaning implements will be parked nearby. She faithfully sweeps the sidewalks and streets with her bamboo broom and tin-can dustbin. She wears the standard uniform for such employees: loose blue pants and long-sleeved shirt, and a straw hat upon which is draped a recycled umbrella fabric, which hangs about her neck and protects her from the sun. Ms. Fong’s short grey hair is often peeking out from under her hat and her toothy smile reveals a full set of pearly whites—remarkably intact. “Leng noi,” she says to me amiably, after I say good-morning in Cantonese. “Pretty girl.” (Nothing to get an ego about; it’s a common endearing greeting for little girls and young women.)

From time to time on weekdays, I see an ancient woman whose primary job, it seems, is collecting cardboard and recyclables and hauling it—I suspect—to a collection point at a nearby housing estate. She is likely one of the thousands of Hong Kongers who survive on a meager income from such recycling. Her age is indeterminate, but her deeply wrinkled face, gnarled hands and stringy muscles suggest a life of physically taxing work in the damaging sun. Nonetheless, she peers out at me from underneath her floppy cloth hat, and offers me a huge toothless grin. Her eyes crinkle at the corners; she seems genuinely happy to see me. A pang of guilt washes over me, as she passes me by, her body at a 45-degree angle while pushing her rubbish-laden metal cart up the hill. “I should help her,” I always think to myself. Shamefully, I’ve never offered.

There is a ten-minute time frame early on Sunday mornings, in which I will encounter an elderly gentleman—Mr. Wong, perhaps—depending on if I leave my flat in time. His belly hangs over his grey trousers, a small messenger bag is slung over one shoulder, and his thick grey hair hangs down around his ears. I don’t know where he’s going, but our paths are almost identical, except that we’re moving in opposite directions. His gait is slow and labored; he stoops over, looking at the ground as he walks with his hands clasped patiently behind his back. Inevitably a cigarette hangs lazily from his lips, perhaps lodged in the wide gap between upper teeth. I greet him, and he nods and smiles pleasantly with a knowing look: maybe we haven’t encountered one another in a few weeks, but today our paths have crossed again. We’re both right on schedule.

Late in the evening, I trudge home with a heavy bag or an armful of groceries. An older woman—tall and big-boned—is walking her large golden retriever. “Mrs. Leung” and her canine companion live in my building, and I often bump into them as they are departing for, or returning from, doggie duty. My intense dislike for dogs of any kind causes me to squeeze into one corner of the elevator as we go up or down together. Mrs. Leung pulls the leash closer toward her, and speaks softly to her pet—in English. (Does she always speak English to Fido Leung, or only when I’m around?) She proceeds to the street with her bottle of water (to rinse the sidewalk) and plastic baggie (for collection), as I head up to my own flat.

If it’s between 10:30 and 11:00pm, I may run into my elderly neighbor shuffling home. Mr. Lau looks like he should have retired decades ago, so I’m not sure where he goes every day; but he always wears sagging khaki pants and a tweed sports jacket and an aging necktie. I may smell his cigarette smoke around 11:30pm, seeping into my flat, as I’m settling into my preparations for bed.

As one who prefers routine and consistent schedules, I relish the daily encounters with these familiar faces. Maybe I should start talking to them and find out their real names. Perhaps they are sitting in their own flat tonight, thinking of me, that odd American girl who is a bit overeager in her greetings. “I’ll call her Miss Smith,” they say to themselves.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


No coherent theme here. Just odds and ends that don’t fit into other categories of blog writing.

I saw a version of Monopoly here, which contained no paper money. Players had “credit cards” and could use the “ATM” at the “bank” to purchase property. (What’s the point? The only reason to endure a game of Monopoly is the joy of organizing and stacking those little paper bills.)

I saw ostrich meat for sale in the local supermarket last week. (Did not purchase.)

“We wish to learn all the curious, outlandish ways of all the different countries, so that we can ‘show off’ and astonish people when we get home. We wish to excite the envy of our untraveled friends with our strange foreign fashions which we can’t shake off… The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.” -quote by Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad

A label on an article of (apparently flammable) children’s clothing from a well-known British fashion shop: “In the interest of safety it is advisable to keep your child away from fire and naked flames.”

A few months back, I attended a conference in which the speaker addressed issues of motherhood and marriage, specifically to an audience of Filipina women working as domestic helpers in Hong Kong. At the end, during a Q&A time, one Filipina woman tearfully asked, “What should we say to other people when they criticize us for choosing to live and work so far away from our children? We’re just trying to do what’s best for them, which means getting a job in Hong Kong that pays enough to support our family.”

Yesterday, I was walking up a steep staircase in the MTR station, immediately behind an elderly woman. She wore a white, cotton shirt with English “words” and “phrases” all over the back. Mostly, they were letters put together in arrangements that made no sense… except for one sentence on the bottom, back hem of her blouse, which rested on her bum: “I want to feel it.”

Several years ago, I was reading an English children’s book to a local Chinese child. Each page of the book showed a room in a typical home, with every item labeled: bed, lamp, desk, hanger, toy ball, etc. In the kitchen, there was a rice cooker set out on the counter, neatly labeled. (Good thing—otherwise I might not have been able to identify it.) The hat was labeled “beret”; and there was a tea set displayed on the table as well. To further prove that this book was not published in America, the washer (no dryer pictured at all) was located in the kitchen—a typical Asian or European home characteristic.

Similar situation: one of my American friends purchased a children’s book that vocalized the ABCs, in hopes of teaching her toddler the alphabet. Now her child sings, “W, X, Y and Zet…”

At a church fellowship last year, one woman entered the room, introduced herself, and then announced to everyone, “I’m not a Christian.”

I was browsing on a local website that caters to expats; a sort of Craigslist for Hong Kong. One item for sale: “Elegant Scandal.” I had to investigate. After reading the entry, I realized it was a misprint, with the intention of selling an eveningwear sandal.

A nearby supermarket often has food-fests that feature a particular country. I grew excited about the American food-fest, until I saw what products they offered: wine-flavored ice cream, organic Sesame Street cookies for babies, canned sardines, organic Elmo vegetable soup, Gummi Army Guys, Gummi Jet Fighters, off-brand cookie-cream sandwich cookie (an Oreo-wannabe), and bratwurst. Is this the best my country has to offer?

I once passed through a “subway”—British term for underground walkway—in which an elderly Chinese gentleman was entertaining passersby on a full-size marimba, playing “I Wish I was in Dixie.”

Label on a package of rubber pieces to put on the legs of furniture or chairs to keep them from skidding on the floor or making noise: “Induce noise!”

“When you are served a chicken in a Chinese house it still owns its head and feet. Proof that it was indeed a chicken? ... A Chinese chicken has worked hard to reach adulthood and has grown muscles to prove it. Like his fellow citizens of the Middle Kingdom, he is lean and a good deal older than he looks. The Chinese manner of chicken dissection is more unusual even than Colonel Sanders’s. Chicken carvers seem to put on a blindfold, arm themselves with a heavy cleaver and whack until the chicken corpse lies vanquished in a chaotic heap.” –quote from Coming Home Crazy, by Bill Holmes

The local weather report often describes the day’s weather as “Mainly Fine.” When I investigated the meaning of this phrase on their website, I found the definition of Fine: “The sky is covered by a total cloud amount of less than six eighths. However, it can still be described as fine even though the total cloud amount is greater than six eighths if the cloud layer is thin enough to let plenty of sunshine to penetrate.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


On the Sunday before last, our pastor spoke on the importance of not complaining. The next morning, I had a plumbing disaster.

My alarm went off at 6:15am on Monday morning, but I was already wide awake, thanks to jetlag. Since it was the first day of Vacation Bible School, I felt it was necessary to have a solid breakfast; plus I was making a sack lunch to take with me. Bleary-eyed, I placed two pieces of bread on the counter, preparing them for a sandwich. I turned to the sink, rinsed off my hands, and shut off the water.

I heard a strange pounding noise. I paused, and glanced out the window at the sunny skies. The sound was coming from inside though, maybe from the cabinet. I opened the door, and was horrified to see a high-powered stream of water shooting out from the pipe below my kitchen sink.

Frantically, I pulled out pots and pans, a rice cooker, and a disorganized assortment of plastic grocery bags. Seeing no nozzle or shut off valve under the sink with which to turn off the water main, I grabbed my trashcan, removed the plastic bag, and broke off the plastic lid. Complication: The angle of the water spray against the rear of the cabinet did not allow for the trashcan—or any other large container—to catch the water. It was too forceful to capture at all; like a balloon with a tiny hole, through which the pressurized air rapidly escapes.

Already, there was a half-inch of spillage inside the cabinet and all over the kitchen floor. I ran to the bathroom, recalling there was a valve under the commode. Stupid me; that only controls water to the toilet, not the kitchen. I ran to the bedroom closet and grabbed a stack of old towels, flinging them onto the kitchen floor in a heap.

I considered waking up a neighbor to ask for help, but my options were limited: an elderly couple who are feeble and who don’t speak English, an older single woman who is a bit of a recluse, and a new woman who just moved in a few weeks before. I can go down to the street guardhouse, but that would take too long.

Suddenly, I recalled a time when a man from our church came to work on my plumbing, and he turned off the water using a faucet located outside my kitchen window. The red-colored faucet handle on the outside of the building gleamed in the early morning sunshine…about two feet from my kitchen window. Complication: The kitchen window closest to that faucet has been sealed shut (my doing), due to the rubber seal letting in the heavy spring rains. Not wanting to ruin my hard work, yet growing more and more dismayed at the pool of water on the kitchen floor, I decided to try to reach the faucet from another kitchen window.

My arm is not long enough, so I ran back to the bedroom closet for a screwdriver. The flood is contained within the kitchen, but I have already tracked water through multiple rooms in my flat. A flathead screwdriver still isn’t long enough to help me reach the faucet, but I am desperate. Climbing onto the narrow windowsill, I grasped the window frame and leaned out as far as I dared, wondering if any of my neighbors were watching this spectacle. I could just barely maneuver the screwdriver into the faucet handle notches, but—because of where it was situated—I had to use my left hand. Nonetheless, I inched it a bit towards the right and heard a decrease in the sound of the water spray. A few more awkward turns and the stream lessened. Finally, the water was off.

I dropped the screwdriver onto the kitchen counter, slid off the windowsill, and looked around at the mess.

What now?

With two inches of water accumulated on my kitchen floor, I worried about it seeping through to the flat below mine. (There is a long history of water leakage from my flat to the one below me. It’s an unpleasant history, involving lots of money and threatened lawsuits.) I threw on clothes and shoes and tromped down to the guardhouse by the street. The man on duty is the toothless, friendly guy who occasionally offers me a cigarette and tries to speak an English phrase now and then. “Gud mawning,” he usually says with a slow wave. I have no idea what his name is, but I’ll pretend it’s Mr. Chan. (If you took all the Smiths, Jones and Johnsons in the US and gave them the same name, it would be like Chan is here—very, very common.)

I approached “Mr. Chan” and he greeted me. Though the water was turned off in my flat, I was still in panic mode, not knowing what to do. “Water… much trouble…aiyaa!” I breathlessly uttered in Cantonese. I added sound effects and choreography to my cries, as I pointed up to my flat and motioned for him to come with me. The slow elevator ride—during which I kept saying aiyaa and clicking my tongue in distress—finally ended and he came into my flat.

Within ten seconds, it was clear to me that he had no idea what to do. But—being the gentleman rescuing the maiden in distress—he did a fair job of pretending. He fiddled with the water faucet and pipes inside, and then with the faucet outside. (I had to show him how to use the screwdriver to reach the outdoor valve.)

During all this time, I had my cell phone in hand, trying to think of who I could call. Complication: my phone had died, and I had borrowed one from a friend. Fortunately, she and I had many mutual friends, so I scrolled through her phone address book and began calling people; some numbers were wrong, though, as it was an old phone. And, as it turns out, no one is awake at 6:30am on a Monday morning in late July. After trying 8 or 10 people unsuccessfully, one woman called me back.

I hurriedly recounted the problem and she sleepily asked what she should do. (Clearly, I had woken her up.) “Just talk to the guard, who is fiddling around with pipes in my kitchen, and ask what I should do,” I begged. I handed my cell phone to the toothless man, and, as he took the phone, he set down the screwdriver—directly on the two pieces of bread I had laid out on the counter moments earlier.

Suddenly, the ridiculousness of the situation hit me. I cannot eat a sandwich for lunch because a wet, greasy screwdriver is sitting on the only pieces of bread I had left. There are more than eight large bath-towels spread over the kitchen floor, and yet the water is still standing an inch deep. (Why have I never purchased a mop?) An old Chinese man who smells of cigarette smoke is standing in that water, rattling off Cantonese into my borrowed cell phone, talking to a friend of mine whom I’ve just awoken. I’m watching this situation, dressed in pajamas, wearing no makeup, with disheveled hair. VBS starts in a few hours, and now I have no running water in my flat. And it’s only 6:30 in the freakin’ morning.

I think I’ve earned the right to complain… in English and Cantonese.