Friday, September 20, 2013

post office problems

I live in one of the leading financial capitals of the world, a global trade center, a city known for its technology and industry, often dubbed “Asia’s World City” or “the NYC of the East.” 

But step into a Hong Kong post office and you feel you have traveled back a hundred years, into colonial days: aging white concrete walls, thick dark-brown molding, glass windowed counters, green lettering and design.  Some have low ceilings, dim lighting, dingy windows, and a lazy ceiling fan rotating above.  A low wooden counter holds pens attached to chains, coin-operated postage machines, and a wet sponge for dampening envelopes and stamps.  Employees use dime store calculators to figure postage amounts, then open a cardboard book held together with rubber bands and Scotch tape.  Each section of the book holds particular denominations of perforated stamps, torn out one by one, until the correct postage is collected in a neat pile for the customer to affix.  Further calculation is done by hand, scribbled on scraps of paper or on the package itself.  No self-adhesive stamps or digital scales.  No computerized printing of package postage.  Credit cards not accepted; cash in small denominations only.

Most of my post office experiences are exasperating and time-consuming, leaving me wondering why the technology and fast-paced digital age of the financial district has not reached the postal department.

An example of an encounter with this entity:

I arrive at the central post office of Kowloon-side, located on Nathan Road, which consists of a long, narrow, dim room with numbered windows and counters along one wall.  Signs are posted along the windows, apparently in an attempt to help the customer determine where to go: packages, packages and small matter, large packages, letters, pay-thru-post, philately, etc.  I have two small packages to mail—one box and one large envelope.  Determining that I need to approach the counter labeled “small packages,” I wait my turn in the queue.

Pushing my small packages through the opening in the glass, I tell the postal employee that I want to mail them.  “By air or ground?” he inquires.  By air, I reply.  Do you need insurance or registration?  No, I say.  First, he tells me that I am at the wrong counter and that I need counters numbered 1-5.  The oversized envelope would have to be mailed from the “letters” counter because it was not, in fact, a package.  Then he places the small box on the scale and states that the price would be $151 HKD if I mail it from one counter and $149 HKD from another counter. 

“Which one is cheaper?” I ask him. 

“Air or ground?” he asks again.  Air, I tell him.  “Ground is cheaper.  But it’s a different price.  It’s $151 or $149, depends on how you mail it,” he explained.

“Okay, but which one is cheaper?”  I repeat.

“Ground is cheaper than air.”

I realize this.  What I’m not grasping is the fact that the same package could cost a different price, depending on which counter it’s sent out from.  Just tell me which counter is cheaper.

The poor gentleman behind the glass makes a valiant effort to help me, but I still leave his counter thoroughly confused, with two un-mailed packages in hand.  I am an educated person; why is this so difficult?

After another queue and wait, I approach counter number one, thinking I can at least take care of the large envelope.  However, the postal employee there—perhaps sensing that I am an ignorant foreigner—accepts both of my packages, weighs them, scribbles the postage amount on each package and hands me a pile of stamps in varying denominations.  Yes, in this city of cutting-edge financial structures and state-of-the-art shipping systems, we still have to lick and stick individual stamps (or opt to use the bacteria-laden wet sponge) for a weighty package—six to ten stamps per package.  The customs form likewise requires moisture, but the airmail labels are actual adhesive stickers.

Upon finishing my licking and sticking, I must locate counter number twelve, where the packages will be re-checked by another employee and dropped into the appropriate bin.  I am weary and worn, but my small packages are on their way—hopefully by air—to their respective destinations.

My mother had better enjoy her birthday gift.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

ode to the umbrella

The umbrella in Hong Kong.  All sizes, shapes and colors.  Advertising for companies or businesses, or swathed in polka dots and flowers.  The bright orange, green and white stripes of 7-Eleven, or feminine butterfly-covered purple nylon.  Canopies depicting nature scenes, cartoon characters, animal patterns, or mere solid hues.  Kids’ parasols topped with Mickey Mouse ears, frogs’ eyes or other 3D figures.

Compact enough to fold up and fit in the purse or pocket; large enough to serve as a cane or hiking stick.  Rubber tips added to the end of the shaft to aid the elderly in walking.  Some shaped like swords.  Manual or automatic opening mechanisms.

Rain or shine.  Parasols pop out in the bright daylight, perhaps not even waterproof.  Dainty lace-covered portable shade, or thick nylon labeled with UV protection level.  Available for sale in shops, malls, department stores, convenience stores, and vending machines in the train station.  A well-dressed businesswoman regally carrying a matching black parasol; a gentleman huddled under a pink frilly canopy.  Fashion statement or practical necessity.

Plastic-sleeve dispensers stand at the entrance of malls and shopping centers; use one to keep the floors dry.  Buckets, trashcans and umbrella holders of all sizes and shapes litter doorways.  Deposit your sunshade as you enter, take one when you depart, and hope it doesn’t belong to another patron.

Piles of dead bumbershoots on the sidewalk and in the gutters, destroyed by strong winds and heavy rain.  Bent metal, ribs askew, strips of nylon soaking in puddles.  A $30 HKD device with a short lifespan, but the canopy fabric may be rescued and repurposed as a waterproof cover for a straw hat.

The umbrella.  An essential we cannot live without here in the subtropical climate of Southeast Asia.

City of Dreams

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

weddings, part II: fairyland

It is around 7:00pm on December 26, Boxing Day (a remnant of British colonialism).  Most of the world is recovering from Christmas festivities, while I’m sitting in the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel in a noisy banquet hall.  The newlyweds, in their mid-30s, are true Hong Kongers in the sense that cartoons, fairy tales and princess attire define their wedding celebrations.

Exhausted from a month of musical activities and performances (the plight of any professional musician during December), I prop my head on my hands during the forty-five minutes of formalities that begin this banquet: emcees who crack humorless jokes and translate every announcement into both Chinese and English, slideshows and videos, introduction of special guests, and the serving of beverages (hot water, wine or orange juice).

The bride and groom eventually arrive, walking stiffly into the room, as various tunes from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast play loudly overhead.  The bride—a friend of mine—typically wears little or no makeup, so she is almost unrecognizable under layers of thick face paint and false eyelashes.  Her princess-like dress poofs out around her, such that she can hardly move, much less sit.  The groom sports a loose black suit with thick gold trimming, looking like a character from a Chinese version of Aladdin.  Standing before a sparkly purple curtain, surrounded by decorative bushes in the shape of Mickey Mouse ears, the couple stands with smiles plastered on their faces.  Massive cartoonish chandeliers hang overhead, short antique-looking streetlights sit around the stage area, and heavily gilded walls and ceilings bring to mind images of castles and grand houses in Disney films.  Not understanding this adult obsession with cartoons, which pervades Hong Kong society, I roll my eyes discreetly and wonder when the food will arrive.

Not to worry—here it comes.  The lights are dimmed to a purple glow, “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast begins to blare, and waiters march in with barbecued pigs on platters; one for each table.  We take a quick look at the whole swine, which is then whisked away to the kitchen.  Minutes later, the music recedes and we are served bits of crispy pork skin and fatty meat slices, topped with a tasteless pastry in the shape of a cartoon pig’s head.  (The turnaround was so fast that this food could not have come from the same pigs that were marched in before.)

Typical wedding banquet courses follow: shrimp balls, whelk and mushrooms, snow peas and scallop, seafood and melon soup, bak choi and mushrooms, whole steamed fish, and chicken.  (The latter sounds innocuous, but is always served whole, chopped into pieces—bone and meat sliced together—covered in bumpy, yellow skin, looking pale and almost undercooked.)  Refills of orange juice are continuously offered, a pairing I’ll never fathom.

The happy couple changes outfits several more times, as is customary, and all guests are expected to appear onstage for photos, group by group and as individuals.  Swarms of professional photographers and videographers keep busy throughout the evening.

More slideshows follow, set to “Tale as Old as Time” sung by Angela Lansbury.  We see childhood photos and videos, engagement photos, wedding photos from the church ceremony that morning, and a recap of the entire day.  I gain insight into the enormous amount of activities and traditions expected of the bride and groom on that day.  Bridesmaids already attired in their wedding finery and makeup appear at the bride’s door around 4:00am that morning, dragging her out to complete a multitude of “tasks”—like college student hazing, or I-dare-you teenage stunts, or bridal shower games.  It seems a poor choice of day/time to engage in such nonsense, but this is as normal and obligatory as the lingerie shower and bachelor party are to their American counterparts.

The groomsmen and groom conduct similar activities early in the morning, until it’s time to get ready and undertake more serious rituals: traditional breakfasts, tea ceremonies, presenting gifts to important family members, paying homage to elderly relatives.  By the time I arrive at the church around 11:00am to play the piano for the actual wedding, the poor bride and groom are wiped out from a full morning of formalities.

And we—the wedding guests—are watching this in video format at the banquet that night around 10:00pm, as the bride and groom woodenly smile from the stage.  As the meal continues, the couple moves around the room to greet guests again.  When they approach a table, guests stand up, toast the newlyweds, and pose for yet another photograph.  This is followed by a lucky draw (what Westerners call “door prizes”), organized by the emcees.  I do not win anything.

It is nearing 11:00pm, my interest in waning, and I’m relieved to see the final course arrive at our table.  Dessert consists of a mild-tasting bit of cake, a few bites of fruity mousse, and a Mickey Mouse-shaped herbal gelatin—none of which is actually sweet, in my chocolate-partial opinion.  I am grateful that my ride is ready to depart, knowing that the banquet will likely drag on for another few hours.

We encounter the bride and groom in the hallway, take another half-dozen photos, and eventually emerge from the banquet area into the hotel lobby.  Walking past gingerbread houses, Christmas trees laden with Disney paraphernalia, full-sized cartoon statues and life-sized scenes from well-known children’s movies, I breathe a sigh of relief when I step out into the cool night air.

Why don’t more people elope?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

weddings, part I: poke fun of the foreigner

I spoke with a friend last night who mentioned a last-minute change in her son’s wedding date.  When I asked about this, she said her son’s future mother-in-law had consulted fortunetellers and other givers-of-wisdom regarding the most auspicious date for the wedding.  Apparently another luckier day was found.  My friend shrugged and said the new schedule worked better for her anyway.

More discussion of her son’s wedding plans followed: the future mother-in-law would rent a special hotel room with space for the all-important tea ceremony—a tradition in which the new couple bows before the bride’s parents and serves tea to them on bended knee.  The bride’s parents bestow a gift on the couple, along with blessings for a profitable future.  Later, a similar ritual takes place with the groom’s parents.  My friend, a more Western-minded and practical thinking woman, said her son and his fiancĂ© had asked her where she wanted her tea ceremony to take place. “I’ll greet my new daughter-in-law with a hug and a gift, and we’ll sit and have coffee together,” she stated matter-of-factly.

Wedding ceremonies are perhaps the most tradition-laden rites that take place in any culture.  An understanding of the marital customs gives great insight to the beliefs, practices, and rituals of a people group.

Hong Kongers consider the wedding banquet of supreme importance, much more so than the actual exchange of vows.  I’ve heard stories of Asian families incurring great debt, or even going broke, in an effort to provide a lavish gala for their family and friends, considering it—ironically—a way of showing off their wealth and prosperity.  Throughout my time in Hong Kong, I have attended several Christian wedding ceremonies held in a church, which closely resemble an American wedding, followed by the extravagant banquet that adheres to the local traditions.  Two such banquets stand out in my mind, one of which is the following:

Several years ago on a warm September evening, I found myself in a crowded Chinese restaurant banquet hall celebrating the nuptials of two friends (who, incidentally, had met in an accordion band).  This banquet was a typical Hong Kong affair: loud, colorful and packed with tradition.  The room was filled with round tables, each one containing a lazy susan, a decorative centerpiece and a printed list of the dinner courses to be served; this one had twelve.  I was grateful to be seated at a table filled with English-speakers.

As guests enter, they are expected to—one by one—have their photograph taken with the happy couple onstage.  For the photo, the bride wore a fancy red dress, which looked like something fit for a royal ball, yet which greatly inhibited movement.  Throughout the evening, the bride and groom intermittently left and re-entered the banquet hall, dressed in different outfits, as is customary.

Partway through the evening, the ceremonial wedding cake was cut by the newlyweds… only the cake was actually a plastic replica with a special slot hidden in the back.  Obligatory photos were taken as the cake knife fit into the slot; and then the rented “cake” was rolled off stage to make room for the emcees.  Dessert would be served later, but it would not consist of wedding cake.

Prior to dinner, waiters and waitresses milled around with drink offerings, which included hot water, wine or orange juice.  Juicy-Juice, to be exact.  They actually carried plastic jugs of Juicy-Juice around, pouring it into fancy wine glasses for the thirsty teetotaler guests.

Once the courses began, there was much discussion about the various foods.  Five minutes passed in which everyone at my table weighed in with his or her idea of what a “fish maw” is.   (“I think it’s the mouth of the fish,” said one.  “The fish’s cheek?” asked another.  “I thought it was akin to a paw.  But fish don’t have paws…”  “Could it just be a mistranslation of some other body part?”)*

The pinnacle of any Chinese banquet with multiple courses is the pig.  No need to label it pork; it’s a whole pig, head and all, delivered to the table.  The pigs were marched into the room, waiters parading in one after the other, as the “Mickey Mouse March” blared over the PA system.  A startlingly sprightly tune to signal the end of the life of a barbecued swine.

The crowning touch of the evening came when I—along with two other non-Chinese-speaking gweilos [foreigners]—was invited onstage for an audience participatory game.  We each took a turn to put on earphones to an MP3 player, on which was played a Canto-pop love song.  While listening to the song, we had to sing what we heard into a microphone to a large, slightly-intoxicated, Cantonese-speaking audience.  The goal was for an audience member to correctly name the song being sung, thereby winning a prize.  They called it “guess that tune.”  My dad referred to this game as “karaoke-charades.”  I prefer to call it “let’s-make-fun-of-the-stupid-American” game.

Following the ordeal, one of the other unfortunate players and I returned to our table to open our gifts (as thanks for participation, not necessarily for a job well done).  I received a key-chain with a toy doll attached to the end.  The other player was given a PlayStation2 desktop dock…even though he doesn’t own a PS2.  White elephant gag gift or was this for real?

I was grateful that my ride wanted to leave the banquet around course number ten…three hours after the banquet began.

*I looked up this term when I arrived home and found it could mean (1) the mouth, throat, or gullet of an animal, (2) the crop or craw of a fowl, (3) the stomach, especially that of an animal, (4) a cavernous opening that resembles the open jaws of an animal: the gaping maw of hell.  I still have no idea what we ate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

a suitcase full of rice

Hong Kong Chinese folks are nuts about freebies and special “buy-one-get-one” deals.

Today I hunted for a new suitcase at a local shopping center where few employees speak English.  With a wide selection of products to browse and low prices on cheaply made items, the shop proved to be a good choice.  (No need to spend lots of money on baggage when the airlines will just beat it up anyway, right?)  When I made my luggage decision and indicated that I was ready to purchase the piece, the saleswoman repeatedly pointed to another small bag on a shelf nearby.  Thinking she wanted me to buy it also, I politely declined.  After several attempts to draw my attention to it, I deduced that I could have it for a few dollars more, along with my main purchase.  The small bag was unattractive though, so I continued to shake my head, “No.” 

Soon the saleswoman pointed to a photo of a large bag of rice, implying that I could take it instead of the handbag.  More head shaking and “don’t want” comments from me in Chinese.  Another saleswoman—who’s employee ID card read “Off Duty”—was summoned, and in broken English, informed me that I should take the bag of rice.  With a mixture of English, Chinese and hand-gestures, I finally understood that it was a free gift, and, furthermore, the locals found it unacceptable for me to decline such an offer.  (No matter that I’m a single girl who might spend years trying to consume an eleven-pound bag of rice.)  The first saleswoman gave fifteen minutes of her time helping me check out, find the escalator and journey to another floor of the shopping center to locate the customer service counter, and retrieve my free gift.  My excitement about the new lightweight piece of luggage was severely dampened when I had to haul it home filled with rice.

What strikes me as odd about these kinds of situations is not the free gift concept itself; after all, “buy one ___, get one ___ free” is an age-old marketing tool.  It’s the utter incongruity of the paired items that I find strange.  “Buy a large suitcase to get a small handbag free” makes sense.  “Buy a large suitcase and get eleven pounds of rice” does not make sense.

Similarly, I have received several small jars of peanut butter free because they were attached to a package of Lipton tea bags.  Those who purchase a local newspaper from 7-Eleven, or some such shop, may be handed the newspaper wrapped in a small, clear plastic bag, which also contains a purse-sized packet of free tissues.  I was once given several pairs of men’s large athletic socks, which came free when I bought a pair of women’s shoes.  When I asked about swapping the socks for women’s footwear—or at least a smaller-sized sock—the employees looked at me blankly and said these were the only free socks they had.

The most absurd “freebie-combo” I’ve seen was a deal at a drugstore in which greatly discounted Coca-Cola would be offered to customers who purchased a certain amount of toothpaste.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around—buy the Coca-Cola and receive discounted toothpaste because of the overload of sugar on the teeth?  (Furthermore, this soda-toothpaste display sat on the checkout counter next to the lamb placenta.  I found it an unpleasant experience all around.)

Sometimes the freebies or good deals require a bit of effort and calculation.  For example, spend a certain amount of money over a period of time at a shopping mall, and you might—after presenting the relevant receipts that add up to the correct amount—receive a free holiday gift.

A few years ago, I found myself standing in a checkout lane behind folks who were willing to put in the extra time and effort to maximize the freebies.  The group of three directly in front of me looked like a well-to-do young couple and a mother/mother-in-law.  Apparently this store had a promotion whereby if you make a purchase over a certain amount, you will receive a free vinyl shopping bag.  Though these three people were together, they began to meticulously haggle over their items, in an attempt to divide their groceries into separate purchases.  It was a matter of arriving at the exact total for each grouping because they did not have a large number of items.  One item would be scanned and push the total too far over the necessary minimum purchase to receive the free bag.  That item would be removed and a lesser-priced item would be scanned.  Like a game-show challenge, this happened over and over until they arrived at three separate purchases—i.e. three free bags.  (It also seemed important for them to pay with exact change—even though I spied larger bills in their wallets—so each time a final total rang up, they sorted through their various pockets and purses, carefully counting coins and pooling their resources.  A flurry of conversation accompanied this arduous process, though I understood none of it.)

I caught the eye of the salesclerk more than once, and offered an amused, patient smile, hoping to ward off her apparent frustration with these customers.  I was in no hurry, and was actually enjoying the drama unfolding before me.  Eventually, the party of three happily departed with a few groceries, three free bags and fewer coins in their wallets.  As I stepped up to the checkout counter, I smiled at the clerk again, and waved my hand when she apologized for the lengthy wait.  She then proceeded to offer me a free vinyl bag; I laughed and declined—besides the fact that I had brought my own reusable sacks, I thought the free bag was quite ugly.

Perhaps I should have inquired about free rice.