Sharing my trip

So I've decided the best way to share my trip to Hong Kong with all my family and friends back home is to post it to this blog. Hope you all enjoy!

Friday, November 23, 2012

To Be Thankful...

Thanksgiving has just passed, and since my body has decided to awaken me at 3:30 in the morning, I have nothing but my thoughts to occupy my time.  I find myself lingering on the thought of what it means to be thankful.  When I say, "I am thankful for..." does it mean I appreciate the implicit existence of such a thing?  When I say I'm thankful for someone, does it mean I'm thankful that they're alive, or that I'm thankful that they have a certain relationship with me, or is it something more?  Wikipedia tells me that thanks (gratitude) is "a feeling or attitude in acknowledgement of a benefit one has received or will receive."  Does this mean that when I say I'm thankful for someone or something, I'm implicitly claiming that I have or will receive some kind of benefit from them?  

Perhaps this particular question is seemingly too close to the concept of pure altruism, and thus impossible to answer.  However, it seems as though the acknowledgement of actions holds some value to us all.  When we do things, even if we do them with no thought of recognition, it almost certainly feels good when we are acknowledged for our work.  For if someone took the time to acknowledge your actions with gratitude, it must certainly have had some sort of positive impact on them.  And so, as I lay awake here in the early hours of the morning, I will take the time to give thanks to those who have positively impacted my life:

... to my mother, for her endless love and support that helps me push through the difficult times and truly enjoy the good times.

... to my father, for his guidance and wisdom, instilled in me so that I may use every day as an experience to better myself and press for greater heights.

... to my brother, for his understanding, taking care of his little brother while still treating me like an equal.

... to Gizmo, for being the cutest little doggy around, loving me and allowing me to smother him with my love.

... to my extended family, those who would still spoil me like a child and yet still respect me as a man.

... to my friends in Athens, Judd and Nate, who are always willing to hang out and have good times, even if I'm never there.

... to Bailey, my best friend, for always being such a great friend even when I haven't been the best in kind.

... to Jonathan, my roommate and friend, for putting up with my bullshit basically 24/7 and not doing heroine.

... to my Colorado friends, those who have shown that they care about me and offered a helping hand during difficult times, even when I haven't asked for it. 

Lastly, I am thankful simply for life.  Because of life, I am able to experience new things, to grow in myself and become a better person.  And even when life has been difficult, I would rather have things be difficult than have nothing at all. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Hong Kong 2012, Part 6: An Abundance of Opulence

Here's the link to Part 5 ...

So, it's been more than 3 months since I returned from this trip, so some details are beginning to get a little hazy.  Admittedly, this photo-journal probably would've been a smarter endeavor to begin (and finish) in the summer, while I still had time and memories were much fresher.  With my graduate school work in full swing and my mind occupied on my work, I find myself with little spare time, energy, and focus to devote to this project.  But I find, for the most part, that I never really did this for anyone other than myself.  Sure my parents and relatives have probably enjoyed my accounts of our trip, and maybe my friends have enjoyed sharing a little bit of this experience with me, but it is for my own sake that I've started (and will eventually finish) this series.  

I do it mostly because I don't want to forget the feelings I had.   Even in the few short months that I've been back in the states, I've lost so much of the fervor that I had for Hong Kong and its culture.  I can feel it slowly slipping away; I can feel myself slipping back into my routine.  It's so important to me that I finish this journal because it truly represented the first experience I had in a long time where I felt like I wasn't stuck in place.  I felt like the world had opened up in front of me, and that I could do anything and take on any odyssey.  But lost in the malaise of work and life and school, I'm slowly losing that passion.  So I have to write it down, I have to record it.  So I can remember.  But I digress...


At this point, we had spent a good week and a half in Hong Kong, mostly visiting family and friends, hanging out, and eating a lot.  We hadn't really gone on any special trips and we hadn't gone on any special adventures; Sure it all seemed special to me, but it was only because it was a new place.  If I had lived there for years, it probably would've seemed very mundane.  

Something pretty mundane was taking a trip to the Hong Kong Central Library.  

Just in case you didn't believe me...

Just in case you love fountains...
Honestly, I don't really like libraries.  I'm an electronic guy; I like things organized digitally.  To me, libraries represent lost hours searching for information that no one has bothered to digitize.  Since I don't really care for libraries, I wasn't really keen on looking for something.  Luckily, neither was my mom, so we decided to just walk around while my mom talked about some of the things lying around the library (mini-exhibits, if you will).  

One of the stories she told was about my grandmother, her mother, and how in her older years she would go to the library every day just to read the newspaper and have something to drink.  My grandparents' apartment was pretty close, and when my grandmother was in better health, she was able to make the walk at her pace.  I have a decent mental image of my grandmother (mostly from pictures at this point), so it was interesting to think about her walking through the park, climbing the stairs, and sitting in the library with some hot tea to go with her newspaper.  

So as we were walking around, I saw the "Mathematics and Sciences" section, and like the true math-nerd I am, I was like, "Mom, we are going there."  My mom was an excellent sport, and even though she probably had little interest in what I knew I was going to look for, she went along.  Naturally, as I started perusing the various titles, I found a book on Differential Geometry and decided to sit down for a quick read (Yes, naturally is the correct word.).  While I was in full math-nerd mode (literally un-disturb-able), my mom found a book on teaching math and flipped through it a little.  When she handed it to me, I kinda half-heartedly flipped through it, but it was a pedagogy book on teaching elementary school children, so it didn't keep my math-nerd interest.

After that super mundane trip, we had to pack our clothes and get ready to travel, because we were going to....


Now for those who don't know what Macau is, it is basically the Las Vegas of China, but somewhere between 3 and 5000 times better.  This was a trip I was super excited for, number one because I kinda have a gambling problem, and number two, because we would be staying in super posh hotels (Grand Lisboa, namely).  

I think I've stated before that I had a wish-list of things to eat while in Hong Kong.  Well two of those things were roasted baby pigeon and fresh, steamed shrimp.  Well..

I'm pretty sure I ate half...

I'm pretty sure I ate.... half....

AHHHHHHHHHHH!!! Imagine my head bobbing back and forth and my hands waving over my head (uncoordinated, of course) as I'm screaming to get the proper image.  

So, since I'm the non-Cantonese speaking son of a visiting relative, our hosts were more than willing to push as much food on me as I seemed to want.  This is one of those times where I sincerely do not regret taking advantage of this fact.  Of course my parents were always telling me to act like an adult and eat in moderation, but I had multiple other people vigorously gesturing for me to take as much as I want (and how could I refuse such kindness?).  

And this was just lunch!  We had arrived pretty early, so we went shopping across the border in Zhuhai (I bought a blazer and a dress shirt), while my aunts bought fake, brand-name hand bags (yeah, I don't get it either).  After that, we went to check into our hotel and get cleaned up from the travel.  So when I say an abundance of opulence, I'm pretty sure our hotel and our room itself will make it clear that such may be an understatement...

oooo0o0o shiny

There's like a 6000 inch TV on the other wall...

Nothing says opulence like tightly packed high-rises as your view.

Yes, that is a TV in the mirror.

I, sadly, did not get the christen this bad boy.

Even the public bathrooms in the hotel are ridiculous.  And yes, you stand on the metal nubs and water washes the space below the urinal so there's no annoying splatter where you stand.

Our hotel is the crazy, gold, torch-like building.
So yeah, opulent.  

Oh, and in case you were wondering, there are prostitutes in the basement, so there's that too.  And before you ask, no, I did not partake.  That's gross.  In like seven different ways.

After freaking out for a good 10 minutes about how awesome everything was, we washed up and went to dinner.  There, I met the person who was our benefactor.  I'm not really sure of how his name is spelled, but it sounded like Uncle Kwan, so I'm going with that.

Now Uncle Kwan was a man in his 70s, but still a strong looking man with a deep baritone voice.  I'm extremely disappointed that I didn't snap a picture of Uncle Kwan, because he was fairly imposing for a man of his advanced age, but I was too lost in the opulence to remember.  He didn't seem particularly learned, and didn't have the arrogance of a man who had his position, so I wondered exactly how he had set us up with such wonderful luxuries.  

As it turns out, my mother told me Uncle Kwan once worked as an adviser/body-guard for Stanley Ho.  If you're too lazy to read that Wikipedia article (he has a Wikipedia article, so he must be important), I'll just tell you that he was arguably the most powerful man in Macau, owning several of the large casinos and held a vice-grip on gambling in Macau for a generation.  Because of his connections with Stanley Ho, Uncle Kwan still has connections in Macau, and hence why we stayed in such luxurious and opulent conditions.  

Our meal was delicious, including...

I'm pretty sure that waitress in pink is just staring at herself in the mirror...

Peking duck!  Which was amazing, as always.  Even though the food was great, I actually enjoyed the conversation very much.  Uncle Kwan had a very calm, engaging personality, and even though he didn't speak the best English, he still engaged me and me alone several times.  He asked about what I was doing, and then seemed genuinely interested when I told him I was in graduate school to become a mathematics education researcher.  

As we were leaving, Uncle Kwan took me by the arm and said, in somewhat broken English, "So, when you graduate, you come back here, ok?  You find yourself a job in Hong Kong University, and you come back."  That moment was probably the first time I really considered it, but I thought to myself, that would be so amazing.  

Until that point, I had never considered this anything but a trip.  Yes, I was getting to relive old memories, see faces I hadn't seen in over a decade, revisit my childhood and my culture.  But this was the first time I ever considered that Hong Kong and China could be part of my future, not just my past.  If I ever manage to finish this degree, I always thought I would just find some place to in the United States, get tenure, work there forever, teach math and math education, do some research, and be relatively happy.  I never considered for a moment that I could leave so much of what I know behind and make the rest of my life an adventure in Hong Kong.  

But now, as I sit here, back in the states, back with my graduate work, I can't help but want this possibility.  As I put my head down and push through day after day of work and studying, what do I have to look to at the end of it?  More of the same?  Worse?  If anything, what else could I do that could more completely break my routine?  

At that moment, a thought occurred to me: No matter what I do, even if I fail or if I succeed, I can always choose to go elsewhere.  I can always choose to go where I want to go.  And for me, that may have been the first moment I really realized that I didn't want to stay as I am.  I didn't want to do what was expected; I didn't want to do what was mundane.  I wanted something new, something completely different from what I had.  And even if it is just a flicker of hope, even if it is such a distant goal, I have this amazing possibility, this amazing future that could be mine.  

All I have to do is choose it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hong Kong 2012, Part 5: Pork and Pride

Here's the link to Part 4...

(Side note: So evidently I've totally been living under the assumption that my Uncle Kan's first name is in fact Ken and his name is Ken Kan.  My family always called him Uncle Kan, so I figured they were saying Ken, a first name.  According to my mother, this is completely wrong.  Hooray for 26 years of ignorance!)

The next day we did have a very important agenda.  We planned to visit my grandfather's "grave" (and yes, the quotes are necessary) to pay our respects, so we grabbed a couple of items: water, flowers, and a wet cloth (the use of these items will become apparent later).  Of course, we had to get some food before we could make such a journey, so we met up with some friends to have lunch.  

Now I had been thinking about things I really wanted to eat while in Hong Kong, considering I hadn't been back in 12 odd years, and it wasn't like I was going to go back anytime soon.  So it was important that I made a list of all the things I wanted to eat before I departing back for the US.  One of these things was roasted suckling pig, with the skin melting with the fat of the baby pig and turning into a singular crunchy, delicious morsel. I'd had it before in Flushing in Queens many a time, but I wanted to have an authentic version from Hong Kong, because it surely had to be better (as everything else had been).

So when we arrived for lunch, and the persons ordering asked what I wanted, I jumped at the chance.  Now some of you may not be familiar, but in general at Chinese-style meals, you have one person who orders for the entire table and everyone shares each of the dishes ordered.  However, when there's someone special (like me, the gwai lo kid who doesn't speak Cantonese), usually the person ordering the food asks particularly what that person wants.  I had become accustomed to answering in generalities, saying that I would eat anything or that everything was good to me.  This was mostly true, and I generally felt that asking for things personally for me would be a little too selfish.  

However, one of my mom's adages is that when you're on vacation, you should enjoy yourself.  And I can't really disagree with my mother, can I?  So I told them that I wanted to have roasted suckling pig, or more specifically "the pig with the crispy skin."  Our friends obliged and I waited in anxious anticipation.

Of course we ordered other things, but I snapped a picture almost immediately when my pig came.

I know exactly 1 of these people
So the pig is actually the small dish in the right foreground, with the brownish reddish skin, looking like cubes of meat.  I was actually a little bit surprised, because I was used to just eating the skin, not expecting much meat on any of the pieces.  It was still infinitely delicious.  The skin was crispy and oily and amazing as usual, but the fat had actually mostly melted into the skin and meat, so the whole thing was like a crispy pork cube.  And yes, it was just as delicious as "crispy pork cube" sounds.

After lunch, we hopped into my Auntie Myna's van for the trip to my grandfather's grave.  Now I've already shown that "graveyards" in Hong Kong look like this...

However, I was a little surprised to see that my grandfather's grave looked like this:

That is a hole in a wall.  Yeap, that's it. 
Evidently, it was my job to clean the marble (water + washing cloth), and then place the flowers in the little container and add a little water.  So I climbed up the rickety little ladder they had and began to work.

Me washing marble

Me placing flowers
As I stood atop that ladder, cleaning the grave of a man I barely knew, I couldn't help but think about his perspective.  Now I'm not one to care for thinking about life after death; Whether we're dead and gone or live on in some magical plane really makes no difference to me.  But for this moment, I felt like that difference had a monumental effect on my perspective.

See, the last time my grandfather had seen me was when I was 12.  I was a half-spoiled, sheltered little child, with no direction and no ambition in my life.  I had nothing of my own, only the things my parents had pushed me to do, and all the normal mundane things of childhood.  I was a kid; Sure, I was smart, but that was expected.  He probably thought I was a nice little kid, immature even for my age at that time, but still just a kid.  That's all he knew about me.  He didn't know about all the time since then.  He wouldn't know anything about my switching to public school, he wouldn't know anything about my singing or my life in high school.  He wouldn't know about the things I did in college, or how my life has turned out now.  I'd be just a kid to him.

But in that moment, I thought about what if there was a way that we lived on, a way in which he could be aware of the things I've done.  What would he have said if he had seen me win 1st place in the state Science Olympiad competition?  What would have he thought about my choosing to go into teaching instead of business?  What would he have said if he heard I got into Cornell?  What would he have felt if he heard me sing?  Would he be happy?  Would he be proud?  These things, these legacies, seem so meaningless if I'm doing them for someone I barely knew, someone I barely met.  But if it's someone who has seen me grow up, even from afar, even from some mystery plane beyond our understanding, someone who has understood my journey and where I've been and where I've come from, I think it'd make me want to succeed even more.  

I've always been content with the things I've done.  I've always made decisions about my life for myself.  I've rarely considered how others would view my life decisions; I wanted to be successful for me, never for anyone else.  But in that small moment, I really wanted to know if he was proud of me.  I really wanted to know if the things that I've done, if the choicest I've made, have been good enough.  I'd like to think he agrees with me.  I'd like to think he's proud.  I'd like to think that.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Hong Kong 2012, Part 4: Bet You've Never Had a Bathroom Affect You Like This.

Here's the link to Part 3...

So the following day, we actually had an agenda.  One thing that I had expressed interest in (hat-tip to my friend Rob for the suggestion) was to get a custom-tailored suit in Hong Kong.  My parents were at first very apprehensive about buying me a suit ("When are you ever going to wear it?") but then they came to their senses, realizing that it's not about when you're going to wear a kickass suit, but instead it's about having a kickass suit.  We laughed heartily at this apprehension later, but that's another story for another time.

Of course, we needed food first, so my Auntie Myna decided to take us to City Hall.  Uhhh, yeah, it made no sense to me either.  However, you won't guess what was inside City Hall...

Yeap, that says Maxim's Cafe
... but another restaurant owned by our family!  This one happened to be a Western-style restaurant, so we ordered things like pan-seared fish and baked chicken with soup and bread.  

Now I must lament that I do not actually have a picture of my kickass suit.  I do however, have a picture of the street outside of the tailor, so there's that...

In case you didn't believe I was in Hong Kong...
The tailor was an old man who thoroughly enjoyed laughing at my non-Cantonese-speaking-ness, so at least he had a great time taking my measurements while I stood there awkwardly attempting to laugh at his jokes (I'm hoping they were jokes).  After he had his fun, he told us to come back for re-fitting in a couple of days, after which he would fully prepare the suit and have it prepared a couple weeks after.

At the time, I was with my dad and my Uncle Ken (Auntie Annie's husband, for those who want some sort of connective family tree representation), and we had to kill some time waiting for my Auntie's Myna and Annie and my mom.  Thus, we decided to go sit down at a local eatery and get some coffee. 

One must steathily take creeper photos, lest one be discovered
I don't particularly care for coffee, so I was expecting another long session of sitting and awkwardly listening to Cantonese conversation.  My eyes lit up with joy, however, when my father suggested I order this...

That first bite was like a bomb of deliciousness went off in my mouth, killing everyone.

... a curry beef bun!!!!

I love curry beef buns.  Even when I'm Stateside in a Chinatown in any city anywhere, I look for curry beef buns as my snack of choice.  This curry beef bun, however, was sooooooo much better than all the ones I've ever had in the US.  I don't know what it was, but it was just 100x spicier and 100x tastier than the bland ones we usually get.  I swear I ate the whole thing in less than 4 bites, and I probably could've done it in 3.

As you can see in the picture above, the place we were in was quite packed, with many tables housing multiple parties.  This is pretty commonplace in Hong Kong, where you'll go eat in a little place like this and have a stranger join you at your table, simply because there is no other space.  However, it gives you an idea as to the size of the place, and thus slightly informs the state of condition of the rest of the establishment, particularly the bathroom.

Now a lot of the bathrooms in Hong Kong are dirty.  They almost always smell, and the level of cleanliness would almost be considered "unacceptable" by US standards.  It's just something you learn to deal with when you're traveling, and I've been abroad often enough that I can handle some pretty filthy conditions.  This level of dirt in this bathroom, however, can only be described by one word that I have never used to describe a bathroom before:


The bathroom was petrifyingly dirty.  Now, you're probably wondering, "Well that's an interesting word, I wonder why he chose petrifying?"  Let me inform you.  

When I opened the door to the bathroom and stepped in, I stopped.  It's not like I just hesitated from the level of filth, I actually stopped.  I wasn't even thinking about just not using the bathroom, walking out, pretending like it never happened, and praying to Jesus that I could hold for the next hour or so.  I actually just couldn't move.  The choice of peeing and not peeing left my mind, and my options became stand in this spot forever or call for help.  And I was super tempted to call for help.

After being fully overwhelmed, I decided to put a positive spin on it, thinking "Hey, at least I don't have to take a dump, that would be a day-ruiner right there."  Thinking of it that way, things really didn't seem so bad, and that change in attitude went a long way to me getting over the level of dirtiness.

And with that, I think I'll end this part.  Much as I'd like to continue, the next part involves visiting my grandfather's grave, and it doesn't really feel right writing about that with three paragraphs about the filthiest bathroom of all-time preceding it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hong Kong 2012, Part 3: Swanky Lofts and Simple Food

Here's link to Part 2...

 I guess I never really finished that day we went to visit my grandmother's resting place.  Probably because that evening we went to one of the many eateries owned by Maxim, which is a food and restaurant company based in Hong Kong (not the near-porno magazine), which happens to be run by my cousin.  I forget the exact name, but it was similar to many of the other Maxim-owned eateries, serving the equivalent of Cantonese "fast food." 

The fermented egg was saltier than all the meat combined
Mine was a delicious roast pork and chicken combination with white rice and vegetable (shown above).  While certainly not as good as what you could get in a restaurant, it was fast, cheap, and as close to authentic as you could expect for a dish assembled in under 5 minutes.

The next day, we stuck to our routine (wake up, eat cereal, watch a hundred billion episodes of TBBT, go to lunch), going to a little noodle shop in Happy Valley.  Now this place was a tiny little hole in a wall, literally being built into the hill with an apartment complex on top of it.  The owner was an older lady, whom my aunt told me was famous for being rude to customers.  Evidently, she had mellowed with age, but my aunt claimed she would literally yell at patrons for wasting any bit of food.  

Such a thing, however, was absolutely no problem for me.  I ordered a noodle bowl with beef brisket, and it was delicious.  

If there is a heaven, it serves this nonstop

Now I know I said my first meal in HK was probably the best meal of my life (and it was), but this noodle bowl was so incredibly delicious that I wanted another bowl after I was done, despite being completely full.  The meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender, falling apart whenever I tried to pick up too large a piece.  The noodles were perfectly cooked, not too firm, not too mushy, and the juice from the meat had melted into the soup.  Oh my goodness the soup.  It was an exquisitely rich broth with a slight creamy taste from the beef fat, salty but not overpowering.  Words almost cannot do it justice.

We went shopping for a little while before heading to dinner, eating a Korean BBQ restaurant (yes, in Hong Kong).

In case you didn't believe me, proof ^^
The next day was pretty uneventful.  We probably went to the CC Club again, maybe did some random shenanigans around Hong Kong until dinner time when we went to my Uncle Larry's apartment.  Now my Uncle Larry is not related by blood, at all.  He went to college with my mother at the University of Buffalo, and they and a bunch of other friends from UB have stayed in touch now that they're rich and successful and living in Hong Kong.  Uncle Larry is a director and owns a commercial studio, whereby he produces commercials for Hong Kong and mainland China.  So how opulent of a home does such a person possess?  Well you can be the judge.

Living area featuring Mom and Dad

Dining area, seating for 12!

View, in the rain

Crazy hippy artwork.  Yes, that is a mish-mash of DC heroes in pin-up poses.
Keep in mind, this is on top of a 4 story apartment complex overlooking Repulse Bay.  So yeah, expensive.

Now the meal was excellent, but I was so busy eating and trying to appear interested in the conversation (more on this in a bit) that I forgot to snap pictures of the food.  It was good, mostly Filipino cuisine prepared by Uncle Larry's two maids.  However, the highlight of the visit, for me at least was...
 ...Uncle Larry's dog, Coffee!  Now Coffee was super skittish, much like my beloved Gizmo.  Which is a good excuse to share a picture of him.

Such a silly baby
One thing that Coffee did learn from us was how to beg for food, courtesy of my father's complete and utter inability to resist giving human food to dogs.

"Give it to me!"
My Uncle Larry is also quite the character.  He was very cheerful and upbeat, but he was also quite sick, since he had just landed from a flight back from China filming a commercial.  Thus, as the host, he felt compelled to attempt to prevent the spread of his germs by...
Yes, those are indeed orange pastel slacks.
... sitting 5 feet back from the dinner table and half-heartedly wearing a mask.

As you can see, there is a dining table full of Asian people, all of whom are either a.) eating, b.) conversing in Cantonese, or c.) both.  So I'm sitting at a dinner table, attempting to stay interested in a conversation that I cannot understand.  As a gwai lo, this is something I'm fairly used to.  When my parents go to visit friends in Queens, we always go out to eat, and they always converse in Cantonese.  So I'm used to sitting there, responding when I'm spoken to, and otherwise just twiddling my thumbs and losing myself in my thoughts.  Do I wish I could take part in the conversation?  Maybe not, but I'd like the option.  I've been at enough dinner parties with my parents older friends to know that it doesn't take a foreign language to feel as though you can't or shouldn't contribute to a conversation.  

However, it all comes as a stark reminder that I am still an outsider.  I sat there, mostly in silence, whispering to my mom occasionally, even leaving the table and sitting on the couch after a couple hours.  Maybe it was disrespectful, but feeling un-included has a way of making you not really care whether your decisions are respectful or not.  Not that it was their fault; if anything, it is my own fault for never attempting to learn the language of my ancestors.  Several of them even commented about how it was great for me to spend time with my parents and their friends instead of going out on my own.  This brought a laugh out of my parents, saying that if I could go off by myself, I probably would have.  Indeed, I probably would have.  

That sort of dependence, that sort of loneliness isn't something that's necessarily sorrowful.  But it still makes me sad; That even if I wanted to venture out on my own, being a foreigner in a place where I don't appear to be a foreigner, I could feel so alone in a crowd.