Wednesday, May 09, 2007

High-rollin’ in Hong Kong

Last week was May holiday which for me and my friends meant it was time to face torturously long train rides. After the three day trek to get back to Shiyan from our Southeast Asia trip, I seriously doubted whether I would be prepared to take on another week of travels. But May came and Brian successfully enticed us to visit Hong Kong with visions of grandeur (aka, the comforts of a metropolitan, westernized society). Brian’s mom’s cousin, Suzanne, and her husband, Daniel, live in Hong Kong, and they were gracious enough to allow us to crash at their apartment for a little over a week.

Brian, Derek and I rescheduled some classes and left Shiyan early on Thursday the 26th. We were able to get beds on the train which really is a pleasant way to travel. I’m always amazed how many hours I’m able to sleep on a train, but I generally am knocked out for the majority of the ride (which lasted twenty something hours). When I’m not sleeping, I’m usually reading or playing cards with the boys. Rummy seems to be our game of choice for now, and we usually generate a small crowd of people interested in learning the foreigners’ game. On our trip to Donguan (the first and longest leg of the trip to Hong Kong), we taught two older ladies how to play Rummy. They picked it up pretty quickly, and we, subsequently, created a bond that would help us out considerably once we arrived at the train station.

From Donguan we needed to take a train or some sort of transportation to Shenzhen which was about an hour away. The idea of fighting for a spot on the train was not appealing, but we seemingly didn’t have much choice. That was until the two older ladies to whom we taught Rummy and who were also heading to Shenzhen told us to follow them and another guy who was on the train with us. These three successfully bargained for a small van that would seat the six of us, and we all left together in a much more comfortable transportation situation.

Once we were dropped off at the train station in Shenzhen, we went through the necessary customs to get into Hong Kong. Brian has been there twice before so he led the way as we took the subway and then a taxi to Suzanne and Daniel’s flat. They have a really nice place. They bought two apartments and converted them into one – an upstairs with several bedrooms (enough for each of us to have our own), a workout room, a family room and a laundry room and a downstairs with more bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, an office, and den, and I don’t know what else.

After dropping our things off, we headed up a mountain path near the apartment which led to Victoria’s Peak. We didn’t actually make it to the peak, but we did get lost, and we did eventually find civilization in the form of a mall at the top of the ridge. Here we rested for a bit at Starbucks and basked in the joy that does come from a Vanilla Frapuccino. We then continued our hike for a bit before returning to the apartment four and a half hours later. It was a longer hike than expected but we had a clear day, something infrequently experienced in this highly polluted city, which gave us a good view of Hong Kong and all its skyscraper glory.

Our days were so relaxing. Each morning we slept as late as we wanted (which wasn’t actually that late thus making me realize how either old or boring I have become!) and then ate breakfast. That last statement may seem obvious and/or pointless, but we honestly don’t have typical breakfasts in China – something I miss a lot. At Suzanne’s we were able to have cereal (amazing!) or toast or waffles while enjoying a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper in English.

Usually after breakfast we would go downtown. We walked everywhere making it possible for us to eat a ton of good food without putting on the extra poundage. We had food from a different country nearly everyday – Australia, Mongolia, Mexico, Vietnam, India, Egypt and, of course, America. We typically would eat lunches out since it was cheaper and we were roaming the city anyway and then would return to the apartment where one of the housekeepers would prepare dinner for us (like meatloaf or steak or tacos). It was pretty amazing.

We also spent a lot of time reading. We stopped at every English bookstore we could find and bought several books, all of which I have since read! Just being in a bookstore was thrilling (I’m a nerd, I know!). Besides book shopping, we didn’t visit too many other stores. Hong Kong is really well known for shopping, but the malls consisted of really high-end fashion stores like Prada, Chanel, Armani, Louis Vuitton and countless others. So, we mostly just window shopped.

Harmony, a Canadian who taught in Shiyan two years ago, lives in Hong Kong. She came to Shiyan a few weeks ago to visit old friends, and I met her then. While we were in Hong Kong, though, we all met up whenever she was free (she teaches at an international school there), and she would take us to several good eating places.

One of the days of our vacation we decided to visit Macau. Macau is a former Portuguese colony that now belongs to China. It’s known as the Las Vegas of China. People mostly go there to gamble, and there’s a huge casino strip along the coastline. The boys and I arrived late morning and visited a few places of interest. The city is not terribly interesting, but we did get to see some parts of town that had a certain Portuguese flair in the architecture and whatnot. We also decided to make a stop at the casinos before we left back for Hong Kong. Before we had left for Macau, Harmony gave me 50 patacas (the currency used in Macau), and I decided to use this amount of money to make one bet at the casino. Fifty patacas isn’t very much money at all so I considered it an entertainment fee of sorts. Surprisingly, the casino would only accept Hong Kong dollars so I kept the patacas and traded in 50 Hong Kong dollars for two chips. I placed the two chips on the roulette table (one between 14 and 15) with no hope of winning yet no fear of losing, and amazingly, lucky number 14 was rolled! I got back 425 Hong Kong dollars! I bet 25 of that and lost and then cashed in the 400 dollars worth of chips and walked out a winner. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the boys…

A couple of days in a row, Suzanne took us to their country clubs for lunch. Suzanne is an interesting woman who seems to have led an interesting life so chatting over lunch was highly stimulating and usually entertaining.

After spending a little over a week in Hong Kong, I felt like it was definitely a city I would enjoy living in for a year or two. I seem to be progressively working my way into living in larger and larger places. Coming from a hometown of about 3500 people, Shiyan, a city of about 500,000, seemed rather large to me. I have this urge, however, to live in an extremely large city for a few years while I’m still young and not settled, and Hong Kong seemed like a fun place to do this. I’m not sure, though, if I liked Hong Kong so much because it’s a truly great city or if it’s because all of the things I’ve been missing for the last 8 months living on the Mainland (things I didn’t even realize I missed) smacked me in the face in Hong Kong. I felt really comfortable in the city and enjoyed the culture a lot. Hong Kong is also unique because there are so many different nationalities mixed together in this one city. That international flavor was really intriguing.

We left Hong Kong on a Saturday evening train and arrived in Shiyan about 23 hours later. It was a pleasant trip, complete with sleeping, reading, eating the nicely packed ham and cheese sandwiches Suzanne sent us off with, and watching old Jackie Chan movies (the latter on the bus between Wuhan and Shiyan).


Yesterday I met with a class for just the second time this semester. There are seventeen students enrolled, but I’ve had an average of 14 students at each meeting. Yesterday I had a guy named Fisher come for the first time. Fisher sat in the back of the class and participated in the class discussion when I asked him to. Class was going really well. I love the small classes because I can connect with each of my students much better, and they feel more comfortable to speak in front of smaller groups. After I lectured for a bit, we broke into groups to begin preparations for the debates we will have next week. I actually assigned the groups because my students tend to have trouble forming themselves into groups sometimes. So I told Fisher to join these three other people, and he told me that, no, in fact, he did not want to join them. I was taken aback and asked him why he did not want to join them, and he said that he didn’t wish to tell me. Now I was flat out annoyed so I made the spiel about how participation in class was worth a fairly significant portion of their final grade, which is only partially true, and then proceeded with class.

After class I asked Fisher to stay so that I could talk to him. I waited for the other students to leave, and then I approached Fisher who was still sitting towards the back of the classroom. He stood up, moved one seat over, and asked me to sit down. I sat down and asked him, “What’s goin’ on?” He sat there for a moment, and then for the next few minutes in broken English, he explained to me that he has an illness which causes terrible skin problems. While he spoke, he only looked straight ahead – never at me – which gave me a perfect view of the skin problems he was referring to. His neck, ear, and the side of his face (and even portions of his arm that I could see) are covered with severely irritated and inflamed sores. It looked to me as if he had been burned because the skin is raised and peeling in some areas and is extremely red. He told me that he has had this illness for five years and since he developed it, he feels uncomfortable talking with strangers because he is worried that they will be afraid of him. I was floored and a little humbled thinking about how quickly I had judged him as merely being obstinate of my request earlier in class. We talked for awhile about his self-consciousness, and it was so clear to me just how much of a burden this illness has been on him. Not only has he had situations in which people have judged him because of his skin condition, but these situations have manifested themselves into a phobia in which he believes that people should (not just are, but should) be afraid of him.

I told him that I would not require him to join the group, but that it wouldn’t be fair for him to just sit in class while the groups work and still get the same grade. I gave him the alternative of writing one page about his opinion on the topic of one of the debates we will have next week. To my surprise and immediate frustration, he replied that he did not want to do that. I said, “Okay, then what do you want to do?” He thought for a moment and then said, “I would like to talk to the class next week about judging people based on their appearance and not their personality.” Wow! I was speechless. Here was this guy who refused to join a small group in class because he worries that strangers are afraid of his physical ailment, and here he is wanting to stand up in front of 13 strangers and talk to them about the fact that it’s what’s on the inside that matters. I don’t even know this kid, yet I am so proud of him. How much courage would it take to do something like this! So I told him I thought that was a great idea. I asked if he needed anything from me, and his one simple request was that he could speak in Chinese so as to better be able to express himself. Man, how I wish I could speak Chinese and hear what he has to say! After his talk, I too will be lecturing (or perhaps leading a discussion) on the same topic. Fisher believes that after he speaks to his classmates on this topic, he will feel more comfortable joining group activities later in the semester. I hope it’s so.