Saturday, October 12, 2013

Fun with Food

For the first week that I was in Hong Kong,  I was pretty convinced that I would wither away to nothing. At the very least,  I thought that I would lose a decent amount of weight and look super good by the time I went home. Part of this was my concern about not liking the food in Hong Kong and the other part had to do with the drunk-like stupor that I was in for my first few days here.

Let me tell you, I had some pretty bad jetlag. After the meeting with our boss the day after we arrived, the other two girls and I thought we would do something interesting our first weekend. Nope. Well, we did eventually end up doing something, but the first few days consisted of sleeping during the strangest hours of the day and not so much at night. The root of the problem is the 12 hour time difference from home, which is really as inconvenient as it gets. The amount of energy it took to even log onto my computer to check for emails from the other two was often more than I could muster. 

We found a grocery store in a mall that sold some decent bread, which was awesome. The problem is we all bought some bread there as well. Due to lack of energy and proper kitchen supplies, we all ate pretty much nothing but bread in between long fits of slumber. To be honest, I wasn't even that hungry because I was just too darn tired to eat. It was then that I really began to wonder what I was doing here. I knew I would never last like this. After finally getting a grain of energy, we eventually decided to venture out and explore more of the city.

Since then, I've also become a lot more adventurous with food. I need to be honest here: I rarely ever ate, and even more rarely ever liked, Chinese food in the US. Of course, that didn't stop me from moving to China, but I knew it might be an uphill battle. Since getting here, I've had my fair share of really awesome food, and some food that I rather not have again. But, come to find out, I might like Chinese food way more than I ever thought I would. And I'm practically a pro with chopsticks by now. Well, sortof. Needless to say, I don't think I'll have to worry about withering away anymore. Although  I do need to start getting more adventurous and start differentiating my own cooking.

Grocery shopping is always a challenge for me because I'm the most indecisive person in the world. Shopping in Hong Kong is a whole new ballgame. Going to the closest grocery store the first couple of times has been a real adventure. Walking in, all you can smell is the Durian, possibly the worst smelling fruit in the world. While I haven't tried it yet,  I heard that the worst it smells, the better it tastes. I'll have to take their world for it. 

Let me tell you, though, it's not the most appetizing way to walk into a grocery store. After checking out different parts of Hong Kong, I have slowly begun to find some of my favorite grocery stores. I like the frozen chicken in one store, the fish in another store, the vegetables in another store, bread from this one bakery, etc. You definitely don't have to worry about being a brand snob when you don't have a clue what most of the brands even are. It's times like that that price wins out, almost every time. I even have been able to find some decent cheese sections in a couple of stores. The fact that cheese isn't as popular here as I deem it should be all over the world was a bit off-putting at first, but I've been learning to adapt. Such is life. I even found some Chinese spinach that I like and some other strange sort of green vegetable I've never seen before. It appears to be some sort of hybrid between spinach, asparagus, and broccoli. 
That other vegetable thingy

Chinese Spinach

Going out to eat has been a bit hit-or-miss as well. Part of the issue is that a lot of the Cantonese food seems to have some sort of sweetness to it, which doesn't really work for me. It is also customary to order a variety of dishes that everyone at the table shares, as if you were at home. This is good because you can try more things, but can also be dangerous when some people have slightly (or sometimes drastically) different tastes than me. There have been some awesome things that I tried though, like fried noodles, some dim sum, and some forms of curry. But that's not interesting. Instead, I'll tell you some of the more interesting stories...

Cuttlefish Ball Soup
There was the adventurous meals with people from the university that involved things like century eggs. They're black by the way, which no self-respecting egg should ever be. There was also some type of tofu pudding that apparently masks itself as a dessert, as does the bean pudding/soup thingy. Again, not my thing.

Before I came here, my grandpa told me (obviously misinformed) that everything in China is made of seaweed. Well, that's not true. However, they do have seaweed flavored potato chips and seafood seasoning for your "shake shake" fries at McDonalds.  I have had seaweed multiple times since I've been here. One of the more interesting times was in the Cuttlefish Ball Soup. I thought it sounded pretty yummy when I was at a Taiwanese restaurant. I mean, I usually like fish. It was actually pretty good... until I realized how un-fishlike cuttlefish actually are.  Take a look.  

Now THIS is a cuttlefish. Yum.
After this little googling frenzy, I also came across this gem of a video. This cuttlefish has its head cut off but still reacts to soy sauce. I haven't actually seen this in Hong Kong, but it is truly terrifying.

This picture doesn't do it justice. I promise.
Another great adventure was the ox tongue. I saw it on the menu at a restaurant called The Curry House and we all thought it sounded like a great idea. Nope; it's not. I don't know if you can tell from this picture how gross it is. But I assure you that it wasn't great. It was super chewy and had a really bad taste, but the worst part was the texture. I felt like the ox was licking me. I could see that taste buds on the piece of meat and knowing that I was eating a tongue made it all too real. I won't be doing that again.

There's also a lot of wet markets where you can wander around outside to buy things like meats and groceries. After seeing all of the chicken feet and chicken liver for sale, I have been a bit hesitant to show there on my own. I hope to slowly work up courage, but I don't want to rush into anything. 

All in all, there has been a lot of great food that I've tried and loved in Hong Kong. Some was better than others, but I always look forward to trying new things because it's part of the adventure. Hey, even if I get sick, it'll make for a great story...eventually.

The Apartment

Nothing makes you feel like a grown-up quite as much as moving into your very own apartment. Sure, this one was technically on the top floor of a student dorm, but it was all mine. What's more, it had it's very own living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. I even have a full size fridge. That's right, you know you've graduated college when you've moved on from the mini fridge. Oh, and the laundry room's right next door. The first two things that convinced me that I would like this place was that there were ice cube trays in the freezer and mosquito zappers outside. Together, these two would help feed my ice addiction and help eradicate my horribly whiney reaction every time that I encounter my archenemy- the mosquito.

Anyway, back to the apartment. It's not much, but it's more than enough size for one person. Plus, when you only bring a 50 pound suitcase, how much space do you really need? It's not like it was completely empty though. I had a basic bed, wardrobe, and desk combo in my bedroom. A table with TWO chairs, a small (and slightly uncomfortable) couch, and a china cabinet were already in my living room. There was also a small TV in said cabinet. Jokes on me though because its cables don't work. Even if it did though, I'm not sure that I would make a habit of watching any of the local channels that I, more than likely, will never understand. There was also a hot plate, microwave, and rice cooker in my kitchen.

Jackpot of all jackpots though, we found a few bags of things left in the office by people who worked here last year. This is where we really made it big as I ended up with a pot, a pan, 3 forks, and a couple of plates and bowls to outfit my kitchen.  While this may seem too good to be true, I really lucked out. The other two got bedding out of the deal, but they had to hunt down their own pans. Oddly enough, the hot plates here apparently require magnetic pans. Who knew that was even a thing? I did score an excellent Hello Kitty duvet cover and a Lilo & Stitch throw pillow. I actually despise Hello Kitty, but it was super soft. I put it on my couch for awhile until I couldn't stand it anymore. I didn't want people to get the wrong impression.

When I said that I didn't have a roommate, that was true. However, the other two did have a slight cockroach problem. By slight, I mean abnormally large creatures who can withstand nuclear warfare. I'm not sure if they already do, but militaries should really design body armor after these things. I spent my first few days paranoid that I would come across some of these pesky little demons in my own abode. I knew there had been sightings in my own building, as well as outside, but so far so good. There was also a giant spider in one of the other apartments that I dread finding in my own. The geckos in the other apartment didn't seem like a big deal to me. I mean, how bad can it be; at least it's somebody to talk to. They're perfectly harmless, after all. This all sounded good and brave, except then I found one in my own apartment.

It's not like geckos scare me, because obviously they don't. But they are a bit off-putting.  Nobody likes strange things darting around in their peripherals. But I had to be strong. And it was way too cute to try to kill. I captured that gecko in one of my precious cups and took it outside. My mother would be proud.

I also asserted my grown-upness when I fixed my hot water heater. Ok, so I didn't really do much but jiggle the batteries around underneath, but that's still pretty impressive. This hot water heater means I have to relight the pilot light every time I want hot water to shower or to wash dishes. So it's pretty important! So there!

All in all, I really like my new digs. There are definitely pros and cons of living alone, but there's nobody to get annoyed with me if I don't do the dishes right away. I do prefer my old college roommates to the geckos though. They were way more fun, and I never had to worry about them crawling on the walls above me when I'm sleeping. That would really be the horror movie from Hell.

Here's a couple of pictures of the place:
Here's the kitchen. There's some super heavy fire door to squeeze around,
so you can't cram too many people in at a time.

The living room. Please disregard the atrocious Hello Kitty blanket.

The bedroom. And, yes, that's Stitch. 

Please note how the kitchen cabinets are so high that they can
swing completely open without even grazing the top of my head.

The view from my apartment. The green topped building in the distance is the
 MTR station to take you to anywhere in Hong Kong.

Getting Situated

I have discovered that there are several things that seem to come with the territory (no pun intended) of moving  to a foreign land.  In a nutshell, they can be summed up as the familiar unfamiliarity of a new place and the inevitable hurdles that accompany the process. It's definitely not enough just to get to the new place because, once you get there, you're expected to, well, survive. Oh, and hopefully prosper. That part is always hit or miss though.

Bumping along in the taxi from the airport, already peeling off my fleece that seemed like a good idea yesterday morning in Michigan, so many things were running through my head. I knew that I wanted to throw up from exhaustion on the torturously long plane ride filled with Cup 'O Ramon. I also knew that I didn't really know what I got myself into. New thoughts popped into my head such as "who thought it was a good idea to move to such an abnormally large city?"

One of the first things that I noticed wasn't just "my what large buildings they have." But also how they seemed to come in spurts and just jut out of nowhere. You see, structurally speaking, Hong Kong is an odd place. There's obviously tons of buildings, but they're all built in clusters interspersed through the tropical rolling hills/ mountains that makes up this peninsula/ island paradise. So, contrary to popular belief, Hong Kong isn't just a concrete jungle; it actually has quite a bit of natural scenery. But more on that later.

After about a half hour ride to campus, I had just reconfirmed that I didn't really know what to do with myself when I got here. I had a building and office name to go to to get my keys, but that was about it. After wheeling my suitcase across campus and being shown to my apartment, it really hit me that I was on my own. How did I handle that? I called my mom. Well, first I spent 20 minutes trying to connect to the wifi. Then I tried to call my mom. When that didn't work, I settled on an email.  I then sent an email to two other girls from the US that I knew nothing more about than that they had just moved here to start working on the same place as I was. It had all the makings for an instant friendship. Oh, and then I passed out on an empty bed from sheer exhaustion.

When I woke up, I realized that I had no food, no bedding, no friends, no knowledge of the language and very few things in general that make for a good time. Luckily the two other girls had emailed me back and we headed out to the closest mini-mall to get supplies.

The thing about moving to a new place that is one of the best and worst parts is that you have to start all over.  I like shopping for homegoods as much as the next girl, but I was tired, overwhelmed and, oh yeah, broke. I we ate dinner at a place that I believe is Japanese fast food. And that was the beginning of many fun chopstick and curry-filled meals that I would enjoy in this new land.

Now, I didn't really have much of anything that I brought with me except some clothes, a towel, and some travel-sized soap. I found a store where I bought the cheapest bedding that I could find that looked like the numbers were about the right dimensions for my bed (they ended up being decently close), a shower curtain, and some hand soap. Luckily, the person who lived in my apartment before me left a few dishes and pans that I could use. The rest of the things that I wanted would have to slowly trickle in over the next few months.

My first grocery shopping experience was a treat. Apparently, my favorite foods of bread and cheese were not the number one priority of this particular Park and Shop, nor of many stores in Hong Kong. I have a hard time taking any business seriously that does not share these same basic, fundamental values, but I digress. My first purchases were some sandwich bread and butter. In my defense, I was really tired and I get super panicky in new grocery stores (especially the ones where I can't read a lot of the words). It didn't really matter though, if I would have known how bad the upcoming jet-lag would really be.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Heading to Hong Kong

There are a few things that everyone who has had the pleasure of moving to a foreign land has experienced.  They're not always pretty, but they're part of the package.  To be clear: this package must weigh under 50 pounds and contain no more than 3 oz. containers of liquids.

Here's how these things played out for me this time around:

1) Packing:  Always a tortuous endeavor, things were no different this time.  The major dilemma is, of course, with a life's worth of stuff, how exactly is one to pack it into a suitcase that must weigh less than 50 pounds? Then there was my confusion about what exactly it means to be a "humid sub-tropical climate."  I gathered enough to realize that there probably wouldn't be a white Christmas for me this year, but I didn't honestly know enough if that translated to year-round sweating, or if nice sweater may eventually be appropriate. Regardless of one's packing technique though, I knew I would inevitably get sick of the limited wardrobe soon. It's a funny thing-- most people only wear a fraction of their wardrobe on a regular basis, but knowing that's all you have is often an intimidating prospect.  My biggest concern was how much underwear I could cram into my suitcase to create the most distance as possible between loads of laundry.

As for the other accoutrements, I had my priorities.  There are some things that I just really wanted to take because, well, I just didn't feel like figuring them out once I got there.  I know I can get things like toiletries, Q-tips, plug convertors, etc. in different countries, there's enough to worry about when you first arrive that I just wanted to have them taken care of, even if they take up a bit more space.  There are just some things you like to throw into your suitcase at the last minute that make packing slightly less overwhelming. If I didn't have to bother buying Q-tips for a year, maybe that would distract me from the fact that it would be several months before I had a chance to see anyone from home. Probably not, but how much space do they really take up? I also like to have some money of the country where I'm going before I get there. It makes transportation a heck of a lot easier when you get there and save the trouble and cost of an airport conversion.

2) Traveling: I have to say there's nothing so great as a bajillion hour flight that takes off at the crack of dawn. Take that and add in airline food and the fidgety stranger sitting next to you, and you'll be begging for your next circumnavigation of the globe.

My flight from Detroit to Toronto was on a plane about the size of windup car, and the co-pilot had to strain to see over the dashboard.  Now, I'm all for young, successful go-getters, but the open cockpit of this plane revealed a woman about my age that was flipping through the owners manual before we took off and looked way too excited for this not to be her first time flying.  Don't worry though, things turned out all right.

Now, my flight from Toronto to Hong Kong was just a hoot and a half. After getting ousted from my original seat to be replaced by my neighbor's child, I ended up next to the two people on the plane with bladders of steel, who apparently never needed to get out of their seats. Not one to be a burden, I got up for a total of 3 minutes on the entire flight.  My shoes would not go back on my feet when I landed.

All of this was fine. (Who needs blood circulation anyway?) The part that was minorly concerning to me was the announcement about an hour before Hong Kong as we were bumping through typhoon-effect turbulence kindly "reminding us where the emergency exits are located on the plane." Um, ok. That's reassuring. Alls well that ends well and we touched down just fine.

3) The Airport:  Often a place where one finds the most interesting of people, airport experiences can often make or break a journey. Fortunately, this time was relatively smooth.  An interesting feature I found in the Hong Kong airport was that they ask you to take off your hats as you walk by a checkpoint so that they can take your temperature as you're entering. If you get red-flagged, you're entrance into the country is apparently in jeopardy. Do watch out for that.

I made it through the first test just fine and presented my passport at customs. With lots of clacking on the computer and a surprising amount of stamping and scribbling, but very little actual questioning, I made it past the booth.  I dragged my suitcase off of the carousel, found the green "New Territories"taxis and was on my merry way.

Of course, the fun and undoubted challenge of moving to a new land just begins at this point...

Why I'm Here

Telling people that I was moving to Hong Kong afforded me a unique array of responses. Most of them fit into one of two categories. Some people were pretty geeked about it:  "Wow! Asia, that's so awesome! I wish I was doing something cool like that." And then there were those who were less enthusiastic: "Oh, neat. Wow, um, that's bold.  Why not somewhere different, like Spain."  As much as I appreciate everyone's input, it definitely made me second-guess about everything that I did.  As if I don't do that enough anyway or haven't thoroughly considered my decisions.

Let's start from the beginning. In the spring of my junior year of college, I spent a semester studying at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. At the time, I had plans of pursuing grad school right after graduation. However, I think it's a general principle of life that it never works out as planned. I realized that, when I was living with international students from all over the world, what the beauty of having a common language was. I have written about this before, but the main idea is that sharing a language allows cultures, heritages, and additional languages to be shared as well.  As English is currently the default go-to language in many regions in this day and age, it convinced me that I wanted to help aid this effort by teaching English.

Long story short, I started doing my research. Before I knew it, I was Skyping a representative from the International TEFL Academy when I was still in the Netherlands to see how I should best go about teaching English as a foreign language. With a lot of research and very little persuasion, I was sold. I knew that I wanted to teach English abroad for a bit after college and that I should get a TEFL certificate to do it.  Once I got home that summer, I enrolled in the few month class and practicum experience that would get me there.

Initially, I was pretty sure that I wanted to go to Spain. A major issue with doing this in Spain, though (as well as many other western European nations), is that it's very difficult to get a work visa to do so legally in these regions if you're not from the EU (European Union).  Not to worry! I found a program through the Spanish Ministry of Education to apply for that would help me bypass this minor snafu.

But then things changed.

While meeting with my study abroad advisor, I was introduced to a new opportunity: Hong Kong.  My advisor showed me a job that she had seen advertised the previous year to be an English tutor at a university in Hong Kong. My first thought? "No thanks."  My second thought? "Why not?" While I had no huge desire to go to Asia at the time, I figured it was an opportunity worth pursuing.  I didn't really know a whole lot about the region, so this was the best time to find out.  I had already checked out Europe, and was planning to study in Central America for the summer, so I suppose I was due for another, uh, corner of the planet.

The thing was--I knew I would love going back to Europe, and I didn't really what I could expect from venturing into Asia.  I thought I could at least pursue the job and then figure it out later. It wasn't until I got offered the job that I seriously thought of it as a real possibility. It had seemed so obscure up to that point.

Nevertheless, I made the choice to take the route that made me the most nervous. More than anything, I think I was trying to challenge myself and take advantage of a chance to explore another part of the world. Both jobs presented their respective pros and cons, but that's true no matter what you do. I guess you could say that Robert Frost says it better:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

So far, I don't regret it.  It has most definitely had its ups and downs, but I think I'll turn out better in the end for it.  If not, "if not." One way or another, it will inevitably be a growing experience, and it will lead me in the next direction towards a new adventure.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Gist

So, I've decided to keep a blog to document my experience in Hong Kong. I wasn't going to do it. In fact, I had no intentions of blogging when I studied in the Netherlands either. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have done it if it weren't for the study abroad office. In retrospect though, I was glad that I had it after the fact.  This time, I'm still on the fence.  If anything though, I think it's therapeutic. I like to write. If I don't make friends, well, at least I can talk to myself on here. I cannot promise that it will be anything interesting to read, but it is what it is. If anything, maybe it will be a useful place for my family to see the pictures that I have been meaning to upload, but never quite seem to get around to.

Here's the thing though. I can only write about what I see, think, and know. Quite frankly, I cannot speak for all people in my position and my interpretations of my surroundings are, well, just that- my interpretations.  Any broad generalizations that may arise along the way are made based on personal anecdotal evidence, but not cold hard facts. And almost everything is most likely going to come out stream-of-consiousness.

Since I've actually been here just about two weeks now, I am going to have to do some of this in retrospect.  I suppose I could have, and should have, written earlier, but I've been doing my best just to keep on top of all the details and hurdles that accompany moving to a foreign country with nothing more than a suitcase, a contract, and an address.

Ok, there's the disclaimer. Take it or leave it.  And I hope you enjoy.