February 16th, 2010
I had yet another very full week in Hong Kong, especially since that week was the weekend of Chinese New Year (the year of the tiger to be exact).
That week I experienced “Asian ice cream” for the first time, and we had two flavors to choose from: red bean or coconut. And I use the term ‘ice cream’ very loosely; essentially, it was either chilled red bean soup with bits of red bean (one particularly picky exchange student referred to it as “sock water” – he wasn’t too far off) or coconut milk soup with bits of fruit and rice. I liked the coconut soup better, personally – the red bean is more of an acquired taste.
At the very beginning of the exchange, all the foreign students were assigned a local student to be their buddy for the semester, help them acclimate to Asia and all that – my buddy, April turned out to be too wrapped up in her own classes and friends to pay much attention to me, so I was adopted by my friends’ buddies: Stephen, Cherry, and Sherry. So that week I went with a group of exchange students and buddies to group hot pot in an all-you-can-eat-style restaurant. I’ve never before seen so much food at one time (little did I know Korean barbecue would be be even more dangerous food-quantity wise)!
They just kept bringing us more and more food (raw beef, ostrich, seaweed, shrimp, squid, lotus roots, bok choy, lettuce, dumplings, tofu, sausages, fried fish skins, dough balls, scallops – the list just goes on and on and on!) and we cooked it all in a giant pot of steaming water in the center of the table before fishing it out with our chopsticks to eat it. And Stephen told us that if we didn’t finish everything we ordered the restaurant would charge us for any leftover food for being wasteful. In short, after consuming so much food, I seriously reconsidered the threat by my mom of that old line “there are starving kids in China” to get me to eat all my dinner.
After we rolled out of that restaurant (food coma doesn’t really begin to describe how full everyone was), we walked ten minutes to a Flower Night Market that is set up every year in Victoria Park before the Chinese New Year. The market sold everything from orchids and orange bushes, to tiger paws and hats (in honor of the zodiac animal),
to snacks and giant rubber ducks. It was so much fun to walk around and see the vendors yelling and trying to get people to buy whatever they were selling. What wasn’t so fun was that our 5,000 best friends had also decided to visit the market too. If you’re at all claustrophobic, Hong Kong would not be the wisest choice of vacation destinations – there are always people (usually en masse) everywhere. Space is at a premium and the real estate prices in the country reflect that.
On Thursday, one of my friends from Austin, TX told us that he’d been elected President of the floor in his dormitory the night before! Apparently this was the first time an exchange student has ever been elected president of a floor or club at HKUST, so that was pretty exciting for Imran, and all he had to do as president was organize some floor activities during the semester and go to hall meetings. Pretty cushy job. Later that same day, I also had my first taste of mah jong, and actually beat three Asian students (one local, two exchanges) in my first game through sheer dumb luck. Mah jong is a little like gin rummy, except played with tiles and you need more sets of three. I wanted to learn to play it better – but didn’t have a chance, unfortunately.
Saturday was the start of the Chinese New Year break which lasted until Tuesday, and classes resumed Wednesday. On Saturday, it was raining so some friends and I went to the Hong Kong Science Museum and spent the afternoon “learning” ( or playing, whichever you prefer) indoors. We also had lunch that day at our first “rotating” sushi restaurant in Hong Kong where we sat at the counter, and sushi chefs prepared dishes, and then set them on a conveyor belt circling the counter. Each dish had a different colored rim to indicate how much it cost, and we could pick any plates we wanted then just have the bill tallied up at the end. It was a lot of fun and a totally unique experience I’ve not seen since I got back to the States!
Sunday was Chinese New Year’s Eve, and four of my friends and I bought hydrofoil tickets the previous weekend to go to Macau (an island off the coast of Hong Kong that’s considered their Las Vegas because it’s the only place casino gambling is allowed).
We really picked a great day to go to Macau [insert sarcastic tone here] – the weather wasn’t so nice (chilly and a bit rainy), but the festivities going on for the New Year were great! There were colorful stages and performances all over the places we visited, free gifts were being given out, the local temples were crowded with people making wishes for the new year, and street vendors were everywhere selling pinwheels, dragons, puppets, incense — trinkets of every kind.
And in Macau, we had great, authentic Portuguese / Macanese food in huge portions (everything in Hong Kong and Asia seems to revolve around eating large portions of really tasty food most of the time). While on our day trip we visited the ruins of St. Paul (it’s a church that was destroyed except for the one front wall which still stands), the Macau Museum (which offers amazing views in its Walled Fortress Garden on top of the museum of the surrounding city), and some of the casinos.
One of my friends lost the equivalent of 50 euros in one spin of the roulette wheel – nice going, Pietro. Asia’s casinos looked so similar to the ones in Las Vegas it was crazy! Macau had a Venetian, a Hard Rock Hotel, an MGM Grand, and more. And they’re enormous!! Maybe even larger in sheer square feet than the ones in Las Vegas, but the Asians were different in the way they gamble: they never appeared to get overly excited and pumped up like the Americans and Europeans when they were gambling. Everything was very restrained and orderly and even, dare I say it, focused. Not nearly as exciting, in my humble opinion. (Side note: we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the gambling areas – even after I pretended I spoke neither Chinese nor English. Hand waving and sounds of disapproval cross all language barriers. Nuts.)
The following Monday was the actual Chinese New Year, so for the evening a group and I went to Tsim Sha Tsui’s Walk of Stars (kind of like the walk in Hollywood where star’s names are engraved – Bruce Lee is there) to watch the fireworks in the harbor. The walk was right along the harbor and the city closed down the streets around it so people could freely wander in the streets and get good viewing spots for the show. My friends and I ended up right along the rails looking out over the water, and the fireworks show was spectacular! It lasted almost 30 minutes and was amazing. One student even filmed the whole thing with his camera, periodically switching arms as one or the other got tired. I know it was absolutely an once-in-a-lifetime experience that I had, and I’m so glad I got to experience the Chinese New Year of 2010 this way.
Tuesday was my last day of holiday before classes start up again, and all the Chinese students who went home to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families in mainland China returned. For a few days the university seemed almost deserted, but then it was teeming with people again all wheeling large suitcases from their taxis back into their dorm rooms. I’ll be sure to update you next week. Stay tuned!