March 23rd, 2010
Hello from the Far East everyone,
I had a very busy week that week, and saw more of China from a local’s perspective than I wager I will probably ever see again. Let’s see where the fun starts from my last update.
Wednesday was St. Patrick’s Day, so naturally in Hong Kong (Irish capital of the world second only to Ireland itself: please note the sarcasm here) there were some exchange students who organized going to an Irish pub in the Wan Chai district to celebrate properly (ironically enough, those same students who organized it had too much homework and midterms to study for and didn’t end up attending that evening). I was not among those students though. A couple of my friends convinced me to go to the pub, Delaney’s, and when we arrived at 10:30, the party had been in full swing for quite a while – there were Guinness hats everywhere, people dressed in Irish flag capes, a traditional Irish band playing jigs and pop songs, and more beer and Western people than I’d ever seen in one place in Hong Kong!
It was a jolly good time; my friends got Guinness (you just can’t drink anything else for St. Patty’s day), we talked to lots of people about where to go in Hong Kong, what to do, what to see, etc and then went home on the MTR fairly early, although some people stayed out all night and paid for it the next day by missing/sleeping through classes.
On Friday, Hong Kong experienced one of the best days it had had in ages. So my friend Abby and I had to go out and enjoy the sunshine and warm weather. After a delicious (and cheap) late lunch of dim sum on campus we hopped on a mini bus and went down to Hong Kong Island’s Central district, and while looking for a bathroom in a super upscale mall (one of many in the westernized districts of HK) we stumbled upon the GREATEST grocery store ever, called Taste 360! This store was ultra-deluxe; it had everything from Japanese Wagyu beef and fresh baked breads, to Cheerios (!), Yoplait yogurt, and even donuts! Oh, and it had free samples of many of the bakery items, so we had our dessert fix while trolling around the store marveling at the amount of Western/American food available; at Western/American prices, of course, but who cares? It was great – I would totally go back just for more free samples in the future, plus there were artfully made towers of macaroons in various colors just to give the store that little extra bit of ambience. Abby and I were both in sugary heaven.
After our fantastic snack discovery we rode a Star Ferry across Kowloon Harbor (it only cost $2 HKD and lasts about 7 minutes, but is so worth it when the weather is clear to see boats and towers and various landmarks from the water). We arrived in Tsim Sha Tsui and walked over to Kowloon Park, which is just about the nicest park you’ve ever seen; it’s like a little slice of heaven in Hong Kong, so quiet, so green, and you’d never imagine it was in the center of one of Hong Kong’s busiest districts.
We saw people practicing tai chi with faux swords in the park, sculptures, fountains, a McDonald’s ice cream stand (just in case the kids started getting cranky), and a Chinese pagoda, to name just a few. From the park you could also walk out to an observatory deck right next to the harbor, and it gave the best views of some massive Hong Kong skyscrapers. The buildings had holes in them to affect their feng shui – apparently if they weren’t built with these strategically placed holes they would have bad feng shui, which would just be the absolute worst according to any self-respecting Chinese.
On Saturday, I began my excursion into rural mainland China. My “Marriage, Kinship, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives” class went on a fieldtrip to Nansha, China and the Pearl River Delta to learn about lineages in mainland China. There were about 16 students and friends of students who were up for an all-expenses paid weekend in China on this trip, and we all had to take the MTR to Shenzhen, China where we met my professor Dr. Ma and got on a bus that took us to East Whiplash, China. Our first stop was at the Sandilands where HKUST had a research branch. It was a pretty campus but there was absolutely NOTHING around the campus; no buildings really, no people on campus (although it was a Saturday), nothing. And the people who were working there (about 4 of them) came along with us and one guy brought his camera and was CONSTANTLY snapping photos of all the students (especially the white ones) – probably so HKUST will be able to show that they’ve had Westerners learning about mainland China through interactive field trips.
So we picked these people up then drove to another town called Wang Qinsha where we had lunch. “Lunch” consisted of us being given $500 RMB and told by our teacher to go out into the open market place and buy live fish (and other assorted seafood) and vegetables and meet back up in 20 minutes.
We ventured out, got splashed by thrashing fish, saw an eel trying to escape back to the river, haggled for fish and shrimp and clams, bought baby bananas, leeks, carrots, and other veggies, then trekked over to a restaurant a block away, gave all of our live, raw, and still fighting assorted foodstuffs to the people working there and they prepared everything for us and brought it all out to some big family-style tables! Amazing; a restaurant specializing in justpreparing food! Think how much that would cut down on overhead costs – no food storage or chilling necessary. And it was so GOOD, and the dishes just kept coming and coming! The fish were delicious, the shrimp were a little small for all the work we had to do to eat them (removing both tiny heads and legs), and there were eggplant and green beans, more fish, two types of mussels, and more!
Afterwards, our teacher told us the whole deal (food and preparation) was about $800 RMB (less than $6 USD per person) for all 20 of our group! That’s getting your money’s worth.
The final town which was our destination (after one more 5 minute pit stop along the highway to see how the Chinese grow vegetables en masse; it’s much like how Americans do it minus any kind of machinery – it seemed to all still be done by hand) was named Huangge and we met our local expert guide there, Mr. Mai. Mr. Mai spoke no English and so the people in our group who spoke Cantonese became our new best friends and translated all that Mr. Mai told us about ancestral lineages in China and in Huangge in particular. We visited about three different ancestral halls, learned that the founders of each lineage had their own special day once a year when all the descendants were supposed to come together to worship them, and that there are genealogy charts in the halls that dictate the generational name each boy descendant will have (the one we saw went all the way to 68 generations!).
We explored a good deal of the town while touring around after Mr. Mai too. If it wasn’t for the TVs visible from every open doorway in Huangge, and the unceasing lines of mopeds and scooters moving through the tiny, crowded alleyways between houses, you wouldn’t know it was 2010. Everything in Huangge seemed so primitive; the houses were old and dusty, no one turned lights on unless absolutely necessary to save money on electricity, the people were wearing traditional Chinese clothing or rags, and we walked past more than one street where they were selling fruits and vegetable on the street literally right next to someone else killing, de-feathering, and slicing up a chicken for sale. I knew at that point, that we weren’t in Hong Kong anymore.
After being led around for a good three hours, we were taken to another restaurant and served more enormous quantities of food for dinner (even though we were all still pretty full from lunch – noticing a pattern here?), then we went to Mr. Mai’s house, which is huge by Chinese standards and asked him questions. I had been told that he was an expert calligrapher so I asked if he would give us a demonstration and that’s when the fun began. He brought out two practice calligraphy mats that were special because you only have to use water, but it shows up like black ink on the mats then disappears again as the water dries. Well, after he impressed us thoroughly with that magic trick, everyone else wanted to try – the local students, the exchange students, my professor, the people along for the ride from UST’s research branch- everyone. And as we were all amusing ourselves with this, Mr. Mai went back to his study and whipped off about 15 copies of different poems and other famous Chinese works and gave them to us! He is absolutely one the sweetest old men I’ve ever met, and then we asked if he could write our names phonetically in Chinese characters on the calligraphy he gave us. My name means “Wearing Jewelry” in Chinese characters.
Finally, we went to a very nice hotel about 15 minutes from Huangge (it was “very nice” because there were so many Westerners on this field trip – and by nice, I mean there were Western-style toilets and an actual English language TV channel in the rooms), took showers, some people got hour long massages for $30 RMB ($4.40 USD), and fell asleep exhausted after our long day of travelling, eating, walking, eating and eating.
The next morning we returned to Huangge for breakfast and observing the local bazaar before heading to the Mai lineage’s ancestral graves and then back to Shenzhen. We ate at this little restaurant that was completely open to the world (try to imagine how hygienic that could be in the “kitchen”), ate more food – really, really good dim sum, but way too much that early in the morning, plus most of us were still full from the night before. You do see a pattern emerging, right? Everything in China seems to revolve around food and when, where, and how the next meal will be. I really don’t understand how they stay as slim as they do – the diet consists entirely of rice, noodles, egg yolk, fried foods, skin, fat and bones of any and all kinds of meats. Anyway, we ate yet again, and then went to see the market that was selling ABSOLUTELY everything! If you wanted pet turtles, jade bracelets, candy, jeans, razors, combs, baby clothes, just anything, you could buy it there for dirt cheap! It was only a pity we didn’t have more time to spend there because we all could have used hours to comb through this place and try to haggle for junk we didn’t need with the help of the students who could speak Cantonese.
In the end, we went to the ancestral grave site, Mr. Mai told us about how only the founders and most important members of each lineage were allowed to be buried there, we took pictures, thanked him for all his time and hospitality and drove back to Shenzhen where our group disbanded and most people headed home in the afternoon.
I, however, chose to stay with three other exchange students and do a little shopping and sight-seeing in Shenzhen since we were already there, anyway. The first place we went was Dongmen where there are all kinds of open-air street markets to shop at and lots of great street food to consume. As we looked all over, bargained for various trinkets and cheap clothing and just ogled at everything fake for sale, we also ate a lot (again). I had spicy pork on a stick and pork schwarma which was pork shaved off a giant vertically rotating stack of pork on a huge skewer and then stuffed into a hot bun sliced halfway open (good thing no one was Kosher on this particular excursion). Both were so delicious and quite spicy, but since coming to China my spicy tolerance has increased dramatically. Then, we went over to Luo Hu Shopping Center, which was a structure five floors of stalls selling every knock off you could ever want; handbags, shoes, DVDs, jewelry – anything, as well as having a fifth floor dedicated almost entirely to tailors who would make custom made suits or dresses or anything else you could imagine for a song.
It was so cheap it was unbelievable, and the other half of the floor was where they sold all the fabric, so you could pick your design then go with your tailor to buy the fabric, they’d take your measurements, make it up and some would even mail it to Hong Kong within a week of ordering. Amazing! In all, we ended up staying in Shenzhen until about 10 pm before finally taking the MTR back to Hong Kong and collapsing into bed.
The only fly in the ointment for the whole weekend was the fact that we had to carry our backpacks (full of everything for taking notes, changes of clothes, toiletries, etc) around everywhere we went, even in Huangge, because it wasn’t safe to leave them on the bus where they might be stolen. So, needless to say, I was pretty exhausted and my back was pretty stiff when we would get those rare respites to sit down and put our things on the ground for a bit. But other than that, I had an experience and a taste of China I will definitely NEVER forget and probably never experience again. Although, our professor had said there was another fieldtrip in the works later on in the course it never came to fruition. Which may have been a good thing – people were pretty whipped after the first go-round.
And last but not least, Sunday night. Three of my girlfriends and I met some of our local buddies and they took us out to dinner. At the beginning of the semester we were assigned local buddies to help us acclimate to Hong Kong, and although most of us had already gotten too busy and didn’t really bond with our buddies, my friend Jen and her buddy Stephen stayed in touch and so Jen, Ilaria, Stephen, his friend Cherry, Abby, and I all went out to dinner last night to some little restaurant that specializes in “potted rice.” It tastes so much better than it sounds and looks. The entire menu was in Chinese, so the four of us just sat and chatted happily while Stephen and Cherry debated what to order and actually did the ordering. The whole meal turned out to be delicious and we had dishes including bok Choy, fried scallops, duck egg steamed rice, chicken and sausage steamed rice, beef in sauce, and clams with black bean sauce.
After dinner we went into a nearby mall and Cherry showed us an arcade made up entirely of Japanese photo booths like the ones in the US only better. In these you paid a little more money and you not only got to do five or six crazy poses, but after taking the initial picture you could go around outside the booth and decorate the pictures on a computer screen adding in things like cartoon hearts, flowers, changing hair colors, adding sparkles to eyes, writing things, etc. It was great fun and after the tiny pictures printed out, a man at the front desk cut them up individually and we each got a set of 4 pictures which we could then laminate together on a piece of plastic to keep. Really goofy keepsake – but totally fun too! To end the night, we went back onto the street and found this tiny restaurant which specialized in tofu desserts. It had all different flavors available: fruit and tofu, coconut milk and tofu, ginger and tofu, sesame and tofu, etc. Plus you had to choose if you wanted it hot or cold. Based on our buddies’ recommendations, I got plain tofu, Abby got coconut milk, and Jen got fruit topped.
Sadly, we didn’t discover there was this special orange sugar you can sweeten the tofu with until we were all almost finished, but at least now we knew for next time!
Stay tuned for next week’s exciting installment – it’s a doozie, if you can’t guess that on your own!