Girl Gone.

With three years in China and Hong Kong behind me, it’s time to reveal my next move: a return to the good ol’ US of A with all her flaws and charms. Specifically, I will be moving to Boston at the end of August 2013. You are all invited to the tea party I will immediately throw myself as a housewarming ‘do and which will probably forever revoke the possibility of passing myself off as a true Bostonian.

Earlier this year I was accepted into Emerson College’s graduate program in Publishing & Writing, a 2-year MA program which will culminate in the spring of 2015. I am excited to take what I’ve learned from my time in the educational publishing and editing industry in Hong Kong and apply it to my studies at Emerson. I hope to make myself more relevant to industries outside of education, while infusing my career path with creativity and achieving a better understanding of how I can channel my passion into work that helps others. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but I have some ideas…

With all this in mind, it’s time to put a period on this long, meandering sentence of a blog. From the ashy air of Beijing to the soul-opening view of the Himalayas to the poverty and war-torn history of Cambodia to the black volcanic sand of Indonesia to the dumplings of Shanghai to the drudgery and skill-building of a six-day work week in the colossally modern city of Hong Kong, it has been a hell of a trip. Thank you for your support and for following along here at Girl Gone China.

In comparison, my new professional site at mariesweetman.com may seem ho-hum if you’re not interested in publishing and books, but that’s where you’ll find me and I’ll do my best to keep it spicy.

Onward!

Backlog of Travels: Part 4: Christmas in Shanghai

At 5:45am, two days before Christmas 2012, Cliff and I took a taxi to the airport and then a plane to Shanghai. It was bitterly cold there for us sub-tropics dwellers, at 30-odd degrees Fahrenheit, and immediately upon leaving the Shanghai metro we spotted a cleverly located shop selling hats, gloves, and scarves where we bedecked ourselves appropriately with winter wear.

We dropped our bags at the hostel and took off to find People’s Park, a journey which first led us astray to the aptly named Sculpture Park, which was sprinkled liberally with, you guessed it, sculptures of all makes and models. From giant animals to cascading showers of metallic trash, we took in the unexpected art tour and then had a conversation in our by-now-quite-rusty Mandarin with three park guards who had very different opinions about where People’s Park was.

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Once we found it, we were bewildered by the slow-moving, massive crowds of predominantly elderly women. Following the crush into a long, dark tunnel near the entrance of the park, we saw what the fuss was about. The tunnel, and indeed every path radiating out from the entrance of the park, was lined with what appeared to be resumes. They were each numbered, with a photo of the person and a detailed list of their physical attributes, career prospects, personalities, and more. I had found myself in what must have been one of the world’s largest dating pools in history, and it was all being conducted by the old aunties or grandmothers of  the bachelors and bachelorettes. The youngsters being pawned off on one another were in their twenties, thirties, or forties. Very few of them were in physical attendance, as you might imagine, but the resumes were all that was necessary for their elderly relatives to go about their matchmaking business.

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We made our way out of the crowd and found two things of interest: an art museum where we happily spent a couple hours, and then a rundown old fair with a few functioning rides. I could not be persuaded on them as they went too high into the air for my tastes, but Cliff gamely rode one.

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After visiting a bit of Shanghai, we took a train to spend a couple days of our brief trip in Nanjing, a city unfortunately known for the historical massacre of Chinese men, women, and children by Japanese invaders in 1937. This single horrific event has flavored Chinese-Japanese relations ever since, as the Japanese government has never formally apologized or even admitted that the massacre took place. Compare that to the vast reparations and official apologies that Germany has made in the wake of the Holocaust, and what it would have been like for the world if Germany had NOT done so, and you can see why there is so much anger left simmering in Chinese society toward basically Japanese anything.

Last year, during a lesson in which we read a story written from the point of view of a young Japanese child who lived in the US during World War II, a 5th grade student told me that her dad had told her that the Japanese were bad people for what they had done. I navigated the situation as gracefully as I could, but actually reading the short story by Yoshiko Uchida was much more effective than I was – reason #1,000,000,000 why literature is important to developing empathy and understanding. (I should mention that this was the same student who later agreed when another student said that he was “sometimes germaphobic” to a certain ethnic group. My vehement outrage at that statement was perhaps not my best teaching moment, but it got the point across. What children learn from their parents sticks, so PLEASE TEACH TOLERANCE.)

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The Japanese – Chinese feud is not omnipresent in the society, however. An opposing anecdote: I made friends my last couple weeks in Longgang, Shenzhen with a woman who had approached me while shopping to see if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. Thrown off guard, I said no, several times, but she was persistent and I’m no good in the face of persistence, and so I agreed to hang out with this perfect stranger. She was very nice, we chatted about not much at all, and I found out she lived in my apartment complex with her Japanese boyfriend, and that she worked at a Japanese company.

The best place in Nanjing to get information on the subject is the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, where Cliff and I went on Christmas day. The Memorial Hall did not mince words/images/etc. in regards to its history, nor should it have. The high estimate of massacre victims tallies around 300,000 – deaths not of soldiers but of unarmed, starved, defenseless citizens. Parts of the memorial hall were staggering in their simplicity and solemn beauty – an example being the gargantuan statue of an emaciated woman at the entrance, slumped with legs splayed, pain etched in her stone face. Other parts were overwhelming in their aggression and insistence – walls of photographs of atrocities, piles of bones.  Some parts were absurd, such as the cheaply mechanical recreation of a Japanese soldier entering a Chinese house.

Following through the museum led us out into a long dark corridor with candles illuminating name upon name of the known victims. After this reflection in the dark, there was light, as the tour ended outside with a long shallow pool of water leading to a giant stone memorial carved with words of peace.

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We also made time to walk the Nanjing City Wall. Having lived in the sweltering sub-tropics for three years, I have often felt starved for seasons, especially autumn. When our taxi driver – who was very kind and told us about all the different places we should try to see – dropped us off, the heaviness of the morning disintegrated and I felt actually frolicsome as I darted up the stone steps leading to the wide city wall. (Darted might be a bit of an exaggeration – my ankle was still swollen and twisted from a hiking incident a couple weeks before.) We were stopped for a couple pictures before we could get very far, but after we’d done our foreign-tourist photo duty, we were left alone on the wall.

Alone.

In a city of over 7 million souls, for the first time since I’d stepped off the plane in Beijing in August 2010: alone.

It was so beautiful up there, with a breathtaking view of the city and the lake. Leaves blanketed the top of the wall in autumn colors which seemed improbable at the end of December: yellows, oranges, browns. We walked a couple miles down the whole length of the wall – we knew we should turn back at some point but it felt so good to keep skipping ahead, to lean over the wall, to take pictures, to have impromptu races and to not be pushed or crowded or anything else that is daily life in a busy city.

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Eventually we ran out of wall and had to literally come down from our high, but that tall, leaf-strewn, expansive, and gloriously empty place that gave me such peace and joy on Christmas day is a forever-memory.

Though we could only experience each place briefly, I thought Shanghai and Nanjing exuded dynamism and vibrancy and would be amazing places to get to know for a longer stretch of time.

Krakatau

5am departure to Carita from Jakarta. Tired after a delayed flight and late arrival the night before. Air is humid and smells a little smoky, heavy with evidence of the previous night’s rain. Headache from little sleep, dehydration. We’re on the highway for a quick minute before spending a couple hours on winding, potholed seaside roads lined with children readying themselves for school and brightly colored domiciles: sapphire tile, ruby tile, sunshine yellow tile.

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speedboat gliding out of the canals before hitting open ocean

8am arrival in Carita. Breakfast of fried rice and fresh orange juice. Later, I see abundant orange trees lining the road. We walk to the dock through a cluster of houses with children shouting and adults openly staring. The speedboat, maybe 20ft for six of us, revs to life, filling the air with gasoline fumes. It picks up speed. I put my head over the side of the boat like an eager dog. Remember fishing trips with Grandpa; remember tubing with Uncle Jeff. But I’ve never gone so fast, and never  on the open ocean. Exhilarating. So open – no land in sight. Beautiful sunny day and I keep seeing the ocean as water in a bowl about to spill over.

Theme of the day: prehistory, primordial ooze, the beginning of time.

We’re heading into storm clouds. Boat hits waves that toss us like rag dolls. No one else seems concerned that the blue water has turned a menacing gray: direct antithesis to my worst-case planning. Kick off shoes, I tell myself on repeat, hold onto the seat cover – looks like a flotation device. Be okay with tumbling through water for a while. Trust you’ll come back up. Get as big a breath as you can. Later, past danger, I found where the life vests were stowed.

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Krakatau seen smoking from the boat

Weather cleared as we had our first glimpse of Krakatau, which seemed to part the clouds and tame the sea as we approached. Krakatau is an active volcano which erupts regularly, most recently in September 2012. Smoke reeking of sulfur steamed and drifted from still-cooling piles of magma. It was two mountains in one: Krakatau’s peak and crater in the distance, pouring smoke, and the magma layer.

Our guide had seen it explode. “Like fireworks, the smoke, like thunder, boom boom.”

We hiked up to the summit of the first steep dune (sand, ash, stone), somewhat hardened by the rain the night before. We struggled up, slipping back each step, shoes filling with sand. At the top of the dune  we looked down into a valley of magma and up to Krakatau’s peak. There’s a clear path where the lava gushed forth and tumbled down to the sea, boiling the waters and killing all manner of sea-life. The piles of magma spew smoke and smolder red in some places, white ash in others, like hot coal. Freshly made pumice and other volcanic rock litters the volcano’s side. I take a piece home. I don’t feel guilty.

It is unreal to stand on an active volcano. It’s like being transported back in time a couple billion years ago to the

hot magma trailing down to the sea

hot magma trailing down to the sea

Earth’s rebellious adolescent years when continents and oceans were more vehemently in flux than they are now, like witnessing my great great great grandparents meet for the first time and realizing I would somehow result from that moment.

We hike back down. Get in the boat. Speed away to a little island for lunch on a beach overrun with too many little crabs scuttling to and fro, eyes on stalks, airs of suspicion.

We snorkel, briefly. Look through crystal clear water to unbelievable depths (tall towers of coral, brightly colored fish darting here and there) and listen to my own shaky terrified gasping breaths through the snorkel. I love snorkeling but each time (three times only) there is a long period of adjustment as I get used to the fear, the new way of breathing, the vastness of the wide unexplored ocean world. It’s nearly the same fear as of heights, combined with the mind-drenching terror of imagining free-floating in space, though there’s no real way for me to fall or even drown in the calm waters.

Meanwhile, as I struggle to regain myself, tiny jellyfish sting and sting – my thumb, my arm, my legs. Sharp isolated areas of buzzing pain that last for a half hour after I’m back in the boat.

Happy Chinese New Year! Spent the holiday and some of my annual leave in Indonesia, in and around the capital, Jakarta. The first day (recounted above) was eventful – the rest, spent on a tiny island an hour off the coast of Jakarta – was less so. I finished Anna Karenina if that’s any indication.

Apologies for the long absence. Love and miss you all!

Review: Country Driving by Peter Hessler

I take to my blog once again to expound on the narrative excellence of Peter Hessler. He’s not necessarily a magician with words, but he is a master of narrative flow and he captures China in ways that most foreigners could only dream of.

Country Driving: a Chinese Roadtrip is the summer vacation you never thought possible. This book follows three stories 1) two separate car trips following a path set out by Great Wall of China; 2) his sojourns to Sancha, a quiet rural village two hours north of his residence in Beijing; and 3) the life of a factory over two years in a small city in southeastern China, Lishui.

My favorite bits of this book were undoubtedly the time spent keeping track of Hessler’s time in Sancha. He had rented a small home in this village to have a place to get away from the hustle and bustle and dirt of Beijing. It was a gorgeous place to write and relax, but soon he became friends with some of the villagers, and his trips there became less about writing and more about visiting. Over the course of the book, he becomes particular friends with one sweet little boy who becomes very, very ill. Hessler has to advocate for the boy in Beijing because his poor rural background means the busy nurses and doctors barely even look at the boy’s parents as they shout for help during the midst of a medical emergency.

I loved this part especially because it showcases, first of all, the intense and immediate friendships that can spring up between near-strangers. But I especially like the idea of life encroaching on what you think of as your safe space. Hessler wanted to “get away from it all,” but he learned that you can’t become a hermit in another person’s home. The people of Sancha made him very aware of that. It also functioned as a microcosm of China as a whole – as just a few years passed by, Hessler witnessed Sancha go from this rural secret to a tourist pit stop. It brought money to the people of Sancha, but at what many would consider a great cost of natural beauty and privacy.

The chapters about the journey along the Great Wall just filled me with envy – Hessler took about a couple weeks to go as far as he could. There is a point where the Great Wall stutters to an abrupt halt at the shore of the sea, and I would love to see that.

All in all – another great Hessler read.

Summer days

I was home to Michigan for ten days in July to soak up the dusty summer heat and the dry grass and that short lovely road to my grandparents’ house and make note of all the changes, filing them away, to make sure my home was still mine: a tree felled, just missing our house, in a rough winter storm; Allan’s bedroom empty as he works his way through Marines boot camp; grass seeded and sprouting in Grandpa’s former vegetable garden; engagement and wedding rings on the hands of college friends; new people introduced to old places.

Thomas Wolfe might say that you can’t go home again. But you can, again and again, and you can leave it many times too, and there’s vigor to be found in both the coming and the going.

The hardest thing about growing up is losing one’s summer vacation. Not the vacation itself but what that free time means. As children in the US, we’re given these long months of freedom to explore our own hobbies and interests and to play outside to make our bodies strong. Why is that less valuable for adults?

I still make plans in the run-up to summer as if I had three free months to do with as I liked. I meant to finish a novel this summer, and update this blog regularly, and play outdoors frequently, and keep up with my email correspondence, and a myriad other lofty ambitions. Needless to say, the novel has progressed but remains unfinished, the blog has been dormant, the outdoors was experienced via my morning and evening commute to work as usual, and my inbox is a mess. I want a society that puts a little less emphasis on the working week and a little more emphasis on the weekend.

I’m heading into my third fall without any change in leaves or cooling of temperatures and it is very disappointing. I’ve half a mind to sneak out at midnight and paint the vegetation of Hong Kong proper autumnal colors, turning the ever-lush, emerald jungle canopy into a kaleidoscope of sunset hues.

In general news, I just moved into a new apartment; Birdie is growing up (she’s about to be spayed!); and work is bumping around mightily, with many new teachers, summer courses giving way to academic-year private lessons, and a slew of new projects for the Editing Department.

And in Hong Kong, ghosts are flitting freely through the night sky. The seventh month of the lunar calendar is Ghost Month, when the Gates of Hell spring open and all spirits, hungry or just plain malevolent, rush earthward to visit their descendants. The Chinese, therefore, have prepared food and incense to burn in offering to their ancestors at makeshift sidewalk altars. Outside my apartment, that mostly includes setting large fires in trash cans.

Throughout this month (August 17 – September 15 2012), one is not supposed to move house, take an evening stroll, or go swimming, as the spirits are just looking for excuses to nab you. So hunker down during this inauspicious time – and don’t risk moving apartments like I did!

burning “ghost money” so one’s ancestors might be pleased and appeased

Awake

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This is Birdie – and yes, she does know how cute she is.

It’s not quite ten o’clock here and, a couple hours from bed, I already know I won’t fall asleep tonight. It’s not that I don’t want to. I have a head cold and my new kitten, Birdie, keeps me up at night, every night, since I got her four weeks ago. Of course I want to sleep. But some nights you just know that you won’t.

Often what keeps you awake is the day refusing to fade from your mind. It’s worries, unfounded or otherwise, responsibilities that you haven’t quite seen through to the end, encounters with new people or old that have sparked your imagination and lingered, memories of days or months or years gone by waiting for the dark nighttime hours to be fully explored. Monsters under your bed.

Other times it’s something a little less mentally intrusive and a little…louder, like tonight and I know no matter how tired I am, the thing that’s keeping me up is only going to get worse.

The monster under the bed in this case is the typhoon roaring outside my window, working itself into a frenzy. I know it hasn’t reached its peak yet. In Hong Kong, there are typhoon warning signals that range from 1 to 8, with 1 being the mildest, 3 middling, and usually jumping straight to 8, the most dangerous level, when the situation gets really serious. We’re forecasted for an 8 around midnight tonight. There’s been one other 8 in the past ten years, and that one occurred just this past September (mentioned briefly in this post).

A typhoon in my apartment sounds like a club that’s hired a bad DJ. My room is loud, riotous, but the noise is unpredictable, with no steady rhythm, and it just keeps getting louder and louder. My apartment faces the sea, taking the full brunt of the wind and the rain, but without danger of flying objects (knock on wood) as I’m high on the 26th floor.

Birdie’s not sure what the noise is all about. Then again, she probably doesn’t care, either, since her nights consist not of sleep but of chewing my hands and batting at my nose with her extended claws.

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Scientia: Inaugural Issue Spring/Summer 2012

Sleep or no sleep, I have big news: Scientia, the magazine that was supposed to have been published in December, is finally out and ready for an audience. I’m proud of it (although, at this point, I honestly am quite sick of looking at the articles) and am very glad that it’s a real thing that I can hold in my hands. Thanks to our amazing new designers, it looks gorgeous as well. I wrote the CTY cover article, as well as some other features and reviews. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, but I’m looking forward to building off of this issue to make our second one (slated for a November/December publication) even better than the first.

Other significant news includes the fact that I’ll be in America in two and a half days. I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends, and soaking up northern Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Chicago as hard as I can in just ten days. It’s not enough time and never will be. Lifetimes could be lived in all those places and that wouldn’t be enough time either. But I’m ready for my tonic: the little bit of home that will get me through the next however-long.

Meanwhile, I’ve got packing to do, a kitten to amuse, and a typhoon to wait out all night. It’s going to be a big one.

Backlog of Travels: Part 3: Kaiping

Wonder of wonders, I had a two day weekend at the beginning of May. Cliff, on the recommendation of some of our friends, suggested we use the time to visit Kaiping. I booked a hotel for the night, he got the bus tickets, and away we went.

Kaiping (开平) is the ancestral homeland of many overseas Chinese who fled for their lives due to various conflicts, from the Punti-Hakka clan wars in the late 1800’s to WWII. Those who returned from abroad brought with them Western architectural knowledge which they combined with traditional eastern architectural style, leading to the construction of the Kaiping Diaolou (碉樓), some of the loveliest buildings I’ve ever seen.

A diaolou at Jinjiangli

The diaolou are fortified watchtowers (the tallest is nine stories high) that were used in defense against Japanese invaders at one point in time and now live on as memorialized, unused anomalies dotted across a green rice-paddy landscape.

Cliff and I took a 3.5 hour bus from Shenzhen, arriving in Kaiping in the early evening. We checked into our hotel before heading out to find dinner, which we finally found after walking through weirdly empty streets. It was only around 7:30pm on a Saturday, but almost everything seemed to be closed. After dinner, on the way back, it started down-pouring, crashing sheets of rain.

This continued all night, however resulting in a gorgeous, sunny, swelteringly sticky day. We ate dim sum at the hotel before heading out to find the diaolou. The city was pretty, cut through by a wide, muddy river. Eventually we arranged for a taxi driver to take us to two of the main tourist spots, Jinjiangli village (famous for having the most diaolou in a concentrated area) and Chikan (a historic overseas Chinese village).

Jinjiangli was completely underwater. Because the paths were flooded, we got lost again, this time walking past farms with way too many geese.

Way too many geese

In the picture above, you’ll notice that water comes right up to the diaolou’s door. In dryer times, that water is nowhere present, and you could walk to the diaolou without wearing flippers. Cliff and I gamely took off our shoes to wade to the entrance of one of the diaolou. Inside, we climbed five or six flights of stairs to get onto the roof and take in the view.

While on the roof, a man stopped us, gesturing with his camera. However, he didn’t want the ordinary tourist photo with the resident foreign couple. He wanted us to pretend to be Rose and Jack from Titanic. Titanic 3D was a huge hit in the mainland (and in Hong Kong as well). Laughing, we did as he asked, letting him position us facing outward from the diaolou with our hands spread out. “I’m King of the World!”

Chikan Village

I wish we had spent more time in Jinjiangli, because Chikan was much less exciting. The street on the river was lovely and we found a curious antique shop with tea cups, masks, snake wine (complete with snakes curled up inside the jars) and various other junk that has no reason to be fascinating except it’s all old, and dusty, and is meant to make us think that if we can take home a little piece of exotica our houses, and by extension, our lives, will be a little less boring.

In Chikan we ate honey twirled on a stick for 1 yuan, a sickeningly sweet and quite chewy piece of candy. Later on, our appetites raging after just three dishes of dim sum that morning and heavy walking, sweating, and picture-taking all day, we finally found a little shop that served us my perennially favorite, excessively simple Chinese meal: 10-15 pork and cabbage dumplings with peanut sauce, chili sauce, and soy sauce to flavor.

After our late lunch, we returned to our friendly taxi driver who had stuck with us all day so that we could get to the bus station and head back to Shenzhen, very sweaty, sun-burned, and pleasantly worn out.

Backlog of Travels: Part 2: April Fools: Taiwan

The build up to the arrival of one of my best friends and our subsequent trip to Taiwan left much to be desired. I was one of the first to come down with a vicious flu that made the rounds of the office in true Hong Kong/Contagion style. The last class of the day on Thursday takes on dreamlike qualities in my memory: I slipped in and out of a fever while nodding at my student and dropping guiding questions and writing assignments to wile away the two hour private lesson with as little talking as I could manage.

The next day I woke up (cruel world! Shouldn’t we just sleep through illnesses?) to the works: aches, pains, shivers, coughing, sore throat, a touch of nausea. I called in sick, but had to work the following Saturday and half a day on Sunday, the day of Cathe’s arrival, as well.

All this to say: I met Cathe at the airport Sunday afternoon with a pathetic smile, a raging fever, a warning that as much as we wanted to squeeze each other she might want to maintain her distance, and an apology for the inevitable illness that would descend upon her.

In two days we were on a flight to Taiwan. For me it was a massive thrill, unlike any I’ve had in awhile. I was constantly amazed by both the similarities and differences of Taiwan to Hong Kong and the mainland. My brain couldn’t see Taiwan for what it was, only as a comparison to where I’d been before. Nonetheless, it was a favorable comparison: all the (nearly) untarnished flavor of the mainland but with the social standards of Hong Kong (e.g. no public spitting, defecating, or staring). Don’t get me wrong, there were still McDonald’s everywhere, but the Western influence was definitely less in Taiwan than in Hong Kong.

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Taipei 101

And the skyline was so low. There’s one massive skyscraper on the Taipei skyline, Taipei 101. I felt so clear-sighted, reveling in a country that was mostly trees, not mostly buildings, a country that still has its priorities in order.

Because Cathe’s a wonderful writer and keeps her own blog over at Andorran Adventures about her travels as she completes her year as an English Teacher on the Fulbright Scholarship in Andorra, I’m going to post her account and reflections of our trip here. Cathe’s insight is, I think, fairer to Taiwan than mine would be, “polluted” as I am with the comparisons I couldn’t help but make between the other Asian cities and countries I’ve been to. Without further ado:

     “As someone who’s only well travelled in Europe, Asia was overwhelming.  The crowds, the smells, the characters, the colors all inundated me the moment I arrived.  I was a little taken aback by the strict health measures at work in the airport: upon deplaning, I immediately ran into personnel wearing masks over their faces and had to walk past a body temperature scanner that verified I was healthy enough to not have a fever.  Though English is very common in both Hong Kong and Taipei, I found myself tongue-tied and stumbly as I navigated my way out of customs and into my friend’s embrace.

     The poor girl was coming off a bad flu, and I myself had been on a plane or an airport or a bus for the better part of 20 hours, so the first night we relaxed in her super swank 26-floor studio apartment overlooking the bay before heading to the most delicious Chinese dinner I’ve ever had in my life.  The restaurant, Crystal Jade, was located in a mall.  Everything seemed to require passing through a mall in both Hong Kong and Taipei: money talks there and status is about things.  We (I) fell asleep to a movie on her couch after and had a leisurely start to our tour of Hong Kong.  Since I’ve long been a tea-fanatic, we settled on touring Hong Kong Park (after snapping a photo of that Batman building nearby, natch), wherein lies this modest, old British-style colonial house-turned-museum and tea house.  I was fascinated reading up on the ancient, sacred history of tea making, the different ceremonial ways of preparing it, the artistry of creating teapots.  The history of the Chinese dynasties stretches so far back that my American brain struggles to contain them.

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I was informed later that in fact, one does not eat the shell of tea eggs!

     Afterwards we had delicious dim sum and tea, enjoying the custom and watching our waiter pour it in the traditional way, his wrist turning as if in a dance.

     We walked around some more before heading to Kowloon across the bay from Hong Kong Island, where all the museums and flashy hotels seem to be, as well as enough bright lights and advertisements it seemed to my eyes to put Times Square to shame (maybe the foreignness of the Chinese characters and crowds made it seem bigger to me, I don’t know).  We had the most spectacular Indian food (I made her promise to shower me with all the kinds of food I love that is hard to come by in Andorra) and then enjoyed the light show over the bay before taking the ferry back to the island.  We also tried these “tea eggs”–eggs hard boiled in a sweet smelling tea like substance that smelled waaaaay better than it tasted.  We watched an Asian couple bite into the egg, shell and all, so we followed suit before spitting it right back out.

     The next morning we had an early flight out to Taipei.  Coming off of the budget airlines in Spain, I was pleasantly surprised to note that Asian airlines still provide complimentary food, drinks, even tea on flights less than 3 hours.  Once in Taipei’s airport, we took a bus ride into the city, amazed at the way the urban landscape ducked in and out of a sweaty, jade jungle.  The city itself was incredibly crowded; we stayed near the Main Station, and the underground was a swarm of people, malls (of course), and signs, while the outside was a jumble of stalls selling foods I had never even imagined (stinky tofu being one that immediately activated my gag reflexes).  Marie introduced me to her favorites after we dumped our things at probably the cleanest hostel I have ever seen due to its insistence we take off our shoes and leave them on shelves by the door.

     We spent the night exploring the famous (crowded) Night Market, which seemed to me to be a mixture between a fair/carnival and street vendors.  Sipping on bubble tea, wandering in and out of stalls/shops, munching on sweet and spicy fried chicken wings, fresh fruit, and staring at a snake in a cage filed much of our evening.

     The next day we decided to check out the Maokong tea fields, temples, and exposition center, located at the top of this valley overlooking Taipei’s zoo.  We took a gondola ride over the jungle and the tea fields up to the top and then spent a lovely afternoon walking around, sampling tea, passing by red and gold temples, breathing in the herbal scent of the leaves, and hiking down the paths to the river/naturally forming pothole rocks.  We then got an amazing dinner in one of the malls (of course) near our hostel of noodles in a peanut sauce and Taiwan beer before finding a bar and gabbing the night away.  It was so nice to catch up in person with someone so dear to me.  One of the things I hate about our mobile my generation is is that my network of amazing friends keep scattering across the globe.  But then again, leading such different lives has a built-in excuse to travel.  I just would not be opposed if one day we all ended up in the same state again.

    The following day we headed out to Taroko Gorge for a three-night stay deep in the national park.  The train ride was comfortable; big bucket seats, and we wiled away the time reading and gasping over Jane Mead’s Usable Field.  Again, I so miss having friends around me who enjoy the same things, but I digress.  We spent the afternoon exploring the not-so-picturesque town of Hualien while we awaited the shuttle that would take us to where we were staying in nearby TG.  The shuttle ride itself was as winding and as harrowing as the rides up to Andorra, but I nonetheless felt a little sick.  The views were stunning, though.  The air was misty, casting all the colors in a silvery light: the 

grey-green of the leaves, the slate blue of the river, the plunge of the rock.  We marveled over the views from our room, eager to head out into the jungle’s paths the next morning.

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hiking in Taroko Gorge

     Our hike was 5.5 km and took the better part of the daylight.  The views were stunning, the bugs unforgiving, the plant sizes engulfing, the suspension bridges harrowing, and the chain and ropes we needed to descend several narrow, wobbling, steep rocks nerve-wracking.  At several points it started raining, making our already difficult trail even more slippery and unstable.  I love the feeling of hiking for this very reason, however.  The banality of our deadline-driven lives fades into the bush; all that is left is the immediacy of your foot in front of the other, the steady stab of air into your lungs, the insistent thump of your heart and your blood pumping, the calculation of how to proceed forward, never back, the intense appreciation for the beauty of your surroundings, a beauty that can be deadly if you do not carefully honor it.  Food never tastes better than when consumed at the half-way point high in the forest.

     The hike ended near the Wenshan hot springs, which smelled of sulfur and created a heady steam as it rushed out to meet the roar of the cold river.  It was bliss to soak my legs after the exhausting hike at dusk.  We ended up walking back to the hotel on the dark,

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Our gorgeous 5 star hotel; many thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Shubert!

windy roads, our nerves laced with the panic that inevitably floods any female traveling alone, but made it back without incident or cause for alarm.  The hotel had a nice, Western restaurant we treated ourselves to before soaking in the rooftop jacuzzi overlooking the gorge.

    The next day we lazily spent at the hotel, since it rained the better part of the day before grabbing dinner at a Chinese restaurant, which unfortunately contributed to a night of food poisoning for me (Marie smartly avoided the odd texture of the prawns after one bite; I was greedy).  While I was paying homage to the porcelain gods, I felt the earth literally move from under us; ricochets, we later learned, of the Papua New Guinea earthquake.  I was so miserably ill I, not sure how close imminent disaster was, bitterly welcomed it (“TAKE ME NOW”) while Marie imagined how we’d have to get into doorways for safety. We are, as she said, such worst casers.

     The next day was rather miserable for me as I once again navigated public transit with fever and nausea while sitting next to a kind, comforting Marie (for other tales of such nature, see our Spring Break 2009, or my solo trip to France 2008). Since the train had been overbooked, we did not have seats and instead crouched on the floor near the sliding doors of one of the train cars, having to stand up to let in new passengers at each stop of an increasingly overcrowded train.  We made it back to the hostel late afternoon and I collapsed into my bunk in the hostel, entirely spent and entirely empty, choking down water and tiny nibbles of crackers.

     The next day we flew out early out of Taipei back to Hong Kong, and this time, an overbooked flight worked in our favor; the airline bumped us up to first class.  Both of us spent after our (mis)adventure the day before, we passed right out in the comfy thrones they have up in business class (flying CAN be super comfortable) and once we made the long trip via public transit to Marie’s apartment, passed out until the afternoon.  We then did a little tour of other parts of Hong Kong before Marie took me to her favorite Mexican restaurant, which sadly did not sit well with me, so we called it an early night before my last day in Asia.

     The final day was blindingly gorgeous so we headed to Shek-O and its not apt name of Repulse Bay.  The water was turquoise, the sands white, the sun hot.  We spent a lovely afternoon napping in the sun (getting ridiculously burned, whoops) and then wandering around the brightly painted jumble of a town. We got back in time to grab my stuff and head to the airport for my 11PM flight.”

I was back to work the next day, fully valuing and already missing what it means to have a close friend with you connected not just by your mutual past and mutual friendships but also by the way you think and feel and approach the world in so many ways. I miss that, living here, definitely, how could I not?

Likewise, the hike we did in Taroko Gorge awoke something in me that is crying out for space to move and breathe, for green things to touch and dirt to roll around in without the roar of traffic in the not-so-distant background.

But that’s a good thing: to be reminded of what I want, what’s important to me, and to be motivated to go get it, to carve out space in my life here for the things that will make it fulfilling.

Backlog of Travels: Part 1: March Madness: Mom in Hong Kong

With that title out of the way, let me commence with my long overdue postings!

My mother came to visit me in early March. It was exhilarating and strange to show her around town for a week, seeing everything newly through her eyes. I’ve become so accustomed to almost everything here that I didn’t even notice half of the things that made her do a double take, like the duck carcasses trussed and strung up by their necks in the windows of certain restaurants. The squatty potties are the major exception to that rule…  making her use one of those was one of the highlights of the week for me.

Day 1: Sunday: I picked Mom up from the airport and we took a taxi back to my apartment, where we promptly got on Facebook to tell the world she was in Hong Kong.

Day 2: Monday: We wandered through my neighborhood to Sheung Wan to a little street with tons of souvenir stalls and photographs of old Hong Kong. I had to work for a few hours this day, so I left Mom to her own devices in a shopping area of Causeway Bay, uncertain when I left her if I would ever find her again. However, despite one or two missteps, she managed to find her way home through the sprawling city and by the time I got home from work, she was snoozing on the couch.

Day 3: Tuesday: We went to Victoria’s Peak, taking the tram up up up to the top. The fog and wind rushed damply around us, as if we were standing in a cloud. We had poutine and hot dogs for lunch and Mom found tons of fancy souvenirs to take home. Our next step was to get to Lantau Island, but unfortunately I got us lost walking to the Central Piers, diminishing my street cred almost to nil. Eventually we found the piers and made our way to Lantau, where, in the late afternoon, almost everything was closed. We saw the

Market with lots of dead fish and flowers, and a cute little shop with jewelry and clothing, and we stopped in a Turkish restaurant for a drink before catching the ferry back to Hong Kong. We had Western food for dinner (I was nervous about how much Chinese I could push on her unaccustomed stomach) and Mom had her first glimpse of the “red district” part of town in Wan Chai, as scantily-clad women draped themselves over chairs outside of dubious bars.

Day 4: Wednesday: I had to work again on Wednesday, and the electricity in my apartment was out for the day, so Mom wandered around on her own. She met me at work for dinner. After showing her the office, we went to Times Square to Crystal Jade restaurant for a dinner of Shanghai soup dumplings, green beans with pork and chilis, and Shanghai style fried udon noodles with pork and cabbage, some of my favorite dishes that Mom said she loved.

If you look closely, you'll spot Mom waving in the top middle opening.

Day 5: Thursday: We spent the whole day taking in Macau! We had a lazy morning, taking the ferry and arriving in Macau around 1pm. We snapped a few pictures at the Largo do Senado (Senate Square) with the yellow and pink and white buildings with a fountain splashing cheerfully in the center. The roads were winding brick. We had lunch straight away, African spring chicken for Mom and baked chicken in coconut milk for me. After, we meandered toward the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, going through the crypt and the little museum attached, explaining the history and tragedy of the cathedral. Then we walked up the old Monte Fort, which was initially built in the 16th century for the protection of Jesuit priests. We decided against the museum at the top of the fort and meandered back down to and through a lovely old cemetery which is still in use.

As we tried to get to the A-Ma Temple, I put us on a bus going in the wrong direction, which eventually spat us out at the end of the line far from where we wanted to be. Mom was scared as we wandered through the maze-like one-way streets, looking for the same bus going in the opposite direction, not used to my day-to-day existence as someone who is lost all. the. time. Unfortunately, we found A-Ma Temple right as it closed, so we couldn’t explore, but we did find a bakery where we tried the almond cookies and peanut candy that Macau is famous for.

Mom touching the South China Sea

Day 6: Friday: We had a nice lazy morning, took the MTR and a bus to beautiful Shek O beach (featured here frequently, as it’s one of my favorite places on the island), where we climbed around on the rocks and explored the colorful little village nearby, eating Mandarin oranges (are they just known as oranges here…?) Going back on the MTR, we stopped back at Jardine’s Bazaar because Mom had a hankering to buy about a million pairs of shoes. She could not be stopped! She tried the famous Macanese egg tart and we ate dinner at a place I go to often for lunch and had fried lemongrass chicken wings and Vietnamese spring rolls.

Day 7: Saturday: We had a slow morning and took the ferry to Cheung Chau Island. This quaint little island is full of cheap souvenir stores and seafood and stray cats. We visited an active temple with burning incense and people praying, and we wandered the hilly streets to the beach where once upon a time I left my camera in the surf. We wandered into the snack street where we bought fried potato on a stick which we could sprinkle with spices from a row of silver canisters with taped on labels.

In the evening we took the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. Here we walked down the Avenue of the Stars and took in the Hong Kong skyline all lit up at night. We saw Bruce Lee’s and Jackie Chan’s stars. We had to head home fairly early to get Mom all packed up to leave the following morning.

Day 8: Sunday: We got up at the crazy hour of 4:30am and were out the door and in a taxi on our way to the airport by 5:30am to mark the end of our busy, brilliant week.

Next up: I had just three short weeks to do a lot of work and take a deep breath before one of my best friends came to see Hong Kong and Taiwan…

Goings-on

I AM A ROBOT. 00010101 0101010 1010101010 01010101.

What I mean is, I’m working a bunch, and that’s about it. I am very much looking forward to my mother’s visit in early March when I’ll get a few days off to show her Hong Kong and Macau. But until then, my teaching hours are increasing because students have May/June exams to prepare for, I am bearing down hard on two deadlines for the editing department, and, currently, progress reports are due.

I did have a brief break for Chinese New Year. During those three days (Jan 23-25),  the city emptied out as people hunkered in out of the cold with their families for this special holiday, and I wandered the barren streets reveling in free movement. No crowds pressed me shoulder to shoulder, and I didn’t have to watch out to keep my purse from bumping into anyone or vice versa. I miss trees, clean air, and, as the Dixie Chicks would say, “wide open spaces.”

On the last day of that long weekend, I went to Sha Tin to see the horse races. It was cold (not Northern Michigan cold, but a chilly 40F) and drizzling rain. We sipped drinks through straws and huddled into our coats and cheered as the horses from three separate races pounded past us on the green below. It was lovely: their shining coats and undulating muscles. I got a kick out of the fact that in the last race, the number 4 horse won–which meant the odds on that one must’ve been great since very few Chinese people would vote on a number 4 anything. The word “four” in Chinese sounds very similar to the word “death” and is considered very bad luck.

The weekend after that I took a ferry with a friend to Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands. We wandered around the streets and onto empty beaches (it was again chilly and a little drizzly), found a candy store, ate cheap seafood near the dock, visited a temple, and fed leftovers to the abundance of stray cats nearby before heading back.

I’d post pictures of these two events but I put my camera in the ocean because…it seemed too dry? Because it worked TOO well? Who knows. I dried it out but it still has a lens error and won’t operate correctly. This, as my mother would’ve said to me if I was much younger (and which she kindly refrained from saying on Skype when I told her), is why I can’t have anything nice.

Happy Valentine’s Day, soon! ❤