Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Culture Shock Part II: Promotion Commotion

On the surface it appears strange, but the club promotion culture here really shocked a lot of the exchange students here, as well as caused some sleepless mornings. It seems like almost every week that there is a club or organization doing promotion on campus.

What is promotion? Well, I'm still not exactly sure myself about the details, or why it happens, but in most cases it involves gathering the members of a club or organization together to walk around campus shouting club slogans for days to promote said group, or encourage people within the organization to vote for them. This is very odd to me as an American college student, and perhaps some of you readers as well, so I'll try to describe it as best I can.

My first taste of promotion was over a month ago, when I woke to a group of students shouting below, mind you five floors below and on the opposite side of the building. Quite a set of lungs they had. What's going on? It's nine or so in the it a political rally of some sort? I remembered that there had been an incident involving the police at another university, so I thought that since the shouting was so loud and passionate, it must be because of that.

Turns out that the group members were actually students running for office in my hostel, and that this is a normal activity of all the hostels here. For the next two weeks, every weekday, the students would be shouting hostel slogans for what seems like hours at a time outside the building to 'promote' themselves running for office.

Firstly, I'm used to people running for offices doing their own campaigns, not all cooperating together. After all, how would you know who to vote for if they can't distinguish themselves and their policies? It turns out that there was already only one person running in most positions, and that in the end we either voted for or against the entire group of them. (Perhaps they were all singled out from an earlier vote within the present cabinet...?)

I also wondered what the purpose was of shouting the slogans over and over again until they were hoarse; why don't they tell us what they will do if they are elected instead, maybe make a poster? They would at least save their voices. But, this must be a difference between international college cultures...

The students were so passionate during promotion that they would stand outside early in the morning (around 8 or 9am if I remember correctly), afternoon, and evening to share their passion with us, though I admit that I sometimes wished that they would recognize our passion for sleeping in. However, later on there was a conference for all hostel members to meet with them and discuss issues and recommendations for the hostel, and the entire second week they offered students walking out of the hostel free hot chocolate.

Another thing that struck me as different was the fact that they not only shout the slogans outside the hostels, but they would also shout them as they walked around campus during class hours, which is another thing that I and other exchange students found, um, culturally different, to put it nicely.

I remember a fellow student and I giving a presentation one day in an economy class, and toward the middle of it I could hear my fellow hostel mates coming toward the building shouting. The professor gave us a signal to wait and continue after they passed. OK, won't be long. 

However, the group decided to stand in the open area next to our building and cheered for what seemed like 15 minutes or so, or maybe longer. No matter how long, I got a bit flustered as we had to speak loudly, on the brink of shouting, for some time until they left. I wonder why students are allowed to march and cheer during class hours anyway?

The practice of promotion will probably remain a cultural mystery to me and most of my fellow exchange students.

Culture Shock Part I: Some Like It Hot

Wow, has it been a long time - cleared out the cobwebs, now it's time to write some more!
I received a prompt to write about culture shock and, since I've been here for over two months, I think I have enough material.

Firstly, while I can usually make out about 70% of a menu at a restaurant, there's always some anticipation about what will be on the dinner plate when it arrives to the table. This has happened at the cafeteria on campus as well; this can attributed to the fact that 15% of the time the English translation is not quite accurate, or does not account for cultural difference.

Example: 'Saliva Chicken,' which was a direct translation from the Chinese. My stomach did a little flip when I saw it for the first time. I consulted the student standing in line behind me and pointed to the sign, which he laughed at, and assured me that no saliva was involved, and that it was actually good (which was true).

Also, when something on the menu says that it's spicy, take it as a warning. There's a spicy vermicelli set that is always on the menu, and I frequently saw people ordering it, so I took a chance. "What level spice? 1, 2, or 3?" "Whatever is lowest, PLEASE!"

I like spicy foods in the U.S., but Chinese levels of spicy are a lot hotter than what most Westerners are probably accustomed to. On any given menu in Hong Kong there are several items that have the potential to be the undoing of many an exchange student's stomach, so fiery that they can make you dissolve into an uncontrollable fit of choking, tears, and searing mouth and lip pain in a matter of seconds. They are merciless and should be regarded as menaces to the expat community at large.

Since being here I've had several incidents of taking a bite of food, only to end up in a five minute choking fit, tears cascading down my tomato-red face as those around glance at me then, I'm sure, give each other a knowing glance. Ah, the American tried to eat something spicy. I hope that in the thralls of my painful fits of spiciness I've at least made some people chuckle.

As I struggled to even eat a noodle of the spicy vermicelli that day, my friend from Szechuan (an area of China known for spicy foods) eagerly dug into her level 3 bowl. After 15 minutes my lips were on fire from attempting to eat even a few spoonfuls. "You know," she said as she finished the meat and veggies, then went on to slurp the last bit of her soup, "eating too many spicy foods can be bad for your stomach."

Lessons Learned:
* Take small bites and never be without a drink in case of emergency
* For those new to Chinese, beware of THIS character: 辣 and never take a chili pepper icon next to a menu item for granted
* Take culinary recommendations from students from Szechuan with a grain of salt (or a full glass of water, more preferably milk)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Everyday Life - Food, traveling, and campus activities

A pavilion on campus
To this point I haven't really talked about my everyday life, just traveling. But, perhaps the most important part of my journey is my everyday life here on campus with my classmates. Classes so far have been fairly easy, but that's because we're still in that 'beginning of the school year' mode, and we've really only had classes for two weeks, less if you consider that there was already a day off for a public holiday (Mid-Autumn Festival) last week. In addition to classes, I've joined some clubs: choir, a social service organization, Lion's Club activities, and a traditional Chinese lion dance club. I realize that some people haven't heard of a lion dance, so here's a link:

Basically, people wear the lion costumes while other members bang cymbals, gongs, and drums. Last practice I really enjoyed playing the drum and memorizing the routine, though I've forgotten 60% of it since last time (fantastic, since we have practice again tonight). I've always wanted to play the drums, probably since I have enjoyed watching my father play his drum set since I was little, but I've never had enough coordination to play the different beats with my hands and feet; luckily, there's only one drum to play in the lion dance.
What a lion dance-dancer may look like

I really enjoy the clubs, so I'm a bit upset that I've arranged my flight to leave before Christmas; I did this mostly because of the issue of cost, and partly because I anticipated being homesick by Christmas. But a lot of club performances, like the choir, are happening AFTER Christmas or around New Year's, so as of today I'll be missing performing at the IFC Center in Central Hong Kong, and other fun things. I looked at the prices of arranging a one-way flight back to the U.S. after Christmas, and it's even more than what I paid for my round-trip ticket...over $1500! I try not to focus on this and just enjoy the moments, especially hearing the choir members sing karaoke after practice. We're practicing Christmas songs in practices, then the students like to sing Cantonese and Mandarin songs. I'm asked if I want to sing any English songs, but most of our American karaoke standards aren't very well known ("Don't Stop Believing," anyone?). What American karaoke songs do you think I should teach them?
What my wallet would look like if I booked that $1500 flight

As I've read in other student blogs, students here stay up into the wee hours of the morning, though a majority of them are quiet. Since I've been a little sick recently I've stayed up some nights, and I've noticed most lights from the rooms in our dorm don't go out until 2 or 3am. Since this is my first time in a dorm, I really don't know if this is normal compared with the U.S. or not...usually I don't stay up so late unless I'm putting the finishing touches on a paper that's due the next day (I can't do without 8 hours or I'm a bear in the morning). I think of my college back home as extremely study-oriented, so I was surprised that the library here is only open until 10pm. However, the library is fantastic: there's three floors, a technology center, a magazine and newspaper reading room, a room for watching television with private headsets, a huge DVD library, and lots of language-learning resources (you know which part I like the most!). Also, I haven't even had to purchase any textbooks because they've available for loan at the library - I love the feeling of being thrifty.

Aside from the library, however, there aren't really a lot of places to hang out on campus. Back home the library's open until early in the morning, there's a common room in the dorm, one below the cafeteria, a student activity building with beanbag chairs. Unless I'm missing something, the only place I can think of to go after the library closes is the common room in the dorm, or your own room, so students usually hang out in their own rooms.

Most of the time I would hang out in my room, but I've been having a bit of a salamander issue. There's been a greyish-orange salamander creeping along the walls of my room for the past two weeks, and it's managed to become so comfy that it's hatched eggs. I'm not a very violent person, so I've tried to catch them in a jar and release them outside, but they're just too fast! However, desperate times call for desperate measures, so before they crawl into a tiny spot I can't reach, I literally throw the book at them, or just about anything else I can find that won't damage the walls. Once I tried spraying them with Off! mosquito repellent, but, of course, they're not mosquitoes, so that didn't quite work. I've been so sick of having a third 'roommate' that I've become fearless, coming into my room and actually going hunting for the slimy thing.

Last night I finally had success; I caught a baby one off-guard and quickly squashed it with my shoe. I was ecstatic to have finally eliminated one, and I finally had proof for my roommate that they actually exist in our room (whether it was a good move to show her or not, I don't know)! You see, they never show when my roommate is around, only when she's gone home (maybe they think I'm lonely?), probably because the noise scares them away. I'd like to tell the dorm staff about the salamander, but I (1) don't know how to say salamander in Cantonese (2) don't know if they could do much; after all, I haven't even been able to catch it for two weeks!

The food (in my opinion anyway) is delicious, and there's a lot of healthy choices, though the menu tends to circulate between the same items a few times a week. Then again, there's over thirty choices, plus different sandwiches, soups, and salads, so I wonder if I really should be complaining...the average price of a meal with a drink is $30 HK, which is roughly a little over $3 US. Rice is served with everything, unless it's a noodle dish. I also like the variety of drinks that are available - there's the usual Mountain Dew and Coca-Cola products, but there's also great flavoured soybean milk drinks, fruit juice drinks with jelly, and fruit milk drinks, my favorite being coconut milk. A drink from a vending machine is around $5 HK (less than $1 US!).

Traveling is very convenient and inexpensive - there's a small shopping center less than ten minutes away by foot, and if you want to go someplace different, just walk to the MTR (10~ minutes away) or take a bus at the stop in front of the university. With a student Octopus (rechargeable pre-paid) card, it's usually about .50 - $1.50 US to go anywhere on any kind of transportation. The systems are also very clean and efficient, and it really makes me wish that I could have a system like this to go to Pittsburgh or South Hills back home. Traveling, even as a single female, is also very safe - in fact, I believe that Hong Kong was ranked as one of the top places in the world for single women travelers. I also remember in Japan that my host mother would go out late at night to see friends and not return until midnight in a city of 2 million people, all on her own; I wish I could take this cultural aspect back home, too.

Well, I think I've given you all more than an earful, so I'll wrap this up. Take care!

One Night in Mongkok (Markets, Food Stalls, and Huge Crowds)

Market on Flower Garden Street (Video, click!)

(I'd like to apologize ahead of time for the cheesy title...couldn't help it, it practically BEGGED for it!)

I was in search of adventure after spending the latter half of last week stuck on campus, feeling a bit under the weather. Plus, one of my Swedish friends was a little homesick and in need of some bed covers, so we went to the Ikea in Sha Tin (I have yet to feel homesick for American culture/food and go to MacDonald's or Pizza Hut). The Ikea is pretty close to Mong Kok, so we thought, 'What the heck,' and decided to hit it up.

What makes Mong Kok special is that it has preserved its street markets, which are must-sees on every tourist's list here. It was an experience to not only explore the markets, but to fight through the crowds in the city with the largest population density in the world...on a weekend!
Work your way through the more 'modern' streets with their movie billboards and shopping centers, then follow your nose to the source of the smells of shrimp dumplings, chili sauce and other unidentifiable but delicious meaty street snacks. I'm a bit iffy when it comes to street food because you never know about quality (and sanitary issues); so, when in doubt, go where the crowd is! This led to some absolutely delicious unidentifiable meat dumplings on a stick slathered with chili sauce. Later we went to a Taiwanese-style dessert restaurant and had THIS sugary delight: ice-shaved cream with jellies and marshmallows.
At the markets there's what appears to be miles and miles of purses, clothing, Chinese decorations, toys, accessories, books, shoes, fruit, and various electronic odds and ends. And you can tell this is some original, quality stuff; take, for example, the beautiful licensed Mickey Mouse T-shirt below!


Yeah, this CHILD'S shirt looks legit, too
I can't imagine EVER having a shopping experience like this one in the U.S. I can't imagine how anyone could EVER buy or use all of the stuff that has been crammed into the streets, or how all of these people can live and work in such crowded conditions, stacked in rooms on top of each other, let alone how anyone could sleep with a booming market below them, with salesmen with microphones selling the latest vacuum cleaner.

I'd write some more, but I'm exhausted, so enjoy some photos~

Don't even attempt to DRIVE here, geesh...

Friday, September 16, 2011

Misadventures in Shopping -

First I must say thank you to everyone - I was quite surprised and excited to see nearly 80 views within the first week that I started this blog. Having said that, I'm sorry for waiting so long to make a new post. If you are still interested in reading my blog but don't like having to waste time randomly check in, waiting impatiently for a post, you can type in your e-mail address in a box to your right and you will automatically receive updates on the blog.

Today marks four weeks since I've been in Hong Kong, and things are going remarkably well - at this point I had thought that I'd have massive culture shock and homesickness, and people would find me huddling, curled up in a ball in a darkened corner of my room by now, but surprisingly no. Getting into a routine with classes and activities, making time to study Mandarin and Cantonese every day, and being surrounded by great classmates has really made for a cozy, friendly atmosphere. Also, I listen to some music as I wind down for the evening: I've been spinning Achtung Baby by U2 lately, and it's great 'medicine' to keep any stress or homesickness away.

That being said, I've had a few minor misadventures along the way, the first being shopping for some new threads. A lot of things here, such as transportation and food, are cheaper here than in the U.S. With that in mind, I thought, 'Well then, I shouldn't have any problem finding some stylish new threads!' Blinded by excitement and naivety, I went to the TMT Shopping Plaza, a mall in the center of Tuen Mun, the 'town' where I live.

'Tuen Mun Town Shopping Plaza:' very pleasant and innocuous-sounding. I'm envisioning a decent food court, the usual preppy American clothing stores, and some mom and pop shops selling delicious street foods and Chinese herbal medicine. They call it a town, but think to yourself - what exactly qualifies as a 'town' in Hong Kong, a small region comprised of over 17 million people? Yeah, I didn't think about that. And so I wandered in like a rat wanders into a maze...

So, it turns out that this 'Shopping Plaza' is the largest shopping center in north-western Hong Kong, and on an usual day you'll rub shoulders with, oh, 300,000 customers or so. You could probably walk from one end of 'town' to another, all while still being in this massive shopping complex. And this shopping complex is made up of several different buildings and covers four floors, so that with all the excitement of the shops, crowds, sights, and sounds, you can walk into another shopping 'center' and hardly realize it until you come out of your shopping euphoria wondering where in the wide world you have wandered off to. The shopping mall itself is very upscale and has every brand name shop you can think of, while some plazas have smaller, mom-and-pop type vendors that sell bargain electronics, clothing, and Angry Birds merchandise, which may or may not be real (Angry Birds is extremely popular here - I hear them whizzing through the air on people's phones every time I ride the subway).

 'Am I still in the TMT Shopping Plaza? Hey!! That's the 7-11 I passed near the entran...wait, no, that's a different  7-11. Am I still on the 1st floor? AM I STILL IN TUEN MUN??'

I've been there a few times, determined to keep my bearings, but I have only managed to come out the way I came in ONCE. It's like the shopping mall equivalent of the Greek Labyrinth.

Here's the center's website...look at that shop directory!!

Anyway, once I went in I went looking for clothes. There's plenty of end of summer sales, but I was confused about the signs. Sure, there's '30% off!' But there's also 折. For example, 9means that there's a 10% discount, so it's essentially selling for 90% of original price - this threw me off for a few minutes when I read this and thought the store was having a 90% off sale (now wouldn't that be lovely?) 

Anyway, clothing here is expensive, maybe $30-40 US for a nice blouse on average. Also, the style is very Asian, in which I mean that things are either cutesy, or things that I might wear are too small, or say strange things in English on the front. A few times I thought I had a lucky break and saw what seemed like unassuming, striped shirts on the hanger. I take a look, and there's a print on the front that says, 'Smile Happy Little Cat' or "U GUT? I GUT." I finally found one shirt for about $14 US at H&M, my new shopping oasis when I need clothing, where the prices and sizes are great.

Well, I hope to write some more this weekend, so let's end the post here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ching Chung Koon Temple and Symphony of Lights at Victoria Harbour

So we finally got a rest from the orientation craziness of the past few days yesterday, which means it was high time for some sightseeing! After meeting up with another exchange student from Sweden (who could speak Cantonese - great!), we took a light rail train a few stops to Ching Chung Koon Temple. The entrance doesn't really look like much - a small gate surrounded by high bushes - but you know there's something special about it when it's surrounded by skyscrapers and high rises.

First thing we notice is how quiet it is - this will make a nice place to get away and relax! So it is a Taoist temple,  which means there are some special buildings. There's a main hall where you bow and present an offering of incense - my friend said that it's a way to pay respect at the temple. There's also rooms and rooms full of small placards, about the size of bookmarks, with the photos and names of the deceased. People come here to present incense and offerings of food (oranges seem to be popular) to them. From classes I've taken at W&J, it also is customary to burn special paper money that the deceased can use in the afterlife (not REAL paper money - it's a special kind made exclusively for this purpose).

Favorite place
There's also room after room of special altars with gorgeous decorations, and a heavy scent of incense wafting through the air. Our favorite place was the rock garden featuring a waterfall and pagoda. The bonsai trees were also impressive - these aren't the small dinky ones they sell at the mall! They're about as thick as me around, haha. I read that this is a relatively new temple as well, dating only to around 1949.

Holy cow, this is ridiculous - in a good way!
After a few hours nap, it was nice to go to the big city - yes, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island! We went in the evening, partly because it's a lot cooler, and mostly because we went to see the Symphony of Lights, the Guinness Book of World Record's official largest permanent light show! The lights are installed at the top and side of buildings on either side of Central HK, and it was amazing to think how long it must have taken to synchronize the lights with the music. We stood with people from around the world taking in the grandness of it all, the lights reflecting on the water as the ferries went back and forth in the Harbour.

Orientation and Student Activity Carnival

Sorry for not writing, this week has been long with four days of orientation! I talked about the first one last time, but the day afterward the local first-year students (including my roommate!) came. These orientations lasted all day, from nearly 8:30am to 7pm or so. Unfortunately, I have to report that most of the orientation lectures were a bit ho-hum, which you could tell by looking around the room at the students with glazed looks in their eyes. Fortunately, during meals we were divided into groups within our hostels, so I had the chance to meet more people living on my floor, which was definitely NOT boring. Also, it was exciting to be in the auditorium with hundreds of students doing their hostel cheers (HALL B O YEAH!!!).

I tried to read it the best I could, haha.
This is when a bit of culture shock came in: this was my first time living in a place where people speak a language I barely understand at all. People are nice and translate what's going on, but I hate making them do that. I hate making them stop enjoying their conversation to cater to me. I'm determined to learn Cantonese; in fact, if you came to my room right now, you'll see all the flashcards I've made this afternoon, haha.

Also, sometimes it's difficult to order at the cafeteria, but I have a plan: I bring a little notepad so I can write down the Chinese names of the dishes! There's another thing, a cultural thing, that took me for surprise: washing your cups and silverware with tea before eating. I was sort of faked out a bit when I saw people pouring their tea, only for them to pour it into their bowl, then placing their cup and chopsticks in it. Afterward, they dumped this used tea into a large container. The look on my face must have been priceless: I never remembered reading anything about that in the guidebooks!!

Delicious fruit dessert after a long and hot day

Finally, we were all rewarded from sitting in the lectures with a student carnival, where we could sign up for clubs! I'm trying to sign up for too many because schoolwork comes first, plus I want time to travel off of campus. I signed up for SSA, which is a group that volunteers in the community with children and the elderly. I also signed up for the choir, and I'd like to find a sport club to join as well.
...there must be over 50 clubs to join here.