Top 10 Favorite Fruit

June 24, 2010

It’s finally here — the weather your mother warned you about. 

Like a stranger’s hot breath on your neck.  Like a wet dog creeping into bed.  You want desparately to push it away, but it’s useless.  You walk by the open shop doors and leeaaan into the air conditioning billowing out onto the street.  Looking up through the gray buildings, you can see thick fog sitting heavily on the tops of glossy green trees.  And then kind of a PTSD moment as you (I!) remember San Francisco fog and try to reconcile *this* fog with the 85-degree+ temperature.  How can it be this hot and also foggy?

Mercifully, this insane atmosphere brought something wonderful with it: fresh lychees.  If you’re like me, your familiarity with lychees is limited to the limp white fruit in heavy syrup one sometimes gets at shady-looking Chinese joints in someplace totally un-tropical, like New England.

Well, a fresh lychee is something totally different.  To start with, they are an amazing color.  It is the same hue as someone’s cheeks when they’re blushing.  But the color is much more intensely saturated.  And the fruits themselves come in bunches, like grapes, but they’re bigger, the size of a ping-pong ball.  They’re covered with a tough, spikey-hairy skin.  You cut through the skin and quickly find yourself with juice dripping down your arm.  The fruit is semi-translucent white and the flavor is intense.  It’s slightly acidic and also perfumey or slightly soapy, and it’s as sweet as a red grape or a white nectarine.  Really sweet.  Dead-on, unadulterated, hot and heavy sweet.  It’s the exact opposite of a supermarket strawberry.  It’s the antidote to the supermarket strawberry. 

Chinese freinds keep telling me not to eat so many — in Chinese medicine they’re a heating food.  Better to take something like watermelon (cooling) with red meat at a barbecue.  (Hey, I already knew that!)  But really, there’s no stopping once I start.  However many are there, I’ll eat them all, creating a great heap of scaly skins and smooth pits next to me.  Yes, I love lychee.  Maybe more than any other fruit.

So here it is, ladies and gentlemen, my Top 10 Favorite Fruit, revised for 2010:

  1. Lychees
  2. Apples
  3. Japanese persimmons (the crunchy kind)
  4. Mangos
  5. Dead-ripe Oregon blackberries
  6. White nectarines or peaches
  7. Apricots
  8. Comice pears
  9. Watermelon
  10. Pineapple

At Home in Beijing

May 31, 2010

Hong Kong is south.  Beijing is north.

Hong Kong is wet.  Beijing is dry.

Hong Kong is gray.  Beijing is blue.

Hong Kong’s lucky number is 8 (sounds like “money”).  Beijing’s lucky number is 9 (sounds like “heaven”).

I just got back from a week in Beijing, my first trip to Big China — and already I miss the city.  Even though people stared at me like a monkey had been released from the zoo everywhere I went, I *still* felt much more at home there than I do in HK.

My first real impression riding into the city in a taxi was of the trees.  Were they birch trees on the side of the freeway, doing that reflective flickering in the sunlight against the perfectly blue sky?  And then, in the city, bicycles, not zipping around, but instead moving at a langorous pace.  I talked to a few people, checking in to the hotel, getting some dinner (cold noodles in broth with sliced apple, egg, and spare ribs)…  And my overall impression was of confidence.  People in Beijing seemed relaxed and confident.  They are not looking over their shoulders at other cities or countries.  This is the center of the world.  This is the place to be.

In the morning I woke up and began an entire week of eating street food.  I stopped at a little mom-and-pop convenience store to investigate a crate filled with small earthenware containers covered with paper that had blue cows printed on it.  I pointed, and the woman happily gave me one and offered me a stool to sit and enjoy (and not run off with the jar).  Sweet yogurt!  In fact, there was yogurt everywhere in Beijing.  This undoubtedly was a large part of why I felt so at home.  I looove yogurt.  When I spent a semester in Switzerland in college, my strongest memory was of the yogurt.  In Hong Kong, yogurt is really expensive — one of those crazy Western foods that costs 100x everything else, and I fork out for it anyway.  In Beijing: strawberry yogurt with black rice, mulberry yogurt with adzuki beans, aloe yogurt, coconut yogurt.  And BIG containers of yogurt, not little puny, unsatisfying pull-top numbers.

But, I will hold off on the food for a second.

After I got my yogurt, I continued down the street past these low gray brick houses with red doors and lion (?) doorknockers that looked so satisfyingly *Chinese.*  The doorways into the gray houses, are actually doorways into winding corridors and courtyards.  Hutong houses.  I would peek my head inside and see invariably a bicycle, a mop, a plant, household odds and ends.  Everything very casual and old-fashioned.  That’s the thing about Beijing, it seems beautifully old-fashioned.  Were the bicycles all made in 1920s?  I don’t know.  They look like it.  The stools look ancient.  The bird cages hanging in the trees in parks — people take their song birds out for air — all look like beautiful antiques.

So anyway, I cruise past all of these gray houses and alleyways winding intriguingly back into more gray houses and little shops and smells of meat barbequing, and then there, behind the houses — in a scale that seems to be out of a totally different consciousness, like an alien spaceship set down in a cornfield — is the Drum Tower.  The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower are on two ends of one square.  The Bell Tower used to mark the time across the city and could be heard for 5KM.  It’s that big.

Well, that was also my introduction to hard-core Chinese touts trying to get me into a tuk-tuk.  Back off, man.  No thanks.  I felt a bit like a baby bird being circled by wolves.

And then, walking, walking, walking, and my first view of the Forbidden City.  Holy S–.  A large mote and a pristine gray brick wall with castle-shaped tops and then this tall, elaborately decorated wooden building standing arrogantly above.  The Forbidden City is massive.  It is a gigantic walled complex at the center of Bejing where the emperors and their legions of eunuchs and concubines lived.  Most of it first built in the 15th century.  How can you describe this place?

The imperial architecture in Beijing is so dramatic.  But it’s not sensational drama, like an amusement park.  It’s drama with a purpose.  It is meant to convey power.  When you enter through the enormous gates of the Forbidden City, you meet head on with a series of big halls sitting perfectly symmetrically set at the center of the compound.  In front is a vast courtyard.  Everything made of wood or bricks of some kind.  It feels hot and intensely dry.

The roofs of all of the imperial buildings are beautiful ceramic tiles, glossy golden yellow for the emperor; green and blue for other things.  A layer lower on the roofs are painted wooden frescoes (is that the right word?), and then painted wooden posts sticking out — with a pattern on the end.  They’re all very grand.

After seeing these amazing sites: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven Park, Lama Temple…I just found myself craving to go back and be in those environments.

I really loved Temple of Heaven park.  A maaaaasive park, with a white marble altar with space-age looking gates and strange sonic phenomena — at one end.  The altar was connected by a looooong marble walkway called “the bridge” which the emperor and his ministers would walk up to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests to pray.  Ordinary people didn’t see any of this.  This enormous park, beautiful buildings, and expensive materials, and only the emperor and company saw it.  The emperor was the son of heaven, so his mandate was not from the people, it was from…well, heaven.  So the central path on this marble walkway was for God (have I got that right), then the emperor walked on the east and the ministers on the west.  The animals to be sacrificed passed underneath.  And then, of course, the perfectly round Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which is the building you see on lots of tourist literature.

But then, speaking no Mandarin whatsoever, I cajoled a cab driver into taking me into the boondocks of Beijing, the industrial north-east corner, past the creepily-touristy 798 Art District to Caochangdi Art District, the supposedly more authentic area.  There are a lot, lot of galleries in Beijing, by the way.  798 is very big.  I didn’t explore extensively because I was so turned off by the crowds of Chinese tourists shopping in the cutesy-pie hipster shops that all looked nearly identical to one another.  Ah yes, my good old Western love of the individual and unique offended, as always, by the Chinese ability to turn anything into a commodity.  But on we go.

Caochangdi is in an area filled with some kind of old gray brick factories.  The galleries there, 3 Shadows, ShangArt, Urs Miele, ArtMia, etc., are vast and very professional.  I found myself wandering and wandering in 3 Shadows wondering who in the hell had to install all of this stuff and if enough visitors came to justify that much effort.  The artwork was…eh.  There was some good international stuff, like a retrospective of Araki’s work, that you might as easily find in NYC or Paris.  But the local work was much like student work anywhere.  A video piece showing trash floating in the ocean.  One decent series of photos by a young woman, combining goldfish and flowers and vanity shots, with some compromising experiences for the fishes.  And a few good photos showing, in Cindy-Sherman-esque style, people standing in George & Martha Washington costumes in front of an construction site, or a girl wearing the heavy stains of a long night of drinking in a broken plastic chair in a a little room.  The artist statement talked about how the rapid growth in China was affecting the emotional tone of the country.  People can’t quite cope with how fast things are changing.

But, you know, it’s hard to interpret this kind of art since it was primarily the Western galleries that had exhibitions about this kind of edgy stuff.  The Western galleries all had work about Three Gorges Dam.  In the West, being edgy is being cutting edge.  I’m not so sure it’s the same in China.  Often, I feel that edginess is just seen as poor taste or poor breeding.  So do the photographs of the girl with the drunken stains on her face just fit the Western art audience’s expectation of what edgy Chinese art should look like?

So then, there was *me* in Beijing, the tall, white, freak of nature that I am.  People really did stare and stare.  They stared at my legs a lot.  I know what you’re thinking 🙂  It’s not because I have such fabulous legs.  I think it was because: a) there’s a tattoo on my ankle, or b) they didn’t want to look at my face.  But, having never traveled somewhere that I am the minority, I quickly became weary of stepping on the train and having people start when they looked at me.  Beijingers are tall too.  Slim and good-looking.

And they really, really want to help you with directions.  I began to look for shelter before pulling out my guide book or map — otherwise I would find people running across the street to help point me in the right direction.  I’m sorry, I don’t know where I want to go.  Really.  It’s hard to explain.  Thank you, your English is perfect.  Beijing is magnificent.  Thank you.  Goodbye.

Then there was the moment of perfectly orchestrated irony when two girls came up and asked to have their pictures taken with me at Lama Temple, with which I complied, feeling rather creeped out.  Only to walk around the side of the building and witness two white hipsters in black chunky glasses asking a Chinese monk hanging out on a bench if they could take their picture with him.  Ha.  Joke’s on someone.

Too much to say and share.  I would have blogged from Beijing except that all blogging software, Facebook, and YouTube are blocked by the Chinese government.

Since I can’t do this justice, I will just say: if you ever have a chance to go to Beijing, go!

And here are some photos too:

Losing Perspective/Gaining Perspective

April 19, 2010

When I first got here, I looked at some other blogs about HK.  All of them petered out after a few months.  And *I* have been petering out too (my last post was a month ago!).  Part of it is the blogging aspect…it takes longer to write something worth reading than you’d think.  But the other part is losing perspective.

When you first arrive somewhere, your senses are overwhelmed; everything is novel — or aggravating; everyone you meet is new to you.  But after a while the pineapple bun just becomes your regular guilty pleasure, like the vegan berry scone I used to eat every day at Reverie in SF.  The people you meet whose life stories are fascinating become…your friends.  The places you discover to go running and walking — like Bowen Road park — become your regular running route.  It all starts to become ordinary life.

Does it make sense to blog about ordinary life?

Last night we went to a Chiu Chau restaurant with C.  It’s a tiny little labyrinth of a place down on Wellington Street in Sheung Wan.  Chauzhou is a place in Canton (Guangdong) Province.  Some of the characteristic dishes are oyster omelettes, poached goose with shallot-vinegar sauce, chicken with flash-fried morning glory (think that’s right…), crispy noodles with sugar and black vinegar, a different type of congee…  Definitely my cup of tea!  It reminded me of Filipino food.

But we were talking with C about visitors, cultural perspective, and the like — having had friends from the States visit recently.  And boom, hit a sensitive nerve…

We were talking about a tour guide, 30+ year resident of HK, fluent Cantonese speaker, being openly distainful of the so-called security guards at a historic site.  The guards shot all of us in the head with a body-temperature thermometer (theoretically for swine flu).  Anyway, our guide said a few inflamatory things that would have gotten him pulled out of line in a genuinely security-sensitive country to prove the point that these guards were only there because the government wanted to create jobs for them.  This guy is a bit edgy.

Well, C was totally offended.  “He should not be introducing people to this culture if he does not respect it.”


I agree that it is in poor taste to do something like that.  But here is another facet of the Eastern/Western divide.  We Westerners are much more comfortable with openly criticizing/ridiculing our own culture.  It’s definitely a form of losing face.  I think our tour guide considers HK to be *his* culture since HK is a melting pot of different influences and since he has lived, fully integrated, in the culture for so many years.  But his perspective towards authority is still totally Western.  Irreverence can be acceptable in the West.  I don’t really think it’s cool here.

We then said to C, this is the only culture we’ve visited where we felt our efforts to learn about the way things are done, to try to speak the language, to integrate (essentially), have been totally rebuffed.  And she said, “Well duh.”  Then (I’m paraphrasing) Westerners think that culture is something you’re invited into; that it’s a matter of hospitality and personal connection.  Chinese culture is something you learn.  You get it, or you get *in to* the culture, by learning, not just by enthusing.

Whoah.  That is something to chew on for a while.

Slowing Down

February 15, 2010

E thinks I am one of the slowest people on this planet.

He may be right.  It takes my psyche a long time to turn corners, and this move to Hong Kong has been a massive shock (not good or bad, just dramatic).

We were in SF for a whole month, the first week a blur of jetlag, flu, cold, and Christmas.  The next, a week of sorting through things in my apartment and giving them away — a very difficult thing for me since I was finally just settling in.  Then a few weeks of catching up with friends and feeling the push and pull of needing more time to really see people — not because we needed more time for visits, but because it takes time to re-establish rapport.  Just challenging all round.  That’s a taste of it, anyway.

Returning to HK was wonderfully relaxing at first, then hard again…just adjusting, getting back into a rhythm, accepting that the weather here is gray, gray, gray — regardless of whether it’s hot or cold.  I’ve been obsessed with turning our apartment into a home now that my home/apartment in SF no longer exists.  To do that, I’ve been rushing against the clock with Chinese New Year, when everything grinds to a halt in Hong Kong.

So everything ground to a halt, and it’s been wonderful.  Chinese New Year is a wonderful holiday.  It’s long — two days off officially, but a week (or more) unofficially.  Lots and lots of little superstitions to start the new year out right.  My favorite is eating lots of candies so that the year will be sweeter.  We found these amazing little candied mandarines, where the entire fruit has been soaked in sugar and dried.  Also candied winter melon, which has a marvelous bite to it and ungodly sweetness (the cocaine of candied fruits?).

Other traditions: hiding sharp points (e.g., scissors, knives) so they don’t cut your good luck away, not washing your hair (I think that’s one of the ways the good luck gets in), not buying shoes or else you buy yourself a year of drudgery, and on it goes…  We hung a pair of mandarin oranges and lai see (red pockets) over our bed, which is supposed to bring good luck too.  (And of course, I’ve been stressed about giving lai see — how much, to whom, when.)

The Friday before Chinese New Year’s Eve we went to the Victoria Flower Market in Causeway Bay, a football-field sized area filled with flower vendors selling mandarin bushes and prize bouquets to bring to relatives on CNYE.  There were also tons of teenagers wearing tiger hats and selling trinkets like a stuffed egg tart toy with felt eyes, mouth, and nose that you could move around.  We also saw a massive bunch of hello kitty balloons caught in a light pole.  There were all sorts of glutinous rice treats, sesame-nut candies, baked goods, and a dubious squid or octopus offering — flat sheets pulled out of a cardboard box, cooked in a press steamer, and sent through a paper shredder-type device and covered with spicy powder.  You’d think we’d know better, but…E had a stomach ache later.

And then CNYE day we spent walking through Sheung Wan, looking at all of the exotic goods in dried bins — here is E trying to figure out what this pair of crucified lizards is used for.  We bought new socks for me and walked and walked…  Are those goji berries?  Rose buds?  Dried scallops?  Then a rain cloud descended and we hoofed it through the rain to have dinner with a new friend at a Korean restaurant.

And yesterday we literally couldn’t see anything outside our window — it was pure white and raining.  I went for a run and cooked chicken-onion curry with raita and ginger-date chutney (learned from a cooking class at the YWCA here).  We listened to some of “my music” : Donny Hathaway, Erykah Badu…  And then we braved it, made it safely through the lobby where the doormen lay in wait for lai see, which we gave them, and out to the CNY parade in TST.

But all told, just a quiet, relaxed, slow-moving holiday filled with yummy things.  And we could just watch and enjoy having no particular responsibilities of our own.  And I’ve felt relaxed for the first time in a long time, grateful to be forced to slow down.  Nowhere to go, nothing in particular to do unless we really feel like it.  A holiday that’s a pleasure.

Hong Kong Temperature and Rainfall

January 16, 2010

In SF now, looking at this chart of HK temperatures and rainfall:

Holy cow — max temperature in July (84 degrees F), max rainfall in August (444 mm), and max days of rain in June (19!!).

Mean Temperature


Daily Min

Daily Max

Daily Mean

Mean Total Rainfall (mm)

Mean Number of Rain Days

Jan 57.4 65.5 61.45 24.9 5.6
Feb 57.9 65.5 61.7 52.3 9.5
Mar 62.4 70.7 66.55 71.4 10.5
Apr 69.1 77.2 73.15 188.5 11.7
May 75 83.1 79.05 329.5 15.5
Jun 79 86.7 82.85 388.1 18.8
Jul 80.1 88.3 84.2 374.4 17.8
Aug 79.5 88 83.75 444.6 17.4
Sep 78.1 86.4 82.25 287.5 14.8
Oct 74.1 81.9 78 151.9 8.1
Nov 66.9 75.2 71.05 35.1 5.7
Dec 60.3 68.5 64.4 34.5 4.3
Mean Temperature
Month Daily Min Daily Max Mean Total Rainfall (mm) Mean Number of Rain Days
Jan 57.4 65.5 24.9 5.6
Feb 57.9 65.5 52.3 9.5
Mar 62.4 70.7 71.4 10.5
Apr 69.1 77.2 188.5 11.7
May 75 83.1 329.5 15.5
Jun 79 86.7 388.1 18.8
Jul 80.1 88.3 374.4 17.8
Aug 79.5 88 444.6 17.4
Sep 78.1 86.4 287.5 14.8
Oct 74.1 81.9 151.9 8.1
Nov 66.9 75.2 35.1 5.7
Dec 60.3 68.5 34.5 4.3

3 New Experiences

December 19, 2009

I would never have experienced these without coming here…

1.  Bag-o-Frogs

For Thanksgiving we went to a very weird event: a gathering of Americans and others in a small bar on the 7th floor of an office building to eat turkey out of Tupperware containers — an ambiguously commercial event organized by a young woman who does wine tasting parties and her boyfriend who is launching this bar.  Anyway, not our bowl of soup, but — the good part was meeting Camelia.  Camelia is a native Hong Konger who has lived in Chicago, Germany, London, among other places.  Her family has been here for at least three generations.  She does lighting/AV design for events.  I think she got laid off from her job in Chicago, so lost her visa, came back here, and is figuring out her next move.

Camelia generously took me through the streets surrounding the Wanchai market and gave me a food tutorial.  The range of ingredients here is vast.  My favorite, besides the bakeries which sell Pineapple Buns (suggary-topped pan dulce-type affairs) and Cocktail Buns (longish fluffy rolls filled with butter/cream and topped with coconut), are the dried goods stores.  Everything dried has more concentrated flavor — there are dried oysters and scallops, all sorts of mushrooms (stars on the caps and thicker are better), and long stringy bunches of dried bok choy for soup.

Everything goes in soup here: papayas and cucumbers being the most surprising to me.  There are all sorts of soups.  In the US we don’t take soup nearly as seriously as the Chinese.  But as Camelia corrected me, “What do you mean ‘Chinese Cuisine’?  There are many many cuisines.  This is Cantonese.” In Cantonese cuisine, she says, there are very few seasonings.  It’s a matter of balancing just a few basics — soy sauce (particular variety), sugar, salt, and oil — with the flavors of the ingredients.

Camelia also taught me how to buy a chicken.  A guy will bring the chicken out upside down, held by its feet.  You reach into the feathers and grab the breast to feel how fat it is.  Then he’ll go behead it quickly and stick its body into a funnel-type device for the blood to run out.  Presto.  We didn’t talk about how to prepare frogs.  There were bags of living frogs sitting on the counter, looking appropriately glum.  We have yet to try Frog on a Hot Stone at our favorite Sichuan restaurant.

2.  Poof

Envision E in his socks, ready to slip-slide bolt across the kitchen, one arm holding a plastic bottle above the sink.  I am cowering in the next room.  Smoke is unfurling from the drain.  Both of our eyes are like saucers.  This, ladies and gentleman, is Chinese Draino.  Not your everyday-American-toxic affair, but straight-up sulfuric acid.  This was the result of a round of charades at the hardware store — effectively, I need to unclog a sink.  Well, this does the trick.  Also oxydizes the finish on the stainless steel sink.  But these folks don’t f— around when it comes to chemicals.  E and I wondered if this is what was used in the acid attacks in Monkok in September (a cuckolded boyfriend attacked the alleged offender by throwing acid in his face, gulp).

3.  Shenzhen

This was a day deserving of its own blog post.  I met up with a group of five ladies at the Starbucks in Pacific Place — everything takes place in shopping malls here, you just get used to its being the underlying terrain — at 8:45.  These are expat ladies who lunch.  Husbands are big dudes in HK business, having launched some of the bigger enterprises in town.  They have moved their families and children from New York to London to Hong Kong to Paris, educated their domestic helpers, commuted to the Four Seasons condos for many years.  They are the logistics arm of the expat banker population.  All of them very competent, earthy people.  Kind of an army vibe.  But they’re not tai-tais, I’ve learned.  Tai-tais are the very beautiful Chinese wives with badly behaved children who are more decorative than functional.

We were headed off for the wilds of Shenzhen, which is where all the stuff we buy in the US is made.  And it’s where expats go to buy cheapcheap while the mainland Chinese head the opposite direction to buy real brands.  Hong Kongers avoid Chinese-made products, by the way.  Yes, you should be afraid of lead in toys and anything else you can imagine.  Consumer protection DNE so watch out.

I only saw a few blocks of Shenzhen — a grey-brown oily river, overcast polluted skies, acres of concrete buildings.  Seventy percent of the people here, allegedly, are women.  Girls come out to work in the factories.  Also there’s lots of prostitution.  It’s the rule here that tour groups must have a Chinese tour guide, so we picked up ours — Mandy — at the mall.  She spoke excellent American-accented English and was quite cute with her LV tote, tight jeans, and little blazer with girlie ruffles.  So we shopped and she shopped with us — explaining all the while the challenges of finding a husband: “I think Hong Kong husband is best choice for Shenzhen girl.”

Hours and hours of winding our way through labyrinth-like corridors while salespeople would come surging out of doorways, “Missee missee iPhone case?  You come in shop.”  Grabbing my arms and bag.  It felt like being surrounded by animals, really.  Like being swarmed or attacked.  Someone pacing after you even after you’ve told them no a thousand times.  You are not human beings.  You are money and they’re going to get it.  If they see your eyes pause in the window of a shop, they surround you and begin pelting you with sales pitches.

But after the swarm, sometimes they would let up and relax.  Our leader, who — like everyone else — was running her own scam by taking us to particular shops and telling us to pay the price she’d negotiated, had a good rapport with some folks despite not speaking any Cantonese.  So as we hung out sitting on plastic stools in the hallways, someone in one shop came out and helped me to re-tape a package that came open.  Others were playing with babies in the halls or eating cherry tomatoes brought in on carts from outside.  It’s both ways…there is a predatory brutality and a warm, relaxed communality too.

A final snippet…  The weirdness of following the wife of a big-time HK businessperson into the back of a bedding shop, through a secret door, into a claustrophobic room full of fake Jimmy Choos (which looked like Payless Shoesource with JC emblems tacked on).  Then waiting while the official Chinese tour guide finished trying on her fakes so that we could leave.  Returning to HK after Shenzhen felt like a balm…it was organized, people were civilized and reserved.  Very grateful to be here, not there.

The Frustration Phase

December 7, 2009

Sometimes it’s not fun being an easy mark in a city full of sharks.

The finish on the beautiful antique table I adored…cracked when it got cold because it’s a fake.

The woman at Wing On department store…wouldn’t give me info on any vacuum except the top end German one she wanted to sell me.

The fast-talking friendly dude at the travel agency down the street…gave me a price for getting a China visa that was ~US$25 more than it is everywhere in the city.

Last week E and I each independently lost our s*** in two different scenarios.

I was in Tsim Sha Tsui, carrying a million and one bags — and a computer.  I bought a coffee at a Starbucks so I could sit down and use the computer.  There was only one table left, so I sat there (didn’t want to share with two businessmen having a business-y conversation).  Behind me were two 50-something ladies and a gentlemen, I’m guessing from mainland China.  One lady asked if she could share my table, so I said yes of course.  But I already had my computer out and unpacked.  Well, then all three of them sat down and just kind of took over the table.  Like confiscated it.  I just lost it, huffed and puffed and picked up everything and walked out.  They were doing “oh, thank you so much.”  Bullshit.

Meanwhile E went to his hair appointment with the guy he’s used before ( recommended by an Australian friend) — and it appears that the guy is not there.  But the receptionist won’t say he’s not there.  Instead, “Please wait.”  And wait.  And is anything really happening?  So E says, “You’re lying, right?  If you just told me he was late and on his way here, I would stay, but now you just lost a customer!”  And walks out.

This among other things prompted me to finally acquire a book on Chinese culture and etiquette — “It’s All Chinese to Me” by Pierre Ostrowski and Gwen Penner.  In their chapter on culture shock they describe The Honeymoon Phase, The Frustration Phase, and The Acceptance and Resignation Phase.  “A sudden, explosive tirade launched at a perfect stranger on the street is a deinite sign that you’ve made it into phase two of culture shock.”  Umm, we’re there.

More shocking insights from the book…  Two key concepts in Chinese culture are Guanxi and Mianzi.

Guanxi refers not only to one’s extended network of family, friends, classmates, professional affiliations, social clubs, etc., but also the status of these folks and the degree to which they’re obligated to you.  You do someone a favor, they owe you a favor.  So the sense of the family and the network is very strong here, and sense of responsibility to those outside the network is…not so much.

Apparently there are actually race-based (ethnically Chinese) social clubs here in HK.  Brrr.   We’re white, a two-unit “family,” new to town, and unaffiliated with any business.  People are totally flummoxed by the fact that we don’t seem to want to buy anything or sell them anything.

I feel really uncomfortable with Guanxi because I’m uncomfortable with mixing friendship and business.  But E really has trouble with the concept of Mianzi.

Mianzi is the concept of face.  My book says “Largely as a result of Confucian teachings, China has evolved into a shame-based culture.  This is very different from Western, conscience-based cultures.”  What does this mean?  Among other things, it means that no one declines a social invitation directly (instead they say “maybe”), interrupting someone is considered an insult, getting angry causes shame and embarrassment for both parties, admitting to a mistake (or not knowing something, like how to speak English) is shameful so people will simply make things up, and — most shocking to E — telling lies to save face is very common (and catching someone in a lie is considered cruel or rude).

Lots of fascinating insights about the Chinese education system, Confucianism, hierarchy, individualism vs. group/family orientation.  This is a bit depressing.  The whole insider-outsider thing feels like there’s no basic foundation of respect for other human beings so doing things like ripping someone off is no problem if they’re not one of yours.  Meanwhile, since preserving the appearance of your hard-earned status in the hierarchy is so important, folks have no problem telling bald-faced lies to cover up the fact that they just ripped you off.  Bleh!

But, as our HK history teacher said to us, those books are only of so much use.  A book on American culture would probably capture our motivations and assumptions on some level — but we probably differ significantly from the norm in many ways.  So there must be people here who aren’t that cut-throat and cruel (have I mentioned the beggars missing pieces of their heads and faces and limbs?).  Bleh.  I’m really in The Frustration Phase today.

So to illustrate my post, I present something which embodies the cynicism I feel all around me: “organic apples” from CitySuper.  “Flown in by air,” (very ecological), wrapped in plastic and styrafoam (are they kidding? am I kidding — I bought them fearing toxic China sludge).


Hot stuff

October 31, 2009

Hot stuff!This is what you get when you take a macho attitude to a Sichuanese restaurant.

This was actually *my* macho attitude, not E’s.  There was an item on the menu with three peppers next to it and a chop (as in “signature dish”) and I couldn’t resist.  It wound up being a plate of peppers, cumin seeds, and spring onions fried in wok so all the oils came out — then chunks of fried chicken and cashews were tossed in with…  Result was that you had to burrow in the chiles to find the edible parts.  The food was salty, savory, and a little bit sour too — fattening, tasty, a bit overwhelming.

We’ve been on a string of Cantonese and Sichuanese restaurants lately.  A few nights ago it was Kin’s Kitchen in Tin Hau, where we had rose petal and tea smoked chicken served room temperature, chantrelle mushrooms from Yunan, and white yam with pork, dried shrimp, and green onions.

Tonight we wound up accidentally at Farm House in Causeway Bay, me bleary-eyed from the week, hair a mess, wearing flip-flops, E in a Florida-inspired palm tree-disguise shirt.  We had Japanese special pork with cubes of mushroom, shrimp and prawns with sweet peas in XO sauce, and…I had to avail myself of Google translation via iPhone to order steamed rice. I held up the phone.  They looked at me like I was nuts.  But then the rice came — solo, before everything else.  What can I say?

Dessert was one of those things you don’t quite grasp how yummy it is until afterwards and you’re still day-dreaming about it…  It was called birds-nest bun with custard.  Essentially that pillowy-sweet white bun dough we gweilos know from pork buns.  But here the buns were shaped like breasts (no denying it) with pink freckles, squeezed into a dim-sum steamer.  Inside was scalding hot eggy custard that was salty-sweet and slightly grainy/gritty.  So delicious and sensuous and so “inappropriate” (a word we’re confronted by often here).

Last night we took a million trains to what E surmised was the Walnut Creek of Hong Kong, waited in line for 25 mins after making a reservation and had a meal of Peking duck with the tenderist, freshest pancakes you’ve ever been fortunate enough to taste (touch is more the word I’m looking for), handmade pork noodles with scallions, melt-in-your-mouth spare ribs, and green beens with minced pork.



Laughing gas at the Mandarin Oriental

October 21, 2009

We started out the evening with E ordering a “foam cosmopolitan” made with laughing gas at the M Bar.  I had a glass of white wine and was just enjoying the glass itself that it came in — like something out of a ’50s movie with these dapples or circles that picked up the light.

Then E’s friend showed up — short, stocky, long gray hair flying, New Jersey roots apparent — and told us he couldn’t stand the M Bar or the idea of wine by the glass.

We proceeded across the hall to Pierre where the hostess, dressed in a Grace Kelly-style black silk dress, hair in a bun, welcomed E’s friend back (a regular customer).  We then shook hands with Michelin-starred Pierre Gagnaire himself, who looked like he needed to wash his hair, and sat down at what had to be the best table in the house — a large half-moon facing a plate glass window looking out over the harbour.

A young man from Florida with very short hair served us a goofy assortment of baked goods from a basket with tongs,  wearing white gloves.  Then we started with a bottle of champagne, the top of which turned into a gold pendant on a silk cord.  From there we proceeded through a tasting menu of abalone, scallops, sea urchin, multiple dessert courses — and I don’t know what else because I was so drunk at that point.

We had white burgundy and red burgundy.  I, who am not a wine aficionado, actually was stopped in mid-sentence by the red wine which had these lovely earthy or woody flavors to it but was also yummy and not at all intense.  I asked to see the bottle several times but can’t for the life of me remember what it was…  Nor can I remember what happened to the gold champagne bottle-top necklace.

We met at 7pm and got home around 1am.  Which was an excrutiatingly bad setup for the 6am conference call (3pm PST) I had scheduled for the next day.

So, in the space of two weeks, I’ve proceeded from extreme jet lag to a bad cold to the Irish flu.

And oddly, we both found the food itself fancy, but unremarkable.  The meal we ate tonight at Nagomi — a Japanese restaurant in Happy Valley where we had an amazing plate of pan-fried mushrooms — was much more enjoyable.  The wine, however, was truly out of sight.

I am “ma’am”

October 17, 2009

Without a doubt, one of the strangest experiences in HK so far has been hiring someone to clean our apartment.

There are many many women who come from the Philipines to work as maids in Hong Kong.  From what I hear, many of them actually live in the storage closets of fancy apartments.  For example, our apartment’s storage room is ~5’x8′.  They work 6 days a week and spend Sundays getting together in any available public place — so there are hoards of women sitting on flattened cardboard boxes chatting and visiting on the weekends.

Somehow E got the name of a woman who lives in our apartment complex.  She was looking for a part-time job on her one day off.  She charges HK$60/hr (at HK$7.8 to $1 — that’s less than $10/hr).

She came over to meet us last week and we were automatically “Sir” and “Ma’am” and it was “yes, yes, of course” to everything — until the end of our chat at which point she asked if we’d mind if she said that E was her fiance.  Huh?  It’s not legal for women working as full-time maids to have part-time jobs.  So to avoid getting told-on by her “friends” she said she wants to tell them E is her fiance.  We said, “we’re certainly not saying that — what you say is your own business.”  But some folks we recently met here said that that may not be such a good idea — something about Islamic law and implied consent…

Well, we had her come anyway today — and she did a great job.  I had the very odd experience of working on a market research report for a major apparel brand on my computer while 24-year-old J– cleaned around me.  After finishing cleaning up, she then asked if next time we could pay her for a full month up front.  Huh?

She also asked me how old I was and upon hearing I was 34, she said “you still have a young face.”  Still?

All of a sudden I’m a ma’am I never ever had any intention of being.

Among other bits of culture shock…