Sunday, February 24, 2013

Chinese New Year in Hong Kong: A Confession

Great Stone Dragon at Pak Tai temple in Wan Chai, Hong Kong.

As many of my readers know, MsCaroline has two children who are in their mid-to-late teens, which means they were born in the 1990s.  What this means is that MsCaroline shares powerful memories with them of 1990s and early 2000s kid culture, which (in our case) includes(but is not limited to) Barneythe demon the Dinosaur, Pokemon, and the Rug Rats.  In addition to this, Sons#1 and #2 grew up on a steady diet of some of (in my opinion) Disney Studios' most outstanding work, including The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and The Beast, and Toy Story,  although - since MsCaroline has sons - we also became obsessed with quite few less-appreciated productions such Pocohontas (John Smith had a sword), Hercules (sword with battery-powered sound effects), and The Emporer's New Groove (swords and shields, too.)

As  good parents, of course, MsCaroline and MrLogical were forced to watch repeatedly to the point that they memorized them enjoyed sharing these films with their children.

What this means is that MsCaroline was also deeply influenced by these films, and, during her recent trip to Hong Kong, was distressed to realize just to what extent this indoctrination had taken place.

Upon her arrival at the historic Pak Tai Temple in Wan Chai, in Hong Kong, MsCaroline (sadly) did not immediately think, "What a tremendous example of sculpture!" or, "It is truly an honor to be seeing this influential symbol that has influenced thousands of years of dynastic rule!"

No, MsCaroline looked at the carving and artistry above, and immediately thought of Eddie Murphy as the voice of Mushu in the 1998 Disney production of Mulan, and found herself muttering, "Go! Awaken the Great Stone Dragon!"

Sad, isn't it? But then, MsCaroline has never claimed to be the last word in culture.  And she's 99% sure that she is not the only parent who's had this experience.  At least she hopes not.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chinese New Year in Hong Kong: A Day in Macau, Part II

The Macau Tower, from whence Son#2 jumped. No, I did not watch.
(Note:  This is the second half of a post about our day trip to Macau, which didn't seem like it would be two posts' worth while it was happening.  You can read part I here.  If you'd just like to get on with it, let me summarize by saying we went to Macau and Son#2 had a reservation at 4pm to jump off the Macau Tower.  When I ended the last post, we had just started heading in that direction.)

We got to the Tower via the City Bus system (which, by the way, is clean, safe, well-marked in English, and easy to use) and paid our fee to ride up to the 61st floor (or whatever it was) where the outdoor observation deck and Extreme Sport people were located.  It is probably worth noting that there is also an 'Extreme Sport' desk on the ground floor, but when we tried to register for the jump down there, they recommended we take the elevator up to the top before paying, since - and I found this to be a hopeful sign - quite a few people get up there and change their minds.   Anyway, the elevator ride was too fast to see anything, so it wasn't until we got up to the top that we really got any kind of a view, which would have been more inspiring if:  A) there hadn't been mist and heavy cloud cover; and B) I hadn't been aware that my son was planning on jumping off the tower.  All the clouds and mist meant that there weren't many people up there except a few intrepid bungee jumpers and sky walkers, who we all watched in a mixture of horror and admiration. I started to feel a faint glimmer of hope that just possibly Son#2 might just pass on the whole experience.

 Son#2 wavered a few times and finally decided to go with the 'Sky Jump' instead of the Bungee Jump, which - as far as I could see - was just as terrifying but didn't involve bouncing (note:  MrL had decided not to jump, due more to a reluctance to part with another $350 US than anything, an attitude I encouraged.  One family member hurling himself off a 233-meter tower is enough.)

Son#2, enabled  accompanied by his father in registering for his jump.
 After paying the fees, getting strapped into the gear and having a brief  'safety' lecture, Son#2 headed out onto the deck to do his jump, at which point I initiated a conversation with a nice couple from Taiwan to avoid bursting into hysterical sobs and shaming myself  forevermore.
Son#2 is strapped into his supposedly super-safe equipment. This did not make me feel much better.
So it was that Son#2 jumped 233 meters off the Macau Tower and I was not forced to watch it happen, which was good,  since doing so would have defied all of my maternal instincts.  He returned about a minute later (they unhook you at the bottom over a giant inflatable landing pad and send you back up the elevator,) slightly windblown and unimpressed with what he described as 'the most anticlimactic 233 meters of my life.'  I was so grateful that he had survived unscathed that I didn't even grumble about the astronomical cost-per-second for something so 'anticlimactic.'

Once we'd finished up with the jump(and finally free of the cloud of dread that had been hanging over my head for the last few days,) we headed back downtown (more city bus) to the A-Ma temple, which is: a)really old (1488); b)Taoist; and c)built into the side of a hill.  The temple was originally dedicated to the goddess Matsu, who protected seafarers and fishermen.
Entrance to the A-ma temple.  Deceptively small.

Ship image carved into the rock.

Because it was Chinese New Year, it was quite busy with people burning incense sticks and praying, as well as fabulously decorated, and we were fortunate enough to be there when the gong was being struck and specific prayers were being offered (we didn't understand them, but it was really interesting.)  The temple entrance looks very small, but it actually extends back and up into the stones behind it, winding up the mountainside with a series of stone steps,

 and on each level, you find a number of buildings with shrines to different deities in them, some free-standing, some built into the mountainside.

One of the many different 'rooms' in the A-Ma temple, seen through the round entrance door.

 Several pavilions housed groups of what I initially took to be coils of bamboo but turned out to actually be 'incense spirals' - hanging spiral-shaped incense sticks.  We saw these in temples all over Macau and Hong Kong, and you could often tell when you were approaching a temple well before you could see it because you could smell the incense wafting through the air.
Incense spirals.

Because the temple was built into the mountainside, the builders had used the stones and boulders as part of the temple itself, and you often saw Chinese characters etched into the stone.  Our favorite spot was almost to the top, under these enormous characters.

MrL at A-Ma temple

By the time we finished at A-ma, we were all getting hungry, and decided to indulge in some Portuguese cuisine at the much-touted A Lorcha, a restaurant near the temple and recommended by virtually every travel guide and person that had ever been to Macau.  Because we had already had our tickets for an 8pm sailing, we needed to eat an early dinner before heading back to the ferry terminal.  It was then that we learned just how authentically Mediterranean Macau really is:  not only did A Lorcha close in the afternoon (presumably for a bit of a siesta) and not re-open until 7pm, but virtually every Portuguese restaurant we saw did the same thing.  After walking all day long, we agreed that what was needed was a place to sit down and enjoy a meal and a drink or two - easier said than done at 6pm in Macau if you want Portuguese food.   One we glumly accepted that Portuguese food just wasn't going to happen in time for us to catch our ferry, we  decided to give one of the enormous nearby hotels a try and schlepped into the first one we came to, the The Sofitel at Ponte 16, an enormous luxury hotel/small casino right on the waterfront and close to A-Ma temple and Sendano Square.  We followed the signs to the 'family' entrance (presumably this is to keep people like us with underage children out of the casinos) and headed into the main lobby.

Like many luxury hotels in Asia, the Sofitel lobby was heavily invested in mirrors, crystal chandeliers and lots of shiny marble surfaces.  When the four of us traipsed in wearing our light hikers, jeans, and sensible Gore-tex jackets to ask where the restaurant was, I'm sure the concierge was debating whether or not to ring security.  After what I'm sure was an intense inner struggle, he graciously informed us that the restaurants were on the 6th floor and gestured feebly in the direction of the elevator.
Chinese New Year  Decorations in the opulent lobby of the  Sofitel Hotel.
After walking into several splendidly gilded - and empty - hallways and lounges, we finally found ourselves in the Mistral restaurant at a table overlooking the softly-lit pool and spa and eagerly looking forward to a drink (let me insert here that this is the sort of restaurant where you select your gin from a menu when you order your gin and tonic) and sitting down.  We (reluctantly) decided against the sumptuous dinner buffet on offer (we knew we didn't have enough time to do it justice at that point) and ordered quickly.  The food (French/ fusion/nouvelle cuisine) was excellent and the service was outstanding- although, to be honest, I would have expected no less since we were one of only three occupied tables in the restaurant (Note:  I don't know if this was because we were eating dinner before 7pm (gasp!) or if all of Macau's usual visitors were visiting their families for Chinese New Year, or maybe because Friday is just not a big dinner-out night in Macau.)  We had spent so long looking for an open restaurant, we didn't have time to linger nearly as long as we'd have liked before heading downstairs to the taxi stand and back to the Ferry Terminal.

As I have already mentioned in my previous post, the crossing back to Hong Kong was hardly relaxing, what with the high winds and rough seas, despite the fact that we were traveling, once again, in 'Super' class.
I found this amusing, particularly since the 'ordinary' class was  pretty much just like  'Super,' except downstairs.
  MrL and LC prudently remained unconscious-and, therefore, unaware- for much of the trip, but Son#2 and I remained awake and alert as the ship rose and fell on the waves and our fellow passengers retched and choked and tottered miserably back and forth to the lavatory with seasick bags.  Fortunately for us, we are 'good sailors' (if by 'good sailor' you mean 'does not vomit in rough seas') so we arrived physically unscathed if only slightly traumatized by the experience.

A quick cab ride back to the hotel and a good night's sleep were next on our agendas, since we had plans to get up early the next morning.

We all agreed that we'd enjoyed Macau and would like to go back and spend more time there, since we'd not been able to see everything that we would have liked to, including several other historic buildings and the Macau Maritime Museum as well as the Fishing village at Taipa.  If we were to do it again, we would have considered spending at least one night in Macau to give us more time to see everything.

Oh well.  I guess we'll just have to go back.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Chinese New Year in Hong Kong: A Day in Macau, Part I

The Santa Casa Da Misericordia building in Macau's Senado Square, decorated for Chinese New Year
(Note:  MsCaroline is aware that she returned from Hong Kong over a week ago and should, in theory, have already posted this, but she is Slow and Indecisive, and has trouble keeping her posts brief, which accounts for the unconscionable length of this post, which she has had to divide into two parts. I'm sure none of you are surprised.)

Until I started researching our trip to Hong Kong, what I knew about Macau was on about the same level as my knowledge of string theory or the rules of the NFL - in other words, almost nonexistent.

On the off-chance that some of my readers may also have missed that day in class, let me give you the SparkNotes version: Macau is a peninsula of the Chinese mainland (about an hour away from Hong Kong by boat) but is considered, like Hong Kong, to be a SAR - Special Administrative Region, (which seems to mean they are economically independent of China.) It was colonized in the 1500s by the Portuguese, who remained more or less in control of it until 1999, which means that Macau has a crazily European/Mediterranean vibe smack in the middle of Asia, which totally appeals to MsCaroline's love of history as well as her appreciation for interesting contrasts.

In recent years, Macau has parlayed its 'SAR' status into a thriving Casino industry, and has turned into sort of the Las Vegas of Asia- at least from what we could see.  We aren't really gamblers (and we were traveling with a 15-year-old anyway) so I can't provide you with any information about the casinos except there are a lot of them and they seem to be tremendously popular, and it seemed like all of  a lot of the people from Mainland China had come to gamble there, being trundled about on tour buses from casino to casino.  Like their Vegas counterparts, the Macau casinos are all over-the-top glitz, glitter, and artificial volcanoes and pyramids and such, and command much of the Macau skyline.
MGM Macau

Giant glittering casino building in the Macau skyline with Chinese New Year decorations in the foreground.  

As I mentioned in my last post, we arrived in Hong Kong in the evening and got up early the next morning to travel on the 8:30 boat from Kowloon to Macau via TurboJet (sort of a speedy enclosed ferryboat, but not nearly as exciting as it sounds) from the China Ferry Terminal.  On the excellent advice given to me by Heather over at  My Wandering Life, I purchased tickets online in advance (since it was Chinese New Year and crowds were likely.)  The site was in English, I was able to use my credit card to pay online, and when I got to the ferry terminal, all I had to do was show my printed receipt to pick up my tickets at the TurboJet ticket counter (note:  the Ferry Terminal is fabulously well-marked in English and we had no trouble finding anything.)

We paid the extra money for 'Super Class' seats, which turned out to be slightly wider and upstairs(Note: the downstairs seats were comfortable and well-padded, though, and we started out looking for our seats down there because they looked so luxurious.  I'm not sure what I was expecting - maybe wooden benches? In any case, not really sure I'd pay for 'Super' class the next time unless there were big crowds.)  We were also served a complimentary 'snack' (this looked like a hearty breakfast to me) but no one was able to eat since the crossing was a bit bumpy.  It was a grey morning, so most of what we saw was mist-capped hills and mountains rising out of the fog - sort of mysterious and romantic.
On the way to Macau

Arriving at the Macau Ferry Terminal, we moved through Customs quite quickly (the stewards on the ferry give you a small form to fill out and no Visa is required for US citizens for a visit of less than 30 days - you just need your passport) and found ourselves downstairs in front of the terminal where dozens of tour guides swarmed at us.  Since we had decided to play this part 'by ear,' we ended up purchasing a 'hop on hop off' bus tour ticket, which - in retrospect - we probably wouldn't do again.  From what we could see, most tourists buy a ticket, ride one stop, get off, spend an hour, then get on and move to the next place (lots of casinos on the list.) Since we weren't interested in the casinos,we decided to ride the entire circuit around Macau to get a general idea of the layout and location of things, which would have been a better idea if it had not been drizzly and grey.  We went everywhere else on foot or with the city bus.  We did get a good birds-eye view of things and a good general sense of where things were, so I suppose the bus ride wasn't a complete waste of time.

Anyway, we ended up taking a 45-minute top-of-the-bus tour of Macau, which was interesting and informative and gave us a good overview of a fascinating country.

As I said before, the Chinese/Portuguese vibe in Macau is really fascinating.   One minute you're gazing at a Buddhist shrine tucked in next to a traditional Chinese apothecary, and a minute later you're standing in a cobblestone square looking at a church built by three Jesuits in the 1600s.

One of many small Buddhist shrines built all over Macau, decorated for Chinese New Year with orange trees.
Portuguese/Chinese:  it was everywhere.

After the top-of-the-bus tour, we headed straight for historic Sendano Square ('Senate Square') where you can find most of the well-known historic Portuguese buildings, museums, and several churches.  Everything was marked in both Chinese and Portuguese and (usually) English:

While there, we toured St. Augustine's Church, which was built in the 1500s by 3 Augustinian monks from Mexico.  It was very similar to many of the Mission churches that you see in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, and - again - it was hard to believe you were really in Asia when you were in there.

  The church is still a place of worship and is the starting point for Macau's well-known Easter procession (yes, we'd love to come back and see it) and it includes a small attached museum displaying some lovely artifacts, including many of the items (chalices, missals, robes) used by some of the earliest priests of the church.  There were quite a few plaster and wood statues and figures of Christ and the saints, as well as a selection of garments used over the years to clothe both the priests and the statues in the church.  This trunk of spare body parts took me aback a bit;  not sure if parts are regularly interchanged or if they're just providing an insight into the way the figures are made.  Either way, I took a photo and I'm sure anyone who's been reading my posts for a while will understand why it appealed to me:

After we finished in St. Augustine's, we headed back across the square and down the street to the Ruins of St. Paul's, built in the 1600s. The entire structure - except the facade - burned down in 1835 as the result of a fire during a typhoon, but the facade has remained to this day and is one of Macau's most-visited sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   In addition to the structure itself, you can walk behind it and visit a small museum containing religious artifacts and crypts, which you could look into via plexiglass windows.  Some of the crypts contained stone tombs, and others just contained assorted bones (mostly femurs- I have no idea why, unless femurs last longer), which were reverently displayed in a small crypt.

Ruins of St. Paul's, Macau.

After St. Paul's, we decided to climb the stairs to the top of the nearby Fortaleza do Monte, a fortress built by Jesuits in the 1600s to protect Macau (successfully, it turns out) from attacks by the Dutch, who were interested in controlling Macau's strategically-located port.  The stairs to the fortress are just to the right of St. Paul's in the photo above, and tucked into a beautifully-landscaped hillside that we initially thought was just a lovely park.

Of course, as soon as we walked over, we saw signs everywhere letting us know that the fort was up above.  The climb isn't actually grueling, but it's not something you'd want to run up, either.  Let's just say that the Portuguese chose their location wisely and it's easy to see why the Dutch might have found getting to the top a bit of a challenge.  Either way, we made our way up the stairs and found a real honest-to-goodness fort at the top, complete with cannons and turrets.  While up there, I took the opportunity to get a photo with Son#2, about whom I was feeling particularly anxious and sentimental, since he had a death wish bungee-jumping appointment scheduled for later that afternoon.

Also housed up on top of the fort is the Museum of Macau, which we all enjoyed tremendously(note:  Son#2 got in free by showing his student ID).  Numerous exhibits (including many hands-on for kids) included information about Macau's diverse Chinese/Portuguese history as well as daily life for both Portuguese expatriates and locals.  One display about daily life in Macau included the displays of different street peddlers ('hawkers'), their wares, and their various cries, which you could hear by pressing a button, really capturing the flavor of an 18th-century street scene.  There was an elaborate replica of a typical downtown street in Macau in the 1700s including building interiors; a historical display about types of tea, the interior of a typical trading vessel, and (my favorite) an exhibit about the ancient pastime of cricket fighting.  Apparently, this was so popular that champion crickets who passed on were interred in their own elaborate coffins and tombs, although several of them had also been preserved for posterity in some sort of formaldehyde solution.  All I can say is that, were I to encounter a cricket of that size, I doubt the first thing I would think would be, "Hey! I shall capture him and enter him in fighting competitions!" (Note:  In fact, I'm sure that's the last thing I would ever think.  Do you see how big these crickets are? They're practically as big as kittens! Why on earth would I want to catch one, no matter how promising his fighting career might be?)  Naturally, I took photos of this stuff, because that's how I roll.  It's not every day you see a cricket coffin.

 There were tons of tourists, including this dapper young guy who was doing his best to look like Psy of 'Gangnam Style' fame (it seems we cannot escape it, even when we leave Korea).  I realize it was juvenile of me, but I couldn't help taking this picture, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only complete stranger who came home with a shot of this little kid:

By the time we'd finished up on the fort, we had to head back towards the ferry terminal towards my nemesis:  the Macau Tower.   This - some of you may recall - was where Son#2 had made reservations to participate in a 233-meter bungee jump against my better judgement.

That's right:  the world's highest bungee jump. 

Since I couldn't bring myself to watch the whole process, I can't tell you much, but I'll provide a few more details in my next post.  Suffice it to say that Son#2 survived the experience, but I feel sure I'll never be the same again.

(Note:  The bungee jump and the rest of our day in Macau will follow in my next post:  Chinese New Year: A Day in Macau, Part II.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Seoul to Hong Kong: Shots From My Phone

On display at Incheon Intl Airport.  I don't know what it is, but it seems resourceful if nothing else.

So our lovely - but brief - trip to Hong Kong is over, and the Asia Vu family is back in Seoul, which thoughtfully produced several centimeters of snow while we were gone just so we would be sure to know exactly who we were dealing with when we emerged from the plane.

Between the three of us, we probably got some pretty good photos, but at the moment all of our memory cards are scattered hither and yon (not to mention Son#2 downloads all of his in some 'professional' format that my computer can't even read) so I can't show you anything right now except the blurry stuff I took on the fly with my phone.

Since most of what I took with the phone was obnoxious, obscure, and had very little to do with the natural beauty or rich history of Hong Kong and environs, you can probably imagine just what kind of a post this one will be.

I plan to write a series of proper trip review posts in the next day or two, but at the moment, you'll have to settle - as I said - for the sort of stuff that no self-respecting travel blogger would ever write about that entertained me during our travels, which I shall now pass on for your edification:

No, I don't know what those two rounded glass things are in the foreground, nor do I know where they were discovered.
  • Asian airports like to display contraband items that people have tried to smuggle onto airplanes:  (It's entirely possible they do this in the US and Europe, too, but I've never seen any displays there.)  In both the Seoul and Hong Kong airports, we were treated to some truly fascinating display cases that showcased not only the lengths to which people will go to smuggle items into foreign countries, but also the sorts of things that people find smuggle-worthy.  I'm not even going to mention the pedestrian stuff like explosives and firearms, which we all know about.  It's the really unusual contraband that fascinated me:  for example, I had no idea that dried seahorses and bile powder were so valuable they were worth risking time in a Korean jail for, but then, I've led a sheltered life. Other contraband items included monitor lizard skins(right; not the actual lizards), raw meat(Son#2 and I initially thought this was a kidney), sea horses, and (my favorite) a lunchbox-sized turtle(how do you even begin to hide this?)  The displays included not only the actual goods, but also (in some cases) the methods by which they were being smuggled, which were testimonies to the ingenuity of the human mind as well as the elasticity of our many orifices. 
Where would you even hide this?
  • Luxury seating does not spare you from the coarse realities of humanity.  On our first day in Hong Kong, we made the hour-long trip by boat to Macau.  Because it was a holiday weekend (and we had been warned - thanks, Heather!) we had prudently purchased tickets online ahead of time and even paid the extra money (only about $15US each) to upgrade to 'Super' class - although we had no idea what 'Super' class entailed.  As it turned out, 'Super' class means you sit on the upper deck (it's all inside anyway, with big viewing windows) with bigger, cushier seats, a steward to tend to your needs, and a complimentary snack.  In our case, there was only one other person (in a cabin that seated about 75 people) in the section besides us, but the crowds in 'ordinary' class were fairly heavy, so we were happy with our choice.  The crossing - we felt - was rough (it was misty and breezy that day) and we all were relieved to get off the boat when it arrived. 

Our very own Super-class steward(ess.)  

Choppy waves and rain on the way to Macau.
  •  As it turned out, though, the crossing that we had found 'rough' turned out to be nothing compared to the return trip at 8 that evening, when we found ourselves in a slightly more heavily-populated cabin and far rougher weather.  The steward made a 'rough seas' announcement and apologized for our anticipated late arrival, after which MrL and our friend LC immediately fell asleep, leaving Son#2 and myself wide awake to pitch and toss our way to the mainland, vicariously experiencing the misery of seasickness via our fellow travelers, who made quite a lot of violent retching sounds and a lot of miserable-looking trips back to the lavatory carrying their used seasickness bags (thoughtfully provided by the management for just such an occasion.)  Thanks again to advice from Heather, we'd all brought our earbuds/iPods/Phones and all of us plugged in and turned up the volume to drown out the chorus of human misery - but only to a certain extent.  I probably do not need to point out that Son#2 (who was unfortunate enough to be in the lavatory with no handrails during a particularly rough patch ) and I experienced the trip as 'traumatic' wheras MrL and LC found it 'restful' and declared themselves refreshed by their hour-long nap.  

I took this shot of the seasickness bags on the trip over, little realizing that I'd see them in use that very evening.
  • Different societies, different issues.  In the US, we try to keep people from smoking and doing drugs in public bathrooms.  This seems fairly tame in comparison.

  • If you are going to travel in Asia at Lunar New Year, it is helpful (but not necessary) to have lived there for a while.  Having lived in Seoul for going on 2 years now, we felt very comfortable in Hong Kong.  Granted, the language that we didn't understand was Chinese instead of Korean, but other than that, the vibe was very similar:  big bustling high-tech Asian city with lots of people in it and not very much space.  We understood how crowds worked, how people push and don't think a thing of it, and how, when you're living in a country where space is at a premium, you can't expect to have the same sort of personal envelope that you'd have back home.  As a result, when we joined the 80,000 or so other people who'd come to watch the Cathay Pacific International Chinese New Year Night Parade on the streets of Kowloon on Sunday evening, we were confident navigating our way through wall-to-wall people, and felt we gave as good as we got in the elbowing department, although I heard more than one outraged comment from Western tourists in our group as we made our way through the throngs to our seats.  MrL did his bit for public education and cultural understanding, though, and I was proud to hear him earnestly explaining to an outraged group of Westerners that what they interpreted as a 'lack of common manners and decency' was simply local custom:   nothing personal and not meant to be in the least bit aggressive or bullying, no matter how egregious it seemed. 
          Well done, MrL.

Nice try.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Vacation Planning: A Clash of Expectations

Hong Kong Night Skyline, via

As you know, the Asia Vu family is planning a short trip to Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year Holiday, and MsCaroline has been busily planning the itinerary to the exclusion of many of her other duties with just the kind of enthusiasm and passion you'd expect from a woman who has been crushed by the bitter temperatures of the last two months.  MrL and Son#2 have also been looking forward to the break with great enthusiasm, which bodes well for a positive experience for all.  I have been doing my usual researching and planning, coming up with - what I believed to be - an ideal weekend trip to Hong Kong.

Last night, however, I learned that my vision of the ideal trip and the vision shared by MrL and Son#2 are somewhat different.  And by 'somewhat different,' I mean 'on a different planet.'

Now, I will be the first person to say that you can't take your 15-year-old son to Hong Kong without making some allowances for varying ages, tastes, and interests.  But when I saw what he was showing his father on the internet (damn you, YouTube), I realized just how wide the gap was going to be.

While I was envisioning something along the lines of this:

Touring Hong Kong Harbour, via
And this:

Afternoon Tea At the Peninsula, via
Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula via

Here's what MrL and his offspring have in mind:

Bungy jumping off the Macau Tower
skywalking off the Macau Tower

I imagine we'll end up compromising, but God only knows what that's going to look like.

Friday, February 1, 2013

LIfe In Seoul: Paying It Forward - Finally

We've been here 18 months now:  in theory, long enough for me to feel settled, comfortable, and like I know my way around reasonably well.  However, there's still a lot that I don't know, and lots that I haven't done.  The top contributor to my lack of accomplishments has got to be my command of spoken Hangul (which, as a language teacher, I would rate on the US State Department Language Proficiency Scale as a '0+' - or "no practical speaking proficiency".)  Oh, I can get around through a combination of limited Korean phrases, sympathetic English-speaking Koreans and serendipity, but I am always aware that I am a foreigner, and the language issue must always be considered when undertaking anything here in Korea.  It's a little sad, but there it is.

When I moved here, I really did think that I'd make good inroads into my study of Korean, and that, at this point, I'd be a lot more proficient than I am.  There are probably several reasons for this, not least of all that I spend most of my days speaking a second language already.  By the time I leave work in the afternoon, I'm having enough trouble sorting out the two I already speak without adding a third.

It's also possible that I'm just lazy.

The point is, after a year and a half, I often feel like I'm woefully inadequate with regard to many aspects of life in Korea considering I've lived here this long.

Yesterday, however, I had one of those moments that made me realize that - while I'm not anywhere near where I want to be - I'm no longer a 'noob,'' and, yes, I am actually starting to get it. I actually know things that are useful.  I have some useful experiences under my belt.  I've been a few places.  I know some customs.  I don't have to call someone for help every time I need to get something done.  In short:  after 18 months, I'm finally starting to be able to pay it forward.

I was walking down the street on the way home yesterday when two desperate-looking Westerners holding a city map flagged me down at the bus stop and asked me how to get to Itaewon (a popular part of town with foreigners) by bus.  I knew they would want to take the 110A, but, I didn't know exactly how many stops away it was - and my suggestion that they just hop on and listen for the stops to be announced in English (the names of stops aren't usually posted anywhere that's easy to see from the window of a bus) didn't go over too well. I couldn't say that I actually blamed them - the idea of just randomly hopping on a bus in Seoul without knowing where you needed to get off would probably have scared me, too.

"Maybe you can show us on the schedule," they said.  "We tried looking at the one posted here at the bus stop to see how many stops it was, but we couldn't understand it."  I walked over and looked at the route map, found where we were, found the Itaewon stop, and pointed to it.  "There it is - Itaewon" I said, gesturing for them to come look and pointing at the timetable.  "See? Four stops away from us."    The man laughed, shook his head, and said, "OK, if you say so"

I realized at that point I'd been gesturing at a bus route printed in Hangul.

Now don't get me wrong.  It's not like I am a fluent Hangul reader or anything - I have to laboriously sound out words and I still can't read them as quickly as Sons#1 and #2.  And I'm not implying that I'm so fluent in reading it that I can't tell the difference between reading in Hangul or in English.  It was simply the fact that I saw the sign and was able to figure out what it said - without actually thinking that it was a big deal.

I knew which bus they needed, how to read the schedule, and how to get them where they needed to go.  I explained to them how to pay their fare, suggested they buy themselves T-Money (transit) cards, and explained that they'd want to exit from the back door of the bus.

After 18 months, I know it doesn't sound like much.  But you know what? I'll take it.  After months and months of having to ask people for help, watch others to find out how to do things, and tearing my hair out in frustration because I didn't understand something, it was wonderful to be able to actually know and share something useful.

So if you're ever in Seoul and need to have a bus schedule slowly and laboriously sounded out for you in Hangul - well, you know who to call.