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Archive for November, 2008

img_8545Since moving to Honkey Town in February ’08 we’ve been keeping a fairly consistent blog for family and friends back home. In the course of doing so we’ve realized that there is information, musings, and general reflections from our experiences that we think would be interesting to share publicly. So from here onward we’re unveling our public face for a wider audience. Below are posts we’ve altered for our new public life and we’ll add content as we go. Welcome and we hope you (if there are any you’s out there) enjoy!

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It is a common issue in the Hong Kong expat world that farewells are inevitable. I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly and to two such crucial people to my life here. I met J first, quickly followed by A. Both of their husbands work with M and pretty quickly I knew I’d befriend them both. They had organized, with another woman, a weekly playgroup for the kids and through those meetings, then socializing as couples, and then just socializing as girlfriends I’ve really become to rely on them as great, smart, funny, open, honest friends.

img_0516A and her family left a few days ago to move to Vietnam. A is from there originally but left at age seven as a refugee and after spending a year on a beach in Malaysia, then another in Nebraska, her family finally settled and thrived in LA. Since college, where she and her hubby met, they’ve lived and worked all over Asia. A is one of the most honest, forthcoming, no-bs people I will likely ever meet. She lived in the building next door to us and it was wonderful to have a friend I could count on in the neighborhood. We would call and check in about random stuff, bounce ideas off each other, or just meet in the park – and all of this was done with a no-nonsense, get straight to the point, ease with each other. We would share our frustrations with motherhood, life in hong kong, or just about anything else and I could say anything to her without being judged. She is incredibly funny and smart and will be missed terribly. On the bright side, Vietnam is close so we’re already planning a trip to see them and venture into Vietnam – hopefully around this time next year. And they very well may make their way through Hong Kong going to and from the US so ideally we’ll be seeing each other several times in the coming years.

toronto_7J leaves in two weeks to return to her native Canada. She is inspiring! A few nights ago I attended a benefit for the organization she co-founded. She’s been here three years and to be there tonight you’d think she’s been here for more than twenty by the amount of people and enthusiasm in the room for what she has accomplished. In addition to her passion and visionary work, J is also hilarious, compassionate, thoughtful and plan old fun. I simply love hanging out with her and can spend an entire evening chatting with her with weaving topics that touch on the serious to the profane and back again within seconds. That is my kind of lady!

I am so sad to lose these two profoundly important woman in my life here in Hong Kong. J and I joke that we are FFL – Friends for Life – and I so sincerly hope that’s true. We’ll make a big effort to see A & J in Vietnam and sincerely hope that whenever we’re back in the US, on visits or for good, that we’ll also see J & J. Here’s hoping and here’s wishing both of this amazing woman all the best in their new adventures.

I guess I’m a real expat now that I’m losing my first round of friends…

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Beijing

beijing-forbidden-cityThe first thing I noticed after getting out of the Beijing airport was how damned cold it was. Probably 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 30 degrees below the humid weather I’d left. Aside from two suits, I had two t-shirts, a pair of shorts and flip flops. I was later reminded that Beijing is on the same hemisphere, roughly, as New York. I called the the office and a collague there gave directions to the cabbie to where I was staying. After listening to the conversation, it was clear to me how different Mandarin is from Cantonese.

As we zoomed into the heart of Beijing, I was struck with how sprawling and spread out the city is. The terrain was utterly flat. Even as we neared the main sections, buildings didn’t seem to be more than a dozen stories or so. The roads were wide, the sidewalks were too. I also loved the smell of burning coal. It reminded me of burning peat in Ireland. Obviously, a thick cloud of the stuff coming from a factory furnace is not something I’d like to breath. But this was coal smoke coming from people’s homes, from their woodstoves. The crisp air, tinged with a bit of this smoke, made it enjoyable to breath, which is something you don’t hear much around here.

Beijing blocks in certain sections are extremely long, and wide. I got lost trying to walk to the office. The problem was, when I turned onto a street I thought was the right direction, it wasn’t until three-quarters of a mile later when I’d find out if I was right. And I wasn’t, every time. A taxi took me all the way around the city to get to the office that night, because on the main roads nobody is allowed to turn left.

hutongsvistaAfter finding the office, I was invited to the home of a colleague. He lives inside a hutong. Having walked through the alleys in search of his place, I realize now why people talk so affectionately about hutongs. They are alleys of interconnected neighborhoods where homes are tucked behind walls and into corners– one story high dwellings, with slanted roofs amid a labyrinth of narrow walkways. Walking the dark alleys trying to find this guy’s place, I wondered just exactly what kind of pad he lived in. By the looks of my surroundings, he either lived in a dumpster or a sketchy, small store front. Chinese women stood by barber stools, posing as hair cutters, dressed in high boots, tight shirts and skimpy skirts. An old man sold newspapers and chips. Coal smoke snaked its way through the alleys. There is nostalgia to these hutongs, as the Chinese government has systematically leveled them.

hutongsnow1When we opened the door to his house, I was blown away at how beautiful it was. Behind the scarred, sooty cement wall was a square apartment—four equally shaped sections—and a small court yard in between. The ceilings were high. The place was decorated like the couple had been in China for twenty years, and I’m pretty sure they have. It was spacious, laid back and an architecturally brilliant living space, unlike anything you’d see in Hong Kong. This place wasn’t an overpriced high rise flat. It was bigger, and it had charm.

We ate at a local restaurant that night – the highlight for me was what I think someone called a Chinese hamburger. Basically pork strips served on a biscuit. I made the mistake of ordering the noodles with some odd hot mustard. Good thing for the Chinese burger I ate. The shredded beef and noodles were good too, not to mention the local beer.

Our host had his driver take my colleague and I on a night tour of the Forbidden City and Tianamen Square. My colleague showed us all these cool spots and gave us a history lesson. The Forbidden City is the Emperor’s palace, and the buildings are colossal and stunning. I kept thinking I couldn’t wait to bring my family to see it.

Wednesday night we went to one of the main bar sections – actually, it was known as THE main bar section for generations. It was a place where Westerners hung out and for years it had some seediness to it. They apparently cleaned up this section a bit and even built it up a bit. Before the Olympics, another part of town sprouted up bars, I was told. But the section we went to was classic, hutong style alleys and structures. We went for pizza in a Dutch bar and restaurant with low, post and beam ceilings, and wood floors. It was cozy and had character, which is so hard to find in Hong Kong.

We went to another bar to celebrate the Obama victory but the place had one of those annoying DJs who feels they have to blow everyone’s eardrums out to just to get them to enjoy the music. I couldn’t take it, so I left with a buddy for one more beer.

It was incredibly cool to see how excited foreign people were with the Obama victory. British people in the office were ecstatic, running around trying to find a TV that was broadcasting his acceptance speech. “Your country just elected a black man who’s name is Barack Hussein Obama,” I was told by a British woman in the office, awestruck and teary eyed at the results.

The last night in Beijing we went out for Peking Duck, which I loved. The food in that city is amazing, and this restaurant was incredible. Its store front looked like no big deal. But once you walked in you saw this huge courtyard filled with tables, and rooms along the corridors for eating in big groups. I felt like I was in a conference room, but this conference room had a view of Beijing entertainment, great food, including freshly-made noodles, and antique furniture. You had to step over a plank and open a door to get in and out of the room. There was a second floor for eating too. Here’s the email message, titled “Quack, Quack” that brought me to this place:

M has never had Peking duck. I suggest Huaji Yiyuan 花家怡园on Guijie, just east of Baishiqiao on the north side of the road. It has red lanterns (don’t they all) and a pailou at the Gate. The address is 235 Dongzhimennei.

Beijing is changing fast. See it now.

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15142532When the election was called we phoned M in Beijing and as soon as he answered F excitingly exclaimed, “Dad, Barack Obama win-ded! He’s President in the United States!” She proceeded to call and tell my mom and my mother-in-law relaying the same outcome.  She also told T as soon as she woke up from her nap, while we were skyping with some friends, “Do you know, Barack Obama win-ded! He’s President in the United States!” T was impressed and tried to say Obama which came out a garbled, “po-a-ma.”

To immense credit, F, watched both John McCain’s concession speech and then Barack Obama’s victory speech. During McCain’s she was a bit confused between the real Sarah Palin and Tina Fey saying “mama, there’s your lady” and I explained that actually my lady is Tiny Fey pretending to be Sarah Palin. Then when Barack Obama came on she was very excited to see his family. She was disappointed when they left when he spoke and kept asking where they were. For pretty much his entire speech and afterwards when they were waving to the crowd I wept. F was laying on me with her back to my chest and I was expecting her to ask why I was crying but she never did. When the families came out she kept asking where Obama’s mom was and I told her she was in heaven and unable to make it. She was quite curious about who Joe Biden was and concerned that they were both “President’s in the United States.” Explaining the difference between President and Vice-President to a three year-old is a bit tougher than I thought.

I’ve been trying to pin-point why I’ve been so emotional since the election was called and while there are numerous, obvious reasons, one is that by electing Obama we’ve once again made the American dream real. It’s why so many people from around the world have gone to both small and great lengths to live in the US. It’s why my grandparents and great-grandparents chose to leave their families for the dream of a better life for them and their children and their grand-children. It’s why everyone we meet here is so giddy and excited that we, as Americans, elected Barack Hussein Obama – it gives them hope, it makes them acknowledge that our country is like no other in the world. It is with this sense of pride and awe and admiration that I watched the election unfold with a tired three year-old on my lap and wept for the momentous achievement WE determined.

Walking home today there was a newscast on an outdoor TV screen about Obama’s election win and F looking up at it said, “Obama!” Quickly the two of us broke into the “O-ba-ma” chant and everyone around us smiled and nodded along. Here in Hong Kong, and across the globe, they all know his name and know what we did on this remarkable day.

And check out our friend comments and video on the election night celebration in Harlem!!!

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I’ve been totally obsessed with the campaign and I’ve been wondering how different I would feel if I were still in NYC as opposed to here. My brother-in-law and niece are driving up to N.H. on election day to volunteer to drive voters to the booths – I’m incredibly proud and a bit jealous. I was reading about phone banks in NYC – one was not far from our old home – and wondering if I would have volunteered. Part of me is feeling terrible that there isn’t much to do from here as I can’t make calls, go to swing states, volunteer to drive voters. The only thing to do is send emails – however most people I would email are all already “drinking the kool-aid” so to speak. I’ve been putting some stuff on Facebook, but again not sure how many “friends” I have that feel all that differently from me. (In case it isn’t already obvious, we’re for Obama). So I’m not writing about why I’m supporting Obama and not McCain, rather I just wanted to reflect on what it’s been like to watch this historic campaign unfold from the other side of the world. I look to the US and for the first time in a long time see so many people enthusiastic, engaged (sometimes enraged), hopeful, and participating. It’s overwhelming to watch actually. For anyone and everyone who’s been involved, for either side, you should be so proud. I hope this marks a change for many people in the belief that change can be grassroots, bottom-up, and the might of many can make a difference. I think this has been missing for many Americans for a long time and it’s so inspiring to see again.

So I sit here and gobble up as much news as I can (Fox news and the stories about media bias included!) and try to be as informed as possible. I recently found this piece quite interesting. Lately I’ve become a huge fan of Obama’s youtube channel. I watched the behind the scenes at the DNC and nearly cried when they panned down to Obama’s hands when Michelle Obama was giving her speech and he was grasping and turning his wedding band – spinning it as if they were connected and it was spurring her on. I’ve been getting absolute chills watching the large crowds he’s been getting lately and so I hope it happens this time. I’ve never been prouder to be a Bruce Springsteen fan! I watched a CNN report about the excitement in Harlem and it was shot all along 125th street and I was wistful seeing the street hawkers selling Obama shirts and all the proud supporters. I can’t even imagine what it’s like in our old neighborhood – a very big part of me wishes I were there. The last time I voted, in the 2006 mid-term elections, was in a very small store front church on 118th and Frederick Douglass. The older ladies running the booths were in love with F and helped watch her while M and I cast our ballots.

Like most people who have been so heartbroken, angry, embarrassed, and sad after 2000 and 2004, I’m  worried about election day, although I do have a certain kind of hope that I didn’t going into those elections – and lots of Jersey attitude and swagger in my belief that Obama will win! It will be morning here and the American Chamber of Commerce in HK is hosting “Election Central” for Americans to come together and view the results. The Foreign Corespondents Club (FCC) is also sponsoring a brunch while watching the live election results. M will be in Beijing and I’m trying to decide if I need to join others in watching the outcome or if I should do it in solitude. Whatever the result I’m sure I’ll be having some drinks that night – hopefully victorious ones.

Lately F and I have been doing the “Fired Up, Ready to Go” chant. She’s really good at it! And whenever I ask her who she wants to be President she says with a sly grin “John McCain.” And I reply shockingly, “What?” and she starts laughing and then says, “No, Barack Obama!” Today she told me she doesn’t want John McCain at all anymore because “she just changeded” and only wants Barack Obama. More than anything, win or lose, I want to tell the girls that even while in Hong Kong and casting our ballot in NY, a state that will no doubt go for Obama, we still voted. Both to convey the importance of voting and citizenship and engagement and to also say we voted for Obama. That we believe in change, in respect for all, in a leader who works with the world not above it. Okay, maybe I sound a bit too idealistic – I know there are still a lot of questions marks, but we’ve thrown our hats in his ring and believe he will bring on a great staff and be a consensus builder and as Bruce says, bring his America back.

Several things I find fascinating:

– how informed, excited, and interested the vast majority of non-Americans I’ve met are in this election. It makes me a bit embarrassed at how little, I, and most Americans, know about other leaders and issues around the globe.

– every non-American expat you meet immediately assumes you are voting for Obama. I haven’t been there when one has met a McCain supporter but I’d love to see the expression of utter disbelief/confusion.

– When I do meet other Americans we try not to make the assumption that we’re for Obama but I’m happy to report that most Americans I know here have voted for him!

– how much non-Americans here want Obama to be our president and how they believe that over night it would change how we are perceived in the world, for the better – a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more.

– how absolutely confusing, hilarious, and absurd expats here find it that we voted Bush into office not once, but twice. Rather, he was voted in once, and stole an election the first time (M wrote that last line!)

– how most people think we will be doing one of the most amazing, significant, historical things in the course of our history by electing Barack Obama.

NOTE : Just as I finished writing this post I learned that Barack Obama’s grandmother has passed away. I cannot even begin to understand his bittersweet sadness as he mourns her loss on the eve of possibly his, and by extension her, greatest triumph. We were already praying for his victory, now we also pray for he and is family’s loss and sadness.

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