Monthly Archives: June 2009

What (more): CUHK CLC

When I first decided to pick up and move to HK, I did not quite have any sort of plan in place  (arguably I still don’t).  I just knew it was time to make the change, had applied to one job (and even that may ultimately be on the Mainland if I even get it!), and otherwise had no real alternative worked out.  I was just going to pick up and figure it out once I got there.  Not really a good plan.

Fortunately, I shared my idea with Mike, a classmate of mine from law school who proclaims he can solve everyone’s problems but his own, who suggested why not start out by attending some sort of continuing education so that I could get settled into the country in a more relaxed transitional state, get a chance to really spend some time in the place before I decided a full blown commitment, all the while learning a marketable skill?

Mike was right, and the idea was brilliant!  I had taken 2 years of Mandarin in college, and had gotten relatively advanced, but did not feel entirely comfortable enough to work in a professional setting where I only spoke Mandarin.  I also speak Cantonese on a fairly basic conversational level, but it would be nice to really improve that as well.  It is, after all, my “native language” technically.  So going to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin AND Cantonese made perfect sense.  Plus, no awful simplified Chinese! Yuck!

But where?  The next morning, I immediately turned to your friend and mine Google, and searched terms like “mandarin study hong kong,” even “best mandarin study hong kong,” and found a number of “commercial” educational programs that catered to foreigners like me, with courses ranging from 2 to 8 weeks, costing about $800 to $2200 respectively.  These courses have a number of different start dates, and some included excursions, focusing on the “cultural experience.”

It was really hard to compare them.  I started making charts by costs per lesson hour, and noting whatever else I could tell that might differentiate one from another – but it was near impossible.  Further, these “intensive” courses, focused on training one quickly, which was not in line with my purposes in HK.  Besides from attaining quality education, I would actually prefer to take it slow and just get a real feel for my surroundings.

I’m not sure how I ended up surfing over to CUHK, but it came up on one of my searches and looked nearly close to perfect in terms of what I was looking for.  It did not force me to go in the summer only, targeted foreigners, had multiple levels of training and a variety of courses in terms of levels and time lengths, was at a a real university campus, was affordable.  I began to research CUHK further and discovered it was also one of the best universities in Asia based on some USNews-like rankings for Asia.

Turns out the Chinese Language Center has roots dating back to 1961, originally formed to teach ex-pats Cantonese.  In 1963 there was a collaborattion between the New Asia University and Yale, forming the New Asia -Yale-in-China-Program.  In 1974, the program was moved over to the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s campus out in the New Territories.  Now there are Mandarin and Cantonese classes, teaching a range of levels (1-5), short intensives, and regular seasonal semesters (Fall, Spring, Summer).

Turned out Peter and Han Han, who both went to Yale, had attended exchange programs there during summers past, and spoke very highly of the program.  What’s more, Liz ‘s parents had taught at CUHK (not CLC itself), and in fact are moving back to HK in 2010. CUHK CLC very easily became the forerunner, and soon there was no reason to try to figure out which of the seemingly hundreds of other study abroad programs would suit me.  We have a winner!

Although I could not get any direct information on the very program or classes I intended to take (also found some relatively positive but uninformative anecdotes on an expat talk thread), the program overall seemed perfect for me.  And now onto applying (a whole other post to come)!

The take-away here is that Mike’s idea is a great one, and for quite a few people I know who have expatriated to the USA or to other countries from the USA, it is often the first stepping stone.  It provides a good opportunity to transition more gently into the new country, and helps with learning what sometimes are needed skills to live in the new place (either job skills or language).  Plus, it should give you a valid legal premise! Yes, we don’t just get to move somewhere and live there without proper visas.

As to finding the right program – my recommendation is to look into REAL universities.  Study the area’s actual unis and educational institutions, including city colleges, community colleges, (I looked into the other universities of HK, including HKU and HK Polytechnic, etc.) and from there, check to see what kind of continuing education programs they have.  These, however, may be more expensive (although not so in the case of CLC), but at least they will  probably be more reliably legitimate programs, and offer more in terms of a community and support.

On the other hand, this is not to say that those “commercial” educational programs are necessarily worse, and it will depend on what you are seeking.


Prep Steps: A Healthy Purging (Part I)*

There is a lot to think about and to do in preparation for a move — whether it be down the street or in my case, to a foreign country.  Before setting up shop in HK, I have to dismantle what I’ve got in NYC.

Step 1 – My Apartment.  As I’ve mentioned before, and for those of you who have been over would know, I have a great setup here in New York.  Back in April 2004, my law school roommate (and now one of my most important friends), Anna, and I had to figure out what we would do for housing post-graduation.  We had the option of staying in our incredibly located West Village dorm on Mercer Street for the summer while we studied for the bar exam(s) (we were over-achievers and both took bar exams for 2 states), or we could sally forth and move into our first “grown up’s” apartment.

I had actually never rented an apartment in my life at this point.  I went straight through from college to law school and had always lived in a dormitory or a housing situation set up by my school (my first law school dorm was at this luxury building in Battery Park City, 1 West Street, called “The Ocean”), so the whole task was at once exciting and exhausting.  We’d searched high and low for apartments within a certain price range throughout the lower half of Manhattan (and dabbled in Brooklyn).  The most difficult aspect of the whole thing was finding a 2BR apartment that had equitably sized bedrooms.  We were finding lots of places that either had a master bedroom and then some tiny kids’ room; or we were finding the “2BR flex” — meaning, you could get a company in to construct a temporary wall to create a second bedroom – a common phenomenon in NYC.  Then, of course, I just never felt a place was “right.”  Once I rejected an apartment because I just didn’t like the doorknobs (or that was the excuse I proffered), and Anna nearly strangled me!

Then Anna came across this sweet sweet place via a Craigslist post, an apartment we would come to call The Chelsea Duplex, and most importantly, home.  It is a charming and unique space — not some boring luxury building or 1 of 100s in a giant complex — located on the upper edge of Chelsea on a tree-lined residential street, close to just about every train needed, with its own private entrance, a working wood burning fireplace, two levels with a loft, tons of closets, 1.5 bathrooms, exposed brick.  Home!!



Who’d ‘a’ thought we’d find all this in the middle of Manhattan?! Well, I’d come to love this apartment for 5 years, and in NYC, that is actually pretty rare.  People tend to move around often in the City for a variety of reasons — roommate dysfunction, serious issues with the premises (btw – this is not to say the Chelsea Duplex was perfect by far!), life changes (e.g., marriage, moving in with or moving out from sig-others, job changes), or most commonly – exorbitant rent increases.  Luckily, life was pretty constant for us at the Chelsea Duplex.  I had 2 roommate changes after Anna left in 2007, but besides that, have lived rather contently here.

So my first thought about the apartment was to just sublet my space all furnished.  This way I did not have to kick out my roommate, break my lease that I had JUST re-signed for another year (yes, how convenient… why can’t life changing decisions be made BEFORE the landlord asks you to renew your lease?), or even move any of my furniture.  Also, I would know I could always come back to the apartment whenever it is I returned — whether it be December, May, or whenever (I could potentially keep renewing my lease from abroad as a secret absentee tenant).  But I quickly realized that would not be practical.

First, with no real end-date of my time in HK, how can I really hang onto a residence? I’d always have the risk of something happening at the apartment while I was the named and liable tenant, including the possibility of run-away subtenants.

Second, shouldn’t it be time for me to let go and change? I mean, isn’t that the whole point?

I came to this realization after a long conversation with my friend Namit, who he himself had let go of everything back in Mumbai almost a year ago to move to NYC.  He helped me come to the conclusion that the more I was holding on, the less I would be able to move onward.  And once I determined that I’d really let go of the apartment (basically decided I’d either let my roommate choose between subletting my room to a permanent new tenant til the lease’s end, or just end the whole thing, breaking my lease come September), I felt a whole new kind of lightness!

So bye bye Chelsea Duplex – you treated me well for 5 years, but when or if I come back to NYC, it will be time for something else – and no one can say what that will be (or when that will be).

Step 2 – My Stuff.  So in prep for leaving, I just imagined I’d have all my stuff packed up and put away in storage at my family’s property, so that whenever it is that I came back, I’d have stuff.  I was telling my older sister over breakfast recently that we’d have to clean up some space for all my stuff, and she asked simply, “How much stuff do you have?”  I began to enumerate it (my bed, two dressers, my desk, etc. etc.), when she rightly pointed out, “but what do you need this Ikea/student furniture for when you get back? You’ll get brand new grown-up stuff when you get back! Why don’t you just sell it??”

My resident bedmate!

My resident bedmate!

I don’t know why I didn’t think of that at all. I mean, let’s face it, with the exception of one of my dressers, nearly all my furniture was purchased shortly after I graduated law school, and yes, came from a variety of low quality/cheap sources.  In fact, I’d recently complained to myself that I was embarrassed to let guests see my bedroom since it looked like a kids’ room (the Spongebob collage I made doesn’t really help)!

But some young, fresh-faced student in NYC is probably going to enjoy what I have more than I, and the small pocket money I make will be useful for side-trips I plan to make from HK.

And again, upon making the realization that it would be better to let go of my earthly possessions here in NYC my step was much much lighter!

There is something very awkward about deciding to make a big change such as this.  You’re at once excited to make everything new, see new things, meet new people, and yet when it comes to letting go of your old life, you are inexplicably hesitant to let it all go.  But what good would a change like this be if you don’t let go??  Upon getting over that hesitation, you really do feel completely uplifted!

So… can I actually move onward with Step 3: My Cell Phone Number and *gulp* My (precious) Gym Membership?  Ok – one thing at a time, people!

*I made this post a “Part I” in anticipation of blogging how things actually go down once I begin to sift through all my crap that I’ve collected over 5 years in one apartment, and what happens when I actually pass it on to someone else!

Who? What? When? – Perhaps I can answer these Qs better

Obviously “Why?” was a toughie, and I promise more answers to that one over time, so instead I will try and answer some simpler questions.

Who? Most folks seem to assume I have family there (or even that I’m “going back”!!).  But nope – not at all.  The closest family I have are quite a few hours away in a village in Canton, and are actually not at all that close (they are related rather distantly — cousin/cousins-in-law of my late grandfather), and I’ve only met them once – back during my first (and only) visit (so far) to the Motherland in Summer 2006.  All of my family (and by this, I only count family from Mom’s side) emigrated en masse in 1966 (from Hong Kong) in a group comprised of three families.

Any friends? Well, with the exception of my former colleague Vicky, nope – not at all.  I’ve been preparing some connections through friends of mine here who know people there, but that’s it.  And hey – if you want to make a connection for me – I’m all up for it!

What? So did you get a job there?  What are you going to do?  Well so far I have one job application that Vicky ushered me through in progress, but even that actually may be on the Mainland; in addition is another I sent off myself not long ago with an Australian firm in HK.  I also have some headhunters prepping to get me going once jobs start to pop up in the Fall, but nothing is otherwise active.  If I get a job – fine, but it’s not my goal exactly.

The plan otherwise is to enroll in the Fall intensive programme for Mandarin at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Chinese Language Center.  I looked at the placement exam and I’m either Level 4 or 5 of five levels (5 being business Chinese).  Ideally I will finish my education to the highest level – which would be a useful skill these days (with China owning most of the US now).  This means I will either place into level 5 and take one semester, or take two semesters if I don’t.

Class is 3 hours a day x 5 days a week x 15 weeks, and the program includes an outing and obviously a wonderful university setting out in the New Territories.  What’s also nice is that this program (or programme as they say in HK) gives me a lot of free time to write (still going to keep banging out my book proposal for the Eulogy Project), blog (duh!), explore and travel (hopefully will visit my sister out in Taiwan whenever I can — she is starting her Fulbright ETA program beginning August 1, and fly off to many other sites throughout Asia), eat, and of course ruminate and energize!

I’d always regretted that I never studied abroad (two of my three sisters have, and obviously enjoyed it and grew from it), and whose fantasy isn’t it to live in a foreign country?  The problem is, if you miss out on an opportunity when you’re say in high school or college or grad school, it seems there hardly is ever a good chance to do it.  So voila!

When? Either way, job or no job, my estimated departure will be September 2009.  Class begins on September 7 (still tentative according to the website, however), and I should probably leave about a week or so prior to get myself into some sort of temporary housing (either with a friend of a friend, at a hostel, or the YMCA) to hit the ground running to find myself a proper sublet or apartment.

Those are solid answers right?

Why? The Beginning (or pretty darn close to it).

Yes, why – why is the first question.  Most people assume that I’ve secured some kind of job or have family or friends – some sort of plan.  But no – not at all.  I have no job.  I have no family.  I hardly know a single person.  Well, I know one person – Vicky, and then everyone else will be through someone else.  But it will do.  Surely it will.

Why am I going to Hong Kong all of a sudden, out of the blue, after living in New York for over 26 years (I took a brief hiatus to live in Massachusetts while attending college)?  I was born in New York, and I’ve proclaimed very publicly that I shall die in New York, so what possesses me to leave my gorgeous duplex apartment in Chelsea (with a private entrance and a working fireplace, mind you), to jump ship to another city?

I’m not sure!  And no – I don’t have a real plan here.  So why?

Because it’s time.  It’s all I can say to say it simply.  Because it would take so much more to say it all… I’ve been in a weird place, shall we say.  But where to begin on that?  It would take – say an entire blog’s worth to write it all out – so let’s start at the beginning… or as close to the beginning as I can.

In June 2001 – oh yes, precisely 8 years prior, I was a happy college grad.  There was a beautiful ceremony, with a wonderful speech by this guy who headed up NASA.  He promised good things for us, and told us we would do good.  Behind me, seated several yards away on a well groomed lawn were my entire family (or just about), including one very important person – my mother.  It was a happy and hopeful occasion.  I would be attending law school in a few short months, back in my homeland – the good ol’ NYC.  And everything was good.

I was young (and admitteldy, still am).  I was in love (but no longer am).  I was still pure.

Then it began.  The end of all that.  The beginning of all this (perhaps).

Mom was diagnosed with cancer.  Lung cancer, we would learn not without some difficulty. Late stage non-small cell lung cancer. It was the end, or just the beginning of the end.

I had struggled with much of my time the following years.  But this is not to say I did not enjoy many wonderful experiences, and met many of my greatest friends.  Life changed, but it went on.

Mom continued to run her business.  Each of my sisters and I were still in school. I graduated in May 2004 without incident, passed two bar exams, went off to explore Machu Picchu,  and took a job at a boutique law firm on Wall Street.  Then it all got worse.  And actually, this part never goes away.

December 2005.  The end. Mom died.  It had been a long four years – and everything changed.

May 2007.  I thought everything was behind me, and jumped onto the fast track, joining a top 100 law firm, working for the world’s biggest hedge funds, Big 4 accounting firms, and giant insurance companies.

Summer 2007.  Even though I had filed Mom’s estate taxes, it had not gone away and grave issues arose that were extremely distracting.  Worse, the manager I had hired to take care of the business we had inherited unexpectedly died.

Summer 2008.  This is the time I called the Great Sickness.  I was not doing well.

September 2008.  That Fall I made a conscious decision to get off the ride and take a pause.  I left the firm, stepped off my so-called professsional track and just decided to buckle down on all these pressing issues on behalf of my family and myself.

May 2009.  Here we are: I’m designing plans to pack it all up and leave.

So… that’s sort of the beginning of all this.  It’s a hairy tale.  Heck, I am still figuring it out myself – all I know is this:

September 2009.  Hong Kong.