Monthly Archives: September 2009

CDotD*: Australia Is Not A Continent

In a recent business Chinese class, we ended up digressing to the topic of universities and education in Asia.  In many of classes I feel we can digress a bit, but the teacher won’t stop us because what’s more important is that we are practicing conversations on subjects we care about.  I really enjoy this practice, as I feel I’m in an environment that’s protected from ridicule, and sheltered in understanding of my poor Chinese.  What’s also interesting to me, is watching my brain start out speaking in English transliterated into Chinese, and then realizing how that structure just won’t work and pausing in order to turn the whole sentence around.

Anyway, onto the CDotD – the conversation went on to the continents of the Earth, and somehow the teacher did not list Australia.  Instead, the North Pole or Arctic was listed in its stead.  What?! I said – hang on, what about Australia??

I got a funny look and was told quite matter-of-factly that Australia was part of Asia, and not its own continent.  I was stunned!  The other two Asian classmates – one a Korean and the other a Korean from Hong Kong didn’t seem surprised at all either.

I turned to my Dutch classmate and he was similarly surprised, but said that they called it Australasia, and not Australia.  Thus, Australasia included New Zealand and the other nearby islands. Okay…

I went on to ask friends from home, including a Brit and a Kiwi, just to make sure I was not out of my mind.  The Brit agreed with me completely, the Kiwi called it Oceania (I can understand that).  Then I was referenced this Wikipedia page, but aforementioned Brit, and it seems it makes perfect sense to call Australia a continent:

“The narrowest meaning of continent is that of a continuous area of land or mainland, with the coastline and any land boundaries forming the edge of the continent.”  So, Australia clearly qualifies.. although this gives rise to discussion on how to consider the Americas, etc.  Further reading of this Wiki page indicates that this particular definition will give rise to a different consideration in terms of the number of continents (fewer, rather more), but no discussion of Australia being a part of Asia, if anything Europe and Asia are often morphed together to form Eurasia.

I see the references to Australasia and Oceania, but still nothing about this new concept I learned today.

Worse, the page states that China teaches the 7-continent system we Americans are accustomed to — uhhh, apparently not!

So what gives? Is this some Asia-centric thinking?

I asked a pair of Aussies a few days later, and they were surprisingly lax about it and not at all surprised, but the pair also have been living in Asia for years (and I mean Asia by the standard American definition of it!).  Has that affected their thinking?

Am I nuts? Come on – can someone help me out here? Or can someone please find more references to this Asian version of the 7 continents and add it onto the Wiki page?

*Crazy Discovery of the Day

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How the Other Half Lives II

Hong Kong is affectionately dubbed the New York of the East by many.  It’s a finance center; a major harbor; people from all over the world gather to these two cities to experience it.  Yet there are obviously many differences.

As much as things are the same, I will wonder why are those things different… well, different? I wrote previously about the disparity of communities here in HK, and as I get to know HK in what is now my third week here, I start to see these differences come alive even more.

I think we can break HK down to now four groups: (1) the expats (who have a variegated number of jobs that are not always necessarily well-paying, ranging from teaching to banking), (2) the international locals (Honkies — yes they do call themselves that — who are typically from the upper middle to upper classes and are or send their children to local international schools or abroad to international schools); (3) the lower middle to lower class locals who have a fair lifestyle in HK, but are not all that well-educated or internationally exposed; and (4) the foreign or migrant workers – Thais, Indonesians, and Filipinas – who are here to typically do the lowest denomination of work, like housekeeping, and often, and unfortunately, fall prey to human trafficking and prostitution.

Now this is not to say that NYC does not have these four classes of people too.  There most assuredly are each of these types.  There are definitely plenty of foreigners and out-of-staters from everywhere flocking to NYC to work in the finance and law sectors, a breed of upper middle or upper class folks (although the upper-middle to upper classes don’t send their children abroad, but rather send their kids to local or US private schools, and then, if they are so lucky, Ivy League or similar schools for college), more ordinary middle-class or lower-middle class folks, and then yes, lots of migrant and illegal immigrants, who also fall prey to various social abuses and evils.  But why do I still get the sense that HK is far more segregated?

The number one reason: I firmly believe there is such thing as social mobility in New York, and America, whereas in Hong Kong, this is far from the case.  In fact, I recently became acquainted with yet another local from category 2.  He’s American-educated, holds a degree from a US Ivy League college, and is obviously wealthy in HK (he owns a car, has an apartment in a prime neighborhood, and has been engaged in building and selling a factory).  He whole-heartedly agreed with my assessment, and although he has worked with plenty of Category 1 folks when he was in the finance sector, now chooses to stay well within his own kind.

And as for my assessment on the situation in NYC, I have one prime example — my family.  My mother came (from Hong Kong) to New York in 1966.  She was just 18, and she and her large family (everyone came altogether — her family of 2 boys and 2 girls, mom and dad; her grandmother, plus her two uncles and their families) arrived en masse to live in Manhattan’s Chinatown.  Mom’s parents were blue-collared workers — her father a cook, who had to travel as far as Philly to get gigs, and her mother a seamstress in a Chinatown factory.  They were not rich at all, and I’ve heard plenty of tales of how poor they were.  Food stamps, government subsidized school lunches, no healthcare whatsoever.   My grandparents never got any further than the 6th grade, and yet their children would all far surpass them.

Mom earned her Masters in Chemistry, and oft complained that if not for being pregnant with me, would have finished her PhD in environmental toxicology at NYU.  Her youngest brother went to the famous NYC high school Brooklyn Tech, followed by the Ivy League UPenn, and then graduated from medical school, becoming a full-fledged medical doctor.  If that’s not social mobility, then I don’t know what is.  In America, you truly could become something from nothing if you put your mind to it, and all this can happen rather quickly too, with no need to wait several generations.

I remembered thinking how true this was when I visited China for the very first time in 2006, and met my distant relatives who were not so lucky to emigrate.  I easily saw what could have been my life if we never had this opportunity — I’d be in this weird village, where while yes, we might have a flat screen television, but still have a straw-fed stove, and any hopes of a profession would be pure jest.

Hong Kong, which is certainly no Mainland China (even if they are one country with two systems now), is still nowhere the same.  Of those 4 groups I enumerated, the interactions, if any, are always in some sort of hierarchy.  Can there be real friendships between any of them?  Few if any.  Can any one transition from one to the other?  Again, rare.

So far I’ve been able to form some sort of relationships with Groups 1 and 2, but as progressive as my background might be, I highly doubt anything sincere might happen between me and Groups 3 and 4.

Crazy Discovery of the Day: 黑鬼油

Today I was wandering about, just working on getting some errands done — bought some fruit and other groceries, had another facial at 98 HKD (my skin needs help as it adjusts to this hot and humid and pollution-filled weather), and even bought my first clothing items here in HK (some really cute items for under $9 each — and saw something that really made my pause: 黑鬼油.  Yes, for those who can read Chinese — that, as google translator terms it, is Chinese for “n*gger oil”.

I did not call it that, people! I did not even translate it thusly.  As some of you may know, the Chinese are not exactly all that politically correct, and have historically been rather xenophobic.  It is part of their ordinary language to basically call all foreigners 鬼老, which roughly means “old ghost.”

I guess you can say the Chinese or rather racist, since it is a part of their regular vocabulary, but truly, there isn’t necessarily anything hateful implied.  In any case, 黑鬼油 still blew my mind.  (I happened to be going to the pharmacy to look for the famous cure-all white flower oil, incidentally.)

I was too embarassed to ask the store clerk what 黑鬼油 was for, but then looked it up with the powers of google when I got home.

It’s tanning lotion! It allegedly helps you to get dark, and also has some other typical Chinese medicinal properties, like anti-bacterial, cooling, etc.  It has no known SPF protection, however, but supposedly will work to get you dark as well, a black person.

The Student Life Is So Grand!

Now here for two weeks officially and am feeling increasingly settled in.  I have a home, where I can do whatever I please, and I have a routine of Chinese classes five days a week, where I’ve become acquainted with two particular classmates (Evert and Bianca).

Today in speech preparation class, we did an exercise where we used the lesson as a skeleton to make a speech about ourselves (it seems this is how we will end every class).  This first lesson was on introducing yourself, explaining who you are, what you did, why you came to the university to study Chinese, what you hope to do afterwards.

I really enjoyed doing the exercise and listening to my other classmates tell me more about themselves (turns out quite a few of the ladies are in their 30s).  And in yesterday’s News class, I was very interested in critically reading the passage and even telling the teacher how the lesson could be rewritten to be less confusing for the student.

Also, each night as I prep for the next day’s class I again find myself rather enthusiastic about learning and figuring out Chinese (it takes me quite some time now since I’m still so unfamiliar/out of practice with the simplified characters).   Today it dawned on me that I quite like being a student again, particularly studying this course that I find really interesting.  It truly is great fun, and I feel I’m getting a lot of each lesson!

At the same time, I have an eye on looking for a job here in HK (or who knows where else opportunity might arise).  As I mentioned in my previous post, the lives of the expat bankers/lawyers I’ve been hanging out with are vastly different, and as these new friends invite me out to junks or fancy supper clubs, I yearn to make some money so I can better afford these fun activities (which are exceedingly cheap compared to what similar activities would go for in NY).  Not to mention with the ever-present shopping in HK, I cannot wait to first, get my own proper space where I can fill my closets, and second, buy some great new stuff!

For now, I have to just try to savor every moment of this second chance at studenthood.  I can’t know if I will get another semester (or even two) out of this, so I really ought to live it up!

Typhoons is Serious Business: My First Typhoon in HK

Summer in Hong Kong, which is generally from late May to late September (now) is also typhoon season.  Somehow I’ve been lucky during my stay and there has been much less rain than it ordinarily is.   I’ve experienced some drizzles or the very frequent off-and-on rain, but nothing serious.

During orientation, we were given a fair warning about typhoons, even being shown a video clip of a young woman getting pushed around the sidewalk by a wind-swept garbage bin.  Also, we were told that classes would be cancelled whenever there are wind gale signals of 8 or rainstorm signals in the black.  What that meant, I would have no idea — and having barely ever been able to celebrate a snow day in New York, for which there is no formal signal system, I did not take this part of our orientation seriously.

Last week I experienced my first T-signal.  In the lobby of my building was a little sign informing us that there was a T-3 flag up today.  There was simply some light rain, nothing exciting.  This experience did not support the seriousness of the weather signal system here in HK.  I’d also seen Amber rainstorm signals, and found it an over-reaction.

Yesterday morning as I left for school, I noticed all the local television stations displaying a T-1 signal across the top of the screen.  T-1 was even more mild, and I did not quite understand.

At about 5pm, I was already home from class, and had no desire to go out in the rain in HK (if you get any idea how crowded HK is from my posts, think of how annoying it is when all those people have umbrellas up too), although I still have plans to sort out my local residence ID card, and explore the South China Association for swim lessons.  I got a text from Sammi, a Japanese classmate in another level who has been living in HK off and on for 8 years now, warning me to stay home as the T-8 flag was recently raised.  I did not see why that was the case based on what I could see from my windows.

I quickly noticed the gale system displayed across nearly all the television stations again, but still had no idea what that would really mean.  Next my friend and former co-worker Vicky called to tell me to stay home.  She was being told to leave her law firm immediately.

Still I had no idea what this was all about.  I turned on what news I could find later in the evening.  I only had Cantonese news available, but saw that trees were already being found overturned!

This was serious, and in fact, the warning system is rather smart!  Here it is below:

Signal
Number
Signal
Name
Sustained Wind Speed
(km/h, (mph, Beaufort scale))
Gusts
(km/h (mph))
Signal
Sign
Light Signal
(Abolished)
Remarks

1

Stand-by (戒備)

N/A

N/A

Image:Tc1.gif

White
White
White

A tropical cyclone is centred within 800 kilometres of Hong Kong and may later affect the territory, or there are strong winds in Hong Kong waters

3

Strong winds (強風)

41 – 62 (26-37, Beaufort Force 6-7)

may exceed 110 (69)

Image:Tc3.gif

Green
White
Green

Strong winds are expected or blowing generally in Hong Kong near the sea level, and the wind condition is expected to persist

8 NW

Gale or storm force winds
(烈風或暴風)

63 – 117 (38-73, Beaufort Force 8-11)

may exceed 180 (113)

Image:Tc8nw.gif

White
Green
Green

Gale or storm force winds are expected or blowing generally in Hong Kong near the sea level from the NW quadrant, and the wind condition is expected to persist

8 NE

Image:Tc8ne.gif

Green
White
White

Gale or storm force winds are expected or blowing generally in Hong Kong near the sea level from the NE quadrant, and the wind condition is expected to persist

8 SE

Image:Tc8se.gif

Green
Green
White

Gale or storm force winds are expected or blowing generally in Hong Kong near the sea level from the SE quadrant, and the wind condition is expected to persist

8 SW

White
White
Green

Gale or storm force winds are expected or blowing generally in Hong Kong near the sea level from the SW quadrant, and the wind condition is expected to persist

9

Increasing
gale or storm force winds
(烈風或暴風風力增強)

88 – 117, increasing (55-73, Beaufort Force 10-11)

N/A

Green
Green
Green

Gale or storm force winds are increasing.

10

Hurricane (颶風)

>118 (74+, Beaufort Force 12)

may exceed 220 (138)

Image:Tc10.gif

Red
Green
Red

Hurricane force winds. Eye of typhoon may be passing directly over Hong Kong.


In addition, there is a colored cloud system on rainstorms:

AMBER rainstorm signal

This signal means:
Heavy rain has fallen or is expected to fall generally over Hong Kong, exceeding 30 millimetres in an hour, and is likely to continue.

The AMBER signal gives alert about potential heavy rain that may develop into RED or BLACK signal situations. There will be flooding in some low-lying areas and poorly drained areas.

[edit]RED rainstorm signal

This signal means:
Heavy rain has fallen or is expected to fall generally over Hong Kong, exceeding 50 millimetres in an hour, and is likely to continue.

The RED signal gives alert about potential heavy rain that may develop into BLACK signal situations. All students are to remain at school unless there is a visible risk to staying in the building.

[edit]BLACK rainstorm signal

This signal means:
Very heavy rain has fallen or is expected to fall generally over Hong Kong, exceeding 70 millimetres in an hour, and is likely to continue.

When the BLACK signal is issued, Hong Kong will come to a complete standstill. Schools will not dismiss students unless there is a visible risk to staying at school, and everyone is recommended to seek shelter immediately. Buses and other forms of public transport may be halted after a while to allow commuters to go home, depending on demand and the level of risk along the route. MTR services will be limited or suspended because of the risk of flooding.

The RED and BLACK signals warn the public of heavy rain which is likely to bring about serious road flooding and traffic congestion. They will trigger response actions by Government departments and major transport and utility operators. The public will be given clear advice on the appropriate actions to take.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

Although this typhoon, named Koppu,  was nowhere as damaging as the recent Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan, I appreciate the warning signal now.  This morning, the T-8 signal is still up, although expected to be downgraded to a 3 by 10:30am.  That meant classes were cancelled this morning at the Uni, and until the signal is downgraded, most stores I can see from outside my window are closed. But since I have afternoon session today, I will be resuming my studies on a very difficult lesson on news!

Check out this incredible photo captured by Michael Siward for the South China Morning Post!

How the Other Half Lives

Hong Kong is an interesting place because there can be such an extreme difference between how the various communities live here on what is one of the most densely populated areas on earth.  I happen to straddle across two very different communities — my student community at CUHK up in the New Territories, where I cross through Kowloon, and the vast ex-pat/finance community who primarily live Island-side.

In my small classes, we have one Dutch guy, a few Koreans, including a Korean HK resident, a Japanese student or two, and one young lady who hails from Kowloon Tong, but has spent the past few years studying law at Oxford.  I know a few of the students from the other levels, which includes another English-educated HK resident and a few Americans.  Based on our cafeteria (or canteen — because it resembles the Chinese word 餐廳(can ting)) conversations, the lifestyle I have chosen as a student is very different.

I appear to be one of the oldest of our group (although I know there are a few older students in other sections), and I’m lucky in that I’ve squirreled away a bit of savingsfrom my life as a lawyer and still have some income flowing from the family biz, so my choice to live in a serviced apartment in Wan Chai is relatively extravagant.  I also have spent a substantial amount of time with the working ex-pats, who tend to hail from the finance industry, make a whole lot of dough and typically benefit from decent tax benefits.  Quickly I learned how differently this other half lives.

The junk boat party I attended on Saturday seemed like an entirely common occurrence for ex-pats.  They work so hard all week long, that it is not uncommon for them to wind down nearly every weekend on a boat for hire, complete with unlimited drinks and food.  The cost is about 500-600 HKD per person which, while not a lot compared to the cost required to do the same in NYC, is an awful lot of money in HK when you consider that a meal typically goes for about 20-50 HKD.

In contrast, it was not something any of my classmates, including those who have now lived in HK for a year, even heard of.

Evert, my Dutch classmate, who lives on a very small budget, lives in an idyllic town just north of the University.  There he is surrounded by a very Eastern atmosphere, and does not seem to feel infused in a Western world, as I do here in Wan Chai.  He doesn’t have the funds to come out and experience the Westernized Island life, and surely neither do many other Hong Kees, as they affectionately refer themselves.

I look forward to figuring out more of the differences.  Not all of Hong Kong is glam, glitz, and shopping.

Getting Away or Running Away (A Post for Procrastination’s Sake)

I haven’t posted a “feelings” post in a while, and aptly, in order to procrastinate from class preparation, I am writing this blog entry instead.

Today I spent a lazy Sunday just getting some errands done — a long-needed facial (at a mere 98 HKD/$12!) and bought some groceries to complete my spartan kitchenette (even though I mainly cook Chinese-style food, it somehow feels better when I make it, even if it’s less tasty, than going out every meal, no matter how cheap it is).

As I was walking by Times Square (in Causeway Bay), which is – yes, you guessed it, another shopping mall here in Hong Kong, I suddenly felt emotional.  Often I’ll notice myself here in this new country, realizing that I am no tourist, and wondering, “what on Earth am I doing here?!”  Am I living in a fantasy? Is this fantasy the delusional/insane type, or the wondrous/amazing type?

I started thinking negatively again, worrying about where my life is going.  Why did I give everything up back home to come here? Even though in many ways I’m actually far more productive here in Hong Kong than when I was in New York, particularly by taking this intensive Mandarin course and practicing Cantonese in daily life, I somehow feel worse about my spending here. I actually feel like a bum – maybe because I’m among so many hard-working finance folks.

Worse, I’ve been missing a particular person back home.  Even worse still, I suspect part of my coming here was to put an end to that missing.  Often I’ve wanted to give him a call (my mobile allows me very cheap international calls at about 3 cents a minute), or just to send an e-mail, but then I realize there is no point.  That repeated realization gets rather painful at times.

I’ve also been thinking about Mom now and again.  I couldn’t possibly avoid it, now that I’m here in one of her former cities.  The thoughts can be rather painful, actually, and, I’m not sure if it’s fortunate or unfortunate, I’ll just shove any sadness aside because I just don’t have the time to cry!

Is it running away? My former fencing coach and dear friend Jarek immediately asked me what I was running from when I told him I was planning to move to Hong Kong.  Somehow he smelled it out over the phone, and I just don’t know how to answer that question. I’ll admit that a part of me suspects the same, yet on the other hand, I don’t doubt that I won’t be productive in coming here anyway.

Over the weekend I met more people having gone to a barbecue at someone’s apartment (which was incredibly spacious and well-furnished, which gave me hope of living here yet) and my first junk.  I felt encouraged to work here in HK, in spite of my apprehension over the inordinate hours people seem to belabor here.  So in a sense, I became more intrigued about actually staying here for some kind of long-term stay.

And that’s a good thing! In New York, I’d lost all fervor for life and love, it seemed.  I was living comfortably, but not particularly productively.  I had great ideas, but no motivation to execute them.  Something was most certainly wrong.

In addition to those few tasks I got done this Sunday, I also spent a good amount of time revising my resume — something I hadn’t wanted to do in ages.  I was inspired by this German banker I met at the bbq on Friday, who has worked in several cities, including Amsterdam and Singapore.  He encouraged me to look out for good opportunities, because it was his firm belief that just about any opportunity here in HK would be good for me and my career, and the experience of living here as an employee, and not just a student, would be fruitful.  So getting away/running away – who cares, I’m getting somewhere.