Adventure in Hong Kong

My semester abroad in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong


Trip to the Philippines!

I have been completely MIA from the blog lately! But I’ve been working really hard to keep up with my personal journal, so I’ll still have all of my memories!

So I think the most important and exciting thing that has happened to me in the past few weeks besides going to the Community College at Lingnan is the trip that I took to the Philippines! I went with 5 other exchange students: three from HWS, one from Germany and one from France.

We left for the Philippines on Wednesday, Oct. 31 super early in the morning. Our flight wasn’t until 9:30 a.m. or so, but we left campus around 6:00 a.m. so that we wouldn’t be late. Once we got to the airport we had a lot of time to kill. We ate a cafe and I had a bagel with cream cheese for the first time since I got here. Of course they used a Panini to toast it…but it was still amazing. If you know me, you know I love bread, and I have definitely been deprived for the last month!

Our flight to Clark only took a few hours. As soon as we got off the plane, I exchanged my Hong Kong dollars for Philippine pesos. My $700 Hong Kong Dollars turned into over $3,000 pesos (1 U.S. dollar is about 40 Pesos).

The airport opened up to the outside, and since we were all starving we were hoping for a real restaurant. Unfortunately, this was one of the smallest airports I’ve ever been to, so we had super limited options. We had to walk outside to get onto the terminal for our next flight. We had a really long layover, but had no wifi, which is the most boring thing when you have your data plan turned off. We ended up boarding the plane around the time we should have been arriving in our next location, Kalibo.

Luckily, once we got on the plane it was a really quick trip. We got out of the airport and picked a van service to drive us to Caticlan and then take a boat to Boracay, where we would be staying. By the time we got in the van, the sun was setting and it was starting to get dark. The van was packed with 12 people and it was the craziest ride I’ve ever been on. Our driver kept honking and passing everyone.  The traffic was crazy. There aren’t many actual cars, but a ton of motorcycles and “jeepneys.” Jeepneys are the equivalent of cabs in the Philippines. They are motorcycles with little wagon type things attached to them. There was not a single traffic light on the whole two hour ride there.

Once we got to the jetty port, even though the ferry ticket was included in the van price, we had to pay two more “fees” before we could board. The ferry ride itself was only 10 minutes long.

We finally got off the boat and a guy from the hostel where we would be staying, Trafalgar Cottages, was there to pick us up. We took two jeepneys there. The ride was bumpy and crazy! By the time we arrived at the hostel, it was around 7:30 at night.

Our room had two twin beds and one bunk bed. We dropped off our stuff, freshened up and went out to get dinner. We stopped at the first restaurant we saw, which was open in the front, facing the ocean. The menu was amazing compared to what we were used to getting in Hong Kong. I ordered Chicken Fingers and a Mango Daiquiri. The chicken fingers weren’t great, but at least there was no bone in the chicken!

After dinner we kept walking down the beach, and saw some more restaurants, bars, and vendors. There was a lot of Halloween stuff going on, which was pretty awesome, but also weird to see. We ended up going for a night swim after everything. The water was so warm and perfectly clear—unlike the beaches with trash in the water that you sometimes get in Hong Kong.

The next morning, our first full day there—Thursday—Sven and I woke up before the others and went next door to a restaurant called Zest, which was right next to our hostel. The restaurant had amazing fruit shakes, and I ended up having a mango shake almost every day.

Later that day we went to the beach for the first time. It was like paradise. I’ve never seen anything like it. The water was SO blue. The beach is lined with locals trying to sell you various objects: sunglasses, straw hats, sailing trips, seashells, you name it. We ended up agreeing to a full-day sailing trip around the beaches of Boracay for the next day. For about 40 USD each, we were going to go snorkeling, go to several different beaches and have a beach BBQ, with all food and alcohol included.

On Friday, we went on our sailing trip and it was amazing. Our first stop was at Puka Beach. It put White Beach to shame. The water was bluer and the beach barely had anyone on it. Our guides set to work making our lunch while we all explored.

The food was absolutely amazing and I’m proud to say that I tried new things! We drank straight out of the coconuts, and the guides also brought some Filipino rum for us to try. We had grilled fish—its body still intact: we ate it using forks—grilled crabs with spices, squid on a skewer (and covered in ink), chicken, rice, pork and fresh fruit including mangos, pineapples, bananas and oranges. The only problem with our picnic was that once we started eating, we got swarmed by flies.

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After eating, Siobhan, Tyler and I went to lie on the beach and go swimming again. We ended up meeting another American who was there on vacation. He was from Alabama but lives in Texas working in the oil industry. He was there with a Filipina woman, who was significantly younger than him—which is definitely the norm in the Philippines. It’s not uncommon to see older, Western men, with really really young women.

After the beach, we got back on the boat to go snorkeling somewhere else. This time the surf was so rough that we were getting smashed by waves! After about 45 minutes on the boat, getting tossed around, we finally anchored to snorkel. The water was totally rough though so it was hard to snorkel without letting go of the boat. If you let go, you would come back up and the boat would be so far away. I could see a lot of fish and a lot of coral.

Next, we went to an island that was mostly rocks. We stayed there for three or four hours, hanging out with our guides. It was two brothers and an uncle. Even though we paid for 5:30, we ended up hanging out with them until 9:30 and didn’t get back to White Beach until well after dark. It was definitely one of the best days of the trip.

Saturday we just laid on the beach all day and relaxed in typical vacation fashion.

On Sunday, Siobhan, Tyler and I explored the other side of the beach. We found a bunch of cheap bars and restaurants and ended up hanging out at this really cool place called Congas. It was made out of bamboo and other materials and had a Rastafarian theme. We laid on the beach for a few hours and then ended up making friends with the locals who worked there. We also met two Spanish guys who were on vacation in the Philippines, one who works in the travel industry. We had a really fun time and two of the people taught us how to drum. Siobhan even drummed to Gangnam Style.

On Monday, we spent the whole day traveling and had to go back to “reality,” aka Hong Kong.



Practicing English at Lingnan Community College

Professor Paul Li presenting me with a book as a thanks.

This past Wednesday and today (twice!), I visited the Community College at my University. I had previously been contacted by a professor there, Paul Li, who was looking for native English speakers to come in and speak to his students. I completed three, hour and a half long sessions in which I interacted with and held conversations with about 15 Hong Kong students at a time.

Paul would switch each class into two groups, usually ranging between 9-18 students in each depending on the class size, and I would spend a half an hour with each group. First we would go around in a circle introducing ourselves. I asked them to share their name, grade, major, hometown and their favorite thing about Lingnan. After introductions I had several discussion questions planned: What is your favorite food and what are its ingredients? What do you hope to do after graduation? and What was the last movie you saw in theaters? Sometimes the students were very shy and other times they were very upfront, choosing to ignore the proposed questions and instead ask me questions about myself. As I went through the three sections, I got more comfortable talking to the students and I came up with better questions to ask them.

I think the students learned from me, but I learned a lot from them too. I found out that basketball is the most popular sport in Hong Kong (after 2/3 of the students said it was their hobby). One student explained that it’s because land prices in Hong Kong are so high that the government is not willing to spend the money on large football (aka soccer) fields…so financially it makes more sense to build basketball courts. I also learned that many students’ favorite food is fish balls. I have actually tried these, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts…but I definitely don’t enjoy them as much as everyone else does! I also found out about an island that I need to visit before I leave called Cheng Chau island. When I asked the groups what their favorite place in Hong Kong was, many of them answered with this island.

The students have my facebook info and my e-mail address so that they can stay in touch with me for the rest of my time at Lingnan and in the future.

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Staying Politically Active while Abroad

One of the hardest things to do while living on the other side of the world is to keep up on current events at home. I haven’t watched any TV at all since I’ve been here, and I doubt that the Hong Kong news would be in English anyway. The 12-hour, soon to be 13-hour, time difference doesn’t make things any easier. Luckily, there is modern technology, so I have been able to somewhat keep up on what is happening. Through Social Media like Twitter and Facebook, I can see everyone’s comments on what is happening (though I have to admit I don’t always want to see them). I also have the CNN, Associated Press and MassLive apps on my iPhone.

I’ve been able to watch the two presidential debates and the vice-presidential debates on Youtube through the New York Time’s Channel. I haven’t been able to watch them in real time because I’ve had class (example: the last debate was 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, that means 9:00 a.m. for me on Wednesday morning).

I think it’s really important to stay aware of current affairs, even when you are in the U.S. I received my absentee ballot last Saturday and sent it back this past Monday. I know another student here was able to get his e-mailed to him, fill it out, and then scan it back.

It’s also interesting because many of the other exchange students are very interested in U.S. politics. Many of them ask certain questions about the candidates or the health care system. Some Hong Kong natives are also curious as well. One of my professors asked me how I can still vote when I’m not in the U.S. When I explained to him that I had filled out the absentee ballot he replied, “WOW! That’s TRUE democracy.”

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The Importance of Roommate Bonding

My roommate and I visiting Stanley a few weeks ago.

As far as roommates go, I think that I ended up pretty lucky for my exchange this semester. Before arriving in Hong Kong, I knew that most people here would speak Cantonese but I was still hoping to have a chance to practice my Mandarin. At HWS, I studied Mandarin (also known as Putonghua, the common tongue) for four semesters. This semester, I am continuing my study, but living in Hong Kong doesn’t help because most people don’t speak any at all.

Flash forward to the first week at Lingnan. Most of the other exchange students got their roommates and the strange stories began. Some would share the weird different cultural habits of their roommates (i.e., staying up until 6 a.m. “playing games,” shouting outside the hostels, or not even speaking to their roommate at all); with my roommate no where to be found I began to get worried about what she would be like. The day before classes began, my roommate, Stone, arrived and I was beyond excited to find out that she was from Mainland China. This meant that I would be able to practice my Mandarin with her; she was also excited to be able to practice her English with a native speaker.

There are obviously cultural differences but I think we are both excited to learn about the other’s culture and life. There are some major things we differ on (i.e. the fact that I love to get tan and Stone wants to keep her skin as pale as possible) but I think learning about the differences makes this whole experience more fun. We often end up having long conversations about our lives at home and ask each other questions about food, our families and lifestyles. I am definitely so lucky to have been placed with such an amazing roommate that I can actually hang out with.

The food: spicy chicken (center), fish balls with pork skin (back left), awesome “noodle” thing (back right).

On Saturday night, Stone and her boyfriend took me to Yuen Long, which is just a few stops away on the MTR, for some night market dinner. They lead me to a place I would have never found on my own and it was definitely geared towards locals only. I didn’t see any other foreigners and the menu of the place we went to was only written in Chinese. Stone knows a little Cantonese because this is her third year at Lingnan. The characters for Cantonese and Mandarin are the same so she can read the menu (even though I’ve been studying Mandarin, I still have trouble reading the menu). Stone and Kevin ordered everything for me: I had fresh squeezed mango juice (the place we ate is known for its Mango desserts), we all shared some chicken, fish balls and pork and these noodle type things.I am not entirely sure what I ate to be honest.

I am trying to be more open to the food here even though those who know me may consider my eating habits to be “picky.” I was a vegetarian from age 9-15, and then began to eat poultry again. Only since I’ve gotten to Hong Kong have I begun to eat fish. Since I have been here, I haven’t eaten much meat because it all has bones in it (part of the reason why I became a vegetarian in the first place). I didn’t want to be rude and told myself before we left for the market that I would be daring.

So I tried some of the chicken…well it was mostly bone…but it was good and very spicy. The mango juice was amazing and I even tried a fish ball (but said no to the pork…it was actually pork skin). The other dish, was similar to noodles (maybe made of rice meal) and there were different sauces to dip it in. The chicken was very spicy and at first I wasn’t sure how to eat it. There wasn’t enough meat on it to eat it the way you would eat a chicken wing in the U.S. Stone and her boyfriend would place the whole thing in their mouth and then spit out the bones, but I wasn’t brave enough to do that. The fish balls taste exactly how they sound like they would taste…like fish smooshed into ball form.

My fresh squeezed mango juice. YUM

After eating, we walked around the night market a bit and looked at other places. We ended up buying some sort of flower petals that you can use to make tea. Stone and I plan to try it sometime this week. The woman at the market was very annoyed at us for only buying a small amount. Stone told me that the people can be very pushy here, especially if they know you aren’t native.

Even though Stone and her boyfriend are both from China, the food they have at home is very different from the food here in Hong Kong. China is so large that each region has its own type of food. The type that U.S. Chinese food is based off of is Cantonese which is the style here in Hong Kong. The food at home is by no means authentic though. I have yet to see any General Tso’s or Sesame Chicken. And I rarely get offered a fork and knife here! (In fact I haven’t seen any knives except at restaurants). So, I’m now a pro at using chopsticks.

In other news, I have been in contact with a professor of the Lingnan Community College to come into his classes and give the students an opportunity to practice English with a native speaker. And I also booked a flight to the Philippines for Oct. 31! I’ll stay in Boracay until Nov. 5!

Look for another post later this week about staying politically active while abroad!


An Update from the East: classes at Lingnan, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and trip to Macau

At the Mid-Autumn Festival Fair in Causeway Bay.

It’s been way too long since I’ve updated the blogosphere about my time here in Hong Kong. I’ve still been doing a fair amount of sight-seeing and finally starting to get into a routine here at Lingnan. Compared to HWS, the academics here are far from demanding but over the past few weeks I’ve finally started to get some real homework. I turned in my first paper last Monday (an 800 word essay worth 15% of my grade for my Women, Art, and Society in China class) and I had my first Chinese quiz. Now that we are about six weeks into classes, the work is finally beginning.

I would say the academics here have been the biggest “culture shock” for me to handle. At HWS, I am accustomed to taking a full course load in addition to working two jobs–one on campus and one off. As a double major in Writing and Rhetoric and International Relations with a minor in Asian Studies, I am generally overwhelmed academically. I have hours of homework every night and a paper to write or a test to study for at any given time. My classes at HWS actively engage the students in classroom discussion in addition to being lecture style. The attendance policy is very strict and non-negotiable. Most teachers will not allow a student more than three unexcused absences.

At Lingnan, only two of my classes actually seem like the professors take attendance. One of them has a sign-in sheet. Instead of having homework every night, I have two classes that assign specific readings and one that only offers “suggested” readings. My Chinese class has a workbook that I am assigned exercises from, but compared to the amount of Chinese homework I get at HWS this seems like nothing. The grading system is completely different here, meaning that the finals in some of my classes count for 50 or 60 percent of my grade. This is completely intimidating to me, since at home finals will count for maybe 20% at most.

Some of my classes are lecture only, where the professor talks for the whole time and doesn’t really ask questions. In one class that is more discussion based, myself and another exchange student are usually the first to step up…usually after an awkward silence when no native students raise their hands.

The Ruin’s of Saint Paul’s

In the past few weeks that I haven’t been blogging, I’ve done a lot including a visit to Lamma Island–a few days before the ferry crash–celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival and a visit to Macau, China’s other Special Ad

ministrative Region and former Portuguese colony. Lamma Island was so beautiful. We were able to lay on the beach for a few hours and then hike to the other side of the island to enjoy a seafood dinner. Though I normally don’t eat fish, I’m becoming more daring with the food I’m trying here, trying clams, fried squid, salmon and sushi!

The exchange office here at Lingnan offered a Mid-Autumn event for the exchange students. We tried traditional mooncakes (filled with egg yolk and almond), ate the traditional fruit, learned how to make lanterns and played riddle games. My friends and I were also able to go into Causeway Bay to Victoria Park to the Hong Kong Mid-Autumn Festival.

Macau was also really cool to visit because it is a mix of a modern city with touches of Portuguese colonial influence. From Central Hong Kong, it is an hour ferry ride.  We visited several churches, including the Ruins of Saint Paul’s. Unfortunately (in my view) Macau is becoming known for its numerous casinos, which dominate the skyline taking away the aesthetics of the older landmarks.

I’m working on posting more often, so stay tuned!

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Victoria Peak, Big Wave Beach, hiking and classes

Me at the Peak.

This week I came to the realization that Tuen Mun itself isn’t all that exciting. Normally this wouldn’t matter because I would be so weighed down by homework and other commitments that I wouldn’t have free time to do anything during the school week. However, all of my classes here only meet once or twice a week. My Chinese as a Second Language class is the only one that has homework (it’s not much and our professor gave us a week to do it). My other classes have reading, but it’s so little compared to what I’m used to at HWS. And at HWS I’m also involved in a lot of activities on campus, so that takes up a lot of time too. So one of the biggest struggles here is that I have too much free time (I say that now before FINALS!).So, after a few days of not really doing anything, we decided to go and visit Victoria Peak on Tuesday night. We took the MTR into central Hong Kong, which means transferring trains once or twice, depending on which line you take. After walking around a bit, we found our way to the tram, which we took to the top of the peak. By the time we got to the top, it was dark out and the skyline was lit up. At 8:00 every night, there is a light show with lazers and beams and other displays. We were able to watch the show from the top of the Peak and then we had dinner outside, looking at the view.

On Wednesdays, I only have one class, so I went hiking with a friend behind our school. This time, we went all the way to the top where we found a rain shelter, a hellipad, and a view of the ocean. The way up took about 2 hours and the way back down only took one. Most of the trail, especially towards the top, involved going up A LOT of stairs. Things got a little overgrown towards the top too, because I think it is less frequented than other parts of the trail. Overall, I think it was 4 miles each way, so a total of 8 miles. It’s definitlely a good way to keep busy during the week, but I think I’ll have to recover a bit before doing it again.

On Saturday, we took the MTR and several buses for over 1.5 hours to get to Big Wave Bay Beach near Shek-O. The beach is named for it’s large waves. The water was filled with surfers and boogie boarders. The view was beautiful–islands in the distance and mountains surrounding the beach. The water was even warm! It’s nothing like the beaches at home. The only problem was that there was a fair amount of trash floating in the water. Once I noticed it, it kind of ruined the fun of swimming, so I just laid out on the beach for most of the day. I only got a little bit sunburnt,too, thanks to the aggressive application and re-application of SPF 45.

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Week one of classes and excursion to Tai O

Fish hanging in the marketplace in Tai O.

I finished my first week of classes on Thursday (no classes on Friday!) and so far it doesn’t seem nearly as demanding as classes at HWS. On Monday, I had two classes: Women, Art, and Society in China and Chinese Economy. Both of them seemed really interesting and after having both of them a second time, I knew that I wanted to stay in them. My Women, Art, and Society in China class is really small. It’s supposed to have 12 people in it, but on Monday only 7 showed up and on Wednesday only 5 came. My Chinese Economy class has about 30 people in it on Mondays and on meets in a smaller group in a “tutorial” on Tuesdays. Both of these have papers or presentations as the main components of the grade.

My 0ther two classes are Hong Kong Government and Politics and Chinese as a Second Language. On Tuesday I started in Chinese as a Second Language Level II and I did not like it AT ALL. It seemed really easy. Everything that I had already learned in the past two years at HWS. The reason I signed up for level two was in case it was too hard. But I lucked out and was able to register for level 3, which I went to on Thursday morning. It seems much more appropriate for my level and I really like the professor who is from Beijing. As for the Government and Politics class, I don’t really have an impression of it so far. I’ve only had it once and the professor just read us the syllabus to let us know what the course will be like.

On Saturday, the office of exchange organized an excursion to Hong Kong fishing village, Tai O. It was an hour and a half bus ride from school, and we spent most of the day there. There were two cultural activities planned for us, a boat tour/dolphin watch, and a dim sum lunch.  Afterwards we had about two hours of  free time to explore on our own.

“Enjoying” our tofu.

The first cultural activity was seeing the traditional way that tofu is prepared, by grinding soy beans and water together with a stone mortar type thing. We were all given the opportunity to grind it ourselves, which was really cool. Then afterwards, we were able to taste the cold tofu dessert. I’ve eaten a lot of tofu in my day, not because I necessarily like the taste, but because I know that it’s good for me. It’s all about the way it’s prepared: whatever you cook it in is what it tastes like. This was just plain…so it wasn’t my favorite. But we did have the opportunity to top it with ginger and sugar. Luckily, we had to move onto the next cultural activity before we were able to finish our bowl.

The second activity was learning how to make Tai O’s famous salted egg. Using duck eggs, you separate the yolk from the egg’s whites and then place it on top of the fishing net and pour salt on top. Then, leave it to cook in the sun for three days before cooking it on the stove. The dish is famous because originally fishermen used the white of the egg to making their nets stronger. To not waste the yolk of the egg, the recipe was developed.

Our final activity was a boat tour/dolphin watch. Though we didn’t see any Chinese dolphins, we got to see the stilt houses up close.

For lunch we had dim sum, which is hard for me because I don’t really know what I’m eating and what has meat in it. It definitely wasn’t the best food that I’ve had here…I’ve been trying to be more adventurous and eat less noodles. Today, I had Fried Egg and Tomato Salad…which was interesting. But it felt good not to eat noodles and to get some much needed nutrients.