Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How to travel in China

When I first came back from China in 2006 everyone had questions.  Fair enough, I'd been away for a year, and there was lots to catch up on.  One of the questions I heard the most, or variations on it, was, "Weren't you scared?"

Yes.  Yes I was.  But that's not really the point, because while I was terrified going there, once I got there and settled in (which took a few weeks), I was fine.  Where I lived wasn't precisely a bustling metropolis either (still isn't). Now, I'm an extremely stubborn person, and I do like to stick to things once I've started them, so giving up on China was never an option for me.  But I have come across a lot of people who put visiting China under the heading of "too hard", so I got thinking about tips, ideas and thoughts about travelling there that might answer some questions.

  • You don't need to speak the language.
In hotels and hostels, the staff will speak enough English to meet your needs.  Many restaurants have picture menus, so pointing can do a lot.  Hotel/hostel staff are also really helpful with writing down places and directions for you to give taxi drivers.  Most market  stall operators in the touristy markets will speak English as well, and you can use a calculator to bargain.  A small attempt at the basics of the language will be very much appreciated by locals though, even if it's just being able to say "Hello", "Thank you", "Sorry" and "One more beer, please".  I survived my first few months in China with basic counting skills, the names of a few dishes, and pleasantries. 
  • There is no shame in doing a tour
Tours are a great way to see a large country if you've got limits on your time.  They're also a good way of managing if you feel like the language barrier will be too much, particularly if you want to visit somewhere a little off the beaten track.  There's also any number of day tour operators, and private guides that operate in cities that are popular with tourists.  When we went to Beijing and Xi'an in 2012, we took two day tours.  For visiting the Great Wall and the Ming tombs in Beijing we booked onto a group tour, and in Xi'an we have booked a private guide and driver to visit the Terracotta Warriors, Gao family house, and Banpo Neolithic Village.  For a site like the Terracotta Warriors, we felt that the expense was worth it to get the most out of that day.  The tour in Beijing was perfect for the first day we were there.  We were able to see two of the main sights, and having a driver is always nice.  The private tour in Xi'an was the best thing ever.  Our guide was delightful, and it was really great to have someone to ourselves to show us around that day.  Highly recommended.
  • The food is good
And nothing like Chinese food outside of China.  Each region has it's own specialities, with distinct tastes and dishes.  Rat is a delicacy, and not something you'll be fed because the restauranteurs couldn't be bothered to kill a chicken, the Chinese don't really eat those scorpions on sticks either, and if you want General Tso's chicken, you may be disappointed.  Good Chinese food should be simple, fresh and tasty.   A packed hole in the wall restaurant staffed by a harassed grandma and her family will always be better than an ostentatious be-chandeliered restaurant staffed by bored hostesses in evening gowns with no patrons.  Street food is something that shouldn't be missed either.  If it's served to you hot out off a wok, pan, steamer or grill it's probably going to be ok. Pointing and miming usually works at these places fine, and you may find yourself with a piping hot noodle soup with your choice of add-ins, Chinese barbecued lamb, fresh chive dumplings, or a piping hot egg custard bun, or any variety of tasty snacks.  Leave the stinky tofu though.
  • Use your resources
Aside from the obvious advice to do a lot of research before you go, using what's available to you once you're in China is a really good way to make your trip go a little smoother.  Most hostels and hotels will be able to help with anything from booking trains and flights, to helping decide activities, and writing down directions for taxi drivers.  In general, service in China is quite good and people are quite friendly and willing to help.  I actually think that the level of friendliness towards foreigners has risen since 2005, and this can only be a good thing.
  • You will get stared at
People will stare at you.  If you're really pale, blond, red haired, left handed or particularly tall (or if you and your friends are a combination thereof), you will really get stared at.  However, the staring is rarely meant in a bad way, and it's usually just simple curiousity.  A big smile and a "nihao" (hello) will get you a long way.  I think that in some areas of China westerners are common enough that the amount of staring has gone down, but it's still there in some areas.  Break the ice, give them a smile and say hello, you never know what might happen!
  • Be aware
This really goes without saying for any sort of travel, but always be aware of what's going on around you.  As with any major tourist destination with big crowds, pick pockets are a problem, but so long as you're aware of what's going on around you, and where your bag is, you should be ok.
  • Keep an open mind
Again, this goes for all travel really, but China (and anywhere else you might go with a different culture) can really screw with your mind if you keep thinking, "this isn't like it is at home".  Embrace the weirdness, and revel in the new experiences!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I have a complicated relationship with the word "gweilo"

Obviously, given that I've used it in my blog name.

 For some background information for the non-Cantonese speakers out there, gweilo is a word used in Cantonese to refer to foreigners. Gwei (鬼) means ghost, and there's a bunch of stuff tied into white skin. Commonly, gweilo is translated as "foreign devil". It is under fairly common usage in the Cantonese speaking parts of China and Hong Kong, and while I don't think it is always supposed to be pejorative, it is not the most polite term to refer to foreigners. Other areas with Chinese cultural history, like Singapore, have their own words as well, like Ang mo.

 Having spent one year in Southern China, and now nearly three years in Hong Kong, I have heard gweilo used often. In China, it was most often heard coming off the back of a passing motorcycle: "Hellloooooo gweilooooo". People would not often use it to my face, and my colleagues in China certainly never used it in my hearing, preferring the much more politically correct ”外国人“ or “外国朋友” (foreigner, or foreign friend). Most conversations I've had with people in China since then have used those terms.

 In Hong Kong I hear gweilo quite often, and often rudely. I use it myself, but I do so with some sense of irony. I know very well what it means, and its connotations. Some people are shocked that I would use it, but my thinking is, if you are going to use it to describe me and others like me, then I should be able to use it too. And maybe they can think about it for themselves, whether they want to continue using it too.

 All that being said, there are settings where it is absolutely inappropriate to use language like that. I would never refer to myself as gweilo in a class, or in a similar professional setting, nor do I plan to use it when I teach later on in my PhD (unless language use in Marketing comes up, but that's different again).

 What brought all this on? Last night, as part of one of my Customer Relationship Management classes at CityU, we had a guest speaker. I won't name him, because I suspect he's the sort of fellow who has a google tracker on his name, but suffice to say, he used to be reasonably well known in Hong Kong, and is now a DBA student at CityU.

 During Mr Guest Speaker's lecture, he kept slipping bits of Cantonese into his talk. While I have some basic Cantonese, enough to get by in the market, quickly spoken asides in a lecture are not something that I will be able to catch. But then he started using "gweilo". The first time, I wasn't sure I'd heard it right, because I thought, "This guy's a professional, surely he would know better than that!"

But no, it continued. I began to wonder if he was just assuming I didn't know what it means, or if he just didn't care. Either way, it felt very much like he was addressing the entire class except me, and there was really a point when I just wanted to say "I'm RIGHT HERE". His whole talk was about staying on top of change, and making sure that communication, and presentation moves with it too, and so many of his points were somewhat ruined for me by his presentation of himself. He talks about keeping up with change. Well, guess what, Chinese are not just learning English, but foreigners are learning Chinese. He talks about presenting things in the right way. Well, I change my language use depending on where I am and who I'm talking to, and above all I try to know my audience.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I joined instagram last night

And I'm not sure yet how I feel about it.  I wouldn't call myself social media resistant, but I have been hesitant about signing up to every new thing.  Besides, instagram was, for so long, only an iphone thing.  When I finally got a smart phone (after moving to HK), I went the android route.  At that point, instagram for android was still a new thing.  But now, nearly three years, I'm there.

I went to a talk at my university last night about hashtag marketing, and I did find it interesting.  I would like to know more about the numbers behind hashtag marketing though.  Given that I'm more interested in the research side of things, it makes sense that I want to know the numbers.  The guy giving the talk did say that hashtags haven't really taken off here yet, but companies are just now beginning to push it.

Since hashtags have a bad rep for being obnoxious, we'll see how it goes here.  Will we get some hilarious Chinglish or otherwise badly thought out hashtags?  I hope so, because it's all a learning process for local companies.  It's not like the west does it perfectly either.  Google will give you all sorts of amusing articles about how not to hashtag.

For me, maybe instagram will get me to start capturing the weird and wonderful again.  Living in Hong Kong has normalised.  Time to start finding the wonder again, I think!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Okay okay...

Nearly two years have passed, I know.  But I do want to get back to writing more.

The last 18 months have been fairly eventful, but I think the last 6 months were the most...impacting?  I'm not sure if that's the right word.

Last time I wrote in June, I hadn't finished up at my job yet.  Well, I did that, and that was good.  Then Craig and I went on our summer adventure to Beijing and Xi'an, which was excellent.  Well, Beijing was a bit average, but Xi'an was amazing and I would happily go back there.

I ended up taking a full year off, and spent a lot of that time applying for universities and trying to work out what I wanted to do.  In the end I was accepted to join the MSc in Marketing at City University of Hong Kong.  I'm about half way through my second semester now, and I will finish up in August this year.

Last summer Craig and I went off to Canada for a month, spending one week in Vancouver and 3 ish weeks in Calgary.  I wish we could have spent more time in Vancouver, because I really love it there.  Visiting Canada again was nice, and it was certainly a nice break to get away from the Hong Kong heat for a bit.  I got to catch up with a few of my friends, and Craig and I also did a few day trips to the mountains which was great.

So I started my masters in September and it is going quite well.  It is a coursework masters, with a greater focus on going into the industry, which is not really my plan, but it is good to keep learning (or relearn as the case may be) some of the stuff. At the end of the first semester I applied to enter the PhD program at CityU and also applied for the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship scheme.

This bit is harder to write.  In August last year my mum's health started declining.  She had two surgeries while we were in Canada, and the doctors found more cancer in her bones.  Craig and I flew to Australia for a long weekend in October to see her so that we could have memories of her while she was still her, so to speak.  From there things declined further, and a few days before Christmas my sister called to tell me we needed to get to Australia asap.  Flying out of HK at Christmas is very busy, but we got the earliest flights we could to try and get there to say goodbye.  Sadly, we couldn't get there in time, and Mum passed away in hospital on the 21st of December, the night before we flew out of here.  So Craig and I spent Christmas, unexpectedly in Australia.  Being able to be with my whole family at that time was invaluable to me.  I do so wish Mum could have known the news that was coming up though.

School started again in January.  My classes aren't bad, and I actually really like some of them.  The second week of semester came with some surprising news.  I got accepted into the PhD program at CityU!  I wasn't expecting to hear anything at all on that until March, so to get the news so early was quite nice.  The university also has recommended me for one of the fellowships.  That I definitely won't find out about until March or April.  But either way, I'm in, and I know what I'm going to be doing for the next four years!

Chinese New Year has come and gone.  I'm hoping for a wonderful year of the Horse.  Craig's parents were here, and I think they had a good time.  I was quite busy with assignments and such, but Craig did tons of touristing with them.  Apparently an accidental trip to Peng Chau is quite the thing!

And so here I am.  What am I doing today?  Reading up on the cleaning service industry in Hong Kong.  This is not for fun, but for a consulting project which will wrap up in the next 6 weeks or so.  At least I've got some winter Olympics to keep me company.  The view out the window certainly isn't inspiring me.  I will try to keep up more with this.  I do need to keep my writing up to scratch, and I should try and document more of the stuff I see.  We'll see, I guess!



Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sheung Wo Hang to Sha Tau Kok

When most people think of Hong Kong, they think of this:



Not this:

But since we've been here a while now, it's nice to find ways to get away from the city every so often.  We did the Ping Shan heritage trail at Chinese New Year and then more recently the Lung Yeuk Tau heritage trail.  I want to revisit that one, since I got very distracted by the millions of blackflies trying to get a taste of my blood.  Anyway, on Sunday we wanted to go exploring again, so we set off into the far North-East of Hong Kong, very close to the Chinese border.  A lot of this area used to be part of the Frontier Closed Area, but that was scaled back in February this year, so there's a whole lot of new places to visit.  We chose to start our trip at Sheung Wo Hang village, and then walk along to the border and Sha Tau Kok, and visit villages and whatever took our fancy along the way.

Sheung Wo Hang is tucked away in a beautiful valley.  We picked up the 55K minibus from Sheung Shui, and got off where the driver told us to.  Then we walked down this windy little road, where every step took us into this peaceful little green place, where the only sounds were crickets and running water.

The view from the road promised an interesting place. 

 These altars are everywhere in Hong Kong villages.  They all seem to be dedicated to different gods.  Many of the villages in this area were founded by Hakka or Hoklo people, so there may be a cultural aspect which I don't quite understand.

 It was a very pretty little village.  There were more old houses than new, which is always nice, and most of the houses had traditional decorations and chunlian (matching couplets) pasted around the door. 


I don't know how old this tree is, but given the age of the village, I'd say around 130 years. 


 Old and New in Sheung Wo Hang.

 Sheung Wo Hang has one declared monument.  It started life as a clan study hall for members of the Li family in the area that wanted to study for the Imperial entrance exam for civil servants.  After the Imperial system was abolished, the building was converted into a primary school, and operated that way until the 1980s.  In the last ten or so years, the building has been properly restored and declared a monument.  Above, you can see the desks, and the cock loft above that, where boarding students slept.

 The front entrance to the school.

  I don't know what this building was, but it is certainly no more.  It has been completely taken over by plants, and the roof had caved completely.  Sadly, it wasn't somewhere I was too happy about going into, as I didn't know how solid the floor (or what was left of it) was.

 One thing that I really loved about this area was the wildlife.  In the river there were turtles, frogs and a number of different types of fish.  All sorts of birds were flying about, and I have never seen such a variety of butterflies and dragonflies in bright colours.  Annoying to photograph, and the photo above is the best I got, but it was really quite wonderful to watch butterflies the size of birds flitting about.

 Rather than returning to the main road after Sheung Wo Hang, we chose to wander along the river until we came to something else.  Unfortunately this village had a sign outside saying private, and since we didn't run into any friendly villagers to tell us to come in, we didn't.

 So, sadly, this is the closest I got to this wonderful old building.  All I can tell you about it is that it was built in 1933 and it's been home to a single branch of a family since then.  The village is connected to Sheung Wo Hang by some sort of family connection, but otherwise, information on this place is really hard to come by.  Actually, information on many of the villages is hard to come by.  I'm not sure whether this is deliberate on the part of the current villagers to avoid attracting people, or if some of the history and stories have just been lost.

Bus stop, village style.  BYO Chair.  I commented to Craig that if people had done this where we lived in Calgary, the chairs would have lasted about 5 minutes.
The old checkpoint.  These days not an issue, so we could walk right on through.
While I don't love the heat and humidity this time of year, I do love the huge array of tropical flowers there are around.  I can't name many (that's a frangipani though), but the array of shapes, colours and sizes adds nice variety to a walk.  It's certainly a very different palette than the Australian temperate native one that I grew up with (which I still love, it's just different).
Traditional graves in the hillside.

The start of the controlled area.  I would like to find out what we need to visit  the area, and check it out.  There is a famous street that is half China and half Hong Kong.  Being from an island nation, the concept of land borders still amuses me.
The village is pressed right up against the barbed wire fence, and right on the other side is Shenzhen.  If it weren't for the men with the big guns, it probably wouldn't be all that hard to sneak across.
A wall fish in Shan Tsui village.  Parts of the village are extremely run down, and even in ruins, but people are still living there.  I didn't notice many younger people though, so I think some of these villages will eventually die out.

Foliage taking over an old village house.

Village style lock?  Not that it really mattered I suppose...the front wall was really the only bit that was whole.
I wonder if this orchid started life here or if it was "set free" by its owner.  Either way, it does seem to be doing quite well.
Kwan Ah School, clearly no longer in operation.  I didn't see any operational schools during our walk, so I guess that kids have to go into Fanling or Sheung Shui for school.
This was one of the more ostentatious buildings in Sheung Tam Shui Hang.  A local woman told us that the building was about 100 years old, though not the oldest in the village. 
These little cottages might have been a little closer to the oldest though.
Obviously, there was a house here at some point, but the combination of the plants, mosses and weather have crumbled it into ruins.  The plants are slowly winning in a number of buildings in this village.

We weren't sure what this place was.  To us, it looked like a sort of barracks or something, perhaps a leftover from WWII or the civil war.  There was a lot of fighting in the New Territories. 

All in all, I'd say this area is well worth a visit, or even a revisit.  It's nice to remember that Hong Kong isn't all hustle and bustle all the time. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ok, it's been a while

6 months...whoops.

We've been pretty busy, and the last 6 months have been pretty adventure packed.

Chinese New Year came and went with a visit from my mum and sister.  That was really fun!  I even managed to produce a pretty good attempt at a Chinese celebratory meal for Chinese New Year's Eve.

I made a poached fish, Cantonese style, red cooked pork, stir fried bok choy with garlic, blanched gai lan on ice with chilli soy sauce, fried egg and peanut (a favourite from my time in China), and steamed some dumplings (which I bought from the supermarket).  It was all really good, if I do say so myself.

During their trip we also checked out the Ping Shan heritage trail, Stanley, high tea at the Peninsula Hotel, Temple St, and of course a bit of shopping.  The weather wasn't the greatest, in fact it was the coldest Chinese New Year in 16 years.  But I think it was a good trip!

After that, it was back to work for us until easter.  We had open days, parent teacher days and sports days to get through, but we made it eventually.  For easter we went to Macau for a few days. 

I've been to Macau before, and I liked it then, but it's been through a few changes since then.  There's a lot more casinos and hotels than before, and the Cotai strip is new too.  Thankfully Taipa old village is still there, and that was my favourite part last time.  The highlight of the trip was seeing The House of Dancing Water, which is an acrobatic show, in a huge pool that holds the volume of 5 Olympic swimming pools.  The show was fantastic, and I'm really glad that we got to see it. 


In May, we celebrated our first wedding anniversay.  We have had a ridiculously busy first year, and we're hoping for an equally adventurous second year, but perhaps a little bit more settled! 

I have a lot to look forward to now.  I have decided to leave my job at the end of June, so I am looking forward to that.  The long term plan is to return to university to start an MPhil in January 2013, but I'm going to take a few months off before that starts.  The job was good for the short term, and allowed me to pay a decent chunk off my student loan, but in the long term it wasn't going to work out.  I don't have much interest in becoming a secondary school teacher, which is what a lot of the EAs get out of the job, so the job just doesn't challenge me enough, and I want a chance to push myself further, so off to further study I go!  I want to do a PhD eventually, but I'll just get through the MPhil first I think. 

I finish at the end of June, then I have a few weeks of quiet while Craig's finishing up.  Then we're off on a two week holiday in China.  We're going to Beijing for 4 days first, where we'll do all the usual things there like climb the Great Wall, visit the Forbidden City, eat Peking duck, a little shopping, and a few museums.  We are NOT going to line up to see dead Mao.  I've done it before, but once is enough for me, and Craig says he doesn't have much interest in viewing the body of a very ex communist.

After Beijing, we're taking the overnight train to Xi'an, where we'll spend six nights.  I absolutely can't wait for this bit.  Xi'an has been on my bucket list for a long time, and the Terracotta Warriors from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang are sure to be a highlight.  Aside from that though, Xi'an has a cornucopia of historic, archaeological and cultural sites that I'm really excited to see.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to the food on the trip too.  Northern Chinese food, and Hui Chinese food are some of my favourites.  It's really tasty food, and quite unlikely to have hidden shrimp, which is a problem I run into with Cantonese food quite often.

A few weeks after our trip, we have two friends from New Zealand coming to visit, so we can play tour guide for them.  I just hope the weather behaves, because August is bang in the middle of typhoon season!  Craig will go back to work at the end of August, and then I am heading back to Australia for a few weeks to see my family.  I'm looking forward to the trip back, because it means a few weeks of hanging out in the quiet of my mum's place with her and the dogs.  I'll probably be feeling the cold a little, coming out of our summer, but it will still be nice.   After that...hopefully it's just a downhill run to stating uni again.  Here's hoping all goes well!



Thursday, December 29, 2011

Real Chinese Food

This trip, we explored a bit more, food wise.  I love Chinese food, and it's always nice to hunt down a little hole in the wall sort of place to see what we could find.  The cardinal rule with finding a restaurant in China is to go for somewhere that's pretty busy, and following that rule I've come across some beauties.  Some of the places may look like absolute dives, but they often have great food.  Some of the food this trip was not so good, but it has to happen.  The good stuff made up for it. 


Starting off with a little Sichuan restaurant.  We ordered this excellent fish fragrant pork, and it came packed with chilli, green onion and some Sichuan pepper.  It was quite spicy, and very tasty, not to mention cheap.


Shredded potato with green chilli, with a bit of vinegar.  I really want to try making this at home, but the effort of shredding up the potato keeps putting me off.


The best thing about hitting Guangzhou in the winter time are the chuan sellers.  Most of them are not ethnically Chinese, and they come from the Uigher region in north western China, or in the surrounding grasslands.  They make these sticks of lamb freshly on the street, and hand them too you straight of the grill.  They are seasoned with a mix of chilli, cumin, pepper, salt and I don't know what else, but they're delicious.  6 sticks cost us only 10 yuan (about $1.20 AUD).


I DIDN'T eat this.  I was just fascinated by this in the KFC window.  Prawn filled hats.  I haven't a clue why.  Both KFC and McDonalds menus are quite interesting to keep an eye on in overseas.  As well as the normal stuff, I have also seen fish balls, stuffed lotus root and rice wrapped in leaves in fast food joints here.


This was an attempt at Christmas lunch.  We didn't feel like turkey, so we went hunting for a nice Chinese meal.  I broke my rule here.  We were wandering about a new development in Foshan (more on that later) and came across a restaurant that looked quite nice.  It did have some customers, but not many. It was new, so I thought it would be worth a try.  Who knows, it might have been a new favourite.  It wasn't.  The above dish, I think, was fish paste with beans and what I think are Chinese olives.  It was horribly bland and really lacked any redeeming features. 


And this one, unfortunately, was proof that my reading of characters is not at 100%, because it had prawns in it.  It did look really good, and apparently tasted much better than the things that looked like grubs.  It was eggplant stuffed with a chicken and prawn mix in a garlic sauce.


So after the highly disappointing lunch, we splashed out a bit and ate at our hotel's Chinese restaurant. While the western restaurant was serving a very pricey Christmas set menu, we had a lovely Peking Duck for dinner, complemented by a very tasty garlic fried spinach. 


It was a very non-traditional Christmas meal, but very tasty.


These popped up in ou hotel room on Christmas night.  The gingerbread star was particularly good.


On our last day we had time to fill before our train back to Hong Kong, so we went walking.  For breakfast, we had freshly made barbeque pork buns.  They cost 1.5 yuan each, and were very yummy.  They weren't really enough to fuel a few hours' walk though, so by the time we found somewhere for lunch we were very hungry.  With all the new developments and changes in Foshan, we took a while to find somewhere for lunch, but when we did, it was so good!  Another Sichuan restaurant seemed like a good idea, as Sichuan food here in HK isn't that great.  This place was a tiny little restaurant made up of 2 tiny dining rooms and a tiny kitchen.  It was packed, and we stood out in there just a tiny bit, but it was worth it for the meal.

 We started with dan dan mian, which was pleasantly spicy.  The noodles were fresh, and very flavoursome.  We shared the bowl, but I think we could have eaten one each.  The bowl was only 11 yuan!  A lot of prices have gone up in China, so it makes me happy that I can still get an excellent bowl of noodles for so little cost.

This one is shuizhu niurou, which roughly translates as water boiled beef.  As you can see, the "water" is more of a chilli soup.  This one (despite the colour) was fairly mild so long as you didn't bite straight onto the Sichuan peppercorns, which have a curious numbing effect.  It was full of bean sprouts, cabbage and cucumber, and incredibly tender beef.  Delicious, and again, so cheap!

We finished off with shredded potatoes again, made slightly differently this time, without the chilli.  Instead, these were very garlicky and gingery which was a nice contrast from the chilli and numbing power of the sichuan pepper.  I think next time we're in Foshan, we'll definitely be heading back to this little restaurant.