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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ooo-oo that smell!

There’s a wonderful smell in a Chinese household when something is cooking. A freshness, a fragrance that wafts through the warm, natural air, unfiltered by the artificial cold of an air conditioner. It’s a more than the smell of lunch, it’s something … what?!

Oh. Lunch.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Blogger needs to get an HTML editor.

Sorry for the way that last update looks ... I struggled all last night and this morning, between a decent photohost and Blogger's crappy HTML, and it was a real struggle just to get it looking that "good." But it's up; not perfect, but up.

So that was August 19th. Since then, it's been a lot of orientation and such, preparing us all to teach. Valuable, yes, but exactly great blogging fodder. We did spend a night out at the Smuggler's Inn, a good little local bar, and we also had a banquet the other night that ended with some karaoke. So look for those updates soon. For now, I'm gonna go find some lunch.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Hong Kong Rookies

I arrived in Hong Kong Airport some time between four and five in the morning, on August 18, 2006. I was drained from the flight: other than getting lucky with an episode of Ali G and Little Britain, it was hours of boring movies, crap food, cramped legs, and restless sleep. I stumbled out of the plane, learned that all my luggage had been lost, and realized that I didn’t even take cash out back in the states. I barely had enough change to buy the train fare.

China, I have triumphantly returned!

I drifted on to the train (the Airport Express, a ride that takes you from the massive airport to the heart of Hong Kong in a mere twenty minutes), exhaustion tempered by the excitement of being in Hong Kong. We shot through Yung Yi, then Kowloon, and finally came to a stop in central Hong Kong. I left the station to grab a cab, and asked the driver – foolishly, and in poor Mandarin - “Ni hui shou Yingyu ma?” or “Can you speak English?” For one, my Mandarin was insultingly off-tone; secondly, they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong, not Mandarin (thus limiting what little communication I am capable of outside of English to ordering “two beers, please” in Spanish and saying “asshole” in German and Greek). Finally, I just handed the poor guy the directions – both in Chinese and English – and he seemed to know where to go just fine.

It was a strange cab ride: the haze of a million city cityscapes lifting away to reveal the alien topography and brilliantly new and (post?)modern architecture of Hong Kong. Everything seemed to float by in the early morning sun, specters that only hinted at the new world I was entering. I snapped a few pictures and took some video in the cab, but I mostly just sat there, collapsed into autopilot from the fatigue, staring and clicking at the sights like a sedated robot.

I was certain that we were lost, that this asshole cab driver was trying to swindle me, this innocent and pure young American, who clearly didn’t know his way around Hong Kong. And then I saw the Maryknoll gates, after only a 30 minute ride (I was told it could take up to 45). Sorry, cabbie.

The Maryknoll House sits atop an impossibly steep hilltop, so steep that it’s winding drive twists and turns on the massive cement pillars usually reserved for large-scale construction projects. At the top of the hill, the gate opens in to a wonderful, quiet property that contains, I am told, the best feng shui in all of Hong Kong: on top of a mountain, back to the sea (near water), facing another mountain. It’s all very beautiful and serene, but living on top of that giant hill makes for some sweaty late-night walks home.

I arrived at Maryknoll house at seven in the morning, and everything just felt as if it were still asleep. I knocked on the front door, rang the bell, walked around the back, rang the bell again … nothing. I stood outside the door, the droll ringing of the bell echoing from inside, the soft gurgle of draining water somewhere out of site. Eventually, I walked back to the front door, and just went in. In short order, I was greeted by a fellow teacher (who was leaving in mere hours for his position on the mainland), introduced to Brother Charles Duffy, had a fantastic breakfast of bacon and eggs, cereal and toast, fresh fruit and skim milk … I was too tired to focus on the onslaught of generosity. I was told I could find my room on the second floor, and find it I (eventually) did:

When I found my room, Charles stopped by and mentioned that he was going into the city in about an hour, would I like to come? Sure, I replied, sitting on the bed as he closed the door behind him, and promptly fell asleep.

It was one of the most successful powernaps of all time. I awoke with the confusion of being out of place: what room is this? I’ve never slept in a room with the bed like, my room the bed is, what and where am I? Ah, Charles, he’s come to take me into town. I collected myself, got camera and cash ready, walked down stairs (only then begging to feel the soil of wearing the same clothes for close to 48 hours), and before I could even think, I was riding on the disembodied top of a double-decker bus, navigating the impossible hairpin turns and narrow streets of Stanley and, soon enough, Hong Kong proper.

On the bus, I was able to meet Nicki and Mike, two fellow teachers who had just arrived in Hong Kong the previous evening. Nicki would be going to Zhanjiang as well, while Mike would be teaching in Chongqing. They would be my accidental guides for the day, as I was too out of it to glean anything useful from the maps we had stuffed in our pockets. We left the bus in central Hong Kong, where Nicki, Mike, and I parted ways with Charles. And then we simply walked: we followed Hollywood, a (fairly) major road that ran the length of the island, and tried to get nice and lost.

And we did. We spent hours following the scrambled back roads and serpentine alleyways, just walking, taking in the open-air meat markets, the shops of indecipherable purpose, the impossible vegetation, the ancient temples that stand alongside ridiculously new high rises. The smells were simply amazing: restaurants, bakeries, fruit stands, butcher shops. Grocery shopping in Hong Kong would tackle all of your senses. The smells in the supermarkets back at home seem to reek of cleanliness, of sterilization and sanitation, like shopping for food on a space shuttle, the only sounds the quiet murmur of people shopping, the abrasive invasion of ads and commercials. In Hong Kong, the air was bursting with sights and smells and bargaining and noise and life.

We were looking for the Man Mo temple, and after orbiting it for blocks, endless u-turns and backtracking, we decided to give up, shrugged, turned, and were right in front of it. We had passed it, but in the canyons of the city, a small green-roofed one-story temple simple doesn’t catch your eye. We walked in, and the soothing fragrance of burning incense wafted toward us. We looked in each section of the temple – one was a small, quiet area where plaques could be purchased for loved ones (or, I assume, the deceased); a central room where giant statues were prayed to through choking clouds of scented smoke; and a third room, giant burning spirals of incense slowly burning away, crowds lighting finger-thick stalks of incense and placing them in jars of sand amid more giant figures (both historical and mystical), women rubbing the tall candle sticks while deep in prayer. I think the video can do a better job of describing it than I can.

We eventually made our way to the campus of Hong Kong University, for a tour scheduled for two that afternoon. We spent a good deal of time and effort climbing the slopes of the city just to get to the University, and then an even greater deal of effort scouring the campus for the damn tour. And once we found the tour, we got the chance to expend yet even more effort in taking it. So it goes; the campus was interesting, and in waiting for the tour, I caught a great poetry/wall scroll exhibit in the university art museum. Here are a few pictures of around campus.

After the tour, we took a much-appreciated break at the campus Starbucks. The first, and hopefully only, time that I will ever willfully purchase a Starbucks product; $30HK for an iced coffee, I mean, damn! From campus we went to lunch, at the best dumpling (shui jiao/water pocket) house in the city, Beijing Shui Jiao Wong. Thanks to Lonely Planet for their excellent guide of China, with an especially meaty section on Hong Kong. Hey, need any writers?

From lunch we walked: through a huge open park that muted the noise from the city, then on to the (free) Hong Kong Zoo, which was nice, clean, relaxing, and calming, but nothing too special. By the time we made it to the zoo, we had been walking since nine that morning, and we found the perfect set of benches (surrounded by flowers, grass, and a massive water fountain) to pause and relax. The narrator is here running out of gas and just wants to get this damn thing finished, so please watch this video and let’s move on.

Finally, Nicki, Mike and I met up with James, a fellow Maryknoller, to take a trolley up to “The Peak,” a HK$30 ride up to a big mall that had a great view of the entire city’s skyline. None of the pictures really came out – I’m still new to my camera (a Canon PowerShot A620, a fantastic camera that I can’t thank my family enough for), I couldn’t get the exposure right, and the “night shot” setting was worthless – but there’s a spiffy video of the view. And what luck! It’s right here!

Back down in central Hong Kong, we stopped at a little noodle shop, one of many “greasy spoons” of Hong Kong, if you will. We had some great chicken curry and fried beef (surprise!) noodles, but by this time, I was totally spent. As you can likely tell:

The next hour was a blur as a bunch of Hong Kong rookies blundered their way through town, hoping to find a bus back to Stanley. We found one (eventually), got off at the wrong stop, walked a mile through a closed open-air shopping plaza in the wrong direction, re-directed ourselves, found the entrance, climbed that big damn Maryknoll hill, and were finally home (but only thanks to Nicki, who had to break in through an open window to let us in … none of us knew where the spare key was, and all others in the house were well asleep).

One of my bags had made it, delivered to the house free of charge by the good folks at Cathay Pacific. And did I ever need it: drenched in sweat, all of an hour’s sleep in the last 52 hours, an entire day walking through the hot, humid streets of Hong Kong. But it was so worth it: it was a fantastic day, I was able to get to know Nicki and Mike and James, and it was a great beginning to what should be a great year.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Airport Entry

LAX is huge. There are airports, and then there are industrial blights of cement where planes land; LAX appears to be the mold for the latter. I left the domestic terminal, after agonizing in my own obsessive-compulsive way about whether or not my bags would really make it to Cathay Pacific flight 833 fourteen hours later. As it turns out, I was right to worry: I landed in Hong Kong, after a flight that didn't feel too long but still sapped all my energy, and was told that both my bags were lost. In short order I was told that one, then both were found; then only one. Long story short, I was two days in Hong Kong before both my bags got here. I didn't freak out, I didn't get angry or even annoyed; everyone, myself included, seemed surprised at how I just shrugged off the bad news just.

Anyway, leaving the domestic terminal back in LA, I sucked down the fresh Western air, hoping for a taste of Los Angeles, something that would signal to me that I was in a world or a life I'd never experienced before. Nothing; LA air is Delaware air, too. Life doesn't have those novelstic moments like that, especially not when you want them most.

I took a trolley to the international terminal, but before I walked up the steps and inside, I noticed a nicely-gardened yet quietly pathetic stone slab/monument, dedicated to some long-forgotten nothing, an irrelevant milestone that no longer has meaning: "the completion of the trans-polar air route, directly connecting the city of Los Angeles with the European continent." I like to think I'm the only one that has ever snapped a picture of it.

As you wade in to the international terminal at LAX, you're sucked under by a wave of voices, a giant sea of noise which gradually beings to sharpen into a mix of Chinese and Japanese, static-masked English over the loudspeakers, maybe a splash of Korean or even German thrown in if you listen carefully. The whole place feels like a mutated shopping mall; boring mall floor tiles, gum-covered maroon carpet, lines and crowds and big bags and bad food. I eventually made my way through the crowd and upstairs, to inhale the familiar and unsatisfying "food" of America, McDonalds.

Every time I eat there, I'm left with one simple question: "Why?" Just three days in Hong Kong, and even the most pathetic dirty noodle shop has more taste and character to it than anything McDonalds could offer. But then, McDonalds isn't real food.

Before I entered the line for lunch (all this bitching, and yes, I still ordered McDonalds; they have perfected the scent of their product to the point that I hunger for deep-fried fat the second the airborne grease wafts over my nostrils), I saw a lot of young Japanese playing PSPs or NDSs; I took out my DS Lite, to play for a while, all overt and the like; I thought that if they saw me play, maybe they'd think that I'm "in," that I "get it." I don't think anyone noticed.

A Chinese couple sat next to me as I ate, and all I could think as I listened to them talk was something along the lines of "Good lord, what have I gotten myself in to?" They spoke an incomprehensible loop of tones, just endless repetition of simple morphemes with only the most subtle variation, all lost to my English ears. I can't imagine being able to learn this language in any meaningful way in the coming year. And yet, I can't believe how much a single summer in Beijing sharpened my Mandarin. The more people I talk to at Maryknoll, the more I realize that learning Chinese will be my job: I have to find the tutor, I have to put in the study time. It's up to me, now, more than ever before. Ah, responsibility ...

A year. I can't believe it. I keep quieting the part of my mind that insists that this whole (mis)adventure is just going to fall through; that something will happen that will see me delivered home next week or next month, with some silly stories to tell about how I thought I - me! - could survive in China for a year on my own. Part of me is simply awed that I had the balls to just leave the US. What? Where, good self, has there been any precedent set for this kind of insanity? I'm a bit surprised someone didn't try to stop me.

One of the happiest coincidences of my life happened to occur during my 14-hour layover in LAX: my good friend Eric just happened to be in Pasadena, renting an apartment, and was able to find a nice place, sign a lease, and meet me for a quick dinner and a proper goodbye. Eric has enrolled in the film program at the Art Center College of Design, and he'll be beginning his classes there just as I begin to teach in Zhanjiang. We had just enough time after dinner for us to make the trip out to Pasadena to visit his new campus, and we had the good luck to visit during a senior design bonanza that showcased some of the school's top (well, senior) talent. I was blown away by the sheer variety of the art: highly perfected design in every form, and some of the paintings were just brilliant. Some of the artist clearly just want to go do matte paintings for Weta or ILM, or character design for the next Blizzard game; hey, that’s fine, if that’s you dream, you go out there and make some awesome fucking monsters. But some of the art was very personal, and I appreciated that. One painting that especially caught my eye was this erotic oil painting of a young couple mid-coitus; nothing too amazing, well done and all, unique perspective I guess, etc., but the artist added in a third party, lurking on the border of the canvas, watching. It just stuck with me, this painting that I was looking at, this voyeuristic act of watching that is being reproduced so distinctly in the painting. Good, and not in the “I’m so damn clever” pomod good.

The film department offered a lot of sledgehammer-subtle commercials, but to be fair, they were likely (as Sandy pointed out) done for non-profits. Still, they were ads that raped my mind with clich├ęs and left me with no real clear course of action; a failed ad, in my mind, and I think that if you can’t convey the simple message of a commercial in a heartfelt way, then your films will be equally unfocused and trite. But hey, that’s me. I think Eric will be happy there: he will finally be able to embrace the art that has so long been the center of his life, without all the unfocused bullshit he had to suffer through at Brown and in Delaware. And for that, I am very happy, even if it means that he won’t be back home if and when I return. I hope he finds whatever it is he’s looking for out there; a community of like-minded artists, an environment that nurtures his creativity, or (I hope, at the very least) a set of tools that will let him realize his art as never before. I know that he's ready for it.

But I also feel that I'm ready for this. I'm not an idiot; I studied a damn good amount of literature at Villanova, and I'm up to the task of teaching some of it now, too. Every time I realize that what I'm doing has been done better before, I also take solace in the fact that someone dumber than me has also done this before, too. So why can't I do this, too? The people I've met here at Maryknoll, the people my age, anyway, are no different from me. We've come for similar reasons, we have similar backgrounds, similar goals. Why can't I do this? Why shouldn't I do it? I can't think of any compelling reasons. Have I not always wanted this kind of life, a life where I don't go right into some cubicle hellhole where my soul rots as I wait to die alone? Haven't I always wanted the guts to live the dream - an unfocused and nebulous dream, yes, but a dream nonetheless - of actually doing something exciting, rewarding, and enjoyable with my life?

And here is just such a chance. Dragging me, reluctantly, inexorably, kicking and screaming and resisting the very plans I worked so hard to put together … behind all this, I find my self, my intuition, and the only thing betraying that is (again), my self, my own doubt. Why?

Because I'm afraid. I'm afraid of truly being on my own. I'm afraid of having responsibility; not only for myself, but for an entire class room of people. I'm afraid of having to act like a grown up because I still have this "who the hell am I to tell anyone anything?" sensibility.

Well, who the hell are you? Who is anyone - in office, behind a desk, or picking up the tab - to tell anyone anything? I claim no authority beyond the power of my own personal experience. That's all anyone has, regardless of the number of degrees on the wall, of books read or written; and it's about time I test what I claim I know. Only then can I fall flat on my face, pick myself up, learn, and continue to move forward.

This is the beginning of my adult life, and as scared as I am of the troubles that undoubtedly await me in Zhanjiang, I can't think of any other way I'd rather do it. I can't explain how or why, but I just know that I am exactly where I want to be.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hong Kong: Getting Down to Business

I awoke early this morning, tossing and turning, checking the time on my camera (the only reliable timepiece in my room). The jetlag finally caught up to me last night, resulting in a crash around 1:00pm that saw me sleep until well into 10pm ... a bit of a wasted day in Hong Kong, yes, but I saw so much of the city the morning (and afternoon ... and evening) I got here that I didn't feel too bad about it (I'll tell you all about that later). So with a lot of sleep under my belt, I was able to wake up early, get ready for the day at a leisurely pace, and blog this little ditty before I head to breakfast.

I still feel like I'm collecting the fragments of a mind left back in the states; I don't know how else to describe the exhaustion and feverish pace of the previous 72 hours. This is another half-hearted blog entry, I know, but I promise that they'll get better; it's only now that I feel like I have really arrived in Hong Kong, only now that I'm able to come to grips with the enormity of the coming year and the responsibilities I'll have. I can handle it, I am sure, but at the same time, the drain of leaving and the strain of arriving didn't leave much room for anything else.

But I am happy, and very excited. I can't wait to get to work.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

As I head to China

This is a very unassuming beginning to what I hope will be a pretty substantial blog. I hope to use Matt's Myth to chronicle my travels in China, including my tenure as a professor of English Literature at Zhanjiang Normal University.

It's 11:02 pm, the night before I leave. At 7:50am, I'll fly out of Philly International, stop for a 12-hour layover at LAX, and then fly to Hong Kong. When I step off the plane at the end of this 23-hour flight, my life will have changed.

It's going to be one hell of a year.