Travel, Hong Kong Exchange

Visiting Festival Walk and Lantau Island

I finished my first full week in Hong Kong by snagging a camera and heading to Lantau Island, the largest of the 200+ islands that make up Hong Kong. It turned out to be a great way to cap off my free time before classes started.

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Hong Kong Exchange, Travel

Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong Island and My First Vehicle Crash

Yeah, you read that right: this week, I was in my first vehicle crash. No worries, it could’ve been much worse. We all walked away uninjured, but chances are if you saw the headline, it grabbed your attention, right? Details on what happened later, but it’s time to jump into what I did over the past couple days.

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Hong Kong Exchange, Travel

Settling In, Shopping Around and First Sightseeing

Over the past couple days, I’ve had the opportunity to start exploring Hong Kong, and to say this city is lively is a massive understatement. In the U.S., it’s typical for stores to be open 8 AM-5 PM. But here, many stores are open 10 AM-10 PM or later. Certain parts of the city, particularly those frequented by people my age, come awake long after the sun goes down. I’m typically a night owl, so this would seem fantastic for me, but students here take staying up late to a whole new level. Many won’t go to sleep until anywhere between 2-5 AM and sleep until noon on a regular basis. They even schedule classes around their sleep schedules. The walls are thin in my dorm, and these nocturnal students have been riding skateboards and dribbling basketballs down the halls at 3 AM. I’ve got to buy some earplugs.

Anyhow, enough complaining. Tuesday evening, my friend, Sam, took me around part of town to grab dinner and do some shopping. We started by taking the MTR subway system a couple stops to the Mong Kok district, which was rather crowded, even on a weekday. Mong Kok’s vibe reminded me a of a midway at a fair or festival at night. Street vendors, peddlers, bright signs, flashing lights, and crowds of people were everywhere. Storefronts held familiar shops like H&M and Pizza Hut, as well as unfamiliar ones.

Jewelry stores, tech and gadget shops, clothing stores, local restaurants and other establishments lined the streets. Most shops are placed on the ground floor of high-rise apartment buildings that stretch far into the sky. Sam explained some of the items the vendors were selling (octopus, animal entrails, stuffed veggies, fried chicken, cuttlefish balls, and much more of varying levels of familiarity), and he bought a rather tame dessert for me to try. It was essentially waffle batter rolled into a cone that looked like bubble wrap with the big bubbles. It wasn’t filled with anything, but you can’t go wrong with a waffle. He says the dessert is pretty common there, and I’d call it the Hong Kong equivalent of a funnel cake.

After perusing the area, Sam took me to one of his favorite restaurants for dinner. I can’t recall the name, but it served foods from a variety of Asian cultures. He pointed out some of the highlights on the menu, and we ordered a plate of fried rice, chicken satay skewers, a beef & noodle dish that I can’t recall the name of, milk tea and sticky buns. The whole meal was delicious, but the fried rice was definitely my favorite. Of all the fried rice I’ve had in the U.S., it’s most similar to Lam’s Garden in Athens (for all you Ohio locals who’ve tried it). The milk tea, a popular drink here, is typically unsweetened, but I liked it better after about half a pack of sugar. The sticky buns, essentially glazed, toasted burger buns, were a great way to finish the meal.

A few things stood out to me at the restaurant. When we walked in, we were pointed to a table, given a menu and left alone. Sam raised his hand when we were ready to order, and within a few seconds, the server came to our table. A few minutes later, all the food was out; I was amazed at the speed, but Sam said the service was considered slow, as restaurants work as quickly as possible to feed customers and free the table for new ones. Other than to bring new dishes of food, we were left alone, so there were no awkward moments of being asked “so, how’s the food?” in the middle of a huge bite.

Second, we didn’t tip after the meal. Sam says the only time you tip in Hong Kong might be for a hotel bellhop. In all, I think our meal came out to about $28 USD, and there was enough food to feed three. Delicious food, large portions, fast service, and no extra tip: it was perfect. Again, I’m finding Hong Kong incredibly convenient.

Interestingly enough, we ate with silverware at the restaurant; chopsticks were nowhere to be found. Sam says chopsticks are used for certain occasions, but silverware are the default.

After dinner, Sam took me on a quick tour of Langham Place, a huge mall that puts the average American mall to shame. It had a huge variety of high-end stores like Nordstrom and Calvin Klein, dedicated Nike, Under Armour, Converse and Vans stores, as well as others I didn’t recognize. In all, the mall is 15 stories tall. It even has huge “Xpresscalators” that jump four floors at a time (from the 4th floor to the 8th, then another set from the 8th to the 12th). The mall was beautiful, from the sculptures to the glass window panels to the bright lights and vaulted ceilings. It was breathtaking. There’s a good reason they call Hong Kong a shopper’s paradise.

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Later that evening as well as the next day, I explored Lok Fu Place (first with Sam, then later with other international students). It’s the closest place for me to shop; a 10-15 walk from campus. Sam says it’s nothing too impressive for the locals, but to me, it’s awesome. It’s basically a five-story mall (three levels above ground and two below) with two supermarkets and an MTR station, and it spans both sides of the street thanks to the top-floor walkway that connects them. Again, accents like the lighting really add to the vibe of the place. It’s a convenient one-stop shop for everything from food to furnishings to clothing. Luckily, I brought an Ikea bag with me, as many shops either charge extra for bags to keep down excess waste. Takeout boxes and disposable silverware often cost extra, and the campus doesn’t have straws since they don’t degrade in landfills. I can get behind the eco-friendly efforts here.

The view outside one of Lok Fu’s entrances

Wednesday, we attended international student orientation and had dim sum for lunch with other students and faculty. Dim sum is a Cantonese style of meal characterized by platters of appetizers, finger food and entrees cut and portioned for a group to share. The servers place the food on a spinner in the middle of the round table, and the diners spin it around and pick what they want from it. Here, we used chopsticks: a white pair to pick food from the center of the table, and a black pair to eat with. The food seemed to never stop coming: sweet and sour chicken, cooked mushrooms, shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, lotus root, bean paste mochi balls, vegetarian potstickers, spring rolls and much more. I had never tried several of the dishes before and was surprised to find the lotus root was delicious (crunchy, almost like a water chesnut, but with a really cool shape).

Some of the dishes tasted similar to what we might order in the U.S., but the sweet and sour chicken was a major exception. You know that thin red sweet and sour sauce that we use in the U.S.? Not here. The sauce was much thicker and richer, and the dish was garnished with peaches and pineapples, which was a delicious touch. The dish was much more flavorful and tasted naturally sweet rather than the sort of artificial taste we get from American sweet and sour sauce.

The faculty members at our table were very kind and taught some of the students how to use chopsticks, told us about the customs of eating dim sum (which included having the elders at the table serve our first portion to us), things to do in the area, and much more. They were genuine and happy people; I hope I run into them again throughout the semester.

So to finish these posts, I think I’ll start sharing some of the Cantonese phrases I’m learning. This time, Sam taught me how to say “thank you.” Phonetically, it sounds like “mm goi” where the “mm” sound is at a lower pitch, and “goi” rises up rigidly. Cantonese has several tones, and beginners start by learning the first six in the chart above based on whether the tone’s pitch (on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is the lowest pitch and 5 is the highest that your voice can comfortably make) and whether it stays stable throughout the entire syllable or fluctuates.

Using the chart, I’d write the phrase phonetically as “mm4 goi1”. This is a common way to help westerners learn Cantonese, as we can’t read Chinese characters. Looking at the pitch chart, the fourth tone starts at a relatively low pitch and dips slightly lower, then the first tone jumps to the highest pitch you’d make in conversation.

So for a quick recap, here’s what I learned over Tuesday and Wednesday:

  • Hong Kongers LOVE to eat and shop
  • The locals are all about fashion
  • The city is filled with night owls
  • Some street food is safe, but some is not
  • The dorms are quite noisy
  • Hong Kongers take conservancy seriously
  • Tipping is practically nonexistent
  • Saying “thank you” in Cantonese is pretty easy.
Hong Kong Exchange

Thoughts on my Flight and First 24 Hours in Hong Kong

Hello from the other side of the globe!

After flying roughly a combined 17 hours and 8,500 miles from Columbus to Toronto, then from Toronto to Hong Kong, I’m finally here. It’s surreal. I keep asking myself “Is this real? Am I really here? Am I crazy for signing up for this on impulse?” The reality of my new situation still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I mean, I know I’m here in Asia for the next 4+ months, but I don’t think my brain really gets it yet. Luckily, it understood well enough when to go to sleep and when to wake up this morning. I’ve been here roughly 24 hours now, and I don’t feel any effects of jet lag, so that’s a plus.

This morning’s foggy, rainy view from my dorm room

I haven’t seen or done much yet aside from get unpacked and established, but here are some first impressions.

  • The flight was both awful and awesome. Michael, the other OU student who traveled here with me, described it best: “The whole thing felt like a fever dream.” We left Toronto around 10 AM EST on Sunday and flew in a weird trajectory northeast over Greenland, then southeast over Russia and China, finally landing in Hong Kong at about 2 AM EST on Monday (3PM Hong Kong time). The odd thing was that we landed in Toronto as the sun rose, then it sunk away as we hit the western coast of Greenland, then it rose again over Russia. All in all, there’s just no good way to make a 16-hour flight in an economy seat a completely enjoyable experience, but the Air Canada staff did its best. The in-flight meals were surprisingly good, and the flight attendants kept the cart of drinks coming every couple hours. Each seat came with a complimentary pillow and blanket as well as a power outlet and a tablet screen loaded with movies (I finally got to watch Wind River and highly recommend it. I made it through the first half of the original Blade Runner but can’t make the same recommendation… at all.).

  • Navigating the airports and going through immigration was way easier than I had anticipated. We just filled out a couple forms in the planes, showed them at the airports, then we could go on our merry ways. Super simple.
  • Hong Kong is absolutely gorgeous. I was too preoccupied talking with an Australian exchange student to take pictures during the bus ride to the campus, but this place is just incredible. Try to picture New York City surrounded on one side by vibrant, blue ocean and on on the other by rainforest-covered mountains. The contrast was striking. I’ll take some pictures later, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In the U.S. we have cities, and we have nature, but I don’t think we have such a huge city sprouting up so perfectly in the middle of nature. I can already tell this place is magical.
  • Living here as a foreigner with no grasp of the local language will of course pose some challenges, but it’s been smooth enough so far. All the cashiers I’ve encountered so far have spoken English and have had no trouble helping me, which I am very grateful for. Important signs and audio announcements are in English and Chinese. Some store displays and ads targeted toward the locals require me to fill in the blanks a bit, but it’s all been manageable so far.

  • Shopping has been so convenient. My credit card automatically converts currency and has worked everywhere I’ve tried it. My debit card charged me a whopping 50 cents to take money out of an ATM. There’s also an awesome payment method called an Octopus Card, which works pretty much everywhere in Hong Kong (If you’re a college student, think of it like loading your student car with money that you can use on campus, like Bobcat Cash or BuckID). You pay a few bucks to get the card, then load it with cash like a prepaid Visa card. Then, you just tap it to a pad to pay at stores, vending machines, subway stations, restaurants, or basically anywhere else. This is the payment method for the MTR, which is Hong Kong’s subway system that nearly everyone here uses, so it’s a necessity.

  • Most things here are pretty cheap compared to in the U.S. My dinner at KFC yesterday (a huge bowl/bucket of rice topped with American-style chicken & noodles, plus a drink) cost $2.94. I bought a blanket, pillow, washcloth and some hangers at Ikea for $27. I got two 23.5 oz bottles of water for $1.75 (to compare, single-serve bottles in the U.S. are 17 oz.). Granted, the process of mentally converting currency and dealing with the sticker shock is a little odd. My Ikea purchase, for example, was $212.60 in Hong Kong Dollars, which was a bit striking until I did the math (1 USD is roughly 7.5 HKD).

  • The bank notes here are so colorful. I’ll try to get better pictures later, but I dig these. The $10 note is a thin, fluorescent plastic, but the others are more similar in texture to American bills.
  • My dorm room is tiny but has a lot more storage space than I was expecting, which I was relieved to find out. The rooms don’t have heating units since it rarely gets cold here, and last night’s ~60 degree (Fahrenheit) was pretty comfortable. I’m on the 16th floor and have a view of the skyline, which is also awesome (again, no good picture since it was rainy).
  • Starbucks is still expensive and overrated, but I’ll take coffee where I can get it.

Tonight, I’m meeting my friend Sam to do a bit more shopping and to get dinner, then student orientation begins tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes!

Also, I’ll up my photography game from now on. During the 50 hours from 9AM on your Saturday morning until your 11AM on Monday, I got about 4 hours of sleep and was hardly functional during yesterday’s adventures. Any photography skills I might have had were completely shot. I’ll keep you posted as I dig a bit more into life here.