Sunday, January 20, 2008


I cannot freakin believe that the Giants are going to the Super Bowl! That game was unreal.

The only thing more unbelievable is that my father is taking my sister to the game, and I'm not invited.

Oh well, off to look for Super Bowl tickets...

HK/Aussie trip: From Hong Kong to Perth.

If Hong Kong was in all ways overwhelming, for sheer density of people and buildings and constant sensory stimulation, Perth was more like a ghost town. We showed up late on Friday night, and Saturday morning while running through the city to King's Park I saw fewer than ten other people in the city (there were some more in the park itself). Everything was so quiet that even in the middle of the city, I could hear my own footfall while running. What a weird constrast, to go from one of the busiest, densest cities in the world to the most sparsely populated and remote. That, more than any changes to do with language, made the Hong Kong part of the trip feel completely removed from the experiences that we were having in Perth. If I stop to consider the third week that we had in Sydney, it really feels as though we had three different weeklong trips to three totally different locations. I haven't traveled that way before so much -- either I've gone to one place and really spent time there, or I've gone to several places for just a couple of days each, so that in the end everything runs together in one big blur. This trip offered three strikingly different experiences, each for long enough that I was able to spend real time in every location.

I can't imagine what a week in Perth would have looked like if we hadn't been there for the wedding. Carlton and Sindy really put together an incredible range of activities for the week, so much so that our week in Perth actually feels like the most action-packed of the entire trip. I wish that we had had our acts together wrt hotel much sooner so that we could have found a nice place in Fremantle to stay near the beach, but even staying in the empty city, things worked out. With so many people having moved all over the world, this was really the first time in a very long while that all of this group of friends was in the same place at the same time; it's amazing how things didn't feel very different, even though we were in this corner of Western Australia rather than in Seattle, and even though Seattle isn't so big on Supa Golf or surfing or 100-degree heat. Or mosquitos! Man, the mosquitos in Perth were out of control.

I really liked Fremantle, and if I ever end up back in Perth -- which occasion is hard to imagine, but you never know -- that's where I'm going to stay. And not just because it was a pit stop on The Amazing Race and Jeff, Katherine, Chris, and I all bought sunhats there. It was just a really chill beach town with fun little cafes and bars and shops -- cafes and bars and shops that had actual people in them, in stark contrast to the city of Perth.

The running in Perth was fantastic. They take their public space pretty seriously there, and for a place where it gets so amazingly hot and dry in the summer, it's remarkable how green everything was. I saw tons of runners, walkers, and cyclists on the paths along the Swan River, and I found the overall vibe pretty enjoyable. As an area it was very pleasant and relaxing to spend time, and it almost feels like a place where I could live until I stop to think about how far away it is from everything. And I thought that moving from NYC-Philly to Seattle was moving to the middle of nowhere -- I had no idea.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

HK/Aussie trip: Language and Christmas in Hong Kong.

So one thing is for sure: You can make people study a second language from early childhood on, but you can't make them speak it at home or with their friends. And if they're not speaking it at home or with their friends, they're never really going to be native.

I don't think I heard a single Chinese person speaking English to another Chinese person in Hong Kong the entire time we were there. The British occupation may have created a tradition of afternoon tea at fancy Western hotels, but it sure didn't make people not want to speak Cantonese. Signs and menus in tourist areas are bilingual, and English is the official second language of Hong Kong. And it probably is used by default in international business contexts. But day to day, on both street-level Hong Kong and the elevated walkway super-upscale Hong Kong, Cantonese is the only linguistic currency that really matters.

It would be very interesting to look at some of the linguistic impact of the long-term language contact situation here, but I'm not aware of any work that has looked at English and Cantonese in Hong Kong. Be that as it may, the whole situation around language in the region started me thinking about other aspects of cultural change and how Western traditions have and have not been incorporated into the locale culture of Hong Kong life.

So Hong Kong celebrates Christmas. The whole city was decorated, from holiday lights on buildings and in streets to Santa Claus displays in malls and signs with reminders about last-minute gift shopping. For at least a couple of weeks, the whole city seems to mobilize around Christmas, whether or not people celebrate it as a religious holiday. Insofar as holiday traditions are manifested cosmetically, Hong Kong in late December might as well be London -- trees, lights, Santa, and all.

But beyond that, things start to get a little weird. Like the local school choir that comes to do Christmas carols at your hotel on Christmas Eve, which by the way there is little to make you feel more acutely aware of spending Christmas away from home than a group of adorable eight-year-olds coming to remind you of that fact, in your hotel lobby, as you sit in the adjacent piano bar and look on like the weird displaced old person that you are. So there is all the potential here for painful poignance. Until they start singing, when things shift from Lifetime original movie holiday edition to weird indie art film holiday edition. Because they're singing Christmas carols, but they aren't Christmas carols. They're singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but you don't understand the words. Are they singing in Chinese? You listen more closely. Hm, no, not Chinese. They just have the words all mixed up. It's like some bizarro Rudolph with a bizarro group of reindeer friends. On Dashund and Dancer and Printer and Vicki, on Comet and Cupid and Daddy and Blintzer! And half the songs you don't know at all, and while it's tempting to blame the musicianship of the eight-year-olds, you have to admit that their musicianship is really pretty solid, and the fundamental thing is that you're not familiar with the tonal systems of the Chinese instruments that are being used to play the music, and because some of the songs you don't know at all.

And then towards the end of all of this two even more adorable even littler kids come out and give you little roses and say Merry Christmas, and you just want to die with how adorable they are and how weirdly Christmasy and non-Christmasy it all makes you feel. Cue painful poignance.

And then the caroling is over and you head out with the rest of the eight million people plus tourists in Hong Kong to the harborfront to see all the lights. And you wander around for about 30 seconds before you come to realize that this isn't Christmas Eve; it's Mardi Gras without the boobs. It takes twenty minutes to walk even one block. The crush of people is so overwhelming such that a couple of the subway walkways are closed so that people won't die of suffocation. You have never seen people like this, not even in New York City in Times Square on New Year's. It is Hong Kong's usual evening crowd, which is already something, times about a zillion. It's a party, but it's not clear what we're all celebrating! We're just walking around a lot in cute dresses and boots! But whatever we're celebrating, this is definitely not the time for a quiet evening at home. There are lights to see! There are still presents to buy! There are people to crush in subways!

Christmas Day is even weirder. Other than banks, everything is open: grocery stores, restaurants, tourist attractions, hardware stores, dentist's offices, Prada outposts in train stations. Santa Claus is still at the mall, working very hard to assess the niceness and/or naughtiness of all the children who are still lined up twenty deep to see him. Wait a minute -- wasn't Santa supposed to come the night before Christmas? Yes, he was, but your parents weren't able to get to the mall to get photos until now. And in fact you'll have the chance to see Santa in the mall at least until December 28, which is the day you depart Hong Kong. (You can't speak for dates beyond that.)

During your trip you meet and make friends with several locals. One of them is someone you know from the US who is from Hong Kong, back visiting her family for the holidays. She tells you over lunch that Christmas in Seattle never really feels like Christmas to her, because it's so boring: everyone stays home with their families and nothing is open. This is an eye-opening comment that makes you realize the narrowness of your perspective, and yet you can't help it; this isn't Christmas.

You make friends with some other locals at a dim sum house on another day, and they are fortunately showing around some other friends visiting from Singapore too, so they not only order all kinds of good food for you that you are totally not aware of how to acquire (there's that Cantonese coming in handy again), but they also offer to take you along with their friends to Lantau Island for the day. Ken, Chris, Edwin, and Eva are about the nicest people you could possibly hope to have help you order pig stomach dumpings and chestnut cake and tell you all about Taoist temples and how they differ from Buddhist temples. It turns out that Chris has just finished a chem eng degree in the UK and has never been to the US but is obsessed with visiting the state of Oklahoma so she can see twisters up close and personal, and Ken is a mountain of knowledge on cognitive science and the visual representation of information, and Edwin is in the Singapore police force and manages to meet the stringent physical requirements while still smoking a couple of packs a day, and Eva, well, you don't know much about Eva because she's very quiet and nice to be tolerating all the English conversation when she would clearly be much more comfortable in Cantonese. And you come away wondering -- if you spoke Cantonese too, would you have more or fewer of these interactions? The more you fit in locally, the less you look like you need locals to help you.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

HK/Aussie trip: Layers in Hong Kong.

I have enough notes on this trip that I figured I'd better break stuff into different chunks that I can post over time. It feels like a good place to start is with my weird ambivalence about Hong Kong.

So to begin with, Hong Kong is totally overwhelming even on like a normal day. This was my first trip to Asia, and therefore my first trip to a big Asian city, and Hong Kong is a very special kind of big Asian city. There are over eight million people living and working on several islands the total area of which is one tenth the size of New Jersey, and after about 2 pm daily, it seems that every single one of them is out and about. The city is this weird combination of modern and ancient and the worlds bump into each other all over the place. Hong Kong has the skyline to end all skylines -- seriously, I cannot say enough about this skyline. We stayed in Kowloon, which is across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, and crossing the ferry across the harbor (which is a steal of a tourist deal -- it's less than 50 cents US per crossing) affords you great views of both sides. There is some really interesting architecture among several of the individual buildings, but it is the sheer density of skyscrapers as the skyline is viewed as a whole that struck me. The view from Victoria Peak, from which you can see the harbor and the rest of Hong Kong in every direction, is justifiably famous, but I preferred the skyline view from the harbor. Every night at 8pm -- like every night of the year -- the city sponsors a laser show across the harbor skylines, complete with music and light choreography that includes every major building on the harbor. It is totally bizarre and also totally reflective of the city's love of modernity and spectacle.

The areas surrounding the harbor on both the HK island and the Kowloon sides are meant for tourists. Rich tourists. There are times when the whole city feels like an upscale mall, when every transitway connecting buildings seems to include a Prada store and every subway station a Versace. If you want to spend money, Hong Kong lets you do it in a pretty spectacular fashion. The crowds in these areas, and indeed in every area, are unlike anything I've seen anywhere else. On a good afternoon it takes five minutes to walk a block. The streets are dense with people just as the skylines are dense with skyscrapers. Walking around Hong Kong is definitely a contact sport. The crowds, combined with the crappy air quality, may be the motivation behind the interconnected indoor walkways above street level that connect much of the city. You quickly learn that you don't get anywhere fast in Hong Kong, but if you need to try, you use the truly excellent subway system and the above-street walkways.

But buried among and behind the modern skyline and the super-efficient mass transit and the upscale malling that seems to be everywhere, there is another Hong Kong. Drop down to street level from the raised walkways with their Armanis and Miu Mius and you'll find hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and dim sum teahouses and storefronts shilling traditional Chinese medicine. Turn a corner and walk a couple of blocks away from the main thoroughfares and you're apt to find passageways spilling over with stands selling dried fish and flowers and stinky tofu, so narrow that you need to walk single file to pass through the alley. This is an old place, regardless of the layers of shiny new that have been built on top of it. And in its way, the old is as overwhelming as the new. This is a city where chaos flourishes amidst tightly constrained and deliberately architected infrastructure.

In light of that, the public parks in Hong Kong are a marvel. We visited Hong Kong Park, Kowloon Park, and Victoria Park, and every one of them offers a perfectly manicured respite from the city. They are green and blue and like the rest of Hong Kong, composed of several different landings connected by hills and stairs and interconnecting paths -- this is a hilly city, and the design of the streets and public spaces accomodates that. But the most remarkable thing about the parks is the way that they are an unabashed celebration of the artificial. Every color is Crayola. The waterfalls and ponds are heavily chlorinated and placed evenly among the pathways, which are themselves frequently symmetric over acres of land. There are miniaturized Olympic stadia and postcard-perfect wedding registration offices and exquisitely tended gardens with symmetric flower displays. And yet tucked among the perfectly crafted green space are hundreds of elderly residents doing their daily tai chi, anywhere they manage to find a spot that offers sufficient sanctuary. There are loud groups of teenagers and families having picnics that range from pork dumplings to KFC. We saw one group of about 15 teenage girls taking pictures of each other, singly and in clusters, with modelly poses on the steps of the miniaturized Olympic stadium in Hong Kong Park. In Victoria Park there was a big Chinese product fair set-up, kind of the Hong Kong equivalent of the Puyallup Fair. It cost $10US for entry and featured the expected mix of food vendors -- selling fried rice instead of hot dogs and dumpings instead of funnel cake -- and as-seen-on-TV hawkers, with automatic freeze-driers and vacuum cleaners and ancient herbal remedies.

Everywhere we went, it was impossible not to notice the deliberate crafting of the infrastructure of life: the sleek subway system; the perfectly crafted public parks; the above ground walkways; the choreography of the laser light show at 8pm nightly. And everywhere we went, it was also impossible not to notice the way chaos seeped not just through the cracks, but also spread itself out and made itself at home in total ignorance of the cracks even existing: every subway car packed people in like sardines, at any time of day; the hundreds of tai chi practicioners spread across the manicured park lawns, each moving at their own pace and in explicit and indifferent dissonance to the hundreds of other tai chiers around them; the hawkers trying to sell you copy watches and fake Prada bags and the religious missionaries trying to make you take green Jesus stickers in the above ground walkways; the pushing and shoving to get the best view of the laser show and the loud conversations and turned backs among people who ended up with the best positions. You can design a city to be neat and orderly, but eight million people in 2,000 square kilometers just can't be neat and orderly.

(And it turns out that you can take over a city and make everyone study English for over a century, but you can't really make them speak English. I went into Hong Kong expecting a truly bilingual city from everything I'd read. This isn't it. But more on that in another post.)

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Final tally on running miles in 2007.

Ingredients to end a vacation.

6am 1/11, Sydney time. Leave hotel for airport.
8:30am 1/11, Sydney time. Fly to Hong Kong. 10 hours.
Sit in Hong Kong airport for 9 hours.
12:05am 1/12, Hong Kong time. Fly to Vancouver. 12 hours.
8:30pm, 1/11, Vancouver time. Arrive in Vancouver and overnight.
11am 1/12, Vancouver time. Fly to Seattle. 1 hour.
1pm 1/12, Seattle time. Arrive home!

Whew, what a trip!

I have much to write. For a change I took detailed notes on basically everything when I traveled, all of which I intend to bloggify in the near future.

Happy new year!

Sunday, December 16, 2007


That is how many miles I have run so far in 2007. Two weeks to go. Last year I ran 1,785. By the time the year is over it'll be about +150 miles from last year to this year.That's really just a few more miles per week. In my head I had run way more this year than I had last year, but I guess it is not really so.

I feel pretty crappy today. Cough, sore throat, the works. As long as I can beat the cold by just loafing around all day today so that I can cruise from work to vacation this week without issue. Blah.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Gingerbread vacation.

Tonight is all about winter food. I am making cabbage and potato soup with blue cheese and toasts for dinner, and I am attempting the highest-maintenance gingerbread recipe ever. This, plus football, is what Sundays are all about. Though I should have read through the gingerbread recipe before starting so that I would have known about all the refrigeration and freezing phases that need to be traversed before actual baking starts. Whatever, it's gonna be tasty.

Less than two weeks until we head off for Hong Kong and Australia! I am getting all fired up and starting to think about packing. We're going to try to fit everything for the entire trip into one carry-on each. It's all about embracing the rewash and rewear. I cannot wait to hit the sunshine -- and the warmth. Whoo hoo! Summer in January! It's sort of weird to think about the fact that I am making gingerbread today, but on Christmas itself we're going to be having dim sum. Living out the age-old stereotype of Chinese food on Christmas. But in Hong Kong.

We're trying to lay out our upcoming travel plans for the next year, which seems to be something we do every time we travel. You get a little, you want a lot. Next year I'd like to take a longer trip to Europe, as well as some long weekends in Boston and San Francisco. And we're going to head to New Jersey at some point to see family. And I want to do a week of a trail running vacation. And once again I don't have enough vacation time to stuff all this travel into. Oh well, life is full of difficult choices.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

It is so not supposed to snow in Seattle.

And if it does, it should at least be on a weekday.

Okay, it's not snowing yet. But I believe the predictions and I think it's gonna. I could feel it in the air when I went running this morning.

I hate winter. The whole point of moving to the west coast was to get away from this stuff. Even though my first visit to Seattle took place in the middle of a snowstorm. I was told that it was the exception rather than the rule. Craziness!

Is it time for vacation yet?