Guest Entry--On Getting off the Escalator

It's Matt. This may happen on occasion since I on occasion have something to say but would never write regularly enough for a blog. Hence the cameo.

The school I'm working at has nine floors. That's how HK works; It's a vertical city for practical and philosophical reasons. With so many people, such rugged topography, and only so much land to 'reclaim', things can only go up. I work on the eighth floor. So I begin each morning with only one place to go: up. It's a nice fact.

My favorite stairwell is an external one that winds up the outside corner of our building. I love that it spirals and that I have to tread eight flights. It's long enough that I become somewhat contemplative by the fifth floor. This was the case the other morning. In between floors six and seven, as I rounded the pillar and turned toward another glimpse of HK and the harbor, before the stairs snaked right and back toward the building, I realized that I'd stepped off the escalator. I was winded, had broken a sweat and had almost reached the eighth floor, so it should have been obvious that I wasn't on an escalator, but it wasn't. I realized that our entire Hong Kong experience is about stepping off the escalator.

This is exceedingly ironic. I moved from a pastoral, idyllic, rural context and a very traditional, comfortable high school to an uber-metropolis whose reputation is banking, shopping, and efficiency and work at a prestigious, cutting-edge high school whose scores and college acceptances are unavoidably enviable...to be able to reflect? But it's true. For all that HK is, for all of the things I have to learn as a teacher new to this school, new to international schools, new to the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program and Diploma Program, new to five different classes, new to those five classes' books, new to teaching five different grades, new to living abroad, and new to fatherhood, HK is a pause. It is a momentary stepping off to have a clearer sense of where I've been, where I might be going, and where I'd like to go. Mind you, I'm working as much as I did my first year of teaching, so it's not like I have a box of books to read on a tropical island where epiphanies drop like coconuts. But I've been eating a lot of food seasoned with coconut, and it's having an effect. 

I'm realizing that I'm 30 years old, that I've lived a bit under a third of my life, that the nature of my discipline, English, can be about what it means to live well, and that I have a responsibility to teach and show Finn what living well means. On the other hand, it's easy to neglect to teach the important things in life, and it's easy to be too tired and distracted to live them out.

I'm lucky. My students are so driven I can worry less about their learning what they need to know for their exam; they work and worry enough to cover that. So I'm left to ask, How will this book or task help them enjoy learning, live better, be a better person, or gain the courage and know-how to change the world? For some this is airy-fairy stuff, but I think it's the only way to endeavor to begin the day. It's all up from there.





From Napping

People often ask how I am adjusting. I know they are asking how I am adjusting to HK, but I really think the biggest adjustment I am making these days is to being a stay-at-home mom.  I am doing ok—Finn and I are developing a rhythm, meeting other moms and babies, and I am getting quite adept at managing a stroller, a shopping bag, a crying baby and a purse all by myself.  When he smiles at me after waking up, or takes a break from nursing just to coo, or giggles from the sheer pleasure of being back at home, or when I watch him discover how to move his hips in just the right way to be able to reach that toy, I am filled with gratitude that I get to be there to watch him grow up, certain that I am doing the right thing.  But then there are the other days ...     

From “Napping” 

lines composed 18 floors above Kings Road, Hong Kong; inspired by Li-Young Lee's poem “From Blossoms”, our son's favorite going-to-sleep poem, on a day when the poem wasn't working.

From "napping" comes
this red wrinkly face
of a boy we brought home
at the end of nine months
when we turned toward signs painted baby.

From laden bowels, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bed,
comes water in the nighttime, rushing
waves we deliver, labored breaths and all,
comes the familiar cry of babies, cries we crave.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us a child, to bear
not only tomorrow but today,
not only the rainbow but the gray. To hear
the cries in your ears, endure them, then hold onto
the round jubilance of boy.

There are days we live
as if college were nowhere
in the background; from tear
to tear to tear, from diaper to diaper,
from nap to nap to
impossible nap, to sweet impossible nap.





Why I'm voting for Obama

I make no claims that these are THE most important reasons, or that these reasons will resonate with other people. But they are my reasons. I could certainly give you all sorts of reasons why I won't be voting for McCain/Palin, but I think telling you what I'm FOR is more productive, and more Obama-esque. (See, he's even inspiring me to be less negative already—he is what our country needs!) 

1. He was a community organizer. I know the Palin camp made fun of this, but I happen to admire it.  It's been one of my favorite things about Obama from the beginning. I really respect someone who would choose a service oriented job rather than just a money/career job. He clearly didn't do this just so he'd have a great resume for running for President.  It makes me have confidence that not only is he in this to serve our country, but that he has first hand knowledge of poverty in our country, a huge issue to be addressed.  

2. He's smart. Again, Fox and Republicans might mock this, calling him an “elitist ivy-leaguer” but I personally want my president to be smarter than I am, to be well-educated and have a broad understanding of history, economic and political theory, and law.  We're not electing a friend or a neighbor here (though I'd be happy to have Obama as either!)--we're electing a leader who has to process and synthesize complex information and situations every day, making strategic decisions that will shape our lives for years to come. It takes someone darn smart to do that. 

3. He is interested in bipartisan solutions to the issues our country faces, and he has said numerous times that he's considering putting Republicans in his Cabinet, particularly Sens. Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel.  For instance, he recently announced his plan for education, an important issue to us both as parents and (for one of us) as a teacher. Some of his ideas are traditionally "Republican" and not supported by the powerful teachers' union, such as performance pay for teachers, increased funding for public charter schools, and getting rid of bad teachers. We are strongly in favor of this sort of "out of the Democratic box" thinking.    

4. He is a person of faith, with a compelling conversion story (read his speech to the UCC convention in June of 2007 here.) As a faithful Democrat, it's important to me that he understands that separation of church and state doesn't have to mean separation of faith from politics, and that he doesn't belittle or look down on the role of faith in many Americans' lives. 

5. He is more interested in concentrating on important issues than on divisive politics. See this video with his response to the "lipstick" thing:

6. His overall platform is more consistent with the pro-life ethic which I support.  Yes, I know he is pro-choice, but I don't think “pro-life” is only about abortion.  It's also about the mother's life and the babies' lives after they are born, it's about capital punishment, it's about avoiding unnecessary wars, it's about the environment and preserving future life.  In light of all of these issues, Obama is my man! 

7. Ok, I said I would be telling you what I'm for in this list, but I can't leave this out, because it's too true!  McCain/Palin=Bush, and we (insert here—our schools, our economy, our healthcare system, our veterans, our environment) just can't take another Bush term.  See this Washington Post cartoon by Tom Toles. 

8. Finally, he is inspiring and makes me proud to be an American, proud of our Constitution, and proud of our freedom. Watch this clip of Obama talking about habeas corpus:

 I want a president who makes me feel proud of my country.  

My brother's blog has much more detailed and analytical reasons why he supports Obama, and descriptions of all that he has achieved during his time in the Senate.  If you are at all undecided, please check it out!




Our new apartment

here are some pictures of our apartment, when still unfurnished.  It looks more "occupied" these days, but it's still not quite done yet.  We'll post some updated pics when it's all put together! [gallery]

Finn Gallery--first weeks in HK!

Here are some pictures of us (read: Finn) exploring life in Hong Kong. [gallery]

[caption id="attachment_41" align="alignnone" width="128" caption="Peak walking with our friends Tuan and Heather"]Peak walking with our friends Tuan and Heather[/caption]




[caption id="attachment_42" align="alignnone" width="128" caption="Our new friend Heather loves Finn, and we think the feeling is mutual. "]Our new friend Heather loves Finn, and we think the feeling is mutual. [/caption]

Finn Gallery--visiting family

Here are some pictures of us visiting family back in July.  [gallery]

Things Have Changed ...

Things have changed. This might be obvious, given that our family has packed up and moved from a four-bedroom house in rural New England to the 18th floor of a high-rise in uber-urban Hong Kong. (And yes, we have been pleased to discover that there is non-urban Hong Kong as well). But it's the seemingly little ways in which our lives and our choices have changed that most often leave me shaking my head in wonder and smiling in both disbelief and joy at how adaptable people are.   

  Malls, for starters. As much as both my husband and I liked malls when we were 13 years old, I don't think either one of us has spent any significant time in a mall for the past 10 years, and certainly not by choice. We lived the last 5 years in an area with no malls and we never missed them. But now—I'm in a mall every day. Partially because malls are an air-conditioned, stroller-friendly place to walk, which is important in a town as hot, humid and crowded as Hong Kong.  But also because malls are just different in HK. Not that the buildings or the shops are so different, but they function differently.  Simply getting around in downtown HK (certainly in Central and Admiralty) almost always involves walking through a mall at some point. More than just a shopping center, malls here are like indoor plazas or town squares. Offices, hotels, residences and retail areas all flow together, and buildings are connected with walkways, making it hard to know what exactly is public space and what is private. For instance, our route to church involves taking the subway to a certain stop, walking across a walkway and through a mall, onto an escalator that starts indoors and ends in the Hong Kong Park.  We then walk across the park to our church. I can assume the HK government pays for the upkeep of the park, but what about the walkway, the mall's corridors and the escalator? 

Speaking of escalators, we now are firm escalator-riders.  Whereas once we would scorn the moving stairs, preferring to use our own muscles and carry our own weight, we now don't hesitate to step on the escalator.  We don't even walk—we just stand there, and let ourselves be gently carried  along.  Likely because one of us is carrying the boy and the other is carrying all his paraphanalia, along with any shopping we've done, and likely because we walk anyplace we go, so that a moment's break is welcome rather than scorned.  

One of the reasons we walk so much, or take the subway, is that the other options are more than a little scary.  The city busses are fine, but the minibusses and taxis offer rides that are more thrilling than we're really up for with a baby in tow.  But nevertheless, I must admit the other thing that has changed is that we have, more than once, gotten in the back of a taxi with our precious child, no car seat, not even a seatbelt.  It's hard to even write this, knowing how unsafe such an action was, and knowing how much grief could have come from this.  But strangely enough, at the time, when we didn't have much other choice, we just did it and didn't even think about it too much.  What's particularly ironic is that just the week before we came to HK we took a 7-hour drive from one set of parents to the other, and the little one cried the whole time. He was in a new carseat, in a new car (just the beginning of a long list of new things to experience!) and he hated it. We longed to take him out and just hold him, knowing that sitting in our arms would comfort him and still his cries.  But did we do it? No! Because we are good parents who read every handout we got at the hospital about how important car seats are and how important it is to use one correctly every single time you are in a car, and how important it is that they are installed correctly.  We even went to the police station in town to have them check out our installation, making sure everything was ok.  And I will do all that again with the next child and the next car.  But now, we are in Hong Kong, and while I don't think people here take children's safety lightly, there certainly isn't the same level of caution. And so, faced with an open door into the back seat of a taxi or a very long walk home, I'll take the taxi. And I'll pray the whole way.     

Like malls, McDonald's is an institution that we have happily and easily avoided for years now.  I can't remember the last time we ate in a McDonald's. That is, until a few weeks ago.  I am slightly embarrassed to report that here in Hong Kong we have eaten McDonald's food 3 times in the last 3 weeks.  Why this change? Well, moving, even just across town, certainly gives one a need for fast food.  And moving across the globe gives one a desire for familiar food. But the times we chose McDonald's I think what we really needed was easy food. There are several little joints on our street where we could get quick, cheap and tasty meals. The problem is that getting them involves some rather complicated communication with non-English speakers, attempts to understand what is available, how to order, where to pay, whether to tip or not, and after all that, we might not have ordered what we thought we ordered and we might not like what we end up with. Most of the time, this risk is worth it—it is, after all, what we signed up for in moving to a new country.  And with time, the interactions have become easier and we have found some reliable options that we know will be good. But, sometimes, after a long and crowded subway ride or a long shopping expedition where we may or may not have found what we needed, an easy encounter with predictable results is exactly what we want. And yes, we'll take fries with that.

Sacramental Shopping

*actually written back in August*

We've been in Hong Kong now for three weeks, and moved into our flat one week ago. Quite likely the nicest place we've ever lived, it's also the *smallest* place we've ever lived--just 589 square feet. Our bedroom is literally a bed-room--meaning there is room for a bed, a deep window sill, and then a one-foot walkway in between the bed and the closet. That's it. And the living room ... well, let's just say that Matt jokes about using the sofa for seating at the dining table, because there just isn't much room for chairs (and he's only half-joking!) But the space is designed efficiently, and it's got a user-friendly, cozy kitchen. We have a lovely balcony with a view of the mountains and the harbor. The building has a pool, jacuzzi, children's pool, and children's play areas, both outdoor and indoor and there seem to be lots of kids and babies who live here--all of which should make us very thankful...but...I have to admit we weren't thankful at first.

In fact, we thought we had made a dreadful mistake, and spent the few days after we signed the contract plagued with renter's remorse. We had been lulled by the luxurious facilities and the balcony, and the price kept going down without our even having to bargain. Anxious to be done with this part of the settling in, we ignored that little voice that said to wait and sleep on it, and instead signed the contract and paid the deposit. Neither of us slept that night--I kept thinking about that shipment of 10 boxes currently on the high seas, not even sure where we could store our suitcases in this flat, much less the 10 boxes worth of stuff yet to arrive. Matt kept thinking about the balcony, such a selling point at first, but terrifying once the little guy starts to crawl.

It took a few days to accept the situation, but after church the next Sunday we both felt convicted for our lack of gratitude for such a luxurious, clean and safe space to live, when so many people live in sub-standard housing. We also realized we were facing a classic Hong Kong cultural difference--the size of the apartment is not nearly as important to Hong Kongers, while beautiful lobbies and nice facilities rank high. Most Hong Kongers don't entertain at home―they don't spend much time at home, period. They often live with extended family and therefore people stay out late and spend weekends out and about―going to the beach, going to the park, or (most likely) going shopping.  I can't say we were both thrilled with our new home immediately, but we were on the way. (This being “on the way” is important, choosing to move in this direction instead of that one. Martin Luther says it best: “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed” (”Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (1521), LW 32, pg 24).  

And so that Sunday we celebrated our change of direction by doing what the locals would do―going out for dim sum and then going shopping. It was sacramental shopping―an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It's hard to put those two words together―grace isn't something that can be brought home in a shopping bag. But here in HK, where shopping is the national pastime and malls function culturally as important public space, spending the afternoon looking at housewares and furniture, imagining how to create a home out of our 589 square feet, was sacramental indeed.


…a new mom in a new country, just trying to live without fear and love without reserve…

Hi! I’m Monte, the primary author of this blog. From time to time my husband Matt does a guest post, and our son Finn shows up quite a bit as well. I’m a mama, a wife, a baker, a cook, a writer, and a Christian, and I like to think and write about all of these things. We moved to Hong Kong in August 08, when our son was 5 months old, after spending the previous 5 years in New England. We are Midwesterners at heart, though, and really do plan to return there to settle down.

But for now, we’re in Hong Kong. We spend a lot of time in Hong Kong on escalators—the typical indoor ones, of course, with stairs, but also plenty of outdoor escalators, escalators that start indoors and take you out, and even escalators without stairs on which you can take shopping carts. Hong Kong is famous for the Mid-levels Escalator, an outdoor, 800-meters-long, “commuters” escalator. The stairs run down in the morning, and then switch to running up for the commute home. Escalators make sense here, a city that moves very quickly, is built on the sides of mountains, and is full of high-rises. This blog is my attempt to step off the escalator and reflect on one family’s life in Hong Kong.