Chinese New Year

It's day one of the Chinese New Year, and after watching weeks of preparations, we're getting into the mood and feeling quite festive. We don't totally know what to expect this week, but any holiday that involves time off work (today, Tuesday and Wednesday are all public holidays, and most schools and offices take off the whole week), along with fresh flowers and sweets is alright by me. Here are some of our observations about what the Chinese New Year celebrations involve.

1. Decorations: Most lobbies and stores are now decorated with blossoming peach branches (many hung with red lai see packets), miniature orange trees, narcissus bulbs and other flowers. There are flowers for sale everywhere, in fact, especially the orange trees, orchids and narcissus bulbs. Red and gold are the colors of the holiday, and streamers, lanterns, firecrackers, and paper dragons adorn any and every possible surface. Hong Kong is a pretty colorful city to start with, but now, it's like a three-year-old was asked to do the decorating (and I mean that in the nicest possible way): anything happy and colorful goes. And because this is the year of the Ox, symbols of the Ox abound as well.  

colorful lions

2. Sweets: The grocery stores have aisles filled with tins of cookies, candies and other sweets, along with special displays of fancy liquor and other expensive foods, like abalone. These tins and boxes of sweets are a huge deal--not just the grocery stores but every 7-11, drug store, and hardware store is filled with them.  Apparently eating sweets helps ensure a sweet year to come, and this is a tradition I'm happy to take on!

sweets from a student

yummy chocolates

3. Money: Another CNY tradition--one in which we participated first hand--is queuing at the bank in order to get new bills for giving lai see. Lai see is the money given in small red envelopes, primarily to employees and children, and also to doormen or other service people. It's supposed to bring luck to both the giver and recipient, and it's not a huge amount of money, unless you are the big boss. But the bills should be new, and they should be in even amounts. Multiples of four are bad, but eight is good. Or so we understand. We have also noticed an increased police presence in recent weeks, and our guess is that it has to do with all the money walking around these days. We also experienced, for the first time, a Hong Kong phenomenon of which we were warned before coming--being asked how much we paid for something.  Coming home from the New Year's Fair (see no.4), a new orchid in hand, our doorman nodded appreciatively, then said "100?" It took us a minute to realize he was guessing (and asking) about the price, and we were proud to be able to say "oh, just 88," knowing we had gotten a good deal.  ($88 HK is roughly $11 or 12 US)  

4. New Year's Fairs: Last night we went to the huge New Year's Fair in Victoria Park (lots of parks hold these fairs, but the Victoria Park one is the big daddy). Part flower market, part plastic-tchotchke extravaganza, we saw all manner of things both weird and wonderful. In the wonderful category: thousands and thousands of flowers for sale: the afore mentioned citrus trees, orchids, bulbs, peach trees, along with cut flowers. The fragrance was heavenly, especially walking by a booth specializing in lilies. We were seduced, and brought home some flowers ourselves. Such a nice way to celebrate a new year--I'd be happy to take on this tradition as well.

narcissus bulbs

orange trees

there must be peach tree farms that grow just for the CNY, similar to the Christmas tree farms in the US?


cut flowers

We also saw some great fair food: frozen strawberries on a stick (which if it hadn't been 50° out we would have tried), fried ice-cream-filled donuts (no weather could stop us from trying this one), fresh sugarcane juice, fresh coconut milk, fried cuttlefish and squid, along with the ubiquitous fish balls.

sugarcane juice

In the weird category, we learned that Hong Kong has a love affair with all things inflatable or stuffed, and the more realistic, the better.  We saw inflated buses that look exactly like the city busses, inflated i-phones, giant stuffed croissants, giant Ferrero Rochers (the gold-wrapped Italian hazelnut candy--extremely popular here for CNY), even an inflated Hong Kong waffle, complete with the paper bag.  We also saw shabu-shabu towels (shabu-shabu is a type of hot pot meal, with very thin slices of meat that you dip into simmering broth. The towels resembled the thinly sliced meat).

the translated name for these waffles is "little chicken eggs"

shabu shabu towels

 gives new meaning to the beach being a "meat market"

A popular item for sale were pinwheels of all types, and both Matt and I were enchanted by the following booth, selling beautiful wood and paper pinwheels. I'm hopeful that next year Finn will be old enough to appreciate them, even if the enchantment lasts only a short time.


Reports differ on how many shops/restaurants will be open or closed this week. Tonight is the big parade and lion dance, which we'll watch on the computer since Finn will be asleep, and Tuesday night are the fireworks. We're going to try and watch from our balcony, but we may end up back on the computer for this one too. Both of these events, by the way, start at 8 pm, since 8 is a lucky number.  

I'm sure there are lots of nuances and traditions of the Lunar New Year that we're missing, especially all the superstitions that seem to govern this holiday. But the combination of the new year falling close to the start of spring is a great symbol, and from all we have observed and learned, it really does feel like a time for newness, for cleaning out the old and starting fresh.  Kung Hei Fat Choi to all of you!

Finn Update

Warning: this next post is really intended for the grandparents and other family members, with an exhaustive Finn update. So if you're not as fascinated with his every move as we are, (though I can't imagine why not ... ) please feel free to delete!  No one will know, and therefore no one will be offended. 

Finn now has 5 1/2 teeth--4 are fully in, another is almost in, and another is just making an appearance.   He delights in using these teeth and loves to bite down on crackers--rice crackers are a favorite--and hear the crunching sound.  He also loves to bite almost anything else--our fingers, our shoulders, whatever he picks up.  He's actually left teeth marks on my shoulder before, so we're working on the "no biting people" concept.  He eats a pretty good variety of fruits and vegetables now, sometimes plain, sometimes mixed with rice or barley cereal.  He loves sweet potatoes, apples, pears, prunes, spinach and mangoes.  He tolerates squash, carrots and peas, and sometimes likes oatmeal, sometimes not.  

He's crawling on hands and knees now, but he still prefers the army-crawl. He'll often start out towards a toy on his knees, but then get impatient, drop his tummy to the floor and shimmy his way over.   Matt recently made him blocks out of milk cartons and he loves knocking over a tower of blocks.  He's also quite happy with almost anything that comes out of the kitchen.  I bring him in with me while I'm cooking, give him a bowl along with a few utensils and he's happy playing at my feet for at least 30 minutes, sometimes more.  

He's been a really happy boy lately, primed to giggle at almost anything.  Sometimes it seems like I don't even have to tickle him--I just act as if I'm going to tickle him and he starts to giggle.  A few favorite games recently involve holding him in my arms while walking very slowly for a few steps, saying "slow, slow, slow," then going quickly and saying "quick, quick, quick, quick, quick." He also seems to like being chased. I take him down to the indoor playroom in our building, which is often empty. I throw the keys about 6 feet in front of us and Finn immediately goes after them.  I follow, on my hands and knees, a few steps behind, and Finn just giggles the whole time.  He chases the keys like this all over the room--it's quite the workout!  

He's not really pulling himself up yet, and doesn't seem to have much interest in walking.  He lights up when Matt gets home from school, and loves the weekends, when Matt is home the whole day.  You can just tell, when we're all eating breakfast together, and Finn looks back and forth from Matt to me, that he's thinking, "aah, this is how it should be, everyone together." When he's really happy he'll flap his arms and kick his feet, and he does this when one of us puts on the Ergo carrier--I think he likes to be held so close and likes to go outside.     

Along with kindermusik class once a week, we also go to an "open gym" session at gymboree once a week.  It's fun--a big room with gym mats on the floor, and lots of things to crawl over or though, lots of balls and hoops to play with. Finn seems to like being around all the other kids, though he definitely is an observer first.  I'll set him down on one of the mats and he takes a good 5 or 10 minutes to just look around before he starts to venture out.  He doesn't seem nervous or upset by all the commotion,  and he doesn't need me right next to him, but he does need a little time to take it all in before he dives in himself.  Last week they had set up a low basketball hoop and hung bells on the net, so when a ball went though, all the bells rang.  Finn sat and watched the older kids play for quite a while (there are kids up to age 4 who come to this), smiling whenever a basket was made.  

He's also getting more affectionate.  He frequently, while playing on the floor, will crawl over to one of us, put his head on our knee or leg, smile, then go back to playing. It's such a sweet gesture, just checking in and saying hello.  Moments like these get us through the more frequent night wakings we're experiencing now (teething? wanting to practice his new skills? separation anxiety? growth spurt?)  We sure wish you all were here to get some of these "knee hugs"!  

Here's a few pictures of him, dressed up for winter walks (which can mean temperatures anywhere from 50°-70° F).  Enjoy! 



On Cantonese language

I have to admit, when we first decided to come to Hong Kong, I was a bit disappointed by the language thing.  One of my priorities for overseas life was the chance to become fluent in another language.  I was expecting we'd end up in a place where my high school French and college Spanish would at least give me a fighting chance at achieving this goal.  And instead, we're in a city where I can't even begin to “sound out” words or try to recognize word roots, and where, even if I do learn Cantonese, a fat lot of good it will do me anywhere else in the world. On top of all that, Cantonese isn't even pretty—none of the poetry or lyricism found in the Romance languages. 

        Nevertheless, I dutifully signed up for “Cantonese for Beginners” at the YWCA, where I  learned how to introduce myself, how to call a taxi and give directions, and how to shop. (This last one might actually come in handy elsewhere, since most Chinatowns in the USA use Cantonese).  And I have to admit that I'm learning to appreciate Cantonese. Full of puns and wit, along with a penchant for excessively flowery descriptions, it is a language of poetry. 

       For instance, the number 8 (baat) is considered lucky, not because of some lunar significance or because it was mentioned in an early religious text but because it sounds like the word for amassing. I love that idea, that a word gets meaning not only from its assigned definition, but from its homonyms. If that's not poetic, I don't know what is.  (The Olympics in Beijing this summer, by the way, started on 8/08/08, at 8:08:08 local time. )

      Another example: The word meaning bat (fu) is a homonym for good luck. Thus, bats are a lucky symbol and are frequently painted onto dishes or woven into scarves.  Four (sai) on the other hand, sounds like death in Cantonese, so it is a number to be avoided.  

     And as for flowery language, one of Matt's colleagues in the English department recently exclaimed, while reading personal essays, “If I hear one more student talk about 'glorious victory' I am going to scream!”  Almost everything the students had accomplished, from piano contests to athletic events, was described in terms of “glorious victory.”  

      Our apartment building has this bit of poetry on its resident handbook: “Life is full of beauty of wonders/Taste is something that we acquire in life/The art of living demonstrates our status/Wealth might give us everything/But there is nothing like Home.”  (!) Even Starbucks gets into the act, exhorting us to "blossom over a cupful of joy" and describing its travel mugs and coffeepots as "delight to go" and "serenity at home." 

       I have been surprised to find this grandiose description creeping into my own speech.  Just last week, Matt and I were walking along the boardwalk of Tsim Shat Tsui, looking over Victoria Harbor to admire Hong Kong's skyline, and we spotted a coffeeshop with a great view: “Wow, that looks like a great place to get a drink and enjoy life.” 

       We both cracked up at this, such a Chinese thing to say, when normally we would say “enjoy the evening” or “enjoy the view.”  But why not “enjoy life”?  Why do we limit this enjoyable moment to its specific time and place? Isn't life, after all, made up of moments, strung together into one glorious whole?  So right now, I'm not just enjoying writing, not just enjoying this tea or this air conditioning, this chance to be alone while Matt and Finn are taking a walk—I'm enjoying life.
And as a sidenote--happy inauguration day, everyone!  We wish we could have been in the States on such an auspicious day, sharing the glorious victory and triumphal ascent of our storied and inspiring leader, destined to bring good fortune to the nation so endowed with wisdom as to elect such a man, born under the sign of the Ox, a sign which symbolizes prosperity through fortitude and hard work, and which is the sign of the new year of 2009 that will be celebrated in Chinese communities all over the globe in only a few days' time.     


Poems for Finn

I've written on here before about how we recite poems to Finn to help him fall asleep.  It's been a sweet part of parenting--our voices really seem to soothe him, and in the middle of the night, it's nice to have some words readily at hand without having to read from a book, words that have been crafted with attention to their sound and rhythm. Of course, we like the idea of these words filling his little being, even if it may be years before any understanding sets in, and the added bonus is that with memorization, these words are filling our beings as well. So here's a list of what we've memorized so far:

From Blossoms, by Li-Young Lee

Maybe, by Mary Oliver

Happiness, by Jane Kenyon

Birches, by Robert Frost

Psalm 23

Psalm 139

 Anyone out there have recommendations for us? We're always looking for more good poems.  Can't be too long, needs to have beautiful language and say something true.  Thanks!


Bonus Tracks

Ok, I'm finally getting these videos posted.  They are the "bonus tracks" from the Christmas dvds we made for our family--just two short, funny (we think!) little compilations. Enjoy!


Vietnam/Christmas Pictures

We didn't take many pictures of either the Vietnam trip or our Christmas at home, due to the illness that permeated our time together.  As festively colored as the snot might have been, it's not all that attractive. And pink eye is even worse.  Nevertheless, we did get a few, and we don't even look sick in them!  [gallery]

Finn Gallery--Nov/Dec

These are pictures from Finn's 8th and 9th month.  Next up, a few pictures from Vietnam and Christmas, and then the videos I mentioned the other day. Maybe I'll even finish up a few posts that have been sitting in the "draft" section for far too long.  [gallery]


Happy 2009!

A quick rundown on our life in these last few weeks of blogging-silence ... 

1. Our trip to Vietnam was interesting, if you know what I mean, and a learning experience. Can you see what I'm saying?  It didn't quite suck, but it was close. Basically, all three of us were sick. It was a beautiful, familial round of illnesses, piling right on top of each other, overlapping, in both discord and harmony. From pink eye to gastric distress to fevers and colds and coughs to teething... oh my. I think we're almost done with it, though the last few strains of coughing are still heard at night, the Peterson Germ Chorus unwilling to give up the show.  

As for Vietnam itself, Saigon was a fascinating city. Matt observed that the crowds of motorbikes there are just like the crowds of people here, and he's right--somehow everyone navigates safely and there are rarely collisions, though it looks mighty sketchy from the sidelines. Our beach resort was lovely, and actually not a bad place to be sick. Room service, especially when they offer such soothing things as pho and fresh fruit juices, is something I missed once we got home (and were still sick!). 

And what did I learn? When Lonely Planet tries to sell you its lovely visions of "off the tourist trail" villages and beautiful sights that no one else sees--remember what it was like, riding that train that stopped every 100 feet for cows to cross, while your husband is coughing up a lung and you are visiting the toilet a little too often and your baby looks up at you with half-opened eyes, eyelashes matted with gunk. Then calmly put down the guidebook and call the travel agent and book the easiest, most direct vacation possible.  

2. Coming back to Hong Kong was great. It felt like home, and it was great for it to feel like home.  I wanted to hug our apartment's door attendants, I was so happy to be back. We realized anew how modern and easy and efficient Hong Kong is. Case in point: the in-town check-in and airport express.  Going on a trip? No car, lots of bags, maybe a baby, just for fun? Need to get to the airport with all that? No problem. Just go to a certain floor of a mall in Central, check-in for your flight, get your boarding pass and check your bags. Then grab some dinner, finish some shopping, and take the train in leisure and comfort, right to the airport. Nice, huh? Finn was happy to get home too. We walked though our door and he positively beamed as he looked around, before letting out the James Brown-esque "yowl" that he's so fond of lately. I am still looking for that room service number, though. 

3. When we were still sick, even after being home for 4 days, we decided to try out Traditional Chinese Medicine. Our insurance covers it, and it's everywhere around here, so why not? Also, I had planned that our vacation time in Hong Kong would be filled with lots of neat family outings like going to Lamma Island and taking the Star Ferry. Needless to say, Lamma Island wasn't happening, but I sold Matt on a family trip to the Chinese doctor. It wasn't quite as cool as we were hoping. Our neighborhood is full of traditional herbal medicine shops: small, dark rooms lined with jars of dried things. There's generally an old man behind the counter, a couple of old men sitting on stools, and often a cat strolling around. We figured they wouldn't speak English, but we thought gestures would work for our symptoms. (I wasn't quite sure how to convey that I'm still breastfeeding, at least in a way that would preserve some measure of dignity ... ) No such luck, though. Our insurance, apparently, likes the "modern" traditional chinese medicine. The office was very clean and clinical. We spoke with a doctor, describing our symptoms, then she felt our pulse and looked at our throats. That was it. She even spoke English, so our planned theatrics weren't necessary (though Matt did cough up some phlegm to show her how thick and yellow it was!). We left with packets of "the chinese medicine" (that's what they called it: "you will drink the chinese medicine twice a day", "mix the chinese medicine with lukewarm water"), and we've been drinking it ever since. It's not bad tasting, though not good tasting either. And did it work? Well, like I said, I think we're all better now. So maybe it helped. Or maybe it just ran its course. 

4. Hong Kong is now in full-gear getting ready for Chinese New Year. Red decorations are sold everywhere--paper lanterns, streamers, banners, envelopes for gift-giving, lacquer trays. Stores are having sales for the CNY, and even Ikea has signs up everywhere telling you the last possible order day to get your furniture delivered in time for CNY.  It's kind of nice--relieves the post-holiday let down, because the big one is yet to come. Even Matt's return to school is made easier by the knowledge that in just three weeks, he gets another week off, to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

 5. And finally, with the passing of 2008--what a year it's been!--we are filled with hope and curiosity as we look forward to 2009. I wouldn't mind fewer major life changes, but on the other hand, all the newness kept us observing, watching, anticipating, feeling and truly living every day. It's one of the first years that I haven't said "wow, I can't believe it's already xxxx. Last year went so fast." I don't want to lose that energy, the keen awareness of moment-by-moment life. 

And yes, there is uncertainty ahead. (Got our end-of-the-year IRA statements the other day, and boy am I glad we're only 30!) But this morning at church we were reminded that our security  doesn't come from IRAs or the stock market or good jobs or even from the excitement of a new president. Our security is only from God, and even that doesn't mean that we're protected from bad things.  It just means that no matter what, God will be with us, and we will never be left alone.                 

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and grow weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. "

Isaiah 40: 28-31 

Next up I'll post some updated pictures of Finn, along with a few short videos, that I'm now free to share since everyone has gotten their Christmas packages. Blessings to you and yours for 2009.  I pray for all of us that it is a year of learning, giving, growing and laughing.