Saturday wanderings ...

Ever since our glorious Saturday two weeks ago, hiking Lamma Island, Matt and I have renewed our commitment to spend Saturdays getting out of Hong Kong and exploring the myriad islands, country parks, and fishing villages that make up this SAR (special administrative region). 

This past Saturday the plan was to explore Cheung Chau, a small, bone-shaped island home to noticeably cleaner air (thanks to the lack of motorized vehicles), a bun festival (along with 60-foot towers made of buns and bun-tower-climbing competitions, no less), and this sweet little cafe.  But alas, a week of rain with thunderstorms forecast forced us to reconsider and we ended up at the Art Museum across the harbor and the YMCA buffet lunch--not a bad trade by any measure, especially considering we still got a ferry ride.

I have to admit the trip to the Art Museum was done with somewhat of a sense of obligation, as if it was something we needed to cross off our list and get over with. Chinese antiquities have just never been my thing, nor the landscape paintings so typical of Chinese art. Not knowing what it would be like to have along a 12-month-old only added to the hesitation, though admittedly Finn gave us every reason to walk quickly through the galleries.

But as it turned out, we regretted having to move so quickly, finding plenty of beauty to feed our souls and plenty of provocation to stir up our brains. Some highlights:

--a special exhibit of Ding Yanyong. His calligraphy was breath-taking, and we really loved the playful one-stroke paintings of animals.  (the cat on the exhibit poster is an example of this.)

--an exhibit of The New Literati, Chinese painters from the 1990's. The paintings were so narrative, they captured our imaginations and fairly begged us to spin out stories for them. Not to mention that the guard in this gallery fell in love with Finn, and in fact took him in her arms, showing him off to the other guards, allowing us to enjoy the paintings in peace.

--an interactive exhibit of new Hong Kong artists, with plenty for Finn to touch, hear and watch. Our favorites were a living room set (sofa, coffeetable and bookshelf) that turn into a coffin, and a collection of mail boxes, with recordings inside of the neighborhood sounds from which the boxes were taken.

for the living ... 
For the living ...

and the dead. 
For the dead.

the retro mail-boxes. aren't they cool? 
I want to find one for my wall!

 After lunch we met our friend Tuan at the Y for a buffet lunch.  At last, experiencing one of Hong Kong's famous buffets, in a more affordable venue than the next-door Peninsula Hotel, with the same view (or the same lack of view, considering how foggy the harbor was.) (And actually, I have, rather accidentally, experienced one of these buffets before. Early last fall, I was invited to tea with some other mums, and I naively thought we'd be going to Starbucks. Instead, we ended up at the Hyatt for their string-quartet-accompanied afternoon tea buffet. It was gorgeous and lovely and elegant and I tried to eat as much as I could while still playing it cool, as if spending $300 HK on tea were perfectly normal for me ...)       

 The highlight of the evening was finding this lovely little cafe--Afterschool--the type of artsy, quirky spot we feared didn't exist here in ultra-modern, materialist Hong Kong. Not that there aren't plenty of lovely places, but they all tend to have matching furniture and perfect light fixtures and are beautiful in a new, well-designed way. But this place had old, scratched wood floors, discarded flip-top school desks for furniture, and even a table made out of an old door. With no street-level sign, the place felt private and totally anachronistic in the middle of Causeway Bay, HK's shopping district. When we first got there, they told us that they'd be turning off the lights at 8:30 in order to participate in the worldwide Earth Hour. Though I was so heartened that someone in HK was participating, I did wonder how we would be able to play cards, journal or read, the intended activities of the night. We needn't have worried--we hardly even noticed when they turned out the lights, since SO MUCH spilled though from the street.  Afterschool truly was a beacon, or in this case, an anti-beacon, in the night.

The only signage.

Nice picture, huh?  Matt took it.

Aah, Swarvoski. The only thing missing from our night was a stop in that venerable institution.  oh wait, I mean ...


On blogging

I'm still trying to get my head around this whole blogging thing. For many years I have dismissed blogs as something for people who are either a. entirely narcissistic or b. without a life. I mean really--to be a vibrant part of a blogging community--updating regularly with witty and charming posts, laced with beautiful photos, and to be reading and commenting on other people's similarly gorgeous blogs--how much time does that take? And who has that time? Aren't real life relationships and real life events way more important than blog-gy ones? 

But then I became a stay-at-home-mom, and I moved to a new country where I knew no one, and my entire community was one I maintained online, and, well, I started a blog. And it's been fun. So even though we now have a Hong Kong community of sorts, I'm still blogging, using it to document our days, both for us and for those at home. The downside, of course, is that I'm not journaling or writing letters nearly as often as I used to, and I do wonder if the fact that now most of my journaling is public impacts how I process my life. (as a sidenote, I'm considering starting a new blog, to blog the lectionary, writing weekly reflections on the week's lessons. Not as a pastor or a seminarian or a theologian, because I am none of those things, but as a baker, a mama, a 30-year old woman living in a new country. This is basically what I do for Augsburg, and I love it. We'll see ... may be a bit more discipline than I'm up for ...)  

But--I am blown away by the community that exists out there among bloggers--particularly among certain communities of bloggers. Admittedly the blogs I frequent--those dealing with crafts, food or parenting--are primarily written and read by women who hold similar passions, and so is it any wonder that communities form?   

I know that many people are skeptical of online communities, and see the internet and computers mainly as a way of withdrawing from the world. And I get that, I do. I know of too many marriages that have been harmed by internet pornography to ignore that reality, and the numbers of people who gave up facebook for lent only testify to its addictive possibilities. But for so many of us, the internet is not the way we hide from the world, it's how we engage the world. The computer is now the center of all media in our lives in a way totally different than even one year ago--it's where we read the paper, listen to the radio, listen to music, organize our photos and videos, write letters, talk on the phone and otherwise keep in touch with family. It's where we research, shop, look up recipes, watch tv and watch movies. 

It's not that I don't have my qualms about this state of affairs. Not only do I wonder how my processing and reflection is different when done primarily in a public format, I also wonder how my newsgathering is different when I just click on the stories that interest me and easily ignore the rest. And I wonder mostly how all this time spent on a computer is going to impact Finn's life, and the lives of all children growing up today. I don't necessarily think it's going to be bad, and it certainly makes living in far away countries or remote areas a much more feasible option for us, but it is certainly something I'm trying to be mindful of. We've always been a family that limited "screen time" and planned to raise our kids without a TV. But when you can watch tv without a tv, and when the computer is the phone, dvd player, stereo, library, and archival system all rolled into one, it gets more complicated. I'd love to hear from other parents out there about how they are navigating computer use in front of and by their kids--not so much what "rules" you may have, but the guiding philosophies. 

PS--I just read a post about how to have a successful (read: popular) blog, and the primary advice was to break up the text with pictures. Good ones, theoretically. So I tried to take a picture of the sesame croissant and jar of Nutella my dear husband put out for me tonight, to help me get through the final push of editing on my Augsburg project. But since I am the kind of person who gives not one fig about settings or lighting, the pictures sucked. You'll just have to imagine how good it was. It was really good--so good, in fact, that even after I finished that dreary task, I came on over here, to write a little bit more for you, dear reader ...


just have to say ...

...that I made the most disgusting looking salad of my life tonight. Taste was great, but looks .... well, it's a good thing no one was coming over for dinner. We were having a Japanese-inspired meal, and so I wanted a simple sesame dressing for the salad. The only sesame in the house, though, was this black sesame paste that is vaguely sweet and hugely popular here. (We're talking PITCH black--every time I open it I remember those days of trying to make black icing for the Halloween cookies in the fall catalog at King Arthur. I was always amazed, and a little disgusted, by how much dye it takes to get icing that black... and really all we needed was this sesame paste.)

So I added some water to thin it out, and some minced ginger, a little rice vinegar, and a little miso. Great. Done. On to the salad. Did it cross my mind at all how this pitch black dressing would look on our beautiful greens? Nope. (And the greens, I must say, are from our farm and are so beautiful. Did you hear that? Our farm! Yes, even here in Hong Kong we managed to find a CSA, and they deliver to our door once a week a bag of the most beautiful, tasty vegetables. Watercress is now in season and it just perks up a salad so nicely ...) I didn't even notice it when I drizzled the dressing atop the greens, cucumber and tomatoes. Not until Matt came to the table and commented on the camouflage salad we were eating did I realize how odd the whole thing looked, and how much, indeed, it looked like camouflage. Stirring it in didn't help--just made the whole thing look really muddy. The great unwashed, Matt called it, a phrase he usually reserves for his sophomores. Oh well, food stylists have to know all sorts of tricks, and maybe someday knowing how to make a camouflage salad will come in handy (and now I even know how to spell it, too!)


A great day ...

update: I fixed that link to the waffle post.  Thanks to those who pointed it out. 

What a great day we had yesterday ... the sort of day that made us both sigh in contentment and say, "this is why we moved to Hong Kong." We have lots of days where all we want is to listen to "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" or "Prairie Home Companion" or "This American Life," get out into the countryside, and then have a picnic with good bread, some smoked cheddar and apples.  In other words, replicate exactly our New England life.  And a huge part of what we loved in our Macau vacation last fall?  It didn't feel like Asia.  

But yesterday, we invested a little time and money into being exactly where we are, and we loved it. We started off taking a "Local foods walking tour" through the YWCA.  We've been wanting to sign up for one of these ever since we moved here, but the times just never worked out.  Even though we're pretty adventurous when it comes to food, there's enough food here to be squeamish about that in the absence of English menus or English-speaking waitstaff, we stay away from certain joints.  No longer.  The tour was great--we visited a congee house (congee is a thin rice porridge with various savory toppings. Quite comforting and perfect baby food--Finn loved it), a tea house, a dai pai dong, a street food stall, a vegetarian bakery, and a dessert place. The tour guide was a guy about our age who had grown up here in Hong Kong and attended the school where Matt teaches.  We asked him tons of questions about things we've seen, how to order various items, what characters to look for in order to recognize what a place sells, and learned some useful phrases.  

A few interesting nuggets: 

--The tea houses want to sell tea, obviously enough.  But the good news for us is that they gladly offer samples of anything you might want to buy.  And since some of these teas can run upwards of $7800 HK ($1000 US), this is a good thing. Traditionally, you could buy your tea and then take it to the dim sum shop, where they would store it for you, and prepare it when you came to eat.

--Dai pai dongs are the temporary, covered restaurants found on many streets.  But there aren't many "real" ones left anymore--the government issued licenses to families to run these places after the war, as recompense for losing loved ones. But the licenses had to be handed down through the family, and they don't issue new ones.  So slowly, these licenses are just being lost and places are closing.  We had dim sum at the place we visited, and all of the food items we had tried before, but the drinks! We didn't know what a variety of drinks were on offer--the ubiquitous milk tea, of course (tea with evaporated milk), but also tea and coffee mixed, hot ginger Coke with lemon, cream soda and milk, salty 7up, lemon tea, lemon coke, etc ...   Apparently this is where they make most of their money.  The hot ginger coke was great, and would be a perfect cure for an upset stomach or a little cold. At the end of the meal, a little man comes over to the table with a calculator, and starts adding up the number of plates and cups to determine the bill. Our table was quite covered with dishes, and we had wondered why they hadn't taken some away as we finished them ... but aha.  Now we understood.

--I learned that a wide white thing that I had thought looked vaguely intestinal, or perhaps like some strange seafood, and therefore avoided, is actually a rice noodle called "cheung fun."  This noodle is sold at our favorite take out stand, and since I quite enjoyed it, I'm glad to be able to get it from now on.

--The dessert place we went to is one we visit quite frequently, to get mango and coconut juice, or mango pudding with mixed fruit.  But there are a number of traditional Chinese desserts we've avoided, mainly because we really didn't know what they were.  Things like bird's nest mango pudding--is this a real bird's nest, like in the soup?  Or is it just made to resemble bird's nest? (It's the real thing.) And mango juice with harsmar? This is listed on the menu right before the juice with sago (like tapioca) and juice with glutinous rice balls, so is it just some other form of "bubble" ? (Nope, or maybe yes, depending on how you look at it.  Harsmar are frog ovaries, and are supposed to be good for you.) Turtle soup is also on the menu, along with various preparations of red beans.  I think I'll stick with mango and coconut juice, thank you.

After this amazing food tour, we realized we were in the neighborhood where Matt had been told by a student that he might be able to find a "gai dan sai" maker (the Hong Kong waffle which has stolen his heart. See here for more.) She had said it would be "obvious" what stores to go into, and sure enough, there are blocks of restaurant supply stores here, all carrying a variety of gai dan sai makers. So it's back to our local waffle stand for us, to observe what they use. It's amazing to me 1. how restaurant supply stores are the same all over the world (or at least, in the US, Montreal, Oxford and Hong Kong) and 2. how much I love them!  

Our evening was spent watching a bilingual production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Matt's school.  It was phenomenal.  The school itself is bilingual, with the goal of students being fluent in both Mandarin and English by graduation. Of course this goal is only partially realized, and the reality of what bilingual education looks like, particularly in secondary classrooms, is still being worked out. But these plays, with certain parts translated into Chinese and some parts into a patois of "Chinglish" are just plain fun and impressive on many levels.  We spoke with a Chinese teacher on the way home from the play who said the Chinese itself had been translated very well--maintaining the poetry and lightness of a midsummer night. Both the acting and the direction were clearly executed with the goal of helping those of us who know no Chinese to keep up with what was going on (and knowing the play helped here, of course). The gal who played Nick Bottom just took our breath away--we laughed until we cried, even though a good number of her lines were in Chinese. That's good acting.   

To conclude this perfect Hong Kong day, we went to a new little hot pot place (new to us, that is) in our neighborhood for an after-theater dinner.  Called "Little Fat Cow," this place could easily turn us into little fat cows. You choose the broth (two, in our case, a simple ginger-tofu-cabbage broth and a fire-y Szechuan broth) which sits on a hot plate in the middle of the table, simmering away.  Then order items to cook in the broth: thinly sliced angus beef, seafood, corn on the cob, greens, mushrooms, dumplings, wontons, noodles, etc.

They bring it all out, along with myriad sauces and accompaniments, including salted peanuts, pickled onions, wasabi, soy sauce, fried garlic, scallions, and hot peppers. It's all so good, it's hard to eat slowly, even though it is clearly a meal for savoring. We ordered their beer special--3 large (640 ml) bottles of Asahi  beer for just $20 HK (which is about $2.50 US, making each bottle 80-something cents.  Why is it that we enjoy it more once we calculate exactly how cheap it is?) And whenever our glasses ran low, Asahi-Girl was to the rescue, opening another bottle from our bucket and filling up those glasses. She had on a cute blue outfit, with silver boots and "Asahi" on her shirt, and really did look like a superhero. The whole meal cost $184 HK, and we were more than satiated.

I know that we'll still have those cravings for our New England life and American comforts from time to time, but "Prairie Home Companion" and smoked cheddar be damned, we've got hot ginger coke and Little Fat Cow.


March notes ...

No, I haven't given up blogging for Lent. It's just that my parents have been here for almost two weeks, and any spare time I had was spent working on tasks that were actually going to result in something: dinner on the table, a completed article for Augsburg, etc. 

But what a momentous few weeks it has been!  Most momentously, little Finn turned one.  (We're trying to teach him to hold up his finger when we ask how old he is, but he just wants to touch his finger to ours, ET-phone-home style.) Admittedly this is a celebration as much for the family as for the kid, but it was still fun--and important--to mark the day. Some new friends from our church had a little party for Finn with other babies and moms, and then we celebrated at night with the family. Finn was surprisingly not that interested in tearing off the wrapping paper, but he was pretty excited by his gifts--a dump truck shape sorter, a walker, a lift-the-flap book, a stuffed frog that has perfect legs for gripping, and a shiny stuffed astronaut. Oh, and Cherrios.  Probably the most exciting gift of all--now that he's one, there are all sorts of new foods available to him, and Cherrios certainly tops the list. 

[caption id="attachment_332" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Finn and Jack at Finn's party. The hats stayed on for all of 30 seconds. "]Finn and Jack at Finn's party.  The hats stayed on for all of 30 seconds. [/caption]


[caption id="attachment_333" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Finn helping grandpa unwrap presents--or is it the other way around? "]Finn helping grandpa unwrap presents--or is it the other way around?  [/caption]

[caption id="attachment_334" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Showing off the nice arrangement of presents "]Showing off the nice arrangement of presents [/caption]


[caption id="attachment_335" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="Presents are fun! "]Presents are fun! [/caption]


[caption id="attachment_336" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="not quite sure what I'm doing, but I like all this applause ..."]not quite sure what I'm doing, but I like all this applause ...  [/caption]

 He's laughing more and more these days, even with strangers. (Today on the bus, he was flirting with the woman sitting behind us, playing peekaboo and smiling like crazy.  She was on the phone, and whenever she would laugh as part of her conversation, Finn would pop up and laugh too. Very cute ...)  Of course, he's also crying more, at night anyway. Our little guy who has slept through the night since about week 6 has suddenly realized that other babies get attention and food in the middle of the night, and he's trying to get in on the fun.  I guess we need to watch who he hangs out with more closely--make sure they don't tell him about other crazy things that babies do.

[caption id="attachment_337" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="He loves to stand."]He loves to stand.[/caption]

It was wonderful having my folks here, on a lot of levels. Great just to be out of the routine a little bit, doing special things and visiting new places. Fun and affirming for me to share the funny moments of Finn's and my days, laughing together over an expression, cheering him on together as he climbed a new slide or took some steps with the walker. Isn't there a poem or a line somewhere about "laughter is twice laughter when it's shared"?  Special for my parents to revisit this place they lived in 35-some-odd years ago, and for us to hear more stories of that time. (This summer we're going to dig out the letters and tapes my parents sent home from two years here--it will be so interesting to compare their impressions and experiences with ours.) 

[caption id="attachment_342" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Out for dinner, at a place my parents ate at when they lived here! They think the waiters are all the same ..."]Out for dinner, at a place my parents ate at when they lived here! They think the waiters are all the same ... [/caption]

The other momentous event--spring has officially come to Hong Kong (according to me)! Disregarding the calendar completely--Chinese New Year is kind of the start of spring, with all the flowers and bulbs and blooming branches. But last Saturday we had weather that *felt* like spring--sunny, in the 60's, the earth smelling fresh and a little muddy, and there was just something about the light. We took the ferry over to Lamma Island and hiked from one side to the other, marvelling in the blue-green water and the views of Hong Kong and Lantau.  We then finished with a delicious meal of lamb kebabs, Turkish pizza and fresh lemonade, and Finn had his first taste of lamb. It was glorious.

[caption id="attachment_340" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="See that light? "]See that light?  [/caption]


[caption id="attachment_341" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="Trying lamb with grandma."]Trying lamb with grandma. [/caption]

Oh, yeah--I meant to mention Finn's birthday cake.  I always assumed, being a baker and a believer in things homemade, that I would make Finn's birthdays cakes. I had even starting planning that a panda bear cake would be very cute for a little boy turning one in Hong Kong. But the reality of finding pans that fit our counter-top oven, baking the cake one layer at a time, in very uneven heat, and making frosting without a mixer finally convinced me that of all years to buy a cake, this was it. And what a place to buy a cake--Hong Kong bakeries may make horrible, sweet, mushy bread with no substance whatsoever, but the cakes are gorgeous. Many a time have I stood in a bakery window and ogled the beautiful glazed fruit that tops most cakes here. I'd never tasted a Hong Kong cake, but I've had my eye on this mango-covered number ever since we got here, and seeing as how Finn is fan of mango, it seemed like the perfect time to try it out. And it was good. Not the best cake I've ever had in my life, but certainly tasty. It was sponge cake, so lighter than the butter cakes most of us are used to, and the frosting was lighter and  less sweet as well. Of course, the mango topping was luscious--I'm determined to practice cutting mangoes into slices like that. And the most importantly --Finn liked it.  


[caption id="attachment_343" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Isn't that gorgeous? "]Isn't that gorgeous? [/caption]


[caption id="attachment_346" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Trying it out ... "]Trying it out ... [/caption]

[caption id="attachment_347" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="Yup, it's good! "]Yup, it's good! [/caption]