A Year of Asian Cinema: 1, 2

We've committed ourselves to watching Asian movies this year ... because they are readily available on every block, because there are thriving film industries in Hong Kong, India and Japan, and because we'd like to delve a bit more deeply into this place we're living.

I'm going to chronicle the movies we watch here on this blog. Film reviews aren't nearly as interesting to me as restaurant reviews and book reviews, but I at least want a record of what we watch and what we like. So here goes.

  • Departures, directed by Yojira Takita, 2009

  • Viewed on a rainy Sunday night, August 30, 2009

  • In Japanese, with English subtitles

Filled with lovely music and beautiful images, this film satisfied on many levels. An out-of-work cellist returns with his wife to his hometown and the house his mother left him. He begins to work in a funeral home, helping to prepare the dead for burial, and helping the living to grieve. It's not popular or respected work, but he grows to see it as something of a ministry. The movie is a bit predictable, but even as you know where it is going, you don't want it to go anywhere else. A certain Japanese quirkiness and humor keep it light, and themes of the nature and purpose of work, and what makes work meaningful, resonate with us right now. Just lovely.

  • The Way We Are, directed by Xu Anhua, 2008

  • Viewed Sunday night, September 7, 2009

  • In Cantonese, with English subtitles

Sweet, subtle, and maybe a bit slow, The Way We Are portrays a friendship between two women of different generations who work in a supermarket, each alone in her own way. (The slowness is fine with me, since it allows me to knit, even with subtitles!). Their friendship is evidence of what Bobby Ives says about people---every person you meet has something they need from you, and has something to give you. For us it was an insightful, detailed glimpse into the everyday lives of real Hong Kongers, and we loved recognizing the scenes we've observed right on our street. The younger woman of the pair reminds us of our favorite doorkeeper, but I think we would have gotten attached to both women even without that. More complex than it seemed at first, the movie deals with themes of family, religion, and the intense human need for someone to love. The Way We Are doesn't make any simplistic moral judgements---being poor and hardworking doesn't necessarily make one more happy or more righteous than a wealthy person, but neither is the opposite true.


Moving ...

We're 10 suitcase-loads, 4 backpack-loads and 6 tote-bag loads in, and that covers all the books except for a few of Finn's, most of the clothes, most of the toys, and 3/4 of the kitchen stuff.

I've had this crazy idea to move without boxes, and that's basically what we've done. What I find so tiring about a move is all the days spent surrounded by boxes upon boxes, on both the front and the back ends. So since we had a week of overlap between the two apartments, and since it's really quite close--a short and cheap cab ride--what if we just shuttled suitcase loads back and forth, putting stuff away as we unloaded it? It's working so far, in large part because the new place is furnished, so even before we move our furniture there are shelves and drawers to contain what we bring.

It's a lot of work, to be sure, but I'm thinking it's a bit saner overall. Basically Matt takes a load over on his way to school, then Finn and I bring another load later in the day. We then unload and put away the day's delivery, and take the empties back home. We still get to go for walks, go to the pool, eat dinner at home, watch movies, AND we're not tripping over boxes!

I have, of course, primarily spent the week feeling nostalgic and sad about leaving this flat, despite my initial misgivings last year. I'm always sad to leave a place I've lived in, no matter how short a time, and no matter how much (or little) I liked it. If I've lived there, then things have happened there--I've felt feelings, imagined futures, eaten meals, laughed and cried. Books and recipes get imbued with the place in which I read them or cook them, and when I return to those books or those meals, details and senses from that place come flooding back.

And so it is here: Swedish pancakes will forever remind me of learning to cook in our wok, Finn has learned to crawl, to stand, to speak here, Obama was elected here, and The Wire is for me as much about dumplings on our tiny bed in Hong Kong as about gangs in west Baltimore.

It's our last day here, so you'll have to forgive a bit of sentimentality, as I think about all the things I will miss about this place. Generally it's the little things, the physical details that take time to get noticed, that linger longest. Things like:

  • Lovely evening light on our terrace

  • A well-lit kitchen--pleasant enough for late-night wash-up, bright enough for chopping.

  • A well-lit bathroom--pleasant enough for mirror close-ups, bright enough for reading in the tub.

  • Kitchen cupboards that open to reveal sunny yellow interiors.

  • The cleaning pleasures of built-in beds--no dust bunnies under or around.

And then we come to things I'll miss about our building. We've been a bit embarrassed at times about how luxurious this building is, and though we haven't lived here long enough that we need these luxuries, we sure will miss them.

  • Regular night swims after dinner. My summers in Canada and years in New England taught me to love swimming in lakes, ponds and rivers, and even to disdain (a little) chlorine. But swimming at night, with underwater lights in a variegated green-tiled pool, is simply lovely.

  • Decorations for every holiday and every season. Right now, there are lanterns galore for Mid-Autumn festival. The decor is mostly tasteful and a little tacky, but always cheerful. As one who thrives on rhythms, routines and traditions, I love living in a place that decorates.

  • And lastly, our wonderful doormen and women. Leaving them just about breaks my heart, as ridiculous as that is, given that I only know the name of one of them, and he, likewise, only knows Matt's and Finn's names, but not mine. They are, nonetheless, chief members of the small club of people that Finn knows on sight and runs to greet. They are the closest thing we have to neighbors--people who see us everyday, and probably know more about us and our lives than we realize. Some days last fall, their smiles and small talk were the only contact I had outside of my family, and I took refuge in their kindness. (And just to be clear, this small talk generally consisted of only a very few words: "raining," "going shopping?" "swimming?" "hot," "very hot," and most often, "oh, good boy" or "very good boy").

Right now I am taking refuge in knowing that as surely as I feel sad today, I will feel sad when it comes time to leave our new home. New lovely details will give our days beauty, new scents and sights will mean "home," and new neighbors will delight in Finn's smile and commiserate with us about the weather. Goodbye, flat 18E, 632 King's Road. We pray that some of our happiness here has seeped into the walls and will bless whoever sleeps here next.


Health Care: a view from Hong Kong

I know everyone is talking about health care reform these days, and while I'm sure you can guess that I strong opinions on this, I'm going to save those for another day. Instead, I just want to offer a few observations from Hong Kong, which has both a public and a private health care system.

When Matt was in the negotiating stage for this teaching job, I was still pregnant. We asked to look at the insurance policy, wanting to understand the health care we would have here. We were told it was a very good policy, but we were shocked when we read that it didn't cover well-baby visits, vaccinations, maternity care, or any services for congenital health problems. We decided to accept the job anyway, but with the private caveat that if Finn was born with any health problems, we simply wouldn't go, since insurance wouldn't cover it.

And then we got here, and I was asked the very first week by a fellow teacher's wife if we decided to get the insurance coverage for Finn and myself. (The employee is fully paid for, we contribute for the family coverage.) I truly thought it was a silly question and said "Of course," wondering what kind of irresponsible mum this was.

And she, on the other hand, a Chinese-Brit, with Chinese frugality and the experience of the NHS, thought that I was the irresponsible one, paying for expensive coverage I may or may not need, when the government offered more-than-adequate care for free.

What a wake up call! I knew, of course, intellectually, that other countries have other ways of providing health care. I knew that other countries offered universal coverage. But the idea of needing insurance in order to get health care is so deeply ingrained in me that when making decisions for our family, I couldn't imagine anything different.

And not until last spring did I understand that, in many instances, the public health care offered is actually better than private. The reason that insurance doesn't cover congenital health problems is that if you have any complications with your pregnancy or delivery, and if the baby is born with any problems, you are automatically transferred to the public system. That's where the best equipment is, the latest technology, and the best specialist doctors.

We were told last year that we should choose which hospital we would want to go to in the event of an emergency, as the ambulance drivers won't choose for you. And when we asked around for advice, we were told consistently that for an emergency--any kind--the public hospitals are where we would want to be.

As far as I can tell, the major difference between private and public care--besides cost, of course--is comfort. In private hospitals you pay at different levels for a shared room or a private one. The food is better. Visiting hours are longer. You may or may not get better nursing care. In public hospitals, you pay virtually nothing for a ward room, then you can pay for shared rooms or private ones.

Comfort is not an insignificant issue, of course. And I'm not in love with health care here, but it's due to cultural issues rather than quality, and all of our experiences thus far have been with the private system. We don't plan to have a baby here because many of the attitudes around birth and support for breastfeeding aren't what we want--but that's true in both public and private settings. When asking women who have given birth in the hospitals here---public or private---about their experience, a common response is "Oh, it was fine. I was able to get an epidural right away." (!)

I would love to find out the cost comparison between health care in the two systems--not the out of pocket cost, or what the insurance pays, but the cost of the health care itself. What relationship does cost have to quality? And how do we decide what "quality" is?  I guess those are questions, aren't they ...

We're about to begin our foray into the public system. Tomorrow Finn will have his 18-mo check-up and vaccines at the Anne Black Maternal and Child Health Clinic, right here in North Point. So far, getting an appointment was painless and quick (called Monday, appt. set for Wednesday.) I've heard that the developmental checks are longer and more thorough at the gov't clinics than with private doctors--I'll let you know.

update: The appt. today was fine, with a much more thorough development check--felt like the well-baby visits we had back home. The entire visit was much more "specialized"--there are designated nurses (and rooms) for the measurements, the interview (this is the developmental part, with a nurse), the consultation (this is the physical exam by the doctor), and the vaccines (they call it The Injection Room). Of course, there is a bit of a wait in between seeing all these folks--the entire visit was 2 hours, and I estimate that we were seeing someone for 1 hour of that time, and waiting the other hour.

Contrast that with our visits to the private doctors: Probably only 45 minutes total, but only 15 minutes seeing someone, the rest waiting.


Tai Hang

Last week I picked up a copy of HK Magazine--one of those free, urban weeklies--and found that our new neighborhood, Tai Hang, was featured. This was both good news and bad news. Mostly, it was fun to realize that we still have our cool-neighborhood-instincts. We stumbled onto Tai Hang last year and fell in love, knowing very little about it but instantly attracted to its feel, and to its "unknown" status.

So that's the bad news--not so unknown after all! Why is it that we like to think we've discovered something, like to think our ideas, leanings, attractions and desires are completely unique? It's humbling to remember that we really are products of our generation, that as counter-cultural as we think we are, we are very much living in this time.

Humbling, yes, but ultimately reassuring too---sharing these things just locates us firmly as part of a community. So we're still very much looking forward to exploring Tai Hang and claiming it as ours---for a time---even if we're doing it with lots of other Hong Kongers. (The counter-cultural ones, of course, the ones who also think they've discovered something. I'll pretend I don't notice you if you do the same ... and how about a secret handshake if you'd like to meet up for coffee?)

night view

the view from our (old, current) apartment ... could anything really be hidden or "unknown" in this city?