It's official. It's happening. We're really leaving. As if all the farewells and parties and the constant lump in the back of my throat weren't enough to convince me, now I know it's true. They came yesterday to take away the boxes, others come today to pick up donations and freebies, and then on Friday morning they will take away our keys. And we will pay the taxi fare with our last bits of Hong Kong cash, we will pass through immigration with our Hong Kong identity cards for the last time, and we will board a plane.
All these "lasts" are killing me. Really now, to choke up over the last time I wash the mugs we've drunk tea out of for three years, the last time I fold Finn's bright red sheet? --(all of which are getting donated.) It's silly, I know, to get so attached to physical things, but attached I do. These items hold memories for me so profoundly that I have to remind myself over and over that letting go of the object doesn't mean letting go of the memory.
I have been a mess of mixed-up emotions for weeks now--sometimes (surprisingly) fighting panic as I think about leaving here and returning to the states. The panic stems in part, I'm sure, from all the newness, all the transitions facing our little family in the next few months. But in rereading early blog posts, I found something that explains it even more. You see, we talked a lot about this move (to Hong Kong) as a chance to step off the escalator (ironic, I know, given the blog's name.)
Despite the fast pace and direction of Hong Kong culture, it very much was a slow-down time for us. We took a sabbatical from any volunteer commitments, and simply tended to our child, ourselves, our discovery of a new city and culture, and our own thoughts. It was a chance to think and discern and figure out our life's direction, and it was wonderful. We have learned so very much about other people and other ways of doing things (parenting, teaching, living) and so very much about ourselves. And slowly, slowly, a dream has emerged for us. A sense of call--though it's scary to name it as such. A life vision.
And so going back to America? Yes, there is excitement about all the good things awaiting us--family, a yard, a new community, an oven. (An oven!) And yes, there is excitement about starting real work on our dream. But there's also that panicky anxiety about stepping back on the proverbial escalator. Will we just get so caught up in everyday life that we stop noticing the beauty around us? Will we still have the luxury of so much time together? Will we stop thinking and talking about our dream once we have to change the oil in the car and vacuum a whole house and mow the lawn?
Part of this has to do with the difference between living somewhere temporarily and living there on a long-term basis. When you are temporary, you notice more, you see all the strange and wonderful things, and when you get into a rut (as we all do)--there's always something to shake you out of it. Some new island to hike, a new restaurant to discover, a new street to explore. But while you may make friends quickly, you also don't engage on quite the same level. It was easy to not volunteer, to not seek out opportunities, knowing our time was short.
 And though I feel a pull towards the depth of knowing a place (not just noticing it) and of involving myself with people and putting effort into issues that matter to me, I'm frightened, too. I'm frightened of the time it will take, frightened by the barrage of volunteer requests that come from joining an organization. A little frightened of boredom, knowing that we hope to stay in Ohio a good long time.
So all of that is very real, yes. But mostly right now we feel confident that we are making the right move, at peace with the transitions required, so very grateful for our time and lives here, and profound sadness at leaving. This is Willa's first home, after all. And where Finn has lived most of his life. My mama friends here have helped me grow into motherhood, have prayed with me when things were tough and celebrated the little victories with me too. So I expect that little lump will be with me for a few more days yet. And that's ok. As someone once told me, feeling sad about leaving just means you lived well there. And that we have.


HK Alphabet :: T :: Tea-drinker, tailor, trams go by ...

T :: Tea
Our first year here, I found myself in an enormous, industrial-sized lift, going up to the 12th floor of an old factory building on Shipyard Lane. Next to a noisily functioning printing press, I found an oasis of beauty and quiet, all dedicated to the art of tea. I was at the time--and still am--a tea amateur, knowing very little about what makes for artisan-quality tea.
(photo by Chip Smith, my brother!)
And yet, I have become sufficiently enamored with the process of brewing and enjoying tea, Chinese-style, and I have enough respect for anyone with this much dedication and passion for a gustatory pleasure, that I was instantly in love. Vivian, the owner of said oasis (Ming Cha teahouse), trained as an artist in Chicago and lived there for awhile before coming back and pouring all that training into the harvesting and sharing of good tea. And now, hers is the first tea to be included in a Slow Food Convention in Italy.
I drank tea with her, and we talked. I eventually took a class, learning how to taste and evaluate the aroma, color and flavor of tea. I learned about monkey-pick tea (it's a myth) and discussed the pairing of chocolate and tea. We even discussed my making pastries for the tea shop, paired to match the teas. (Which would have been great, but the logistics just never worked out.) 
And while I'm glad for the knowledge--what little of it I've retained--it is still, for us, all about the simple pleasure of making and sipping tea. We have a favorite tea house, and the gentle, calming rituals of the servers never fails to soothe. It's the attention to small details that is so comforting, I think--the precise temperature of water, of cup, of tea; the washing and rinsing of the tea leaves, of the cups and the pots; the abundant pouring of water ("filled to the brim and even over the brim"). And then, of course, the tiny cups, so that all that work and attention is magnified instead of lost, as it would be in a mug. The whole process focuses and magnifies our attention as well, so that it is impossible to continue in a conversation or send a text or even read. It is, quite simply, a wonderful way of being together with another person--the pouring, steeping and sipping of tea. 

T :: Tailor
Hong Kong is famous for its tailors, particularly for men, and many advertising the famous 24-hour suit. Even though having a suit made is considered a "must-do" for tourists of a certain stripe, it's something the locals do as well. We've sent visitors out to experience it before, but we've only just now gotten around to doing it ourselves, since Matt will be sporting a coat and tie daily in his new job.
He tried both the tourist version (pricy, good English, comfortable storefront and ample discussion of the options) and the local version (minimal English, little discussion, hidden away and cramped storeroom, much less expensive.) We don't know the final results yet for the suit and jackets, but Matt is a convert on the shirts. Even though it's no less expensive than buying shirts off-the-rack, I'm not sure he'll be able to go back. No matter, since a feature of all these tailors is that they retain your measurements indefinitely, allowing you to call and order more to be shipped overseas. Some even take worldwide "tours"--stopping in New York and Paris and Rome--for measurements to be updated. Which means that I think we have future presents for Matt all sewn up.

T :: trams
The tram is yet one more slow form of travel in Hong Kong that we love, particularly for all it's anachronisms: the little bell, the wood, the slow, slow pace, and the low, low price. It's easy and direct, though, and if you can ignore the fumes from all the traffic below, it's a very pleasant way to see the city.

T :: 23
I know, I know, "T" has been epic. Enough already, huh? But I need to give at least a slight nod to the 23, our favorite busline in all of Hong Kong, the one that has shuttled us back and forth to church, to HK Park, to friends' homes in the mid-levels, and to all those baby classes Finn and I took our first year here. He has logged many hours of naps on this line, and looking out the second-floor windows, with a sleeping child on my lap, is how I discovered this city. 


HK Alphabet :: S

S :: Star Ferry
To get from Hong Kong Island over to Kowloon, you have several options: road (underwater tunnel), train, or the Star Ferry. Guidebooks regularly call the Star Ferry "one of the most scenic ferry crossings in the world" or some other such superlative description. I don't know if any of that's true, having little basis for comparison. But I do know that any chance I get to ride on the Star Ferry, I take it.
First, some geography. Not everyone realizes that Hong Kong proper is actually an island, while Kowloon and the New Territories are on the mainland. (Mainland China, that is.) Lantau, Lamma--these are also islands, and there are some 200+ more. Which means that there are lots of ferries plying Victoria Harbor and the South China Sea, along with sampans, junks, and yachts--all of which we have had the great pleasure of enjoying in our years here.
But the Star Ferry is special. Perhaps because it is not primarily a pleasure boat, but simply a means of transportation, a commuting vessel. (Once upon a time, of course, it was the only option for commuting across the harbor.) And what a way to commute! A few minutes of slow travel, a few minutes of gentle lilting and a beautiful skyline.
It is, unfortunately, but a few minutes. It used to be longer--20 minutes, at least, when my dad used it for his daily commute 40+ years ago. But they've been reclaiming land like mad, growing Central out into the harbor, and so consequently the ride has gotten shorter and shorter.
The boats themselves are lovely too, as from a different, more gracious era, from the stars on the seats to the wood floors. But my favorite feature on these iconic green and white ferries? The seat backs that flip back and forth, so that you can always face front, no matter which way the boat is going. And while there is certainly value in a rower's claim that you can only steer your course by watching where you've come from (as this blog, in fact, helps us to do) there is equal validity in facing the future boldly. And perhaps for me now, in these days of nolstalgia and farewells, facing front is what I most need to do.


A trip

Two weeks ago, I got back from a trip. It was a hard trip to take--at least, a hard trip to leave for. I had to be talked into it, by my husband, my family, my friends.
Because, you see, I was leaving them behind. Traveling with a fellow mama-friend, leaving the kids with the dads, and going to Beijing.
It was, honestly, as much about the getting away as the going. Getting much-needed sleep, letting Willa bond with Matt, simply being my own person again for a few days.
But we were surprised by Beijing--it's a pleasant, attractive city. Tree-lined sidewalks, wide avenues, and low-rise buildings all contribute to a welcome feeling of spaciousness (welcome compared to Hong Kong. Though after a few days it just felt like sprawl.)
Beijing is full of beautiful architectural details, serene gardens, weeping willows along the banks of lakes, and brightly lit red lanterns. There are babies with split pants toddling around, men with their shirts rolled up, and lots and lots of young adults (though noticeably few young children and pregnant women.) We saw very obvious plainclothes policemen all over Tianenamen Square and the Forbidden City (we were there on June 4), and security cameras everywhere.

Heaps of gorgeous cherries are sold from carts along the road, all sorts of foods are sold on a stick (MN State Fair, eat your heart out). Meat mooncakes made me take back every mean thing I've said about a mooncake. Haunting flute music drifted through the parks, luring us time and again to find the source. (We finally did, and were convinced to buy not only some recorded music but even a flute.) Tea taken under a mulberry tree with songbirds in bamboo cages overhead was the perfect restoration after hiking the Great Wall.

But of course, when one is a mama, especially a nursing mama, you never completely leave the kids behind. We were, both my friend and I, attached to our breastpumps multiple times a day, both to relieve the pain and to keep up the milk supply for our return. And while it certainly made me anxious to watch the supply dwindle day by day, now that it has returned I can exult in how amazing our bodies are, adapting so quickly to whatever is asked.
It was a short trip, and we didn't even see all the highlights of Beijing, much less the hidden, tucked away sights. But it was good, in the getting away, the going, and the coming back. You can't ask for much more than that.  


more thoughts on technology ...

(And now you can read Matt's thoughts, written for a tech panel at his school, the panel being the genesis of all this thinking. Enjoy!)

So I was recently invited to be on a technology panel for a speaker series our PTA holds at CIS. I was asked to be the resident Luddite, which I am pretty well qualified to be. At least as well equipped as one can be who lives in Hong Kong. There were four of us on the panel and a moderator. It was fun, and I enjoyed bantering with such smart people. The moderator was Su-Mei Thompson, a CIS parent and staff at FT.com (the Financial Times). The other panelists were Kristie Lu Stout, creator and host of the CNN show News Stream; Cat Purvis, Partner and Founder of Exicon; and Jerry Szombathy, director of ICT at CIS. And then there was me, the potted plant. We each spoke for ten minutes (so it'll take you ten minutes or fewer to read) and then answered questions. Below, in my chatty style, is my script, along with some help from Jamie Lorentzen, my dear friend and former high school English teacher (if you're impatient, I'd skip to his quotation. It's a defense of reading that has become my go-to on darker days of teaching, and thus, aptly, is my text's conclusion).

There’s more to technology than the internet, right?
So what is technology? In preparation for this evening, I don’t know how many times I asked myself this question. What are we really talking about here? As I tried to answer what is technology in light of these last ten years, I continually and unthinkingly turned technology into “the internet,” “my laptop,” and “things I do on my laptop and on the internet.” This is indeed reduction, but a telling one. My repeated unthinking reduction reveals the force and prominence personal computers and the internet have in our daily lives. But first a definition of technology and the implications within its definition.

Technology Defined
Upholding a time-honored and truly lame research method, relied on by exasperated, desperate procrastinators, I turned to the dictionary—both in-print and on-line—to find our meaning. And to our good fortune tonight, both resources yielded interesting fruit.

According to our English Deptartment's fat Collins dictionary, our hefty go-to text for etymological history and crossword research, technology is “the application of practical sciences to industry or commerce.” According to The Free Dictionary (on-line), technology is “The application of science, especially to industrial or commercial purposes.” I find these definitions pretty interesting, and they pique what Luddite sympathies I have. We need to examine the nexus of science, industry and commerce, and I’ll do so as a Luddite might.

A Luddite
To most of us, being a Luddite means one of two things, if not both.

1. Being anti-technology
2. Being technologically inept

These are the people who claim they never receive our emails, who scoff at blogs and Wikipedia, who have huge beefs with web 1.0, let alone 2.0, and they’re hopeless with a remote control. They are also the people least likely to drop their cell phones into the toilet.

But let’s deepen our sense of what the Luddites were to deepen our understanding of technology. A bit of history. Luddism was an anti-industrial social movement in 19th Century England. Luddites, led by the fictitious Cpt. Ludd (so that their real leaders wouldn’t be arrested), protested against the introduction of new looms that would replace skilled—and thus, expensive—tradesman in exchange for unskilled loom operators. They were also protesting because these mechanized looms made inferior textiles. Obviously, mechanized looms and good value beat out quality and paying for quality. The real winners, of course, were the loom makers and the textile-factory owners. Even the unskilled weavers gained little because they could always be replaced by other hungrier unskilled weavers. So these skilled, angry, out-of-work weavers set down their shuttles and threads and took up their hammers, destroying these new looms. The Luddite movement gained so much steam—to use a metaphor from the Industrial Revolution—that breaking property such as they did became a capital offense. Matters became bloody and violent. Hence, we now have the disparaging term Luddite.

What a Luddite Sees
Had I had a Luddite around a few days ago, I would have been able to define technology more quickly. What a Luddite sees, and what we might miss, is that because industry and commerce are at the heart of the definition of technology, two critical features—efficiency and profit—are very often at the heart of new technology, very often the reason for the technology, rather than, say, quality or community.

A Luddite knows where the technological impulse comes from. Efficiency beat out quality. And machines beat out people. Essayist and modern-day prophet Wendell Berry said, “The Luddites thus asserted the precedence of community needs over technological innovation and monetary profit….”

But for all their crushing, it was the Luddites who were crushed by the force of technology. Could our own communities, the quality of our friendships or our own lives, be at odds with technology’s ends? Technology won, and it wins to this day. Additionally, we’re ever more living in an environment where efficiency and profit are definite impulses by virtue of our being in a technological environment.

In technology’s definition I hear no mention of the good life, Gross Domestic Happiness, a free world, or humans fully alive. I hear no mention of caring for one’s neighbor. In fact, much is made of the person I can connect with across the world—but far less is made of the important connections I must make with the person next to me. Could it be that technology, with its by-definition-orientation toward profit and efficiency, with its tendency toward expansion rather than restraint, is in fact a shady friend or classmate, gaining more than he’s giving, taking so much of our time under the guise of “our getting so much done in that time.” Or could it be that he’s a dear friend, actually giving us so much, shaping us in ways we don’t even know—ways we can’t even imagine or scrutinize? This friend, we’ll call him Techy, goes on about globalism and connection, but I find I have to prod him to take seriously a commensurate localism and to see the risk of disconnection when connecting elsewhere.

Globalism, Localism, Connection, and Disconnection
In a world of globalism, we must develop a mature localism. We must know where we come from and understand the complex economic and natural systems that bind us to the land and to one another, immediately to my neighbor, and to another on a distant continent. With technology today we love to talk about ubiquitous access. Facebook reminds us to whom we’re connected and forever suggests new possibilities. A common description of the internet is that it’s infinite—that all is possible, and all is connected.

But we forget that the internet actually resides somewhere. When I did research yesterday on what makes wrinkle-free cotton wrinkle-free (it’s treating cotton, by the way, with a form of formaldehyde), I was firing up servers on other continents. I was firing up cooling units, and those units were, by extension, firing up coal-fired plants, nuclear reactors, or drawing, in some way, on a power grid far away.

When Japan was hit by the earthquake and tsunami, we in Hong Kong for a time experienced slower internet speeds. A major trans-pacific cable was damaged. I realized that Japan, my mom, the NYT op-ed page, and my flat in Quarry Bay are all connected—by a big fat cable. The virtual is indeed rooted in the real, tethered by the concrete. Lest we forget this, nature reminds us, by heaves. We need to see all connections, virtual, social, economic and physical.

Likewise, in a world of connectivity, we must be wary of disconnectivity. Our kids tuning out at a family meal. Our tuning out of our kids, choosing the Blackberry. Mutual isolation as a family goes on-line together, separately. Choice and freedom to their fullest might not be richness or diversity but fragmentation and isolation. The irony of this is that by residing in an increasingly virtual world, we may not foster the connections that tie us to the earth and may not deeply respect the connections that have made communities communities or families families. By switching on, we risk switching off.

The Need for Speed vs. the Need for Patience and Patient Imagination
One of my main concerns is technology’s power to propel, its need for speed, and how our keeping pace may affect how we think, read, and relate in this increasingly plugged-in and powered-up world.

When we reckon with today’s technology—technology implies, implores perhaps, that our reading and learning can and must happen quickly. The internet never shuts down; there are no business hours, no public holidays, not even sunsets.

In the face of this, there is nothing about the internet that encourages patience. How long will we wait for a page to load or a video to buffer? Tellingly, unlike food, there is no slow internet movement.

I suppose that if we added up all sites designed to offer information, business, or entertainment, that would be most of the internet. And for all of these, speed is essential. That is to say, the majority of our activity on the internet is speed-needy. It’s a speed-needy environment.

But what kind of thinking, what kind of disposition does the speed of cyberspace inspire? I’ll answer that (and likely close, for lack of time) by reading from a recent letter I received from my former high school English teacher and now one of my best friends.

Why Read Books
(Caveat—more books are published each year. So what my friend says is a caution against a possible present age and the harbingers this present age offers.)

[T]he argument for the simple act of reading that I pitch to my students these days has to do with reading-as-corrective-to-a-nonreading-culture. The pitch goes something like this:

We are creatures whose capacity for remembrance is as great and profound as our capacity for forgetfulness. And our capacity for forgetfulness eclipses our capacity for remembrance when, in the words of Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us”—when, in other words, we are so busy or so distracted by the 1001 little things we habitually feel obliged to do every day (most commonly now on machines) that we forget even to what end or for what meaning we do what we do. Subsequently, I read books to remind myself of what I’ve forgotten, to come back to myself, to regain at least some intimation—if not a concrete sense—of meaning or purpose to my life. I read to recall whatever bent-up, bruised, better angel I still feel is somewhere and somehow attempting (sometimes successfully, most times not so successfully) to take flight in me. Like walking in woods or canoeing in the Boundary Waters or cross-country skiing in my neighborhood state park, reading (with its attendant requirements of solitude, quiet, and reflection, i.e. activities of a lost and forgotten world) centers me. It reminds me of that part of me that still may be able to defy all the world’s gravitational pull toward the lower bar that is its own puffed-up gravitas—even if the reminder comes only from time to time, or even if it comes only in my dreams. The very act of reading, whenever I make time for myself to read, makes me deny the very popular assertion that claims that there’s simply not enough time in the day to sit down and strive to seek out meaning in a life—not actually to discover some highfalutin objective and universal meaning of life […], but simply to strive to find a personal meaning to a life, some idea or even some hem of an idea worth living for.

[…] Which is why I always teach reading in this increasingly non-reading society. I used to think my mission was as idealistic and crazy as Don Quixote tilting at windmills. These days, I simply think that teaching students how to read a book (quietly, patiently, questioningly) is an issue that is eminently practical, pragmatic, and reasonable for the baseline survival of the human—and that teaching reading by reading good books offers the human imagination (namely, that driving wheel of all human endeavor) the greatest workout because language (unlike music, computer screen images, and visual arts like painting and films) requires the greatest amount of patience, solitude, and reflection via the reader’s own imaginative capacities (instead of some designer’s or film director’s capacity). A book, in other words, exercises the human imagination like nothing else.

Thank you.