Friday, December 18, 2009

Reflections on the Congressional Train Wreck

I've been back in the US for a while now, and between work and law school I haven't had much of a chance to travel. So, I'm going to try my hand at making this a non-travel blog for a while.

These days, I find that reading the news is like watching a train wreck. I don't want to do it, because it's only going to leave me feeling unsettled and intensely aware of both my own mortality and the immensity of human folly for the rest of the day, but it's impossible to ignore. There's also the whole "as a voter in a democratic republic, I ought to be informed" argument. But there aren't any elections anytime soon, so maybe I could make a New Year's resolution not to read the news for a couple of weeks. As resolutions go, this one would be pretty self-indulgent, aimed more at obtaining a bit of peace of mind and not so much at improving myself as a person. It's hard to argue that being informed is a vice.

At any event, the train wreck that's on my mind today is Congress. Maybe if I write about it I can get it off my mind long enough to get some work done. That might be better than just not reading the news.

Right now, Congressional Republicans are pursuing a Taliban-esqe strategy. I certainly don't mean the comparison in any moral sense. While I'm not on board with the "conservative platform" I would never compare it to the morally abhorrent agenda that those lunatics in Afghanistan and Pakistan call an ideology. That type of hyperbole simply isn't constructive. Rather, I mean to say that the Taliban and Congressional Republicans are playing the same game. For each group, "winning" is a matter of denying victory to the other side. They don't have to actually bring anything constructive to the table, they don't have to offer any solutions to a problem. All they have to do is keep the people who actually are trying to accomplish something from doing so. The Taliban simply has to keep the US and NATO from accomplishing their military objectives, and the Republicans simply have to filibuster long enough to prevent the Democrats from actually governing.

Leaving aside the (admittedly debatable) merits of the healthcare bill for the moment, there is something incredibly screwed up about this. I've been trying to think it through. Let's ignore the massive deficits of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations for the moment and accept, arguendo, the assertion that the Republican party is not simply trying to score a political victory against President Obama, and is in fact about fiscal responsibility and small government. Fair enough. I accept that. In fact, I really like the idea of small government. In an ideal world, Ron Paul would be my favorite politician. I would love it if, with the exception of minimal taxes that went to pay for basic national defense and infrastructure, the federal government left me entirely to my own devices and didn't ask me to pay for a whole raft of things that I didn't think we should have.

But we don't live in an ideal world. This sounds like a statement of the obvious, and it should be, but it also seems to be a point that's been lost on a great many American politicians. After the New Deal, there's just no getting around the fact that we have a huge, expensive federal government that is such a constant presence in all of our lives that we're not always aware that it's there. Whether you believe that it ought to be there or not is just as irrelevant as whether or not you believe in gravity. It's there, and it's not going away. Any kind of political solution that doesn't at least accept this fact as a given is just as impractical and dangerous as jumping off a roof and not accepting the fact that you're going to fall.

Thus, you would think that any political platform advocating small government and offering it as a viable solution would be limited to fringe candidates from third parties that will never win any significant election. But small government is the rallying cry of one of the two major American political parties, and the implications are troubling.

How do you manage a system using an ideology that is inherently opposed to the very system you are trying to run? It brings to mind a quote from The Onion in reference to Bush's nomination of John Bolton as Ambassador to the UN back in 2005: "Appointing Bolton to the UN is like appointing a fish to ride a bicycle that he hates and wishes to destroy." That puts it pretty succinctly. Reagan's famous quote that "government is the problem" is a self-fulfilling prophesy that creates a vicious cycle when adopted by people elected to govern. If you come into office believing that government is incapable of solving problems, then of course you're not going to try to appoint competent problem solvers to government positions (see Michael Brown, appointed as head of FEMA to George W. Bush). Then, when a crisis arises, and the government fails to address it adequately (see Hurricane Katrina), you can say "See? I told you so," and rest comfortably on your earlier assertion that government is incapable of solving problems. QED.

So where does this leave us? With a legislative process in which only one party seems interested in actually governing. Meanwhile, any Republican in the Senate who actually shows an interest in governing (i.e., actually doing their job) risks being branded a traitor to the cause (see Lindsey Graham on climate change). This is not good for democracy. Right now we have a single-party state with all of the disadvantages thereof (lack of vigorous and meaningful policy debate) but none of the advantages (actually getting something done).

So, this is what I want to see happen to the Republican Party: First, I want to see the party tear itself to shreds in internecine fighting. I want to see midterm elections in which the tea party extremists on the far right turn out in record numbers in the primaries to nominate whackos who will prove unelectable to national office rather than incumbents. Democrats who might have been crushed by electable Republican incumbent can then eke out wins over the teabaggers, go to Congress, and actually give the Democrats enough votes that they can govern America without having to pander to [EXPLETIVE DELETED] like Joe Lieberman. Maybe pass a few pieces of legislation on crucial issues before it's too late. Then, I want the Republican party to take a good, hard look at itself, get its shit together, and actually stand for something other than obstructionism again. Until they do that, the country is not going to be in great shape.

OK, writing that actually helped. Now I'm going to try and finish some papers so I don't have to take any work home for the holidays.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hong Kong and Beijing

This post has been a long time in the works. I've been keeping my eyes open and noting the differences between Hong Kong and Beijing pretty much since my flight landed two and a half months ago. Hong Kong and Beijing are the two cities in China where I've actually lived, rather than just visiting, so I suppose the comparison is inevitable.

The differences are myriad, the similarities few. The single biggest difference would have to do with the relationship between each city as a physical space and its populace. Simply put, the physical space and layout of Hong Kong all seems to be a response to the needs of its populace; whereas the population of Beijing, by and large, has to base its existence around the physical space of the city.

Hong Kong is incredibly hilly, with steep, narrow, and winding roads. Looking at a map of Hong Kong, one sees a maze of streets, curving, crossing and recrossing one another at acute angles. A map of Beijing, by contrast, shows broad avenues, running north-south and east-west, intersecting at neat right angles almost without fail. Yet in Hong Kong, despite the appearance of chaos, people and goods move fluidly through the city by means of a hodgepodge but effective transportation network - buses, minibuses, trams, ferries, escalators, subway, and light rail. The Octopus, a stored-value, one-tap all-purpose commuter card, works on all of them. It takes me around 45 minutes and can cost as little as US $1 to get across the harbor to Kowloon all the way from my dorm.

Beijing is the opposite - the illusion of order that a map of the city presents evaporates quickly upon arrival. As broad as the streets are, they are regularly congested; it can take close to an hour to cover just over a mile at times. The city has attempted to address congestion by adding ring roads (a series of freeways arranged in concentric circles around the city), but each time a new ring road is completed, the congestion is alleviated just enough that more people decide to buy cars, and traffic quickly returns to its earlier gridlock. Beijing's wretched air quality makes walking a somewhat unattractive prospect, and most people resort to bicycles. However, that raises a new set of concerns - several of my friends had their bicycles stolen, one of them multiple times.

Clearly the two cities have strikingly different histories. Under British rule between 1841 and 1997, Hong Kong was spared the turmoil that characterized much of the past two centuries of Chinese history - the Taiping rebellion, the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the country's subsequent descent into warlordism, the Japanese invasion and the civil war, and the ravages of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. After 1949, when the Communists finally drove the Kuomintang from the Mainland, Beijing was largely closed off to the outside world. Today, a drive through the city gives the impression of Westernization: Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC; Adidas and Ikea megastores; malls full of Rolex, Bulgari and Lacoste; bars advertising Carlsberg and Budweiser, and clubs playing (almost) current pop music. Scratching the surface, however, is as easy as getting out of the bus and walking down any of the side streets away from the main boulevards. Aside from the major foreign chains, few restaurants offer decent non-Chinese food. You'll see migrant workers from the provinces hawking and spitting left and right; parents holding their pantless children at arm's length, letting them defecate into the road; beggars and lepers sitting silently, hat in hand, staring silently at the ground. Giant piles of rotting fruit can be found just meters from expensive apartment complexes. The air quality is remarkably poor. You eventually get used to it, but initially spending less than a day in the city can leave you feeling as though you've been kicked in the face by a mule. The city is the beating heart of Communist China. Soldiers in Tiananmen square stand at strict attention, and Mao's Mausoleum still draws crowds of Chinese paying their respects. Squat toilets abound, even in fairly Westernized shopping districts. Many Chinese visiting Beijing from the provinces have never seen foreigners before, and will stare wide-eyed with undisguised interest; some will even ask you to pose with them for pictures. You'll be lucky to find anyone who speaks English once you venture beyond the hotels and major tourist destinations.

Hong Kong, by contrast, was a British colony for more than 150 years, and has remained an international finance and shipping hub even after the 1997 handover. As such, even in predominantly Chinese neighborhoods far from Central, Soho, and the Midlevels, foreigners attract little attention from local Chinese. Western restaurant chains are prevalent, but so are independently owned restaurants offering fare every bit as good as what you'd find in a pub in London, a shwarma stand in Amman, or a burger joint in Chicago. Most locals at least understand basic English, and often speak it well enough that basic communication typically poses no problems. I've yet to see anyone spit or go to the bathroom in public, and the city is strikingly clean compared to Beijing. The air quality is quite poor by international standards, but most visitors experience nothing worse than a mild sore throat and runny nose for a few days before they acclimate. One barely encounters reminders of Communist rule in Hong Kong. I've never seen a soldier in Hong Kong, and have seen perhaps two Chinese flags flying since I've been here. By contrast, the flag of Hong Kong - a five-petaled white flower on a red background - is ubiquitous.

Understandably, most visitors prefer Hong Kong to Beijing. As for myself, I'm still not sure. I went to Beijing last weekend to visit a few friends, and am still processing my impressions of the city as it was when I lived there, as it is now, and my overall experience there. That will be the subject of another post.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Three Days in Thailand

Having Monday off for Foundation Day, and never having class on Fridays, I decided to go to Thailand for a few days.

I spent most of my time in a small town called Kanchanaburi. It's about two hours west of Bangkok, on the River Kwai (made famous by David Lean in the classic Bridge On The River Kwai), and is a very pleasant place to spend a few days. The town itself only has two real attractions. The excellent Thai-Burma Railway Centre is a museum documenting the experience of the Allied POWs who built the railroad linking Thailand to Burma during World War II. Captured when the Japanese conquered most of Southeast Asia in 1941 and 1942, thousands of British, Dutch, and Australian soldiers (and some Americans) were slave labor for the Japanese military effort to build a railroad that would eventually connect Singapore to Burma and facilitate the Japanese advance towards British India. Malnourished and diseased, apparently some 38 POWs and Asian laborers died for every kilometer of track constructed. (It would be impossible to document, but I wonder how this ratio measures up to the ratio for the Great Wall of China). Some 6,000 of these POWs are buried in a cemetery near the museum, the second attraction of note.

Kanchanaburi's real draw is the natural scenery surrounding the town. Erawan National Park, about 65km away from the city, was definitely the highlight of my trip. There weren't many foreign tourists when I visited, mostly Thais out for a weekend excursion. The park contains a seven-tiered waterfall, with a number of natural pools that are perfect for swimming. It was an hour's trek to the seventh tier, at which point the path became a bit more tricky. Getting from the path to the falls themselves required some careful navigation across a series of extremely slippery rocks - I saw a European tourist take a very nasty spill on one particularly treacherous section. After making it safely to the top I cooled off with a half-hour swim in the various pools, watched by a family of monkeys that had come down from the trees for a drink of water. I spent my last few hours in Kanchanaburi seeing the current Bridge on the River Kwai (the original was destroyed by Allied bombers in the last years of the war), then took a minibus back to Bangkok.

Khao San Road, in Bangkok... never in my life have I wanted to leave a place so quickly. Every negative tourist stereotype is on display there: the freshly dreadlocked white guy covered in new tattoos, beer in hand and god knows what in his bloodstream; the florid, obese middle-aged man, sunburned and balding, sweating through his polo shirt and leering at the Thai girl on his arm, young enough to be his daughter; and, of course, the type who clearly thinks that being on vacation gives one an excuse to dress and act like a complete a**hole.

The street was crawling with them, and packed with every sort of business that would cater to their interests. T-shirt shops, hostels, tattoo parlors, salons advertising dreadlocks, beads, and extensions, bars blasting loud pop music, stalls selling cheap trinkets, and plenty of familiar Western restaurants (Burger King and McDonalds, among others).

Ordinarily I would have made every effort to avoid this place, but under the circumstances it made sense to be there, unfortunately. I was only staying in Bangkok for one night, and then planning to catch a minibus to the coast and then traveling on to the island of Ko Samet by ferry. The hostels in Khao San are very cheap, and the abundance of local travel agencies/tour companies make the neighborhood an easy place in which to arrange transport out of Bangkok. So, there I was.

While I was asking a hostel employee about Ko Samet, a sunburned Westerner (Austrian, as it turned out) approached, a beer in one hand and a Coke in the other. His teeth were yellow, broken and crooked, his hair was stringy, and his eyes seemed to have some difficulty focusing. He told me how Ko Samet was a wonderful island, and how he'd been going there for ten years. Then he gave me the name of the hostel that he stayed at, and told me to tell the owner (someone named Yud, apparently) that he had just come back from Lao and was about to return to Austria. He wrote all this down for me: "Koh Samet Puolsa Bangolouws Yud Greadings from Koert."

After meeting Koert, I decided to skip Ko Samet and leave the country a day early. I was quite certain that I did not want to spend my time and money in a place that appealed to Koert so much that he has apparently made annual pilgrimages for the past decade. Given its relative proximity to Bangkok, I could only imagine how many other Koerts there would be on that island.

There's a sad irony in the fact that Thailand, the only Southeast Asian nation to avoid European rule during the colonial period, has been so transformed by the throngs of hedonistic Westerners that pour into the country on a daily basis that it's barely possible to discern what lies beneath the bars, tattoo parlors, sex shows, dreadlock shops and youth hostels. I was only in the country for a few days, but a number of my friends spent more time there, and in different places; almost without exception, they came away with the same impressions. They loved Thailand's natural beauty - the beaches, the rivers, the forests - but they were shocked and disgusted by everything that had sprung up around it. One of my friends summed it up very succinctly: "It's like there's not even a country, just a bunch of dirty backpackers."

So, if you're thinking of going to Thailand, spend as little time in Bangkok as possible, unless you are a) a complete degenerate, b) unspeakably perverted, c) an unwashed hippie in search of like-minded persons, or d) not particularly picky about where you spend your free time, as long as they sell t-shirts and beer. If you're reading this blog, I sincerely hope that you are none of these things.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Shark Fin Soup, Chicken Feet and Duck's Blood

It's been a fairly uneventful few weeks for me since coming back from Taiwan. Going to classes, reading for classes, studying Chinese. I'll be traveling later this month, April, and May, so I've been laying low a bit to save money. In lieu of final exams, I'm writing papers for two courses - one is a comparison of the cannabis laws of Singapore and the Netherlands (pretty much polar opposites); the other one is about "cultural" exceptions to the international whaling ban.

This post is not so much about Hong Kong specifically, but just some reflections on food and drink that I've tried in "Greater China" - Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland. The more time I spend over here, the easier it is to let go of the idea that some animals, or some parts of animals, are more "normal" to eat than others. It's all more or less meat, after all.

Jellyfish: I first tried this at a nice restaurant in Shanghai a few years ago, mostly because I wanted to say that I had eaten jellyfish. As it turned out, I liked it - the texture is a bit like calamari, but is a bit crunchy as well as chewy. I still order this in Boston. There used to be a good place on Brighton Avenue, but it has unfortunately closed. To make matters worse, my good friend Connie stole my to-go box of jellyfish the last time we went there.

Shark fin soup: First off, I should say that I do not condone the consumption of shark fin soup. The way that the chief ingredient is obtained is fairly gruesome. Fishermen don't actually kill the shark, but simply hack off the fins and toss it back into the ocean to die. I would never order it. The only time I've eaten it was at a very posh, set-course dinner in Beijing. Thus, the shark was already dead, the dish was already made, and my refusal to eat the soup would have had no effect whatsoever on the market for shark fins - under the circumstances, it would also have been very rude. All that being said, I enjoyed the soup. The texture is a bit hard to describe - the fin is mostly cartilage, but it was fairly soft, not very rubbery. Served with a bowl of rice, and was a very hearty course. But while the soup was good, it was really nothing special. Had it been something less controversial, it would be nothing worth writing about. So, I continue to oppose this dish in principle. The demand for shark fins apparently remains high, though. I've seen many hanging in the windows of Chinese medicine shops and restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau.

Duck's blood: Absolutely delicious. I tried this at a hot pot restaurant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan last month. The duck's blood is congealed to a tofu-like consistency and cut into cubes. After simmering in a spicy Sichuan-style broth for ten minutes or so it picked up a wonderful flavor, both spicy and savory at the same time.

Baijiu: Even if you're a serious, open-minded drinker, I do not recommend this stuff. It's not like soju, and it's not like sake. It's like rubbing alcohol. For those of you who claim vodka tastes like rubbing alcohol, trust me - it tastes like water compared to baijiu. It is generally distilled from sorghum (sometimes from rice) and tends to be very strong, around 120 proof or so. The worst, cheapest stuff comes in small green bottles with white and red labels. In some places you can buy little plastic, one-shot bags of it for the equivalent of around 50 cents. I went camping on an old ruined section of the Great Wall a few hours away from Beijing a couple of years ago, and one of my friends brought along a bottle of baijiu for the night. When one of our group gashed his leg open on a rock on a treacherous portion of the trail, we used the baijiu as antiseptic - it bubbled like hydrogen peroxide when we poured it in his cut. We also used it to help get the campfire going. I never drink baijiu if I can avoid it. However, I make an exception for moutai. It's a type of baijiu from Guizhou province, somewhere around 110 proof. It's got an interesting, almost spicy flavor to it, and served warm in a small glass it's pretty good.

Chicken feet: The first time a plate was set in front of me a few years ago I wouldn't touch it. However, I overcame my reluctance and tried them as part of a dim sum brunch in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Not bad. The basic idea isn't all that different from eating a chicken wing - you nibble around a bone to get at a relatively small portion of meat. So, once I quit thinking about what part of the chicken it was, I had no trouble eating these. There's not as much meat, though, so for that reason I would order wings, if given the choice; but as a dim sum course it's fine.

Yak butter tea: It's basically a thick, hot tea in which the principle ingredient is Yak butter. Sounds disgusting, but it is actually a great drink for a cold day. Hot and thick, it really warms you up. Given Tibet's altitude and how unbelievably cold the winters are, it's not surprising that this is such a popular drink there. I spent the coldest night of my life in an unheated hostel in Lhasa in mid-winter, and the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was down a giant mug of this stuff. I felt better immediately.

Stinky tofu: Pretty much like it sounds. I'm not quite sure how it is prepared, but these chunks of tofu smell distinctly like unwashed feet. If you're passing a restaurant that serves it, you can typically smell it from the street. This one took some getting used to. The first few times I ate it, I only did so to be polite; however, by the third time I realized I had acquired a taste for it. Part of the trick is to just ignore the smell, or convince yourself that the smell is not coming from the tofu - honestly, it does not taste like it smells. If you live in Boston, try it at Taiwan Cafe in Chinatown.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I'm not sure how long I was on fire before I realized it, but it must have only been a few seconds. It was hard to tell at first. Firecrackers were exploding all around my feet, bottle rockets were whizzing past my head, and my motorcycle helmet was filling with smoke. So, I was a bit distracted. When I noticed that my shirt was burning, I quickly smothered it with my gloves, and immediately turned my attention back to jumping around in the hopes that no firecrackers would go off under my feet. When the smoke cleared I took a look at my shirt. The fire had left three mid-sized ragged holes in it. Fortunately it was only the outermost of my five layers, and it didn't actually belong to me; so, I didn't get burned, and I didn't lose a good shirt.

This was the Yanshui Lantern Festival. It will turn up on several top ten lists if you google "dangerous festivals." Once a year the streets of this ordinarily peaceful Taiwanese town fill with crowds of people decked out in several layers of heavy clothes, gloves, and motorcycle helmets. They follow a procession of statues as they're carried through the streets, periodically stopping in front of a shop with a red lantern hanging outside. The doors of the shop open, and a "beehive," basically an iron and wooden frame holding thousands of bottle rockets, is wheeled out. When lit, the rockets go flying off in all directions, most of them straight into the crowd. The idea is to frighten off evil spirits. When the barrage ends and the smoke has cleared, and all the fires have been put out, the procession continues on to the next shop, another beehive comes out, and another barrage ensues. As it turns out, getting hit with a bottle rocket when properly attired doesn't really hurt. However, even though you know you're protected, watching fireworks fly at your head is still pretty scary. My camera batteries died early on in the evening, but a quick YouTube search yielded a video that gives a pretty good idea of what it was like.

I took advantage of my three-day weekend and went to visit my friend John in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I confess that over the past few years I had developed a somewhat China-centric view of Taiwan - living in Beijing, you hear people talk about Taiwan as though it's some wayward province of China, and that peaceful reunification is inevitable. One person expressed their thoughts as such: "We waited for Hong Kong, we'll wait for Taiwan." After a while you sort of stop questioning it. So, I was expecting Taiwan to feel more or less like any other province of China.

This was not at all the case. The point was underscored dramatically literally as soon as I landed in Kaohsiung. A military transport, American-built, with a Taiwanese flag emblazoned on its tail was taking off on an adjacent runway as my flight was taxiing to the gate. The rest of the weekend was full of near constant, if less dramatic reminders that Taiwan really is not part of the People's Republic of China.

Kaohsiung is a fairly laid-back city in the south of Taiwan. It's big, but not overwhelming - traffic is manageable, the buildings aren't tall, and there are plenty of trees and parks. The weather was beautiful the entire time I was there - warm, sunny, and not too humid. It's hard to articulate, but there was something very different about being in Taiwan rather than the PRC. The people seemed friendlier and less guarded, and more willing to bend rules or go briefly beyond their job description if they felt like it. The Taiwanese security guard at John's apartment complex, Pepe, had taken it upon himself to beautify the courtyard with flowers and other potted plants, and had even added a fish and turtle pond to one of the flower beds. I never met anyone in his position in China who I could have envisioned doing something similar. Incidentally, Pepe seemed to have learned English from watching
Scarface, and went on a lengthy, profanity-laced tirade, peppered with random words in Spanish, about the cats he suspected of eating his turtles and what he would do to them if he ever caught them.

The Yanshui Lantern Festival was the main point of the trip. Other than that, I mostly spent my few days there catching up with John, exploring the city, enjoying good cheap food at day markets and night markets, and basically relaxing. Hong Kong is many things - dynamic, stimulating, cosmopolitan, and engaging - but it is far from relaxing. The change of scenery was welcome. All the same, it's good to be back in Hong Kong.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lunar New Year

It's been a while since my last post.  The fact is, my dorm room is not a very pleasant place to spend time, but it's currently the only place where I can conveniently connect to the internet (most of the university being closed for the Lunar New Year).  Thus, I'm spending most of my time out of my dorm, and am usually too tired when I get home to take time to post.  So, until classes start again on Monday I'm likely to be behind on emails and posting infrequently. 

After a mere four days of classes, the university closed for the Lunar New Year.  The dorms emptied of students, most businesses closed for the entire week, and expats left Hong Kong in droves for Southeast Asian vacations.  A few of us stayed in town, though, and got to see a very different Hong Kong.  Still busy by any objective standard, the city is more or less dead compared to any other time of year.  A few of us left a bar at 9pm the other night, a reasonable hour, and the streets were empty - ordinarily that doesn't happen until 2:30 or 3am.  It was actually a bit eerie.  

To celebrate the Year of the Ox, a few of us - along with apparently half of Hong Kong's population - paid a visit to the Tian Tan Buddha (pictured) on Lantau Island.  85 feet tall, weighing 250 tons, this giant bronze buddha was completed in 1993.  The fact that it's not all that ancient in no way diminishes the statue's grandeur, though.  It's truly awe-inspiring.  The weather was not very pleasant, and we didn't have much time, so we chose to take a cable car ride instead of hiking.  Even the cable car ride took about 25 minutes, and offered some great views along the way.  The buddha itself is large enough that it came into view about 10 minutes before we actually reached the cable car terminus.  Allegedly it's visible from Macau on a clear day.  The place was very crowded, almost entirely with families.  Small children were decked out in their holiday finest, which ranged from bear costumes to faux-Qing dynasty imperial outfits, complete with queues.  We caught one of the last cable cars back to civilization, and enjoyed a fairly sizable New Year's banquet at an elegant, surprisingly affordable restaurant at the IFC.  

The next evening I watched the fireworks at Victoria Harbor with a few friends.  The display was impressive, but nothing mind-blowing.  All in all, the Lunar New Year in Beijing is much more of a spectacle.  The biggest difference is that Beijingers apparently aren't subject to any laws regarding fireworks, or at least no laws that are actively enforced.  People set off fireworks wherever and whenever they feel like it: in the courtyards of apartment complexes, on the sidewalks near crowded streets, leaning out of high-rise windows, etc.  Basically, the city starts echoing with what sounds like gunfire around 3 pm.  The noise picks up significantly as it gets dark, and continues until the early hours of the morning.  In Hong Kong, by contrast, it's been very quiet.  The official display at Victoria Harbor were the only fireworks that I've seen or heard all week.  All in all, Hong Kong is a much more orderly city than Beijing, so that's not too surprising.  

Yesterday the weather was finally warm and sunny again after several overcast days, so a friend and I took the bus to Stanley.  It's a smallish town on the south side of Hong Kong Island, with a pleasantly uncrowded beach and a fairly laid-back seaside promenade.  After exploring the town for a bit, we went hiking on the nearby Wilson Trail.  Rather than winding back and forth across the hillside, the trail simply went straight up the side of it - it was a very steep hike.  However, the view from the top was well worth the effort.  After our hike, we picked up a couple of cans of Tsingtao and relaxed on the beach for a while before getting dinner on the promenade and catching the bus back to the city.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dorm Life

Living in a dorm for the first time in almost five years has required a bit of an adjustment.  As I wrote previously, I'm living at Lee Hysan Hall, an undergraduate dorm.  The building is more than a bit run-down - a grimy exterior houses a predictably institutional interior.  I'm not too close to campus, and there's little of note in the immediate area: two more residence halls in the same complex, a 7 Eleven (one of the few in China that does not sell alcohol), and, across the street, a hospital with a Starbucks and a decent cafeteria.  The one thing that this dorm really has going for it, though, is the view (pictured).  We're on a hill fairly high above the rest of the city, facing west across the East Lamma Channel.  Our common room has a beautiful view of the water, and at any given time the channel is full of bulk carriers and other cargo ships headed toward Victoria Harbor, very much a reminder that Hong Kong remains a vibrant and bustling port city.  

Most floors are coed, although mine seems to be largely, if not entirely, male.  As I mentioned earlier, there's a strong sense of hall spirit and tradition.  At the risk of sounding antisocial, I'll admit that I've taken the advice that was given to me by other foreign students and deliberately avoided this.  By way of explanation, I'll recount a few stories:

On my third day here, I met another foreign student who explained the concept of Water Games to me.  The paint on the walls in his hallway is uniformly worn away to a spot a few inches above the floor.  Apparently once a semester the local students clog up all the toilets, stop up the sinks and shower drains, and run all the water to flood the hallway (it occurs to me that the substance on the floor in the field hockey story, recounted in an earlier post, may have actually been water mistaken for beer, or perhaps a mix).  This is Water Games.  I don't think they do this on my floor, though, as the paint doesn't seem to be worn away.  The entire concept sounds unbelievably unhygienic and dangerous.  Buildings generally aren't made to be flooded multiple times per year.

He also told me that another popular pastime is to open a window, stand some distance back, and take turns trying to kick a soccer ball out the window.  Whoever kicks the ball out the window must then go outside to retrieve it, while the other students try to pour liquids on and throw things at him while he's doing so.  This would explain why there's a chair stuck in a tree outside, about twenty feet below the window to our common room.

Last week, I came home late, stepped off the elevator, and saw a group of students standing in a cluster near the door to the common room.  A leg was sticking out of the huddle at a weird angle, a few feet above the floor.  They turned to look at me, and I quickly made my way to my room - it seemed like the safest thing to do.  I asked my roommate Sai what they were doing, and he laughed, and told me I'd find out, because they did it to everybody and they'd do it to me soon enough.  I told him that they most certainly would not, and that I would really like to know what they were doing so I could avoid it.  Initially refusing to tell me, he relented soon enough and explained the "bicycle" to me.  Since then, I haven't quite looked at the local students the same way, and learning to understand Cantonese has taken on a new urgency for me.  They all speak English, but I need to know what they're saying to each other when I'm around.

Two nights ago, I was watching a movie in the common room with a couple of other exchange students, when we gradually became aware of students congregating in the hallway outside, near the elevators - the same spot where I had witnessed some poor soul being bicycled earlier.  Fortunately for us, we weren't on their agenda (although one of the other exchange students is a water polo player, and I'm fairly sure I overheard the phrase "he's too tall" in the midst of the local students' conversation).  Venturing out into the hallway, we witnessed another bicycling incident.  We went back into the common room and turned the volume up on the TV, but it continued for some time.  At various points people ran into the common room excitedly, and ran back out into the hallway with such diverse items as soy sauce, an empty water bottle, and a birthday cake.

This isn't something I expected to deal with as a second-year law student.  I'm making an effort to stay pretty much under the radar around the dorm.  I generally leave the dorm somewhat early in the morning, and don't see a whole lot of the local students - they seem to only start coming out of their rooms and filling the hallways around 10:45pm, and they stay there until around 4 or 5am.  With the aid of earplugs, I haven't had any trouble sleeping yet.  All the same, I remain vaguely concerned about the bicycle.  

Thursday, January 15, 2009


None of my classes start until next week, so I've spent most of the past few days exploring Hong Kong, getting a sense of the city and how to navigate it.  Yesterday I took a break from Hong Kong, and spent the afternoon and evening in Macau.

Macau is something of a Portuguese equivalent to Hong Kong.  In the 1530s, over 300 years before Britain acquired Hong Kong, Portuguese merchants began using Macau as a base of trading operations, ultimately purchasing the island from China in 1557.  As a Portuguese colony, Macau was the only European port for the China trade until 1841, when China ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War.  Hong Kong had a better harbor, and most European merchants soon made it their new base of operations, abandoning Macau.  Eclipsed in economic and political significance, Macau never developed into a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis like Hong Kong.  It remained under Portuguese control until 1999, two years after Britain returned Hong Kong to China.  Today Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) - part of China, but with different economic and political systems than the mainland.  All part of Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" idea.  It's the only place in China where gambling is legal, and casinos remain the city's big draw for most tourists.

A friend and I took the 12pm ferry from Hong Kong and arrived in Macau around 12:45.  Not much for gambling, we headed across the island for lunch at Porto Interior, a Macanese-Portuguese restaurant.  It was delicious - hot, crusty bread, rice and seafood stew, an assortment of lightly fried Macanese snacks, and vinho verde (lightly sparkling Portuguese wine).  The highlight, however, was the galinha a Africana (African chicken) - barbecued, served in a thick, sweet and spicy red pepper sauce.  Macanese food is sort of a fusion of influences from various parts of Portugal's colonial empire, including Portugal itself, local Cantonese cuisine, and East Africa.

After lunch we went to the A-Ma temple, a 15th-century temple dedicated to the goddess of fishermen and the sea.  With the lunar New Year around the corner, the temple attendants were setting off extremely long and loud strings of firecrackers on a regular basis.  After inhaling plenty of incense and gunpowder smoke, we moved on to the Maritime Museum - had a few somewhat frightening mannequins, but all in all was a pretty interesting look at the maritime activity of Macau, both Portuguese and Chinese.  There were models of various Portuguese and Chinese sailing vessels, and dioramas of traditional fishing activities.  Most significantly, I learned about the Drunken Dragon Festival, a Macanese tradition in which one dances around and gets sprayed with water while drinking copious amounts of alcohol. 

After leaving the museum, we wandered around Macau's back alleys for most of the rest of the day.  Like the food, the city is a blend of Portuguese and Chinese influences.  Whitewashed walls and porticos give the city a distinctly Iberian feel, and all street signs are in Portuguese as well as Chinese, but there's hardly a European in sight.  The alleyways, barely wide enough for a motorcycle in some places, were packed with shops, restaurants, food carts, and people.  Bakeries selling Portuguese-style pastries stood next door to Chinese medicine shops, packed with the usual assortment of roots, fungi, and animal bits.  We walked through a bustling and bloody seafood market, where we witnessed tables full of fish heads, some of which were still trying to breathe.  At one booth an eel had been chopped cleanly in half; the top half was still squirming across the counter, opening and closing its mouth and butting its head against the lower half of its body - I'm not likely to forget that sight.  We stopped for a beer at a hole in the wall noodle joint (still trying to wash the taste of gunpowder out of our mouths), and then continued back toward the ferry terminal.  

Before leaving Macau, we stopped to wander around one of Macau's Vegas-style attractions, a sprawling Disney-esque recreation of various, wholly incongruous... well, things, I guess.  There wasn't really a common theme.  Aladdin's Fort stood next to the Roman Theatre; a replica of Tibet's Potala Palace and a Tang Dynasty fortress were built into the side of a mockup of a Volcano.  Aladdin's Fort was apparently the site of some kind of war game attraction; a few bored-looking people dressed as soldiers stood next to a mock-up of a crashed Black Hawk helicopter.  Yet this entire complex was almost entirely deserted - we saw at most four or five other people the entire time, and all the shops and restaurants were empty.  The pointlessness of the place was almost overwhelming.  After a while, we decided we'd had enough, and caught the 8:15 ferry back to Hong Kong.  There are still plenty of things I'd like to do in Macau - see some of the old Portuguese forts and churches, go to the village of Coloane on the adjacent island of Taipa, and eat more Macanese food - so I'll definitely be going back.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Initial Impressions

Note: I arrived on a Saturday, so I wasn't able to get my dorm's internet connection set up until last night.  Thus, this post was written on January 11, but not posted until today.
I've been in Hong Kong for just over 24 hours now.  The trip over here was uneventful - no missed connections, delayed flights, or unfortunate seating arrangements.
I spent most of today (Sunday) walking around HKU's main campus, getting my bearings.  It's about a 20 to 25-minute walk from my dorm, or a much shorter bus ride.  You know that M.C. Escher drawing of the stairs in an endless loop?  The campus feels a bit like that, but placed in the middle of a subtropical forest.  Initially confusing, but very cool.  Hong Kong island is basically one giant hill, so the campus, like pretty much everything else here, is built straight up, right into the side of it.  Big grassy quads with paths between buildings would be out of the question, so the buildings are linked by a series of exterior staircases and walkways, periodically connecting to patio-type areas, one of which has a very pleasant lily pond.  The entire campus is shaded by lush vegetation.  With the foliage and the various staircases and walkways, trekking around campus sometimes feels like walking through an aquarium's rainforest exhibit.  I like it more than walking through that busted rock garden near the law tower.
The U.S. is unusual in making certain subjects, like law and medicine, graduate programs.  In most other places, including Hong Kong, if you want to be a lawyer or a doctor you simply study law or medicine at university, without studying something else for four years first.  Thus, I'm living in the equivalent of an undergrad dorm.  I have a double room in Lee Hysan Hall, an off-campus student residence hall.  It was named after a Hong Kong opium prince turned construction magnate who was gunned down by rivals sometime in the 1920s.  Our floor's common room has a great view of the harbor, a mah jong table, a TV, and a kitchenette.  I'm somewhat apprehensive about living in a dorm again for the first time since my sophomore year of college.  Every dorm has a theme; ours is "Hysanic," which means that our common room has a little bell with "1912" written on it, and there are little pictures of life preservers in the bathroom stalls.  I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that our theme is the greatest maritime disaster in modern history.  I don't know what kind of dorm activities they plan on tying into that theme.  Also, it seems that hall spirit is a very big thing here.  I've hard that from a number of local students, as well as one BUSL who spent a semester here a year or two ago.  He advised me to avoid hall activities at all costs.  He said that they involved a lot of marching and chanting and clapping, and that on one occasion he came back to his dorm and found that the hallway floor was covered in beer, and that a number of his hallmates were hitting each other in the crotch with field hockey sticks.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The O.C.

I'm spending some time in Orange County, CA (perhaps you've heard of it? apparently there was a TV show...) before leaving for Hong Kong.  Having spent just one full day here so far, I now have a great deal of sympathy for anyone who left Orange County to spend their time studying law in a city where the winter lasts for eight months.  That's dedication, or maybe madness.  Then again, I don't live here, so maybe having beautiful weather more or less year-round and living right by the beach gets a bit monotonous.  For my part, I'm not sure I could get any serious work done out here.  I suspect that, not having grown up out here, I would have trouble shaking the feeling that I was, in some sense, on vacation.

Anyways, it's been great so far.  Brunch on the beach, drinks on a pier, spending the day wandering around a boardwalk with no real plans other than enjoying the weather.  Good to spend some quality time with the roommates (two of them, at least) before going abroad.

RETRACTION: I'm ashamed to admit that after just one post I'm already compelled to issue a retraction.  However, accuracy is important - after all, if people could just post whatever they wanted to on the internet, what kind of world would that be?  So: in my posting of January 2, I said that I had it on good authority that there were "peeps on call" in Orange County.  It has been brought to my attention that this is inaccurate; in point of fact, I was told that there were "peeps on alert."  I apologize for the error, and for any resulting confusion.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The First Post

So, for some reason I agreed to keep a blog for the supposed benefit of the law school whilst in Hong Kong next semester.  However, I've never kept a blog before, and have, in fact, derided the blog as an unfortunate innovation that makes it far too easy for - and, in fact encourages - people who labor under the delusion that their opinions matter to share those opinions with the entire world.  That's not quite what I'm trying to do here.  Last time I was in China I kept people up to date via periodic emails to a distribution list of people who had expressed interest.  This time, though, I'm putting my reservations about blogging aside and trying it out, primarily as a means to stay in touch with people I know, not to disseminate the contents of my mind across the internet (because I don't think anybody really wants that to happen).  So, in the interest of getting the hang of this before arriving in Hong Kong, and before I start blogging for the law school, I'm starting a bit early.

So, this will hopefully provide semi-regular updates on my activities abroad, for anyone who cares to read it.  If you don't care, then don't read it.  Feel free to post - I think I've enabled that option, but I'm still figuring this thing out.  A brief rundown of my upcoming whereabouts:

Until January 5: Nashville
January 5 - 9: Orange County, CA (where I have it on good authority that there are "peeps on call," whatever that means)
January 10: arrive in Hong Kong

That's all for now.  Happy New Year!

N.B.: This blog is not the blog I'm keeping for the law school.  Some posts may be identical, others will not be.  I'm keeping this one as well because a third-party administrator has to approve all my posts before they're published on the school's blog - understandable, but cumbersome; also, the law school might not be very interested in, or particularly happy about, some of my activities (i.e. missing class to go backpacking in Laos, etc.).  It may be that keeping two blogs at the same time, even if there's some content overlap, will be a little more than I'd like to handle.  So, we'll see how this goes...