Monday, April 29, 2013

Pilgrimages - July-August 2012


My tea lady came by to pick me up in the afternoon and took me to her place.  She had offered to let me spend my last few days in Sendai with her, and loath as I was to impose on her, I was also glad of the opportunity it would give me to spend a little more time with her and her family.  That evening she had a little dinner party for me and some of the other staff from my school, giving me an opportunity for some extra goodbyes.  The next day I went to a festival with her, where we helped make yakisoba (“fried noodles”) at one of the food stalls.  Then we went out to see some summer fireworks.

A few days later, she drove me downtown and I caught my bus to Fukushima.  I spent one day there, visiting my ALT buddy, then went on for my final trip to Tokyo.  I didn’t do much with my time there, other than meeting up with an acquaintance and running some errands.  But there was one thing I thought I should fit in.  Do you realise that I’ve been in Japan for two years, and never once seen Mt Fuji???

Well, now I have.  I took a bus out of the city to a place called Lake Kawaguchiko.  It wasn’t close enough for someone wanting to climb the mountain, and I didn’t have time or energy for that anyway.  But it was close enough for a good, if slightly cloud-covered, view of it.  I took a bus to the far side of the lake, took my photographs, and enjoyed a leisurely stroll back.  It was a nice area; if I ever get the chance, I should go back there.


I always assumed that if I got into the JET Programme, I would have to make a trip to Hong Kong at some point.  As it turned out, I spent two whole years without leaving the country once.  But my flight to Australia gave me the perfect opportunity for a stopover.  And so it was that I spent five days getting re-acquainted with the sights, sounds, smog, and – most of all – the smells of Hong Kong.


On another ALT’s recommendation, I’d booked a room at a hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui near the museums.  It was a nice place; I had a private room with my own television and en suite bathroom.  The bathroom was the one feature I’d been nervous about; in classic Hong Kong style, it was the compact kind where the entire room turns into a shower.  But it actually worked out surprisingly well, and the toilet paper did not get wet, as I’d assumed it would.


Having done most of the touristy activities on my last visit, I made my priority spending time with people.  As soon as I arrived, I called up my best buddy from when I’d lived there, and we arranged to meet for dinner.  We spent time together almost every day I was there.  Together we visited some of my favourite old haunts, such as Victoria Harbour, the Central Library, Victoria Park, and, of course, my old church.  Sadly, all my old acquaintances from there have moved on.  Such is the peril of living in the most cosmopolitan city in the world.


I also got in touch with a buddy of mine from university, and with my two favourite students from my old school.  My university buddy was nice enough to treat me to dinner in the Mid-Levels, so I paid the favour forward by treating my students to a meal each.  I was a bit nervous about reconnecting with them after so long away.  Four years is, after all, a very long time in the life of a teenager.  But it actually went really well.  They’re not much different from how I remember them, except perhaps a bit less gawky and shy.  And they didn’t seem to feel the least bit weird about seeing their old English teacher again.

I met one of them in T.S.T., and he took me to see 1881 Heritage, historically the Marine Police Headquarters, which had recently been turned into a hotel.  Built in the 1880s and renovated in the past five years, it’s a charming specimen of colonial-era architecture combined with modern design.  My favourite features were the historical time ball tower (used to signal the time to passing ships), and the mock schooner standing in the middle of the courtyard.


My other priority in Hong Kong was food!  As I mentioned before, I’ve sorely missed Hong Kong cha siu (barbecued pork).  So I made a point of having at least one really good cha siu meal.  My buddy and I also went out for yum cha (dim sum and tea), where I was able to have a cha siu bao (barbecued pork bun).  It was as good as I’d dreamed it would be!

I also had a couple of egg tarts, another Hong Kong specialty, and, of course, milk tea.  Sadly, I didn’t manage to make it to any dessert restaurants, interesting little places where you can have surprisingly tasty dishes made with such unlikely sounding ingredients as tofu, black sesame paste, lotus seeds, and sago.


During the small amount of time I spent alone, I visited the Science Museum.  As I remembered, the museum’s permanent exhibit is skippable, but it often has excellent special exhibits.  Such was the case with “Creatures of the Abyss”, an expos√© of deep-sea ocean life that came all the way from… Canada!  I had a blast inspecting the model of the colossal squid, experiencing simulated underwater conditions, and learning what happens to whales when they die.  I would have liked to visit the history museum, too, but the one day I had free was the day it was closed.


I took advantage of Hong Kong’s ridiculously cheap postal service to mail home some last-minute souvenirs I’d been given.  I also took advantage of a visit to North Point to visit my old hairdresser’s for an excellent haircut!  I visited the bank to see if my old account was still active, but learned that the small amount of money I’d left in it had been eaten up in bank fees years ago.

At the suggestion of my students, I went back to my old school to see if anyone I knew was there.  I’d forgotten that in Hong Kong, unlike Japan, summer break is a break for the teachers, not just the students.  So there was no one there who remembered me.  I did go in and take a walk around for old times’ sake.


For the sake of nostalgia it was nice to be in the city again, although if anything its biggest effect was to remind me of why I’d never want to live there.  Yes, it has some of the tallest buildings in the world.  Yes, the harbour’s beautiful, especially at night.  Yes, the MTR (“Mass Transit Railway”) system is awesome.  Yes, there’s great local cuisine, as well as every kind of foreign food to choose from.  And yes, everything (except housing) is cheap.

But the city is also crowded and humid and dirty.  It’s home to the most distinctive – and repulsive – smells I’ve ever encountered.  The pollution is so thick you can see it, and every evening you come home with a patina of smog stuck to your skin.  And the economic inequality is massive.  While it might seem cheap to someone earning a foreigner’s salary, it’s hard going if you’re living on the pitiful wages of the working class.

So instead I think I’ll treasure my memories, and seek out good Cantonese restaurants!


Books I’ve read this week:

Sabriel by Garth Nix – Fantasy novel about a young girl and her burgeoning career as a necromancer.  Definitely an interesting story with some engaging characters (I’m especially fond of the cat!), it still frustrates by leaving a lot of stuff vague and unexplained.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum – You can guess why I bought this book.  It’s a question I’d asked myself many times in the past, and I wanted to learn the answer.  What is it?  Read the darn book yourself!  It provides an enlightening view of race relations in the United States as seen through the eyes of black people, and I was fascinated to learn about the perspective.  Unfortunately, I found the book less helpful when it came to white people and the steps they can take to combat racism.  Speaking as a white person, I often feel we talk about racism too much not too little.  Certainly I don’t think it made me a more socially intelligent person that the earliest information I got about black people was, “These people used to be oppressed.  Be a good girl and don’t oppress them!”

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