October 16, 2008

Funky Town

After the whirlwind excitement of arriving here and rushing about reality is setting in: I am the trailing spouse and it's going to take some getting used to.

We've been here just two weeks, although it feels like a month. Some of my unease comes from a lack of routine. We still don't have a permanent apartment and are reluctant to settle in. More of my discomfort comes from the truly horrible schedule I have, working from midnight until 7 a.m.
This requires me to sleep in shifts, because my body isn't capable anymore of sleeping past noon. So I sleep from 7 a.m. until about 11:30 a.m., then try to sleep again around 5 or 6 p.m. for another two or three hours so that I can stay awake until 7a.m. I start to lose it around 5 a.m.

If I were in Long Beach, the options would be plentiful: Go to the beach, ride my bike, go to the gym, catch up on errands, have dinner with friends. But here I'm at loose ends. I don't quite know what to do with myself, and probably won't until we settle on a place to live.

Paul has the luxury (as I see it) of going to the office, talking to people, meeting new people. I am at "home" stuck in an apartment the size of my living room and surrounded by people who don't speak my language. It's different than when I went to France; I was the one with the job there.

I know this will pass. I will look on expat websites and forums to search out others who are free during the day or evening, and I will try to create some sort of routine. But until then, I'm trying to keep a positive outlook on all of this. It's an adventure! We share a Saturday off! We can take a ferry to an island!

October 13, 2008

The Star Ferry

In Hong Kong, you are never far from the water and there are ferries in abundance to take you where you need to go.

We didn't need to go anywhere, but thought it would be amusing to take the Star Ferry to Kowloon side. Although you can cross from the Central district to Tsim Sha Tsui by MTR, the Hong Kong subway system, many commuters (70,000 per day) like the ferry because it is fast and efficient. And it is a bargain: 28 U.S. cents.

As we pulled away from the dock, which was manned by ancient mariners in World War II-style sailor suits, I thought of the last ferry I took -- from Newport Beach to Balboa Island. That one costs $1.

It takes less than 10 minutes to cross the harbor, and it reminded me that it wasn't all that long ago that there wasn't a tunnel or a subway and this was the only way to cross. The harbor has narrowed so much due to land reclamation and construction that it's hard to imagine that it was a major port. The whole reason it existed. England's crown jewel of the east and part of its storied maritime empire. And still, the ferry is the only way to get to the other outlying areas.

It was a charming way to while away a few minutes.

According to Wikipedia, the ferry's four routes carry 70,000 passengers each day

"Order to Your Heart's Content"

This is how the Chinese word dim sum translates in English. And on Monday at lunch, I did.

Paul and I have been tip-toeing around dim sum, little plates of dumplings and steamed buns, when we were able, but hadn't yet made it to a full-fledged traditional dim sum restaurant. A colleague invited us to join him for lunch at the famous Maxim's in the Hong Kong City Hall. It is described, by colleague Joyce Lau in the Herald Tribune, as "a rough-and-tumble Cantonese experience. ...There are no menus. Instead, Chinese women push around carts with steamed things in bamboo containers, and you order by pointing."

The restaurant is on the third floor and looks out at Kowloon side. The dishes are refined, and the tea cups have handles. The table cloths are starched and the decoration is ornate. It was a lovely, if sprawling, space.

All along I had had the feeling that there was a great dim sum secret that would only be revealed on this side of the Pacific. As it turns out, there was a revelation, just not the one I expected.

In fact, all the best dim sum has been successfully transported to California. San Francisco, the sprawling eateries of the San Gabriel Valley, they can do everything The Fabulous Hong Kong Maxim's can do.

Except replicate Maxim's fabulous view of Victoria Harbor.

We ordered from ladies pushing trolleys. Starting with rice-noodle wrapped vegetable dumplings and spring rolls and barbecued pork buns and continuing with lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice, beef balls, shrimp dumplings and pork dumplings. It was all excellent. But aside from the xiao long bao -- Shanghai-style soup dumplings -- I didn't encounter anything I hadn't already seen and tasted.

In fact, I saw less than usual. Whether this was because we were there toward the end of the lunch service or that this restaurant is popular with Western tourists, I don't know.

My family likes to go to NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, Calif., for dim sum on Sundays. We are often the only "Western" family there, among hundreds (the restaurant seats about 1,000) of Chinese families there after church. The ladies there speak less English than the ones at Maxim's and there is definitely more pointing.

But there are seemingly more options and more exotic things. Running closely behind the barbecued-pork char siu bao as my favorite dim sum is the spicy salted squid. I saw something that looked like pork rinds at Maxim's, and they had spicy cuttlefish -- what looked like squid tentacles. But that was the most exotic thing I saw. Not even any chicken feet.

My meal on Monday was excellent. The atmosphere is lively. But there was just the one thing that came by on the carts that was any different than what I'd had before.

Paul's colleague Mike, who took us, told us that unless we dine with people who speak Cantonese, there will always be things that are off-limits to us. He recounted a time at a well-known Hong Kong restaurant and said his meal was fine, but not exceptional. But when he brought a Cantonese-speaking friend along, the meal was superb.

The Chinese, he said, don't tend to order off the menu; they use it simply as a guide to start a conversation. "What's good tonight?" is usually the first question a Cantonese-speaking diner will ask. We, of course, are at a disadvantage and must rely on the menu, however limited it seems.

The fabulous thing about dim sum, though, is that we can see what's on offer, and come to our own conclusions about "what's good."

And it points out a more global concept: The U.S., with its immigrant populations, has ethnic restaurants on a par with the originals, I have come to believe.