Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thankful for Slingbox

      Slingbox PRO-HD
     As the year ends, I must let everyone know that I am thankful for Slingbox.  This has been one of the most important pieces to the Hong Kong transition for both Mary Barbara and me.  I owe my brother and sister-in-law a big thanks for setting up the slingbox and being the custodians of our connection to the US and US TV.
    When Mary Barbara and I were researching our potential move over to Hong Kong, we would ask US expats what they missed most and almost to a person the number 1 answer was US TV. So we started doing our research and someone suggested Slingbox.
    Slingbox is a device put out by Sling Media. My brother placed a cable DVR in his house hooked up to his cable, internet and to our slingbox. It is placed in his house and then programmed with an email address and password. Anyone around the world with this email address and password can access the entire cable system that my brother gets at his house. We have an extra laptop so we have it plugged into our TV and log in and get a full very clear, good reception and good picture.  Up on the TV screen pops the same remote that he uses and allows us all the features that his cable system provides.  We have purchased a wireless computer Keyboard/Mouse and use it to operate our laptop sitting on the couch, just like home remote. If my brother’s cable system goes out, then we are in trouble. It has only happened once so far. Steve got on the phone to slingbox tech support out of Puerto Rico, while talking to me on computer in Hong Kong. Several times I have gotten WV games via slingbox here in Hong Kong when my friends in the US could not get the game at all.

writing on laptop, keyboard remote for slingbox

     Watching all the US programs has been great and for me, it allowed me to watch almost every WVU football game and now have started watching the WVU basketball games that are televised. Although the football team has not had a banner year, having slingbox has allowed me not to become too homesick by watching the games, while talking on the computer to my friends and family. It is not uncommon for me to be watching a WVU game, talking to my friend Drew and my brother Steve on the laptop at the same time. I have watched slingbox in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan, China and even Guam. I have watched it in the airport lounges while waiting on a flight. It is an amazing device that allows me to stay connected to the US.  I did get tired of the Machin versus Rease WV governor’s race and please can we stop the Sara McLaughlin humane society commercials.

Slingbox has clear picture to TV--Watching Bowl games
        One of the challenges has been watching live sporting events. If the game starts at noon in the US, that means I must be up at midnight or 1am in Hong Kong to watch the game live. I did this pretty much all year which led to some tired next days. I always hope that WVU will have an evening game as this allows me to get up in the morning and watch the game live. Several times when they were having an evening game, Mary Barbara would make it a tailgate breakfast. We miss going to the games with our friends.  With the DVR it allows us to record our favorite programs which may be when we are working. One of Mary Barbara and my favorite things is to watch the Amazing Race together that we recorded when I get home from the road. We have spent several hours this holiday season watching Christmas shows on Hallmark channel.
     I would recommend Slingbox to any parent who is sending their child to college. The cost of the unit is around $250. There are no additional fees at that point. We do have a separate DVR box at my brother’s house which runs around $11 a month. So the yearly charge for sling box to a college student would be minimal as all they need is high speed internet.
      This Holiday season I must say I am thankful for technology as we have been video skyping, watching our slingbox, emails, Mary Barbara on facebook and of course our Iphones. These items have made our transition to Hong Kong so much easier and allowed us to keep in touch with family and friends. It was wonderful to watch Mary Barbara skyping with her family in Cleveland, San Diego, Athens and Charlotte. It was great to see Andrew yelling into the camera yelling my name so he could get all the attention. It was great commiserating with Drew and Steve at every bad turn (some good) for the WVU football games this year.  Thank all our family and friends; it has been a great year, one we will remember forever.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Look up, Look Down, Look All Around

All above the 1st floor, Must look up
    During my first couple months of living in Hong Kong, I spent a considerable amount of time keeping my eyes focused on my immediate surroundings. Making sure I was walking down the right road, not hitting anyone or not being hit crossing the street were all tops on my radar during that first three months. Once the surroundings were no longer scary to me, I was able to focus on my 360 degree vision and in Hong Kong, that is very interesting.
     Just about every building is a skyscraper, and since I have spent time living in NYC and visiting other large US cities, I would have thought nothing new would present itself but there is a whole new world above/below the 1st floor. As you walk down the street, there is no city code or at least no discernable code, as to how to place a street sign, where to place it or how many can be placed in a limited area. Once you start looking you realize that they are not just for the 1st floor but could be any floor. The first realization of this was of course associated with food. Mary Barbara and I were searching for a breakfast restaurant called The Flying Pan, a version of Hong Kong Dennys. We walked the block several times looking for it, until we looked up. It was located on the 3rd floor. After I ate, that opened my eyes to all the businesses, great stores and restaurants that are hidden in the many skyscrapers advertised by the many signs right in front of you. However, you must be willing to look up to discover this whole new world.

    When you start looking up, you notice all the air conditioners, all the windows and all the architecture. I try not to think about stuff flying off the buildings and hitting me in the head as I walk down the street. One of the most fascinating images to me is a building that is under construction. In the US we see steel scaffolding surrounding buildings that are under construction. Here in Hong Kong they use bamboo and mesh to surround the buildings. I have never seen anyone climbing on the bamboo other than Jackie Chan in the movies, so I am assuming that it is to protect people below from getting hit by something flying off the construction. However, it is bamboo marvel as to how they piece together the bamboo and mesh all the way up the building.

     Now while most of the buildings are anywhere from 20 to 70 stories, we have discovered the fact that you can never truly know just how many floors are in a building. Mary Barbara and I live on the 15 floor but that is misleading as there is no 4th, 14th or 24th floor. Four(4s) are bad luck in this culture so they just leave them out of a lot of buildings, prices and life in general. We did not discover the fact about 4s until after Mary Barbara picked her telephone number which has a number of 4s in it. So some people are not excited about calling her on the phone, at least that is the reason we think people are not calling her.  
    Of course just like NYC, there is also the whole world of the underground metro system, where there is another city below the city with shops, walks and tons of people.  The Hong Kong metro system is much newer, modern and cleaner than the NYC subways. It is very enjoyable to walk down below the street on a scorching hot day. The MTR as it is called here is  easily accessible and very functional system of transportation. Of course when riding the train, I am a Godzilla in the train car, compared to most of the other passengers. I can normally see three or four cars down over the heads of all others. This certainly helps take any potential claustrophobia out of play as I can breathe the air and see my surroundings. The metro is a whole future blog in itself for a later date.
My black cap on right, I can see over everyone
    And finally living on the 15th floor has led us to looking out our own window examining the world. We have been disappointed that we cannot spot our Christmas tree as a beacon of light from outside our window. It is just too far up and vantage points do not allow us to see it. However, we can view many a things from our windows. We see families having dinners, some great wall mounted TV screens in rooms, the occasional exhibition show of one kind or another and of course the most prominent feature of looking up and out is the laundry that hangs out the windows everywhere. No place is too fancy or high that it does not have laundry hanging out the window drying at all times of the day. We hang our laundry in the spare bedroom and so far resisted the out the window method.
McD on 2nd floor besides clothes outside to dry

Living room turned into clothes line

    So the world of Hong Kong is not just a life of right or left, it is a world of up, down and all around. You must develop the ability to see 360 degrees. I am working to develop this vision, so that I find that next great restaurant, the store on the 12th floor that may have the elusive popcorn popper that works on this electric current or the article in the newspaper telling about the 75 year old man who was arrested for pimping out 85 women on floors 13 thru 18 of a building. As I walk down the street, I concentrate on my surroundings and try not to worry about the air conditioner hitting me in the head from above knowing that bamboo will protect me. Instead I know that I will be probably be hit by someone’s underwear and not because I am a rock star, just because they did not secure them to the window.  I will only pretend that I am a rock star.
View from Living Room

I Miss Chinese Food

Click Picture-Snout, tongue and hooves--Yumm
       As Mary Barbara and I make our way thru the Holidays, the one question we get a lot is what is it you miss the most living in Hong Kong?  My standard and honest answer is I miss Chinese Food. Now I realize that this sounds like an Oxymoron since we are living in China (Hong Kong SAR).  However, living in the US and eating Chinese food is totally different than eating the Chinese Food in Hong Kong. Nowhere in Hong Kong is (that I have found) General Taos Chicken or the same Lo Mein or the same Mongolian beef.  The closest thing we find on the Hong Kong Chinese menu is Sweet and Sour, which is very close to what we eat in the US as Sweet and Sour.  When we are out, if I see that on the menu, I always know I have a food that I can eat or will eat.
            So Chinese food here in Hong Kong is hard for me to describe, and I promise myself to become a little more adventurous over the next year, but it will be hard to see myself walking into the little noodle shops that are all over the place.  I still have trouble handling the smell of these shops, but they are popular. Most days at lunch you will see lines waiting to get into these shops. It seems to me that a lot of these shops just throw whatever into a soup. These places are packed with people and in the Asian theater of operations there is no such thing as a table to yourself. Every seat is used at the table and not uncommon to have two people sitting at your table who are speaking another language. My paranoia is that they are talking about why the big white man is not eating noodles.

Duck or Chicken?

            As you walk thru the Hong Kong markets it is not uncommon to see the following, live fish, hogs heads, chicken feet, rows of raw chickens/ducks and a lot of unidentifiable foods. I believe that Mary Barbara witnessed her first chicken being decapitated, as the chickens go from clucking to your table in a manner of minutes if you wish.  When eating in restaurants several items on the menu which are normally on the upper end of the price scale are certainly different than what you would find in the US. It is very common to see Pigeon fixed in a variety of different ways on the menu. One delicacy or so they say, found on plenty of upscale restaurants is a dish called “Birds Nest Soup”.  This special dish is originally prepared by the Swift bird, who makes its nest from strands of its own gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. So it is a birds nest made of bird guano, bird saliva and whatever else ends up in the nest.  I always wonder how the first person who ate this dish figured out how to prepare. I cannot imagine sitting there and saying, I am hungry, I think I will throw that bird’s nest into a pot of water. It sounds like a Campbell’s soup moment.

A picture of a cow and goat, but notice the dead goat hung in front of the picture

      No part of animal or plant is spared from being used. Recently Mary Barbara mentioned we experienced an appetizer of Layered Pigs Ear. It did not taste awful, it just tasted like it sounds. The ear of a pig. Imagine eating the cartilage of any type of ear. It was rubbery and had no taste. Dumping extra sauces on it was the flavor but it still tasted like the cartilage of an ear.
Layered Pigs Ear

Every type of fish (dead or alive)

          While it is hard to find a big bag of M&Ms, a full bag of Oreos or bean with bacon soup, we can find some international groceries that solve the missing US pallet. I cannot tell you how welcome a bag of ruffles potato chips is from the local supermarket. It is the most common purchase of junk food that we allow or should I say I allow me to experience.
          So to tell you that the food I miss most is Chinese Food is probably not that strange for someone who has visited this part of the world, and let me tell you that the best Chinese food I have had this year was in India. Apparently according to my Indian friends and work acquaintances, they eat Chinese in India at least two nights a week. So now in order to get the food I miss most while living in Hong Kong, I must visit India. I would never have thought in my life time, I would have even said that I would be living/eating in Hong Kong, regularly visiting India and what I miss most is Chinese Food. What a WORLD!!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Twas the Night Before Christmas

And we were celebrating our first wedding anniversary - although, and I mean this in the most positive way, it feels more like our 25th. How lucky are we to marry at this point in life when we don't have to worry about starting a family or building our careers? Nonetheless, we have faced our share of typical life challenges in these 12 months: planning a wedding, living together, buying a house, moving, moving to the other side of the world, changing jobs, leaving a job, selling a house (still trying!), learning to live together in a new country, parenting from afar, etc.  And that's why it feels like 25 years! We have come to depend on each other so significantly to meet each of these challenges and have learned how reliable each of us is (very), what our individual strengths are (Mark=money management; MB=flexibility), and our strengths as a couple (sense of humor, patience). 

Do you want the dirty laundry version of our life together? I clean the apartment the day before Mark comes home. Dishes pile up in the sink, there's so much dust I can have a conversation with it, and the towels walk themselves to the washing machine. When Mark is home, I abandon all pretense of a schedule or purpose and spend every moment possible with him. I stop eating salads and drinking eight glasses of water and start eating Ruffles while imbibing in an extra glass of wine. Sleep in, watch movies, lollygag around on the couch, napping at 2 in the afternoon - his days off are my days off!

Anyway, we went to the Conrad Hilton. This hotel is a 5 minute walk from our apartment but a 15 minute cab ride because of road direction/location. Mark used Hilton Honor points and they upgraded us to the Executive Floors meaning, complimentary tea (as in scones, tea, etc.), complimentary evening cocktails, and complimentary buffet breakfast. Our room was beautiful and looked out at Victoria Peak.  There were terry cloth bathrobes plus regular cotton robes, tv in the bathroom, a separate bathtub/shower, lots of scrumptious toiletries and the turn down service included fresh ice, and slippers laid out on a towel on each side of the bed. This is the view from our room. You can see our apartment building-

At the bottom of this picture you see a small pink building. Look to the left of it and you see an "orange" building and to the right of that building is our building - it looks like more glass than building. Our back two bedrooms face the Peak, but our living room/master bedroom face north. We can see Hopewell Center from our living room - as you can in this picture - its the very tall, round building on the left hand side. I think I told you our grocery store (Taste) is in the bottom of this building and the post office is just on the other side of it.

On the right-hand side of this picture is a water-treatment plant and above that, tennis courts.

This next picture is to the right of this scene and directly out our hotel window.

So, look carefully in the lower left corner of this picture and you will see the the tennis courts again (part of them) and a small section of paved road. It is this road we climb up to Bowen Road to walk/run on the path. Admittedly I haven't done this since we moved to this apartment as we have a workout room with treadmills, elliptical, bike and rowing machine. However, the weather is perfect for running outside and Mr. Mark gave me a sports watch (to time runs) for Christmas, so no more excuses for not running outside! 

This is the view from the Executive floor lounge. We sipped our tea, ate scones with clotted cream and jam, read our paper and generally "huff, huff...stiff upper lip, don't you know"ed ourselves through the afternoon. Very relaxing and I felt very pampered. In the picture below, Markie is enjoying his afternoon paper. Behind him you see a man leaning forward in his chair. He was part of a four person party (he and his wife met up with another couple for some holiday cheer). Both couples have several homes around the globe (London, Australia, Santa Barbara) and spent some time discussing where they should end up in the future. Tut-tut, more tea, please, Jeeves.

We went back to our room only to discover the following goodies:

*  A gingerbread house with assorted cookies and nuts (it came home with us)
*  Fruit platter (also came home with us)
*  4 chocolate truffles (delicious)

Later that evening, housekeeping stopped by with a complimentary bottle of champagne (came home with us) and plate of canapes (the one thing we left behind) to help us celebrate our one year of wedded bliss.

We headed to dinner in the lower level of the hotel - the well-known, Golden Leaf restaurant. It was so beautiful inside - lots of gold leafed wallpaper, plush carpeting, thick white table clothes, and the kind of lighting that feels romantic and intimate but doesn't make you squint to see the menu.  We decided to be bold in our appetizer choice and conservative in our dinner choice. What you see below is our appetizer - layered pig's ear. All I can say is, at least we tried it. Dinner (roast duck with plum sauce and sweet/sour pork with fried rice) was much more palatable and to our liking. :)

After dinner, we strolled around the hotel and enjoyed all the commotion. Lots of people come to Hong Kong to shop and as the stores are open on Christmas here, its a popular destination over the holiday. Because of the previous British rule, there are lots of British traditions still present, including wearing hats, blowing horns and use of Christmas "poppers."  Everything felt so festive and happy! It helped take our minds off the fact that our own families were 7,000 miles away and 12 hours behind our celebration.

And, here we are - the happy couple, in front of the hotel Christmas tree made up of teddy bears of all sizes:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from Hong Kong!

Allow me to give you a tour of our holiday decorations...

Mark and I went to the Flower Market over in Kowloon to check out Christmas Trees. For many reasons we decided to go with an imitation (can't type f*ke) tree. While on the hunt we found some other little charmers to bring home and share the holiday spirit!

First up, the Santa Calendar. There are 3 apartments on each floor and ours is right next to the elevators. The other 2 apartments have kids so I was very excited to hang the Santa Calendar where the kids would see him each day and follow along in the countdown.

The cluster of Santas and snowmen is kid-friendly although I can tell they haven't been moved. They cheer me up every time I step off the elevator.

On the other side of the door, our wishes for snow go unanswered but we have had very chilly weather - it was a high of 42 the other day. Now, I know, 42 isn't that cold, but our building does not have any heating systems so after awhile that 42 seeps in... Notice my black lined rain jacket hanging on the coat rack - you know that rain when its about 50 degrees and the wind is blowing? But I didn't mind (if this had been Cleveland or Athens I would have complained).  So we've bundled up with sweaters and extra blankest on the bed -  frankly, its been quite cozy and helps bolster the Christmas spirit!

Next is our table. The table cloth is from our wedding last year, the candle sticks from a little store in Prince's Building and....ta da! My first "clove orange" wrapped in pretty purple ribbon. I haven't "made" one before (as if it was really challenging) and they do smell delicious - at least for the first several hours. Interestingly, clove is a preservative so by inserting these cloves into the orange, the orange stays in good shape for quite some time.

And now for the Christmas tree. We love it. True, it doesn't have the amazing scent of a fresh tree, but I have to tell you, being able to bend branches to make the ornaments stay on is the best! Oh look, a small hole - I'll just bend this branch over here. That ornament is a kinda heavy? No problem, we'll just bend the branch up a little and voila!  This tree came with pre-attached pine cones, I added the red berries from our wedding decorations of last year, and instead of a traditional star, we selected a traditional Chinese decoration (the 4 red hearts draped down the side of the tree).

Mark has been traveling quite a bit (Indonesia, Guam and India in the last 4 weeks - ask him about 2 dead guys and James Cameron) and I've kept busy with work for ProLiteracy and am now part of a team providing pd support for an initiative in Minnesota. May I also share that an article on which I was lead author (and that's due to someone's great generosity) was published in the November issue of an adult education journal. I appreciate my wonderful coworkers at Central/Southeast ABLE!

My volunteer work continues with the students in Ap Lei Chau and we had our "Christmas" party this last Wednesday. I showed them how to cut snowflakes from paper, we pigged out on cookies, brownies and Ruffles (the list they gave me for the party), listened to Christmas carols and played Cranium.  We're on break until January. I just received an email that a local company (Santa Fe - how appropriate for the season) has donated a junk trip in May for our club. A "junk trip" is a boat ride on a classic Hong Kong boat out on Victoria Harbor.

And! Our first wedding anniversary is this Friday, December 24, 2010. Mark has made reservations at the Conrad Hilton here in Hong Kong for Christmas Eve. He has the next two weeks off before resuming travels that take him to South Korea and Macau (a trip I get to accompany him on!).

I don't feel the need to recap this year as all of you know the wonderfully, crazy, scary ride it has been! Thank you for all the love, support, and care you have showered on us. We are so thankful for our family and friends, no matter where in the world you live. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may 2011 bring you all that your heart desires.