Saturday, July 30, 2011

The First Cut is the Deepest

When my nephew was a baby, about 18 months old, he had this strip of hair that was always in his eyes. It drove both of us crazy. So I cut it one night when I was left on my own with him, just that tiny piece at the front. His mother was furious, she'd never cut his hair before, ever. I couldn't see what the big deal was back then, it was 10 years ago, and I thought I had done the kid a favour. The mother in question went on to shave the little guy's head a few months later, which baffled me even more.

But, a few months ago as I stood in front of J, a pair of scissors in my hands and tears in my eyes, I finally got it - that first haircut is a big step. J hardly had any hair for the first 11 months of his life and when it did grow it grew fast and in patches. When it came time to trim the few errant strands that he did have, I was heartbroken and insisted on doing it myself. I kept those few precious locks in a little envelope in his baby album, for no one's sake but my own. Of course, it was a complete hatchet job and we had to take him to a real hairdresser a few days later, but it was important to me that I could say that I had given him his first haircut. We went along to a small salon where they had a ride-on car and TV screens to distract the little ones and we took photos. It was all over in a matter of minutes and he looked like a new kid. Not only that, he looked like a little boy. To me that first haircut was like a rite of passage - it marked the start of toddlerhood. My little boy was no longer a baby. It was also the end of my haircutting days...

J now has quite a bit of hair. It's growing thick and fast and evenly, all over his little head, finally. He's had a couple of haircuts since that first one, and he's hated every minute of it. He thrashes about and cries and clings onto one or both of us. The last one was such a disaster it looks like I did it myself.

Here the local Chinese believe that if you shave a baby's head, he or she will be blessed with thick lustrous locks their whole life. There are a lot of babies getting around with buzz cuts, even little girls, and I find it a little disturbing. The little baldies look like mini prison escapees, or like they've had a nasty head lice infestation. Apart from the whole lifetime of enviable hair thing, there are advantages to taking to the little one's head with the clippers. With his perpetually snotty nose and bad, homestyle 'fro, J's a set of scabbed knees away from looking like no one loves him. At least he's robust and healthy looking, so it's obvious that he's well fed, if not well groomed.

I'm on this topic tonight because we've been delaying another haircut. Part of me wants to let it grow out until it's a mass of unruly blonde locks, but I do like a short back and sides. I'm sure no matter how I cut his hair, at some point J will want to shave his head, or dye it blue or something equally outrageous just to scare his mother, but for now, while I can't stop him from growing up so quickly, I can keep his hair out of his eyes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top Tip Tuesday-South Lantau

It would be impossible to include everything there is to know about our little island in just one post, so for today I'm going to stick with fun things to do over here, village by village, with a family-friendly focus.

Mui Wo - If you get the ferry over from Central this is where you'll arrive. Mui Wo is a great place to rent bikes and ride around to Silvermine Bay. The beach is quite nice and not too crowded, and there's a fairly large playground for kids nearby. There are plenty of options for eating out, but our picks are Bahce Turkish restaurant, China Bear pub, and Cafe Paradiso, for coffee and sandwiches. Mui Wo is the starting point for a number of great hikes on the island and there are signs everywhere leading you in the right direction. There is also a bus terminal for transport to most of the other villages on Lantau. There's a Wellcome and a Park n' Shop (although not a whole lot of parking...) so you can stock up on essentials if you plan on spending a bit of time out here. Ark Eden is a great local initiative based in Mui Wo. Their focus is on sustainability and environmental education. They hold workshops and tree-planting days and are absolutely worth a visit whether you have kids or not. Check out their website for more info on what they do.
Pui O - It's easy to be deceived by the look of Pui O. As you pass through it on the bus it looks like a dump. On the outside it has very little going for it but once you delve a little deeper you'll find a real gem. The beach is lovely and you can easily set yourself up at Ooh La La and spend a whole day there. You can even rent a tent and camp overnight, and they often do family movie nights on the beach. Treasure Island has a great range of activities as well. There are, again, many hikes that start here and the Chi Ma Wan trail is challenging but worthwhile. The buffalo roam freely around the place and there are countless bird species that call this part of the world "home."

Cheung Sha - Further along the coast you'll find the two beaches that are known collectively as Cheung Sha upper and lower. The lower beach is more well known and has a strip of restaurants running along the eastern end of the beach. The Stoep is without a doubt the most well-known of these, it has a great atmosphere but it does get crowded and for what it's worth, it's a little overrated. High Tide is another option as is News Bistro. They all offer good food and a great location. There are lifeguards on duty every day during the summer months and dogs are also allowed on the beach. The only downside to such a popular spot is the junks that frequently park offshore and empty their waste directly overboard. We've had some pretty unpleasant stuff wash up onshore, ruining a perfectly lovely afternoon. Just around the bay is one of HK's longest beaches. It's a little less sheltered and doesn't have anywhere near the facilities of it's neighbour, but upper Cheung Sha beach is right on our doorstep. Palm Beach sports centre has been built up over the last couple of years and they have a great set-up. You can hire just about anything for a day of beach fun, from windsurfers to kayaks to BBQ's and tents, they have the lot. You can hang out on the grass with a glass of wine or buy a few drinks from the kiosk and take them down to the beach. They also do big events, both private and public and it's a great place to ring in the new year or celebrate mid-autumn festival with the locals. Nudity, dogs and ball games are prohibited on this stretch of beach but you do see frequent displays of all three and more.
Ngong Ping, Po Lin Monastery and the Giant Buddha - No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a trip to see the Tian Tan buddha, the world's largest outdoor bronze statue. The Ngong Ping cable car will get you there from Tung Chung, as will a number of buses. While the village itself mainly caters for tourists, the Buddha himself cuts an impressive figure against the backdrop of Lantau Peak. For something a little different try the vegetarian lunch at Po Lin Monastery, it's good value and seriously good food. It beats Ebeneezers and Subway hands down! There are always crowds at the Buddha but avoid going on a weekend or on special holidays as it's just not worth it (unless you're Buddhist).

Tai O - Tai O is a sleepy fishing village right on the tip of Lantau. It's a long way from Mui Wo and Tung Chung but you can hike there from almost anywhere on the island. The hike from the Ngong Ping turnoff is a great hike. It's about 10km but the scenery is spectacular and the hidden monasteries and the abandoned estate you'll pass on the way are amazing. For more information about hiking on Lantau get a copy of "The Serious Hiker's Guide to Hong Kong." Anyway, Tai O gets quite busy but as you walk the streets and hear the rhythmic shuffling of mahjong tiles, with the smell of drying fish in your nostrils,you can't help but feel like you're somewhere quite special.
Tung Chung - To be honest, if you don't like outlet shopping, there's really not a lot on offer in Tung Chung. Technically it's not on South Lantau, it's north, but it does a few good points I want to mention. There's a cinema, the MTR station and the start of the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, a huge new pool complex, and a great municipal building with a library and soft playroom but not much else. My picks are the Kiddie Wonderland playroom at the Regal Airport Hotel, Olea restaurant at the Novotel and the fountain outside Citygate. It's a fun place for kids to play and there's a Starbucks and Haagen Dazs for hot afternoons, or just for people watching.

So there you have it. My guide to our little part of the world. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface so please write in and tell me if you live here or have visited and think I've missed something.

For next week, I'd love to hear from you - what are your top tips for life in Hong Kong? Things to do, places to go, how to survive? Leave a comment or drop me an email ( and I'll feature your tips in a special post next Tuesday.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Real Friends or Facebook Friends?

I have to say from the outset, I love Facebook. It's not without it's flaws, like all of us, but I think anyone who criticises it too much simply shouldn't use it. I have one friend who comes and goes from it every now and then. He said it has turned him into a "lazy friend." I can definitely see how this is possible, after all, you simply need to log in to catch up on what most of your friends have been up to lately, you don't even need to contact them if you don't want to - it's that simple. You also get reminded when your friend's birthdays are coming up and you can write on their wall instead of putting the date in your diary and labouring over birthday cards, which is SO last century! (Check out this article in The New Yorker on the same topic).

I think the main appeal for me is that, as an expat, I live a long way away from everyone I love. I like being able to see photos of my friend's babies, and reading about my cousin's recent trip to Europe, or the wedding of an old uni friend. I probably wouldn't know about any of this stuff if it weren't for Facebook. I might sound like a lazy friend who can't be bothered keeping in touch any other way, but the reality is I'm a busy friend. We're all busy, and sometimes it's easier to write a quick status update than an email detailing the minutiae of our lives for each of our long-distance friends.

Sometimes Facebook a little intrusive and voyeuristic, but I make sure that I only accept friend requests from people I'm actually friends with - people I genuinely want to keep in touch with. Here lies one of the problems with social networking: far too many people use it as a form of consumerism. They base their self-worth on how many friends they've accumulated. You meet them on the street one day and have a chat about how cute your kid is and the next thing you know they want to be "friends." I do believe that networking is an important part of building a new life in a foreign country, as we are so valiantly trying to do, but do I really want random neighbours and colleagues having access to my photos from last Christmas? Or have them knowing that last night I made a kick-arse gnocchi carbonara? I try to avoid giving away too much normally, and I tend to avoid others who like to share way too much, but where do you draw the line? Who do you let in? And what do you do when someone is offended by being kept out? The biggest question is, can you really count someone as a friend if you're "friends" on Facebook? For now, I can say yes, they're all genuine friends, but I don't know how long it can stay that way.

In this day and age where everyone has a blog, a Facebook profile, connections on LinkedIn, and a Twitter account, and where so much marketing and networking is done online, you feel like you need to have an internet presence to achieve almost anything. I was recently part of the Sydney Writer's Centre blog awards, and one of the things the judges looked at was the way bloggers used social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to promote their blogs. Basically I would've scored a big, fat ZERO in that category, because apart from linking to the occasional post on my Facebook page I didn't do any of it. None of it comes naturally to me. Self-promotion has always been a challenge and it seems anathema to me to befriend someone or make a connection in the hope that my blog will be promoted and it'll boost my "traffic." But then again, isn't that the whole point of social media and networking sites?Perhaps the whole "you promote my blog and I'll promote yours" mentality is the new Tupperware party or recipe swap: we're all in it for something, so what's there to lose? A connection is a connection after all.

I know that there's a lot that I don't know and if I can't use social media to my advantage then I may as well get out of the game, so to speak. I recently joined Twitter, and I felt like how I imagined my Nanna felt the first time she used a mobile phone, because as much as I love my laptop and my blog, at heart I'm old-school. Until I got an iPhone for my birthday last year, I still carried an address book and diary around in my handbag, and even now I still dutifully transfer the birthdays from one calendar to the next every December. I like handwriting Christmas and birthday cards, and heaven forbid, I do still pick up the telephone (a landline no less) to call people. I have been trying to touch base with an old friend for a week now and we emailed, we chatted on Facebook, we tried Skype, but we kept missing each other. Eventually he called me using Viber, another new fangled technology, but it was still great to actually hear his voice on the phone. Sometimes, I truly feel like all these new ways of connecting make it more difficult to actually, genuinely connect. And there are times when I wonder if they're all just a number of different ways to be rejected - it's like highschool all over again.

But, having said that, I do like Facebook and I use it liberally, because I like knowing what my friends are up to and I can choose who I interact with. It's not an old-school way of keeping in touch, but for now I can be selective and keep it as simple as I like. So the guy who used to throw spitballs at me in English class was rejected, but some very dear friends who I lost touch with are now, and I'm very grateful for it, back in my life. I don't base my personal success on how many Facebook "friends" I have, or how many people follow me on Twitter, and I like it that way. Unfortunately the success of A Mummy in a Strange Land may be riding on my ability to promote it across the internet (or are the kids calling it "the web" these days?) and that's a far more difficult task than writing a few posts every now and then, or remembering someone's birthday.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Top Tip Tuesday - Talk the Talk

One of my pet hates is people who have lived in Hong Kong for years but have never made any attempt to learn the local language. They're usually those who will also proclaim that you don't need to learn the language because "everyone speaks English." In my experience this just isn't true. In Australia you'll often hear people complain that immigrants don't speak English, and they tend to make statements like "if they want to live here they should learn." I have a new perspective on both how rude it is to live somewhere and expect to get by speaking your own language, and also just how hard it is to learn a new one.

From taxi drivers to shop assistants I encounter people who don't speak English on a daily basis. While I was pregnant D and I had lessons with a lovely local man who came to our home once a week and attempted to teach us the subtle nuances of Cantonese. He laughed at our accents and at times overwhelmed us with the complexities of a language that is riddled with landmines, but he was kind and patient, and it was our first experience of spending time with a native Hong Konger. My Cantonese got lost in the fog of new baby bliss and I can't claim to know much more than I did when I first started out, but I know the basics and I find that a little bit goes a long way. I used to get frustrated when I'd attempt to practice my best "how much is this?" in Cantonese only to be met with either a blank stare or a response in English. I still make the attempt but I've realised that most of the locals who do speak English like to practice as well. They're most often grateful that you've made the effort and speak English (when they can) to make it easier for you. It's always nice to see the look of surprise on a taxi drivers face when you give him the address in Cantonese or when you thank the shop assistant politely.

So, unless you're fluent, the following might help:

  • We had several Cantonese lessons before we moved to Hong Kong but without practice it was quickly lost. It made a lot more sense when we came here and heard it and used it every day. If you do pick up a few phrases, don't be shy, the more you practice, the better you'll get.
  • Cantonese (Gwan-dong-wah) is a tonal language. You need to learn it by ear, so a phrase book won't be nearly as helpful as lessons with a native speaker, you'll probably learn a lot more about the local culture than just the language too. 
  • The same word can have up to nine different meanings depending on the way it's said and you really can get yourself into trouble. The word for nine can also be dog or penis, not words you want to get mixed up!
  • Even if you learn nothing else, please and thank you (mh goi, and do je) are essential. Your address, numbers and how to ask for directions are also useful. Whenever I'm going somewhere new I look up the address in my phrasebook and I also have the map open on my iPhone (in Chinese characters as well as English) to save time, money and a whole lot of frustration. 
  • Knowing some phrases may help you avoid getting ripped off in shops. Pulling out a "gei do chin ah?" (how much is it?) and "tie gwai la!" (too expensive) might only save you a few dollars but proving you're not just a tourist is worth it for the expression on the faces of the shopkeepers trying to charge you tourist prices.
  • Don't ever be arrogant enough to assume that English will be spoken everywhere you go. If you get caught out, or lost, be polite and patient and with a few gestures you'll get by.
  • Language courses are everywhere but here's a list of a few to get you started:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Top Tip Tuesday - Beware of Sharks

Apologies for the fact that most of my Tuesday Top Tips come quite late in the day - this one being no exception. We are finally doing swimming lessons and by the time we get home we are in desperate need of an afternoon nap. So, late it may be, but here's today's Top Tip.

Many of the companies in Hong Kong that recruit expats offer insurance as part of their juicy expat-enticing packages. Dental and medical coverage is a big plus, as healthcare here isn't cheap. While the public system is world-class, many expats prefer the private clinics with their more Western-style approach. Unfortunately the private system isn't always perfect. There's this crazy pricing system here that takes advantage of those with a little money (or great insurance), and if you stay in hospital in a private room you'll pay more for everything. For some reasons specialists find it necessary to charge more for the inconvenience of walking a little further down the hall.

There are a number of reputable medical groups, like Quality Health, that have offices all over town and agreements with particular companies or insurers (they're called panel doctors). You would think that this makes it somewhat easier to find a "good" doctor but unfortunately there are some doctors within practices who look at you as walk in the door with your insurance card, and dollar signs appear in their eyes. Other doctors are endorsed by insurers but work independently. Many of them assume that because you have an insurance package you must surely be a wealthy expat, and will find the loopholes in the system to try and charge you for things that aren't covered by your insurance, like obstetrics and pregnancy. When I was first pregnant with my son I went to see a doctor who had, a few weeks earlier, given me a physical. I went along to get the results of my physical (which should have been a freebie) and mentioned that I had since fallen pregnant. She did nothing to confirm that I was pregnant, gave me no prenatal advice, and yet charged me for a prenatal visit. I've heard so many similar stories over the years, like the friend who was charged for two consultations because the doctor asked him how his wife was doing since giving birth - she wasn't even in the room! You also need to be wary of those who want to run every test in the book simply because it IS covered by your insurance. An MRI is great to rule out serious injury, and it's brilliant that it's covered, but they are offered far more often than is necessary here.

The good news is that there are some great doctors and specialists here, many of them expats themselves. The best way to find one that you can trust is through expat forums or word-of-mouth. These are also great resources for helping you avoid the dodgy ones. For the record, I like a couple of practices here that have family doctors and a few specialists under the one roof. If you haven't found a doctor you like try Central Health (they also have practices in Discovery Bay and Repulse Bay) and O,T and P. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any recommendations.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mr Invincible

I'm not sure if this is something that's particularly unique to my family, I'm sure it's not, but it would seem that the men in my life all seem blessed with a complete lack of concern for their own safety.

One of my earliest memories of my father is from a time when we lived on a farm and there was a rather dangerous Brown snake living in a tree out the front of our house. I was only 2 or 3 but I remember the terror I felt as Dad grabbed his shotgun and went to the tree to kill the snake. Now I know it was the snake or us, but there were many more occasions as I grew up where Dad scared the living daylights out of me. His run-ins with motorbikes, carving knives, open fires and printing machines ensured that my blood pressure was always a little high. Just a few weeks ago he narrowly escaped an angle grinder to the chest, cutting open his shoulder instead. No matter how much I begged him to leave the snake alone/retire the bike/stop repairing the appliances himself, he would always say the same thing: "Don't worry darling, it'll be fine, I know what I'm doing." Famous last words.

They say that some girls marry men who are just like their fathers, and if you consider the fact that I married a man who is always right, then I guess you can say that's true of me. Apart from a broken ankle a few years ago, my husband has mercifully avoided the emergency room since I've known him, but his early childhood was the complete opposite. He once fell out of a second storey window, and he always tells the story of how he used to run along the verandah when his dad arrived home from work each day, and simply leap off the end and expect his dad to catch him. He is covered in numerous scars from wrestling matches with his brother and they both bear the marks of incidents involving broken glass. Since we had J he's given up any dangerous hobbies he once had, but he still drives with the false confidence of a man who thinks he invented driving. I try not to think about him behind the controls of a massive plane every time he goes to work, but whenever I hear about plane crashes my heart sinks just a little bit. I don't question his competence but I fear the incompetence of others every time he walks out the door with that same "I'll be fine" attitude my father possesses.

Now I'm starting to see that exact same fearlessness in my smallest man. He stands at the top of the slide and lets go, waving his arms around to see how far he can go before he has to hold on again. Swinging on the swing with his arms out wide, jumping down the stairs, running headfirst into the wall, licking the ice box in the freezer, sticking his fingers into holes in walls or through fences, doing everything we tell him not to do - these are all early signs that my son is going to be a daredevil like the men who've gone before him. It does not bode well... I can just picture our doctor rolling her eyes and saying "what trouble have you gotten yourself into this week young man? Oh, marble up the nose, ok, hold still."

Unlike women, men wear their scars with pride, and laugh about their injuries as if they were no big deal. I have to wonder if it's because they really do believe that they are invincible, or if they do these things because they know that there's a woman, a mum, a wife, a girlfriend, who'll always be there to drive them to the hospital? Do they prove their love for us by going out and risking their lives, and do we prove ours by worrying about them and patching them up when they come home broken and bloodied? Or are they just plain stupid? Whatever the answer is, I've got my first-aid kit on standby, and my heart in my mouth.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Top Tip Tuesday - Find Your Place

Hong Kong is the ultimate 'city that never sleeps.' It's chaotic and hectic, and if you thrive on crowds, noise, traffic, heat and a daily assault on all the senses, then you'll love it. But for those of us that find it just a little overwhelming, it can wear thin at times.

I wasn't here long before I realised that you need a release if you're going to live here happily for any length of time. For some, myself included before I had children, getting away from it all on a regular basis means getting on a plane as often as possible. For others, like the city slickers that flock to Lantau's beaches every weekend, it's possible to get away a little closer to home. Some hit the hills and hike the city out of their systems, while others prefer hiking around the malls in their spare time. From extreme sports to extreme partying; you can find it all right here in Hong Kong if you know what you want.

When I was pregnant and grounded I used to treat myself to regular massages and pedicures. It was a great time out, and more often than not, one that I like to share with a friend. My favourite places for such indulgence are Feel Good FactorIyaraHappy Foot, and Landmark Mandarin Oriental. Today I needed something more - I needed to sit in a quiet, dark room where no one knew me and for 113 minutes to forget where I was. So for the first time ever, I went to a movie by myself. It was exactly what I needed, and cheaper than a pedicure (therefore husband approved!). I'm also getting out of town and heading to Manila again for a few days, because I still think that getting on a plane is the only way to really "get away from it all." You need to find something that works for you, find a place or an activity, that helps you cope with the madness of this crazy city. What do you do to stay sane here?