The (Kwint)-Essentials of Life

During the six weeks we were in China (and the year leading up to it) there was a resource I used in order to learn quick little basic pieces of information about any culture I wanted. The website is called Kwintessential, and if we didn’t have it, we may or may not have committed social suicide.

One instance where it was pretty important to know some inside information was when all of us in the group went over to Thomas Yau’s home for dinner. We had never been to a Chinese home for dinner, so we weren’t sure what were the dos and don’ts (if any). After using my beloved resource, we learned there were specific suggestions to follow when going to someone’s home in Hong Kong, and not just China. Advice such as “do not give red or white flowers,” “Elaborate gift wrapping is important,” and “do not give clocks, as they are associated with death” were up and down the entire page. We took the advice and did a few of the dos on the list such as giving “imported spirits,” in our case a Californian wine. We also gave a bouquet of flowers with appropriate colors (purple and yellow) and appropriate quantities (8, a lucky number). I think we did a good job picking out the right stuff, but we will probably never know whether what we gave was “excellent” or “ehh.” When we gave the gifts to Mrs. Yau, she thanked us and then went to the back of her flat to put the gifts away, she never opened them. This is common in Asia because the gift giving is very important, but not the focus of the get together. Asian cultures like to receive gifts and then immediately put them away so they can focus on what’s important, their guests. Also, in case they do not like the gifts they where given, they do not want to have to try and fake as if they really like the gift (Socks?! Oh, you shouldn’t have. Really you shouldn’t have.).

As our trip was coming to an end, I no longer needed to find out the rules and etiquette of the culture we just spent six weeks in, we were about to enter another culture… our own. American culture doesn’t really seem like a culture to me, it just seems like reality. I’ve been living in its borders for 22 years, so I’m simply used to everything going on. Now that I have been away for awhile, I wondered what America will be like? Different? Same? I once again decided to use my trusty resource Kwintessential to find out the answer to a question I thought I would never ask; what are Americans like?

Everything I read seemed familiar, but in a weird way. Every piece of information such as “Americans are direct. They value logic and linear thinking” to “Handshakes are firm, brief, and confident” all made sense. While I was reading I kept saying to myself “yeah, I guess people do do that here.” It was like an out-of- body experience to take all the things I do and observe them as if it is something I am trying to learn. What’s even weirder is seeing it for the second-first-time.

Once we arrived in Detroit it seemed like the noisiest airport I had ever been to. Everybody is talking on their phones and running around in a frenzy. We saw lots of frenzies in China, but they were much quieter. A big reason for the noise is that Americans do not like silence. We typically like something interesting to do at all times. When it comes to social interaction, we are very friendly and informal. I saw this all the time. At one point, Suzy and I were talking to a couple on the way back from Portland about anything and everything. We had never met these people before and we probably won’t ever see them again, but we all felt like killing time with a little conversation. Even on the plane (after waiting for 20 years), everyone is talking to anyone sitting within speaking distance of them about how long we waited, why we waited, and what they could do to make sure we ever have to wait again. We didn’t solve any problems on that flight and we never got any answers, but the satisfaction of speaking to others about it was enough to relieve the stress.

Going away to a foreign country is an amazing experience and it teaches you a lot about how other people approach life. Using my resources and hands-on time with the people of China has opened a lot of new ideas to me. At the same time, going away from home has made me see home in a very different way. I no longer see people starting a random conversation as “space-invaders,” I see them as people wanting to kill some time and maybe create a little connection with a fellow human being. It has been quite a ride, and fortunately, it’s still going.

A New Home

China is the oldest civilization known to man. Roughly 5,000 years old, the up-and-coming world power has everything that is new and everything that is ancient. Seeing the sites in China earlier this summer was easily one of the great privileges I have ever had. From the Great Wall to the World Expo, China has a lifetime of travel within its borders. But I have to say one of the greatest parts of traveling abroad is not what you learn about other countries, it is what you learn about your own. Being in China for six weeks gave me the opportunity to look into my own culture, from the outside, and discover some new perspectives.
There is a stereotype in the U.S. about Asians and there intellect. Apparently, they are all great at math and they are all prodigies at a musical instrument. There is also a belief in the U.S. about our educational system and how it is going down the tubes. There may be some truths to these, Asian societies highly value schooling and the U.S. could do a little more to strengthen schooling, nationwide. At the same time, I believe we have two different approaches to education. Asian societies seem to be more book smart; they study very hard and spend many hours making sure they get good grades. In the U.S., we seem to be leaning towards getting street smart. Have you ever noticed those “Immersion Projects” being promoted so much around campus? These put students in an environment where they get hands-on experience and create, instead of reading a book and taking a test. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather do that than take a test. Besides, some of the greatest minds of all time didn’t finish college (Johann Sebastian Bach, Bill Gates, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin). I’m not saying you should you drop out of school; just don’t freak out so much when you get a B+ on an English exam.
Speaking of English, we are pretty lucky when it comes to language in this country. For the most part, everyone speaks English. Yes, there is the occasional hotline call where we have to decide #1 for English or #2 for Spanish (it’s so hard isn’t it?), but other than that we have it pretty good. In Asia, there are large amounts of the English language in so many places. From train stops to grocery stores, being an English speaker in Asia is a lot easier than you would think. Asian school systems start teaching English in kindergarten (unlike the U.S. where we have a few mandatory semesters of foreign language), and while it is true that the English-speaking world is the most economically prosperous, that may change in the near future (so don’t get too comfortable). Get out there and learn a little bit about some other languages; it’ll let you into the other parts of the world that the English language can’t (which is a lot).
When I first arrived in China I couldn’t believe how much American food was here (and when I say food I don’t mean real food, I mean fast food). From McDonald’s to Burger King to KFC (which is the most popular of all), if you only eat American fast food, you would not starve in China. What’s extremely interesting is what possibilities might occur in the future as a result of the fast food boom in China. Asians, in general, are known for being at a good, healthy body weight (unlike the U.S. where there is the occasional Jaba the Hut strolling down a Wal-Mart aisle in a motorized cart). Unfortunately, Sumo Wrestlers might not just be athletes, but also office workers. Let’s hope they won’t ever have to deal with that problem (and we can get rid of ours).
I’ve seen a lot of differences during my time in China and it has helped me see the U.S. in a new way. There was so much to see and even after I saw it I couldn’t believe it existed. At the same time, the most important lesson I learned while overseas was this: all humans are exactly the same, but in a different way. At our core, we generally all want the same things: food, water, shelter, and companionship. What makes us different is how we fulfill these wants: rice versus bread, bottled water versus fresh water, small apartment in the city versus big house in the country. Before learning about other cultures and the way they operate, it all seemed so… well… foreign. But after seeing and learning what it is about, it makes perfect sense.
Exploring the planet is one of life’s great joys. The opportunity to see new ways of living has made me a fortunate person. It is funny how a foreign country can feel like an alien planet, but after awhile, it starts to feel like home.

Heading Westward

 

China has truly been too good to us. Although trips to China by Ball State students will continue for years to come, I can’t imagine any future trips being as good as the first. 

What has really made this six week excursion great has been the people. Not only did we get to see each city we traveled to, through our own eyes, but we got to talk to and spend time with people who live in those places and are a part of the everyday life. These relationships provided a priceless perspective on a foreign culture. 

From an academic stand point I know that I could not have gotten the same journalistic experience I have gotten over the past month and half in any classroom at home. Being in China has taught me a lot about the way news media work and also turned me onto international journalism. Since being able to visit China Daily in Beijing and ESPN International in Hong Kong, I am seriously interested in seeking out international internships or even working as a journalist overseas after graduation. 

As we spent our last night in the Hong Kong airport, the only thing I could think about is how lucky I am to have been a part of such incredible adventure. My outlook on the world, my own country and myself have all be changed by our experiences. I wouldn’t take back any part, good or bad.

Ice Bar for Dominic's Birthday

Dominic’s Birthday in Hong Kong

Saturday night we went out with our new Hong Kong friends to celebrate Dominic’s 23rd birthday. First on the list from our night of debauchery was dinner. Our friends took us to a restaurant in the Causeway Bay area that seemed like all the others we had been to in Hong Kong but this one was a little different.

Ice Bar for Dominic's Birthday

Yes the food was good, and yes the service was great, but what made this stand apart from the rest came by surprise during the end of the meal. After we had eaten and had been disappointed to find out that there was no Happy Birthday singing in restaurants in Hong Kong, the waitress brought out something that looked along the lines of the famous dumplings. They seemed to be made of the same type of batter but turned out to be a very traditional birthday dessert. Although they looked like dumplings they tasted much different, and in my opinion a lot better. It was a weird, or should I say different, combination of sweet outer batter with a meat middle. Different, but a good different.

After dinner with our Hong Kong friends, we went to a bar in the Lan Kwai Fong area just to kill some time. It was a bar with a Russian theme and an ice bar that got down to -22ºC (-7.6ºF ) as pictured above. The bar provided optional fur coats so no one would freeze to death.

Third on the list was the trip to the night club Billon. According to our friends it is popular spot in Hong Kong, and by the amount of people there, I would have to agree. I think maybe we all spent a little too much money, but I’m pretty sure I can speak for all of us that it was a night well worth it. And hopefully Dominic got a birthday celebration that he will never forget.

Adventure ’til the end (really)

It started innocently enough.  Suzy went to Delta’s website to check on our seat assignments for the flight home.  What she discovered is giving us our latest challenge!  Our flight home has been delayed, and not just by a few hours.  Our 9:15am flight to Detroit is now scheduled to leave at 11:59pm!  Yes, that’s nearly 15 hours late! That means we will arrive in Detroit in the middle of the night.  Needless to say, we’ll miss our connecting flights to Indy.  We’re still working on the details of what happens next.  But we’ll have details soon, I hope!

This story took an interesting twist during the day on Sunday.  As we tried to determine our flight options, we contacted Delta in the U.S. since the Hong Kong office is closed on Sundays.  Suzy and I told the customer service agent about the situation, and that it was important that if we have to be rebooked, that all of us are on the same flights.  His response was “What would you like me to do?”  That was puzzling.  It seemed quite obvious to me.  Make sure all seven of us are on the same flight.  So I explained that this was a school group and that, as a faculty member, it is important that I can track all student travel.  The agent then asked if they were minors.  I said it depends what you consider a minor.  All are over 18 but some are under 21.  The agent’s response included the phrases “so what’s your problem” and “they’re not going to get kidnapped.”  Needless to say, that did not go over well.  I asked to speak to his manager.  But that never happened.  After waiting on hold for 10 minutes, we lost the connection.  

We called back and spoke to a great rep who took good care of us… at least we thought she did.  After some tinkering, she gave us great advice about options and recommendations for flights from Detroit to Indy.  We were back in business, at least until I went to check my reservation online.  The Delta website couldn’t find my reservation anymore.  So I called again and spoke to another very helpful agent.  She did some typing and determined that my reservation had been deleted!  Oops!  Somehow,the last agent must have done it.  But no harm done.  She reinstated it. 

But I buried the lead.  It was actually good that this all happened!!!  All of it!  As I was speaking to this agent, she agreed to manually move everyone to the same flight from Detroit to Indy.  That accomplished the original goal – to keep everyone together.  She went through each person, but Sarah’s reservation wouldn’t come up, no matter what she tried.  After some research, she discovered why.  Sarah was booked on the wrong day!  Her ticket was for Saturday, not Monday! So technically, she missed her flight.  And Delta couldn’t do anything about it, since Delta didn’t book it.  After we finished our conversation, I sent a frantic email to Marsha, our travel agent in Muncie.  Thank goodness she checks her email on the weekend.  She was able to repair the reservation, and all was well.  Too bad she can’t make Delta run on time.

Gambling

The other day, the rest of the group and I made a little side trip to Macau. Macau is a Portuguese settlement that is now part of The People’s Republic of China. It is a 60 minute  ferry ride across the South China Sea to Macau. Ask anyone and they will tell you that I am up for just about any type of fun, but in Macau I was just another stick in the mud. I gambled a little at first, but after losing HK$240 (USD $30), somehow I thought the casinos were getting the better end of the deal no matter how many free drinks and free plays they threw at me. Even though I had only lost USD $30 it still made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t like the thought of losing MY money for no good reason. Some will argue and justify it as entertainment, but to me it all sounds like a foolish game. What made me even sicker was the hundreds of people throwing their money away as well. I just couldn’t see the sense in it, so instead, I spent the rest of my time in Macau relaxing in the bars or watching others throw their money away.

Dinner with our new friend

Thomas, Dominic, Jack, and Kevin enjoy a relaxing evening.

Thomas Yau invited us all to his home for a lovely dinner cooked by his very kind mother.  We were instantly welcomed by Thomas at the MTR station and then continued on our way to a stunning apartment complex.  We walked in to see an elegant fountain, a tempting swimming pool, and the most beautiful view of the mountains that I have seen so far in Hong Kong.

We sat down for dinner and the food just kept on coming.  We started with Chinese meatballs and the best dumplings we’ve had since being here.  Thomas kept translating what his mom was saying and she kept telling us that there was still more on its way. She wasn’t lying. She soon brought out spring rolls and sweet and sour fish.  Everything was delicious!  Then we had a sort of Chinese burrito.  I’m not sure exactly what you would call it.  First, you put some sugared seaweed on top of a pancake.  Then you add a delicious mixture of tofu, chicken, vegetables, and more.  Then you add sweet peanuts and chili sauce.   Finally, you roll it all together and enjoy!  Some of us, I won’t mention any names, had a tough time keeping their food together.  Our stomachs were packed at this point, but Thomas’ mom said that dessert was on its way.  Who doesn’t have room for dessert? 

Dessert consisted of sweet dumpling soup with flowers and fruit.  We have had this soup before, but this version was tastier. Thomas told us that it is a Chinese tradition to make sure that your guests do not leave hungry.  Our stomachs were definitely satisfied.  After dinner, we had Oolong tea, which Thomas said is good for digestion.  It was a nice change to have dinner at a home.  We all miss that.

Then, Thomas took us around Mong Kok, which is a happening place.  It reminds me a lot of NYC, with all of its flashy lights, packed sidewalks, and street performers.  It was a perfect way to end a perfect evening! 

On another note, today is Dom’s birthday; so make sure to wish him a very happy one!

One Game Changes Everything

Every newspaper you open has feature sections on it. Am I talking about the Detroit Tigers season so far? Nope, it’s the World Cup, and it’s everywhere you look! At least outside of the United States, here in Hong Kong.

Lan Kwai Fong Bar Street

The game is simple, 22 players, 11 on each team, try to kick a ball into a net repeatedly over the course of 90 minutes. The entire world, subtract the U.S.A., goes absolutely crazy for this game. Coverage in the newspapers, on TV, and around the town has really painted the picture of just how big of an event this thing is. Our hotel lobby even has a score breakdown poster for it. Everywhere you go, any time of day, the matches are on TV, live. Whether it’s on a huge screen in a shopping district, or on the LCDs down in the subway, people are always standing and watching.

People here in China complain about the World Cup. They love it; don’t get me wrong. But their team failed to qualify. In a country of more than 1.3 billion people, the Chinese complain how they can’t recruit 11 players to field a decent team, yet somehow North Korea was able to do it. Regardless, China is full of fans. They range from rooting for the Germans, to the Spanish, even to the U.S.A.

During our time at CCTV we watched as the crew sat up the huge studio for the special World Cup show. Simply turning on the TV at any time of the day, one can witness World Cup news. Would you ever get this in the United States?  I don’t think so. Granted, this year’s World Cup started while I was over here.

The coolest part of being here in Hong Kong for the cup is seeing the huge amount of foreign fans from all parts of the world. Dominic and I went down to the local pub, actually a street full of sports bars, to watch the latest U.S.A. game. Walking into an American 60′s-themed bar we looked up at the screen confused as the U.S. was not displayed. “Your game’s on over there,” a women shouts pointing across the street. Inside the bar across the way was pandemonium. In one section was the England v. Slovenia game, another the

Celebrating after the U.S. victory in the 91st minute!

U.S. v. Algeria game. England supports rallied behind their team cheering them on to victory. On the other side of the pub, people of all backgrounds were watchingthe Americans play. We meet some other students studying here in Hong Kong, a businessman from the east coast, and someone from Ohio! Cheering loudly, the place got tense as the U.S. entered overtime 0-0. Soon the U.S. scored a goal in the 91st minute to win it, the place went absolutely nuts. People emptied from pubs up and down the street, horns going off, high fives everywhere. Chats of U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A. went up and down the block. This was by far a great experience for a U.S.A. fan, one that I hope the entire nation will share with us, soon.

P.S. If you get some time, watch the U.S.A. play Ghana on Sunday the 27th at 2:30 PM our time, or 2:30 AM back home! Let’s go USA!

Face-to-face after so many years

When you work for a large company like I did for many years, it’s easy to work with people that you don’t really know.  However, I had quite a different experience during my years at CNN.com, at least where one colleague is concerned.  For much of my time at CNN.com, I worked the evening shift.  I would come into the office around noon or 1:00 p.m. and work until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.  At that time, some of the operations of CNN.com would transfer over to our colleagues in another part of the world, namely Hong Kong.  Many nights I would send an AIM to a gentleman named Kevin Drew.  I was not aware at that time that Kevin had actually worked in the Atlanta offices of CNN.com at one time because when he was in the states I was actually working in another department and for a couple of years, for another company.  I just knew Kevin as the person in charge in Hong Kong, and the person that I needed to make aware of what was happening on my side of the globe.  For approximately two years Kevin and I shared what I like to refer to as an AIM relationship.  So it was very exciting for me to visit the CNN Hong Kong offices and actually meet Kevin Drew face-to-face.  The experience proves that knowing what a person looks like or how they dress or their mannerisms, is not a requirement for having great respect for a person as a professional and as a colleague.  Putting a face with a name simply provided me with more context when I think back on what a pleasure it was to deal with someone so considerate and so professional in the way they handled themselves as a colleague.

CNN's Kevin Drew shows Jeff Holiday the latest stories he's posted to CNN.com.

Is this China or Las Vegas?

The Ball State crew took a trip out of the country on Thursday, sort of.  We went to Macau, about a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong.  Like Hong Kong, Macau was returned to the central Chinese government about a decade ago.  But before that time, Macau was part of Portugal.  Getting there is an international adventure.  We had to go through immigration and customs, again, as if we were leaving the country.  Maccau has its own currency, even though Hong Kong dollars were accepted just about everywhere.

Even though it’s close to Hong Kong, the feel is a also bit different, thanks in part to its Portugese heritage.  Many of the signs are in Chinese, Portugese and/or English.  And then there was another sight that may be familiar to Americans, signs such as MGM Grand, Venetian, Sands, Hard Rock.  Gambling is big business in Macau.  So, of course, we had to visit.  Others will probably discuss the wins and losses, but the biggest thing I noticed is the difference in gambling style.  There were lots of slot machines.  But it was not easy to find blackjack or poker tables.  And there were baccarat tables everywhere!  A worker at the Sands told us that is the most popular game in the East.  And it sure looked that way.

It was a fun way to spend a day. And even though most of us lost a few bucks, we have another stamp in our passports to show for the visit.

The MGM Grand is just one of many hotel/casinos in Macau.

The gleaming waterfront skyline of Macau.