Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back from Blog Hiatus...a few things if you will

Back from my blog hiatus…….

Nearly 3 months have passed since my last post, and in that time, it’s hard to wrap around all the things that have happened during that time.

Trip to Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan…..
In a quick nutshell, I went to Hong Kong and Macau back in August with my friend, Ikee. Here are a few fun things about Hong Kong:
A: The shopping----For connoisseurs of fashion and antiques, Hong Kong is the place to go. With some great street markets to top-of-the-line fashion designer stores, Hong Kong has a great variety of selection for anxious souvenir shoppers. Temple Street Market should be the top of the list for bargain seekers. Homemade crafts, paintings, tools, electronics, food, and a block full of “pleasure devices,” the market has it all, and you can haggle down the price with the vendors.

B: People and accessibility----Hong Kong is one of the premier Western capitols of Asia. With its mixture of Western culture and commerce integrated with its deep-rooted Chinese tradition and values, Hong Kong offers a wide range of culinary delights, terrific accessibility and convenience of its public transportation, and many Buddhist temples and villages (see New Territories) without compromising its rich history and identity. Unlike many other Asian cities like Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, and Beijing, Hong Kong continues to flex its international muscle, and what has made it stronger than its competition is its English proficiency. It may not be as strong as it was during the British colonial period, but the abundance of English signs, and English-speaking Chinese and other foreign citizens makes this an easy place to navigate, and lessen the worries of having to do a crash-course lesson on Cantonese which is widely spoken in Hong Kong as well as Mandarin.

I found the people there to be very courteous, and professional. Unlike my experience in Korea, many of the Hong Kong natives are not very shy and intimidated about using their English which is their 2nd language, even if it’s not at a fluent level. Even the older generation of Hong Kong citizens can pull a few English words themselves without reluctance.
Places to see there:
Big Buddha Village---Take a 20 minute cable car ride (be aware that the wait is nearly an hour, and get on the car that has the glass floor view), and see the majestic view of Lantau Island. As you arrive, you will find a village selling various local crafts, glassware, and of course, your typical cheesy souvenirs.

Ocean Park---a nicer alternative to Disney World….More for kids, but you have another cable car ride which overlooks the sea and islands. Not to mention, there is a panda exhibit to tickle the little kid inside you.

New Territories---The upper part of Hong Kong….Away from the craziness of Tsim Tsa Tsui and Kowloon, New Territories is a vast rural area filled with villages, lush mountains. It shares resemblance to my time in rural Vietnam; none of the corporate, faceless identity that’s unfairly tied to Hong Kong. The villages there are mostly farmland, and an absolute escape from the urban life of HK. There’s a botanical garden that is highly recommended. It also has a mini-zoo which you can spot various exotic animals in China.

Macau---Macau is another province of China. It was once colonized by Portugal, and like Hong Kong, it was handed over to Mainland China at the end of the 20th century. Little attention seems to be given to Macau. However, Macau represents more than just a former province of Portugal. It is known for its casinos, the largest in all of Asia. The architecture of Macau is a combination of both old Saigon and Old Europe. The cobblestone roads, and decorative housing reminded me of Prague, the top view of the city reminded me of Saigon with its faded out, unglamorous apartment complexes. Macau, unlike other places in Asia, provides the classical old school Europe feel through its Portuguese influence even after a decade from the handover.

Places to see in Macau: The Ruins of St. Paul Church, the botanical garden (people doing Tai Chi, the lotus flower pads, a small building which houses some paintings and calligraphy, etc), Largo de Senado Square

My trip to Tokyo nearly came at the last minute. I headed over there during the Korean Thanksgiving week at the end of September. My initial plan was to travel to Taiwan or Cambodia, but flights were nearly booked much to my chagrin. Luckily enough, Tokyo flights were available. My initial reluctance to do Japan was simple: Expense. The exchange rate for Japanese Yen is currently at its highest, much stronger than the US dollar, so imagine how much agony exchanging the Korean won was. Despite the exchange rate hell, I was all set to go on my first solo vacation and experience the cultural richness that is Japan.

I stayed at an amazing hostel called Tokyo Khaosan Ninja which is off the Asakusabashi subway stop. Getting into central Tokyo from Narita International Airport was a bit of a hassle (90-100 minutes) through the subway which includes making a couple of transfers. The subway system is very efficient yet quite damning when looking at the map. There are two types of map (the regular subway map and the subway plus the JR lines). Keep that map handy, or better yet, download the Tokyo Subway Map application (the one including the JR Lines) on your iPod Touch/iPhone. Luckily enough, there are subway officials that can help you despite their limited English proficiency.

Like Korea, Japan’s English proficiency isn’t the strongest, but its accessibility and the general politeness of its citizens make it an easy place to navigate. The food was nothing short of excellent. Some of my favorites included sushi, sashimi (raw fish), Shrimp Tempura mixed in with raw tuna and salmon and rice, vegetables, and wasabi, and Japanese sobe noodles (served cold) with fried shrimp.

Besides the exchange rate hell, Japan is one of the world most expensive countries, and Tokyo itself is the front engine of the country’s running ATM machine. A normal lunch can set you at least $6-7, taxi rides are to be avoided when you have public transportation at a somewhat decent cost, dinner can set you at least $10, and bargain hunting is fairly non-existent unless you head out to the marketplace near Ueno Park.

Despite the extravagant cost of traveling through Tokyo, I found myself being rewarded by being able to do the most inexpensive things. I visited some of the best local parks Tokyo has to offer, something that was sorely lacking in Korea with the exception of Gyeongju and Gangwon-do.

Ueno Park: This spacious park is surrounded by some of the various museums including the Tokyo National History Museum, the local zoo which includes a panda exhibit. There’s also a few Buddhist/Taoist temples along the way. Nearby, there’s an open-air market which sells souvenirs, local crafts, clothes, medicine, food, and so forth.

The Imperial Palace and Garden in Central Tokyo, the large temples and shrines off of the Asakusa line which also includes local crafts is a must-see.

The colorful characters and fashion trends start at Tokyo’s famed Harajuku district. If you want the busyness of Tokyo at its finest, then venture out to the Shinjuku and Shibuya district. It’s filled with some of the top designer stores and shopping malls.

From my time in Tokyo, I came away realizing how different it is from Seoul and Busan. There’s less of the pushing and shoving on the subway, there’s a better understanding concept of the word “space” when it comes to how building and streets are constructed whereas in Korea, it’s very congested and claustrophobic at times. Let’s not get started at how clean Japan is versus the major cities in Korea. Overall, it became more than I expected. I not only was enlightened by the fine Japanese cuisine, but I was taken aback by the friendliness of the locals, the welcoming of international influences inspiring Tokyo, and the immense cultural opportunities of activities and places to see and do without breaking more Yen.

……..In other news…..

This fall, I recently joined the cast for Busan Night Live. Busan Night Live is a sketch comedy show done by a group of fellow expats. This is the second version of BNL, and both times it has been successful, especially the last one. We had just finished up our two shows earlier this month to great success. Besides traveling, being involved in theater was something that I would not have envisioned in the past. A year ago, I made my sketch comedy debut for the mock Shakespeare performance. My friend Brittany got me into the idea of doing some acting for the pure thrill of it. Working on Busan Night Live became more than I ever expected. I came in with the idea of two written scripts, and maybe get a minor role. However, I ended up being in a couple of sketches, and more importantly, I got to host both nights, something that I was never asked to do. The time to put the show together was time consuming. Outside of school, my life was relegated to rehearsals, editing, video shoots, and having to travel back and forth. Despite the hectic nature that often is associated with theater, it was well worth the experience. I made new friends, I became more involved with the creative and critical process, and I learned a lot from my cast members who several of them are far more experienced with theater. I’m grateful for the experience especially with the cast members, and this one certainly ranks very high on my most memorable experiences since being in Korea. Thank you to those for attending the show, and being so supportive.

I recently had discussions with my school about where my intentions are for next year. All of my teachers as well as my vice-principal asked me to stay another year. From the last blog I posted, I was wondering if I had enough energy to pull in another year, let alone finishing the year on a high note. However, things have turned around for me this semester. I am feeling much more self-assured in my classroom. I am, for the most part, able to get the most out of my students and find ways to maximize their creativity and critical thinking during class time. The latter part of that turnaround is what is influencing me to stay. For the nearly two years that I’ve been at my school, I’ve been able to watch a lot of my students make personal improvements in both attitude and academic performance. Of course, every now and then, some of my classes will give me an additional 20 years to my life, but overall, I have enjoyed teaching my kids and the majority of them have been asking me to stay. When I think of Korea, I think of my kids first. They have brought an inexplicable amount of joy and laughter (with the occasional headache) into my life that I probably wouldn’t have had elsewhere.

With that said, I am hoping to make a home visit to Chicago in the month of February. It’s not official yet, but I know my home stay would be rather short, and part of that reason is the fact that I want to see my grandma down in Mobile, Alabama as she is getting a little sick these days. However, I am excited about the prospect of coming back home, even for just a little bit, because it will have been two years come next February. Though some things have changed back home, it hasn’t dampened my excitement to see what’s going on, and to see my friends and family after being away for awhile.

For now, so long and I want to wish all of you back home a Happy Early Thanksgiving!!!!!!!! Thanks for checking in and I’m sure I’ll post something before the holidays! Cheers!