Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Standard - July 2, 2015
The July 2, 2015 edition of the Standard – from our last day in Hong Kong

Today marks three weeks since we’ve returned home. At this time three weeks ago, we were already asleep in bed after enduring a trans-Pacific flight.

In the two weeks since the last update, I’ve sometimes found myself asking whether we really lived the past two years in Hong Kong. I set my desktop slideshow to play photos from 2015, hoping to see some photos from my old home that would spark some feelings of nostalgia, but no sparks come. I try setting it to June of 2015, just a few weeks ago, and it’s the same. I’m kind of a nostalgic person (as can be seen from the Museum and the Nostalgia categories on this website) so it seems a little strange that since I’ve been back in the States I haven’t really thought of Hong Kong too much. I thought that I would really miss my life there, miss the people, the environment.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been back and forth enough times now to know that it is futile to try to keep up with what’s happening on the other side of the world. When we are there, whether “there” is HK or SF, we don’t even have to try to know what’s going on locally. We become aware through osmosis, whether it’s through local television and radio, walking on the street, or hearing coworkers chatting. For example, on the day that we left I probably could have named at least one topic that was covered in the Standard newspaper pictured above. But now, on the other side, despite trying really hard to keep up by listening to internet radio, streaming television shows, or chatting with friends on WhatsApp, I couldn’t tell you anything about what’s trending in HK right now. I could quote a headline from an HK website, but it’s probably not exactly what everyone’s talking about in HK at this moment. There’s definitely something to be said for being fully immersed. Those other things are not a substitute.

It could also be that I really am getting old now. As I approach my fifth decade, I find that I’m able to squeeze less into my brain. It’s harder to recall things. You actually notice that a lot of things don’t stick (I know because I write a lot of stuff down, knowing that I can’t remember shit). It could also be that in my old age I’ve learned to stop paying attention to noise. I’ve stopped paying attention to some things that I now consider noise that I used to capture easily without trying, so when I try to recall details about them I’m unable to. Some of the examples from my list would be the crowds and the cigarette smoke. If I hadn’t talked about the air before, I probably would have completely forgotten how bad it was in HK.

I knew before we left that there would be some knowledge that we took for granted that would fade with time, like which car on the MTR to get off from to get closest to the escalator or how much the buses cost. At this very moment, I still remember that 2A costs $4.10, but when I try to recall the fare for a cross-tunnel bus, it takes me a second to come up with $9.30. A lot of other stuff that I’m not even aware of has probably faded already. Still, I’m starting to fill that space with new stuff, like $1.85 for BART in the city, or $2.25 for MUNI, so it’s not a total loss.

I’ve probably mentioned somewhere on here before that at the most basic level, people are all the same. Still, it’s kind of unbelievable how far away Hong Kong seems now, how it seems like two different worlds. In my day-to-day life over the past three weeks, it’s almost like living in HK never happened. But every now and then, I might encounter something to remind me of my time there. I sometimes see people out and about being absorbed with themselves and I wonder if they’re aware that there’s a whole other world out there. They’re so caught up in their current context. Although sometimes it’s tough trying to balance two different worlds (something I’ve struggled with ever since we immigrated to SF), it’s times like these that make me thankful that I have another perspective. There was someone talking to me about construction noise the other day. I just nodded my head and thought about the endless renovations that occur in Hong Kong, the jack-hammering into concrete that is a staple of HK renovations. As bad as you might think you have it, someone else in the world is probably having a harder time than you right now. And, just to be fair, I used to think the same thing when people complained about the MTR (versus BART).

To end this post, I’ll post a photo of our HK home just before we handed it back to the landlord. What I see in the photo no longer exists in the physical world, but I’m hoping it will jog my memory and spark some feelings for the place I called home for over two years. Good night.

Our HK Home
Our HK home on the last day – June 30, 2015

Jet Lag

Sun Rising
After crossing the International Date Line, the sun rises once again on July 2, 2015

We’ve been back for over a week now, and although we’re physically present our bodies still seem to think that we’re in Hong Kong. Nightly ten-plus hour sleep sessions seem to have no effect on when dizziness and fatigue set in. Around 10:00 or 11:00 AM local time, the mind starts to wander and the body grows weak anticipating bedtime. I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve flown, or maybe I’m getting older – it seems much more difficult to adjust than ever before.

Speaking of adjustments, there are a few things that I’ve adjusted to right off the bat: the weather, of course, and the air. Gone is the heat, humidity, and thick air. Even if I have to put on a jacket in the middle of a San Francisco summer, at least I’m able to take a deep breath without tasting it at the same time. On the other hand, without air conditioning everywhere, it takes longer to cool down going from outside to inside. After getting hot and sticky or sweaty from walking (or simply from forcing your body to stay awake against its will), the “talcum powder effect” that we experience in a place like Hong Kong with air conditioning everywhere is noticeably absent here, especially on a humid day like today.

Another thing that’s noticeably absent is cell-phone coverage. Having gotten used to saturation coverage in tiny Hong Kong, it can be frustrating encountering the dead spots that inevitably exist in the relative vastness of the SF Bay Area. When there is a signal, however, the connection is faster for me here than it was in HK (T-Mobile 3G vs. One2Free 3G).

Conversely, home internet speeds are a lot slower for me, going from 300 megabit fibre to 10 megabit/768 kilobit ADSL, but of course that’s just my own circumstance and not indicative of anything. Still, it’s difficult for me to even type those numbers out, the difference being so huge (especially the upload speed). My family pays more for our DSL than we paid for fibre back in HK. Again, it’s not really something that can be compared, but I like to do it anyway. 😉

Some other things: sleeping on a bigger bed, using cash instead of Octopus to pay for stuff, and the silence. That’s another really noticeable thing, the quietness of the ambient environment. The lack of double-decker buses rumbling by is probably the biggest reason. That buildings (and people) are less densely packed together is probably another. That reminds me of another difference: it’s much darker here at night than it is in Hong Kong, though daylight savings does nullify that a little bit.

As I’ve been telling everyone who asks me which place I like better, the answer is that each place has it’s own benefits and drawbacks. 各有各好. I don’t have kids, but maybe it’s like asking a parent which kid is their favorite. Or perhaps, being in love with two different women. There’s just no way to choose. Maybe someday we’ll go back to Hong Kong, but we are here now and it’s time to start a new chapter. We’ll continue to ride that wave called life and see where it takes us. For now, good night, or good morning, whatever the time is.

The Bus

It’s Monday morning, and I have the early shift again. After I leave the house, I remember that I used up my Octopus card yesterday, so I stop by Circle K to get it topped up. It’s about 5:30 in the morning.

Now I get to decide if I want to take the bus or the MTR to work. The bus is a relatively new thing that I discovered only recently. From my area, there’s one that goes to the airport that also happens to pass by the office. It costs more than the MTR, but because it goes to the airport it’s more decked out than a normal bus, with leather and reclining seats, and subdued lighting. It’s a very comfortable ride, and it’s pretty much door-to-door. As much as I love the MTR, I’m really not awake yet and don’t need the bright lights and loud speakers blaring at me at six in the morning. Bus it is.

The bus arrives and I quickly board, tap my Octopus card, and climb up to the upper deck. I take one of my favorite seats at the very front of the bus, on the left side closest to the sidewalk. From this seat, I can see the world coming as the bus moves forward, and I can also people-watch through the side window. It’s one of my favorite activities in Hong Kong. Of course, in the early morning there’s not much people-watching, just a few air travelers carrying their bags onto the bus. About thirty minutes later, I’m in the office.

I wish I discovered this earlier. I’ve always enjoyed Hong Kong’s buses. From a young age I could already recognize the different models of vehicles used in the fleet. Because of Hong Kong’s limited space, during its development both buildings and vehicles expanded upwards in order to accommodate the increasing number of people. As a result, we now have a unique combination where if you sit on the upper deck of a bus, not only can you much better see what’s going on on the street, but you can also very often catch a glimpse of what’s going on inside a building. Maybe that’s why it’s so much fun to ride on the bus: there’s always something to see.

The other cool thing about buses in Hong Kong (or, perhaps just in the areas I visit) is that there are lots of overlapping routes, which means that if I miss a bus I don’t have to wait long for another one. This is especially vital in the summer, when it can get really hot and dusty at the bus stop by the side of the road. Ironically, it’s usually the buses that cause the heat and dust with their air conditioning and engine exhaust.

Now, it’s four-thirty in the afternoon. Once again I make my way down to the bus stops next to the Western Harbour Crossing toll plaza. The Western Harbour Crossing is the third cross harbour tunnel built in Hong Kong. The original Cross Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972, and ever since then there have been bus stops at all the harbour tunnel toll plazas. Interestingly, there are no bus stops on the island side of the tunnel, probably due to lack of space. I wait for a bus from one of the overlapping routes.

After work, I prefer to sit in the very back, on the opposite side, away from the sidewalk. After a long day, it helps to zone out and look at something distant, like the other side of the street. I sit back there with my headphones on, imagining a time in the future when I won’t be able to ride a double-decker bus in Hong Kong anymore. If we do end up going back, I will miss this aspect of living in Hong Kong.

The Air

I look down towards the street from our 16th floor apartment, watching people going about their business, walking their dogs, crossing the street, old people walking slower than young people, and I wonder what it is about this place that keeps me here. Today’s weather doesn’t seem too bad; it’s 24˚ and 81% humidity. The air seems OK too, but a quick check of the Hedley Index reveals that it’s actually still at very bad level. It’s pretty much at this level every single day. Pollution is pretty bad here.

Last Wednesday I woke up early and had a chance to play some basketball at Victoria Park. It was the first time I ran around outside in weeks. Afterwards, it didn’t take long for me to start coughing. It felt like I had inhaled some smoke, which I guess wouldn’t be too far from what actually happened.

On some days, when I take a break from work and look out the window, I’m appalled by what I see: a thick plume of gray through which I can barely make out the outlines of the buildings across the harbor. After work, as I walk home from the MTR station, I find it difficult to breathe, like I’m about to pass out. I’m afraid to inhale deeply. Finally, once I’m home, I’m completely exhausted even on the days when work hasn’t been particularly intense.

Hong Kong Smog
Smog City

Hong Kong is a place of many smells. High population density means there’s probably someone near you right now making a smell. At this moment, I can smell the fragrant incense that one of my neighbors is burning. When JC takes a shower and I have the window open, I smell the scent of her shampoo being expunged from the bathroom fan. When I walk past a storm drain, I smell the noxious fumes coming from below. Alleys reek of cat (or human) urine and dirty dishwater from cha chaan tengs. I’ve noticed that, for some strange reason, the exhaust from armored vehicles in Hong Kong is particularly bad. Although I don’t recommend inhaling it, try to keep your nose open the next time you’re around an armored vehicle – you’ll probably see (or smell) what I mean.

One of the worst smells in Hong Kong is that of cigarette smoke. Despite efforts by the government to curb smoking, you still see and smell people smoking everywhere. The government says that the smoking rate in Hong Kong is now 1 in 10, but I wonder if that number takes into account visitors and expatriates from other countries, especially Mainland China, which has its own smoking problem.

An eyesore (or nose-sore) in Hong Kong is the trashcan, where people congregate to smoke. The smokers gather around because of a built-in ashtray on top (some trashcans don’t have the ashtray, yet smokers still pretend its there, leaving behind burn marks and melted plastic). A major problem with these combo trashcans is that smokers don’t always extinguish their cigarettes when they’re done, so the cigarettes continue to burn inside the tray, creating a super cigarette that clobbers anyone walking by with a carcinogen-laced poison punch. I’ve often wondered whether it’s some sort of game to the smokers, to see whether they can keep the fire going. Because of this and because Hong Kong trashcans are spaced so closely together, you can pretty much walk down an entire block without not smelling cigarette smoke.

That’s not to say that all the smells are bad. For example, Hong Kong is named for the scent of its harbour. When I take a walk alongside, I understand why. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing in from the harbour, the sweet smell even makes it inland. When I come home from work, the smell of steaming rice intermingled with burning incense brings a sense of familiarity that I could never get in SF. These are the smells of childhood, smells I remember from my Granny’s house, from before we moved to America.

If we do decide to go back, these are the smells I’ll miss the most. The pollution and cigarette smoke, on the other hand, I won’t miss at all.

Writing on Walls

Having recently reached and passed two years of living in Hong Kong, we’ve naturally started thinking about how much longer we’re going to stay here. Our two year rental contract ended back in February, and the other day I finally got a message from the landlord: she wants to raise the rent by 11%. With rent already taking up 79% of my take-home pay, it would seem that in terms of staying in Hong Kong, the writing is now on the wall.

One of the crucial requirements that I identified before moving to Hong Kong was that we had to have two incomes. We would be living the good life as a DINK household, staying inside on hot, summer nights with the A/C on. As it turns out, the periods when JC and I have worked concurrently during the past 2+ years have been few and far between. Before landing my current job I frequently tapped into my savings and retirement money. I’ll probably need to do so again in the near future.

Speaking of my current job, I don’t mind saying that I’m now making less than USD$30k per year. When I first started looking for a job after two years out of the workforce, I wasn’t confident that I could land a job with higher pay. I was also unmotivated and fearful, and didn’t want to take on a higher paying job and its associated responsibilities. I went for the easy job with its accompanying low pay. Now, I realize that it was a mistake. What you put in to the job has no bearing on how much you get paid. I am working almost as hard as I was before, I am still dead when I get home, but I am making a quarter of what I used to (let me tell you, this job is not 75% easier than my old one). The other thing I’ve learned is, if you start low, even after a raise you’ll still be low. That’s why people in Hong Kong change jobs so much, because it’s the only way to get a raise. I should have aimed higher when I started out. Now that I’ve spent time in the work environment and regained my confidence, I’m pretty sure I could have done it easily. Anyhow, that’s spilled milk.

Back to the rent increase, though. I’m talking to the landlord now, but if she won’t budge, then the proportion of rent to income becomes 88%. Who in their right mind would continue in this situation? Not I (says the person who’s accepting 79% now and ∞ before). My options are pretty clear: move to a cheaper place (with its accompanying costs in time, money, and hassle), get a higher paying job (which would mean leaving my current company because there’s no way I’ll be getting a significant raise), ask JC to get another job (which she doesn’t want to do), or finally bite the bullet and go back to the U.S. Let’s discuss each option.

When I was stressing about money before, it didn’t occur to me that there was nothing stopping me from getting a higher paying job. It is a free market, and people come and go as they please. Since I’ve been at my job, people have been leaving pretty regularly. The notion, however, of investing in a job search, learning the new job, and then quitting soon after does not appeal to me at all, even though it’s somewhat normal here. Like with my current job, I would want to stay for a year, minimum. That’s a hefty commitment after being in Hong Kong for over two years and after originally intending to stay for only one.

Similarly, moving to a cheaper place would only make sense if we stayed for another year. It would be inefficient to expend the effort to find a place, find a mover, actually move, settle in, and then move out just a few months later. So once again, the question that presents itself is this: do we want to stay in Hong Kong for one more year?

This question is a little easier to answer for JC than it is for me. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been really good with landing jobs and working, but due to various reasons (here’s one) having to do with the realities of working here, she hasn’t stayed long at any of them. Considering that it was my dream to live in Hong Kong and JC came only because she is my wife and wanted to help me fulfill my dream, considering that all her family and most of her friends are back in the U.S., and considering all the effort and sacrifice she’s made to try to make this work, I do not fault her at all for being ready to move home. And, just to be clear, she is ready to move home.

For me, despite knowing that it’s probably inevitable, I’m still having a difficult time because ultimately I still have that ingrained affection for this city that I was born in. There are many things that I will miss. At the same time, there are many things that I won’t miss. It’s not unlike how I miss and don’t miss certain things from the Bay Area, because like Hong Kong, I also have an ingrained affection for San Francisco, the city that I grew up in. Both places have their pros and cons, and I know I can be happy in either place. Financially, the U.S. wins hands down (there’s a reason immigrants still want to go there). It’s just that right now, despite paying through the nose for rent, I’m here in Hong Kong, I’m comfortable, I have a routine, and I have momentum – and it can be hard to overcome momentum.

As I was typing this out last night, I received another message from the landlord. I had asked if she’d be amenable to lowering the rent increase, and her response was that her daughter is getting married in the middle of the year and will probably want to take the apartment back (hmmm, ok). We agreed to keep the rent the same until our last day, June 30. So, what will we do? Having a deadline helps to overcome the momentum, and knowing that I have at least a couple of months to decide will give me time to organize my thoughts with some more writing on the wall. We shall see!

Two Years in Hong Kong

Today marks the beginning of our third year in Hong Kong. It also happens to be the second day of Chinese New Year, so before anything else, here’s to a happy, healthy, and prosperous Year of the Ram.

Just like that (and I know I always say “just like that”), it’s been two years since we’ve arrived in Hong Kong. I already talked about what we did two years ago today last year, so I’ll skip straight ahead to what’s been going on since the last update.

The biggest thing of course is that I now have a job. Been at it since June 2014. As it is with most people in most places around the world, a major (if not the major) component of life is work, so now that I’ve held a job in Hong Kong for over 8 months, I can finally and truly say that I’ve experienced life in Hong Kong.

Every day, I take the MTR to work, I brave the crowds and encounter many times more people than I even did in a week back when I was working in the U.S. At first, it was scary and stressful. Walking through the tunnel from Central Station to Hong Kong Station and seeing all those people rushing at me was overwhelming. When I got packed into a train like a sardine, I felt belligerent and wanted to beat up the politician who said that Hong Kong’s subway is still under-capacity. But now, eight months later, the crowds no longer bother me. At times, I’m even able to crack a smile when I see something amusing. I’ve acclimated.

Between Central and Hong Kong Stations
Between Central and Hong Kong stations during rush hour

Job-wise, I’m probably still getting acclimated to some aspects. The company where I’m working now is the largest one that I’ve ever worked in, a public company with tens of thousands of employees all over the world. Contrast this with my previous employment in a small business with less than a dozen staff and it becomes obvious that I’ve had, and continue to have, a lot to learn.

The first thing that comes to mind (probably because it happened this past week) is learning how to manage the status quo. Up until recently, I mostly kept my head down and did my own thing. As an IT support person, my priority was and is to resolve user problems in an expeditious manner. To me, the user always comes first. On occasion, because I deemed it to be too slow and inefficient, I would skirt the established protocol, instead going under the radar and dealing directly with the user (as opposed to escalating or handing off to another team). For someone used to solving problems in a small firm, this is normal and has worked well for me in the new job. I even ended up winning the semi-annual award (and cash prize) back in December for receiving the most commendations from users.

Somehow, I got it into my head that I should become more of a team player and stop doing things under the radar. I started including other teams in my communications with users. I started calling out issues that I thought impacted everyone. Because of the increased communications, it also became more obvious that I worked even during non-business hours (another normal thing at my old job).

A couple of weeks ago, my direct manager came to me and said that people were starting to talk. Their concern was that I was giving users an unrealistic expectation of IT. They didn’t want users to think that IT works 24/7. Then this past week, the service manager for all the outsourced IT staff at the firm (I’m not actually an employee of the company where I work) came to me with some concerns from the in-house team leads, wondering if we were changing procedures on the fly (I had emailed a user directly instead of going through the escalation team).

I was pretty angry at both of these incidents. The first time around, my manager didn’t even bother to tell me his concerns face-to-face, instead opting to email them. I’ve worked with the guy for eight months and I know he didn’t do it on purpose (it’s the HK way to avoid confrontation), but it’s still infuriating when it first happens. The second time around, it had actually been someone from the in-house team who had instructed me to contact the user directly. His manager did not have the facts straight and came at me, and over what? It was over ordering a battery for a laptop. The protocol is for users to go through that team to order new hardware, and I had told the user to directly order the battery.

Even as I write this days later, I am appalled that this is even an issue and that I am now somehow developing a reputation. It seems so odd that someone would criticize me for offering a way to a user to resolve her problem quickly. To waste time meeting with the service manager, then having the service manager meet me, all over who’s actually ordering a laptop battery? I realize that protocol is important, but at the same time if something can be done quickly with little or no tangible detriment to anyone, I would choose to do it and treat the user the way I’d like to be treated. I would not want the user to wait 8 days on something that should take only 2 at the most (an actual case I saw this past week). The fact that such a fuss was made over such a small issue also makes me wonder whether it really was about a breach of protocol…

After ruminating about this the past few days, the conclusion and simple solution I’ve come to is just to go back to the way I was doing things before. I can’t deny the person that I am and the way of doing things that has brought me success in the past. I tried to do it here and the result is something I’m not too happy about. Granted, there are still things from that post that I would like to do (like complaining less and enjoying more), but perhaps there are some things in that list that I like about myself that I don’t want to change. Luckily, the good thing about working in a large organization is that you can pretty much stay anonymous if you really want to. I’ll just keep doing my own thing as I have always tried to, without infringing on others. Amazingly, in this case, the only thing I have to do to not infringe on others is to keep my mouth shut. I have no idea if this is typical of a large organization, typical of an HK organization, or typical of a large organization in HK, but it’s good training for dealing with any shit that comes my way in the future, wherever that may be.

In the past, we’ve always stayed in places for less than 3 years. Will this apply to Hong Kong as well? My dream before was to live and work here, and I’ve done that now. As it’s almost an hour past the anniversary I think I’ll call it a night, and try to answer that question in the future.

Random Thoughts, March 2014

March is almost over, which means that we are well into our second year here in Hong Kong. On this Friday, the 28th of March morning, the sky is gray and a cool breeze blows into the office. The temperature is 22˚C (71˚F) and the humidity is at 93%.

Unlike this morning, yesterday was warm, clear, and sunny. Before we went to sleep, we turned on the air conditioner for the first time this year. A lot of memories came back to me when I pressed the buttons on the remote. I’ve never thought about it before, but when you do something for the first time in a while, you’re likely to think back to the last time that you did that thing. I thought back to the summer and fall of 2013 when it was still hot, when we were living upside-down, going to bed at dawn and waking up at dusk. At midnight, we’d have our main meal of the day and watch Iron Chef. Later, we’d play Emperor and Civilization for hours. All the while, the soft hum of our A/C unit would be going on in the background. Man, those were some good times. I wonder if other people in Hong Kong go through the same thing when they do their annual A/C restart?

Dawn on July 7, 2013
Dawn – July 7, 2013

Also happening yesterday was the first job interview scheduled through the recruiting firm that I’ve been working with. I suppose I “officially” started looking for work at the end of February, as I mentioned in the One Year Update. I first met with the recruiter on the 28th of last month, so it’s been about a month. In between I had the interview with the school, and then I got sick for two weeks, so overall I’ve had a couple of interviews without too much hustling on my part. Not too bad.

I touched on my lack of hustle a little bit in the I Got Nothin’ post. Since that post I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so unmotivated to find work, why I seem to have no ambition. I read some interesting perspectives from different sources on the web. One perspective is that I do have ambition, just not for the typical things associated with that word such as BMWs, a large house, social status, etc. My ambition is to live the life I want, to use my time in the way that I want to, to be content with what I have. If I think about it that way, then it makes sense why I would be unmotivated to find work. I’m very content right now, probably the most content I have ever been in my life. My stress level is at an all-time low. Why would I want to stir the pot now?

The one and only reason, of course, is money. It’s actually quite simple: no one is going to hand you anything if you don’t pull your own weight. In life, nothing is free. Everything has a cost. Download a “free” game from the app store? Nope, sorry, it’s got ads, or worse, it secretly mines Bitcoins. Of course, it goes the other way, too: I understand that the life I’m living now might be costing me some (traditional) career advancement (hello 2-year employment gap!) and my retirement money, but I also believe that the knowledge about myself and the confidence that I’ve gained is worth that cost. But, even more basic than that, my landlady isn’t going to let me live here for free.

I know I need money, which is why I’m now searching for work. The hardest thing is now that I’ve found this place of contentment, I find it very difficult to leave. I’ve thought about looking for a part-time job so that I can still have one foot in it. I know that once I work full time, everything will be different. There’s no escaping it. 50 to 60 hours a week of what used to be my time will be devoted to work. And that’s just the temporal cost. The energy cost will be significant as well.

Perhaps, after two years of break, it will be easier to accept some sacrifices. In Hong Kong, there is a notion that any shit you take at work, whether it be a berating boss or a rude customer, is covered by your salary. I’m not sure I agree with that, and I’m not sure I’m willing to make that particular sacrifice. What I am willing to do is work. I love doing a good job and becoming good at what I do. I want to be interested in what I do. I do not want to wear a suit and tie while I’m doing it. I want to sleep well every night. I want to refill my coffers and then figure out how I can use that capital to sustain the kind of life I am living now. Is that asking too much and sacrificing too little? I don’t know, but again I’m going to keep looking. I know there’s something out there for me. Take it slow.

In the News

I’ve been trying to cut back my intake of news (is there any news that’s not negative?) but I did notice a couple of stories this week. The first was about a pair of construction workers who fell 500 feet to their deaths after their gondola broke apart (HK Standard – Tregunter pair in death fall). My heart goes out to these workers and the people who care about them. Unlike accidental deaths that happen quickly and suddenly, these workers had time to comprehend what was happening to them. I can only imagine what would be going through my mind and how I would feel as I fell, knowing that the end was seconds away, and that there was nothing I could do about it. I’d probably think of JC and tell her that I love her. I’d hope that it would be quick and not too painful. I hope that’s how it was for them.

The other story has to do with a clip of a debate I saw on TV news. Currently there are two free-to-air television stations in Hong Kong, with one of them being completely dominant over the other one. A third player is trying to make its way into the market but the government won’t give it a license, citing market saturation and other specious reasons. It’s been a big deal over here, with people going out on the streets to protest and the chairman of the third station accusing the government of taking sides. Anyhow, in the debate the government representative was saying how the broadcasting laws protect kids and morality. I almost spit out my coffee when I heard that. Every single night for the past few decades, the dominant station has been putting out dramas with recurring themes and stereotypes. Men drink beer, play video games, and place work above all else. Women wear 5-inch heels and skirts with hemlines that’ll make you blush, are drama queens, and get together with their girlfriends to gossip all day long. Extreme black-and-white and irrational behavior is the norm. Dishonesty is a way of life. Watching these dramas day in and day out, decade after decade, fucks people up in the head and affects how they behave. It’s become a part of Hong Kong culture, and culture propaganda affects people, especially when it’s consumed in large amounts.


Well, it’s no longer morning now, but there’s still a nice breeze going. Apparently, in some places in Hong Kong it’s now 29˚C (84˚F), but luckily it’s still pretty cool over here. Good night, good afternoon, good morning, wherever you are!

One Year in Hong Kong

I wanted to squeeze this in before the day was over. It has been exactly one year since we have arrived in Hong Kong.

At this time last year, we were sleeping soundly in our hotel after arriving earlier in the evening. I was sans underwear because someone had mistakenly taken my suitcase, the one with all my clothes in it. Luckily, later in the night, the bag was delivered to the hotel and I was able to sleep with some clothes on.

Can’t believe in my post from a year ago, I was stressing about money. A year has gone by and I have lived in Hong Kong without any real income (save for a few odd projects here and there), and the world has not ended. It really makes me wonder how much of how we live our lives is based on fear. Fear of dying, fear of being poor, fear of being unaccepted, fear of this or that. In that first post that I made a year ago, I talked about jumping into a swimming pool. Well, it looks like I did jump into a swimming pool, just not the one I was expecting.

Going from looking to a job, to forgetting about the whole thing, to living completely upside-down in terms of our sleeping schedules, to living a year in a society that places so much value on appearances and conformity, I find that fear is no longer scary. I’ve done all these things that I’m not supposed to do, and nothing terrible has happened. Now, I find it amusing when I see people freak out over some thing that’s really trivial in terms of the big picture, but perceived to be really important because of socially-accepted and artificially-created rules and norms. Of course, people have their cultures and upbringings, and I still know how to be considerate, so I keep it to myself.

I’ve come full circle. I’m looking for a job again. After all is said and done, I still have to consider the future. I know I mentioned somewhere that if I gamed the system, I could go far. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m going to do it my way. Life is too short to do it any other. One minute left. See you next year!

Life in Hong Kong, 11-Month Update

~1,800 words to follow…

It’s been about 4 months since the last update. Between then and now, I’ve tried to write some more substantial posts, but other than a couple of entries on Adventure 2012 and some photos here and there, I haven’t been able to churn out anything meaty in the past few months. I’ll try to explain why, and perhaps change the trend, with this update.

At the time of the last update, it seemed like our lives were finally settling down and stabilizing. Although I didn’t know what was coming next, I did know that one of the things I had to do first was to get my sleeping schedule back to normal. The other thing I wanted to do was to finish posting about Adventure 2012; I had been in a race with myself to see if I could finish posting about each destination before its one-year anniversary, and I was winning that race, writing about our visit to the Glenfiddich Distillery with more than a couple of weeks to go. In the middle of writing that post, the unexpected happened.

September 30, 2013

It was a Monday afternoon in Hong Kong, and Sunday night in San Francisco. I had just finished some contract work for an ex-colleague of mine so I thought I’d WhatsApp with my family for a bit to unwind. It was then that I found out that my other cousin, the sister of the one who had passed away in 2012, had only a short time left to live.

Although I wasn’t as close to NLG as I was to her brother, we still all lived together in the same house when my family first moved to the U.S. It was my family, my cousins NLG and NVG, and my Aunt J. We were all pretty close during my adolescent years, even after my family moved into our own place, spending weekends, holidays, and birthdays together. As I’ve mentioned before, they taught me a lot about growing up in America. For some reason or another, once I went to college things changed and we didn’t spend much time together anymore.

Back in the Day
Back in the day… yes, I was a fat kid

Aunt J was diagnosed with and died from cancer while I was in college. I never went to see her, partly because I was busy at school, but mainly because I was afraid to see my once-strong aunt withering away. My family would go see her and relay to me her condition, and one time they told me that she understood my reasons for not seeing her. Still, if I had to do it over again, I would have gone and seen Aunt J at least once before she died.

For both Aunt J’s and NVG’s passings I was absent, and now, the last connection between these two families from opposite sides of the world that had somehow found themselves living together way back when was fading, and I was once again not present.

I wanted to be around my family and to see my cousin one last time, but the chance of her surviving the night was slim and last-minute plane tickets were not going to be cheap. We looked at our usual websites for tickets, and the ones which were available were going for ridiculous amounts like $10,000. I wondered if it was destiny that I should live with the fact that I had not said goodbye to any of them.

Back After 7 Months

Back in San Francisco after 7 months, I noted to JC while riding our cab home how strange it was that everything seemed so, normal. Returning from much shorter trips in the past, there was always a period of readjustment, of getting used to cars being on a different side of the road, getting used to seeing people of different ethnic groups. But not this time. It was as if we had never left. I sat quietly and looked out the window as the cab sped up 101.

We went upstairs and my family welcomed us home. I wanted to know whether we had made it back in time. Sadly, the answer was no. She had passed away just as we were boarding our flight. Like my father, her mother, and her brother, she left before her time. I was shocked when I was reminded of her age, because I had always thought of her as a lot older than I was; she didn’t make 40.

Despite not being able to see my cousin one final time, it was good to simply be present and be around my family for moral support. Over the next couple of weeks, we spent a lot of time with our families, cherishing the opportunity, maximizing the short time that we were there. We did the things that we had missed doing while being in Hong Kong, such as eating VH, pho, and Mexican food, going to Costco, and barbecuing. I did a lot of walking around the city, flashing back to the times when I was growing up there, noticing little differences between SF and HK like how the sidewalks were paved, how the sewer grates were shaped, how life is basically the same, yet different. At one point, I would have been content to just abandon everything in Hong Kong and stay in San Francisco.

Life Goes On
The former Army St., now known as Cesar Chavez St. Life goes on…

Of course, life goes on and on the anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, we boarded a flight back to Hong Kong. It was Saturday morning when we arrived, and everything was familiar, from the process of deboarding and going through immigration, to riding the Airport Express, to the taxi ride home. We felt none of the excitement or newness that we used to feel as visitors to Hong Kong. We don’t know when it actually happened, but we realized for the first time that we were bona fide Hong Kongers.

The Last 3 Months

That brings us to the last 3 months and why I haven’t posted much. When I was in America, I focused on being with family. Our first week back, it was trying to recover from jet lag. Our second week back, I sprained my ankle badly while trying to show up an asshat on the basketball court (talk about adding injury to insult). Then, the week after that was the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. All these things combined to put me into a state where all I wanted to do was play video games and stay up late, and that’s all I did for the first few weeks of November.

In the last week of November, I started a 2-week contract job that turned out to be an adventure in mismanagement. The first few days I showed up on time and ready to work, only to sit around and do nothing. Eventually, I realized there was a disconnect between the project manager who was based in a different country and the actual staff here in Hong Kong, and that nothing was going to happen in my remaining time there. I got myself out as soon as I could. Later, I found out from the other guy who was there that he ended up sitting around for the rest of the 2 weeks.

With the holidays and family visiting in December and early January, my time was filled with holiday shopping, gatherings, and eating. Once the Christmas holiday was over, JC resumed her new job that she started in December and I’ve become a stay-at-home husband, taking care of household cleaning, preparing meals, and performing other domestic tasks. In between, I’ve tried to play more basketball in order to work off all that holiday food (and alcohol) and to rehab my ankle. Overall, my days have been full and time has flown by (for example, I started this post on Monday, and now it’s almost Friday).

Typing on the Court
Typing this post on the basketball court…

The Future

Life in Hong Kong has opened my eyes to a lot of things. When I’m doing my chores or going through my workout routine on the basketball court, my mind is filled with observations and questions about life. Is this all there is to life? What’s the point of living? In Hong Kong, I have observed that for a lot of people, it’s all about the pursuit of dollars, and ultimately home ownership. Work hours are long but the (financial) rewards are there if you are hungry enough. My issue is that I don’t feel hungry at all.

Admittedly, our move to Hong Kong is not what I originally thought it would be. Back when I first thought about moving here, I was deep into the self-important role that I had at my previous job. I was the IT guy, making sure everything was running smoothly. I was starting a transition into operations. I knew the ins and outs of how things worked at my workplace. Yeah, I thought I was pretty important, and I thought that if I moved to Hong Kong, I would simply pick up where I left off. That was my original premise for moving to Hong Kong. I would kick ass here just like I kicked ass back home.

When we finally and actually did move to Hong Kong, things were a little different. It had been over a year since I’d had the original thought. I had spent 6 months winding down my position at work. I had done Adventure 2012. I had moved back home for a few months. I had experienced life other than work. The thing I remember most about being at work is coming home at the end of the day being dead-tired and not having the energy to do anything else. It was actually me whose ass was being kicked. By the time I moved to Hong Kong, I didn’t want to do it anymore.

I had kept a list of all the things I wanted to do when work was over. For the past year and 8 months, I’ve been doing those things. I mean, just look at the uptick in posts here beginning May 2012. I finally finished StarCraft. I’ve exercised and gotten into great shape. I have time to read books and magazines. I started seriously looking at learning languages. I don’t want to give up these things, but my money is running out.

Speaking of money, the ironic thing is that if I hadn’t done all that shit that I’m loathe to do now, I wouldn’t be able to afford to live the way I do now. That’s another thing I’ve observed in Hong Kong: pragmatism. At the end of the day, you have to eat, and nobody is going to hand you any food if you’re just sitting around reading magazines. If you have no money (which I will, soon), you have to go work and make money. Idealism, naiveté, and savings will only take you so far, and sooner or later, you’ll have to get a job like everyone else. Although I don’t want to jump back into the fray, that contract job back in November showed me that I’ve still got it. As I’ve said before, I won’t starve, but is there a way to find food other than the old 9-to-5-plus-OT? I guess we’ll find out…

Life in Hong Kong, Mid-September Update

This post is over a thousand words long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I woke up this morning and stayed in bed with my eyes closed, thinking. I thought, man, it’s really nice being able to get out of bed when I want to, not having to worry about a schedule. It’s a Monday morning and most people are getting up to go to work, but not me. Being able to wake up at any time, being able to go to bed at any time, it’s priceless.

Over the past few days, we have finally come full circle from where we were almost a couple of months ago. We were waking up around 9:00 AM, then 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and then all the way around the clock. I thought it was incredible when we started waking up at 5:00 PM, but that was nothing compared to when we started waking up at midnight.

Although I do enjoy staying up late, it does have its drawbacks. For example, eight hours of sleep from 1:00 PM to 9:00 PM is not the same as eight hours of sleep from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM. In the beginning, things seem normal and I can get things done just as I normally would. After a while, I slow down noticeably, with the body simply feeling more tired despite 8+ hours of sleep. At the end of the day, we are diurnal creatures, and we need exposure to the sun to be healthy.

Realizing this, we allowed ourselves to keep going until we got back to normal. This past week we’ve been on the jet-lag* schedule, waking up at 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM, until finally, this morning we woke up at 8:00 AM. Wow. 8:00 AM. Time to go to work.

*Because the first night after we take the afternoon flight from SFO to HKG, we always wake up around those hours

Really? Time to Go to Work?

Well, not quite. After sending out a few resumes and receiving no responses, I had pretty much stopped looking for work, focusing instead on more personal endeavors such as updating this site and playing Starcraft. Sometimes, though, I do miss the camaraderie of being part of a team, especially after going out and being around people. Other times, I am tempted to buy a luxurious material thing that I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at buying if I had income. At times like these, I feel like working again.

It was one of those days last week. I had been out visiting Granny, seeing other people on their commutes to work, wondering what it might be like for me to do the same. On a whim, I took a look at a job website and threw up my resume.

Normally, I analyze the position and try to research as much as I can about the company before writing a customized cover letter. Since I hadn’t really been successful, this time I really did just throw up my resume. No cover letter. Basically, what you’re not supposed to do when looking for a job. It was more an expression of protest and exasperation than a real application. I wasn’t expecting a response.

The next day, I get a voicemail from the recruiter calling to discuss details. Dang. I spend hours writing cover letters and get nary a peep, and when I throw shit up to see what sticks I get a response the next day. I really wasn’t expecting it and freaked out a bit. I’ve never been good at telephone calls, so with that plus the unexpectedness it took some back and forth playing out scenarios in my mind to build up my nerves to return the call.

The recruiter and I had a nice chat and I agreed to go into the office for a face-to-face meeting in two days. Immediately after I got off the phone, though, I asked myself what the heck I was doing. Was I really ready to give up full control of my time? Had I finished all the things I wanted to finish? On some occasions I’ve spent more than 8 hours at a time writing stuff for this site. Would I really be able to continue working on my personal interests with a full time job?

I spend the evening mulling and struggling over these questions. From an external standpoint, I do not have a job, and it would be prudent to take advantage of this opportunity. Even if the job turns out to be a bad fit, I could use the opportunity as a chance to practice my social and networking skills. From an internal standpoint, my gut and conscience tell me that I’m still enjoying my time off, that I don’t need to do something I don’t want to do just to satisfy the tyranny of the “should”. I start to wonder whether to call the recruiter back and cancel.

The next morning, I spend some time at the basketball courts shooting around and running a couple of full-court games. After a couple of hours of running, I realize that I never would have been able to do it if I had to go to work afterwards. Like being on the court, I decide to trust my instincts and not try to do something I don’t really want to do. I decide to cancel with the recruiter.

Luckily for me, the recruiter was more than gracious when I explained to her my mistake. I apologized for wasting her time, and she wished me a good break and left the door open for any future opportunities. I really got away with one (or, at least, that’s what I hope!).

When I sent in my resume, it was one of those days when I woke up at 2:00 AM, so by the time I got home I was pretty tired and not thinking straight. Actually, I wasn’t thinking at all. I leaped before I looked. The recruiter would have been well within her rights to accuse me of playing games. I didn’t want to compound that initial mistake with another one (going in with no real intent to get the job) so I backed out.

Learning Through Experience

Over the past few months, I have progressed a lot in my personal development, learning about and coming to terms with how I tick, and learning how do deal with life in that context. Although I’m not proud of what I did, I’m actually kind of glad that this resume thing worked out the way it did. There are so many existing opinions, existing ideologies out there that one has a hard time picking which voice to listen to. I am finding that just listening to myself is the best course of action; making a mistake like this one, coming up with a way of rectifying it, and then being truly content with the outcome tells me that I had been right all along. If I had believed the “I’m not ready” feeling in my gut instead of worrying that it might be the wrong choice, I never would have sent out my resume and made such a mess in the first place.

We learn through experience, and making mistakes, whether it be completely flipping our sleep schedule around or learning to trust ourselves. Staying up late all the time, we realized the drawbacks to not sleeping at night. After the resume thing, I will remember to think before I do, and trust my own judgment a bit more in the future. Living in Hong Kong, we have learned that we can be happy with so very little. Withdrawing money early from my IRA, I realize it’s a lot easier after overcoming the initial mental hurdle. No one can tell you what anything is like. We have to experience and learn for ourselves whether something is good or bad.

Thank You, and Good Night

And so, that’s it for this update. In a little while, as this Monday evening winds down, I will once again lay my head down on my pillow and close my eyes, and I will think, man, it’s really nice being able to go to bed when I want to.