Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hong Kong - First Impressions

Marisa and I touched down in our new home about three weeks ago after a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles, during which we slept minimally.  We were greeted by a teacher at our school who drove us back to the campus where we'll be living for the next two years.  It was a quiet Saturday morning as we drove across an impressive suspension bridge, past a massive shipping port to the mainland portion of Hong Kong known as "Kowloon".  Eventually we made our way through the notoriously crowded neighborhood of Mong Kok and up a half-mile drive to our school campus.  After a brief overview of the grounds we were led to our apartment..........which was unbelievably bigger than our apartment in Frankfurt!  High ceilings.  Two bedrooms.  Two couches.  Television.  Washer and Dryer.  Big(ger) Refrigerator.  Compared to what we were used to for the past three years, we had made the big time.  Of course, much of our first day was spent unpacking, orienting ourselves, and taking a 1-hr nap that turned into more like 6 hours.  It was going to take some time to adjust.

View of our new city from "the Peak" on Hong Kong Island.

New apartment still needs some furnishings, but we couldn't be happier with the space.  The commute is also much shorter - living on campus and all.

Marisa and I on the Kowloon side near the "Avenue of the Stars", looking out toward Hong Kong Island.

Now that we've had some time to tour a bit of the city and take it all in, I figured that it was time to post some "first impressions" of Hong Kong.

1.  It's HOT and HUMID here - at 22 degrees N of the equator, we're sitting about where Cuba or Honolulu are, with temperatures between 80-90 degrees and a humidity over 60%.  They tell me that it will cool down in a month or so, which sounds legitimate, but for now you just have to plan on taking multiple showers per day.  You literally can't go 100 yards outside of your apartment without perspiring.  That being said, I've probably already beat out the total number of days that I was able to wear shorts and flip-flops in the past three years in Germany. 

2.  You can get lots of Western foods - in Germany we felt like kids in a candy store whenever we got a chance to do some shopping for food at one of the military bases.  However, after visiting a handful of grocery stores here we've found items like Kraft mac n' cheese, bacon, boxed cake mixes, barbecue potato chips, granola bars, Quaker oatmeal, Butterball turkey, string cheese, Philly cream cheese, mountain dew, Teddy grahams, alfredo sauce, the list could go on and on.  In general, we've just been blown away by the availability of Western foods which is awesome because that will definitely help us to mix up the menu on a weekly basis.

Craving for doughnuts?  They've got you covered here, although I'm not saying it's Dunkin' Doughnuts quality.

3.  Everything can be delivered - It took me a year to discover beer delivery in Germany, so we were more aware coming to Hong Kong.  Turns out you can have your groceries delivered for free, not to mention we had California Pizza Kitchen deliver to our apartment last week!  Pretty much any restaurant has a delivery service or there is a company that takes to-go orders from any restaurant you want - they pick it up and bring it to you.  This could be a crutch for us, since it takes a lot of motivation to walk down 184 steps just to leave campus.

4.  Beer drinkers don't have to suffer - I moved here with the expectation that the only beer that I'd be able to find would be a cheap, low quality Asian beer.  In only a few weeks I've come to find that there are many bars/restaurants that serve European and American brands on draft.  We went to a Belgian beer bar that had at least 50 beers to choose from.  I was able to order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale at a place just the other day.  I should also mention that the grocery stores actually have a decent selection of German beer as well as Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Needless to say I've been pleasantly surprised and I think I'll be able to survive here.

5.  LOTS of people - We knew that Hong Kong, especially Mong Kok, was supposed to be a crowded place and that is definitely true.  It hasn't been a big turn-off or anything, but when you walk on the street or take the subway you are definitely aware of the 6 million + people that live in this city.  My favorite time is when the light turns green at a traffic light and hundreds of people from both sides of the street converge towards each other, zig zagging and deftly maneuvering through to make it to the other side.

Typical street scene in Mong Kok.

6.  Dim Sum is divine - a traditional type of breakfast/brunch here is the Cantonese "dim sum", which supposedly refers to the preparation of the food -  primarily steaming.  I plan on doing a separate post on dim sum, but you basically order a bunch of small portions of filled dumplings and share them "family style" with your party.  It's really cheap and very rewarding.

Our first dim sum outing, hosted by students from our school.  I recommend pretty much everything, except for the chicken feet - bottom right.

7.  It's huge and interesting - this place is massive and there are tons of areas to explore.  We've barely scratched the surface, but we absolutely love just getting out and walking around new parts of town.  I love all of the neon signs that hang out over the streets with Chinese characters.  We live in  more of the "locals only" part of town with lots of working class folks.  Then there's Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) where there's lots of malls and touristy things for the cruise ships coming in.  On the island there's Central and Soho with lots of expats and Western restaurants and bars.  There's also lots of beaches but we haven't really made it to any of those yet.  It's fun to just pick a new area and dive in.

I love the huge signs spilling out onto the street.  At night the neon signs have me staring in all directions.  Since I've never been to Vegas, this has been a decent substitute.

8.  People are friendly - most people speak English here and there are tons of expats all over the place, which I would think would get annoying for the locals.  However, we've found that people have been very friendly and helpful for us as we've been figuring things out.  If they don't speak English they tend to grab somebody who does to translate.  Just last weekend we got on a bus and tried to tell the driver where we wanted to get off, but he didn't understand.  At the next stop he asked a lady who got on to ask us where we wanted to go and she translated.  It's definitely encouraging for us to try to learn some of the language.

9.  Fashion is trendy - Marisa insisted that I note that people have a funky/trendy style.  Lots of people have their own put-together style and rock the bright neon shoes without shame.  It's difficult to describe or explain, but we like it.

WTF?  This exhibition is some sort of Japanese cartoon cat and people have been going nuts over them.

10.  Mall-density - if there's one thing that is popular here, then it's chicken feet.  If there are two things that are popular here, then it'd be shopping malls.  I could literally visit a different mall for every day of the month and not have any repeaters.  It's also been surprising to see a lot of Western stores, such as Quicksilver, Stussy, Gap, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, etc.

On the higher end, near TST (Tsim Sha Tsui) there's plenty of shopping options for the deep-pocketed. Apparently many mainlanders come down for the weekend on shopping trips and eat up the fancy stuff.

11.  Transportation works - like most large cities, HK has a subway (MTR) system as well as a bus system.  While the subway system covers a lot of ground, it can be time-consuming taking all of the escalators down and up.  If you can figure out the bus system then you can get pretty much anywhere in a hurry.  It's also really cheap because you get an "Octopus Card" that works like a debit card.  You pay a flat rate for buses and a pro-rate for the MTR, which usually works out to less than $1 (US dollar) per trip.  This is much cheaper than Germany, where you had to buy a monthly/weekly pass or pay a flat rate per trip, which could amount to around $4 (US) per trip.  I should mention that the Octopus Card (I usually call it an Oyster Card) can also be used at most shops/stores in Hong Kong.

Trams, buses and taxis are everywhere - and relatively cheap too.

So there have been many positive things that we've noticed about our new home so far.  It's not my intention to bash Germany with some of the comparisons, but it's just observations.

Enter the Dragon

Excellent beginning to this adventure and there will undoubtedly be more to come.  I hope to post a few short blogs covering some cultural differences as we explore more of this place.  Stay tuned!

--Justin
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