Saturday, August 16, 2008

Boo! It's the Ghost Festival today here in China. Actually it's part of a larger, longer celebration called Ghost Month that lasts all this lunar month. I guess you could consider like Chinese Halloween. I'm not really sure how popular or well celebrated it is here in China though. I came across it while browsing through the "On this day..." section of Wikipedia. I asked one of my coworkers about it. She was born and raised in China, but she had never heard of it before. And people on the streets didn't seem particularly festive, so I'm not exactly sure how it's celebrated.

I'm not really that familiar with Chinese customs or superstitions. Being 3rd generation, pretty much everything I know/understand about Chinese culture comes from traditions my parents follow. And well there aren't many of those because my parents were born in the U.S. I don't think they believe too many of the superstitions. They probably follow them for nostalgic reasons because their parents did it. As far as this festival goes, I've never even heard of it before.

Anyway, apparently the Ghost Festival seems to have something to do with ancestor worship. All I know is that when I visit my grandfathers' graves, clean the headstone, bring some flowers, light some incense, and burn fake paper money. I kid you not about the fake paper money.

I bought these while I in Hong Kong last weekend. I found this little corner shop near the Man Mo Temple that was selling some. I was feeling nostalgic so I bought some:

Notice that the money is called "The Hell Bank Note?" Even as a kid I always thought that was a little weird and eerie:

Anyway, the incense were usually lit to "wake" him up. I'd always say a "prayer" like I was talking to him, updating him on my life and wishing him well. Then we'd bow and go burn money. The money was like currency for the other world to keep him wealthy or something. I just remember it as always being so much fun. When you're a kid, fire is cool. All kids (and adults) are pyromaniacs at heart.

In fact, tonight I got to let out my inner adult pyromaniac. I figured heck, it's the Ghost Festival today and I have some of that fake paper money: Let's start a fire and burn some! It's an ancestor worship festival so I'll burn some for my grandfathers that passed away. There was just one problem; I don't have a fire place. So I went into the kitchen with eight $50,000,000 bills (can't get much luckier in China than the number 8). I started up the stove and lit them on fire one by one. I held onto it as long as I could before it burned my finger tips. At that point I'd throw the flaming bill outside on the kitchen balcony. Probably not the safest or smartest way to do it.

I wonder what my grandfathers would think about that. LOL

Thursday, August 14, 2008

As I very briefly mentioned earlier, this upcoming Sunday is a big deal for me: I’m leaving the now-familiar comforts of Shenzhen and heading for uncharted territory in Foshan. It turns out that I do have some sort of training plan. (I use the word training very loosely.) Here it is in all its glory:

7/11 – Arrived in China

7/12 – 8/16 Working in Guanlan (in Shenzhen, China)

8/17 – 9/20 Working in Foshan, China

9/21 – 10/18 Working in Dingpu (in Tucheng City, Taiwan)

10/19 – 11/22 Working again in Foshan, China

11/23 – 12/21 Working again in Guanlan (in Shenzhen, China)

12/22 – Homecoming

I have really mixed contradictory feelings about moving. On one hand, I’ve been looking forward to getting out of this place for a long time. Lately I’ve just been counting down the days. Now of course there’s no guarantee that Foshan will be any better. I could still be dealing with a$$hole tough-love managers. I’m still going to have to deal with the language barrier. And I’m definitely going to still be toiling in the factory 6 days a week.

But I hope that there’s more to China and this company than what I’ve seen so far. I want to believe that things will get better and that life will get easier. From talking to my coworkers, it sounds that’s the case in Foshan. They’ve said that it’s like paradise compared to Guanlan. I asked one of my coworkers to quantify just how good Foshan really is. I asked, “If heaven is a 10 and hell is a 1, where do these places rate?” According to his scale, Guanlan = 3, Foshan = 8, and Dingpu = 8 or 9. With scores like that, I can’t lose! Well at least not until I return to Guanlan at the end of November.

Now on the other hand I’m really scared and nervous about it all. I’ve been here in Shenzhen for nearly five weeks and I’m starting to find stability: I’ve developed a regular routine at work; I’ve started to become comfortable in speaking broken Chinese; I’ve even gotten to actually know coworkers. I’m the type of person he needs a certain amount of stability and predictability. I find comfort in that.

But Foshan is going to be a completely new and unpredictable experience. I have no idea what I’ll be doing there or what I’ll be working on. From what I hear, there are less Taiwanese (i.e. English speakers) at Foshan than at Guanlan. That means I’m really going to have to pick up my chops to be able to communicate. And the worst part is that I have to start over in terms of meeting people and making friends. It took me a really long time to become comfortable talking to people period whether it was English or Mandarin. I only hope that the people at Foshan are as nice as the people here at Guanlan.

In any case, the die has been cast and my hand has been dealt; I’m going to Foshan whether I like it or not. It can’t be all bad. I get to take new pictures. And hell, an 8 may not be the Garden of Eden, but it sounds pretty good to me!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Slowly, day by day, I'm working through this HK entry. Editing photos (and their metadata) takes forever. This is probably going to be a three-parter. Anyway, let's continue the story:

Man Mo Temple

Our first stop Sunday was the Man Mo Temple, which was well within walking distance of where I was staying. I love how there are fancy upscale restaurants and bars right next traditional historical locales. It’s part of that unique mix that I was writing about last time. Anyway, as soon as I walked in, my nose was hit by the powerful yet pleasant scent of incense. No wonder, take a look at this picture:

That’s right. All those swirling curly coils are incense. They also had sticks of incense for sale inside the temple. If I remember correctly, there some Chinese tradition about burning incenses to awaken or feed spirits. (All I know is that when I visit my grandfather’s grave, we always light incense to “wake” him up.)

For this shot, I put the camera on the ground and took a wide angle shot straight up the ceiling:

And some low depth of field fun:

But the temple isn’t just another tourist attraction though. People appeared to actually come there for more personal and spiritual reasons. See for yourself:

This is a picture of someone lighting incense in front of an altar. People would light incense, maybe leave some offering, and bow/pray. This next picture shows another altar. I think the black faced figure in the back is a Chinese god or something:

Here is a picture of some of the offerings in front of an altar: fruit and red envelopes.

After that, we hopped on the MTR to cross the harbor and headed out to Kowloon. (Note there are two major sections of Hong Kong: the actual island (Hong Kong Island) and the peninsula (Kowloon) I was staying on the island.) I look at public transit systems like this and I wonder why LA’s light rail is so wack. Like the Airport Express, it was another clean, fast, easy ride. Look at how long this train is. The set of rails goes as far off into the distance:

Goldfish Market
Our first stop in Kowloon was the Goldfish Market. Located on Tung Choi Street, the Goldfish Market is just filled with street upon street of vendors selling all kinds of fish, not just goldfish. I guess it's a bit of a misnomer because they sell dogs, cats, hermit crabs, turtles, and bunnies. But mostly it's fish. Check these out:

There were just walls and walls of plastic bagged fish. Oh and here's a cute little girl pointing at some little turtles with her father:

This was just a close up of a hermit crab with a low depth of field. I like the color:

Street Market
In dire straits, we stopped by an indoor street market so I could use the bathroom. First thing I see when I walk in is an aisle of fresh seafood: fish, crabs, shrimp, and even frogs! It might have been more appetizing if I actually liked the smell and taste of seafood (and frogs):

There was something fishy about that place (insert rim shot here). And the sights weren’t so pleasant either. I mean it’s not like I’ve never see this kind of thing before; I’ve been to butcher shops and fish markets before in Chinatown and I’ve gutted fish before. The fish there were so raw and fresh, fish guts all over out in the open. But it made for great pictures, so I just kept shooting.

Here's a wider shot so you can get a feel for much fish there really was at one vendor:

Ladies' Market
Continuing through the streets of Mong Kok, we arrived at the “Ladies’ Market.” It’s known for selling “soft” like clothes and purses. It’s a bit of a misnomer though because they don’t just sell ladies’ goods; they also sell men’s’ and children’s items as well. Now this was what I had always envisioned Asia as being like: filled with a maze of popped-up tents selling weird knick-knacks, cheap Engrish t-shirts, and counterfeit Louis Vuitton/Coach purses and wallets.

Here's a wider shot that I took from on a bridge looking down at the market:

Here is a picture that I just took of people walking around the market.

I'll finish up next time. Whew. More pictures can be found here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Everyday I box things. There’s the literal boxing and packing that I do at some point everyday, but it runs deeper much than that: When I take photographs, I have to box and frame the composition. When I teach, I have to box and outline topics to present them clearly. And on an even more abstract level, we all box and categorize people. It’s a natural thing, so don’t act like you don’t also do it. Our identities are intertwined with various categories and groups of people. We are defined by our gender, race, nationality, sexuality, etc. As I’ve written earlier, the categories that have been the most complicated and confusing are nationality and race.

Today, it got that much more complicated. I’m standing there talking to a coworker when this girl enters the room. My coworker explains to her that I’m an American. She looks me up and down, inspects my face, and then calls him a liar. (At least this is what I think is happening based on the tone of her voice, her body language, and the way she just slapped him hard across the back.) Then she looks at me again and asks if I’m Taiwanese. I say, “不是。我是美国人” (No, I am American). He explains to her that my grandparents immigrated from Guangdong and that my parents and I were born in the US.

That earned him another hard slap on the back. So I look her straight in the eye and say, “真正地!我是美国人” (Really! I am American). She quickly spouts off a string of Mandarin that I can’t understand. My coworkers explains to me in simpler words that she wants to hear my speak English. So I say:

“My name is Alan Wong. I am from America. I have been in China for one month. I will be going back in December.” (Hear myself speak English has never sounded so weird.)

First her jaw drops. Then, with squinted eyes, she inspects me again. Convinced that we’re still playing a trick on her, she walks out the room.

And this isn’t the first time that’s happened. (People usually just believe me when I tell them I’m American.) Another one of my coworkers thought I was Chinese or Taiwanese for the longest time. She just thought I was a little strange: a odd, quiet, sad-looking person who never talks. Then she found out that I was American and that I don’t understand or speak Mandarin.

I had always thought that it was obvious that I wasn’t born here in China. I thought that maybe people could tell from the way I look and I act? At the very least, I figured the Western-style button down dress shirt and slacks would be a big give away. Some people say that they would still believe me if I told them I were pure Chinese. They even say that my Mandarin pronunciation is pretty good! (I’m not sure if that’s pretty good for an ABC or just pretty good in general. In either case, hearing that makes me smile)

I figured I stuck out like a sore thumb here. I thought I was different. I don’t mean to construe that in a bad way like I’m better or that I’m special, just different I mean I wasn’t born in China and I didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin. My parents speak to me in English, and we pretty much never use chopsticks at home. Now I’m wondering if I’m really that different. Am I more Chinese or more American? Am I neither or am I both? What category or box do I fit into now? Will I still fit into the same box after these six months are over? I know that in the end, defining these categories just comes down to word semantics; it really doesn’t matter that much. But still, it would be nice to know which box my identity is moving into.

Monday, August 11, 2008

So as I mentioned in my last few entries, I spent Saturday night and Sunday exploring Hong Kong. It was my last weekend in Shenzhen (before I move to Foshan), so I figured I’d go out and do something really exciting.

I met up with a friend from UC Berkeley. We went out and did all the touristy things HK has to offer. It was just really really nice to see a familiar face and be able to speak English at a normal speed with colloquialisms! More than that, it was nice go through a whole day without having to use any Mandarin. My brain has been craving a break from Mandarin for some time. Maybe I’ve actually just been craving a break from China for some time. I love HK’s unique hybridism between old and new, familiar and strange, English and Chinese, East and West.

As usual, I had a field day with pictures. (I think I have over 100 pictures, and that’s after cutting down). I haven’t edited them all, but here are some of my favorites. If I find time later this week to process, I’ll post some more. I’m going to break the entry about this trip into two parts.

I actually arrived in HK late Saturday night. My friend suggested I come out to explore the nightlife. I’m happy that I did. I hopped on the airport shuttle again to get to HK Airport and then took a train from there. You know how last time I was surprised by all the non-Asians? Well this time, I was sitting on the train ease-dropping on someone else's conversation. I turn around inconspicuously and see Asian people speaking English! I must have done a double take. (That just goes to show how little English I use and hear in Shenzhen.) Anyway, the train was really cool. Why don’t we have great clean, smooth mass transit like that at LAX or in LA?:

Yes that is a reflection of me:

Now the train station that I got off on is built into a shopping center. The moment I walk into the IFC mall, I just look around in slack-jawed amazement. Everything is so clean and modern looking. Marble everywhere. Oh and diverse groups of people. This couldn’t be any more different than Shenzhen. This feels like home. Oh and dinner was great. I swear I almost forgot how pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and prosciutto taste. (I don’t care if that sounds conceited and yuppie. It was best meal I’ve had since I’ve got to China).

As for the nightlife, we went to a couple of bars. (Sadly I left my camera at home. I mean who brings a huge DSLR to a bar? When I got home, I ended up going out again just to walk around and take pictures.) The first bar we stopped off at was a Russian bar called Balalaika. They have this vodka shot room that’s basically a freezer. Temperature must be like thirty or forty below zero in there. Oh and get this, they provide fur coats that you can wear. Even the benches there are made of ice. (And of course I had a shot of vodka):

After that, we headed to this rock n’ roll bar in the Wan Chai district called Carnegie’s. It had a classic rock n’ roll theme with photos on the walls and rock n’ roll themed drinks. I’m not really into bars and drinking that much but it was cool and I had fun. Oh, and I finished my first beer there. (That wasn’t a joke. I can’t stand the taste of beer and I can never finish a whole bottle. You must be wondering if I even actually went to college.) Plus they had these tall railings on the bar so you could dance up there. I figured what the hell, I’m in HK and you only live once right? So I went on up there and got my groove on. (That also wasn’t a joke and I wasn’t drunk).

When I got home, I immediately went out to document and explore the area. I was staying near the Soho and Lan Kwai Fong districts. They are huge expatriate areas filled with young, hip people and high class bars, restaurants, pubs, and clubs. I swear that people from HK must love to party because I walking around until 2:00 A.M. and people were still lined up just to get into clubs and dancing in the street. My friend said it’s not unusual for people to party until like 6:00 A.M. I saw people dressed up as cowboys, Indians, tennis athletes, wearing sombreros, and even a guy wearing just a dress.

These are escalators that you can take to and from the Central district of Hong Kong. During the mornings when people go to work, they go down; in the afternoon/night they go up:

These were all taken at like 2:00 A.M. Look how many people are out!:

After that, I headed home, crashed and slept in. It was nice to sleep past 6:00 A.M. for once.

CORRECTION: Apparently I forgot how to count in China. Four months to go (and 10 days). I guess the time just flies by huh?

It's official. I've been in China for exactly one month. One month down, four to go.

I can't believe it.

Oh Hong Kong was pretty cool by the way. I have about 100 photos to cut down and edit through first though. :(