Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Buying ethnic

Four days in Hanoi has been very relaxing. The non-stop rain hasn't bothered me much, the highlights of the trip have been eating, chatting and sitting around. Four days seems like a major break when you're used to one and a half day weekends.

At the same time, it's weird to be somewhere so foreign. This is the first time since I was a kid that I've been in a country where I know nothing of the language and don't have any friends resident. I have very little awareness of Vietnamese culture and the currency still has me confused!

I felt like a real idiot shopping for souvenirs from mountain villages I didn't even get close to. At one point I was wishing that someone would confiscate that ugly lime coloured thread that the Hmoung hill tribes insist on using. Their baby carrying cloths would look much better on the walls of my room in Hong Kong without it.

Helplessness will be over soon because Dad, Mim and I fly back to Hong Kong tonight. It's just a shame that there's only a couple of days left before they have to fly back on Sydney on Friday night. I'll be working in the daytime so evenings are going to be action packed!

Sunday, August 29, 2004


I probably should have mentioned in a previous post that I've been planning a trip to Hanoi. My dad and sister arrived in Hong Kong on Friday night and we flew together to Hanoi on Saturday morning. We're going to return to HK on Tuesday night and then they'll fly back to Sydney on Friday.

Our holiday so far has involved a lot of eating and walking around. We're staying in the old quarter of the city and the old buildings and tree lined streets are very beautiful. Except for the huge number of motorbikes and scooters on the road, this place is incredibly peaceful... relative to HK anyway.

This morning we went to see the 'Hanoi Hilton'. During the colonial era it was the prison where the French kept nationalist insurgents. Then, during the Vietnam War, the Communists used it for captured American soldiers who had parachuted into the city after their planes were shot down.

The prison has now been turned into a museum which attempts to contrast two very different prison experiences. Preserved cells, guillotines and torture equipment show the harsh punishment meted out to Vietnamese by the French. In the midst of all this horror, a photographic display provides a juxtaposed view of the treatment of the Americans by the Vietnamese. Photos include:
- American prisoners recieving gifts sent by family
- American prisoners attending church
- American prisoners cooking (with several whole chickens)
- American prisoners talking with Vietnamese officers
My favourite photo was cationed 'Citizens and soldiers of Hanoi rescuing an American who parachuted into the lake'.

I'm inclined to believe that the treatment of prisoners in the two eras really was very different. Still, it was my first time to see such an obvious spin put on a museum exhibition. That was very interesting.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Love and Life and the Experiental Metafunction

I've now been teaching English classes at work for over six months. Many of the students in the advanced class are the same ones that I started with and I'm having to become very creative in order to come up with new course content.

When I did teacher training we were repeatedly reminded of the importance of teaching language in context. A 'whole text' approach aims at studying and producing chunks of language with real meaning. Studying isolated sentences or (gasp!) words was strictly frowned upon.

One major advantage of this approach is that it makes the lesson more interesting for the teacher as well as the students. Role-play is a fun way of doing speaking activities. Reading is much more rewarding when the focus is on meaning rather than grammatical form.

After completing a unit on Hong Kong history I felt completely emptied of ideas. The survival English that the class needed for different scenarios in Hong Kong was acheived long ago. That's when I decided that we should take things easy and do a couple of weeks of study of pop song lyrics.

We started with Dionne Warwick's 'The windows of the world are covered with rain' which was very relevant to the student's experience of war and suffering. We then moved on to 'A house is not a home' which lent itself well to an introduction of functional grammar, an incredible theoretical framework for analysing language invented by Macquarie Uni linguist, Michael Halliday.

From there we have now moved on to my all time favourite, the Queen of hip-hop and soul, Mary J. Blige. We continued our exploration of functional grammar with 'Ultimate Relationship', a cool song about time that Mary spends in prayer and meditation each morning. In the last lesson we played a poker type game with cut out pieces of the song. Students got hysterically excited as they tried to collect lines from the same verse. After a couple of listenings the class was like a group kareoke session with all eleven students singing along.

I'm so glad I don't use the grammar translation method of teaching!

Thursday, August 26, 2004


I noticed a sign yesterday in the lift lobby of D-block in Chungking Mansions:

'Since the usage of this lifts is over 42 years old the operations are mechanical and not electronic. Management desires to upgrade the quality of resident life and will make improvements to Chungking Mansion lifts beginning in D-block...'

About time! Chungking Mansions must be the only place in Hong Kong where it's not uncommon to queue for up to ten minutes for a lift. Also, the lifts only stop to pick up passengers on the way down, very frustrating for those of us who have a reason to travel between different floors.

Like the lifts in Chungking, I also had a major overhaul this week when I shaved my head on Tuesday. I was very pleased with the reaction at work, a confirmation of my theory that African and Chinese people are much better at giving compliments than westerners:
- 'Mr Joe, you look like an African now' (yes, a very strange one! a Nigerian friend once told me that they call albinos 'unfortunate Europeans')
- 'Mr Joe, you look like a young boy' (very welcome after last week's comment on my age!)
- 'Mr Joe, you look very smart' ('smart' is nearly only used for looks in many varieties of English)

The one disadvantage of my new look is that the pawpaws of Temple St no longer recongnise me and are seeing me as potential client material again. It took me a while to figure out why I was getting a lot more waving hands, inviting looks, 'ho dai'(very big) and 'maaih la wei'(come and buy) than usual...

Monday, August 23, 2004

So old

I wasn't worried about turning 25 or getting older at all until my boss wished me happy birthday on Friday.

'How old is it this year? Thirty again?', she said with a smile.

I almost died! It would be one thing for her to guess that I am over thirty. Being confident enough to joke about it is a lot worse. If she was from Hong Kong I might not have minded so much but she's English. Suddenly I felt very aged.

Last week I also had to put a ban on asylum seekers calling me 'Uncle Joe'. 'Mr Joe' is bad enough, particularly considering that many of them are about ten or so years older than me.

At least I'm not the only one getting the weird terms of endearment. My 21 year old colleague has become 'Chini mama'. The 'chini' part comes from her name. What they don't realise is that 'chini' means sugar in Nepali.

Friday, August 20, 2004

I'm doing so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so...

After a long and traumatic battle with a fungal infection, my orchid Beyonce passed away yesterday. I don't usually name plants but a friend suggested the name when my other orchid withered and died from the same problem. Beyonce had contracted the infection at the same time but she was looking like a survivor until earlier this week.

Aside from my loss, I'm doing so good this week. I had a whole bag of presents and cards hand delivered from Sydney on Tuesday and I've had parcels, cards and letters in the post every day since the end of last week. I think I've eaten more chocolate in the last couple of days (sorry! I opened some things early!) than I have since the beginning of this year.

So thanks to everyone responsible for that and also thanks for all the internatioal sms messages today. Even the one that said 'Help! What is the currency of Macau? and what is its short form? I'm in the typesetters and need an answer asap'. Glad that I could be of assistance.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Wellcome Winona

Just when I thought I had no pride left to lose...

I'm so annoyed. The company that donates the bread for our asylum seeker breakfasts operates small outlets inside several locations of a large supermarket chain in HK.

The staff of the outlet that I pick up from three times per week are super friendly. Going for the bread collection before work and saying hi to them is one of the nicest parts of my day.

The supermarket staff are not nearly so nice. They look at me and my trolley as if I am causing some kind of nuisance. As of this morning, the bakery outlet staff informed me of a new policy. As I leave the store each morning, the supermarket manager will check through each and every box before signing me out. Hmmm.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Everybody soukous!

t was a disaster waiting to happen. Since last week, everyone in our centre has been mesmerised by a video CD of Congolese superstar Awilo Longomba. Every clip features Awilo surrounded by a possee of very energetic dancers. My attempts to imitate the moves pale in comparison but I'm improving and at least I've been keeping everyone entertained.

I had a call from one of my friends in Sydney last week to say that a couple of his friends are in Hong Kong on holiday. We caught up on Saturday evening and they convinced me to go out dancing for only the second time since I've been in HK. When we got on the dancefloor at about two it was crowded, conveniently inhibiting the Farah Khan steps that usually cause my friends so much embarrassment.

Everything was safe until Kelis' 'Milkshake' came on at two thirty followed by a soukous-style 'Crazy in Love'. The same beat continued and the next hour was my solo audition for Awilo's next 'Live in Kinshasa'. My friends were shocked and a group of tourists from the mainland screamed as I collided with them backwards. I became something of a celebrity and despite the aches (now two days later) I'm waiting to do it all again.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Quotes from work

- 'Me English already finished. English very easy. Now only I learn Cantonese'

- 'Sir, Kelly (sic - you figure it out) 36? Oh dear, sir, not looking 36. So old ! I no can marry!'

- 'I'm a Christian. Give me pork!'

- (cross-cultural communication in the lift)
'ya ga urp?'
'haiya, uppa uppa'

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Blame it on the name

I am so tired of the name of my organisation. When people hear it they tend to assume we are a missionary organisation. This would be fine except that many of our staff are not Christian. I think that in Cantonese the name even specifies that we are protestant.

The problem of the name is twofold. The first problem is faced by my colleagues and the second is all mine. It's really making me crazy.
1. Non-Christians feel that they are going to get preached at if they come here. My colleagues spend a lot of time explaining to our ethnic minority clients that there is no religious component to our langauge classes, health workshops, doctors consultations etc.
2. Christians get very critical because they feel that we are being Christian in name only and therefore deceitful.

We had a couple turn up here a few days ago from a church that is quite concerned about asylum seekers. When they arrived I was teaching a class and my colleague explained all of our different services to them. In the course of the explanation they must have sussed out that she wasn't a Christian.

When I finished my class and sat down to speak with them they asked 'Exactly how Christian is your organisation?'. I told them that I am the only Christian in our office. I also explained that most of our volunteers are Christian and we were working together with one church that is running a bible study group in our centre. I told them that we would be very glad if they wanted to do something similar.

This wasn't enough, however, and they proceeded to ask a load of questions about my church and its denominational background etc. So annoying. I blame it all on the name.

Monday, August 09, 2004


In another turn of events highly indicative of Hong Kong work culture, we now have a replacement air-con installed and a new one where one did not exist before. Both are fancy brand names and bigger than the one that had broken.

After three weeks of stalling, the new ones were installed in a big rush a couple of days ago.


The managers of our organisation are having a meeting in here tomorrow. Someone realised that it was going to be hot and things started moving very quickly.

Bring on more managers meetings! Last time I managed to get an exhaust fan put in the bathroom. This time two air-cons. Next time who knows! I might try for a spa.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

'Tujhe apne banane ki kasam...'

In many parts of the world lift rides can be awkward. I grew up in a lift culture that discouraged any kind of interaction with strangers. Eye contact and talking were striclty forbidden.

Not so in Chungking Mansions. Staring is commonplace and so is 'What country?'. Slightly more disturbing to my conservative lift culture is singing. Loud singing.

I just arrived at work after a lift ride where my co-passenger put an arm across the doorwar and burst out into raucous song. Not expecting that I would understand of course...

'I have vowed to myself to make you mine....vowed to myself
I have vowed to myself to make you mine....vowed to myself'

The strange thing is that I'm used to it!

Thursday, August 05, 2004

It's getting yit in here...

I'm melting! Hong Kong summer is at it's peak and the air-conditioner at work died two weeks ago. If I hear one more 'Mr Joe, here very hot' I'm going to go crazy. True, at home I don't use air-con either. But at home I don't have several kettles, a toaster and a fridge running almost constantly. Nor do I have over twenty bodies sharing the room with me and complaining about the heat. Plus, this flat is second floor from the roof and gets a lot of sunshine.

Of course the problem is being acted on. Over ten emails on the topic have bounced around between our centre, our boss and the admin staff in the main office. Since I reported the problem the following people have been to check the machine:
- my boss
- the admin staff handyman
- the contractor of the landlady
- a representative of the air-con company (I think)

Unfortunately, each of these has come in, turned the air-con on, put their hand in front of the vent and then announced that it is broken (thank you!!). It's like a Cameroonian funeral where the body is left for viewing in the sitting room for a week for the whole village to come and say goodbye.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Who put the cold in the snowflake?

Around April this year I was starting to get a bit worried. I'd been in Hong Kong for several months without finding a church that I wanted to belong to. And I was becoming more picky and critical with each new one that I tried. Most international churches seemed to be too big and impersonal - full of money and neurotic people. I sat through many boring (and a couple of painful) sermons noticing that 'international' seemed to be synonymous with 'American' and wondering what percentage of the congregation held NRA membership.

Finally I tried a church five minutes from my house which had made several donations to our work with asylum seekers. It exceeded all expectations.

The pastor is from Manly and his sermons make me think more than I'm used to doing in church. The congregation really is international, mostly from different Asian nations with a handful from Africa and the West. The style is a little more traditional than I am used to but the pace of life here has given me much greater appreciation for a service that is a more peaceful and reflective. I knew it was the place for me when the first week's announcements included an upcoming forum on torture and a protest later than day outside the US embassy.

But it couldn't be perfect. The music is absolutely hideous. The hymns are all very old and their tunes are terrible. If we have to sing old hymns then we could at least sing the good ones! Every week there is a more modern 'Young People's Choice' but I'm convinced that a real young person does not do the choosing. I know it's a bit long but here's the first verse of one of the worst ones so far. I just about managed to make it through this song without breaking out into hysteric laughter:

Who put the colours in the rainbow?
Who put the salt into the sea?
Who put the cold into the snowflake?
Who made you and me?
Who put the hump upon the camel?
Who put the neck on the giraffe?
Who put the tail upon the monkey?
Who made hyenas laugh?
Who made whales and snails and quails? (mezzo forte)
Who made hogs and dogs and frogs? (forte)
Who made bats and rats and cats? (fortissimo)
Who made everything?