Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!

2005. What a strange year. I spent the first seven months in Hong Kong and then took a two month holiday in India, Sydney and Singapore. I've now been in London for three months.

There were some good bits. The work that I had been doing with asylum seekers became high profile and I enjoyed the unexpected fame that came along with it. Even more than that, I was so excited and relieved that a whole group of talented people was getting involved just as I left Hong Kong.

In the Indian Himalaya I found my own Narnia, and I'm dying to go there again. In Mumbai I finally made it to Bollywood, something I've talked about for years.

London hasn't been what I expected but I'm going to give it time. In the meantime, I will allow myself to start whinging again tomorrow.

Yay for 2006.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Boxing Day

After all the eating, I went for a country walk with my aunt, uncle and cousins on Boxing Day. Things still look pretty autumnal in this photo, warm spring temperatures apparently delayed the plants this year. Still, it's going to be cold this week with heavy snow across eastern England. I'm going to Birmingham today to stay with my family for a few days, I hope the snow makes it there!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

I hope that everyone had a fantastic Christmas. Mine was a little different because I had Christmas dinner on Christmas eve and then went to midnight mass. I'd never been to a Catholic church before and Westminster Cathedral was an incredible place to start. I've always wanted to go to midnight mass and I loved the way that all the lights went on and bells started ringing as soon as it went midnight. I was surprised that the service was very much like an Anglican service except for a very short prayer to Mary. The service books had run out by the time we arrived but the carols and liturgy were all very familiar.

Anyway, I should talk about the food because I have my own photos to post. Dinner was good but I realised that it is possible to put too much effort into Christmas cooking. Every single accompaniment had it's own fancy flavourings and sauces and it probably would have tasted better if everything was a little more simple. I also wished that I had ignored my concern about doing too many things at the last minute and made gravy from the turkey drippings. I had bought a fancy looking turkey gravy but it didn't taste half as good as the roasting pan smelt.

After wrestling for half an hour with the turkey pre-cooking, I was sure that I wouldn't want to eat any afterwards. I bought an organic, free-range turkey and it had a weird smell. I had to pluck quite a few quills out before doing the following preparation which reveals how strongly I was influenced by all the Christmas cooking specials in newspapers and on TV:
- washing and drying with paper towel and a hair dryer
- putting an orange and cranberry stuffing into the neck cavity
- inserting orange and onion bits and bay leaves into the body cavity
- pushing orange rind butter between the breast meat and the skin
- layering the breast with bacon

I then realised how difficult it is to tie up a 3.5kg turkey that is carrying at least one extra kilogram inside. Thankfully, it cooked well and I managed to forget my squeamishness when it came time to eat.

It was a squash around the table and a couple of people had to share a chair. Still, it was fun to sit down to a meal with five other people. Dessert was trifle and a pecan pie which were really yummy. My personal highlight, however, was getting to finally use the Chinese tea set that I bought just before leaving Hong Kong.

The highlight for most of our guests was choosing their own gingerbread man. We also had a lot of fun analysing everyone's choices. Obviously, they were not decorated by me.

The meal was not without tragedy, however, as can be seen from the unfortunate creatures below, forgotten in the oven while I was doing something else.

It's now Christmas day and after all that effort I'm enjoying doing nothing. It's just as well because everything in London is shut, including public transport!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

One chicken sneezing...

In our small office today there were six cats, one dog, two hamsters, a one-eared rabbit and this little chicken which is suffering from common cold. It's lucky I'm not too worried about avian influenza because it sneezed all day. It's very cute but if you click on the photo for an enlarged version you can see the crusty stuff around its beak.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Getting festive

After feedback from various sources that I am whinging too much I have decided to banish all negativity from this blog for the remainder of the year. For the rest of 2005 I will publish cute, inoffensive photos with minimal writing. The first is a picture of gingerbread men that I baked for my students and work colleagues today...

Saturday, December 17, 2005


It was my work Christmas party last night. I can't believe I paid 25 pounds to eat very average Thai food, subsidise a lot of alcohol and breathe other people's roll-your-own cigarrete smoke!

Secret santa was painful. I could have killed the person who insisted that we reveal who had given what to who because I had recycled a dodgy gift I got in another secret santa.

This also meant that I found out who wrote the poem to go with my gift. I had to read it out in front of everyone and it was more than a little offensive.

I'm sure it sounded hilarious when someone wrote it. As I read, people sat in uncomfortable silence feeling sorry for me.

Incase I'm still working there in a year's time I'm already thinking up excuses for not attending...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Inner city life

Unlike Hong Kong, inner city London isn't designed to be lived in. It's a place that people people visit to work, shop or see a show. It is also the hottest location for the celebrated British pastime of pavement vomiting. I try not to go out late at night - particularly on weekends.

But my biggest gripe is the difficulty of shopping for essentials. I must not fit the inner city demographic cos what they sellin I ain't buyin...

When I wanted gelatine a couple of weeks ago I had to search for days before I found a supermarket that stocked it. Every other supermarket stocked a vegetarian gelatine alternative.

Likewise when I wanted a hair cut. Salons were everywhere but it was hard to find a salon that didn't have a sign saying 'as seen in Vogue etc.'. Everything was either too pricey (thirty pounds and way upwards) or too freaky ('we also specialise in ALL types of piercings and wet body shaving').

I've decided to start doing some of my grocery shopping near my work where things are half the price. Oh, for a wet market!

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Race riots were not something I expected from Sydney.

Reading about the violence that started in Cronulla made me realise how sheltered my life was in Australia.

When I was 16 I changed from a comprehensive to a selective high school. That was pretty much the end of my exposure to any racist or violent behaviour. Attending one of the most multicultural universities in the country (world?) probably gave me the false impression that Australia had moved past all that.

The events of the weekend were a shock to the way that I remember Sydney. I hope that the subsequent response gives Australian people something to be proud of.

Friday, December 09, 2005


When someone asked where I live a while ago they remarked, 'wow! you could go and watch all the film premieres in Leicester Square!'. It's not really my thing, but I stopped on the way to the supermarket yesterday to join the crowd at the premiere of King Kong.

Somehow, I managed to see all the stars arrive. I was within touching distance of Jack Black and Andy Serkis (Kong, Gollum) who stopped to sign autographs for people right in front of me. I would have been much more excited had they been Naomi Watts and Adrian Brody, who I only spotted from afar.

My personal highlight was listening to the conversations of a couple behind me. They seemed to be work colleagues with an as yet unspoken thing for each other:

Dorky Australian guy: Oh, I think that's Adrian Brody!

Giggly British girl: Oh really?

DAG: Yes, you know, he starred in that film, 'The Pianist'

GBG: Oh yes, I saw that, what did he play again?
(ooh! a classical music enthusiast?)

DAG: What do you mean?

GBG: What was his role in the film?

DAG: Um, the pianist...

Opening to less glowing reviews today was my Bollywood debut, Kalyug. I would like to make it clear at this point that the film is an expose on the porn industry and not a porn film. Having said that, I don't believe that it is a 'social issues' film as some of the promotional material is making out. It reminds me of the ridiculous spin that was put on the revolting 'Girlfriend'. Yes, of course a soft porn film about a psychotic murderess is helping the plight of Indian lesbians!

Actually, I was surprised that the review was not worse. On set, the film looked 'c' grade at best.

It will be interesting to see if the careers of my co-stars take off. Kunal (I can't believe we sat on the same sofa!) Khemu might have a chance but I'm not so sure about Deepal Shaw. It's a shame that her look in the film is so sleazy because she was gorgeous in real life.

I'm dying to see if my tiny scene made it through the editing room. If not, I'll have to head off to Mumbai again and loiter around the tourist ghetto hoping to get scouted...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Fields of gold

After getting 'from your blog it seems that you don't like England very much' comments from a couple of people I feel obliged to write something positive. Luckily one thing has come to mind. I will write others as they become apparent.

As the winter solstice approaches, the sun struggles up about nine and creeps 90 degrees around the horizon before going down in the mid-afternoon. It helps if you can forget what real sunshine is like and enjoy the day as a six hour sunset/sunrise. Unfortunately, clouds or buildings (they don't have to be high) usually keep the sun out of view.

On the train to Birmingham on Saturday I had a moment. It reminded me of the first time I looked up at the mountains behind our village in Lantau Island and realised that they were incredibly beautiful. It had taken me months to appreciate nature that wasn't Australian.

I looked up from 'Middlemarch' (almost finished it again) and saw that the sun was shining through a small sliver of a gap in the cloud. The sky above was a dark grey-blue. Fields and trees were glowing golden in the sun. I put the book down and put Missy Higgins in my discman. I only wished it was an Indian train where I could hang out the door. Then I remembered the temperature.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nguyen Tuong Van

I have a reason for following the news about Nguyen Tuong Van...

I have a friend who passed through Singapore airport while carrying heroin from Bangkok to Sydney. He was one of the youngest people ever to be arrested for importing heroin in Australia. I assume that those who organised the deal were never caught. I just thank God that he was arrested in Sydney and not Singapore.

His prison sentence was short and he emerged a better person. He is the most loyal person I know, someone I can rely upon completely. When I was sick in Hong Kong, he was the friend I called in the middle of the night to take me to hospital. I have been safe in dangerous situations because he was around.

He still struggles with personal drug use but he would never again traffick drugs. Anybody touched by drug addiction is a victim. Some of he most tragic life stories I have ever heard are those of people suffering from drug addiction. Often the tragedy started before the drugs.

I hate the death penalty.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I went to a West End show for free on the weekend. It had incredible costumes, well choreographed moves and talented choral backing. There were even free refreshments.

The bells and incense were a little too much for me, however. I will try a different church next week.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A greater evil

As of today I am letting go of a prejudice. Since childhood I have made jokes about American people being ignorant. I vow never to do it again. Should I become drawn in to an American-bashing conversation in the future I will interject with, 'but American people are so friendly and polite!'.

Yes, it's official. I am living in the rudest country on earth. Last week I was verbally assaulted by a waitress for rearranging the dishes on a restaurant table. Yesterday I was screamed out of the dry cleaners (sans garments) because it was a couple of minuted past closing time. And the stuff I had came to collect was hanging right behind the staff member as he shouted at me! What's more, it was Friday evening and the shop doesn't open until Monday.

The contrast with my laundromat in Hong Kong couldn't have been more poignant. They were open till midnight seven days per week. If I caught them as they were closing they would open the shop again for me. They were friendly and always rounded down the weight of my washing, telling me that I was a good customer.

But the prize for customer service goes to my bank where I was told the following, 'We can't give you a good bank account because we don't know anything about you. You've just moved here and you don't have full time work. It's better for you to go to another bank because we can only give you the basic account which isn't any good.'

I did try going to another bank but they couldn't schedule an account opening interview until over two weeks later. I gave up and returned red-faced to the original bank for a basic account. Over a week later my account details have just arrived through the post.

My extensive contact with immigrant groups over the last couple of weeks has confirmed my thesis. The longer people stay here the ruder they get. I'm on my guard. Infact, I'm determined my to abuse my position as a language teacher to make this country a friendlier place...

Monday, November 21, 2005


In the past two weeks I've become one of the most networked people in Islington. After contacting most of the community organisations in the area and visiting about half of them, phone calls have come in from six potential students. This is enough to set a start date for the class.

It's taken my knowledge of Sudanese tribes, Ethiopian names, Congolese languges and ability to discuss the Somali diaspora. I even burst into Urdu today to excuse myself for entering a mosque right after Friday prayers. All this in temperatures barely above freezing. I feel like Erin Brockovich.

Oh, I have so much to whinge about but I realised I did that in my last post... I'll try and hold it in till next time.

No please

It annoys me to hear people saying something like, 'in such and such language there is no word for such and such' as if it bears great meaning in regard to the culture of the speakers of that language. It reflects the ignorant assumption that a language is just a collection of words.

A common example of this is a statement I hate, 'a lot of people who learn English as a second language come across as rude because there is no word for please in their language'.

Most English speakers don't realise that saying please is the smallest part of sounding polite. In most sentences, please is just an extra frill which is very liable to sarcastic use. The only time we are genuinely impressed by please is when it's spoken by small children or parrots.

It's a tragedy if people are taught that please is the key to politeness without being taught the importance of:
- tone
- boy language
- modals e.g. could you, can you, would you etc.
- super polite forms - if you don't mind, if it's not too much trouble, if you could that would be fantastic

The reason that some non-native speakers of any languge can come across as rude is that politeness is actually very complicated. This is more true of English (an ugly mess of a language) than it is of most languages which have more organised systems for sounding polite.

Politeness is a feature of all languages but it needs to be taught. It's not automatic that a person who is polite in their first language will be polite in a second. If language is a tool to get what we want then being polite (or persuasive, manipulative etc.) is often just as important as being able to clearly express what it is that we actually want.

Friday, November 18, 2005


I think I gravitate towards smelly workplaces. When I was a swimming teacher people would complain about my permanet chlorine odour. While working at Chungking Mansions I exuded CKM One - a heady mix of curry, smoke and incense. I now come home from the farm stinking of animals in general, particularly things that cats and mice do.

Work is going well and the search for a second job is looking okay. My colleagues are nice and weird enough to be very interesting. Today we went to the fish and chip shop to pick up lunch and brought it back for a picnic sitting on the compost bins. The weather was freezing (frost stuck till afternoon) and the bins were the only dry and sunny spot.

Today was my first day working with my co-worker on the asylum seeker project. Her name is Mary and our boss delighted in introducing us to people as 'Joseph and Mary the new staff members'. I'm waiting for more jokes involving us, hay and the animals. It brought back long repressed memories of 'where's Mary?' infants school taunts...

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mujhe maaf karo

I pity anyone in central London today who doesn't like 'Hung Up', I've heard it coming from shops and passing cars and that's without even leaving home!

I too joined the queue of people in the local CD store buying 'Confessions on a dance floor'. The highlight of the album for me is Madonna speaking in Hindi in 'Sorry'.

She does quite well. The first two words, 'mujhe maaf' ( to me forgivness), are excellent and then 'karo' (do) comes out a little weird. It's understandable. The slightly rolled 'r' sound is difficult and it's hard to follow it with an 'o' (as in 'go') without making it sound like 'oo' (as in goo).

Overall a good effort.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Me=cat magnet

I've never been a cat person. So I can't understand why the three cats at work spend so much time crawling over me and my desk.

Yesterday the black kitten spent most of the day in my lap, getting up occasionally to chase my pen (as I wrote), walk across the keyboard or shuffle a mouse's head around my feet. I don't get a shock anymore when it jumps from the top of the filing cabinet onto my shoulder.

The big fluffy cat is less energetic. It slept all day next to my monitor, moving only slightly when I had to retrieve papers from underneath it's body.

The kitten's mother has decided that the top of my monitor is a good place to sit and survey the office.

If they're trying to convert me they're not doing a good job. The kitten had acheived some success but it blew it with the mouse.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


I've been wondering lately about the future of this blog. Since arriving in the UK I haven't had much to write about that couldn't be classified as whinging. I thought about asking Gwyneth Paltrow if she wanted to form a club after she was lambasted in the press for complaining about rude customer service, non-stop rain and dirty streets. I think her outburst was quite restrained, infact I could make a much longer list, beginning with the following:

- the price of everything (with no necessary relation to quality or good service)
- the underground - smell, carriage height, heat, rubbish, getting to the platform...
- the difficulty of opening a bank account (I still haven't managed)
- half hourly marketing phone calls from call centres
- 'assemble at home' furniture that arrives incomplete
- being referred to 'complaints offices' which are only contactable by post
- people eating fast food meals and drinking alcohol on public transport
- delivery people who steal stuff
- having to worry about my valuables everywhere

Okay, I better finish there.

Anyway. I started a new job on Monday and I'm hopeful that it will give me something else to write about. It's in an interesting area, on my way from the tube station to work I passed a vandalised car, a drug deal and a girl running through a park screaming. I read in the paper that vigilante gangs in the area have started going after criminals because the police response time is so slow.

And my job? I work on a farm. An educational farm in the city is starting a basic skills program for asylum seekers. I was hesitant to work with asylum seekers again but the job is fantastic. My hours are very flexible and I will be completely responsible for designing the course and lesson plans. Best of all, there is a limit of six students in the class! Since it is part-time, I'm looking for another job to supplement it.

And there's no need to fear that this job will be tame after working in Chungking. I arrived on Monday morning to find my new colleagues cleaning a mountain of mouse poo off my desk.

Rodents, drugs, insane people... it's all comfortingly familiar.

Friday, October 21, 2005


Please disregard the flattering comments that keep turning up together with links to other sites. The first one fooled me for a second but they are now quite obviously fake.

Not much news other than that. I'm in London and hoping I find a job very soon, if only so I can get out of this internet cafe where the entire day's music comprises one Mariah song and one Craig David song played alternately. I don't mind 'We Belong Together' but 'Honey, honey, hug me, hug me, blah, blah, blah' is driving me insane. Those two are interrupted only occasionally by Tracy Chapman, quite appropriate for the unemployed.

Aiyaa, Craig has started again :( Must find work...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


After my last post, we shifted to Palolem in South Goa. It was a pretty touristy beach but it was much more idyllic. This was the view from our hotel restaurant where I spent hours reading and drinking lime sodas.

It's now my last full day in Mumbai and I'm trying to fit as much in as possible. I'm looking forward to my imminent reincarnation in London but I'm going to miss India, particularly Mumbai.

Since there is a limited amount I can eat in the next thirty hours I'm planning meals carefully. I've spent about a couple of hours already in the hairdresser when a haircut turned into a head massage and then a face massage and then a facial. All for about a pound and a half!

I'll head to Marine Drive soon to catch another sunset over the sea. I've seen several now and it's still a novelty.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

My debut

I'm writing from Goa now. It's nice here but hardly the paradise that I've heard so much about. I guess I've been spoilt at an early age in regard to beaches. Anyway, I'm shifting from the north to the south end tomorrow in search of white sand and blue sea (as opposed to brown on brown).

Mumbai, on the other hand, was much better than I expected. It has a very cool mix of history, yummy food, ocean front walks and interesting people. It's very clean and developed compared to Delhi and I spent a lot of time just walking around and taking the city in.

But the coolest thing was that I made my (small) entry into Bollywood. Okay, it may be a trashy film without any A-list stars but it does star the ex-wife of a very famous actor.

I was rounded up on the streets of the tourist district with a bunch of others who were were mostly European. We all started out very excited but the group grew restless as the day went on without anyone except me being filmed (I had a silent part as a security guard).

At 6pm (alleged finishing time) we were still waiting for a scene in which we were all supposed to play reporters and journalists. When it became clear that the shooting was going to run way overtime the Polish and Norwegians had an argument with our casting agent and ended up storming off without pay.

That just left me, a couple of French girls, two Canadian guys and an English lady. At 8:30pm our shot started, a scene where we burst in on someone's house at night. Because our number had decreased, our group was supplemented with several local extras who were supposed to stand at the back as we burst in through the front door.

I actually had a line to utter but I didn't even get to say it. The local extras were very keen to get their big bollywood break and most of the foreigners got pushed to the back of the crowd. It was funny really, we'd waited over twelve hours to be filmed and then didn't even manage to get on camera.

Anyway, I'm in Goa three more nights and then back to Mumbai for almost a week before flying to London...

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


I'm in Singapore airport, about to fly to HK. Singapore being Singapore there's not a whole lot to tell. Everything smells of frangipani and jasmine and the food is delicious.

And it was cool to see my friends Joan and Saz again.

Oh! and there was chewing gum stuck to the bed sheets in my hotel room.

I'll be in HK for several days and then I'm flying to Mumbai.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Some more mountain photos

Here are some more photos from my own trip up to Kedarnath before Mim arrived. I still can't believe I did the trek twice!

The route I took up to Kedarnath was the same one that Mim and I came back on. There were some horrifying landslides along the way.

At one landslide our bus had to stop because bits were still falling. This was the same spot where a guy appeared selling 'softee' icecream.

14km from Kedarnath the road ends and the sheep are sorted from the goats. Pilgrims have a choice of going by foot, pony or palanquin.

An old man and lady on my bus from Rishikesh had advised me to stay overnight in a village half way up the 14km trail. I took an upstairs room in this guesthouse and had dinner with the staff and other guests, crowded around the kitchen fire.

The next morning I woke up early and continued to follow the river higher into the mountains.

Finally Kedarnath came into sight. I was disappointed that the mountains behind were covered by cloud.

Close to the top I met the couple who had been on my bus. We walked the rest of the way together and the sky started to clear as we arrived in Kedarnath.

We stopped so that they could wash in the water at the top. I dipped a toe in and it was freezing!

By the time I reached the temple sky cleared and the view was incredible. While my friends went inside I sat out in the sun with some sadhus, politely refusing offers of marijuana.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Almost over

Mim and I are back in Delhi. She flies tomorrow and I fly the day after tomorrow (why does English not have a word for that?).

We've spent most of her trip in the mountains. It was quite a journey from Delhi but every step was beautiful.

Our first stop out of Delhi was Nainital, a popular Indian holiday spot in the mountains. The lake is set among steep hills. It was misty for the whole time we were there but stunning nevertheless.

From there we went to Kausani, a favourite holiday spot of Gandhi. Again, clouds blocked our view of the Himalaya range but the sunsets were incredible.

We had a whole day free in Kausani so we walked down through into the valley below, through some farms and small villages. This tree was a perfect resting spot.

From Kausani we took another couple of buses, climbing further up to Guptakashi. This was just a place to stay overnight, a little village stuck on the side of a mountain. Still, the view from our 100 rupee hotel window was good value!

Early the next morning we got on a bus for Gaurikund where the road stops. From there we did the 14km trek up to Kedarnath on foot, stubbornly refusing offers of porters and horses. It was misty most of the way up and I was worried that I'd dragged Mim such a long way without yet seeing any snow capped mountains.

I needn't have worried because when we woke at sunrise the following morning the view was stunning.

Keen to take advantage of the good weather I scouted around for a guide to take us on a day hike even further up the mountains. We found one named Raul and started off, loaded up with biscuits and water.

We were heading for a mountain lake called Vasukital at 4,300m. As we climbed, it begain to cloud over and we ran into a Sadhu who shared his appropriately coloured supply of orange lollies.

When we finally made it to the lake we were exhausted. We had climbed 800m on a goat track in very thin air. It doesn't show in this picture but the lake had an incredibly eerie beauty.

We didn't stay long because Raul (aka Mountain Goat) was worried about the weather turning bad. He raced back down the mountain with us struggling to keep up.

Mim and I then did the 14km trek back down to Gaurikund and managed to find a shared jeep to Guptakashi where we had left most of our belongings. After a night there we caught a couple of buses back down the mountains to Rishikesh.

Our last couple of days have been filled with sightseeing and shopping in Delhi. At a pavement stall selling old coins we met a hero, a short old man without any fingers. We were browsing coins when he started to yell and scream at the crowd that had gathered around:

"Look, if any of you are going to buy anything step forward. Otherwise please get lost. These people are nothing different from you, infact he probably speaks Hindi better than you do. There's absolutely no need to gawk, you've all seen white people before and these ones are fully clothed. Now get lost all of you before you scare away my customers and ruin my business"

So many moments to treasure!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The condensed version

After several blogging attempts have been foiled by powercuts I've given up hope of writing a long narrative (yay for you all). Thus the following lists, highlighting the most memorable moments of the trip so far.

Best transport moments:

- 19 people in a regular 4WD on a very precarious mountain road. Okay, actually 16 people and 2 small children in a 4WD and one man standing on the the ladder at the back.

- Missing the bus from Rishikesh to Delhi and then chasing it on my friend's motorbike wearing all my luggage on my back. I've noticed that many of my friends with bikes have been influenced heavily by 'Dhoom', the Hindi motorbike version of 'The Fast and the Furious'. Some Indian girls seem to have been influenced by 'Bride and Prejudice', judging by their increased confidence in approaching foreign male tourists.

- Catching the above mentioned bus and then having to sit virtually on the dashboard for seven hours, centimetres away from the front windscreen.

- Watching a landslide occur in front of our bus on a mountain road with a several hundred metre drop to the Ganges. The bus stopped and I tried allay my panic by contemplating the karmic value of death at that particular juncture. It was then that a local entrepreneur arrived crying 'softee, creamy icecream, softee, creamy icecream'. I didn't feel like one.

Best overheard Hindi conversations

- (a restaurant owner chatting up European lady who was showing off her stilted Hindi)
'Actually, your Hindi is better than Sonia Gandhi's'
"Thank you"
'Have you been to Nepal?'
"No but I hear it's quite beautiful"
'You are quite beatiful too'
(It was then that I snorted and betrayed myself)

- 'Quick, he's getting away! Quick, try and think how to say tea in English, I'm sure he wants to drink tea. English people like tea'

- (one guide instructing another on how to deal with foreigners) 'He's English. To English people you should say "hello". It's better if you say it loudly "HELLO!", and you should say it at least three or four times "HELLO, HELLO, HELLO!", then you can be sure that they have heard you. They like it when people say hello to them'

Pilgrim toughness rating on the 14km hike to Kedarnath

1. (you rule) Walking barefoot and carrying your luggage on your head
2. (yay me!) Walking and carrying your luggage yourself
3. (mild blessings for you) Riding on a mountain pony
4. (shame) Being carried by four boys/men on an open palanquin
5. (may you be reincarnated as a working mountain pony) Walking burden free while your exhausted wife carries all your luggage on her head. Telling her she can stop for a rest and then asking her to make you lemon water with the lemons she has carried from your fields. Showing off to a foreign tourist 'look how well she serves me'. Oh the shame, for I also partook of that lemon water. It was very good.

Tranquility moment

- Staying two nights in a 'Lord of the Rings' style mountain village with no electricity. Getting into my warm sleeping bag exhausted from walking after a glass of warm buffalo milk.

Sister's first day in India

- We step out of the hotel and she sees a malnourished baby cow. 'Oh, it's so cute!'. We then see a dog eating a smaller dog. It's already finished on the head and it making a go of the neck. I'm glad she could see the humour of the situation.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

My yatra

So much to write but it will have to wait till I get a good computer and net connection in Delhi tomorrow.

I feel like I've been to heaven and back in the last few days. And almost died in the process.

I spent two nights in a 3,500m high village without electricity at the foot of a 7,000m mountain. Getting there involved a ten hour bus trip and 14km walk.

Incredible. I go to Delhi tomorrow to pick up Mim and will write more then. I've warned her not to panick if there seems to be a high level of security in the airport - it's Indian independence day on Monday.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Return to Rishikesh

After a frantic departure from Hong Kong I spent two nights in London and then arrived in Delhi at noon on Monday.

Delhi airport hadn't changed since I was last here and I knew how charge through all the taxi drivers to find the local bus to get to the long distance bus terminus.

That bus broke down after ten minutes but our 'conductor madam' didn't listen to any complaints and marched everyone on to a replacement. I then got on a bus to Rishikesh which took 8 hours instead of 6 because we got stuck in a road block and had to take a dirt road for several kilometres.

I'm glad to report that India is pretty much the same except that there are a lot more mobile phones, plastic bags and t-shirts with Britney Spears (in her previous more glamorous incarnation). And Delhi has a fantastic looking new metro.

I finally arrived in Rishikesh at 10:30pm and headed straight for my usual hotel. One of my friends recognised me in the dark and came running down the street with her new baby. When I got the hotel the staff were about to eat so I bought some extra curry, rice, chapatis and kheer and we had a celebratory meal.

I got to sleep about 1am and was planning to leave early on a bus to the mountains. That didn't work out and I was woken at 10am by Nandu who works in the hotel:

'Joe, I don't think you're going to Rudraprayag today. It's late and Ashu and Goldie are waiting for you in the hotel lobby. Come fast because there is chai and hot hot parathas.'

It's nice to be back here in Rishikesh :)

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

So I'll go but I know...

Many people are expressing their upset about my departure and I've been very touched.

The Nepalese clients at work are convinced that I'm leaving Hong Kong so that I can get married. They've made it clear that they could easily arrange a wife for me should I decide to stay.

Several of the Congolese have taken a different angle. Someone brought a greatest love songs CD today. 'I will always love you' and 'Sacrifice' were played repeatedly as different people took turns at karaoke.

One person couldn't follow the words but did actions instead. The song finished and we then had the following conversation, in front of a very amused audience:

Joe, you bring my hat
You, you bring my hat
You need a hat?
You go, you bring my hat (with a 'tearing chest open' motion)
Oh! You mean 'break my heart'
Yes! You break my hat
No! Break my heart!
Yes, you break my heart. Je t'aime.

I'm looking forward to my leaving party tomorrow. I know that a dance item is being prepared and I'm sure there will be more singing!

In the meantime, it's late at night and I'm at work wondering how I'm going to finish everything necessary before flying on Thursday night. And also wondering why I'm blogging!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Eat more!

I went to Shenzen again yesterday with Daisy's mum, the last of our outings together!

We were also accompanied by Daisy's mum's younger brother and sister in law. Despite their age advantage, they couldn't keep with Daisy's mum who became increasingly frustrated with their slow walking speed.

We ended up ditching the two of them at the border before we re-entered Hong Kong. I was surprised that our party lasted that far! That left Daisy's mum free to chat up another senior citizen on the train home. I've notice that wherever we go, she has an incredible talent for starting conversations with the most handsome stranger in the vicinity.

The main focus of the day was a three hour stint at yum cha where table talk went round in circles like this:
'ah-Joe! sek lah! sek ngau to!' eat! eat more cow's stomach
'sek m douh! ngo bau jo lah!' I can't! I'm already full
'momentai! man man sek ah!' No problem! Keep eating slowly!
'sek m douh! ngo ho bau lah!' I can't! I'm really full!
'ok, ok, hoy chiso lah, ha ha ha' So go to the toilet!

I didn't need to go but the long walk across the restaurant seemed like a good idea. After a toilet trip the above cycle would start again...

Eating is going to be the main theme of my week and a half left in Hong Kong. I'm realising that there are many things I might not be able to eat when I leave here and I'm trying my best to fit as much of them in as possible in the next ten days.

On top of the priority list are:
- watermelon
- tofu fa
- egg white cake
- Nepali set dinners
- Philippino mangos
- steamed milk pudding
- papaya

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Funny but not funny

I have read two ridiculous things today. The first was a poster in the post office:

'Surprise your beloved with our exquisite philatelic products'

The other was in an email from an American friend travelling in Afghanistan (don't ask!).

'Men, women and children scurried along the dirty dusty streets. Women still wore burkas even in the scorching heat. Youngs boys would be out on the streets begging for food and money. There were open sewers everywhere giving out an filthy stench.

Despite everything it was good to be in Kabul. This was the city that had changed hands many times in the course of the war in these thirty years. The Russian backed communists had taken it over from the Afghan King in the late seventies, then the Muhajadeen had ruled the city in the early nineties. The Taliban took it over in late nineties and finally the city was liberated by the allied forces after 9/11.

Marks of war are everywhere. Buildings are scarred with bullet holes and shell marks. Streets are pot marked with mine explosions and bomb holes. You can see the lines of war on the furrows of people when you look at them. You would think they were thankful to the Americans for getting rid of the Taliban but on the contrary anti-American sentiments run rife because of the negative propaganda they receive through the Arab media.'

Thursday, July 07, 2005

No lemon

I was very happy this morning when I went for breakfast and the cashier lady remembered that I wanted black tea.

I was even happier when she called out something like, 'use the bag that we use in lemon tea but don't add any lemon'!
So maybe there wasn't an easier way to explain it after all.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Chungking Idol

Many English teachers would die for a class that can engage in independent discussion. I spend a lot of my class time wondering if I should kill the discussion before someone dies.

There are certain topics which you expect to excite people - corruption, colonialism, the importance of the French language and anything involving George Bush.

But we're not limited to those. Infact my class can argue about anything - the number of large towns in northern Togo, the superiority of Congolese mangos, the effect of rice on the digestive system (next to poison according to many of our clients).

After a someone explained the word 'idol' during the last class I decided to do some concept checking and ask each student to name an idol, not necessarily their own because I used to hate having to say personal things like that when I was in school.

With a long list on the board I decided to have a knockout competition to determine our number one idol. Two by two, the idols were put to a whole class vote.

Several joke nominations were easily defeated - Eyadema Gnassingbe, Osama Bin Laden and George Bush.

Then the jumping around and defeaning shouting began, despite the fact that we were voting by a show of hands. Jean Paul II took Pele down. Martin Luther King was declared less worthy than Michael Jackson. Congoloese singer Papa Wemba sat on Craig David and Bruce Lee was taken out by Malcolm X.

After much excitement, Nelson Mandela was declared Chungking Idol, followed by Jean Paul II, Michael Jackson and Papa Wemba. Papa was helped by humour value - everyone remembered that I had named him as my deity of choice in order to stay out of a religious argument the previous week.

At least we all now understand the meaning of the word 'idol'. Meanwhile I was a little disappointed that MLK had gone so early. And curious as to how Craig David made it so far. I had assumed he probably faded out of the music scene since the last time I listened to FM radio?

Friday, July 01, 2005

Black tea

After much frustration, I've found a way to ask for plain black tea in a restaurant where I often eat breakfast - lemon tea with no lemon.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

moh din-si

After being interviewed in several forms of media I have now realised that the best looking reporters are those who appear on tv.

I was putting something in the microwave yesterday when my colleague ran excitedly into the kitchen and slammed the door shut. 'The reporter is here!' she gasped. Seeing my lack of excitement she continued, 'It's (NAME CENSORED), one of the most handsome news reporters in Hong Kong!'.

As I was having the interview I could see my colleague sms-ing everyone in her phone book in a frantic fashion. I mentioned casually to the celebrity, 'I think that (CENSORED NAME OF FAMOUS CHINESE ANIMAL) has seen you on TV before'. 'Yes', replied the celebrity, 'do you watch TVB?'

'No, I don't have a tv' I answered, trying not to look smug. I resisted the urge to say that I only watch tv when I am on it.

Oh dear. How am I going to relinquish my c-grade celebrity status in August? Is this the prelude to something greater or is this the peak after which I will never find fame again?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

In Shanghai

Ok, so I can't read my blog in China but I can use blogger to make entries. Strange! I should alert the government to this inconsistency.

Shanghai is quite impressive and much wealthier than I imagined. Public transport is excellent, and I'm now an expert on the 911 bus which goes along the road outside Jen and Sebastian's flat.

thatäs all for now because this laptop has a german kezboard and iäm finding it verz frustrating,

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Out of touch

I'm leaving HK tomorrow for four days in Shanghai with my old school friend Jen who's living there for half a year with her German boyfriend Sebastian. She's prepared an incredibly cool itinerary and I'm looking forward to exploring Shanghai and getting to talk about school days again.

Speaking of old friends, I ran into my old chemistry lab partner, Hayley, in Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station this morning! I thought I recognised her from behind but was still shocked when she turned around and I figured out it really was her. She's on holiday here until the end of the month so we will catch up when I get back from Shanghai.

It's quite obvious that I've been blogging less lately. This is partly because work has been busier than ever. It's also because I've been going through what I am coming to think of as a 'quarter life crisis'. No need for panic because I'm hoping to come out quite okay.

The big news for the moment is that I'm quitting my job and expecting to leave HK in August. I gave my resignation a couple of days ago and I'm looking forward to taking a holiday in India, Australia and elsewhere and then doing something different.

Okay, I'm signing out until Tuesday because Jen has told me my blog is not available in China.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Money - lots of it

Today I had the ultimate Hong Kong experience. I was seconded to another centre of our organisation to help a Hindi speaking client and the work involved withdrawing $130,000 dollars from one bank and crossing Nathan Road to deposit it at another. How was the large bundle of notes carried? In a Hello Kitty bag of course. For ten minutes I felt very cool and exciting.

And I have to mention this cos I'm quite proud - I just googled 'Chungking Mansions' trying to find a population estimate of the building. The work newsletter that I wrote last year came up on the first search page! I feel like quite the authority.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Jenny from Mong Kok

I've just arrived a little early at work to write this entry. I love Chungking Mansions in the morning. Though it may be the most feared building in Hong Kong, several of the Chinese residents of Chungking think nothing of going downstairs in their pajamas every morning to pick up a newspaper.

I will spend the day today thinking up suitable ways to enact revenge on my colleague after he told one of the volunteers that I said she is stunningly beautiful and reminds me of J-Lo. It doesn't help matters that he starts humming the opening of 'Jenny from the block' whenever she comes in.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Cheung Chau Bun Festival

It's been a record two weeks since I last posted anything. The last couple of weeks have felt something like being in the middle of a sandstorm. Work has been incredibly busy, not least because of even more media attention. After a particularly sympathetic article last week we had a flood of calls and emails from people wanting to give some kind of assistance. All very exciting but I'm about to collapse!

Apart from two work related newspaper appearances since I last blogged, I've also featured again on TV for something quite different. Nan was in Hong Kong last weekend on her way from London to Sydney and her visit coincided with the annual Cheung Chau Island Bun Festival.

We took the ferry to Cheung Chau and followed the crowd to the centre of the festivities.It was a stinking hot and humid day and the candle and incense smoke didn't help. We'd just arrived at the bun tower when I realised I was going to fry if I didn't find some shade. I turned around, looking for shelter, and found a camera and microphone several centimetres from my nose:

Reporter: This is the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, how do you feel?
Me: Great, it's very exciting (trying to look sincere)
Reporter: (gesturing at the smoke billowing temple) About the ritual, how do you feel?
Me: It's very intersting but I think I would appreciate it more if I understood more about the festival.
Reporter: (gesturing to the tower) About the bun tower, how do you feel?
Me: It very big, I have never seen anything like it before (except possibly, the actual size replica in the history museum)
Reporter: About the race, how do you feel?
Me: What race?
Reporter: Did you know that there will be a race to climb the top of the bun tower.
Me: No, that's amazing!
Reporter: Yes and how do you feel?
Me: Very excited, this festival is very special.

While at the festival I was also interviewed by a newspaper (the same Chinese one that I had featured in the previous week) but I don't know if it was printed. I know that the tv interview showed because my real estate agent saw it. 'What did I say?' I asked her. 'Something like, "good, good, great, exciting, wonderful"' she laughed. 'It must have been short' I said. 'No', she said, 'your interiew was longer than anyone elses'. Oh dear!

Monday, May 09, 2005

Ironic stuffs

Fourteen and a half hour work days may be normal for some people but this one seems particularly evil to me, having spent the last four and a half hours on petty administrative stuff which has very little to do with the reason I do this job and a lot to do with the excessive amount of bureaucracy in the organisation I work for.

The hilarious thing about the corporatisation of the charity world is that unpaid overtime will be the last thing to change!

Anyway, for some even more humorous irony, here are two things I spotted yesterday, the first in Mong Kok and the second in the supermarket:

'Mr Beef's Seafood Restaurant' and

'Mr Brown's Green Tea Drink'

Saturday, May 07, 2005


I've just finished reading 'Shantaram' by Gregory David Roberts. It's the autobiographical story of the decade that he spent in Bombay after fleeing a sentence for armed robbery in Australia.

While in India, Roberts learnt Hindi and Marathi and became involved in the Bombay underground. He also lived in a slum where he set up a free clinic before going to Afghanistan to smuggle weapons to locals fighting the Soviets.

His experiences are incredible and often horrific. At the same time, they felt very familiar and I could visualise many of the places from my own experience. It was strange to feel so much in common with someone so different to me.

Mostly, however, the book made me very impatient to go to India again! I was very depressed this week after getting my April pay slip and seeing that I have accumulated only 2.79 days of holiday allowance. Hmmm.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Pank lagana

About a month ago, the weather here transitioned from winter to summer in the space of a week. The cold weather that had lasted much longer than usual is now a distant memory. Even after my twice daily cold showers, I begin to sweat before I've left the bathroom.

Through the cool weather I was addicted to Queen Latifa's version of "California dreamin'". When the heat started to build up I found a new theme song from an mp3 CD containing 156 A R Rahman songs. Since I bought the CD a month ago it has hardly left my discman.

At first I found the chorus a little strange, 'I want to turn on the fan and fly away'. As the weather heated up it made more sense and it seemed consistent with the whooshing air noise in the song. That was until I explained the song to a friend and got the following response.

"'Pank lagana' you idiot not 'panka lagana'. It means 'put on wings' not 'turn on the fan'".

Whoops! I guess I've never had to talk about wings before.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


Work has been busy enough to keep me from blogging for a week. Among other things, there have been two more newspaper interviews (Chinese this time), prompting friends in another NGO to tease that I'm in this job for the fame. We have also had two days with volunteers from an American Christian group on a mission experience trip.

The American volunteers were 18-24 year olds from Colorado in the middle of a ten month training program in Christian ministry. They had originally been booked to stay in the YMCA but the organiser had put them in a guesthouse in Chungking after getting in touch with us. He knew the reputation of Chungking Mansions and wanted to give to give them the most challenging experience possible.

They picked an eventful week to stay in Chungking. An official celebration was held to mark the end of the management's first 'five year improvement plan' and the opening of the new shopping centre on the 2nd floor, called 'Chungking Express'. I'm presuming it's named after the film and not this blog, nevertheless, I'm looking forward to a increased amount of hits coming from internet searches!

There was a newspaper article a couple of days ago about the improvements in Chungking Mansions. The writer opened with something like this, 'Chungking Mansions is no longer the hell-hole it once was, haven for illegal immigrants and drug dealers. Over the last five years it has improved so much that even the clergy want to stay there!'.

That surprising statement was backed up with a quote from a well known guesthouse owner, 'The reputation of Chungking Mansions has improved so much that I even have 70 clergymen from America staying in my guesthouses this week. That just proves how much the reputation of Chungking has improved in the last few years.'

Hmmm, not quite!

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Daisy and I have been in competition for the last two weeks after we both developed similarly positioned mouth ulcers. I found out about her ulcer because she started using a herbal paste that turned her whole mouth black and prevented her from speaking properly.

I teased her that my ulcer would get better faster without any treatment. When I came back from the market with a bag full of mangos she predicted the worst for my ulcer. I find this Chinese medicine notion of 'heating' and 'cooling' foods really strange.

On our last comparison she declared a truce. Both of us were healing at a similar rate. Then she started shrieking in delight and jumping up and down. I asked her what the matter was and she told me to wait and then ran laughing to the back of the store.

She came back with a mirror, shouting out, 'you have another ulcer! you have another ulcer!'. Ling, Deco and Jacky crowded around while I looked into the mirror. A second ulcer had developed at the side of my mouth. I thought I had just bitten myself while chewing.

I blamed Hong Kong and told Daisy that I never used to have mouth ulcers in Sydney. 'Ha, ha' she said, 'even tv stars get ulcers'.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


At church we have a spot where visitors have to stand up and introduce themselves. Last week a couple stood up and said that they were from Australia. The pastor then asked which part of Australia and they said New South Wales. From their accents I guessed that it must be somewhere outback. When he asked them which part of New South Wales they said that they were from Sydney. I was shocked, thinking 'that's what I am supposed to sound like!'. I don't think they guessed that the pastor was also from Sydney!

Australian people travelling overseas should know that many people in other countries are more familiar with the names of major cities in Australia than those of the states. If you are from Sydney, Perth, Brisbane or Melbourne then it's much more meaningful to say which city you come from. Speaking of which, I have a friend in Hong Kong from Melbourne who says 'you know' a lot and sounds like Prue and Trude from 'Kath and Kim'. I have to try hard not to laugh every time Kowloon comes out like colon!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Late night shopping

Just after writing my last post, the topic of stupid violence came up in a work meeting. We were discussing physical abuse against domestic helpers and a colleague from our domestic helper support centre said that it increased sharply when the economy worsened post-1997. Someone else quoted a statistic that 1/3 of people in HK have some kind of mental illness and they blamed this on the hideous hours that most people work.

Eitherway, the craziness goes on. I went out for dinner on Friday night with Daisy, Joseph (her husband), Deco and Ling. The dinner was shouted by Deco who declared that he was very depressed and wanted to spend all of his money. The reason was that his flatmate had applied for a job at his workplace (Daisy's shop is his second job) and he was worried about his work life and personal life colliding.

The dinner was at Ming Sing, a huge seafood restaurant on Nathan Rd. They were going shutting the shop at 11pm which was convenient becuase I already had another booking for dinner. I had been invited to dinner with one of my old work colleagues who cooked a delicoius French meal. The food was incredible - French onion soup with homemade croutons, salad, salmon and potato mash and then mangosteens which I had brought from the outdoor market.

I arrived at Ming Sing just before twelve. Deco was fairly sozzled and the table was covered with dishes. As stuffed as I was, I had to try a little of each of them. The five of us stayed for a couple more hours in the restaurant, gossiping and making jokes. I asked Deco how he chose his English name and it turned out that his parents gave it to him. They liked it so much, infact, that it is the only name they gave him!

From there the conversation went downhill after I related the incident with the mango thrower in the outdoor market. The 'death to all your family' line inspired the group to teach me a collection of Cantonese insults and swear words. Some of them took some figuring out and I realised that insults and bad language can give a lot of insight into the society in which they exist.

Sometime after 2am we were getting ready to leave when Deco stated his intention to cross the border and make a short trip to Shenzen before going to work at 8:30am. Daisy and Joseph discouraged him and as a result, they agreed to accompany him when he suggested an alternative excursion to Ap Liu St Market in Sham Shui Po. I had been planning on going home to bed but I changed my mind after Daisy called me an 'old cake'.

Ling went home to the New Territories but the rest of us got in a taxi and headed to Ap Liu St. At most times, the market sells used electrical products but late at night, hawkers spread sheets on the street to sell pirated and second hand CD's, VCD's and DVD's. I found a couple of second hand CD's I wanted and some Hindi DVD's as well. I had to argue with Deco who wanted to pay for everything that Daisy, Joseph and I had picked out.

At 3:30am I got in a taxi to go home and I thought about what a weird night it had been. The irony was that I had earlier been glad to get our of a night out in Central with other friends because I didn't want to stay up late. I realised I had developed a new level of respect for Daisy and Joseph who seem to take very good care of all the crazy friends they have.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Crazy stuff

I don't know what's happened in the last week but there's been an explosion in insanity at home. Here are three of the most bizarre incidents:

1. Two nights ago there was a fight between the belt seller and the begging monk. I heard yelling late at night and I went in the bathroom to look out the window. Both of them had assumed karate poses and were flailing their arms around. The belt seller then grabbed the beads around the monk's neck and the two started to hit each other. A large crowd had gathered, including a bunch of tourists who probably expected this kind of wacky thing to happen in Hong Kong. Luckily, someone pulled the monk away before there was any serious damage. When I asked Daisy about it the next day she said that everyone knows that monk is a fake.

2. Last night I was in the market when an old Nepali woman picked up a large mango and threatened to throw it at the stallholder she was bargaining with. The stallholder than began to scream profanities and the Nepali woman responded by yelling 'death to all your family' repeatedly. I wasn't sure if I was more shocked by what she said or by the fact that she spoke such good Cantonese.

3. Jacky who lives in the alley below, has lately taken to believing that he is a large cat. He alternates between being a tiger and what he calls a 'meihgwok pao'. It means 'American big cat' so I can only assume it means puma or cougar or something like that. He moves around with great stealth, calls his house the 'cat home' and does a lot of roaring. He's very good at the roaring and I've lain in bed the last few nights listening to him roaring on the street below, sometimes followed by the scream of a terrorised pedestrian.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

15 seconds

The tv report on asylum seekers finally aired on Sunday night. In church on Sunday morning someone announced that a 'teaser' had been shown during the news the night before, 'showing our church service and featuring some of our usual celebrities'. The guy then looked in my direction and chuckled. I was filled with deathly fear that they must have aired the bit where I was trying to sing without a songbook.

It took me a while to figure out where I was going to watch the report. I decided to go to the Chinese dessert shop, where I consumed one bowl of black sesame paste dumplings and one bowl of sago with mango. At first the staff didn't understand why I was so keen to change the tv channel but it became obvious when I came on the screen, much to the delight of my fellow customers.

Thankfully, the didn't show me singing. Only a little of my interview was shown, other than that there was a shot of me doing some filing at work and a shot of the back of my head in church. Most importantly, the report was very sympathetic to the issue, to the extent that we will be able to use it as a promotional video for our work! I can't wait until we get a copy to show to all the asylum seekers.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Smooth talk

After an office re-arrangement this week, the telephone that clients are allowed to use is sitting on one end of my desk. As a result, I am party to entire conversations, rather than the occasional hilarious snippet that I used to catch.

Over the last few days I have developed a new sense of awe for the the incredible talents of a couple of our clients. Here is a typical display of brilliance:

(talking into telephone)
Baby how are you?... you know, it's so good to hear your voice... yes I feel like that too baby... you know, I had a dream about you last night... yes I did. I dreamt that an angel was calling me from heaven, and it was your voice... you know, you have the sweet voice of an angel... oh, hold on one minute, I have an important business call coming in...

(into mobile phone)
honey, my darling... I can't talk for long now, I am in a business meeting... yes Sunday is fine but I will be going to the mosque in the afternoon, can we meet in the morning?... I can't wait to see you too honey, bye bye...

(back to telephone)
yes baby... sorry, it was important, but not as important as you, my sweet, sweet angel... yes I am waiting to see you... you know, on Sunday I will be at church in the morning but I will die if I don't see you in the afternoon... yes, I will be thinking only on that between now and Sunday... okay, I have to attend to my work, I am waiting to see you my angel... okay, bye bye

I knew better than to be flattered yesterday when the same client told me 'you know Mr Joe, whenever I see you I feel at home'. Having failed to acheive success with that one, he then narrated a dream in which I was the President of Australia.

In contrast, I took great encouragement yesterday from a thankyou email sent by a different client who came to our centre for the first time this week. He is older and illiterate in both English and computer use. I arranged for some of the other French speakers to give him tutorials in basic computer and internet use and by yesterday he was adept enough to send email by himself. My colleague and I were delighted with the emails he sent each of us, even if they were in French!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

An evening at home

It's amazing how little it takes to restore sanity. I took a trip to the New Territories last night to go for dinner at Bee's house. His mum is an excellent cook and I couldn't believe how relaxed I felt after getting away from Kowloon for just a couple of hours. That and spending time in a real home. When I arrived back in Saigon St I whinged to Daisy that as much as I love my room, it really is just a place for sleeping. Daisy promised to invite me for dinner with her and Joseph if I didn't mind all the dogs and cats at their house.

I spent about an hour hanging around Daisy's shop before I went upstairs to go to bed. The usual gang were all there; Jacky, shy Ling, the new shop assistant with hardly any teeth, Jess (the other new super efficient shop assistant), Daisy and also Ali (the young Nepali girl who lives above the shop) who was strutting around in silver high heels. She had matched them with a tracksuit-material skirt and was announcing to all that her mum had bought them in Singapore and they had cost $1000.

The focus of everyone's attention was the removable wooden platform that Jacky had built in order to extend Daisy's shop 50cm further into the adjacent alleyway. Jacky had been busy with a saw for the last two days, drinking a lot less than usual and constructing a range of storage and display items for the nearby shops. Some of them were better than others and don't think he made them at anyone's request. Still, it was touching to see how much everyone praised and thanked Jacky for his hard work.

I joked with Jacky that I wanted him to build illegal dwelling for me on the flat roof of my building. Daisy said I should ask instead for him to construct a second story on the shelter he has made himself in the alleyway. At that point, Jess noticed the package of sweets from Taiwan that Bee's mum had given me. I gave one to everyone and even forced Ling to take a mango pudding. I realised that it's nice to have people to share stuff with.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

hamro setho saathi

Lately I've noticed a contrast between French speakers and Nepali speakers regarding their confidence in my ability to understand them when they speak their own languages.

At work some of our Congolese and Togolese clients have decided that it's more efficient for them to try and speak to me in French than in English. This says much more about their English ability than my French abibility. I can often get the general gist but my listening skills are usually overestimated. An running joke in our centre is that it's dangerous to say anything confidentional in French if Mr Joe is within hearing range. I often wonder if this is because I am white like the average French person.

The opposite is true with Nepalese people's confidence in my ability to understand Nepali. Even after learning that I understand some Nepali, people will go on speaking in front of me and then get shocked when I let on that I am following their conversation. I have also found that my comprehensions skills in any language increase several fold when people are talking about me, as happened today when I went for lunch at the local Nepali restaurant:

From the counter: One set meal and one lassi
From the kitchen: Eat here or take away?
From the counter: Eat here
From the kitchen: Who is it for?
From the counter: Our white friend (hamro setho sathi)

It wasn't a very insulting reference but it was quite funny and the rest of the customers burst out laughing. Maybe it was the alliteration. When I started laughing too the counter guy looked shocked and asked what I was laughing at. 'setho sathi' I told him and he immediately demanded to know what I thought it meant. 'setho is safed, right?' I asked, since he already knew that I speak Hindi.

If there was a lesson to be learnt from this it didn't sink in. When I went to the counter to pay, the guy yelled in Nepali to the kitchen again, 'how much do we usually charge this guy, thirty?'. 'Thirty', I answered, shocked to see the same look of surprise on his face. 'You know 'tis'(thirty)?' he asked. 'A little more than that' I said, repeating his previous question about the price, 'you should be more careful'.

'No, no need to be careful because nothing wrong', he joked. 'Yes, not yet', I smiled, 'that's why you should be careful'.

Anyway, I like surprising people in this way. It reminds me of an experience I once had on a train in India. I was travelling in a compartment with five others and they did almost nothing except talk about me for the whole journey. They commented on my looks, speculated about what kind of person I was and aired their views on Westerners in general.

One lady even gave a running commentary on everything that I did, 'look, he's getting a book out of his bag. Now he's eating some namkeen, look at that piece he dropped on his leg!'. It was like being a zoo animal! When we stopped at a station close to my destination I ordered a cup of chai through the window from a chaiwala on the platform. The order ensued in a short conversation and the result in our compartment was deathly silence for the rest of the journey.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Current affairs

The asylum seeker issue is hotting up in Hong Kong. We have recieved several media requests in the last few days and I only imagine things will get more worked up after the tv broadcast next week.

Because the recent requests have all been refused, our staff have been instructed to look out for reporters trying to sneak in to our centre! Recently, I joked with a friend that I've done tv and newspapers, next step is my film debut, perhaps in a Michael Moore style documentary. I certainly feel on the cutting edge!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Lately I had been thinking about getting a tv. After much internal debate, I decided that I am still better off without one. Instead I'll continue to fill my spare time with swimming and attempting to read the Hindi version of 'India Today'.

That means that I'll have to find somewhere to watch the TVB Pearl report on asylum seekers which will probably air a week on Sunday. I guess I'll be able to say 'I only watch TV when I'm on it'.

Not having a TV (or computer) has other positive effects, aside from improving my swimming and Hindi reading abilities.

Working in Chungking has instilled an instinct to avoid any display of wealth. This is partly out of sensitivity but also because I am constantly asked for money (I never give any). At such times, it is often helpful that I own one of the oldest mobile phones in Hong Kong, particularly if the person asking for money owns a flashier mobile than I do!

Last week in English class we were discussing the Terri Schiavo story when someone asked if I'd seen the TV footage. The students were shocked that I didn't have a TV. One Togolese client joked that he would pass a collection box around so that all the asylum seekers could contribute to a 'buy Joe a TV fund'. I laughed and didn't mention that it's mostly pride stopping me from getting one. That and the concern that a television would make my room look ugly.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Happy Easter

I hope that everyone enjoyed Easter. I very much enjoyed having some time off and also having DSD visit from Singapore.

After learning more about Chinese New Year this year, I had a new appreciation for Easter. Unlike Christmas, which is all in the anticipation, Easter stretches over a longer period of time. I love how the different days hold different meanings and facilitate different kinds of reflection.

I pondered all this yesterday as I sat in church before the service. I deliberately arrived early to reflect and thank God for everything that the day meant to me. I prayed for my family and I prayed the unlikely group of people who have become important to me. I also prayed for a friend in Rome (not the pope, though I might have if I'd remembered).

The service started with 'Up from the grave he arose' and I smiled, knowing that my family would be singing the same song in Sydney. As it turns out, they sang it at the dawn service which would have been almost at the same time. Unlike them, however, our congregation was singing simultaneously in English, Cantonese and Korean.

Easter is a four day holiday in Hong Kong but I'd chosen to work Friday and Monday mornings. I did this partly out of concern for our clients but also because I am concious of keeping a very good relationship with the company that donates food on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

When I arrived at work this morning I regretted making the effort. A disappointed client had defaced the 'Easter opening hours' sign on the front door to write something nasty about me. It was the result of my recent efforts to increase communication among groups assisting asylum seekers so that help is more evenly distributed.

Lately I have thought back often to the time that I worked in an NGO that sent shipments of aid goods from Hong Kong. We always used to tell ourselves that 'behind the scenes' charity work was a thankless task. Unlike the person on the frontline we didn't get to recieve the smiles and grateful thanks of the people we were helping.

That wasn't quite the whole picture!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

HK elite

Many established South Asians in Hong Kong don't particularly like to be associated with Chungking Mansions, a fact I can well understand.

Knowing this, I teased someone I met the other day who asked what I do:

'I work in Chungking Mansions, have you heard of it?'

The answer took me back somewhat as I realised I was speaking with HK royalty:

'Actually, my father owns the hotel next door'

I had heard of that one.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Pip's 'only in HK' comment made me realise something. Most of the things which used to seem unusual don't even register on my weirdness radar any more. Yesterday I walked past one of the real estate shops that I went to when I was looking for my apartment. It may have been their experience with me which taught them that English speakers usually want multiple windows in their apartment. One sign read:

'One Room. Many Windows Can Cook Toilet'

Later in the evening I went to buy some fruit for this morning's breakfast at work. I always head to the market around closing time when the vendors are keen to flog the rest of their stock and go home. Lately I've had to be careful because I've developed loyalties to two rival fruit stalls. I was stupid enough yesterday to walk past one of the stalls after buying 25 apples at the other. One of the stall holders saw me walking past and shouted:

'What have you bought? Apples? How much did you pay? $20? You've made a big mistake! Our apples are only $5 for ten today!'

'Aiyaa. I didn't know' I said and the three stall holders all mimicked me in unison 'aiyaa, aiyaa, aiyaa, you didn't know, you've made a mistake la'. 'Will you have these apples tomorrow?' I asked. The young lady mocked me again as the old lady laughed. 'aiyaa, aiyaa. Tomorrow who knows. You should have bought them today la'.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


What do you do when you catch a fish that is longer than your kitchen is wide?

I came out of my room yesterday evening and perceived a fishy odour. I walked down the hallway, past my neighbours' doors and opened the metal door to the stairway. The father of the Chinese family on my floor was de-scaling a two-foot long fish.

The fish took up the whole 4th floor landing and I guess they must have cut it out there because it would have been very difficult to get it into their room.

After some questioning, I assertained that he had caught it somewhere on Hong Kong Island. I'm just wondering whether he brought it home on the bus or the MTR!

Sunday, March 20, 2005


My colleague was volunteering at the Rugby Sevens all weekend and I was left to cover all shifts at work. With both Saturday and Sunday marred by several hours of work in the middle of each day, my weekend was looking pretty sad.

That's when I had a genius idea, reminiscent of Homer Simpson's creation of a meal between breakfast and brunch. I would adjust my sleeping hours to create an extra weekend day. For lack of a better word (any suggestions?) I decided to call it 'Funday'.

Both Saturday and Sunday had to be trimmed down to squeeze Funday in. Saturday finished at 6pm when I went to bed for several hours sleep. I then woke up on Funday morning and I had a shower, got dressed, eat a pear and practiced a new dance move from 'Samundar mein nahake' (having bathed in the ocean...), a video clip that I had seen while eating dinner in a Nepali restaurant the night before.

Preparation finished, I rushed to Causeway Bay to do some shopping before everything closed. On Funday, most shops are only open for several hours in the morning. Unfortunately I had just passed through the Jordan MTR turnstile when I noticed I was wearing my oldest pair of shoes. These wouldn't do for Funday and I rushed back home to change.

From Causeway Bay I headed to Central where I went to a friend's art gallery and then out for a drink (lime soda - alcohol would have been inappropriate so early in the day anyway). I then realised that I hadn't taken any breakfast and went to Tsui Wah for wonton noodles.

On the strength of the wontons, I danced until Funday evening at Pp. I feel like a regular there despite making only two recent appearances. I then went back to Jordan and had dinner in the 24 hour Nepali restaurant. For my benefit, the boss put on the VCD of 'Dhoom' (smoke/exhaust/excitement), the Hindi version of 'The Fast and the Furious'.

A sozzled customer complained about Dhoom and demanded the return of a singer that he called 'Nepali Bon Jovi'. After I gave in and agreed to his insistence that Nepali music is better than Hindi music, he made a very generous offer in Nepali that required a little translation 'Visit the bar where I work anytime and I will give you drinks until you pee'. I'm yet to find out if this is a standard Nepali saying.

He then apologised again for changing the music. 'After all' he complained, 'I don't even understand what "dhoom macha le" is anyway'. 'No problem' I said, 'You are making dhoom enough anyway', gesturing to his cigarette. Everyone giggled and I got that tingle that only comes from making a joke in another language.

It was too late to explain why 'dhoom macha le' is a clever song name. I finished my fried rice and went home to bed.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Early mornings

Three days a week I start work at 8am instead of 9. An hour makes an amazing difference, the streets are quiet and I can walk a straight line down Nathan Rd. If I'm in a rush and need to catch the MTR I know that I'll be able to fit easily inside the carriage.

Chungking just before eight is deserted, save for a few businessmen standing around drinking tea from either of two small stalls. One of the stalls is Pakistani run and at that time in the morning they play out the Muslim call to prayer, presumably for those on their way to Kowloon Mosque up the road.

As I walked past the stall yesterday I remembered sitting in the rooftop restaurant of my favourite hotel in Old Delhi, opposite the Jama Masjid. I'm not sure when I'll be back there next but I would like it to be sometime soon.

I noticed yesterday that the range of Urdu romance novels under the stall counter includes one with a picture on the cover of Angelina Jolie, hero to all refugee workers. I'm sure that she hasn't given permission for that!

The romantic theme continued when I arrived at work and found one of our French speaking clients at the door. He was eager to use the internet and called me to help him understand an email in English that he'd just recieved. The email really surprised me because this guy doesn't speak any English at all...

Dear ______

I have just arrived back in London. I want to tell you you how much I enjoyed spending time with you in Hong Kong. I miss you already.

love ______

Hmm. I was reminded again of travel in India and all the times I was asked 'will my foreign girlfriend come back and take me to England like she promised?'.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

All the fat

I didn't think that I would have a justified occasion to write about the Chungking lifts so soon after last time but I do.

For the last week, the lift for all the even floors in our block has been closed for repair. It will be closed for another week in what the management are calling a routine servicing.

As a result, we have to take the odd floor lift and walk up from the 15th floor. This isn't too much of an inconvenience.

What is an inconvenience is the huge queue for the odd floor lift. The wait can take up to twenty minutes and it is causing a lot of tension. Frequent arguments are erupting in which mothers cover their children's ears and I learn a lot of bad language in Hindi. Most of it involves 'your mothers' and 'your sisters'.

But even worse than this, the odd floor lift is struggling to cope with the added strain and is breaking down on a daily basis. Once last week, seven huge men all rushed in on the ground floor. The doors shut and the lift sunk half a metre without going anywhere. After some time, a security guard came with a lift repair man to force the doors open. As the men burst out of the lift the security guard counted, 'One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. All the fat!'.

With another week of stair walking to go, it's going to be hard for anyone in E-block to be the fat for much longer!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Pass the urine

When I arrived at work yesterday morning, Aunty Mona, our oldest client, was waiting outside the door.

'Oh beta! I am waiting for you because my bus coming early. I need the tea and the vegetarian bread. And I am waiting to pass the urine'

Saturday, March 05, 2005

I'm ungry

Every day at work seems to bring a new rule. The busier we get, the more we have to legislate in order to keep our centre from exploding.

Most new rules fall into one of two areas - meals and internet access. Except, I guess, for 'Don't eat at the computer' which straddles both and is very strongly policed.

The backbone of the meal rules is 'No food served outside of set meal times'. People will try all manner of fast talk and flattery in order to get food at irregular times. It didn't take long for everyone to realise that the following doesn't have much effect on me:

"Mr Joe, good morning... you are looking very handsome today... I'm very hungry"

Yesterday, someone tried a smarter and slightly more effective technique. I tried my best to counter it with more smart talk:

"Joe, zallah"
"Zallah, now that you are so good in French you have to start with Lingala"
"What's zallah?"
"It means 'I'm hungry'"
"Anita, please think of this place as your mother's house"
"Thank you"
"This is not McDonalds where you can take food anytime. It is like your mother's house where you have to eat at meal times"

I gave a biscuit for effort and well directed flattery. My French, by the way, is still very limited.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The shildren

Our centre has been taken over by kids lately, including some very lively ones who have edged us another step closer to absolute chaos. My productivity levels have dropped sharply but I've really enjoyed having them around. It's made me remember how much I liked working with kids when I used to teach swimming in Sydney. As one of our clients pointed out this week:

'Mr Joe like the shildren. The shildren like Mr Joe'

We were also visited this week by several prospective volunteers. Some of them were from the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church and my doctor colleague has fallen into a habit of mistakenly calling them the LSD church. I'm praying that she doesn't do it in front of them when they come again to teach Cantonese this week!

Another new volunteer was an English vet and I asked him if HK pet owners bring their animals to the vet more frequently than those in London.

'Well, there are two extremes really. You have the New Territories pet owners who wait until something is almost dead before seeking treatment. On the other hand, there are a lot of childless couples who bring their dog to the vet every time it has a sniffle.'

After some deliberation, the Sister S and I decided to ask the vet to teach an English class for little kids. Snap!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Cosmopolitan HK

The thing I love most about Hong Kong is the mix of people and cultures. At work in Chungking Mansions I speak with people from at least twenty different countries every day. And these days, living on Temple St is more and more like being in a suburb of Kathmandu.

Last weekend I ran around from one activity to another, amazed at the contrast between the situations in which I found myself.

Friday night started with dinner at a tiny illegal Nepali restaurant with my friend Sue before the two of us headed to Soho to meet up with some other friends at a club. At the time, it didn't even register that our group of six came from five different countries - Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Nepal and Scotland.

Going out dancing for the first time in months was fun. Sue is a regular at 'Propaganda' and I got introduced to a lot of new people. Sue's dancing, JLo meets Madhuri Dixit, was hilarious and I heard some funny new lines, my favourite being 'I'm foreign as well, my grandma is Japanese!'.

After sleeping in the next morning, I met up again with Sue who had stayed overnight at a new Japanese style hotel in Central. We went for a noodle breakfast before crossing the street to have smoothies in 'Kosmo', a funky health food cafe that mum loved when she was here.

After breakfast it was time to run to a meeting for groups working with asylum seekers, organised by Amnesty. After several hours of sharing ideas over cookies, I went back to the Nepali restaurant where I ate yummy dumplings and watched half an hour of a Hindi serial on the TV.

On Saturday night I had been invited by a Scottish friend to a dinner party with other English and Australian friends that I used to work with in Hong Kong years ago. I ate lasagna for the first time in I don't know when and I won a two hour long game of 'Ultimate Boulderdash', a game requiring a mix of creativity and lying ability. I tried to control the excitement that takes over whenever I am with a group of native English speakers.

On Sunday morning I woke up just in time for church. I was a bit late and I opened the door gently to be greeted by a Filipino friend on the other side. She was taking video footage of the service for an upcoming documentary on asylum seekers in Hong Kong. The sermon was preached by a Dutch guy who had been at the Amnesty meeting the day before. I enjoyed the service but unfortunately I had been too late to collect the notes which included all the liturgies and song words. This became a situation of extreme discomfort when the camera zoomed in on me during a hymn that I had never sung before! I tried my best to look like I was singing but I don't know if I quite pulled it off.

After church I headed back to the Nepali restaurant to try another of their specials. As I was eating, a Pakistani family came in for take away and the kids started watching the Nepali movie which was playing. I found myself in the weird position of trying to translate the dialogue from Nepali to Urdu!

Because the weather was freezing, I went straight from lunch to the newly opened Starbucks where I got a large hot chocolate and read a chapter of 'Teach Yourself Cantonese' that mum left with me. From there I went home where I chatted on the phone to mum and dad in Sydney as well as friend in Singapore.

And that was my weekend!

Friday, February 18, 2005


"Do you always speak in that voice in Hong Kong?" Jen asked me. "It sounds kind of weird!"

"Yeah I guess so. When you speak English mostly with non-native speakers you end up adjusting so that people understand you"

The voice that Jen found so strange was my work voice. It's derives from a complicated mix of influences. Like Cantonese, the syllables are very distinct. Like French, the letter 'h' is not pronounced at the beginning of words. Like many South Asian languages, a lot of 'd' and 't' sounds are pronounced with the tongue further back in the mouth than usual.

But that's not the only voice that I've got. Apart from my 'normal voice', I also have a very Honky voice that freaks friends out even more than my work voice. Plus I've got my classy 'international voice' that I use in more formal situations. The international voice can slow down according to the English proficiency of the person I'm communicating with.

This week, however, I've had to search through my repertoire for a voice I haven't used in ages. I have a new friend who's just returned to Hong Kong after three years study at the University of Wollongong. It's amazing how Australian one can become after three years in Wollongong!

Sunday, February 13, 2005


While helping Pip set up her blog last week I noticed that blogger now offers more exciting templates and its own comment service. Thus my template has changed and previous comments (hosted by an external comment service) have all been removed. Let me know what you think!