Saturday, August 21, 2010

A lot to catch up on....

August 9 - 20
Things have been busy here. The week of August 9th we were still working to overcome jet-lag. We helped achieve this by signing Theo up for summer camp at the American Club. It is on the far side of HK island from where we are currently living and it takes from about 40 minutes - 50 minutes to get there (the best we have done is 30 minutes). At first Theo was a little shy at summer camp and then warmed to the idea by the end of the week. While he was at summer camp I had a chance to meet some other moms which was really nice.

The week of the 16th Theo was back at summer camp on Monday/Weds/Fri. We are looking at temporary housing for when our current housing expires on September 25th and in tandem looking at some schools for Theo. His school and teacher in London are wonderful so I still have a hard time getting comfortable with the idea that he'll temporarily have to go to school in Hong Kong. As I mentioned in an earlier posting there are all sorts of horror stories about trying to get kids into schools. We have found at least 4 pre-schools that still have some space for Theo's age and plan to visit a few more. Because our housing options (for short-term housing to avoid having a 2 year lease commitment) are limited that will help us to decide upon the school based on location as well as suitability. We are doing this in tandem as we want housing where there is a suitable school.

On August 15th Martin and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary! Martin arranged the amazing surprise for us to take a helicopter flight around the island. The boys loved it and I did too. It was a great way to get a view of the landscape and different areas of the city. Theo was co-pilot (though he didn't have to take command at any point) riding up front with the pilot. Quentin didn't like the noise but seemed quite happy once he had the noise cancellation head phones on. During the flight we could hear an occasional happy burble from him through the microphone.

Theo continues to improve his swimming at an amazing speed. He can now swim across the width of the pool by himself (really!) taking about 5 breaths along the way. It has been great to see him enjoy his swimming. Quentin also likes the pool and kicks his legs in the water.

I have much more to say and will write more soon....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sesame Street in Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Day 12 - Sunday 8th August. We found the Catholic mass schedule on-line and selected a church nearby in Kowloon (e.g. a 15 min taxi ride). It was called the St Ignatius Chapel and was affiliated with a local College. It was an extremely large chapel (bigger than our Church in London) and the English mass was very full. Aside from one other woman we were the only non-Asian people at mass. It was a somewhat weird experience and people stared at us openly. The church was not particularly friendly - after mass started they projected a sign that said parents whose children were "having a tantrum were encouraged to take them outside the building". Then, during the sermon the priest literally stopped and then said to a family with three young children whose middle child (who was only probably about 18 months) was making some minor sounds 'I see he wants to escape from mass early'. And didn't start again until the father took the child outside. I thought it was a terribly un-Christian way to engage with families. So by that point I felt not only out of place but I felt mortified at the thought of the priest stopping a sermon to tell me to take my child out of mass. Of course Quentin started to to get fussy and just as I was taking him out the priest said the same thing to me - I was mortified and felt so unwelcome. I felt that the approach of this priest was totally against the teaching of Jesus (who when he preached to crowds surely had children fuss sometimes). I told Martin that we'd never be going back to that Church as we needed to find somewhere more welcoming and Christian in their interactions with people.

The rest of the day was much more fun. After a relaxing lunch and a short relax we went over to the HK Island side to the Arts Center where we saw a Sesame Street live show 'when Elmo grows up'. Theo was absolutely delighted. Quentin also enjoyed it but I think became over-stimulated and then fell asleep for about 2/3 of the show, waking in delight to watch the final scene. As we entered the Arts Center one of the ushers looked at Quentin and said 'minimum age 1 - how old is he?' Thanks to his size my pleasant response of 'he'll be ok, he's almost 1' seemed to suffice once I showed her that, yes, we had purchased four tickets and were not trying to sneak a baby into the show. She then said that she was worried that the flashing lights would scare him - his ability to sleep through most of the show demonstrated that this was an unnecessary concern. Someone I met here told me that Hong Kong is full of rules but that really anything is possible in Hong Kong (e.g. that the 'rules' often get broken). When Quentin gets bigger I'm sure that he'll be delighted to know that at just under 5 months (and toothless) I was able to depict him as 'nearly 1'. We have no babysitter right now so if we wanted to see the show as a family we needed to all go together.

We briefly visited the pool but then had an early night as Theo starts 'summer camp' tomorrow.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Museum pass

Day 11 - Saturday 7th August. Today we had breakfast overlooking the Harbor in the hotel dining room. It was really fun to watch the cranes loading and unloading containers and to see all the activity at the port. Afterwards we went to the Science Museum where we purchased a Museum pass - after purchasing it I realized that the pass was good for about 8 (how lucky!) museums run by the Hong Kong Culture Ministry so it was a particularly great deal for about 20 pounds total for all three of us for an annual family pass. The Science Museum was pretty good - they had many exhibits including a special exhibit about biodiversity in Hong Kong and China.

After the Science Museum we had planned to have dim sum across the harbor in Central. Theo has been asking nearly daily about riding the legendary Star Ferry which crosses the harbor. Martin thought we could walk to the ferry pier - we did but it was longer than planned and we were all dripping with sweat by the time we reached the ferry. The ferry ride was quick and delighted Theo but I think I will save it for when it is cooler as the walks on both sides of the ferry were not insignificant.

We wandered along an upper walkway, taking a detour through air conditioning at one point to obtain some relief from the heat. The cityscape is deceiving as destinations often appear closer than they are and actually reaching a location is often complicated by building works, major roads, another building, steps, etc.

We finally found Maxim's in City Hall which is well known for dim sum. It was a massive ballroom with impressive chandeliers and a beautiful Oriental rug in a pale peach. The service was by little carts that women wheeled around the stately room and you could choose the dim sum dished you wanted when they stopped by. We had a lovely time and enjoyed the dim sum.

When we returned we all went to the pool for awhile - the water was colder than previous days from yesterday's thunderstorm. After the children were in bed there was a tremendous thunderstorm - perhaps one of the largest I've ever seen. The rain was so steady that we could not see the lights from across the harbor. I enjoy a summer thunderstorm so this natural display of nature's power was a real treat (though the pool is probably going to be even colder now!). Despite the mid-day walk in the heat (yes, thank goodness for those British passports) today was a really fun day. Theo and I have talked about how we are looking forward to going back to the Science Museum and exploring other museums too.

You say 'play with me, I say Sesame'

Day 10 - Friday 6th August. Theo said he thought we should have a lazy day today and I agreed. The pollution had rolled in on Wednesday and was particularly hazy yesterday and today - to the extent that we could not see buildings that made up part of our normal skyline. We watched some of Toy Story in the morning, played, had lunch and then went for an earlier ice-skating lesson at 1:30. Theo had the same instructor and is doing well on the ice - it is amazing how much progress he has made from his original entry onto the ice on a chair. He can (with arms extended and very slow slides) go about 1/4 of the rink on his own. He seems to enjoy the ice skating which I still find an odd activity to be doing in the tropical heat. After ice skating we saw the rest of Toy Story and then watched a new Sesame Street video. To Theo's delight it included the songs: "you say play with me, I say Sesame" and "Be my Echo." For someone who rarely watched television programs today was a real a treat for Theo. We briefly went outside to the playground but found it to be not that great as some of the equipment was broken. Also, it was weird as everybody stared at us as we were the only non-Chinese people and nobody said anything to us. We only stayed about 15 minutes as a thunderstorm looked like it was about to start. Indeed it did - we made it back to our apartment just in time.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

American cuisine

Day 9 - Thursday August 5th. Today we met Martin at mid-day at the IFC complex where he works so that we could all go to the American Club membership interview at their Town Club. When we arrived with the children we were ushered quickly into a private dining room as (we didn't know previously) children were not allowed on the floor. We had a pleasant meeting with the interviewer. Yes, we passed muster and now have temporary membership as weekday members at the 'country' (south side of island) club.

Here it is worth commenting that everybody that I do actually speak with beyond appreciating Quentin's smile asks me with intense anxiety in their voices "where is your son going to school". And I mean everybody. From the interviewer to the random woman I spoke to at the ice-skating rink to the mothers of the boys that Theo played with on Tuesday evening. (Ok so actually not too many people but anyone that has actually had a conversation with me.) Amongst women this seems to be a favorite topic that I imagine both feeds into their own anxiety and seeks to convey how competitive it is to get into Hong Kong schools. Due to his birthdate, like in the UK, Theo is not eligible for conventional school (e.g. reception or kindergarten) and is still in his nursery year. I'll write more about schools (I'm sure) but have decided not to let it became a source of intense anxiety like everybody else seems to do. My attitude seems to be incomprehensible to people so far and I'm sure further ratchets up their own anxiety.

After the interview we had a lovely lunch - it was amazing to have American food. I had proper New England clam chowder (which one cannot really find in the UK) and an also delicious tuna melt on sourdough. It will be great to be able to have American food from time to time.

Knowing that Theo has been missing playing with other children earlier in the day I had called the American Club about their children's summer activities. With my freshly printed membership card I was able to enroll Theo in next week's 'Stars' summer camp from 9:30 - 12:30 at the Tai Tam club location. I figure that this will be both fun for him, get me across to the other side of the island and help to finally kick the lingering jet-lag that makes me feel so tired until about mid-day.

We were again back at the pool in the afternoon for a swim. Quentin had fallen asleep before we went to the pool and Theo suggested going to the pool right away so that he and I could swim alone together while Quentin slept. We had a lovely time and then when Quentin woke up he joined us too and we returned to me holding a child in each arm as we swam. Both Theo and Quentin love being in the water.

Ice skating in the tropical heat

Day 8 - Wednesday. We arrived last wednesday and it feels like we have been here longer. After the low point of yesterday I actively sought out activities to help keep us diverted. The ice-skating rink in the mall beckoned and I signed Theo up for an early afternoon lesson. He got on the ice at 2:30 just after the mid-day zamboni. He started out entering the rink sitting on a little chair and by the end of the 30 minute lesson could stand on two feet and skate about 1/4 of the rink. I was pretty impressed by how well the instructor taught and how receptive Theo was giving it a go. Afterwards we stopped at the coffee shop and then headed up to the pool where Martin (to his credit) met us about 6:30 to swim with the children.

Wednesday was also the day that I finally conceded to occasional watching of Sesame Street educational videos. Theo is of course delighted and nearly constantly asks to watch "a puppet documentary." Martin has insisted that the videos have both English and Cantonese with the idea of Theo (and I guess me) learning some Cantonese this way. We watched the first video in English (twice) and then braved the Cantonese. Theo was not impressed and I can't really blame him. At one point of the video Elmo says about 10 times in a row 'shoe'. In Cantonese with English subtitles clearly saying 'shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, etc' the word did not sound the same and I certainly could not distinguish where the word started and ended. Considering that my ability to learn even French was marginal deciphering Cantonese when I cannot even pick out a word on a children's video seems a bit futile. Now Theo's requests to watch 'a puppet documentary' have the added request 'in English please'.

Vacation no more?

Day 7 - Perhaps it was the heat trauma from Disneyland or just the anti-climax of having already done something Theo and I had been looking forward to (going to HK Disney) but today it really set in that our holiday was going to be a lot longer than a normal holiday. If I was on holiday I would have been ready to go home by this point (after having a bit less pool time and more sightseeing I imagine). Theo is feeling similar - he told me that he'd like to play with his friend Oscar and go the Lawleys to play tomorrow. Discussing time with an almost 4 year old is challenging - he wants to know if he will be back in London before or after his friends from school who are on holiday. I'm working on being excited and happy to be here so that Theo (and Quentin) feel positive about things. When Theo talks about how he is looking forward to going home to London I try to strike a balance between agreeing that it will be nice to go back to London and talking about fun things to do here. It stretches me as the feelings he has about missing his friends and feeling out of place are how I feel too.

It is hard to be an obvious foreigner in a strange land and then try to talk to people. While people are superficially friendly - particularly delighted to smile with the almost always happy Quentin - having a conversation beyond polite niceties has been nonexistant.

Today we were at Starbucks in the mall and a little boy that looked about Theo's age chose to sit next to Theo. Theo and the little boy acknowledged each other in the way that males of all ages (and apparently all cultures) seem to do. I encouraged Theo to say hello to the boy and tell him his name and Theo said he felt too shy. The mom sat down and spoke to her son in Cantonese. Martin, who was with us, told me - Mary say hello. And I felt the same as Theo - too shy.

Holding tight to Quentin (as everybody loves a smiling baby) I did eventually say hello. The woman had lived in the UK was very kind when she learned that I had just arrived. She encouraged Theo and I to go to the playground area on top of the mall in the late afternoon once it was cooler. Theo and I did go about 5:45 (in the shade it still felt like mid-day in the sun in the UK). As luck would have it we ran into the woman with her two sons and also met another woman with her son. Theo felt hot and seemed tired so was not fantastic about joining in with soccer though he did join in and had a fun time playing an elaborate hide and seek that entailed going in and out of the foyer of the building and adjacent to plantings. The urban jungle itself became the playground. For me I enjoyed speaking to the two women. While we both had a good time (and Quentin was as smiley as ever) it still is of course not the same as meeting long-time friends for a play in the park. First, there isn't really a park and secondly it is much more of an effort to learn new rules of play which are presented to you half in English, half in Cantonese. Most of all, rather than falling into a comfortable setting, picking up old conversations and just having a relaxing time it is all much more of an effort. The conversation is much more superficial and more work than meeting old friends. For me the experience of today was interesting to learn how much Theo and my experiences can parallel each other.

We got back to our apartment about 7:30 and saw a pretty sunset over the harbor on our way back. I was surprised when Martin was not there and then received a message saying that he was going to a last minute business dinner. I had fed Theo before going out to play so for some relief from the heat when we returned I took both the boys to the pool for the now familiar balancing act of Quentin on one shoulder and letting Theo swim to the other. By the time I had given the boys baths and gotten them both to bed it was late. Once Quentin was asleep I had a chance to talk with Theo about the day and he said that he was happy to have played hide n seek with the boys. I was happy to have met some other mothers too.

Martin was out late so I did not see him before I went to sleep - I felt like the children and I could have been anywhere on the globe today having not seen Martin in the evening (so why do we have to be here?). I usually take some time to visit family and friends in the US this time of year and wish that those people I love could meet happy Quentin and see how much Theo has grown rather than us feeling lost in superficialities here. Hopefully tomorrow and the day after that will get easier day by day.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

HK Disneyland

Day 6 - Well, my mom will be delighted that Theo and I are now annual pass holders to HK Disneyland! After our first skype from Hong Kong with Ed and Hillary in Atlanta and Theo's favorite fortifying macaroni and cheese for lunch we left the Kowloon Cocoon for Disneyland. It was really easy to get there from Kowloon as we went to the MTR station in the mall complex beneath our building and then took the Tung Chung line direct for 5 stops. The total trip from apartment to the gates of the HK magic kingdom was a little bit less than 30 minutes.

The MTR ride out was really interesting because the amount of high-rise buildings all along the way was staggering. People say that HK is a small spatial area - this is true in terms of the actual physical footprint on the earth but if you consider adding all the floors of high rises together the physical footprint (and certainly the ecological footprint) of HK are substantial. An interesting calculation that could require a First in Maths from Oxford to properly assess.

We arrived at 'Sunny Bay' and took a transfer line to the HK Disneyland Resort. This special or should I say 'magical' train was very clearly for Disney as the windows, much to Theo's delight, were in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Having learned its lesson in Anaheim, the HK Disneyland property is like that of Orlando or Paris and has significant room to grow around it with a buffer of green space for future development. In the HK property market this alone was a good investment even if never built upon. The resort is on Lantau Island which is where the airport and also the much heralded (but not yet visited by us) largest seated bronze Budda is located.

As we walked from the train station to the ticket booth down a long, unshaded walkway I thought that I had made a mistake by bringing the children out in the heat. We arrived about 2:00 in the afternoon hoping to miss the worst of the heat - while this may be the case the only times I've ever been so close to melting was in Sevilla in August and Cumberland Island, Georgia in August. Thankfully Theo and I do carry British passports so we can now fall under the Englishmen rather than the 'Mad dogs' category.

By the time we reached the top of (a shortened compared to Orlando) Main Street I could feel my arms with spf 50 sunblock baking in the heat and see them turning red. We stopped in the still sweltering shade to feed Quentin and have some water. Then we proceeded to the Main Street Cafe for a late lunch largely because it offered air conditioning. The logo on the walls was of an old fashioned American lady and her son but the menu offerings included absolutely no American food - not even a burger. This was not a problem but I was surprised how non-American the food offerings were at a Disney resort. I guess the obviously sold more if they catered to local tastes. I've noticed that the W downstairs is even switching their western restaurant to the 'best new place to eat Cantonese cuisine'.

After a leisurely lunch it had cooled offer mercifully a little bit. We dashed through the open air to the Buzz Lightyear ride, timing it well to coincide with an upcoming parade start. First, having learned from my sister's expertise at maximizing your time at Disney, we got a Fastpass and then proceeded to go on the Buzz Lightyear ride two times. The second time Theo must have pulled the trigger at just the right time as he ended up with an amazing score of 209690 - he is a star commander. We were able to go on a third time with our Fastpass and to the delight of Theo we saw Buzz Lightyear in the plastic himself on our way out. Little Quentin was delighted by the whole thing - he rode in front of me on the Baby Bjorn and his little chubby legs kicked rapidly and he was in rapt attention as we went through the ride.

As one of us was now a star commander and we had a pleasant trip I thought it best to stop while we were all still in a good mood - plus we can go back anytime. I think I must have melted off a few pounds in the heat. It was a relief to head to the pool - or as Theo likes to say "I find the pool very refreshing".

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Light show

Today Martin did some errands like getting us HK mobile phone numbers. Once we knew the sun had slipped behind the building in mid-afternoon we returned to the pool which was much busier today. Theo continues to improve his swimming, which I guess makes sense considering his London swim lessons were 30 minutes once a week and he is now swimming for hours at a time. Quentin swam a little bit and then took a major nap. I'm hoping to condition him to take a nap after swimming so that I might have a little time alone in the pool with Theo on weekdays.

After swimming we went to the harbor light show which occurs every night at 8 pm. The light show is pretty exciting as it consists of coordinated flashing of lights on multiple skyscrapers on the Hong Kong Island side to music.

At bed time I continued to read Theo The Little Prince, which he is enjoying. For those of you who know Theo well you can appreciate that he giggles whenever the author mentions that 'the little prince never let go of a question once he asked it'. I've told Theo that as well as blonde hair he shares this trait with the little prince.

It was great to have Martin around all day for Saturday and Sunday - we will miss him during the work week.


Day 4 - From mid-morning until late afternoon we spent the day up at the pool. We all had a lovely day and Quentin enjoyed a poolside nap. We are getting better with the jet-lag but it is still an effort particularly for little Quentin and also for me. Martin reminded me that while we are here I'm meant to feel like I'm on a very long vacation. Being at the pool and having a really relaxed day was a good reminder and it was great to have some relaxed family time after we were so busy getting ready for our move. Due to shadows from taller parts of the building the pool is entirely in the shade from a little after 2:00 so we also did not have to be too worried about sun exposure during the day.

Theo is a brilliant swimmer and grows in confidence each time he is in the water. The previous two days I had Quentin on one shoulder and then would catch Theo as he swam to me. Today was lovely as Martin and I each took turns for one parent to one child in the pool. Quentin seems very happy to be in the water - though sometimes his huge toothless grins make him more likely to catch some water. The boys have matching suits that Theo loves wearing (so much so that he told Martin he wants him to get the same one too!). They also sit on the side and kick their legs - little Quentin kicks too once Theo starts. It is very sweet to see them together.